Kurt Helin

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51 Q: Will D’Antoni’s Rockets defend well enough to make a deep playoff run?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets defend well enough to make a deep playoff run?

James Harden‘s defense has become a caricature of itself. Bad Harden defense clips are as easy to find on YouTube as cats playing the piano.

Except, Harden’s defense is not quite as bad as the perception — or at least not always. Go back two seasons, Harden’s near MVP season, and he played solid team defense. He’s never going to be a lock down defender, but he can be respectable when in shape and focused. He was just neither of those things to start last season.

The same thing is true of Mike D’Antoni — he’s had some terrible defensive teams in New York and Los Angeles, but his Phoenix teams were middle of the pack defensively (they just gave up a lot of points because of pace in an era before many analysts followed per possession stats).

Combine Harden and D’Antoni and it’s no wonder the perception is the Rockets defense will look like matadors waving capes as guys drive by to the rim. They know it can’t be that way if they want to win. The reality is simple in Houston:

The Rockets will go as far as their defense takes them this season.

These Houston Rockets are going to have one of the best offenses in the NBA. Harden will have the ball in his hands running the D’Antoni offense, with Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and the improving Clint Capella among others. There is athleticism, there are shooters, there are guys who can get up and down the floor.

Houston will have a top five, maybe top three offense this season.

It’s the other end of the court where the questions make you wonder how deep they can go in the playoffs.

The Rockets were 21st in the league defensively last season (using points allowed per possession), and that was with Dwight Howard playing well as a backstop protecting the rim. He’s in Atlanta, and the Rockets see this as addition by subtraction overall. Maybe. But Howard played well and played hard on the defensive end for much of the season, and in his place come in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, both of whom are statistically terrible defenders.

Two areas are of particular concern: The Rockets were 23rd in opponent effective field goal percentage last season and dead last in defensive rebounding percentage. For the Rockets to win playing the D’Antoni way that has to change — you can’t run if you’re taking the ball out of the basket, or if you don’t get the defensive rebound to throw the outlet pass. Howard helped in both those areas, and a lot of pressure and went will fall on Capella to own the paint for the Rockets.

The challenge is limiting easy buckets for opponents — teams focused on running tend to get easy baskets but also give up a lot of easy buckets. There are exceptions — Golden State, the Celtics last season, the championship Spurs of a couple of seasons ago — but D’Antoni’s previous teams have tended to lose any balance and positioning on the floor in the quest for buckets, and it hurt them getting back defensively. If the Rockets do, they will not be a serious playoff threat.

There is defensive talent on the Rockets — Capella, Ariza, Patrick Beverley, they picked up Nene this summer — but the question is more about the defensive system and if the Rockets will fully buy into it. The franchise hired Jeff Bzdelik to be D’Antoni’s defensive coordinator. Will that be enough?

The Rockets are going to be talented and fun to watch this season — the beard running seven-seconds-or-less has great potential. However, if they are winning games 130-125 in the regular season their postseason run will be short. It is this simple in Houston:

The Rockets will go as far as their defense takes them.

 

 

Doc Rivers on Blake Griffin trade rumors: “We knew none of it was true”

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It was a summer of rumors in Los Angeles (and not just about Kendall Jenner and Jordan Clarkson). The basketball rumors focused on the other team in Los Angeles: The Clippers are stagnant, they have some locker room chemistry issues, so the buzz suggested Doc Rivers would be willing to trade Blake Griffin. There were rumors about the Celtics, and the fanciful idea of Kevin Durant sign-and-trade that would send Griffin back to his home state of Oklahoma.

Doc Rivers said it was all organic fertilizer.

Here is Rivers’ quote while in Boston, via Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We knew none of it was true. We figured that was one of you guys starting these rumors here in Boston. I was trying to find out who it was … No, it happens, unfortunately. Blake and CP are free agents [after this season]. Just like last year Oklahoma [City] had to deal with that, now it’s our turn.”

Because of free agency, those rumors are not going to die — despite the reports that Griffin wants to re-sign with the Clippers because he likes living in Los Angeles. And despite the fact that Griffin’s quad injury from last season has some teams asking if that will linger. Frankly,                                                                                                                                                     Rivers and the Clippers need to be more focused on keeping Chris Paul happy, he is the ultra-competitive guy, and if the Clippers have another second-round exit could take a longer look at the team and his options.

