The Houston Rockets entered last season with high expectations. Houston was coming off their appearance in the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual Champions, the Golden State Warriors. Houston was powered by James Harden, Dwight Howard and the analytically oriented principles implemented by general manager Daryl Morey. The Rockets finished the season with the 6th best defense and 12th best offense in the league.
Following their loss to the Warriors, the Rockets made one of more the interesting moves of the 2015 offseason in trading for Ty Lawson. Lawson was in the midst of several off-court issues involving alcohol, so the Rockets made a shrewd move by trading non-guaranteed contracts and a protected 2016 first-round pick for the speedy point guard. It was a bold move that came with little risk after Morey convinced Lawson to drop the guarantees on his roughly $13.2 million salary for the 2016-17 season.
Unfortunately, Lawson was beyond ineffective in his time with Houston and the rest of the Rockets’ players were unable to recapture their success from last season, which led to the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale after the team started 4-7. The team struggled all season, barely qualified for the postseason and lost to the Warriors in the first round in five games.
“The season from the beginning wasn’t going our way,” James Harden said. “We had too many distractions, a bumpy road this entire season.”
At the forefront of the distractions was the rocky relationship between Harden and Howard. The animosity between Houston’s two top players trickled down the roster, a problem that never corrected itself.
“That’s going to happen,” Terry said regarding distractions. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. You will be faced with all types of adversities and how you come through those is a sign of the type of team you have. Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn. A lesson for [Harden] as a star of a team, you have to deal with certain issues and still be able to be mentally tough to bring your level of play up with your team and get them to where you want them to go. It happens.”
With Howard now in Atlanta, the Rockets don’t need to worry about the shaky relationship between its two top players. However, the hope is that Harden learned from the situation and will be able to be more of a unifying presence for the Rockets moving forward.
“We just didn’t have the chemistry needed,” Terry said. “It’s one thing to put the pieces together on paper, but it has to be a tight-knit bond with a group of guys to do something special, and our group just didn’t have that this year.”
While Terry had some nice insight on the team’s internal issues, he won’t be around moving forward to help turn things around. The Rockets reportedly have opted to not offer Terry a contract for this upcoming season, which is one of the smaller moves the team made this offseason.
Howard opted out of the final year of his contract and signed a three-year deal with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. Houston also renounced the rights to Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. The Rockets then hired Mike D’Antoni to take over as head coach, drafted Chinanu Onuaku (37th) and Zhou Qi (43rd) in this year’s Draft and then signed sharp shooting power forward Ryan Anderson (four-year, $80 million contract) and Eric Gordon (four-year, $52.9 million contract) in free agency. Then, in an interesting and unexpected move, the team restructured and extended James Harden’s contract to a four-year, $118 million deal with player option on final season. Our Eric Pincus recently broke the minutia of restructuring player contracts, using Harden’s as an example of how such a deal works and the logic behind it for both sides.
Houston also signed Nene to a one-year, $2.9 million contract, which is a really solid value for a big man like Nene. Houston has also reportedly lined up deals for Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $1.4 million contract and Pablo Prigioni. And while Houston has yet to re-sign Donatas Motiejunas, they have the inside track on him since Motiejunas is a restricted free agent and most teams used up a significant part of their respective cap space already.
Like the gamble on Lawson, Morey is taking a risk by signing Anderson and Gordon. Anderson, age 28, suffered a season-ending neck injury in January 2014 and it took a long time for him to fully recover from that setback. He has suffered other smaller injuries since then, including an MCL sprain in February that kept him sidelined for a significant period of time. Having said that, when healthy, Anderson is an elite shooter at power forward and should fit nicely as a pick-and-pop partner with Harden and floor-spacer next to Clint Capela, the Rockets’ young, rim-protecting center.
Gordon comes with risks and upside as well. In his first few seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon established himself as one of the best up-and-coming shooting guards in the league. However, after being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in the deal for Chris Paul, Gordon has suffered a plethora of injuries and has only managed to play in an average of 53 games per season over the last four years. However, Gordon is still just 27 years old and when healthy is one of the best knock down shooters in the league. As of March 13 last season, Gordon was shooting 46.1 percent from distance and was benefiting from a small tweak he made to his jump shot last offseason. Combine his shooting with his ability to take the ball off the dribble in specific situations, and he too could be a valuable addition for a Houston team that struggled on offense all of last season.
In fact, the Rockets shot more three-pointers than any team but the Warriors last season, yet they were ranked 19th in three-point percentage. For a team that specifically targeted an abundance of three-point opportunities, the team lacked the consistent shooters to capitalize on the strategy. Adding Anderson and Gordon means that the Rockets can now space the floor more effectively, especially in lineups where Anderson plays as a small-ball center and Trevor Ariza plays at power forward.
How the team comes together will come down in large part to how Harden manages to pull the team out from the disappointment of last season. Stars are supposed to lead by example and in that regard, Harden needs to commit himself to playing with effort on defense consistently. This is especially true since Howard is now gone, Capela is still very inexperienced and Anderson is a below average defender at power forward. The Rockets should be explosive on offense, but will need to come together collectively to maintain a league average defense this upcoming season. Harden has a huge role to play on this front.
Another important dynamic will be the relationship between D’Antoni, Harden and the rest of the team. D’Antoni ushered in the modern era of pace-and-space in Phoenix and knows how to run a dynamic offense. If he and Harden can get on the same page and utilize their bolstered shooting in a way that allows him to be more of a playmaker and less of an isolation scorer, the Rockets could improve significantly on offense. Of course, all of this is contingent on Anderson and Gordon staying on the court, which has been an issue for them over the last few seasons.
Morey took some risks this offseason after taking one with Lawson last season. These moves may not make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender this upcoming season, but they are the kind of moves a team needs to make when they are trying to climb the rankings with dominant teams like the Warriors standing at the top of the hill.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.