Hope wasn’t necessarily lost for the Houston Rockets, although they didn’t come close to capitalizing on a serious Kevin Durant injury in the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals. Again, no one was writing them off for this season, but an aging Chris Paul coupled with that fact that they blew a HUGE opportunity certainly made for plenty of skeptics this upcoming season.
Then the stories broke. At first, people didn’t pay much attention to the “Paul and Harden don’t get along” rhetoric. But before you knew it, Paul was on his way to Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook was headed to H-Town.
Did that trade improve Houston’s chances of winning a title? It wholly depends on how you value Westbrook and view his ability to play alongside Harden. Regardless, the trade was obviously one of the marquee moments of the offseason, and like-it-or-not, firmly places Houston in the conversation of 2019-20 NBA Champions.
Let’s continue Basketball Insider’s team preview series with a look at the Houston Rockets.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Rockets made one of the biggest moves of the summer when they traded away Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook brings a completely different dynamic to the team than Paul, and at this point in their careers, Westbrook is more reliable scoring threat. He’s a walking triple-double and he shouldn’t have much of an issue fitting in with James Harden. The Rockets are a team that have had title aspirations for a few seasons now but have fallen short each time, including last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors despite Kevin Durant getting hurt. They’re hoping this shakeup will give them a better chance, and now with the Warriors having seemingly come back down to Earth, they too have as good a chance as any to get to the Finals. Having Westbrook and Harden is a great starting point, and it’ll be interesting to see how/if the Rockets change their offensive schemes to fit their personnel.
1st Place – Southwest Division
The Rockets shook things up this offseason, swapping Chris Paul and future draft picks for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and James Harden are an equally odd pairing as were Harden and Paul, but at least they’re good friends – which is more than can be said with certainty of Harden and Paul. Only four teams in the history of the NBA have boasted two MVPs and each time it’s ended in a championship. Harden, Westbrook, Clint Capella and Eric Gordon will power the Rockets to the Southwest Division crown, but how much farther can we expect them to go? There’s enough depth beyond their core-four in PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green to provide a boost. But Nene’s contract looked like more of a future asset for trade purposes prior to the NBA altering its value – and that may hurt the Rockets down the road as far as adding additional talent mid-season is concerned. And that could dictate how far they go in the postseason.
1st Place-Southwest Division
There’s plenty of intrigue in H-Town with the surprising arrival of Russell Westbrook. We already know how incredible and effective James Harden is as the best scorer in the NBA, but giving him his former Thunder running mate in the backcourt will be a sight to behold. While questions surrounding fit are warranted with two polar opposite shooters, it’s the opportunities with explosiveness and in transition that should excite fans of basketball everywhere. The new Rockets duo should be able to throw different looks at different defensive schemes, keeping teams on their toes at all times. Westbrook with the ball in his hands will form an instant chemistry with a rim runner like Clint Capela as he did with Steven Adams. P.J. Tucker comes back as the squad’s most gritty defender and top glue guy. Eric Gordon’s officially returning, keeping Mike D’Antoni’s go-to perimeter guy in the mix. Yes, the bench leaves plenty to be desired, however there’s opportunities to stagger with two All-Stars with the ball in their hands. It should lead to plenty of rest for both to save energy throughout a rigorous season.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
As the saying goes, “Go Big Or Go Home,” and that’s exactly what Rockets General Manager Dayle Morey did in trading for the massive contract of Russell Westbrook. The Rockets were by all accounts one game away from the NBA Finals, and while the West seems to have dispersed talent in a more equitable fashion, the window for the Rockets is now and they pounced. Time will tell if the pairing of two extremely ball-dominant players will work — the idea of two unstoppable offensive players makes the gamble worth it. The Rockets still have plenty of shooting and rebounding around their offensive duo, so barring injury, the Rockets should win the division, if not the entire thing this season.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
When the Rockets acquired Chris Paul, a lot of people were concerned that he and James Harden would struggle to run an effective offense together since both players are so ball-dominant. I was of the belief that Paul and Harden are both intelligent, talented players who would find a way to make things work. While there were some bumps in the road, Paul and Harden found a balance and were able to orchestrate one of the most potent offenses in the league over the last few seasons. I am not sure I have the same confidence in Harden and Russell Westbrook finding a similar balance. These two have historically high usage numbers and I’m not sure Westbrook is ready to take a backseat to anyone, including Harden. This combination has more upside than the Paul-Harden pairing had, but there is cause for concern. Having said all of that, I will not be surprised if the Rockets are one of, if not the most explosive offensive team in the league this season. I cannot wait to see what this new duo can do together, especially since this will be the first time Westbrook will have a strong core of reliable shooters around him in some time.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Rockets salvaged the broken relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul, sending Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for All-Star Russell Westbrook. The deal cost Houston significant draft assets but the team got the younger, more explosive point guard. The team will likely be over the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold once Nene re-signs, but he’ll reportedly ink a partially-guaranteed contract that might be used as a trade chip, or can be cut before July 8 to clear salary.
