ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: The Rockets began the year with the somewhat surprising trade for James Harden — surprising because of the Thunder’s choice to deal him so soon instead of pursuing a title with him in place for one more season. It was the right call on Houston’s part, as Harden immediately turned into the offensive star many believed he was capable of becoming.

It was enough to get the team to 45 wins and and eight seed in the West, although facing the Thunder in the first round, even after Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury, proved to be too tough, and the Rockets were eliminated in six games.

Signature highlight from last season: There was no one game or single play that defined the Rockets last season as much as the overall play of Harden did, so it seems appropriate to simply enjoy his top 10 plays from last season.

Key player changes: Unless you were living in a cave during the summer, you’re probably aware of a certain high-profile free agent center that chose to sign in Houston.

  • IN: Dwight Howard, signed to a five-year max contract in free agency. Omri Casspi, Marcus Camby, and Aaron Brooks were all signed to one-year guaranteed deals, and Ronnie Brewer was signed to a non-guaranteed deal for some depth defensively.
  • OUT: Thomas Robinson, essentially given away to the Blazers to create the cap space necessary to sign Howard. The headache known as Royce White was dealt to the Sixers, and Carlos Delfino signed with the Bucks in free agency.

Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Dwight Howard: The man who has been more about drama than bona fide basketball results over the past two seasons has a fresh start in Houston, and he’ll be expected to immediately begin earning that max contract the Rockets handed him this summer.

The good news is that by all accounts, Howard is healthy, and fully recovered from the back surgery that limited him over the first half of his ill-fated season in Los Angeles. The other positive is that while Howard is as high-profile an acquisition as possible, he doesn’t have to be “the man” in Houston — at least not offensively. That’s Harden’s role, so while Howard will have plenty of opportunity to score and will get plenty of touches both on the low block and in pick-and-roll situations, he won’t be relied upon as the primary offensive option.

All the Rockets need Howard to do is return to form as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who protects the rim, rebounds, and intimidates other teams from even thinking about coming inside. The Rockets were sixth in offensive efficiency last season, but 16th defensively. Howard’s presence should immediately change that.

2) James Harden: Harden was the focal point of the offense last season, and while the team has capable point guards in Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley (who are currently competing for the starting spot at that position), more often than not it was Harden who ended up with the ball in his hands creating for himself or for others. There will be an adjustment period with Howard now, not only because he will warrant a certain amount of touches, but also because his presence in the middle won’t leave as much space for Harden to do what he does best, which is getting to the basket.

There will be an adjustment period while Harden and the Rockets figure out the spacing and use both players’ talents to their advantage. How quickly it all comes together may partially determine just how many regular season wins are piled up in Houston.

3) The rest: Harden and Howard are monster talents at their respective positions, but how much production the team gets from everyone else is more likely to determine their ultimate postseason fate. Camby is a guy who could be of real value in the playoffs, and won’t be expected to be ready long before then.

Omer Asik will be interesting to watch, as he was initially unhappy with the Howard deal for fear his role would be diminished. It will be, despite head coach Kevin McHale vowing to try to play his two big men together, though most don’t believe that will work in anything more than very short stints against very specific matchups.

Guys like Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, along with Chandler Parsons are going to need to contribute regularly for this team to get where it wants to go before the year is through.

Why you should watch: James Harden is one of the more entertaining offensive players in the game, and a healthy Howard is one of the best defensively.

Prediction: The West is stacked, but if Howard and Harden are able to figure it out then the Rockets should approach 60 wins, and be a top-three team in the West by the time the regular season is finished. It’s tough to see them getting to the Finals in their first year together, but a deep playoff run should not only be the goal, it should be expected.

Former Cavaliers president candidate Chauncey Billups: Kyrie Irving’s trade request unsurprising, ‘alarming’

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Chauncey Billups declined an offer to run the Cavaliers’ front office. A few weeks later, word emerged Kyrie Irving requested a trade. LeBron James can become an unrestricted free agent and leave next summer.

If Billups dodged a bullet, it wasn’t by luck.

Billups on Altitude Sports Radio:

No, it didn’t really surprise me. Obviously, I knew as they were doing their due diligence on me, I was doing the same thing on them. So, obviously I knew so much about the situation that the rest of the world doesn’t know.

But that’s unfortunate, man, because he’s a special talent. And, in my opinion, so much of what he’s been able to accomplish on and off the floor has been – he’s been a beneficiary of having LeBron James, man.

That would be alarming to me if I was a team looking to get him, because if it’s all about winning, man you’ve got a chance to win every single year, man. Every single year, you’ve got a chance to win.

And not only that, you’re getting the ball still. You’re getting everything you want. You get all the shots you want. You’re playing for a great coach who’s letting you go to work. The game is on the line, they’re coming to you. You’re playing on TV every week.

To me, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. But everybody has their own desires.

I mean, he’s won a championship already. Maybe he’s saying, “I won a championship. I did this. I did that.” Maybe he wants to be Russell Westbrook, man, and go try to win the MVP and get all the shots.

That’s the only sense I can make of it. And, to me, that doesn’t make sense, because all I cared about was winning. That’s not anything. That’s the only sense I can make out of it.

I didn’t talk to LeBron until after. And I deliberately did that, because I go into a situation, and I’m going into it because of how I feel. And the whole LeBron leaving the next year – I’ll be honest with you: That didn’t bother me that much, and here’s why.

When you have an opportunity to really put something together and put your imprint on it, rebuilding is a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing if they’re going to have the patience with you. That really didn’t bother me. What bothered me a little more than if LeBron left or not was that I just didn’t think they had great assets if you have to do a rebuild.

