Legacy-wise, the Spurs lost so much this summer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom were among the best Spurs of all time, are now off the team. With the three of them out of the picture, a historic era of basketball is now behind us. But does that mean this is the end of the Spurs’ relevancy? Not necessarily.
When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?
No matter what his roster may look like, Coach Gregg Popovich should never be doubted. He’s earned the status of being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all time. Anyone that tunes into the NBA knows that he can make a playoff team out of just about anything. That is precisely why people should really keep their eye on San Antonio this season. They still have most of the same roster they had last season, but with all they lost this summer, they don’t have nearly the same continuity they once prided themselves on for years. Pop will have to do more shuffling than he’s done in years and possibly more so than he’s ever done as Head Coach.
What does he have to work with this season? Let’s take a gander.
FIVE GUYS THINK
I have predicted the regression of the San Antonio Spurs once or twice over the last couple of years and the team always makes me look foolish for it. However, this might be the year to again predict regression for this proud franchise. Manu Ginobili retired this offseason and Tony Parker has joined up with the Charlotte Hornets. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. I am a fan of DeRozan and am excited to see what he can do under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. However, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to be tasked with leading this team without the cornerstone players that Popovich has relied on for nearly two decades. I’m cautiously optimistic this team will beat expectations but I still think they are going to experience some serious issues this upcoming season.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
If there was ever a year to finally bet on the Spurs underachieving after what seems like a decade straight of doing more with less, it might be this year. The Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto wrapped up an unfortunate saga for the franchise, and Manu Ginobili’s retirement more recently left the Spurs without any of the mainstays we’re used to seeing in the black and grey. DeMar DeRozan is no slouch as a trade return for the Spurs, but they’re woefully short on perimeter shooting and lack the wing defense they’ve had in the past. Gregg Popovich is never short on tricks to pull out of his hat, but if he somehow drags this perimeter-deficient bunch to another 50-win season, it’ll be his most deserved Coach of the Year performance yet.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
No matter what they lose in the off-season, the Spurs should never be counted out. As long as they have Gregg Popovich calling the shots, the Spurs will always be in the conversation. This season, however, has a unique premise. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all off the team, the old days are officially gone and in comes a new era. Still, there is plenty of reason to think this team will be fine. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should keep things afloat. But, the question is, do they have enough talent and continuity to compete with the league’s elite?
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Matt John
Everything left of the 2014 NBA Championship version of the Spurs is gone, so it’s off and into a new era for Gregg Popovich. He’ll have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli as his most seasoned veterans to help guide the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan is going to play with possibly the biggest chip on any player’s shoulder this upcoming year in a San Antonio uniform. Dejounte Murray will be heavily depended on as the orchestrator of the offense as he’s thrust into his most important role to date. It’s hard to picture the postseason without these guys. While many seem to believe their run is over, it will be a cold day in hell when this organization doesn’t play past mid-April.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Indiana Pacers went through a similar situation as San Antonio last year when they needed to trade their best player, and like the Pacers this time last year, the Spurs may come out of the situation with not only a star, but a star that might fit better in the big picture. Let’s be real for a minute, in every scenario you’d want Kawhi Leonard because of his tremendous two-way game, but if you have to part ways, DeMar DeRozan isn’t too shabby as a replacement player, mainly because he’s shown year after year that he can add to and improve his game. The big knock on Leonard was his reluctance to be a vocal leader, something DeRozan has proven to be more than capable of being and with Gregg Popovich in his ear can DeRozan become an MVP caliber future of the franchise guy? The smart money would be yes. DeRozan has a long way to go defensively, but it hard not to see him evolving in that area, mainly because of how good the Spurs staff and process has been with other sub-par defenders. There is no question the Spurs are a different team, but as the league trends more to offense, the Spurs may be better equipped to compete in a loaded Western Conference.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge
DeRozan’s repertoire makes a strong case for him to be the Spurs’ top offensive option. However, Aldridge gets the nod because he has more familiarity in Pop’s system and has proven he can thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Boy, that sounds weird to say remembering where the man was a year ago.
After his numbers took a slight, albeit noticeable hit in his first two years with the Spurs, Aldridge appeared ready to move on from San Antonio. After meeting with Popovich to work out all the kinks, Aldridge changed his mind, got a nice extension and had himself quite the resurgence last season.
With the offense designed more to revolve around him, Aldridge’s scoring numbers went up to 23.2 points a game on 18 shots, while shooting 51 percent from the field. Basically, he put up numbers that re-established him as one of the league’s top offensive big men. Those weren’t just empty numbers either. The Spurs were +6.0 better in net rating offensively with Aldridge on the floor. His statistical output proved that he could fit in Coach Pop’s game plan as the top offensive option.
