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Can The Rockets Squeeze Into The Playoffs?

Surprise! The Houston Rockets have played great since the departure of their franchise cornerstone, but can they keep it up?

Ariel Pacheco

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The Houston Rockets came into the season as what appeared to be a dysfunctional franchise. The most prominent faces on the team all wanted to jump ship. Before the season even started, the Rockets lost head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey. Russell Westbrook was shipped to Washington for John Wall, and James Harden had made it clear he wanted to be next to leave. 

When the Rockets traded their second-best player in franchise history, James Harden, expectations for the season were understandably low. They had been 3-6 with Harden, but have now gone 5-3 since trading him and are on a four-game winning streak. Their roster is now filled with guys who feel they’ve been overlooked and are looking to prove their critics wrong. 

Coach Stephen Silas was dealt a difficult hand but has made the most of it. Since the Harden trade, the Rockets hold the second-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.7. They have a slew of elite defenders that can break up opposing teams’ sets and force turnovers. They are also doing this with multiple key guys missing games to injuries like John Wall and Christian Wood. 

The biggest signing the Rockets made this past offseason was adding Christian Wood. He has continued his strong play from last season with Detroit and has put his name towards the top of all Most Improved Player conversations. Wood is averaging 23.4 points per game along with 10.8 rebounds per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage. He’s been their offensive fulcrum and shows improvement on an almost game-to-game basis.

John Wall’s return from his Achilles tear has been remarkable – somehow, he still has his burst of speed and his passing ability. While his outside shot has struggled, he can still get in the paint and wreck havoc on any team in transition. Wall has also shown he can still defend when he’s engaged. It’s still too soon to say so with any certainty, but the Rockets have to feel good about landing the better player in John Wall in the trade with the Wizards, plus a first round pick. 

DeMarcus Cousins has been up-and-down. He’s had a couple of monstrous performances but has mostly struggled, especially on the defensive end of the floor. His lateral movement isn’t great, and teams have taken advantage of him. Still, Cousins has shown he’s still an above-average passer at his position. His finishing at the basket is probably the clearest sign of his struggles, as he’s made 17 of his 49 attempts within five feet of the basket, an abysmal 34.7 percent. 

The addition of Victor Oladipo gives the Rockets another scorer who can also defend at an elite level. He’s only played in five games in Houston, but if he can continue to find the form he had when he was an All-Star, the Rockets will be more than satisfied. Oladipo will be entering free agency this offseason and will be highly motivated to give potential suitors every reason to pay him.

The rest of the roster is a group that has been overlooked or underappreciated at some point in their careers. Silas has plenty of options of guys who come in and consistently play hard like David Nwaba, Jae’Sean Tate, PJ Tucker and Sterling Brown. Even rookie Mason Jones has flashed his potential in his limited minutes. 

But it remains to be seen how good this Rockets team can be. They certainly have the personnel to maintain a top defense, but their offense has struggled to consistently get good looks. There’s reason to believe their offense could improve as Silas coached the offense last season for the Mavericks, which had the best offense in history last year. As Wall, Oladipo and Cousins get more acclimated, the offense could see an uptick. 

The Rockets do not own the rights to their own first-round pick this year, so they have no reason to tank and every incentive to try and make the playoffs. Moreover, it’s possible they look to add another piece at the trade deadline in order to accomplish that. Remarkable that the Rockets, after all the dysfunction, are just one game under .500 with reason to be optimistic.

The post-Harden era in Houston is underway and it may be better than many believed it to be. 

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NBA Daily: Gary Trent Jr. Pushing Portland to Defy Expectations

Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and defying expectations. As to how, look no further than Gary Trent Jr.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and exceeding expectations. They’re currently fifth in the Western Conference and within three games of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.

It’s abundantly clear that Damian Lillard is most responsible for Portland’s success. However, one player can only take a team so far and, as great as Lillard has played the role of Batman, Gary Trent Jr. has taken a huge step up and emerged as his Robin in the absence of CJ McCollum.

In fact, in their Feb. 4 tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, a game in which the Trail Blazers were without Lillard and McCollum, Trent scored a team-high 24 points and led Portland to a 121-105 victory at the Wells Fargo Center, just the 76ers second loss at home on the season.

