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Rockets Are No Longer One-Dimensional

The Rockets’ offseason moves are making them a complete basketball team. Spencer Davies dives in.

Spencer Davies

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When Mike D’Antoni announced his intentions of coaching a then-underachieving Houston Rockets team one year ago, everybody in the NBA knew changes were in store.

A Coach of The Year award and meaningful playoff run has nearly solidified his status as a made man in Clutch City. In his very first season with the team, the Rockets have completely bought into what the veteran basketball mind was selling: Run-And-Gun.

It doesn’t rhyme, but we’ll have to add “And-Defend” to that mantra.

After running roughshod through the postseason, the Golden State Warriors have essentially retained every meaningful member of their squad. They’re certainly paying for it with a somewhat heavy luxury tax bill, but they’ve got their team constructed to be together for at least the next two years.

Knowing that Bob Myers kept his franchise’s ultra elite roster together, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wasn’t going to sit around and wait to make an impact. So what did he do?

Morey rounded up a bunch of non-guaranteed contracts through trades, plus an unsatisfied Patrick Beverly, an underused Montrezl Harrell, sharpshooter Lou Williams and a sophomore wing Sam Dekker. He then shipped them off to the Los Angeles Clippers to land a bona fide superstar in Chris Paul.

James Harden got himself a running mate in what is sure to be one of the, if not the, best backcourts in the NBA. Offensively it will be interesting to see how the two play off one another, especially considering Harden’s extremely successful switch to point guard last year, but the versatility it offers could be exceptionally rewarding for D’Antoni.

More importantly, Houston is clearly addressing its other needs by bringing Paul into the mix. As Doc Rivers’ floor general, the 32-year-old led Los Angeles in defensive and net rating.

When he was on the court, opponents scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions. While he was sitting, the Clippers allowed 110.1 using the same scale. The nine-time All-Star also averaged two steals per game as he continues to be one of the smartest defenders in the league today.

Outside of the colossal trade, the Rockets have quietly put together a nice offseason.

Their first course of action was re-signing Nene to a three-year, $11 million deal. The length of the contract can be in question, but what can’t be questioned is the impact the veteran big brought to D’Antoni’s club. He’s a spark off the bench, a key presence in the locker room, and he played a huge role in the playoffs before going down with an injury.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Houston has gone all-in on the infamous “3-And-D” prototype, and for good reason. They’ve brought in two hungry veterans who will add a new dimension to the roster.

P.J. Tucker agreed to a four-year, $32 million contract on July 2. The 32-year-old is a physical player who takes no nonsense. He can defend all five positions, whether in the post or out on the perimeter, and he’s a viable three-point threat, mostly from the corners (40.5 percent from left, 37.7 percent from right) — where Harden found most of his guys last year.

Sunday afternoon, it was reported that the Rockets signed Luc Mbah a Moute, one of Paul’s old teammates from Los Angeles, to a one-year deal for the veteran minimum. At that value, it’s a steal for Morey. It’s a cliché saying, but the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward truly flew under the radar last year.

Already one of the league’s most under-appreciated wings, Mbah a Moute turned in the most efficient season of his career last year. Playing both small and power forward, he wasn’t as hesitant to take shots and it resulted in a 58.1 true shooting percentage. Defensively, he has always been a consistent presence guarding on-ball. Similar to Paul, the 30-year-old had a positive net rating (10.3) and the Clippers were seven points worse when he wasn’t playing.

These two forwards will either spell or compliment Trevor Ariza in the front court, and the lineup possibilities seem to be endless.

Having lost youth and depth, Houston also took a flier on former Los Angeles Lakers big Tarik Black as well. He’s undersized for the center position, but he plays a rugged style and uses his size to his advantage underneath. Black will be backing up Clint Capela, another hungry, up-and-coming five who is becoming one of the league’s best rim protectors at just 23 years of age.

Now that the prolific offense in Houston is adding an extra solid core of defense to its arsenal, D’Antoni will have the opportunity to institute some fresh principles to a team that was already well on its way in the near future.

This slew of moves, plus the all-so-popular rumors of a Carmelo Anthony trade, prove that the Rockets are not lying down and waiting for the Warriors dynasty to come to an end.

Morey is being as proactive as he’s ever been to try and take down the juggernaut of the NBA with an elite roster of his own, and as a fan of competitive basketball, it’s refreshing to see a franchise won’t settle on just being great.

It’s about being the best.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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