At 33, there will be questions as to how much time LaMarcus has left as an elite offensive option. Luckily, he’s on a team that should get the most out of him while he’s still in his prime.
Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray
With Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson all gone, Dejounte Murray is the obvious choice for the Spurs’ top defender. His 6-foot-5 inch height combined with his absurd 6-foot-10 wingspan made him an all-around menace on the defensive end last season.
His efforts showed themselves through advanced metrics. Murray’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 3.60 led all point guards and was ninth overall among all players. Keep in mind that players who usually are at the top of Defensive Real Plus-Minus are mostly bigs and occasionally wings. Murray is the only point guard in the top ten, and the next point guard after him is Tyus Jones, who was No. 27 at 2.40.
San Antonio’s defense was also much better with Murray as their net rating defensively was +7.8 better with him on the floor. That topped the Spurs’ roster for guys who played at least 1000 minutes.
Murray’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named to the NBA All-defensive second team in just his second year. His role is bound to expand even more for the Spurs this season. Luckily for them, he’ll be more than ready to do his part on defense.
Top Playmaker: The entire team
Sounds odd doesn’t it? At the same time, it’s not exactly a surprise either given the Spurs’ reputation for unselfish basketball. Seriously though, there really isn’t a top playmaker on this team because if you look at the stats last year, the assists numbers were pretty spread out among the players. Tony Parker led the Spurs in assists per game with 3.5. When you factor in per-36 stats, Parker had a distinguished lead, but now he’s gone. Those who came after him are so even with each other that it’s impossible to say who will be the top playmaker.
This is a good thing. It’s clear cut evidence that the Spurs run a system that everyone follows with precision. There’s no particular stand out as a playmaker because everyone plays as one unit at all times. Maybe somebody will eventually stand out, but for now, the team itself is the top playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan
Aldridge may be the Spurs’ best offensive option, but DeRozan should be their go-to guy. DeRozan has a track record for hitting clutch shots in the regular season. He isn’t necessarily automatic but, at the very least, when the game is on the line, DeRozan is never afraid and doesn’t back down. He’s never even afraid to go for the highlight reel in crunchtime either. Seriously, last season he won a game off a buzzer-beating dunk.
DeRozan’s stats in the clutch last season are fine for a player of his caliber. In 41 games that featured clutch-time minutes, DeRozan averaged 4.2 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from distance in 3.9 minutes on average. The truth is, when teams are playing in crunchtime against DeRozan, they strategize to stop him primarily.
Unfortunately that track record doesn’t hold up well in the playoffs. Hopefully now that he has Coach Pop to guide him, DeRozan’s clutch play can finally translate when the stakes are much higher.
The Unheralded Player: Rudy Gay
Adding Gay to the Spurs’ roster sparked a lot of skepticism last year because of his reputation as a selfish chucker and his inability to be an effective player on a good team. Expectations for Gay were quite low, especially since he was coming off of a devastating Achilles injury. Gay was by no means spectacular. His averages of 11.5 points, 9.4 field goals attempted and 31.5 percent from three on 21.6 minutes of action are among some of the lowest since his rookie season. Despite that, Gay proved himself to be a productive player on a good team, which is something he hasn’t really done since his days with the Grizzlies.
Another reason why he gets the nod here is because now that it’s almost been two years since he tore his Achilles, he optimistically could regain more of his form. The man is only 32 years old! Also, when you take into account all that the Spurs lost, Gay should expect a more prominent role on the team. Add in his year of experience playing under Pop, and this should be a good year for Rudy Gay.
It may sound odd to say, but San Antonio should be excited for Round Two of Gay and DeRozan.
Best New Addition: DeMar DeRozan
This is an obvious choice for three reasons.
1. The Spurs’ offense was pedestrian last season. Their offensive rating of 107.9 points per 100 possessions was good for 17th in the league. Adding one of the league’s best scorers should be just what the doctor ordered.
2. As evidenced by their diverse playmaking, the Spurs hope to implement DeMar in their pass-heavy offense. Luckily for them, DeRozan made great strides in his passing game last season. His 5.2 assists per game was the highest average of his career and is high enough for them to believe that he should fit seamlessly in their offense.
