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Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

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Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.

Kelly Oubre: Raptors’ Delon Wright ‘doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home’

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Delon Wright made some big plays down the stretch to help the Raptors to a Game 5 win over the Wizards last night. With Toronto up 3-2 in the first-round series and the home team winning the first five games, Game 6 is tomorrow in Washington.

Oubre, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home,” Oubre said, sharing inspiration coupled with a touch of an insult. “You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.”

Wright decided not to escalate the conflict when reporters asked him about it.

Wright has been much better in Toronto than Washington in this series. His average game score is 14.7 at home and 5.7 on the road.

But that’s such a small sample. During the regular season, there wasn’t nearly such a big split between Wright’s average game score at home (8.4) and on the road (6.9).

For what it’s worth, Oubre has a somewhat similar home-road average-game-score split, both in this series (9.4 at home, 6.3 on the road) and during the regular season (8.1 at home, 7.5 on the road). Which Oubre basically acknowledged in his diss of Wright/self-own.

This is pretty typical Oubre – hyper-competitive verging on out of control. It’s fun regardless.

Let’s just say he’s right, though, and the Wizards win Game 6. Game 7 would be Sunday in Toronto, where, by Oubre’s own admission, Wright plays well and the Raptors are undefeated in the postseason. Then what?

Rumor: Bulls expected to wait until 2019 for free-agency splash

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The Bulls tanked so hard this year, the NBA warned them to cut it out. It was a rare instance of the league responding to actual tanking measures rather than just talk of preferring to lose.

Bulls executive John Paxson, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We did this year what we felt was in the longterm best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again; it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in; but it’s the way the system is set up.”

Chicago could try to turn around quickly. The Bulls project to have about $25 million in cap space this summer – enough to land a good player or two.

Mark Schanowski of NBC Sports Chicago:

The assumption in league circles is the Bulls will wait until 2019 to make their big move when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving could be on the market, and might consider signing with the Bulls after watching another year of development from LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

This is the wise course. It’s unlikely Chicago can lure anyone good enough to lift such a young core quickly. The Bulls are better off remaining patient – and bad, which will net another high draft pick as Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn develop.

This is also probably the course thrust upon Chicago. Even if they wanted to, the Bulls probably can’t land a premier free agent this summer. Star free agents can see the same problems with Chicago trying for a quick fix and will likely avoid the situation.

There’d be no harm in trying for top free agents like LeBron James or even Paul George. But the Bulls will probably be relegated to 2019 if they want to sign someone meaningful. Better they realize that than make a desperate attempt for relevance this year.

Rich Cho on Trail Blazers getting swept: ‘Being a previous Portland GM, that didn’t disappoint me’

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In 2011, the Trail Blazers surprisingly fired Rich Cho after only season as general manager.

Cho – since hired and fired by the Hornets – seems to be holding a grudge.

John Canzano of The Oregonian:

That’s a sentiment many people hold toward their former employer. Few say so publicly. That Cho did indicates just how strongly he feels.

Under owner Paul Allen, the Trail Blazers have run through numerous executives. It’s part of the culture in Portland, and it leaves a lot of outgoing people bitter.

Current general manager Neil Olshey ought to be mindful of that.

Josh Allen’s old tweet: ‘I hate LeBron!!!!! #LeBronSucks’

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Josh Allen, a quarterback from Wyoming, could be the No. 1 pick in tonight’s NFL draft. But his recently unearthed high school tweets – which include using the n-word with an ‘a’ at the end – are the sports story of the day.

And there’s an NBA tie.

Via Ryan Young of Yahoo Sports:

I hate LeBron!!!!! #LeBronSucks

— Josh Allen (@JoshAllenQB) June 7, 2011

Damian Lillard went down this same road with LeBron James, and they got past it.

But it would be a little more awkward if the Cleveland Browns – who have the Nos. 1 and 4 picks – take Allen. Then, Allen will face more scrutiny over this tweet – the most innocuous of the bunch.