NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

2 Comments

Last season: 42-40. They were average on offense, average on defense and had an average record — which is actually pretty impressive considering they had no stars to carry them. This was a good squad of role players waiting for a leader.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman, who missed the playoffs last season for just the third time as a coach. That’s impressive.

Key Departures: Trevor Ariza, who left as part of the four-team deal that brought Coutney Lee in to Houston. Ariza went from being a cog in the Lakers machine to a key player in the Rockets offense — and with that increased usage on offense came far less efficient — his True Shooting percentage dropped from .544 in Los Angeles to .488 in Houston. Not everyone is suited to be the guy creating the offense — Ariza could do that well on the break but not in the half-court roles Houston had for him.

Key Additions: Yao Ming is back. Limited in minutes, not moving as well as he did before missing a year due to foot surgery (particularly laterally). But he is still a 7’6” guy with touch on the midrange who can defend the rim with insanely long arms. Even 80 percent of Yao makes the Rockets a much better team… if he can just stay healthy.

The Rockets also locked up Luis Scola, who reminded us at the FIBA World Championships that he is dang good and gets overlooked. Other guys in the door are Courtney Lee and Yao’s backup Brad Miller. Houston also drafted Patrick Paterson, who seems to fit their mold.

Best case scenario: Yao Ming stays healthy and as the season moves on plays more and more minutes, becoming more and more his old self. Then by the playoffs everything is clicking and they are serious threat to the Lakers.

For that to happen: It really is all about Yao.

Sure, there are other things that have to happen. Aaron Brooks has to continue as a catalyst for the Rockets inside-out offense and has to continue to play up to his Most Improved Player status. Kevin Martin needs to be the wing scorer and three-point threat this team needs to stretch the floor. Scola and Shane Battier need to continue to do their thing efficiently. Kyle Lowry needs to lead a change-of-pace second unit that runs and puts up points.

Basically — the Rockets need to play like they did last year, but with Yao now as the leader.

On defense the once formidable Rockets took a hit because after Yao this is not a big team and they lacked someone who could protect the rim. Last season the Rockets allowed teams to shoot 62.7 percent at the rim (eighth worst in the league) and get 28.1 shots per game there (sixth worst in the league). Yao has to change that, force teams to shoot from the outside more, miss more when they do get in the lane. That allows guys like Battier to be more dangerous and aggressive out on the wings.

The Rockets need to keep the flow in the offense and work inside out with Yao — who is a fantastic passer, so it should work. Yao also should help the Rockets on the boards, another area they needed to improve last season.

The question is, can Yao do all this now? After a year off for major foot surgery at age 30?

More likely the Rockets will: Be better, but Yao will be a step slow from his old self, and with that the Rockets will be a step behind their ultimate goals. They will end up like a lot of teams in the West, good but not quite good enough to best the Lakers.

And the risk of injury to the Rockets seems higher than a lot of teams. Yao and Martin have very thick doctors files.

But also know this — a healthy Rockets might be the Lakers toughest matchup in the West. A reasonably healthy Yao stymies Bynum, Battier can slow Kobe, the Lakers are susceptible to quick penetrating point guards like Brooks. Remember that two seasons ago the Rockets took the Lakers seven games (the series where Yao injured his foot). If one team in the West can upset a fairly healthy Lakers squad, it might well be a healthy Rockets squad.

Prediction: 48-34, one of the bottom couple seeds in the West. And we may get to see my theory about them matching up well with the Lakers early on.

Report: Timberwolves rebuffing Jimmy Butler trade calls

AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King
Leave a comment

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau reportedly had no interest in trading Jimmy Butler despite the star’s trade request. In fact, some believe Thibodeau would rather leave Minnesota than take a step back by dealing Butler.

Just how serious is Thibodeau about keeping Butler?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m curious whether Thibodeau and Taylor are on the same page as far as not entertaining offers for Butler.

There’s a selfish logic to Thibodeau’s stance: If the Timberwolves fail to reach the playoffs this season, he could get fired. Keeping Butler maximizes Minnesota’s talent right now, and even if Butler leaves in unrestricted free agency next summer, that buys Thibodeau time to figure out something.

Taylor can take the longer view, trying to do what’s best for the franchise. Maybe he feels immediately ending all talks right now maximizes the Timberwolves’ leverage.

Or maybe this is all Thibodeau’s doing so far.

At some point, Minnesota should hear out offers. That doesn’t mean trading Butler. Perhaps keeping him and trying to change his mind – and Karl-Anthony Towns‘ – is the right course. It depends what other teams offer. But the Timberwolves should at least explore the market.

This puts the ball back in Butler’s court. Will he report to training camp? Not showing up would certainly add pressure for Minnesota to take these calls more seriously. But it’d also escalate the situation into something even more dramatic.

Pistons PG Reggie Jackson says ankle injury still keeping him off court

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Leave a comment

If Reggie Jackson didn’t injure his ankle, maybe Stan Van Gundy is still running the Pistons.

Detroit went 27-18 when Jackson played and 12-25 otherwise last season. The Pistons missed the playoffs by four games then fired Van Gundy.

Ed Stefanski takes over running the front office, and Dwane Casey is now coach. But they won’t necessarily get a healthy Jackson, either – even though Jackson played the final 12 games of the season.

Jackson, via Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

“Probably didn’t heal the way everybody thought it might once we had time off,” Jackson said. “Just haven’t been able to get on the court, but been doing everything I can to get healthy.”

