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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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
NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26
Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.
This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.
When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.
That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.
Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.
The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.
Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.
Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.
Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.
This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.
The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.
Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.
Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.
Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.
While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.
Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner
So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.
Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.
Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.
Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward
It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.
However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.
Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.
With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.