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Breaking Down the Rockets’ Surprising Defense

The Rockets’ success this year is due just as much to their improved defense as their high-flying offense, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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The Houston Rockets sit at a remarkable 30-9, the league’s biggest success story relative to consensus preseason expectations. They’ve won eight straight games and 19 of their last 21 since the beginning of December, including wins over the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, and have outscored their opponents by an NBA-best 245 points in that time.

New head coach Mike D’Antoni naturally deserves healthy praise, and indeed has been mentioned among leading Coach of the Year candidates as the season approaches its halfway point. He has Houston on pace to beat last year’s regular season win total by a whopping 22 victories – over a 50 percent leap for a team that already made the playoffs last season.

We think of offense when we think of D’Antoni, and well we should. The man has been as synonymous with the word as any other individual in league history, and was the primary force in ushering in what most of the game’s elite offenses use as their basic blueprint in modern times. His teams are famous for powerhouse offenses and, shall we say, a bit less attention to detail on the other end of the floor.

When you see the Rockets in the league’s top three for per-possession offensive efficiency, then, you assume all is normal. The Rockets are running teams off the floor with a relentless and high-paced attack, and winning in spite of a generally porous defense.

Except as it turns out, only the first part of that statement is true.

The Rockets sit 16th in the NBA for defensive efficiency at this moment, almost exactly league average. Over that same time period since the beginning of December, they’re fourth in the league on defense, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors.

It’s fair to note they’ve played a relatively weak schedule in terms of offensive opponents during that stretch, but it’s just as fair to use numbers from basketball-reference.com to judge their season-long defense while factoring in opponent quality: They’re 18th in the league on the year for adjusted defensive rating, right in the same range that their overall figure would suggest.

Despite popular perception, this actually isn’t wildly out of the ordinary for a D’Antoni squad. Just one of his five vaunted Suns teams finished in the league’s bottom 10 on defense, mostly grouping in right around this same league average range. His Knicks teams were a bit worse, each finishing in that bottom third, but personnel issues go a long way to explaining that and, obviously, his notoriously disappointing Lakers teams a few years ago.

It’s through this same personnel lens, though, that we see what’s truly remarkable about D’Antoni’s accomplishment so far this year.

GM Daryl Morey’s offseason looked exactly like one geared toward an all-offense, limited-defense approach with D’Antoni set to come aboard. Whatever his other faults, Dwight Howard had propped up much of the Rockets’ defense during his time in Houston. However, Howard left and was replaced by backup Clint Capela and several signings who seemed to move things in the wrong direction defensively.

Morey poached both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon from New Orleans in free agency, along with an underappreciated signing in Nene Hilario from Washington. The former two had spent virtually their entire careers as liabilities defensively, Anderson and his cone-like tendencies in particular. The latter had a solid track record on both ends in the league, but he’d also be turning 34 before the start of the season with 25,000 miles on his odometer.

Combine these with a few notably defensively deficient pieces in James Harden and Corey Brewer, then mix that up with D’Antoni’s perception as an offense-only coach, and you get a pretty clear set of expectations.

The Rockets have exceeded those expectations defensively, and mostly through a strange method: They’re almost painfully average. We’re not just talking their overall defensive metrics, which rate right near dead center among the league’s teams; nearly every single major indicator of team defense has the Rockets somewhere at or near the NBA’s middle.

Per-possession opponent three-point attempts, a statistic that typically does more to predict three-point “defense” than actual percentage allowed? The Rockets are 14th. Opponent field-goal percentage? They’re 16th. They’re 15th in turnovers forced, and 10th in per-possession free-throws allowed (all these stats are prior to completion of Monday night’s games).

They allow the 15th-highest percentage on contested shots at the rim, per SportVU data, and they sit 17th in both defensive rebounding percentage and opponent second-chance points allowed. It’s legitimately tough to find a more nondescript, average defensive team.

And for this roster? That’s a win.

For a guy like D’Antoni who supposedly spends so little time on defense, the Rockets have been pretty damn organized on that end. They know they aren’t dealing with the most stacked up defensive roster, so they’re leaning on the right crutches to prop them up.

The strongest of those crutches start on the perimeter. Patrick Beverley has long been the perfect complement to Harden, a scary intense defender who doesn’t need the ball on offense and takes the burden of the opponent’s best guard away from Houston’s superstar. Beverley is having his most efficient offensive year since his rookie season, allowing D’Antoni to push his minutes back over 30 a night. Over two-thirds of those have come alongside Harden. Beverley currently sits behind only the point god himself, Chris Paul, for Defensive Real Plus-Minus this year among 1-men.

Houston’s other starting perimeter player has been even more glued to Harden, and with clear and good reason. Trevor Ariza has played a stunning 96 percent of his minutes alongside The Beard, currently clocking a top-20 league-wide RPM rating and playing some of the best ball of his career on both ends. Both Ariza and Beverley know they have few responsibilities outside shooting and secondary playmaking offensively, and this knowledge has simultaneously streamlined their offensive efficiency and allowed them to channel energy for the other end.

