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.

Rockets’ Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green suspended two games for charging into Clippers’ locker room

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The Clippers-Rockets game on Monday was wild from start to finish past finish. Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green, James Harden and Chris Paul reportedly went through a back hallway to the Clippers locker room to confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin after the game.

NBA release:

Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza and guard Gerald Green have each been suspended two games without pay for entering the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room to confront a player from the opposing team, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident occurred following the Clippers’ 113-102 win over the Rockets on Jan. 15 at Staples Center.  During the league’s investigation, which included more than 20 interviews with executives, staff, coaches and players from both teams, as well as arena personnel, it was determined that Ariza and Green entered the Clippers’ locker room immediately after the game and engaged in a hostile, verbal altercation with several Clippers players.  The league’s investigation further concluded that Rockets players, James Harden and Chris Paul, followed Ariza and Green into the corridor outside the locker room in an effort to defuse the situation, and accordingly, discipline is not warranted.

It’s difficult to unsort exactly what happened away from the court. I don’t envy the NBA’s job here, nor do I blindly trust that the biggest stars should escape punishment.

Ariza and Green will miss games against the Timberwolves on Thursday and Warriors on Saturday. Paul and Harden (if healthy) will be eligible to play in both nationally televised contests.

I’m just surprised Griffin didn’t receive additional penalty for striking Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni:

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Anthony Davis

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The New Orleans Pelicans look every bit the playoff team right now — at 23-20 they are the farthest they have been over .500 and fivethirtyeight.com lists them with an 82 percent chance to make the playoffs.

They wouldn’t be there without Anthony Davis, who has been brilliant all season but has turned it up in the past week, and that got him the NBC ProBasketballTalk Player of the Week award. In his last three games, Davis has averaged 43 points on 56.3% shooting, plus 14 rebounds a game, and the team. More importantly, the Pelicans have won every game, including knocking off Boston behind his 45 points a couple of days after he dropped 48 at Madison Square Garden.

Just to be clear on one other thing, the Pelicans are not trading Davis anytime soon. Because they’re not stupid.

Paul Pierce says he told Celtics not to show Isaiah Thomas tribute video

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Isaiah Thomas announced he was withdrawing his request for the Celtics to play a tribute for him Feb. 11, the same night Boston will retire Paul Pierce’s number.

That was a nice gesture that ended a dispute started by Pierce, who said he preferred not to share his night with Thomas. It made Thomas look magnanimous, and it prevented Pierce – even if he had a fair point – from continuing an unbecoming campaign that made him look petty.

Except, before Thomas’ announcement, Pierce revealed just how far he went to stop Thomas’ video.

Pierce, via Jackie MacMullan and Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

“Danny and I talked about it for 40 minutes,” Pierce explained to ESPN early Tuesday afternoon. “He told me, ‘This is what we have planned,’ and at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘If you don’t want us to do Isaiah, we won’t.’ So I told him, ‘I really don’t.’ So that was it.

“That’s how we left it.”

“(Thomas) had a shot to be honored,” Pierce said. “You came to Boston. Whether you are playing or not, you should have had your tribute then. I just don’t see how, if someone is having a jersey retirement, they’re going to be running other tributes for other players.

“Danny tried to sell me on it, but I told him, ‘He had a shot, Danny, and he punked you on it. He pretty much dictated everything.’ They let it happen because they felt sorry how (the trade to Cleveland) went down. It’s guilt. That’s what it is.”

Ainge said Tuesday night that Thomas intended all along to bow out of the video tribute once he learned of Pierce’s reservations.

If only Pierce kept quiet publicly a little longer, he could have avoided looking even pettier. Yet, he revealed his conversation with Celtics president Danny Ainge, so he we are.

That probably won’t matter to those close to Pierce, though. Though Rajon Rondo was most blunt, he wasn’t the only member of the Celtics’ 2008 title team to take Pierce’s side.

Tony Allen, via Jay King of MassLive:

“Yeah, I’m with Pierce, man. He didn’t put in more work than Pierce. Anybody disagree? OK. Paul Pierce put in big work, man. Why would they honor him on that same day, man?”

Kevin Garnett, as relayed by Pierce to ESPN:

“Everyone understood where I was coming from,” Pierce said. “KG was like, ‘Isaiah who? Hell no, you’re damn right you’re not sharing your night with him.'”

Was there nobody to in Pierce’s life to tell him just to let Thomas have his short video during pregame introductions?

Pierce got his wish. He just looks even pettier as a result.

Tension between players, referees about communication more than calls

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Tensions between NBA players and referees are at a higher level than seen in decades.

Players are frustrated — they feel the calls are inconsistent, and if they try to talk to a referee about it they get a technical fast. And technicals have come fast — D’Angelo Russell got one for applauding a call from the bench the other night. LeBron James was ejected for the first time ever this season. Draymond Green already has 11 technicals this season, not to mention getting fined for complaining about the officiating and saying it’s personal (something Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins have echoed). A referee even headbutted a player this season.

However, this is a two-way street — players seem to complain about virtually every call. Watch a game, and on how many drives to the basket does the shooter or defender throw their arms in the air and say something to the ref about the call/no call. How do you expect the referees to react? Officials feel players are disrespectful, and they are just trying to keep control of the game.

Sam Amick of the USA Today did a great job talking to representatives of both sides for a story.

“The No. 1 issue on their minds is officiating. And it’s only gotten worse over the years, (and) probably now is about as hot as it has been,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association since 2014, told USA TODAY Sports….

“Players are intense and frustrated, and that’s to be expected,” Mark Denesuk, spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the referees expect a certain amount of it, but I think there’s just been a decline in civility, a decline in respect, an increase in aggression.”

“I just really think that to the extent that there are officials who adopt that absolute ‘I’m not going to comment (with players during game action)’ rule, they should reconsider that,” Roberts said. “That drives my members fairly batty, too, because guys don’t think talking to the ref is necessarily going to change the call but they want to be able to say, ‘Ref, hey maybe you didn’t see it, but he hit me here, or he touched me there.’”

The players want to be able to lobby for future calls. They want an open line of communication. Carmelo Anthony said as much recently.

“The game has changed a lot since I came in 15 years ago, the players and the officials had that dialogue, whether it was good or whether it was bad, there was always a point where they would let you get a little steam off, and then would come to you and say that’s enough, let’s move on. And now, the trigger is too quick. You look at somebody wrong, you get a technical foul. You say one wrong thing, you get a technical foul. So I think that’s the difference from when I came in, the dialogue and communication and the relationship the players and officials [had] when I first came in and from now is a lot different.”

Those lines of communication need to be opened up again. Referees have to listen to players, and players need to be more respectful and less demonstrative when talking to an official.

It’s also easy to say that writing a story, or from the NBA offices in Manhattan, but when the players are emotional during a game (as they should be) calm conversations are harder to come by.

Hopefully, some of this can be worked out when the representatives of the players’ union and referee’s union sit down All-Star Weekend to talk. The NBA promoted long-time official Monty McCutchen — one of the better communicators among officials — to help move the league in this direction.

Hopefully, all this works, because the tensions are really starting to impact the game.