Houston has multiple trade exceptions but the largest is $3.6 million for Brandon Knight. The team also only has nine fully-guaranteed players heading into training camp, though Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark have half of their salaries locked in. Along with Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, the Rockets have over $105 million invested in just four players this coming season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Best Offensive Player: James Harden
There might not be another team in the NBA with a choice that is this obvious. Despite other offensive talents on the Rockets, James Edward Harden is simply in a league of his own.
You’ve seen some of the statistics, but let me recap some of them for you. Last season Harden scored 50-plus points nine times. He scored 30+ points for 32 consecutive games, something that hasn’t been done since Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 36.1 points per game on the season with a mind-boggling true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent. Harden averaged 43.6 points in the month of January.
The above paragraph could be quite a bit longer, but we’ll spare you the reader as the Rockets still have other players to touch on and you don’t have all day to read about The Beard.
Let us just mention this. Harden is arguably the best offensive player of all-time. His ability to get buckets and the efficiency with which he does so is out-of-this-world. He’s strong, fast, smart, and above all fearless. As long as he’s in the NBA, whatever team he plays for is an automatic threat.
Best Defensive Player: Clint Capela
Averaging 1.5 blocks and 8.2 defensive rebounds per game, Capela is the top rim protector on a team that doesn’t necessarily harp defense.
PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon certainly have the ability to be ball-stoppers in their own regard and Tucker especially has an exceptional motor, but neither player consistently impacts the game on defense as Capela does. Elite rim protectors are a dime-a-dozen in the NBA, and when a team doesn’t employ one on the court it shows. As much as the NBA loves three-pointers, they still aren’t as efficient as a good old fashioned, wide-open slam-dunk. So when you have a player that can stop them, it automatically makes them indispensable on the defense.
He’s still young and at times, it shows. His defense absolutely has room to grow. But he’s long, overly-athletic for his size, and gives opponents fits at the rim. Look for him to have an even bigger impact this upcoming season.
Best Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
He’s averaged over 10 assists a night for four straight seasons and in his 11-year career, he’s never dipped below 5 per game. Much can be said about his inefficient shooting spurts, but his ability to create looks for his teammates is unmatched. Age may be finally catching up to him, but his current state still probably places him in the top-15 most athletic players in the league and he definitely uses it to his advantage when running an offense.
What’s funny is prior to the trade, Chris Paul could have very well been considered for this recognition. In all reality, Westbrook is a better playmaker than Paul at this point in their respective careers, mainly because Russell still has more left in the tank than the elder Paul.
Last year for OKC, Westbrook led the team in assists, assist percentage at 44 percent and usage percentage at 30.1 percent. All those marks last season outside of usage percentage were better than Harden who would be considered the second-best playmaker on the roster. Harden can dish it, but not quite as well as Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: James Harden
89.4 percent of made field goals for Harden in the clutch were unassisted. This means he was able to generate just about every single point he scored by himself without the help of teammates – apart from the occasional screen, at least.
He led the Houston Rockets averaging 4.9 points in clutch situations. Outside of Victor Oladipo who played significantly fewer clutch minutes, that 4.9 mark led the entire NBA.
He had a 49 percent usage percentage which not only led the team but the entire NBA and was a full 5 percentage points higher than the next most used player. It’s very clear that Harden is the go-to guy for this Rockets squad and with Westbrook’s all-over-the-place statistics with late-game heroics it shouldn’t change anytime soon.
The Unheralded Player: PJ Tucker
If James Harden is the motor that keeps this team going, Tucker is the glue that makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. There’s a reason his name wasn’t included last summer in trade talks when the Rockets were trying to get Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves. This guy can flat out play.
He’s ferocious on defense and can easily guard multiple positions when asked. He is very reliable on the corner three and can heat up from distance better than just about anyone in the league. Not to mention teams send swarms of defenders towards Harden to Tucker is usually wide-open on his attempts.
He’s a bully on the ball, easily plays with the most effort on the team, and constantly seems to have a chip on his shoulder.
As far as players that played the entire season, he led the team in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent taking over 4.5 three per game. He was an even better 43.2 percent from the right corner.
Tucker never puts up astounding stats, but he puts out massive effort every night and always leaves it on the court. He’s incredibly valuable for this Houston team and will be a central part of any championship run they may have.
Best New Addition: Russell Westbrook
Anytime you can add a former MVP to your roster who is still in his prime, you should probably do it. Regardless of the baggage Westbrook carries with him in the form of efficiency and poor shot selection, the guy can still flat out ball. He isn’t tall by NBA standards and has still averaged a triple-double of points, assists, and rebounds for three straight seasons.
