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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.

NBA Power Rankings: Can Rockets, Raptors carry impressive seasons into playoffs?

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The final power rankings come out on the final day of the season. There are no real surprises at the top, and the comments on these rankings are as much a look forward for teams as a look back at the season that was.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (65-16, Last Week No. 1). This season went as well as could have been imagined for Houston: James Harden is going to win MVP, he and Chris Paul meshed well from Day 1, and their switching defense proved to be top 10 in the league. The Rockets proved to be legitimate title contenders. They went 41-3 in games Harden, Paul and Clint Caplela all played. Their big test comes in about a month when the Western Conference Finals start — they had better be in it, and then we’ll see how they match up with Golden State.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (59-22, LW 2). Like Houston, this was as good a regular season as Toronto could have hoped for: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan stayed healthy all season and led a more egalitarian offense that moved the ball well, plus they finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. Toronto is the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in its history. None of that has fully eased the playoff doubts — the Raptors have never won their first playoff game (0-9) and will face a tough test (probably from Washington, although Miami or Milwaukee could still be the 8 seed).

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (58-24 LW 3). Time to flip the switch. Due to injuries and a knowledge that they both know where the switch is and can turn it on, the Warriors have coasted through the end of the season. When the Warriors four stars are all on the court the team is 31-10 during the season and remain the title favorites, but they will need to get through the first round without Stephen Curry. More importantly, they need to start defending like a champion again, that end has seen the big drop in recent weeks.

Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (51-30, LW 5). Winners of 15 in a row and with a win Wednesday night against the Bucks they keep the three seed and the easiest path through the playoffs. Keep that three seed and the path to the Eastern Conference Finals is pretty clear — if they can get Joel Embiid back soon, mask and all. They need him. Still, for a team that won 28 games games a season ago the ride this season has been nearly unprecedented.

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (50-31 LW 7). This has seemed like four seasons in one for Cleveland, with enough drama and changes to be their own reality show. Yet at the end of it all, this is a 50-win team with the best player in the game and the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East again. The one thing that can keep them out of another Finals trip is their defense — can LeBron James turn it on and lift this team’s D up to even league average? That will probably be good enough to make the Finals, but the Cavaliers enter the playoffs weighed down by bad defensive habits.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-33, LW 8). Back on Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500, five games out of the playoffs, and without Rudy Gobert. Since then they are 31-7 with a frightening defense (Rudy Gobert will win Defensive Player of the Year) and this is the team other top teams in the West wanted to avoid in the first round. With a win in Portland Wednesday night the Jazz will get the three seed, but even if they fall short of that the turnaround of this team — and the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell — has been amazing to watch.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (54-27, LW 4). Wait until next year! Brad Stevens has got my Coach of the Year vote for the job he has done leaning on Al Horford and young players (who traditionally don’t defend well) to have the top-ranked defense in the NBA for the season. Boston earned its two seed, and it’s not impossible they could win a first-round series with a little luck and a hot hand. But next season? With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back, this team may be the favorites in the East.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (48-34, LW 10). Indiana is locked in as the five seed and will face either Cleveland or Philly in the first round — the Pacers went 3-1 against the Cavs this season and 2-1 against the Sixers, so they should have some confidence. The Pacers may be the most surprising team in the league, most of us “experts” had them pegged for 30ish wins and the ability to set tee times for mid-April, instead Victor Oladipo (the lock Most Improved Player) has lifted this team to the postseason and made them a threat there.

Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). That this team won 47 games with Kawhi Leonard essentially being absent all season is a testament to Gregg Popovich and “the Spurs way.” And also LaMarcus Aldridge, who has earned an All-NBA roster spot this season (at either forward or center). That said, without Leonard this is not a team that strikes great fear in the hearts of the teams at the top of the West, the Spurs will defend but their lack of athleticism will catch up with them.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (47-34 LW 9).. We’re 81 games into the season and still asking “exactly who are the Thunder?” Down the stretch of the season the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent, both game-to-game and even within games (the win in Miami Monday was a great example, OKC toyed with Miami for much of the game, before decided to get serious and take advantage of their superior athleticism). Still, because of the elite talent on this roster, it’s a team nobody wants to face in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (48-33, LW 6). It looked like they had the three seed locked up a couple weeks ago, but they have stumbled to the finish line and now have to play the Jazz Wednesday night with the three seed on the line. Of late Portland’s offense has relied too heavily on Damian Lillard (who has been brilliant), on Wednesday night and into the playoffs C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Blazers need to pitch in more on that end.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (47-34, LW 12). When DeMarcus Cousins went down with his torn Achilles we all pretty much wrote off the Pelicans — what Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday did to get this team into the postseason is one of the great stories of the season. Davis isn’t going to win MVP (he will finish top 5 in the voting) but he has played like one the second half of the season. Reaching the postseason means GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry are likely back next season, and the Pelicans will re-sign Cousins. However, this roster still needs work to take the next step. A lot of it.

Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (46-35, LW 17).. With their backs against the wall, the Nuggets have won six in a row to force Wednesday night’s “win and you’re in” showdown with the Timberwolves. If Denver doesn’t make it, they shouldn’t look back on the final game as much as things like the March 17 loss to Memphis or the March 13 loss to the Lakers, those were the games they needed to win and didn’t take seriously enough. The sense around the league is Mike Malone’s job is not safe after a season with the league’s 27th ranked defense.

14. Timberwolves (46-35, LW 13). One game to determine if Minnesota can end the longest playoff drought in the NBA (13 seasons). No pressure guys. To win the game the Timberwolves will need what they haven’t gotten consistently all season — good defense out of Karl-Anthony Towns (matched up on Nikola Jokic) and a focused game from Andrew Wiggins. Jimmy Butler was a great pickup by GM Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Buckets has had an All-NBA level season.

Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (44-37 LW 18). Milwaukee has stumbled in the fourth quarter of games recently, not a good sign heading into the postseason. However, with a loss to the Sixers on Wednesday night the Bucks will be the coveted seven seed in the East and face off in the first round against the banged-up Celtics — with Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee will have the best player on the court in that series and a legit shot to win it. Would that be enough to get Joe Prunty the head coaching job full time? With this ownership, hard to say.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (43-38, LW 16). Miami is an interesting team to watch come the playoffs because of their style of play: This is not a “get the ball to our superstar and get out of the way” offense. Rather, they wear teams down with multiple pick-and-roll actions on each trip down the court, they rely on five versatile players, and once the defense slips up Miami makes them pay. But what happens when it’s the postseason and the defense is dialed in and not making those mistakes (or at least not as often)? The Heat have the defense to hang in a series, but do they have the offense to win one?

Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (43-38, LW 15). On paper, this team should scare Toronto or whoever they face in the first round. In reality, the Wizards dropped four in a row before beating a Celtics team Tuesday comprised of guys Brad Stevens had to pluck out of the front row due to injuries sidelining everyone else. Washington is 3-8 in its last 11, with a bottom 10 offense and defense over that stretch. John Wall is back, Bradley Beal can knock down shots, I love Otto Porter’s game, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts right now in Washington. Do you want to bet this team can flip the switch?

Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (42-39 LW 14). It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Los Angeles. Will DeAndre Jordan opt out of his $24.1 million contract to test a tight free agent market (and get out of L.A.) or does he take the cash and wait a year to try his luck? If he does opt out, will the Clippers try to re-sign him or let him go and start a rebuild? Is Doc Rivers back next season (the buzz around the league is no)? If the Clippers do decide to rebuild, what can they get for Lou Williams? L.A. would love to move Danilo Gallinari’s contract, but they will balk at the sweeteners other teams will want to take him on. This ship could sail a lot of different directions this offseason.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (38-43, LW 19). The sense from sources around the league is that Stan Van Gundy is going to lose is GM powers — with former agent Arn Tellem stepping in as head of basketball operations — but will he be back as coach? Whoever is sitting in the big chair, if the Pistons can keep Blake Griffin, the much improved Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson healthy for a majority of the season they should be a playoff team. But that feels like a very big “if.”