3. Even without Kawhi, the Spurs managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Now they basically add one of last season’s MVP candidates to their squad. It would be shocking if they don’t add several wins from DeRozan alone.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Gregg Popovich
Enough has already been said about Coach Pop so let’s just leave it at this. Besides LeBron James, there isn’t another figure currently in basketball who is as reliable and consistent as Gregg Popovich. The man is simply a basketball guru. As long as he runs the plays, his team will always be in the conversation no matter what he has to work with. People can doubt the Spurs. They can’t doubt Pop.
2. Pau Gasol
The man deserves league-wide respect. Even at 37, the future Hall-of-Famer is still chugging away. In his eighteenth year in the NBA, Pau averaged a solid 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists for a winning team. Better yet, he’s added a three-point shot to his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent on 1.6 attempts a game last season. Most impressive of all, Gasol has proven himself to be a positive contributor on defense despite his reputation as a defensive liability. The Spurs’ defense was +2.2 in net rating defensively with Gasol on the floor, and his individual defensive rating was an adequate 102. He should be expected to decline more this season, but Pau Gasol should be revered for both his perseverance and his adaptability.
3. Patty Mills
A shout-out needs to be made for the now longest-tenured Spur on the team. Mills has been both a good soldier and one of the league’s best backup point guards since he joined San Antonio in 2011. The Spurs were +4.7 in net rating offensively with Mills on the floor, which was second on the team after LaMarcus Aldridge. In other words, he was doing exactly what a backup point guard should do. On a team that lost a good chunk of its identity this summer, Mills is one of the few remaining remnants from the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili days. As Pop figures out who deserve minutes, he still has a dependable option in Mills.
4. Jakob Poeltl
Plenty have said it already and it needs to be repeated: Jakob Poeltl was a sneaky good acquisition by San Antonio. He’s a fantastic energy big whose only in his third year in the league and now has Gregg Popovich to learn from. It’s not just what he brings to the table. It’s how timely acquiring him right now is for the Spurs. Pau Gasol will do what he can, but his further decline is inevitable. Should his impact continue to dwindle, Poeltl can pick up the slack. Poeltl shouldn’t have too lofty of expectations, but he should help keep the Spurs on course.
5. The Spurs’ handling of Kawhi Leonard
It’s rare to see a team that has a proven method and track record like the Spurs have their best player turn his back on them. It’s also rare to see a team get good value for a disgruntled star in a situation like that. The Spurs could have waited out the situation hoping Leonard would change his mind or they could have started a rebuild. Instead, they went for the best player offered to them so they could try and continue competing in the Western Conference playoff race. DeMar DeRozan by himself was an impressive haul all things considered. With him on board, the Spurs will still be in the playoff conversation. Hats off to Spurs management for making the best of a serious predicament.
Coach Pop. No questions asked. Their key ingredient to their success has been and still is Pop. Besides him though, the Spurs now have two of the league’s top scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. In them, San Antonio has two guys who they can go to when the going gets tough and who should make the offense more dynamic. Also, an underrated strength the Spurs have is their youth. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are talented young players to groom, and there’s been a fair amount of chatter surrounding Lonnie Walker IV. This may not be Pop’s most talented roster, but it’s far from average.
Pairing DeRozan with Aldridge will give the Spurs two of the league’s top scorers, but it might be a challenge to run the offense through them since neither are reliable floor spacers. Much has been brought up about the Spurs losing Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, but what about Danny Green and Kyle Anderson? Anderson and Green played big roles for the Spurs, producing their third-best defensive rating last season at 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Losing them could spell disaster for San Antonio on the defensive end.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Do the Spurs still have what it takes to compete in the west?
Again, the Spurs did a fantastic job in how they handled their fallout with Kawhi. Getting someone as good as DeRozan for a disgruntled player that was leaving one way or another is impressive, epecially when you consider that Kawhi may leave Toronto after this season. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the same league as a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, and he likely never will be. He’s never been a solid defender and he has a long history of failing to step up in the playoffs. If he does his disappearing act again when and if the Spurs make the playoffs, that doesn’t leave them in a promising spot going forward. This is especially the case because the Warriors and the Rockets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and more challengers in the west are knocking on the door.
NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong
Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.
The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.
Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.
Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).
In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.
In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.
Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.
“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”
Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.
“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.
When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.
“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”
Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.
Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.
Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”
Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.
After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.
“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”
As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.
Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.
Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.
“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”
The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.
NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players
Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.
January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.
Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.
Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.
1. Willie Reed
The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.
The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.
This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.
2. John Jenkins
Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.
He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.
Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.
3. Anthony Bennett
Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.
Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.
This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.
4. Bruno Caboclo
Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”
Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.
Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.
Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?