Kurt Helin

James Harden, Dwight Howard

Rockets’ Trevor Ariza tells truth: “We’re not playing hard enough”


Energy is a skill in the NBA — and one the Houston Rockets have been lacking.

The Rockets have the second-worst defense in the NBA this season. Our old friend Matt Moore laid it out brilliantly at CBS’s Eye on Basketball with these stats: The Rockets are 28th in defensive rebound percentage; 28th in allowing second-chance points; 25th in putback points per possession allowed; 25th in number of opponent field goal attempts in the restricted area per game; and 29th in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim. This is a team with Dwight Howard on it (and the numbers are a little better when he is on the floor), but the Rockets are simply getting outworked nightly on defense.

Trevor Ariza admitted as much to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

The good news for Rockets fans is that effort is correctable. While this is the kind of thing that gets coaches fired, it should be James Harden, Howard, and the other veteran locker room leaders on this team who make the change happen (by words and example).

If you’re in the camp that thinks any team based around Harden and Howard can’t ultimately succeed, you’re just nodding your head.

But this is a team that won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals last season — this team should not be this bad. Maybe they tasted success, saw the addition of Ty Lawson, and thought they could snap their fingers and make it back to that level. Complacency has destroyed many a season. Maybe it is something else in the locker room.

Whatever it is, the Rockets need to figure it out sooner or later because the elite teams in the West are not going to wait around for them.

X-rays negative, but Hawks’ Kent Bazemore out with sprained ankle

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Kent Bazemore has been a welcome surprise for the Atlanta Hawks. He stepped into DeMarre Carroll‘s slot in the starting rotation (Carroll bolted to Toronto this summer) and his raw offensive game suddenly showed more polish — he is working well off the ball, is a threat in transition, is scoring a dozen points a game and shooting 43 percent from three. His game came together, and the Hawks’ offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

Which is why they are going to miss him.

Bazemore suffered a sprained ankle near the end of the Hawks’ loss Sunday to the Jazz and had to be helped back to the locker room. Monday the Hawks confirmed the diagnosis saying that X-rays were negative, but an MRI confirmed the sprain. There is no timetable for his return, but he is not with the team as it travels to Brooklyn to take on the Nets, and he likely misses more time after this.

It’s a blow to the Hawks who are already are without point guard Jeff Teague. This means the likely starting backcourt for the Hawks for the next few games is Dennis Schroder and Thabo Sefolosha.


Ron Harper: ’95-96 Bulls would sweep today’s Warriors


With the Warriors off to an 11-0 start and the chance for a 15-0 start possible — which would tie the fastest start in NBA history, the 93-94 Rockets — there has been talk about the Warriors chasing the 72-win Bulls record. That despite the Warriors’ GM saying that is an impossible goal. That despite the fact the Warriors have only beaten one team so far with a record currently above .500 (Clippers), the toughest parts of their schedule are ahead. That despite the fact we know as the season wears on Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and other Warriors will get nights off for rest, with the team willing to potentially sacrifice games to be fresh for the playoffs.

Chasing records is all well and good, just don’t tell Ron Harper of that 95-96 record-setting Bulls team that Golden State could hang with Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

This is a fun little barstool discussion, but nothing more. Three quick thoughts.

1) I have little use for the “back in my day” arguments of former athletes in any sport. They bore me.

2) Comparing teams across eras in the NBA is nearly impossible because the defensive rules were different. When the Bulls were racking up titles you could hand check on the perimeter, which allowed you to push, grab, and clutch the guy with the ball in a way you can’t now. Defenses today have gotten more sophisticated in their help schemes to compensate for this — I’m not saying Jordan wouldn’t have had success against a Thibodeau overload style of defense, but the Bulls would have adapted to have more Warriors-like ball movement to get guys open shots.

The game evolves — if you think that the basketball of the 1990s (or 1980s or whatever era) is better than today it’s because you have an emotional attachment to that era. Which is fine, but recognize that things evolve and not always for the worse. I don’t miss NBA bench clearing brawls, or the Pat Riley Knicks defenses that dragged the game down to a halt, personally. Things change, and that’s okay.

3) Watching Scottie Pippen guard Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green on Michael Jordan, would be fun. But it exists only in the world of 2K Sports.

PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs clear top three


The top two remain the same as last week (and likely will be in and around that area much of the season), but the Spurs have become a solid third in these rankings now, despite some questions they still have to answer. Still a lot of volatility in these early rankings, just ask the Rockets.

source: 1. Warriors (11-0, last week No. 1). If you want to nitpick their perfect record, they have only played one team over .500 (the Clippers). Part of racking up great regular season record is catching teams at the right time, and the Warriors have done just that with Houston and Memphis. Stephen Curry holds the record for most threes made in a season at 286 — he’s on pace for 424 this season.

source: 2. Cavaliers (8-2, LW 2). The Cavaliers have had a lot of slow starts followed by come-from-behind wins, something that has frustrated LeBron James. What may be more frustrating with LeBron are the struggles with his jumper — it’s not just the 26.2 percent from three this season, he was 6-of-12 from the free throw line in the loss to the Bucks.

source: 3. Spurs (7-2, LW 5). While their record has been fantastic and they are beating teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, it’s more due to great bench play and Kawhi Leonard rather than the starting five. The starting five of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan are -10.7 points per 100 possessions, and they are struggling with both their shots and defense.

source: 4. Clippers (6-4, LW 6). That they split a couple games without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick on the floor is a bit of a testament to their improved depth, but mostly it’s a testament to how well Blake Griffin is playing. Big showdown Thursday night against Golden State, that will be must watch.

source: 5. Thunder (6-4 LW 11). Kevin Durant says his hamstring is much improved and it sounds like he could be back sooner rather than later. Russell Westbrook threw up a couple triple-doubles without him in the lineup (of course), but this team is still 18.6 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two are on the court together this season.

source: 6. Heat (6-3, LW 10). Miami has the second best defense in the NBA this season — didn’t see that coming, and it makes them the second best team in the East so far. We’ll see if they can sustain that level of D, they tweaked their system and they are trapping far less and the bigs are hanging back on the pick-and-roll. Three winnable games this week with Minnesota, Sacramento, and Philly.

source: 7. Raptors (7-4, LW 8). If you enjoy free throws, watch a Raptors game — they get to the line more than any other team in the league (which is a good way to get points, even if it’s not always thrilling to watch). Tough West Coast road trip this week with the Warriors, Jazz, and Clippers scheduled.

source: 8. Hawks (8-4, LW 3). Rough week going 1-3, but this team is still getting more out of Kent Bazemore than we expected (hopefully the sprained ankle he suffered Sunday is not serious). Our thoughts are with Mike Budenhozler’s wife, good to see him back on the bench Sunday and hear things are improving.

source: 9. Bulls (6-3, LW 13). This week we likely see a change to the Bulls starting lineup, with Joakim Noah starting and Nikola Mirotic coming off the bench (if it happens, Hoiberg is going last season’s starters of Noah and Pau Gasol up front, a lightly used combo this seson). I think their best lineup is Noah and Mitotic starting and Pau Gasol coming off the bench, but who knows if and when we might see that.

source: 10. Pacers (6-4, LW 16). Paul George may not like analytics, but the analytics love him — and he’s been in beast mode of late, hitting 41 percent from three. The Pacers will be without Myles Turner for a while due to his broken thumb (non-shooting hand, at least).

source: 11. Celtics (5-4, LW 20). They have the fourth best defense in the NBA this season, and that was key with wins over the Hawks and Thunder last week. Their offense is pedestrian but balanced, and that’s been good enough. Brad Stevens is a stud.

source: 12. Mavericks (6-4, LW 18). This is a team that lost Tyson Chandler in the offseason and has still become better on defense — they are 14th in the league in defensive rating and 3.8 points per 100 better than last season. We knew they could score (especially when they go small) but the solid defense has been the surprise.

source: 13. Jazz (5-5, LW 7). They went 0-3 without Rudy Gobert; then he was back from injury Sunday and while the Jazz defense wasn’t all the way back (the Hawks had an offensive rating of 106.1) Utah got the win on the road. Their heavy road schedule to open the season continues this week.

source: 14. Pistons (5-5, LW 4). Losers of four straight, including an ugly loss to the Lakers Sunday. Their offense can be a lot of Andre Drummond postups, and Synergy Sports tweeted out Saturday night that Detroit is getting 0.65 points per Drummond postup possession — that is not good. They need to find other offense to balance this out, not just Reggie Jackson.

source: 15. Wizards (4-4, LW 15). Well, they’re playing small more, but their offense remains middle of the pack and their defense has fallen off to bottom 10. They had three straight losses by 15 or more points, which is concerning, but they did get a nice win against Orlando.