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (36-46, LW 20). Mitch Kupchak is in as the new GM in Charlotte, and at his introductory press conference he kept his cards close to his chest (note to Charlotte media, get used to that). Kupchak and Michael Jordan need to decide the big picture question here: Can they put together a consistent playoff team around Kemba Walker, or is it time to trade him and start a rebuild? Either way, is Steve Clifford a part of that future? (Clifford got a relationship with Kupchak, but if the new GM wants to shake things up that will not be enough.) On the bright side, Dwight Howard had a solid season for the Hornets and looked rejuvenated.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (34-47 LW 21). Going into the season, a reasonable goal for this team was the mid-30s in wins, with their young core — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle — showing real signs of development. By that measure, this was a good Lakers’ season. This team defended better than expected, and the offense showed flashes. It’s something to build on, no matter who they land or don’t land in free agency this summer.

Nets small icon 22. Nets (28-53, LW 25). It’s going to be a long, slow rebuilding process in Brooklyn, but as they start to dig out from the ruins of the “we have to build a contender right now” trades of the past, they are finding some keepers. Rookie center Jarrett Allen showed real promise the second half of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie is a rotation NBA point guard who can be part of the future. Coach Kenny Atkinson is building a strong culture there. The big off-season question in Brooklyn: What to do about D’Angelo Russell.

Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (28-53, LW 22). Nobody around the league expects Jeff Hornacek to keep his job as coach, the only question is do they fire him before the weekend? Oh, and who replaces him? The Knicks are a big market, but a team with big expectations, not the most consistent owner, and star Kristaps Porzingis is expected to miss about half of next season returning from a torn ACL. This coaching job has its challenges. On the bright side this season, Tim Hardaway Jr. played well, and rookie Frank Ntilikina showed flashes to build upon.

Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (24-58 LW 23). Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more tour of duty, and the celebration of the greatest Maverick ever (and the greatest European player in NBA history) will provide some cover as Dallas continues its rebuild. Dennis Smith Jr. showed off all that athleticism but also looked like a rookie and needs to get far more efficient with his shot and decision making. Dallas will have another top 10 pick to put next to him and Harrison Barnes.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (26-55, LW 24). Sacramento played their youth a lot and quietly, De’Aaron Fox showed real promise as the season went on, and the combination of Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic provides some good shooting on the perimeter to open up space. That said, the Kings don’t take good advantage of all that — they play too slow and take too few threes. Next season they need to open the offense up and let their young athletes — plus whoever they draft — shine.

Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (27-54 LW 27).. The Bulls finally went all in on the rebuild and they found real quality in big man Lauri Markkanen, he can be a key part of the future in Chicago. I’m still not as high on Kris Dunn as Bulls fans, but he looks like a rotation player who can bring some defense. The big off-season question is Zach LaVine, who is coming off an injury and is a restricted free agent. In a tight market, is some team going to come in big and try to steal him? How much would the Bulls pay to match and keep him? It’s going to be an interesting game of poker in the Windy City.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (24-58, LW 28). John Collins was the most efficient rookie out there (Ben Simmons could make a good case, too) and whatever is rebuilt in Atlanta he will be a part of it. Taurean Prince is now a legit “3&D” guy on the wing, those are hard to come by. There is still a lot of rebuilding to do in Atlanta, but they have a couple of quality young players now and can add to that in this draft.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (24-57, LW 26). Frank Vogel is going to be let go as coach (he should land on his feet somewhere) and the Magic’s new front office has to bring in someone who knows how to develop talent such as Jonathan Isaac and build up a young roster. Then that front office needs to go get a lot more young talent. The problem is they are locked into paying Bismarck Biyombo $17 million next season, hurting their cap space. Expect a lot of Nikola Vucevic trade rumors this summer (solid center on an expiring contract). The Mario HJezonja era in Orlando is going to end this summer.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (22-59, LW 29). Injuries were a big part of it, but there was no more disappointing team in the NBA than Memphis this season. With the ownership situation settled, expect the status quo next season (including coach J.B. Bickerstaff being back) — and with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, plus a high draft pick next to them Memphis should be back at least fighting for a playoff slot next season. (The Grizzlies might be the best fit for Luka Doncic, but do they want him? Depends in part on how the lottery gods treat them.)

