ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: There were high expectations with James Harden and Dwight Howard being paired in Houston, and the Rockets were good, but not great. Which felt like a first step or a disappointment, depending on your point of view. Make no mistake, the Rockets were a good team — 54 wins, which tied them for the four seed in the West — but the team never really seemed to form an identity. While statistically Harden and Howard were good together (+9.3 per 100 possessions when on the court together) they seemed more to play next to each other than with each other. This all came to a head when the Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers in about the most painful way possible. Again, the Rockets had a good team and a good season, but they need to hope it’s a first step.

Signature highlight from last season: There were some James Harden game winners and great blocks by Dwight Howard, but was there any play more fun than Patrick Beverley dunking on Chris Bosh’s head?

Key player changes: It was almost a monster off-season for the Rockets, GM Daryl Morey was going to move them into contender status by grabbing Chris Bosh out of Miami to make his own big three. And he came thisclose. But then Bosh took the big payday to stay put and all the moves Morey had made to clear out cap space became holes.

Gone is some key depth: Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, as well as Omri Casspi and Jordan Hamilton.

In their place comes Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, rookies Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, Ish Smith, Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, and Kostas Papanikolaou.

Keys to the Rockets season:

Depth behind their stars. James Harden and Dwight Howard are elite players, but that alone doesn’t win you games, especially come the playoffs. The Rockets lost quality role players this summer and some lesser known guys are going to have to really step up for the Rockets to even match last season’s success. Trevor Ariza got paid after a big season in Washington, can he put up similar numbers again? Donatas Motiejunas has to take on a bigger front court role. Jason Terry needs to show he still has some game left. And so on down the line, the Rockets need to find depth and rotations that can work when Harden and Howard sit.

Can they improve defensively? The Rockets offense was top five in the league last season, they put up plenty of points (although Howard/Harden need to reduce their turnovers), but their defense was pedestrian. They were 12th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Their defense didn’t really improve last season over the season before despite bringing in Howard to patrol the paint and glass. (Howard isn’t as explosive as he was back in Orlando but he’s still a very good rim protector.) They have Patrick Beverley out top, and Ariza should be a defensive upgrade over Parsons. Harden is Harden but says he’s going to work on being more focused on defense. This needs to be a team thing, not just one guy, and the scheme needs to fit the personnel. The bottom line is this is the end of the floor where improvement needs to happen.

Is Kevin McHale coaching for his job? This question circled around the Rockets during last season and this summer: Is Kevin McHale the right coach for this team? McHale is very well liked around the NBA and has done a good job as coach in Houston (they won 54 games last season, made the playoffs the year before when they probably shouldn’t have) but there are questions about his game planning and fit with this roster. Particularly the question is can he coach this team up defensively. Expectations are high and if this team doesn’t take a step forward this coming season there will be changes and coach is the most likely option (especially since this is the last year of McHale’s deal). Remember Howard can opt out in the summer of 2016 so the Rockets don’t want to take a step back, if they do they might give Howard a chance to have a say in picking a coach (something Howard didn’t feel he got in Los Angeles).

Why you should watch the Rockets: James Harden has taken a lot of criticism the past year, but the fact is he remains one of the best and most efficient scorers in the league. The man isn’t just a beard, he’s a legit No. 1 offensive option in this league and just fun to watch play.

Prediction: 50-32, which is still good but in the West nets you more like the 7 seed, which will net the Rockets another first round playoff exit. (That is unless Morey makes a big in season trade, however in season deals are a dying breed.) The expectations remain high around the Rockets and it’s hard to see how they meet them. Which means we could see far more changes next summer (and McHale back calling games for TNT).

LeBron James on 2011 NBA Finals: ‘I lost my love for the game’

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LeBron James became a villain by leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat on The Decision in 2010. He arrived in Miami promising “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships.

By the end of his first season with the Heat, he was beaten down. The Mavericks topped Miami in the NBA Finals, winning the last three games of the series. While Miami blew its 2-1 lead, LeBron averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 turnovers per game. He shot 2-for-12 on 3-pointers and 4-for-10 on free throws.

After Game 6, he callously mocked his critics:

“All the people that were rooting for me to fail… at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that (they had) before they woke up today,” James said. “They got the same personal problems they had today. And I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do.”

ESPN:

LeBron emerged from his funk and led the Heat to consecutive titles. He returned to Cleveland and won another title there. He’s now with the Lakers leading another championship pursuit.

He plays well. He plays smartly. He plays with joy. He often rises to the biggest occasions.

LeBron probably had to go through a setback like the 2011 Finals to sharpen his mental edge. But it’s incredible how far he has come from the defeated player who left that series against Dallas.

Tristan Thompson on Cavaliers anonymously griping about John Beilein: ‘Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now’

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The Athletic – quoting at least three unnamed players – reported the Cavaliers are rebelling against John Beilein’s collegiate coaching style.

Cleveland big Tristan Thompson, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now,” Thompson said. “You can’t do that s—.

