Earth to Houston: LaMarcus Aldridge is a problem. Is Howard the answer?

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Earth to Houston: LaMarcus Aldridge is a problem.

That bit of information is obvious to the most junior of fans, but Kevin McHale and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard have yet to get the memo.

Howard finished ninth in this year’s DPOY voting and probably deserved to finish somewhere in that ballpark.  But he and McHale have yet to embrace the challenge that Aldridge presents by allowing Howard to put those defensive skills to work.

Out of 80 possessions we tracked in Game 2, Howard was called upon to defend Aldridge just 25 times. Most of the remaining defensive possessions went to Omer Asik, who clocked in at 51 assignments, with the remaining four going to Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons. About a third of Asik’s covers happened with Howard off the floor, and Asik dominated the fourth quarter covers.

Make no mistake, hitting 18-of-28 shots in Game 2 it didn’t matter who was covering Aldridge – he was torching them. He beat Howard on 5-of-6 challenges and the only thing that saved Asik was a series of eight consecutive misses by Aldridge – though the tape would show it had less to do with Asik than it did the fact that mere mortals can’t make every shot. Prior to that Asik gave up points or fouls on 9-of-10 chances against Portland’s big man.

Any way you slice it, with Aldridge averaging just under 45 points per game so far and setting records for his fast start, something has to change. Kevin McHale would prefer to keep Howard on Robin Lopez in order to protect the defensive glass, and a close second to that is keeping Howard out of foul trouble. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and being down 2-0 heading into Portland tonight would fall into that bucket.

On the other end of the floor, the Rockets have spent considerable time using Howard against Lopez on offense, and true to season-long form that has been productive for them. But in Game 2 the Rockets’ pair of wings in James Harden (6-of-19 FGs) and Chandler Parsons (5-of-15 FGs) didn’t get many easy looks as a result of it. While Howard’s offensive game has improved this season, it’s still not to the point where it consistently makes players around him better. Taking a page out of everybody’s book against the big man, the Blazers are more than willing to let Howard beat them if it means that threes aren’t raining on their heads.

Playoff adjustments usually determine the winner in a closely-matched series. If Howard is the defensive player many folks say he is, it goes without saying that the Rockets need to go all-in with the superstar assignment. Aldridge isn’t going to continue shooting at his current high-volume 60 percent from the field, but one more big game tonight and the series is all-but over.

Even though Howard is facing-up Lopez at will, the Rockets would be wise to open up the game plan by unleashing Harden and Parsons with high pick-and-roll action, since both guys are having a hard time getting penetration against sturdy defenders Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum. If Howard is the defensive player folks make him out to be, he should be both willing and able to make his matchup with Aldridge a wash. With Patrick Beverley effectively slowing down Damian Lillard, and Howard theoretically doing the same to Aldridge, the rest of the Rockets’ pieces should be able to outscore their Portland counterparts.

But Houston has it backwards right now, saving Howard for offense when he is needed on defense. It begs the question of whether or not McHale believes he can answer the call against Aldridge. If he can’t, it may be time to re-evaluate where he stands in the league’s defensive pecking order.

Report: 76ers happy with GM Elton Brand, who’s drawing Knicks interest

76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand
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The Knicks are reportedly interested in hiring 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

In New York, Brand would work under new Knicks president Leon Rose. Brand holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. So, Brand would likely go to New York only if fired by the 76ers.

Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

A team source on Wednesday confirmed Brand is under contract beyond this season and said the organization is very happy with his work since being named GM in 2018. The source cited Brand’s leadership and strong working relationships with players, agents, and executives around the league.

The 76ers are so pleased with Brand… someone said so without under the cloak of anonymity. If he wants to back Brand, 76ers owner Josh Harris can do so publicly. Otherwise, this is so weak.

Teams generally express support toward employees while the employees are still working for the team – whether or not the employees actually hold approval. A key way to tell whether the support is genuine? Check the source. Harris doesn’t want to look like a hypocrite. If he endorses Brand now then fires him soon, Harris would look silly. With this sourcing, nobody would get egg on his or her face if Brand gets ousted, because we don’t know the source.

I bet Brand does have good relationships with everyone. He has long connected well with others.

But his roster-building has fallen flat.

Inertia will probably keep him in his job. Philadelphia overachieving in the playoffs (whatever form they take) – certainly possible – would make that an easier call. It’s just difficult to build an affirmative case for Brand as a team’s lead executive.