Suns small icon 30. Suns (21-61, LW 30). The Suns tanking worked, they will head into the lottery with the best shot at the No. 1 pick. The first big question of the offseason is who will be the next coach of this team? (Expect them to reach out to Villanova’s Jay Wright, expect him to say no.) That coach has to develop talent well — rookie Josh Jackson showed improvement but has a long ways to go. The Elfrid Payton experiment did not work, and both Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were disappointments. The front office has work to do to put better talent around Devin Booker.

PBT Awards: Sixth Man of the Year

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Kurt Helin

1. Lou Williams, Clippers

2. Eric Gordon, Rockets

3. Will Barton, Nuggets

This was one of the gimmes — Lou Williams ran away with this award, averaging 22.6 points per game and picking up a lot of offensive slack in Los Angeles with Chris Paul gone then Blake Griffin getting traded. Gordon was fantastic once he got healthy. Will Barton quietly has averaged 15.5 points per game in Denver, knocking down threes and providing some offensive spark (plus closing some games). It was hard to leave out Fred VanVleet, who was fantastic for the Raptors league-best bench.

Dan Feldman

1. Lou Williams, Clippers

2. Kelly Olynyk, Heat

3. Will Barton, Nuggets

Backups, even in name only, rarely rise to the level of borderline All-Star. But Lou Williams did, so he’s the runaway winner here. Kelly Olynyk quietly had a very strong year in Miami, honing his all-around game. Will Barton – who provided Denver with much-needed perimeter playmaking – edged Fred VanVleet (leader or the Raptors’ potent bench) and Eric Gordon for the final spot.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry headline Team USA player pool for 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics

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Carmelo Anthony capped his distinguished Olympic career in the 2016 Games by winning his third gold medal with Team USA.

Now, it’s time for the next generation of Americans to take over.

Gregg Popovich will succeed Mike Krzyzewski as coach, but the players could look similar to previous international competitions.

USA Basketball released its player pool for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics, and it features plenty of familiar faces – just not Anthony:

This list includes nearly every very good American basketball player, but USA Basketball isn’t bound to follow it. These players are invited to a mini-camp this July, and that will give them a leg up. But if someone outside this 35-man list emerges as worthy of a World Cup or Olympic roster spot, he’ll get consideration.

The two notable snubs: LaMarcus Aldridge and Otto Porter.

Aldridge will be 36 by the 2019 World Cup and probably too far past his prim to deserve a roster spot. But Paul is even older and got invited. This could have something to do with Aldridge repeatedly withdrawing previously.

Porter is just 24, and his 3-and-D game could mesh extremely well with a team of stars. Apparently, he remains underrated.

Chris Paul says he threw up while processing trade from Clippers to Rockets

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It’s easy to forget given how well it has gone so far, but Chris Paul took a major risk by engineering a trade from the Clippers for the Rockets.

The Clippers offered a huge contract (though not the five-year full max.) In Houston, he’s on an expiring contract.

He played on an established very good team with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in L.A. The Rockets had to adjust to a pairing between Paul and James Harden, two ball-dominant guards.

And of course there were personal considerations for Paul and his family. Moving from one city to another so far away is always a big choice.

Sarah Berger of CNBC:

The day after he was traded to Houston, Paul had a photo shoot that he struggled to get through.

“Everyone always thinks us athletes, we’ve always got it together. That’s a lie,” Paul tells CNBC Make It. “I was throwing up at the photo shoot.

“I was out there taking pictures,” Paul continues, “and I was like, ‘Give me a second.’ Boom. I ran out, threw up. Boom. Came back and acted like I had just taken a phone call. [It was] just the anxiety of knowing that there was a change that was coming.”

Paul admits he was scared. “I had been living in L.A. for the past six years. The decision that I made was not only going to affect me, but my family, my kids, everybody around me. It was a big decision.

“Who would have known it’s been one of the best things of my life.

Tyler Johnson said he threw up when he first learned the Nets would sign him to a $50 million offer sheet (which the Heat matched).

But a day later? That’s intense.