ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: There were high expectations with James Harden and Dwight Howard being paired in Houston, and the Rockets were good, but not great. Which felt like a first step or a disappointment, depending on your point of view. Make no mistake, the Rockets were a good team — 54 wins, which tied them for the four seed in the West — but the team never really seemed to form an identity. While statistically Harden and Howard were good together (+9.3 per 100 possessions when on the court together) they seemed more to play next to each other than with each other. This all came to a head when the Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers in about the most painful way possible. Again, the Rockets had a good team and a good season, but they need to hope it’s a first step.

Signature highlight from last season: There were some James Harden game winners and great blocks by Dwight Howard, but was there any play more fun than Patrick Beverley dunking on Chris Bosh’s head?

Key player changes: It was almost a monster off-season for the Rockets, GM Daryl Morey was going to move them into contender status by grabbing Chris Bosh out of Miami to make his own big three. And he came thisclose. But then Bosh took the big payday to stay put and all the moves Morey had made to clear out cap space became holes.

Gone is some key depth: Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, as well as Omri Casspi and Jordan Hamilton.

In their place comes Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, rookies Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, Ish Smith, Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, and Kostas Papanikolaou.

Keys to the Rockets season:

Depth behind their stars. James Harden and Dwight Howard are elite players, but that alone doesn’t win you games, especially come the playoffs. The Rockets lost quality role players this summer and some lesser known guys are going to have to really step up for the Rockets to even match last season’s success. Trevor Ariza got paid after a big season in Washington, can he put up similar numbers again? Donatas Motiejunas has to take on a bigger front court role. Jason Terry needs to show he still has some game left. And so on down the line, the Rockets need to find depth and rotations that can work when Harden and Howard sit.

Can they improve defensively? The Rockets offense was top five in the league last season, they put up plenty of points (although Howard/Harden need to reduce their turnovers), but their defense was pedestrian. They were 12th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Their defense didn’t really improve last season over the season before despite bringing in Howard to patrol the paint and glass. (Howard isn’t as explosive as he was back in Orlando but he’s still a very good rim protector.) They have Patrick Beverley out top, and Ariza should be a defensive upgrade over Parsons. Harden is Harden but says he’s going to work on being more focused on defense. This needs to be a team thing, not just one guy, and the scheme needs to fit the personnel. The bottom line is this is the end of the floor where improvement needs to happen.

Is Kevin McHale coaching for his job? This question circled around the Rockets during last season and this summer: Is Kevin McHale the right coach for this team? McHale is very well liked around the NBA and has done a good job as coach in Houston (they won 54 games last season, made the playoffs the year before when they probably shouldn’t have) but there are questions about his game planning and fit with this roster. Particularly the question is can he coach this team up defensively. Expectations are high and if this team doesn’t take a step forward this coming season there will be changes and coach is the most likely option (especially since this is the last year of McHale’s deal). Remember Howard can opt out in the summer of 2016 so the Rockets don’t want to take a step back, if they do they might give Howard a chance to have a say in picking a coach (something Howard didn’t feel he got in Los Angeles).

Why you should watch the Rockets: James Harden has taken a lot of criticism the past year, but the fact is he remains one of the best and most efficient scorers in the league. The man isn’t just a beard, he’s a legit No. 1 offensive option in this league and just fun to watch play.

Prediction: 50-32, which is still good but in the West nets you more like the 7 seed, which will net the Rockets another first round playoff exit. (That is unless Morey makes a big in season trade, however in season deals are a dying breed.) The expectations remain high around the Rockets and it’s hard to see how they meet them. Which means we could see far more changes next summer (and McHale back calling games for TNT).

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.

Report: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.

Wizards: We’ll offer Bradley Beal max contract extension, won’t trade him if he rejects it

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The Wizards will offer Bradley Beal a max contract extension when he’s eligible Friday, new general manager Tommy Sheppard confirmed to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Washington will give Beal his choice of length. The maxes:

  • One year, $34,502,129
  • Two years, $71,764,428
  • Three years, $111,786,897

But that’s less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then re-signing. It’s even less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then leaving. And it’s way less than Beal could get if he becomes eligible for a super-max deal (either an extension next offseason or re-signing in 2021) if he makes an All-NBA team either of the next two seasons.