So, it was more that than Bron. So, I didn’t speak to Bron until afterwards, even though Bron and I have always had an amazing relationship.

This adds new insight to a few existing storylines:

  • When did the Cavaliers know Irving wanted to leave, and what did they do about it? If Billups knew weeks ago, acting Cavaliers general manager and eventual long-term general manager Koby Altman should have known, too.
  • Maybe LeBron didn’t leak Irving’s trade request. That’s not to say Billups – who works for ESPN, whose Brian Windhorst broke the story – did. But numerous people clearly knew about Irving’s discontent and could’ve provided Windhorst with information.
  • Perhaps, the Cavaliers’ inability to lure Billups was about more than salary.

Moving ahead, I’m curious how many front-office leaders share Billups’ view that Irving wanting a trade is “alarming” about Irving’s priorities. I think teams positioned to land him will be more enthralled with nabbing a young star than anything else, but the trade request could give them pause.

It would have been very interesting to see Billups handle this challenge if he were in charge. Would he have tried to get Irving back on the same page, as former general manager David Griffin repeatedly did? Or would Billups have seen Irving’s mindset as troublesome and wanted him gone?

Billups’ point about rebuilding, both in Cleveland and generally, is a worthy one. The Cavaliers’ lack long-term assets, because they pushed in to contend for a title with LeBron. They won one, making the payoff well worth the cost. But the bill is already coming due, and coming years could be rough. If ownership realizes that and approves a rebuild, that could lead to tremendous job security and freedom to craft a roster for the front-office leader. But most owners, including Dan Gilbert, aren’t that patient.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk: ‘We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row’

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The Hawks let their best player (Paul Millsap) leave without offering him a contract. They traded their second-best player (Dwight Howard) in a salary dump that reduced the payroll only slightly. They also watched other key contributors (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha) depart in free agency.

At least Atlanta could rebuild around Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins and what appeared increasingly likely to be a high first-round pick.

Except the Hawks signed veterans Dewayne Dedmon (1+1) and Ersan Ilyasova (one-year) to contract that help the team this year without providing long-term value.

What is Atlanta doing?

New Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, via Shaun Powell of NBA.com:

“We want to continue the success we’ve had, but realize we might have to take a step back,” Schlenk said. “We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row. We realize that young players in this league take their lumps but we don’t want to send the message that we’re (fine) with losing.”

Competitive people involved in running NBA teams and casual fans don’t want to tank. But it seems the Hawks are missing an opportunity.

Their young core is fine, but hardly inspiring. An additional high first-round pick could bring everything together, but Dedmon and Ilyasova just make it less likely Atlanta bottoms out – without significantly increasing the odds of gratifying short-term success. Even in this Eastern Conference, it’s unlikely the Hawks sneak into the playoffs. Picking in the middle of the lottery could doom Atlanta onto the treadmill of mediocrity.

To be fair, the Hawks aren’t reliant on only their own first-round pick. They’re also owed protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves and Cavaliers. But only the Houston pick can ever land in the top 10, and it’s just top-three protected for 2018. Most likely, the Rockets win a lot next season and convey a pick in the mid-to-high 20s in the upcoming draft.

Atlanta’s own pick is, by far, the team’s most valuable mechanism for adding premier young talent. But the Hawks have downgraded the value of that pick in the name of not wanting to sink too low in the short term. That’s not a tradeoff I would have made.

Otto Porter says he’s not bothered by John Wall’s Paul George comments

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John Wall said he wanted the Wizards to acquire Paul George, explaining:

“Look at our team. We are one piece away,” Wall said. “We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward. Our 3-man, [Porter], did great for us. You can’t take nothing away from what he did. But, [George] is a guy that can guard LeBron and go back at LeBron. It’s a piece that you’re going to need to win. If you don’t have a guy who can do that, you don’t have a chance. …

You got to add another star. You got to add another piece. You got to have three guys. And that’s what it’s looking like.”

That’s kind of a slight to Otto Porter, no?

Wall said his words created no problems, but that’s not really for him to say. How did Porter feel about it?

Porter, via Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“We’re talking about Paul George here. If we could get him on our squad? We could definitely contend for a championship,” Porter said after the press conference to announce his new four-year contract worth $106.5 million on Wednesday.

“It’s just motivation. I will continue to get back into the gym. I didn’t take anything personal. I’m just going to continue to go out there and work and play my game,” Porter said.

George is better than Porter. That’s just a fact. So, I have no problem with anyone saying so or proceeding based on that truth.

But I’m also not Porter.

I would completely understand Porter chafing at Wall recruiting George to replace Porter. I’d definitely understand Porter chafing at Wall talking publicly about recruiting George to replace Porter.

Porter so easily moving past this just speaks to his way of quietly contributing. It also doesn’t hurt that the Wizards will pay him about $107 million over the next four years. That buys some willingness to fall in line.

LeBron James denies wanting to fight Kyrie Irving, eagerness for Cavaliers to trade guard

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According to one report, LeBron James wants to fight Kyrie Irving. According to another, LeBron is eager for the Cavaliers to trade Irving.

According to LeBron…

So, maybe there’s a chance LeBron and Irving can reconcile. It’s not too late until a deal is completed.

But it seems Cleveland is moving toward trading Irving, so the clock is ticking.

LeBron might not be inclined to persuade Irving to drop his trade request, anyway. It really seems LeBron wants to stay out of this – or at least give the impression he’s staying out of this. LeBron denying bitterness toward Irving is one thing. LeBron connecting with a teammate who has cited problems with him as a reason for leaving is another.