Lillard, McCollum and Trent have only played 11 games together this season — and, in one of those, Trent logged fewer than six minutes. When the three of them suit up, Portland is 7-4 and has scored 136.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest offensive rating of any trio on the Trail Blazers that has played at least 10 games together, per NBA.com. That group will have to provide more defensive resistance for Portland to succeed in the postseason — in their time together, the trio is surrendering 117 points per 100 possessions — but their offensive potency would give them a chance against just about any opponent.

McCollum, who has missed time due to a fracture in his left foot, hasn’t played since Jan. 16. Since then, Portland, who recently rattled off six consecutive wins, are 10-6. In February, the team is 8-3 while Trent, who is averaging 18 points per game since McCollum’s injury, has proven an essential part of that success.

For the season, the former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 15.4 points per game while splashing 44.2 percent of his 7.4 three-point attempts per game. Trent is also 13th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, contributing 3.3 per contest. But what’s pushed his game to a new level this season?

Well, Trent has improved his greatest strength: the catch-and-shoot three. Last season, Trent shot 41.5 percent on 2.9 catch-and-shoot opportunites per game. This season, not only has he improved that percentage to 44.6 percent, but he’s done so on four such attempts per game.

Trent has also become more dangerous off the dribble: while he averaged just 2.9 pull-ups per game last season, Trent has appeared far more comfortable creating off the bounce this season, hoisting 6.3 pull-ups per contest this season and knocking them down at a 39.2 percent clip. 3.3 of those attempts have come from beyond the arc and are going in at a rate of 43.3 percent compared as well. The fact that Trent has more than doubled those attempts per game is an accurate reflection of his evolution into more than a long-range threat.

The same goes for his newfound penchant for coming off a pindown and snaking his way from the slot — the space between the three-point line and the top of the key — to the opposite elbow for a mid-range jumper.

For all his improvement, Trent still has a lot of room to improve his game. To put it mildly, his numbers at the other end of the floor are underwhelming at best. According to , Trent ranks towards the bottom of the Trail Blazers’ roster in numerous defensive metricsm, per basketball-reference: his 1.1 steal percentage would be 10th on a roster currently of just 14 players; his .1 defensive win shares ninth; his -2.3 box plus-minus 11th; his 120 points per 100 possessions 14th.

His effort is evident — Trent’s 2.1 deflections per game, the third-most on the Trail Blazers, is a testament to that — but, as someone who’s typically alongside at least one of (if not both of) Lillard and McCollum, Trent is often charged with more difficult defensive assignments, arguably more difficult than he’s suited to take on, hence the poor stats. But, sometimes, that difficult is just life in the NBA; Portland must see better from him on that end going forward if they are to truly compete for a title.

While Lillard has carried much of the load himself, Trent’s growth has also played a crucial part in Portland’s ability to keep their heads above water as they’ve dealt with an onslaught of injuries this season. If, upon the return of McCollum and the others, he can continue to do his thing on offense and also improve on the defensive end, Trent might just help push the Trail Blazers farther than they’ve ever gone in recent seasons.

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NBA Daily: Where Does Blake Griffin Fit?

With the news that Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons will part ways, Tristan Tucker breaks down which teams do and don’t make sense for Griffin’s services.

Tristan Tucker

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Blake Griffin is unlikely to ever suit up for the Detroit Pistons again, with the two sides agreeing to part ways by means of a trade or buyout, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. As laid out excellently by Duncan Smith of Hoops Habit, Griffin is probably unlikely to be traded by the Pistons. Detroit shouldn’t want to part with any asset just to unload Griffin’s gargantuan contract, which leaves a buyout as the only other option.

With that being said, Griffin is one of the more prolific names that could reach the buyout market in recent years, even in spite of the decline of his health and play. The 6-foot-9 forward would be an attractive buyout asset due to his work ethic, veteran status, a crafty passing game and occasionally-streaky jump shot. Let’s take a closer look at which teams do and don’t make sense for the six-time All-Star.

Miami HEAT

Miami is at an interesting crossroads after a Finals run during the 2020 bubble as the team currently sits at just 13-17. Because of the slow start, whatever the case may be, it’s heavily rumored that the team will scour the market for something to mix the team up in a similar way that brought Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in last season.

Several teams will be major factors in the buyout market, but Miami has more than what some teams can offer, having a disabled player exception valued at $4.7 million after the injury to Meyers Leonard, as well as the bi-annual exception valued at about $3.6 million, though it might better to preserve that exception for next year (if any team uses its bi-annual exception, it loses it for the following season).

