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Houston Rockets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Houston Rockets.

Basketball Insiders

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The Houston Rockets finished the 2015-16 season as one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA. 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.

Because of struggles on the court and tensions behind the scenes, Houston made wholesale changes this offseason. They let Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones leave in free agency, hired new head coach Mike D’Antoni and signed unrestricted free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (who were previously teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans).

With the addition of more three-point shooters (Anderson and Gordon) and the up-tempo style of play D’Antoni is well known for, the Rockets seem poised to push the pace and spread the floor this year. That should give James Harden plenty of space to create for himself and teammates, which is exactly what D’Antoni wants since the veteran shooting guard is one of the game’s elite offensive players.

Just two years removed from the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets are looking for Harden to step up and be the sole leader of this team.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Somehow the Rockets successfully navigated an in-season coaching change, internal locker room issues and on-court inconsistency to secure a playoff berth last year. All-Star guard James Harden receives a lot of criticism, but leading the 2016 Rockets into the playoffs deserves plenty of praise. Heading into training camp, the Rockets have a new coach (Mike D’Antoni), Harden signed a lucrative contract extension and players such as Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith are elsewhere. Veterans such as Eric Gordon, Nene and Ryan Anderson have been inserted as the team retooled on the fly. The Rockets are set to score plenty of points, but also give up a ton in return. There will be plenty of high-scoring nights that should result in another playoff appearance, but expecting anything more than a first-round visit wouldn’t be wise.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

It appears that the Rockets got rid of one guy who was always injured (Dwight Howard) for three guys who are always injured (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene). That’s not exactly a recipe for success. James Harden is one of the more talented players in the league and will probably help Mike D’Antoni win his fair share of games, but I have fallen out of love with these guys. If everyone stays healthy, at least offensively, the Rockets will have some nice pieces that complement one another, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought they were still one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The guys who will give you something to watch and root for are Clint Capela and Sam Dekker. If D’Antoni is able to get Harden to buy in and share scoring opportunities (something he had difficulty with getting Carmelo Anthony to do), then these guys can overachieve. Still, I’m not expecting too much.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Rockets may have been the most disappointing team in the NBA last season. Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets struggled all of last season defensively and with chemistry. At the root of the discontent was the relationship between James Harden and Dwight Howard. Howard is now in Atlanta, so that alone may reboot the chemistry in the locker room. The Rockets also added talented, but risky players in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. The Rockets are getting a lot of spacing with Anderson and Gordon, which could open up things for Harden in the mid-range area and keep defenders honest when he is probing and attacking the basket. However, Anderson and Gordon have struggled with injuries for several seasons, so it’s possible these two could miss significant time this upcoming season. While the Rockets lost a few pieces this offseason, the chance of improving team chemistry, the additions of Anderson and Gordon and the hiring of Mike D’Antoni could get this team moving in the right direction again. Still, they will likely struggle to defend at a high level or consistently, which means their offense will need to be hitting on all cylinders.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s not like the Rockets walked away from the offseason with nothing, because they did sign Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene, but those just don’t seem like the kinds of players that shoot these Rockets back into stratosphere of elite teams, do they? Starting point guard Patrick Beverley seems to think James Harden will have another MVP-quality season like he did in 2014-15, and while that’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility, it’s a little hard to believe considering the play we’ve seen from some other candidates in the last couple of years. Harden will continue to score at an elite level, surely, but he’s not the kind of guy who lifts his teammates to some transcendent level of play. He’ll be good, but will the rest of this team?

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Between the injury concerns, defensive issues, Mike D’Antoni’s struggles in recent coaching stints, James Harden’s frustrating inconsistencies and an average supporting cast, I have a hard time believing that Houston will return to the playoffs this season. I could be wrong – maybe D’Antoni and Harden will be an excellent fit together and guys like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will finally be able to stay healthy while providing shooting and spacing. But I think the more likely scenario is that Houston finishes around .500, with the Rockets being the team that falls out of the top eight to make room for one of these emerging Western Conference threats like the Utah Jazz.

4th Place – Southwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Not only is Harden the best offensive player on the Rockets, he is one of the NBA’s elite players on that end of the floor. His ability to shoot from anywhere on the court along with his creativity and court vision make him a contender for the scoring title. He could even emerge as a potential MVP candidate if he elevates his game and helps Houston exceed expectations record wise. When asked what he expects from Harden in the upcoming season, teammate Patrick Beverley recently told Basketball Insiders, “MVP and leading us to the Finals. Simple.”

