The Inbounds: Houston, We Have A Solution

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Maybe no team will have the kind of predicted-win variance from fans and experts this season than the Houston Rockets. Some think that they’re going to be downright awful, a wretched mishmash of forwards and injured guards, built around a lack of size and no real starpower. Others think it’s entirely possible this team can swing for the playoffs. A young, versatile core with Jeremy Lin making the plays, a defense built around Omer Asik, and if even one of the three rookies breaks out, look out. They could massively exceed expectations or completely crash and burn into the ground prompting a full-scale re-reboot, and you wouldn’t really be surprised at either, nor would you be shocked at a good-not-great late lottery finish, typically referred to as the “Rockets” finish every year.

They’ve got four separate gambles going on. First, that Jeremy Lin is the player he was for two weeks in February and not the player he was, you know, any other time. That in the right system, with the confidence and what he learned about himself last year, he can be the kind of playmaking, odds-defying producer who set the league on fire. Second, that one of the rookies will work out. If Jeremy Lamb works out? Great. An athletic two-guard who can fill up the scoreboard and whose length on the perimeter provides the anchor of the defense on the edge. If it’s Terrence Jones, a relentless inside attacker with elite athleticism who can also step out and hit a few shots (probably more than he should take), a kind of Josh Smith 2.0 model? Neat. If it’s Royce White, a combo-forward who passes like Bird and leaps like LeBron, fantastic. Just one of them has to pull it off.

Three, that Kevin McHale’s defensive system can take the spare parts and make them into a unit. McHale struggled last year on several fronts. Scheme, execution, and most especially, player relations. Kevin Martin is in the doghouse, Luis Scola was given the amnesty heave-ho, and Kyle Lowry is inexplicably a Raptor. McHale has to take a team with Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, three rookies, Donatas Motiejunas, and Chandler Parsons, and get them to communicate, attack, and rotate.

It is not a small hill to climb.

And finally, the most likely gamble, and maybe the most important. That somewhere in this combination of guys is the ability to trade for a major player and that the other players will fit around him.

GM Daryl Morey has missed out on the stars. There’s just no getting around it. From Carmelo Anthony  to Chris Paul to Dwight Howard, he’s oh-fer since the end of the Yao Ming era in drawing a major player to Houston’s traffic jams. He’s constantly built the team ready to acquire and take on a star, and he’s managed to field competitive non-playoff teams without sacrificing payroll or draft picks. But the criticism of him is valid until he’s able to schmooze a big name to buy in, and be able to pull off the deal to acquire him.

He’s certainly got the tools. The Rockets can offer any team that has to ditch its best player a combination of Kevin Martin’s contract, extra draft picks, and young players, without cleaning out the cupboard. Especially if they need forwards.

Lord, can the Rockets offer forwards.

So if the Rockets can just find that situation that’s ripe, and there seems to be a superstar moving every year in this league now (and they’ve run out of big markets to move to), they can snag the guy. And they’ll have so much left over, they’ll be able to build right away. A team with a good center in either Asik or Motiejunas (neither of which are locks but it’s possible both could be retained in trade and that one would work out), a capable point guard in Lin, and the wings to fit around the player means that there’s no need to build up, no spending splurge needed like in New Jersey or Miami.

The bad news? They’re not the only one. The Sixers just got their guy in Andrew Bynum, so they’re off the list. But Denver, Utah, Phoenix, Cleveland all have similar situations and the ability to take on deals. It’s a stronger market now, and the Rockets have the most, but that doesn’t mean they have the most chances. Plus, that guy may never come available.

But the real key here is you have to do everything you can, and the Rockets have. If they can’t acquire a superstar despite having the most assets, and if none of the young players turn into legitimate stars, and their combination of players don’t gel, and they can’t lure free agents, then you know what? Everything has gone wrong that can go wrong, and that’s just the way it goes.

The ability for Houston to absorb a major contract and to still retain their ability to compete without major rebuilding should not be overstated. They don’t have players with set tendencies who need X or Z to succeed. All of their players are either young enough to be malleable, or their games fit snugly around an alpha scorer.

In short, the have the best archaeologists, the most resources, the finest scholars, and every mode of transportation available, including camels.

But the trick is still finding the Holy Grail.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?