Then there’s the bench, which has wildly outperformed all expectations. Houston is beating teams while Harden sits for the first time in years. The Rockets are strangling opponents defensively, perhaps not a shock on the surface, but pretty surprising when you see who’s on the floor.

The bench mob of Beverley, Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker, Gordon and Nene has suffocated opponents to the tune of 88.3 points allowed per-100-possessions, over 10 points better than the league-leading Spurs’ defense. Two of those guys are known defensive liabilities, one is functionally a rookie, and another is 34 years old and well past his best years.

The Rockets are getting solid minutes out of Montrezl Harrell, thrust into a bigger role with Capela injured in mid-December. They’ve survived Capela’s absence without as much as a blip, though the soft schedule certainly plays a role. They’re getting great stuff and some thoroughly unexpected dunking prowess from Dekker.

(As an aside, give Morey major credit – in Harrell, Dekker and Capela, he’s got three guys picked at 18 or later since the 2014 Draft all playing real rotation minutes for a near-title contender. That’s to go along with his swindling of the Thunder for Harden in the first place and a couple of pretty smart-looking signings this offseason, among other smart moves.)

Now it’s time to see if this can sustain for the full year. The slate of offensive opponents will get tougher, and teams will adjust the scouting report and try to attack the weak points the Rockets have been covering so well.

The offense was supposed to be at least this good, though, and D’Antoni and his staff deserve real credit for quietly getting things done on the other end of the court. Could a return from Capela and even more continuity, supplemented by a pretty clear dose of adrenaline from that high-flying offense, be enough to push the Rockets near the league’s top 10 defensively by April? This is a true title contender if so, and it’s easier than ever to imagine right now.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Trae Young Believes He’s NBA Ready

Trae Young has exceeded expectations since his freshman year of college, and he believes he will continue to do so in the NBA

Matt John

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Before the collegiate season started, many believed that the best players in the upcoming NBA draft were going to be bigs. DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, and Michael Porter Jr., all of whom were 6’10’’ or taller, were considered to be among the top prospects coming out of the NCAA, but Trae Young had something to say about that.

Coming out of high school, Young was regarded as one of the better incoming freshmen, but not among the best of the best. Young ranked no. 23 in ESPN’s top 100 in 2017 and was ranked third among point guards, behind Collin Sexton and Jaylen Hands, which led to low expectations for him. Young proved right out of the gate that he was much better than the scouts had rated him.

Young tore up college ball as an Oklahoma Sooner, as he averaged 27.2 points and 8.7 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 36 percent from three. While Young’s play made him stand out among his peers, it didn’t translate into much success on the court. The Sooners went 18-14 on the season and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Now that the season is over, Young is shifting his focus to his next stop: the NBA. With the draft coming up in just a little over a month, only one word comes to mind when describing Young’s current mindset: Confidence.

“I bring a lot of things to the next level. I think I would bring an immediate impact off the court as much as I do on the court,” Young said at the NBA combine. “I can space out the defense. I can attack defenders in multiple ways, get my teammates involved. I think I can pretty much do it all for a team and I’m looking forward to whichever team I go to and making a huge impact.”

While Young is not expected to be picked in the top five, he should be picked between the six to ten range. Any player who is selected in that range has to work his absolute hardest to live up to the lengthy expectations that he will certainly face once he enters the NBA. Young luckily sounds like he is up to the task.

“I prepared extremely hard coming into the college season and making a huge impact right away, and I’m working two times as hard this summer preparing to get into the NBA level,” Young said. “I want to make a huge impact right away.”

Young is expected to be a high lottery pick, but he doesn’t care much for where he is selected as much as he cares about going to the team that suits him best.

“My main focus is going to the right team. It’s not about going one, two, three or 30. You see a lot of guys going in the second round in certain years that make big impacts for teams,” Young said. “It’s all about the fit for me. Whether that’s one or whether that’s whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be ready to make an impact.”

Young’s expected high draft position stems from his electrifying play as a scorer in college. Young’s performance for Oklahoma his freshman year was impressive enough to draw comparisons to NBA megastar Stephen Curry. While Young is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry, he takes pride in being his own player.

“He’s a two-time MVP and a champion. I mean, I love the comparison but I feel like I bring a lot of different things from different players’ games to the table,” Young said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young. That’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing so hopefully I can achieve some of those things.”

Young’s skillset may remind fans of Curry, but Young prides himself on modeling his game after his favorite player of all time: Steve Nash.

“With his size and my size, we’re pretty similar,” Young said. “He is very cerebral. He can score on all three levels and he knows how to get his teammates involved. He’s a winner so I feel like a lot of his characteristics match with mine.”

Those who have watched Young know of his offensive repertoire, but skeptics have pointed to his defensive shortcomings as a red flag. Young, however, believes his play at the combine will show that he can be a positive on the other side of the ball.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to show people that I can play defense, and I’m excited to show that from day one,”

When all is said and done, Young may very well wind up being the most prolific scorer to come out of what many believe is a loaded draft, but Young has much bigger ambitions in mind for his career.

“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft, but my main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft,” Young said. “My goal is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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