While some people focus on the negatives with Harden, many forget that he averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game last season. Few players can put up those dominant over the course of a full season. As an electric scorer and underrated playmaker, Harden has a chance to thrive in D’Antoni’s offense, which could lead to career-high numbers and immediate success for the Rockets. Many talented, attacking guards have benefited greatly from playing in D’Antoni’s fast-paced, high-scoring attack and Harden could be the latest.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Overshadowed by Dwight Howard last season, Clint Capela was one of the most surprising players for the Rockets. The 22-year-old has turned himself into an extremely valuable defender, specifically in pick-and-roll situations.

His size, athleticism and speed allow him to do a really good job in defensive switches and rotations. A positive defensive plus-minus player in each of his first two seasons, Capela should only continue to improve as he continues to gain experience and approach his prime.

His rim protection is still questionable at times – mainly due to his 6’9 frame and inability to match-up with taller, more physical bigs – but many believe Capela is the key to Houston’s defensive success. Given the fact that Harden, Gordon and Anderson aren’t known for their defense (and each can even be a liability at times), Capela will likely play a significant role in setting the team’s defensive identity.

Top Playmaker: James Harden

Some elite scorers struggle when it comes to playmaking, but Harden does both. He is a very good facilitator and his ability to pass out of double teams and create opportunities for his teammates is impressive. This will come in handy in D’Antoni’s offense, especially now that he should have more shooters surrounding him than in the past.

In Harden’s press conference after agreeing to a multi-year extension with Houston, he mentioned that he’s 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 playmaker. Nash obviously thrived under Coach 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.”

It’s evident Harden is trying to become a better leader and, with that, should come more creating from the dynamic guard. Expect Harden to exceed his 7.5 assists per game from last season since he has an offensive-minded coach, up-tempo system, three-point shooters in his supporting cast and a reinvigorated mindset entering this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

Harden is the Rockets’ best weapon in clutch situations since he can create his own shot, knock down attempts from all over the court, draw fouls and make the right play should one of his teammates become open. When the clock is ticking down, Harden will have the ball in his hands.

Last season, during fourth quarters and overtimes with less than five minutes remaining with neither team ahead by more than five points, Harden ranked second in the league in points scored. It’s evident that he relishes the opportunity to make plays and hit big shots in crunch time.

The Unheralded Player: Sam Dekker

The 18th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft had an impressive Summer League. With many concerns about his injury history, he’s looking to prove that he can be a viable back-up to veteran swingman Trevor Ariza. With D’Antoni now in town, Dekker could be a good fit for the new head coach since he can shoot the ball and is efficient on offense. Not to mention, his ability to rebound and defend multiple positions makes him even more intriguing. In Summer League, Dekker averaged 16 points per game while shooting over 55 percent from the field. While it’s just Summer League, it’s one of the few times Dekker has gotten to showcase his game since being drafted. His back issues kept him out for most of last season, and Dekker’s rookie year was limited to just three games.

He still needs to work on his lateral movements and he must stay in front of players defensively, but Dekker could be a good fit for this new coaching staff and their system. And, at 22 years old, he’s one of the few Rockets players who still have a lot of untapped potential and room to develop.

– Oliver Maroney

Top New Addition: Eric Gordon

Ryan Anderson could’ve been the player listed here, but I believe Gordon has more to offer this team if he’s healthy. In the past four seasons, Gordon has played in just 64.6 percent of games. Now, he’s supposedly healthy, reinvigorated and ready to play. If that’s the case, Gordon will help Houston’s outside shooting and spacing, thus creating more room for Harden to operate with the ball in his hands. Gordon’s ability to hit the outside shot will be critical to Houston’s success. Expect Gordon to have a bounce-back campaign if – and that’s a big if – he’s fully healthy. With that said, Anderson is a very good pick up for a D’Antoni-led team and he will certainly help spread the floor too.

– Oliver Maroney

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Mike D’Antoni

D’Antoni is an extremely innovative and smart basketball coach. Some would say that his ideas were years ahead of their time and ushered in the modern offensive attacks we see around the NBA. However, others have criticized him for failing to tweak his approach to fit his personnel or focus more on the defensive end. Regardless of how you feel, there’s no question that D’Antoni is very experienced and respected around the league.

In Phoenix, D’Antoni took over a Suns team that went 21-40 and turned them into a 62-win team one season later. He obviously couldn’t get them a championship, but he did create a winning culture with a very dynamic offensive scheme.

After his head coaching gigs in Denver, Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles, D’Antoni has experienced varying levels of success and learned a lot. He has a 455-426 regular-season record and has twice led his team to the Conference Finals. Having worked with Harden with Team USA, he knows what to expect from the star shooting guard. That history should help expedite the adjustment period in Houston.

  1. Ryan Anderson

After Houston struck out on other big names in free agency, Anderson was paid a lot of money from the Rockets (four years, $80 million). Now that he’s in Houston, he must get acclimated to his new role and fit within the high-scoring offense.