Here are Beal’s max salaries on an extension and projected max salaries on a new contract:

Season Extension now Re-sign Leave Super-max*
2021-22 $34,502,129 $38M $38M $44M
2022-23 $37,262,299 $41M $39M $47M
2023-24 $40,022,469 $44M $41M $51M
2024-25 $111,786,897 $47M $54M
2025-26 $50M $58M
Total $111,786,897 $218M $118M $25M
Average $37,262,299 $44M $39M $51M

*Beal’s super-max amounts would be the same on an extension next offseason or fresh contract the following year.

So, it’s hard to see Beal accepting an extension.

He’d get financial security. There’s always risk in waiting – injury, unexpected decline or something else.

But Beal is so talented and just 26. The NBA is also short on quality shooting guards. He’s in tremendous position to secure a max contract in 2021 free agency.

So, how will the Wizards react if Beal doesn’t sign right now?

Wojnarowski:

If Beal passes on the extension, the Wizards have no plans to engage in trade talks with two years, $55.8 million left on his contract, Sheppard said.

“He’s got two years left on his deal, and he’s from Missouri and we are going to have to show him,” Sheppard told ESPN. “We need to show him that we are about building this the right way, that we aren’t going to have character-deficient guys around him. We are going to surround him with guys he wants to play with. He saw that right away in free agency with us bringing back Thomas Bryant.”

They’re really going to pitch him on playing with Thomas Bryant. Thomas Bryant! And I like Thomas Bryant. He was a breath of fresh air for the Wizards last season, and they re-signed him for $25 million over three years. But he’s also still just Thomas Bryant.

The NBA is full of star duos. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant?

That’s supposed to tempt Beal to stay in Washington?

The Wizards will likely be bad next year. John Wall could miss the entire season, and his huge salary encumbered Washington’s ability to add other players. Beal has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. But after living through what will likely be a miserable season, how will he feel about Washington then?

Beal said the Wizards told him they wouldn’t trade him. Sheppard has now gone public with that message.

But Washington also pledged not to trade Otto Porter then dealt him to the Bulls a week later. Plans change. Sometimes, there’s posturing for negotiating position.

There’s still plenty left to unfold. Beal isn’t even yet eligible for an extension. Maybe he’ll shock me and sign one this summer.

If not, the Wizards likely face an uphill battle for keeping him happy enough to stay in 2021 free agency.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, asked teams for guaranteed sponsorship money

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Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers won the offseason.

Leonard got a max contract to play in Southern California, where he grew up and clearly wanted to return. He’ll also be joined by his desired co-star, Paul George.

The Clippers get both stars and early status as championship favorite.

But the process has left some bitterness with the teams that didn’t get Leonard.

The Raptors have spread word Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests. The Lakers reportedly feel they got played in their Leonard pursuit.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

This is me putting on my reporter’s hat here. People in NBA circles are talking about this right now. Allegedly, the uncle, Uncle Dennis, was asking for a lot of stuff from the other teams. Houses, planes, sponsorship, guaranteed sponsorship money, just as an example. They’re throwing this stuff out there.

I have no idea whether this is true or not. I’m not trying to cast any aspersions on Uncle Dennis. But people in NBA circles are talking about this as we speak.

This chatter is designed to make both Robertson and the Clippers look bad.

Robertson is painted as greedy and preposterous. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits teams from providing players with those types of special benefits. In fact, a team arranging a sponsorship for its player is specifically listed as salary-cap circumvention.

Still, I don’t have a huge problem with Robertson asking. There have been numerous suspicions of under-the-table payments. If that happens regularly, of course Leonard should want his cut. If that’s not really something that happens, it’s on the teams to say no.

But did teams say no?

This raises questions about what the Clippers did to lure Leonard. They reportedly looked into acquiring his logo from Nike so they could gift it to him contingent on him signing. (That didn’t happen, and lawsuits between Leonard and Nike are pending). They also previously got fined for arranging a sponsorship for DeAndre Jordan when he was a free agent.

If there’s credible suspicion or even just accusations from other teams, the NBA should investigate. But people should put their names behinds their accusations – at the very least to the league.

Without that, this just looks like sour grapes.