<source: 16. Suns (5-4, LW 17). Eric Bledsoe has this team running again, with the second fastest pace in the league (which suits their talent such as Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren). Soft schedule this week, they need to bank some wins.

source: 17. Bucks (5-5, LW 19). They picked up a surprising, quality win against Cleveland, but the rest of their week was not near as impressive. They are getting healthy, we’ll see if that means they start to find their groove from last season.

source: 18. Hornets (5-5, LW 23). If you are looking ahead on your team’s schedule and think “Charlotte, that’s an easy win” you will be in for a rude awakening. They have the seventh best offense in the NBA, they don’t turn the ball over, and Jeremy Lin has been good in the sixth man roll (11.5 points per game).

source: 19. Nuggets (5-5, LW 25). They are playing over their heads a little right now, and that may well get exposed with their front line so banged up. Wilson Chandler and Jusuf Nurkic are out, while Kenneth Faried and Joffrey Lauvergne are banged up and questionable to play at the start of the week.

source: 20. Knicks (5-6, LW 24). Five wins already this season, they didn’t have that until mid-December last season — and if Kristaps Porzingis had gotten a shot off a tenth of a second earlier in Charlotte New York would be above .500. It helps to have Arron Afflalo back, but he is still shaking off the rust.

source: 21. Grizzlies (5-6, LW 22). This team has been getting outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions, which should have them at a 3-8 record. Their offense is 28th in the NBA and Marc Gasol looks a step slower this season, and he’s not making the plays he did in years past.

source: 22. Timberwolves (4-6,LW 14). How much do the Timberwolves miss the injured Ricky Rubio? It’s more than just the four straight losses while he’s been out. Minny’s regular starters with Rubio are +18.3 per 100, with Zach LaVine in his place they are -20.8. The defense with that group is 41.1 per 100 worse when LaVine is in for Rubio. The LaVine at the point experiment needs to end, he’s a two.

source: 23. Magic (5-6, LW 21). If you’re looking for an early contender for most improved player, look at Evan Fournier in Orlando — he’s averaging 18.8 points per game and shooting 35.8 percent from three. His true shooting percentage is up to 56.3 percent, but a lot of the jump from last season to this is getting nearly 10 more minutes a game on the court.

source: 24. Kings (4-7, LW 26). They have won three in a row and started to hit their stride, not coincidentally DeMarcus Cousins came back for those games and is beasting. The Kings had 9 of their first 11 games at home, now they head out on a five-game road trip.

source: 25. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 12). They have become kind of what we expected — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have carried the Blazers to the sixth best offense in the league, but they are 26th on defense (and Lillard/McCollum are at the heart of that, too).

source: 26. Rockets (4-6, LW 9). Losers of three straight and you can blame the defense — they are 29th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). They are getting outworked on the boards and they lack a glue guy, an effort guy (Trevor Ariza used to be that guy, and Patrick Beverley is out with a sprained ankle).

source: 27. Lakers (2-8, LW 27). While their defense isn’t good, it’s improved (now 21st in the league) and it showed Sunday against Detroit when they were able to get enough stops for a win. D’Angelo Russell has looked pretty good coming off the pick-and-roll in the half court, but he’s still looking for consistent offense. It’s going to take time (it would be nice to play him more late, though).

source: 28. Pelicans (1-9, LW 28). There rightfully is a lot of talk about the injuries (Norris Cole and Tyreke Evans are missed) and how the lack of shot creation has damaged the offense, but the bigger issue is the Pelicans have the worst defense in the NBA this season. GM Dell Demps secured Anthony Davis for years, but he has a lot of work to do to put a better team around him.

source: 29. Nets (1-9, LW 29). They almost picked up a win over Golden State over the weekend, but they didn’t execute down the stretch — and that’s why teams are 1-9. More Rondae Hollis-Jefferson please (they are much better with him on the court).

source: 30. 76ers (0-10, LW 30). When will the NBA’s only winless team pick up a victory? They host Dallas and Indiana this week (both teams playing pretty well) then head out on a six-game road trip. I expect somewhere on that road trip they catch a team on the right night, if not they host the Lakers on Dec. 1.

Mike Budenholzer back with Hawks after 1-game absence

Mike Budenholzer
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ATLANTA (AP) Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was back with the team Sunday night after missing one game because of his wife’s undisclosed medical emergency.

Budenholzer is not publicly discussing Mary Beth Budenholzer’s health status.

“The support from the players and the staff and everybody has been great,” he said before Atlanta played Utah. “I’m just appreciative of that.”

Budenholzer returned home from Boston on Friday morning. Assistant Kenny Atkinson coached in Budenholzer’s absence that night and the Hawks lost to the Celtics.

Budenholzer was last season’s NBA coach of the year. The Hawks won 60 games, second best in the NBA, and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time.