Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

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We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

NBA policy change kept Draymond Green off All-NBA first team, Paul Millsap off third team

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 01:  Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks tries to steal the ball from Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 1, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Draymond Green received 431 points in All-NBA voting.

DeAndre Jordan received 317.

Yet, Jordan made the first team while Jordan made the second team.

Why?

The NBA explained in its official release:

Players who received votes at multiple positions were slotted at the position where they received the most votes.

Green got 85 votes at forward and 39 at center, so he was eligible only at forward. Jordan got all 89 of his votes at center.

That’s perfectly reasonable, but it wasn’t always this way.

The NBA changed its rules last offseason after 2015 voting concluded, according to league spokesman Tim Frank. Instead of sliding players to a position they rarely played if they got any votes there, players are now eligible at only the position where they received the most votes (though voters can still mostly slot players where they deem appropriate on individual ballots). An increase in multi-position players sparked the new policy.

And, fundamentally, it’s good switch. The league should have a clear policy and stick with it rather than trying to interpret the line on a case-by-case basis.

Sure, there’s room for quibbling. Is 50% the right threshold rather than, say, 30% Would basing it on points rather than votes work better? Will all forward/centers get tilted toward forward because there are twice as many All-NBA slots at forward than at center?

But, more than anything, a clear and fair policy – and this is both – is better than no set policy.

This is also a noteworthy policy, because it had a clear effect this year.

If Green were the first-team center, Paul George would’ve made the second team at forward and Paul Millsap would’ve been a third-team forward. (Thankfully, Millsap finished ahead of Anthony Davis – who played both power forward and center, got more votes at forward and could’ve made about $25 million more over the next five years due to the Derrick Rose rule – or else this would’ve been a much bigger can of worms). Jordan would’ve been the second-team center, DeMarcus Cousins third-team and Andre Drummond bumped.

On the flip side, adopting the current rule sooner would’ve changed some results from the last couple years.

Cousins was an All-NBA second-team forward last year despite getting more votes at center, and Pau Gasol was the All-NBA second-team center despite getting more votes at forward – which obviously means the net effect is nil.

A more significant position bend came with the 2014 All-Defensive team. Andre Iguodala was a first-team guard despite getting more votes at forward. Holding him at forward would’ve sent him to the second team and bumped Kawhi Leonard. Patrick Beverley would’ve gone to the first team and Tony Allen to the second team at guard.

Report: Rockets hiring Mike D’Antoni

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a score against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on April 29, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. The spurs would win the game 92-87 and the series 4-1.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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James Harden reportedly had a role in picking the Rockets’ head coach.

So, of course they hired someone who’s not particularly interested in defense.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

D’Antoni can be an excellent coach if he has a roster that fits his up-tempo spread style, and a defensive coordinator would also help (Sorry, James). If Houston is committed to surrounding D’Antoni with the requisite resources, this could be a strong hire. On the bright side, this roster is ripe for turnover – notably Dwight Howard, who clashed with D’Antoni on the Lakers.

Most of all, the Rockets just needed a fresh start after last season’s stinker. They were bound to get that no matter whom they hired.

It’ll be on D’Antoni to prove he can provide more of a bump than any viable coach would’ve.

At minimum, though, Houston should be more exciting.

All-NBA teams announced, and Anthony Davis loses $24 million

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans dunks the ball over Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 14, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA has released the list of players selected to the three All-NBA teams, and most of them are the people you’d expect to make it. But two players are affected by the voting in very different ways: Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.

Here are the selections:

FIRST TEAM ALL-NBA

SECOND TEAM ALL-NBA

THIRD TEAM ALL-NBA

These selections are fine. There are areas where it’s possible to quibble (is DeMarcus Cousins worthy despite not being on a playoff team? Should Kyle Lowry and Damian Lillard switch spots?) But the voters largely got it right and honored the right group of players.

The much more interesting dynamic is how the voting affects the contracts of Lillard and Davis, who were both Rose rule candidates. The so-called “Derrick Rose” rule, put in place in the 2011 CBA, allows players signed to a five-year “designated player” extension to earn a larger percentage of the cap and higher annual raises if they either a) win MVP, b) get voted as a starter to two All-Star teams, or c) make two All-NBA teams during their rookie contract.

Davis and Lillard both signed five-year max extensions last summer. Davis made first team All-NBA last season, so he would have been eligible for the Rose rule if he had made a team this year. But he fell short in an injury-plagued season in which the Pelicans missed the playoffs. His extension will now be worth around $120 million over the five years, instead of $145 million.

Lillard, meanwhile, made third team All-NBA last season, so his second-team selection this year secures an extra $24 million over the course of his extension. This won’t matter much for the Blazers, who are so far under the salary cap that they can sign pretty much anybody they want, but Lillard has to be happy with the recognition after he was infamously left off the Western Conference All-Star team this season.

Magic will look to make a splash in free agency this summer

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 31: Elfrid Payton #4 of the Orlando Magic dribbles the ball during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 31, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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This is going to be a big summer for the Orlando Magic. They’ve been rebuilding for the past four years, since the Dwight Howard trade in 2012, and have amassed a promising collection of young talent including Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon. They just hired a coach, Frank Vogel, with a proven track record of success in the playoffs. Now, they want to take the next step in the rebuilding process and get back into the playoffs. With as much as $46 million in cap room, CEO Alex Martins told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel that he wants to make a splash in free agency and add some veterans to surround their prospects.

Why the sudden openness for the notoriously tight-lipped Magic?

“Because that’s what we need at this point in time to take the next step,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “Secondly, this has been a plan, this has been a process. The first part of the plan and the process is to develop your own [players] and grow your own [players]. And when you inject veterans at the wrong period of time, it has an impact in the way that you’re trying to develop your corps of young players. It can’t just happen immediately. It’s got to happen at a certain point in time — after your players have matured and developed.

“And we always believed that this summer and next summer were going to be the two summers of free agency for us that we needed to focus on after developing our young guys.”

The Magic aren’t traditionally a destination franchise for big-name free agents, the exception being the summer of 2000 when they landed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. But they made a big offer last summer to Paul Millsap (who decided to stay in Atlanta), and are expected to make a run this summer at Millsap’s teammate, Al Horford. Horford played college basketball at the University of Florida, so he has ties to the area, as does Chandler Parsons. Whether or not they land any of these names, their combination of location (Florida has no state income tax), young talent and a well-respected coach should get them into the conversation this summer.