The Houston Rockets had a relatively disappointing 2015-16 season. Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the team entered the year with very high expectations. But Houston got off to a slow start right away, dropping seven of their first 11 games. This resulted in head coach Kevin McHale being fired, which was just the beginning of a somewhat tumultuous campaign.
Fair or not, a lot of criticism and negative attention was directed at James Harden since he’s the team’s go-to player. However, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Rockets’ struggles. Injuries and egos played a big part in last season’s underwhelming results. Dwight Howard later admitted he was unhappy, Ty Lawson struggled to return to form so he was waived 53 games into the season and key contributors like Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missed a combined 88 games due to injuries.
All things considered, it’s pretty impressive that Houston was even able to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. After losing 4-1 in the first round against the Golden State Warriors, Houston decided to make some big changes. These moves included hiring head coach Mike D’Antoni, signing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and giving Harden a four-year maximum contract extension. It’s clear that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is shaping their team around Harden and D’Antoni moving forward.
On paper, the Rockets look good and Morey has done a wonderful job retooling the roster to create a nice blend of offensive talent. But it remains to be seen whether a D’Antoni-coached team can combine their potent offense with enough defense to compete at a high level.
One thing is clear: Houston will only go as far as Harden takes them.
When asked what he expects from Harden in the upcoming season, Beverley told Basketball Insiders: “MVP and leading us to the Finals. Simple.”
Harden may be one of the most criticized players in the league because of his inconsistent defense, but there’s no question that he’s an All-NBA talent and one of the best offensive players in game today. While people like to point to his mistakes, there’s less focus on the fact that he averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals last season.
He led all NBA players in total points and minutes, while finishing sixth in total assists (and first among non-point-guards). His 10.7 offensive win shares ranked third in the NBA behind only Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. His 6.9 value over replacement player ranked fourth, trailing only Curry, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”
Harden’s offense should benefit from D’Antoni, but whether he steps up on the defensive end and continues to grow as a leader will likely determine how well Houston does this season. Judging by his most recent comments and offseason work, it certainly seems like he understands this.
Appearing in the Drew League this offseason, Harden has impressed founder Dino Smiley.
“He’s much more assertive with his leadership and he’s getting his team more involved,” Smiley told Basketball Insiders.
Smiley has seen Harden play in the Drew League almost every offseason since he came into the league.
“I must say, he’s changed for the better,” Smiley said. “He’s much more approachable and smiling more than ever. He’s taking every possession seriously, and I mean on the defensive end as well. You can tell he’s really working hard to improve the defensive parts of his game.”
Beverley also said that Harden’s mentality and approach seems to have changed since last season.
Since his incredible 2014-15 campaign, when Harden had career-highs in win shares (16.4), PER (26.7), steal percentage (2.6%) and defensive plus-minus (+1), Harden dropped off a bit last season – going from a positive to negative defensive plus-minus and seeing his win shares decrease by more than three. Most frustrating for Harden and Co. was the fact that the Rockets lost 15 more games than the previous season.
Taking some plays off, becoming frustrated and flopping at times has led to Harden getting a bad rap, but he’s hoping to silence his doubters this season. He is also embracing the underdog mentality since Houston is being viewed as a longshot to compete in the West due to last season’s struggles.
“People are definitely overlooking us and we kind of have the underdog mindset, which is fine for us because we’re going to work that much harder, come together even tighter and we’re all going to be on the same page,” Harden said. “We’ll let the chips fall where they may, but starting with this summer and into training camp, we’re going to be all-in. We’re going to have the same goal, and that’s to win. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
Regardless of what outsiders think of the team, Morey has high expectations.
“The goal is to get home court advantage in the first round, advancing deep in the playoffs from there,” Morey said.
In order to make that happen, Harden will need to continue his offensive dominance, get his teammates involved and, most importantly, step up defensively. A lot rests on his shoulders (aside from the beard), and the Rockets need their star to lead them.
Morey believes that Harden will do that, while benefiting from the D’Antoni hire.
“I think the fit is excellent,” Morey said of D’Antoni and Harden working together. “They had a strong relationship from USA Basketball and their basketball philosophies mesh very well.”
In Harden’s press conference after agreeing to his extension, he mentioned that he has been watching Steve Nash and wants to emulate the point guard’s game. That’s certainly something to keep an eye on this season, as it would make Harden even more of a facilitator. Nash obviously thrived under D’Antoni in Phoenix and Harden hopes to duplicate that success.
“He had his own pace of the game,” Harden said of Nash. “You could never speed him up, you could never slow him down. That’s what I took away from Nash.”
In addition to his excellent play on the court, Nash was responsible for building a very strong, winning culture in Phoenix. If Harden can do the same thing in Houston, erasing the turmoil from last year, that would be great for the Rockets moving forward.
Typically, star players take time to mature and reach their full potential. It’s worth noting that Harden is still just 26 years old, so he’s right in his prime and his best basketball could still be ahead of him – especially if the Harden-D’Antoni marriage is as perfect as Morey predicts.
G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts
David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.
Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.
Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.
Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.
With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.
1. Christian Wood
Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.
His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.
2. Jameel Warney
Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.
3. Melo Trimble
After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.
He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.
4. Joel Bolomboy
Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.
At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.
5. Jeremy Evans
Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.
With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.
Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.
NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs
On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.
At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.
And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.
Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.
Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.
Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.
Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.
It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.
That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.
Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.
Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.
Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.
The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.
Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.
While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.
Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.
Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.
Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.
Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.
Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around
Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.
The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.
There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.
“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”
While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.
“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”
Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.
According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).
But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.
“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”
He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.
“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”
As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.
When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.
“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”
Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.
“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”
So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?
“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.
“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”
Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.
In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.
“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.
“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”
Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.
“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”
One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.
“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”