“It actually feels good. I feel like I can cut again,” he said. “Once I get going fully, just see how it feels. But it feels night and day compared to last year. … I think anybody who watched, I never looked right. I never ran right. But that’s what you do. Everybody has nicks and bruises in this game. I wouldn’t change it any other way. I would still come back and play. It was just unfortunate that it wasn’t healed.”

“I’m going day to day,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know. I’m going to come in and do what they tell me, what they allow me to do. I think the organization, our coaching staff and the training staff have a great game plan on when I’ll be back and how to implement myself back into the workouts.”

Jackson not playing would be problematic for the Pistons, who look like a fringe playoff team. Ish Smith would be OK as a fill-in starting point guard, but moving Jose Calderon into the regular rotation could be dicey.

Calderon, who turns 37 next week, is fine in spurts. But I wouldn’t want to overly rely on him at this point. And, though Smith can hold his own as a starter, he looks much better as a reserve.

Even if Jackson gets healthy enough to play by the regular season, that wouldn’t solve everything. His endurance has been a problem at times, and limited offseason training could make that even more of an issue.

Report: Karl-Anthony Towns told Timberwolves he couldn’t coexist with Jimmy Butler

Zhong Zhi/Getty Images
4 Comments

Karl Anthony-Towns denied Jimmy Butler sleeping with Towns’ girlfriend caused a rift between the Timberwolves teammates.

But that doesn’t mean the rift is nonexistent.

Towns reportedly won’t sign his rookie-scale extension until Minnesota handles the Butler situation, and the standoff apparently isn’t at all over haggling about contract terms, particularly what would happen if Towns qualifies next season for the super-max.

Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN:

They’re offering him as much money as they can.

I’m led to believe that a big reason why he hasn’t signed it is that he – through his agent, Leon Rose – went to the Wolves and said, “Hey, I can’t coexist with Jimmy. Do something about it.” So, Figure out the Jimmy situation. On top of that – whether it’s right or wrong, this is the way he feels – that it’s been Jimmy and Thibs ganging up on him.

Towns can sometimes play passively, especially defensively. Two people who tend not to tolerate passive play, especially defensively, are Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau. I’m not sure they’re ganging up on Towns as much as they’re each conveying similar messages individually.

That said, I can also see why Towns would feel like they’re ganging up on him.

Ideally, Thibodeau would have taken Towns’ message and worked with Butler to find a way to better communicate with the center. Towns is an elite young talent, and it’s worth making him happy.

But Butler’s trade request opens the door for another solution. Minnesota can just excise the problem, though it’d probably mean a talent downgrade.

The biggest issue is the Timberwolves didn’t heed Towns’ warning and find common ground for everyone. That seems to reflect poorly on Thibodeau as a connecter, a necessary skill for successful head coaches and team presidents.

Magic Johnson already excited by LeBron’s offseason impact on Lakers

Getty Images
5 Comments

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Magic Johnson can already see LeBron James‘ impact on the young Los Angeles Lakers before they’ve even had a regular practice together.

After just a few weeks of unusually competitive offseason scrimmages, the Lakers’ basketball boss can’t wait to see how James’ leadership will translate into real success.

Magic and general manager Rob Pelinka on Thursday pronounced themselves thrilled with the offseason progress made by their revamped roster and James, their prize free-agent acquisition. The Lakers have been working out together informally at the club’s training complex ahead of the start of training camp Tuesday, and Johnson likes what he sees so far.

“Just to see all of them together playing a pickup game, oh my goodness,” Johnson said. “It’s something to watch. I’ve watched LeBron from afar. I’ve been at many of his games. But to watch him in the gym is a whole different thing. How much he makes everybody better, but also how he raises everybody’s level of play. His basketball IQ and his leadership ability, it’s all on display.”

Lonzo Ball won’t be on display in every workout at the start of camp, however. The Lakers’ second-year point guard had knee surgery two months ago, and Pelinka said Ball will be held out of five-on-five scrimmages when camp begins, even though he has been fully cleared for all basketball activities.

Johnson and Pelinka praised Ball’s offseason work to improve his awkward jump shot by adjusting his shooting mechanics. They also realize Ball has plenty of work to do.

The Lakers are determined to allow Ball to grow into his role as a playmaking leader, and Johnson believes Rajon Rondo will play a mentoring role. Along with James, the Lakers also acquired Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley to form a new veteran core for a 16-time NBA champion franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013.

The Lakers’ disparate collection of talent will need plenty of time to gel, but Johnson is already seeing it happen in those scrimmages.

“I mean, they are going hard,” Johnson said. “It’s physical. It’s tough. There’s trash talking. It’s just a lot of fun, and also a lot of teaching at the same time. It’s really great to see these young guys getting a chance to learn from champions.”

And as if he needed any reminder, Johnson has witnessed the singular skills of the 33-year-old James, who agreed to a four-year, $154 million free-agent deal.

“LeBron comes in, and he’s already in midseason form and shooting fadeaways and 3-pointers from almost half-court,” Johnson said with a broad grin. “And you’re sitting there saying, `Man, thank God we signed him.”‘

Along with blending their new additions, the Lakers must adjust to the loss of Julius Randle and Brook Lopez. Johnson and Pelinka aren’t worried about filling the space left by the departures of those two big men, believing they’ve got more than enough height to guard anyone.

“We feel we have two players at every position – a starter and then a backup to that person,” Johnson said.

Added Pelinka: “A lot of people have said this is one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, and that is an extreme strength to us.”