Report: No chance of traditional NBA playoffs this season

NBA playoffs
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The NBA playoffs have a familiar format – four rounds, best-of-seven series, games in front of fans at home arenas.

But the coronavirus, which has forced the NBA into an indefinite stoppage and disrupted life around the world, makes that untenable. Don’t expect the league to wait until that’s workable, either.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

At this point, several team and league officials told SI.com, any chance of a traditional postseason is out.

A shortened playoffs in Las Vegas is gaining momentum. It’d allow the NBA, hemorrhaging money, to draw revenue sooner. A reduced postseason would also minimize disruption to future seasons.

But even that comes with major complications, especially containing coronavirus from undermining the entire operation. It could be a long time until its safe to hold games, even in a centralized location without fans.

It could be so long… a traditional playoffs could be back on the table. Though I find that unlikely, I’m still not convince people have a proper understanding of how lengthy this hiatus could be.

Everyone wants to finish the season. The playoffs are the NBA’s most lucrative time, and it feels right to crown a champion.

So, it’s good the focus is on alternative formats. It’d be naïve to expect business as usual when the NBA resumes.

Who should be drafted No. 1? Podcast talking NBC Sports mock NBA Draft.

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Should Anthony Edwards be the No. 1 pick?

Or James Wiseman? How would Obi Toppin fit with the Warriors?

More importantly, how is anyone preparing for a draft when nobody knows when it will take place?

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports — who just completed his mock draft — joins me to discuss what they know and don’t know about the 2020 NBA Draft, starting with having no idea when it will take place. We discuss Obi Toppin, Lonzo Ball, sleepers to watch, and everything in between in a draft preview podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Bucks hoping to complete title pursuit after coronavirus stoppage

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks remain confident the coronavirus pandemic won’t put a permanent halt to the season and that they’ll get to resume chasing their first league title in nearly half a century.

The Bucks had a league-best 53-12 record when play was suspended three weeks ago. With Giannis Antetokounmpo having a potential second straight MVP season, the Bucks seemed poised to make a run at the title that has eluded this franchise since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to an NBA championship in 1971.

Bucks general manager Jon Horst thinks they will get that opportunity.

“We believe that we’re going to play,” Horst said Wednesday in a conference call. “Everything that we’re doing every day in our communications, in our preparations, everything we talk about is being prepared to play at some point, finish out the season and have a resumption.”

That’s why Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has spent part of this hiatus making sure the Bucks don’t lose their edge whenever they do get back on the floor.

He’s been studying the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets — the Bucks’ two most likely first-round playoff foes — as well as other Eastern Conference teams Milwaukee could see later in the postseason. He’s tried to learn from his experiences as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach during the NBA’s most recent work stoppages.

“One of my reference points with the coaching staff has been lockouts,” Budenholzer said. “Sometimes when you come out of a lockout, things have been kind of slow, you haven’t been able to maybe do your normal routines and preparation, and things happen really fast. Whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker.”

His instructions to his players have focused on conditioning while understanding they might not have as much time to spend working on their basketball skills.

“I think that we feel that there are things they can continue to do as far as continuing to stay strong, continuing to maintain a conditioning level and really just put a lot of time and effort and energy into their bodies,” Budenholzer said.

After blowing a 2-0 lead to the eventual league champion Toronto Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee appeared to have all the elements in place to make a serious championship run this year before the pandemic struck.

The Bucks had just returned from a winless three-game trip west when the hiatus occurred, but that was the first time they had lost as many as two straight contests all season.

Despite their optimism and their confidence that league officials will do what’s best for the safety of everyone, the Bucks realize that play might not resume. However, Budenholzer said they aren’t thinking about what impact canceling the season might have.

“If for some reason this season is not played or there’s nothing to look forward to or to complete, I’ll process it then,” Budenholzer said. “I would add that I don’t think it’s being totally head-in-the-sand. I think hopefully watching news, listening to the commissioner, listening to whether it be Tony Fauci or Dr. (Deborah) Birx or whoever it is, it does feel like there is I think some realistic hope and belief that we will get through this.

“I know that there are some negatives, some less optimistic modeling, but literally all we think about is we are going to play and we want to be the best team when we do play so how do we prepare for that, how do we get better? It’s a great way to get through this.”