The HEAT will call around the league for a blockbuster trade, but if nothing comes to fruition, stretch forwards like Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Nemanja Bjelica make sense. Miami desperately needs more big man talent to surround Bam Adebayo as Precious Achiuwa isn’t developed enough to play next to the cornerstone and Kelly Olynyk is in the midst of a regression. Griffin’s offensive upside likely makes him appealing to the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Boston Celtics

Boston is middling too, experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks within the team early, all while Kemba Walker continues his struggles to return from injury and losing other pieces along the way. Griffin’s former teammate Andre Drummond is often discussed when it comes to the Celtics and buyout options, but the current Piston himself is another great fit.

The Celtics aren’t trading for Griffin with their historically large $28.5 million traded player exception; plus the forward is under contract for $36.6 million in 2020-21, making such a move impossible. Boston can offer the bi-annual exception to Griffin, and add some stability to a team that should be contending this season.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are going to be one of the most aggressive buyout market players, much like any other year, but especially given that Anthony Davis is hurt, big man depth is an issue for the Lakers and that the team has an open roster spot to use.

While Griffin is only averaging 12.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting, one doesn’t have to look far to see a former All-Star. Just two seasons ago, Griffin averaged 24.5 points and shot 36.2 percent from deep to go along with 5.4 assists per game. If the forward can get anywhere close to any one of those aspects of his game, it makes the Lakers even scarier.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers are an interesting option for Griffin, seasonally ravaged once again with injuries to big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Griffin’s fit is easy to see, and he would join a scorching-hot Damian Lillard who is currently carrying Portland to a playoff spot.

Portland used its entire mid-level exception on Derrick Jones Jr., so it only has its bi-annual exception to use, an offer that gets easily beaten by other teams. The only way this happens is if Griffin actively seeks Portland, which is probable, especially if he saw how the franchise rebuilt Carmelo Anthony’s value.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors are somewhat of a sleeper team for Griffin, the team is in the hunt for a playoff position but injuries to its big man rotation are hampering expectations. Rookie James Wiseman is out, Kevon Looney is missing time, Marquese Chriss is out for the season and Draymond Green is occasionally in and out of the lineup.

Griffin’s passing technique and former sharpshooting form make him a potentially attractive addition to the group. The Warriors will likely eye the former superstar, but it remains to be seen if Griffin would have any interest in signing with a team that’s projected to finish as a lower playoff seed in the Western Conference.

It’s important to note that the Warriors have about $3.5 million remaining in their MLE, meaning that the team could preserve its equally-valued bi-annual exception for next year.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Others:

Here’s a quick speed round. The Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers could all add Griffin but each with caveats. The Jazz has a solid foundation and the NBA’s best record — adding a big personality like Griffin, especially without a defined role, could jeopardize that. Milwaukee is interesting, but Bobby Portis is playing extremely well in his role, so the team should look for backup wing or guard depth first.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s rotation is pretty full, it would need to decide that it wants to go a different direction with some of its players. If it does, Griffin makes sense.

The 76ers are interesting given its contending status and the fact that it has nearly its full MLE, valued at around $4.8 million. The San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers could theoretically be options, with their full $9.3 non-taxpayer MLE’s available.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns make some level of sense, but it is unclear whether Griffin has any interest in reuniting with the front office that traded him or his former co-star in Chris Paul.

On the other hand, sleepers include the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. Dallas and Brooklyn are exciting options and more likely than one might think, while the Hornets are in the midst of a playoff push and Griffin is notably a Jordan-brand athlete. Meanwhile, the Nets have a $5.7 million disabled player exception from Spencer Dinwiddie and the full non-taxpayer MLE to offer Griffin, making them enticing.

As is made clear, Griffin would be a hot commodity on the buyout market, with several teams that could benefit from the added services of an aging former All-Star. Be sure to tune into Basketball Insiders as we approach the NBA trade deadline on Mar. 25.

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NBA

LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies

LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.

Quinn Davis

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With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.

The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.

Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.

He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.

Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.

Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.

Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.

Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.

The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.

When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.

Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.

Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.

Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.

Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.

Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.

But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.

Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.

Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.

Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.

While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.

Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.

Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.

Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.

There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.

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