Anderson’s mobility, versatility and ability to stretch the floor are what make him so valuable and tough for opposing defenses to contain. The Rockets have never had outside shooters like Gordon and Anderson around Harden; as long as they’re healthy, it should help Houston space the floor and thrive under D’Antoni.

Shooting over 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from three last year, Anderson continued to look like one of the more effective stretch-fours in the NBA. The biggest issue for Anderson has been his injury history, as he’s appeared in just 60 percent of games over the past three seasons.

  1. Clint Capela

As previously mentioned, Capela is one of the best defenders on this team and – perhaps most importantly – he still has room to grow. The third-year player has a lot to offer Houston, and a breakout campaign from him would make this team much scarier.

Say what you will about Dwight Howard, but he’s still an elite rim protector that Houston depended on. Capela has some big shoes to fill, but he could be a very good answer for the Rockets long-term.

  1. Patrick Beverley

Beverley is the only true point guard on Houston’s roster, which shows how much the front office believes in him (and how important he is to the Rockets). He’s certainly the team’s heart and soul, and there’s no question that Houston relies on him to do “the dirty work.” His hustle plays and energy on defense are badly needed, and that kind of play can be contagious; players seem to feed off his intensity. His attitude and high confidence is why he’s been so successful against all odds, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down now. Opponents may feel like Beverley is a “pest” since he’s very good at pushing buttons, he’s the kind of player everyone loves to play alongside. He’s a key piece for the Rockets on both ends of the floor and you know exactly what you’re going to get from him each night.

– Oliver Maroney

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to invest in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.  The space was also used to renegotiate and extend the contract of James Harden.  The team also used their $2.9 million Room Exception to add Nene.  Now over the cap, with 14 guaranteed players, the Rockets have yet to make the signings of Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor and Bobby Brown official, but the four will eventually be fighting for one open roster spot.

Then again, the team still has a qualifying offer out to Donatas Motiejunas, making him a restricted free agent and possibly the Rockets’ 15th player – if they can agree to terms.  The team’s qualifying offer of $4.4 million to Motiejunas expires on Oct. 1, but even after that date he’ll remain restricted and the Rockets will retain his Bird Rights.  Looking ahead, the Rockets project to have about $12 million in cap space next summer, with a $102 million league projection.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Sam Dekker and Clint Capela before November.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Rockets have a top-five player in James Harden and an offense that could be top-five in the league. With Mike D’Antoni and new acquisitions Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, they have the outside shooting to take their scoring to an entirely new level this season. The question is whether they can be healthy as a team and, of course, if they can be defensively sound. They’re deeper than many give them credit for and although D’Antoni typically doesn’t utilize too many players in his rotation, it’s never a bad thing to have solid depth – especially with so many injury-prone players on the roster.

– Oliver Maroney

WEAKNESSES

The Rockets are clearly weak on the defensive end of the floor. Harden is a decent defender when he’s flourishing and focused, but there are lapses and effort issues when he’s not engaged. But it’s not just Harden – this whole team is constructed with offense in mind. With Pat Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela being the only known defensive quantities, where will the other help come from? They can try to hide some of the weaker defenders, but that may be difficult. Defense is D’Antoni’s weakness as well, so it remains to be seen how he’ll try to address the issues on that end.

The other big red flag for the Rockets is their health. Beverley, Gordon, Anderson and Dekker among others have all had their fair share of injuries that kept them out for long stretches. If they can’t stay healthy, it’s going to be difficult for D’Antoni and company to implement their style of play and get this team to reach their full potential.

– Oliver Maroney

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon catapult the Rockets to a top-six seed?

If Harden can have an MVP-caliber season and the offense shows improved outside shooting efficiency and their new acquisitions stay healthy, Houston could be a dangerous team in the playoffs. With their depth, added offensive firepower and upgrade on the sidelines, they have the talent to return to the postseason. But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and it remains to be seen if this team will be able to gel and put those issues behind them.

It will also be interesting to see how long it takes the Rockets to adjust to D’Antoni’s system and overall philosophy. While it could work very well with this group, they may get off to a slow start as the team gets acclimated (especially since they have new focal points like Anderson and Gordon trying to adjust to a lot of factors too). Losing early in the season led to a lot of issues in Houston last year and digging another big hole early on could be bad for this team behind the scenes.

No early injuries, a relatively easy transition to D’Antoni’s system and quality production from the new acquisitions Anderson and Gordon could go a long way for the Rockets as they look to improve on last year’s 41 wins.

– Oliver Maroney

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Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage

Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.

Drew Maresca

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Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.

“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.

But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.

“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”

Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.

“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.

“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”

Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.

“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.

“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”

It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.

“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.

“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.

“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.

“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”

“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”

Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.

“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.

“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.

“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”

Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.

Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all.  Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.

“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”

Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.

There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.

Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.

“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.

“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”

Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.

“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.

“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.

“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”

Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.

At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.

“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.

“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”

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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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