The Clippers should be one of the best teams in the NBA — barring injury they will be fourth in PBT’s preseason power rankings. The Clippers should win north of 50 games again and be in the mix to make the conference Finals (although Golden State and San Antonio seems the more likely matchup). The window is open for the Clippers and Rivers isn’t going to trade Griffin unless he gets a player or players back that make it more likely the team wins right now. Sorry Boston fans, a package of picks and young players is not going to cut it.

Whether they are logical or not, don’t expect Griffin trade rumors to die.

Report: Warriors’ rookie Damian Jones not likely for start of training camp

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Just before the draft last June, it was announced that Damian Jones was undergoing surgery for a torn left pectoral muscle (he injured it lifting weights during his pre-draft workout in Orlando). That didn’t stop the Warriors from taking Jones with the 30th pick, the last of the first round.

It doesn’t look like he’ll be ready for the start of training camp, reports Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Jones was always a project that was more about a couple of seasons from now than this coming campaign, but a setback that limits him at camp is a setback in that development. The big man from Vanderbilt looks like an athletic center — 7-feet tall, long wingspan, 244 pounds, 36-inch vertical — but his game is raw. The hope is he develops into a rim protecting big that can score with his back to the basket. But we’re a couple of years away from that.

The Warriors are expected to start Zaza Pachulia at center, have Anderson Varejao behind him, and play a lot of a newly-modified Death Lineup with Kevin Durant at the four and Draymond Green at the five. Jones gets the scraps of minutes left after all that.

Once he gets healthy.

Could Ray Allen return to the NBA? Doc Rivers says “he may play”

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The rumors of Ray Allen’s return to the NBA hardwood started about three minutes after he stepped away from the game. The Warriors, Celtics, Bucks, and Heat have been involved in return rumors, but instead Allen has played golf, spent time with his family, and relaxed for the past couple of years.

But comeback rumors die about as easily as Freddy Krueger — they live on forever. Especially now that Clippers’ Doc Rivers told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe he could see an Allen return if the fit is right.

For the record, Allen is now 41. Despite that, nobody much doubts if Allen could get his shoot off and knock it down (although maybe not at peak percentages). Also, Allen was always one of the best-conditioned athletes in the game, he was a guy that understood how to take care of his body. He’s probably still in good shape.

However, there is “good shape” and there is “ready for the grind of an NBA season shape.” Allen has to ask himself if he wants to put in the hours and the sweat in a gym for hours a day after two years off? And he’s doing all this for what, exactly? Is Allen looking for a team where he can get a fair amount of run and shots (to keep himself ahead of Stephen Curry on the all-time three-pointer list? Or does he want to chase a third ring?

Maybe it happens, but I would bet on golfing every day to win out.

Shaq mythologizing himself says he’s the reason big men don’t come in the paint anymore

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With the advent of the 2004 NBA rule changes — no hand checking on the perimeter, zone defenses allowed — defenses started to evolve. By 2008 you had the Boston Celtics winning an NBA title with an overload defense where an extra defender came to the strong side to make it hard to get the ball in the post (and to cut off driving lanes from wings trying to isolate). To combat that offensive system, bigs who could face up, shoot from the outside, and draw their defenders out of the paint became more valuable. As younger players watched those bigs — Kevin Garnett on down — and saw the way the game was going, they started to emulate their idols. The game has seen fewer and fewer traditional bigs.

That or Shaq scared them all out of the paint.

If you ask Shaquille O’Neal — the greatest creator and promoter of his own mythology — it is the later. In the weekend where he is entering the Naismith Hall of Fame, here is part of Shaq’s Q&A with Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

There won’t be another (traditional center) like me, and like Yao (Ming, also entering the Hall of Fame), ever again. We feel the dearth of the real center. I believe the way that I dominated, I made guys not want to come inside and feel the pain. That’s why you have a lot of guys stepping out and shooting jumpers now. We’re all products of our environment, so when I was coming up, I saw big men playing in the middle. The kids saw me playing and realized that they couldn’t endure the pain and nor did they want to take the pain. So they started shooting jumpers – a la Dirk Nowitzki.

Yea, that’s it.

This is just vintage Shaq mythology making.

Part of the fun of Shaq is the mythology — he was the Big Cactus, the Big Aristotle, Diesel, Superman, Osama Bin Shaq, and all the other nicknames — and he was a fan favorite everywhere. His personality of being a big kid loving the game was part of the draw.

But don’t take myths too seriously.