Newly signed Houston Rockets player Dwight Howard during news conference in Houston

Kevin McHale still wants Rockets to play fast but admits he will be experimenting


This is the season the Houston Rockets have to figure out how the pieces fit (and which ones need to be changed).

They have quality pieces. There’s an All-Star guard (and NBA Top 10 player if you ask Kevin Durant) in James Harden. They have the best center in the game when healthy in Dwight Howard (who if he is healthy is going to piss off Lakers fans with how well he plays this season). They have quality role players such as Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Omer Asik among others.

But how does all of that fit together?

Last season the Rockets played at the fastest pace in the NBA and everyone bought into the system, now they bring in Howard who pushed back against a similar fast pace and heavy pick-and-roll system in Los Angeles. Can Howard and Asik play together and how does that fit with an up-tempo system? Can this team defend? There are a lot of questions.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale told the Houston Chronicle he wants to play the same system, but admitted there is going to be some experimentation while they piece the puzzle together.

I think we’re going to play basically the same style. We have to get better defensively, and with Dwight we have to have more of an emphasis on trying to get the ball in the post. Through Dwight running and Dwight doing different things, I think we can do that without really having to change our identity. We still want to get the ball up and down the floor. We still want to be aggressive and run and attack offensively. I think we have two of the top rim protectors in Dwight and Omer, so we have to use those guys. I’d like to use them together. It gives us a chance to have a defensive presence and run off our defense a little more. Our style will change a little bit because our personnel changes, but it won’t change dramatically. At least I hope it doesn’t.

Can Asik and Howard play together?

I’m definitely going to give it a shot. Your job is to try to put your best players on the floor. Omer is one of our best players. We have to figure out how we’re going to get him on the floor. That’s going to be a big thing where we’re able to get them on the floor together. We’ll rebound very well. They have to space each other. There’s going to be some challenges. I’m really looking forward to see. I want it to work. We’ll see if it does work.

Asik could certainly end up getting traded during the season as other quality teams lose big men to injury (or just realize they need more help inside) and make a good offer to Rockets GM Daryl Morey.

Morey said he thinks there are a few teams in the league better than the Rockets right now, and he’s correct. The Rockets are on the cusp of contention now, but they need to see how the pieces fit, see how this team can grow together,and see if McHale can get them to that next level. My guess on their trajectory is they learn a lot of lessons this season and are more dangerous (likely after a few roster tweaks) next season. It’s a process.

Watching McHale and Morey try to fit the puzzle pieces together is going to be one of the more interesting storylines of this season.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.