His fit next to Harden will be spectacular at best and horrendous at worst, and it’s hard to see any sort of a happy medium between those two. If it works out, Morey will be considered a genius and the trade will have been deemed a success. If it doesn’t? Well, only time will tell.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1. James Harden
Despite his quirky offensive moves, his lethargic pace of play in the isolation, and his ability to draw fouls that upon review still don’t seem like fouls, Harden is stellar. Every time he suits up we have the pleasure of watching what could be the best offensive player to ever play the game.
He has transformed the stepback three into something that is both unguardable and efficient. He forces teams to scheme their entire defensive plan around what he’ll do night in and night out. His gravity opens up looks for his teammates that for some teams seems unfathomable.
He’s the heart-and-soul of the Rocket’s franchise. Their success is tied directly to him and what he does.
2. Eric Gordon
Gordon inked himself a nice little extension recently and it isn’t without reason. He’s played exceptionally well for Houston and was a huge reason they even made it past the first round last year. His defense on Donovan Mitchell, coupled with his outrageous true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent, was a major reason Harden’s less-than-ideal play was covered up as Houston trounced a solid Utah team in five games.
Having an offensive weapon as strong and diverse as Gordon as your third or possibly fourth-best option is a great place to be. He can get to the rim on almost anyone, play bully-ball where necessary, and shoot at a high mark from three. He’s as close to a big three as Houston is going to get. Gordon is a key cog to the starting unit.
3. Daryl Morey
The statistical wiz himself, Morey pulled off one last stunt that could help Houston hoise the Larry O’Brien for the first time in many years. It’s funny, you’d think that on a statistical level – at least as far as scoring is concerned – that Westbrook would be the last player Morey would want on his roster. But clinging to an aging Paul (and his scary contract) for another season might actually be worse than an inefficient-at-times Westbrook, and Morey knew that.
He made the trade, which was a blockbuster by all accounts that no one saw coming, and he’ll just have to live with the results. Russell could alter his game, it could work harmoniously, and the Rockets just might be champions. Despite what happens, Morey executed the right move and made a daunting situation – with Paul’s contract and all – actually turn out to be a bright spot moving forward. And if it doesn’t work out so well, at least the Harden-Westbrook duo will be a PR team’s dream for the first half of the season until it all implodes.
4. Mike D’Antoni
This is the man that turned Harden into the league’s best point guard – at least on a production standpoint. He’s led the charge on multiple franchises now to make offense the key ingredient to a championship run. He’s revolutionized the three-ball and how many you can shoot in a game. But has any of it paid off yet?
You can definitely argue that they were just a Chris Paul hamstring away from going to the finals two seasons ago, but would they have made it past LeBron? Regardless of your opinion on D’Antoni’s coaching style, he’s proven himself to be one of the better coaches in the league today. He schemes incredibly well for opponents and hides certain weaknesses as good as any coach out there. If anyone can make Westbrook and Harden click on the court it will be him.
– Jordan Hicks
Offensively they are the best team in the NBA. James Harden is a flat-out monster and adding the hyper-athletic Westbrook to the mix will only make the cogs spin faster. They have solid shooting from three at every position outside of the five and have the means to get players open looks better than any team in the league.
Besides Westbrook, the core of the team now has a good three-plus years of playing together so their continuity will for sure help them get places. If they can ease Westbrook into the fold and get him comfortable quickly, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with early on. They don’t have many old veteran players and health shouldn’t be much of an issue, either. If Westbrook can stay healthy, their starting unit will be solid.
– Jordan Hicks
Their biggest weakness could end up being their egos. Although nothing was officially said, there were plenty of reports about how Harden and Paul never got along. Westbrook has as big of a personality as the next guy, so there are skeptics out there that believe the Harden-Westbrook connection won’t work out. The last time they were teammates they were both young and figuring out their way in the league.
If their personalities don’t clash and their style of play gels on the court? Look out, because they will be very good. But if history has shown us anything, we absolutely should not assume they will get along until it plays out.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Was Westbrook’s acquisition, coupled with Paul’s departure, enough to get Houston a championship?
In a vacuum, adding a player with the accolades Westbrook contains is tremendous. But unfortunately for the Rockets, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Westbrook’s game is everything the Rockets have tried to avoid. He consistently takes bad shots, he’s never been a good three-point shooter, and he often tried to take over games. Has he had success in small spurts? Yes. Is he incredibly talented at almost every aspect of the game of basketball? Absolutely. But his fit with Houston’s system is curious.
Ultimately, he’ll help Houston win games and they’ll remain in the top three out West going into the playoffs. But it’s unlikely he’ll morph his game into what Houston needs, and by failing to do so Houston won’t make it out of the second round. Let’s be real, Westbrook is a huge reason OKC struggled in the playoffs the last two seasons despite Paul George being on the roster. Why should we have any reason to believe he’ll change his game?
– Jordan Hicks
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”