“At the end of the day if you’re going to build a culture and a family, you can’t have that Chatty Patty s— going on. That s— is whack to me. Everyone’s got to look in the mirror, there’s only so much coach can do and there’s only so much we can do. Do we have the best roster in the NBA? No. But we’re going to go out there and compete every night. Guys got to look in the mirror. So I hope whoever reported that was just bulls——g and blamed it on a player.”

That’s quite the rhetoric from Thompson. I wonder whether he has the same energy in the locker room.

Thompson confronting his teammates would certainly raise the stakes. And make no mistake: His teammates are among the unnamed sources. The report not only specifically cited players, it said “Veterans and younger players, from all corners of the roster” are having issues with Beilein.

Even if he supports his coach, that’s a lot for Thompson to take on.

But if he’s looking for a place to start, I have a guess.

Report: Raptors president Masai Ujiri would be intrigued by Knicks

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The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Would he actually leave Toronto?

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Sources also say Ujiri would be intrigued by the challenge of fixing the Knicks, the chance to build something from scratch and, not insignificantly, by the opportunity to elevate his Giants of Africa philanthropy by working in the New York market.

Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has.

Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources

There’s no good reason to believe one reporter’s unnamed sources over another reporter’s unnamed sources in this case. Maybe the Raptors offered an extension. Maybe they didn’t.

Without knowing the terms, it doesn’t matter much for predicting Ujiri’s future, anyway. If it were truly a “lucrative” offer, that’d indicate Ujiri values flexibility more than staying in Toronto. But if it were a lower offer considering how much time is left on his current deal, that could mean Ujiri is just trying to negotiate more from the Raptors.

Still, even Grange wrote extensively on way Ujiri might go to New York. There’s smoke here.

The upside of running the Knicks is higher than the upside of running the Raptors. That’s just the reality of market, ownership spending and team prestige.

The Knicks also have owner James Dolan and all the complications he brings. He will be New York’s biggest obstacle in any attempt to lure Ujiri. Past dismissive comments can easily get written off to Ujiri having a competitive streak. Dolan – particularly his temperament and insistence on keeping unproductive employees around – is the real challenge.

Ujiri has a good thing going in Toronto. I doubt he’s rushing to leave. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least willing to hear out the Knicks.

It’s not Showtime 2, but Lakers fast break surprising, running past teams

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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers ran past the Timberwolves.

Literally.

The Lakers got their first bucket when Anthony Davis got a rebound, pushed the ball up the court himself, and went coast-to-coast for an and-1 lay-up. Soon after LeBron James was throwing look-aheads to a sprinting Davis.

Los Angeles had 17 fast-break points in the first quarter, on their way to 32 for the game. The Lakers kept getting easy buckets in transition, which kept a feisty Timberwolves team in the rear-view mirror.

That happens a lot. Talk to opposing the coaches about the Lakers and you hear about their length defensively, the activity of their big men, and how the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll leaves defenders with impossible choices.

The fast break points sneak up on teams. These Lakers are not the second coming of Showtime, but the break has become a vital weapon for them.

“The transition game over the past couple of weeks has really picked up,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.

Los Angeles averages 18.4 fast break points per game, third most in the NBA, but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. The Lakers add as many points per game on transition plays as any team in the league, looking at the advanced stats at Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time in its numbers). The Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eight highest percentage in the league, and they have a ridiculous 130.8 offensive rating when they do get out and run, third best in the NBA.

Maybe more importantly, the players love it. They want to run. Vogel praised Davis’ “old school, smash mouth” 50 points against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, but he did that in part by rim-running hard in transition and getting some easy dunks early.

“For me, I like to get out and run, get some easy buckets first, especially on the break get a lob or a lay-up, see the ball go through the basket and go from there,” Davis said of those early transition buckets Sunday.

Transition points have to start with a stop and a rebound, which has been the focal point of Vogel and the coaching staff. Once the break starts it’s much more straightforward —get LeBron the rock and just run.

“Prior to the Denver game (Dec. 3), we had not been rebounding the basketball very well,” Vogel said. “With a strong message delivered that we’re not going to reach our potential if we continue to be poor on the glass and rely on our athleticism to rebound rather than really committing to hitting people — and if we secure the rebound and hold people to one shot — then we’re dealing with live rebounds and we’re able to run.

“We always encourage our guys to run their patterns. LeBron James, he’s just unbelievable with his throw aheads. He’s putting the ball on target in narrow spaces and getting guys easy lay-ups.

“So I think it starts on the defensive end with the defensive glass and then LeBron running the action.”

Those easy transition buckets make it much harder to beat the Lakers and are a key reason they are a West-leading 21-3. Los Angeles is difficult to score against with all its length, and it has the sixth best defense in the NBA. Against teams like that, giving up easy transition buckets almost guarantees a loss. Teams can’t make up the ground.

Which sounds a lot like the Showtime Lakers.

This year’s Lakers’ edition may not be Magic to Worthy for the tomahawk dunk, but it’s closer to it than the Lakers have been in a long time. Even if it’s not what people notice first.

Keep the pace up and these Lakers may be able to run their way to some of the success — and the rings — of those Showtime Lakers.