Did win over Lakers break Rockets out of their defensive slump?

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LOS ANGELES — Over the course of the season, the Rockets have the fifth best defense in the NBA, allowing opponents to shoot 44.3 percent and score 99.6 points per 100 possession.

But that defense has gone AWOL of late — in the Rockets last five games they had allowed their opponents to shoot 48.2 percent and score 107.4 points per 100 possessions, both 25th in the NBA during that stretch. The Rockets went 3-2 in those games, but the defensive struggles were a bad omen.

“We went through a period where we had a lot of break downs defensively,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “But our guys worked on it, we had good, hard practices, and one thing that’s nice about this team is they get better at what you work on.”

They looked better defensively against the Lakers Sunday — they held Los Angeles to 15 points in the first quarter, and 36 in the first half as the Rockets cruised to a 99-87 win that was never really in doubt from early on. Los Angeles shot 43 percent and had an offensive rating of 88.8 points per 100 possessions on the night. All of that without Dwight Howard in the lineup (sprained ankle).

“I thought our defense was pretty solid for the most part,” McHale said. “We made them work for stuff. And I thought that our defense had been slacking, I’d say the last few weeks. We’ve been working at it, and I thought the last few nights it’s been getting better.”

The obvious answer for why it looked better Sunday is that the Lakers — especially now without Kobe Bryant — are an unfocused disaster on offense. They lack quality shot creators or anyone you have to fear.

Of course, the Rockets saw it as something more than that, as a springboard for themselves to get back to their identity. And when you asked any Rockets’ player about the improved defense they used some variant of the word “focus,” adding they had to do it more consistently.

“It’s definitely getting there,” James Harden said of the defense. “I think we’re locking in a little bit more. We still have a long way to go, but we’re definitely on the right path…

“It’s focus. We are more than capable of being the best team in the league, but we have to focus on defense every single night.”

What the Rockets focus on well is to contest three pointers, teams are shooting just 31.3 percent from beyond the arc on Houston this season, second best in the Association. The Lakers were 1-of-13 from three in the game.

That was one of the points of emphasis this season from assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the rising assistant coach who is the coach in charge of the defense and who helped turn that ship around — something especially impressive because this team lost quality defenders in Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons over the summer, then have been without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley for extended periods this season.

“Concentration more than anything else,” McHale said of why the defense improved Sunday night on the road. “It just seemed (in previous games) like we were not up, we didn’t stay in our coverages, and we had a lot of small mistakes. Whenever you have a lot of small mistakes, a lot of them are mental mistakes. I’m not sure what causes it. I don’t think it was fatigue, but we didn’t play well for a while. We’re getting it back.”

Sometimes when things aren’t working you need an easy one just to get your confidence back and get back in a rhythm. The Rockets got that with the Lakers Sunday. But the reprieve is short lived because next up on Wednesday is a real test: Dallas. The Mavericks are the second best offense in the NBA this season. After that comes games against the scrappy Celtics and Pistons.

Every team has lapses and slip ups over the marathon of 82 games. They key is to not let that linger and develop into bad habits. The problem needs to be rectified quickly.

We’ll see soon if the Rockets have ended their defensive slump, or if they have a lot more work to do.

NBA decision-makers prepare for a draft unlike any other

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This time of year, members of NBA front offices have their focus split. Half the league is gearing is up for the playoffs, while the other half is beginning offseason preparations. On both sides, a shared deadline is looming: the 2020 NBA Draft is about two-and-a-half months away.

For playoff teams, this means keeping an eye on how your team is playing while gearing up for the Draft Combine, pre-draft workouts, meetings upon meetings and thousands of phone calls and text messages. For the non-playoff teams, they don’t have the postseason as a distraction. It’s all about the draft.

“It’s wild. The trade deadline is crazy because it’s all happening at once. But the months leading up to the draft are like months of complete chaos,” one Western Conference executive, whose team is headed for the playoffs, told NBC Sports. “Teams are talking to you about trades. Agents want daily updates on what you think about their clients. You’re trying to find out who is declaring and who likes who. And in the middle of it, you have people hitting you up about free agency and trades. It’s non-stop.”

This year, everything is taking on a different feel though.

The NBA recently released guidelines to teams on the pre-draft process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams are limited to four hours of virtual meetings with each prospect. They also can’t meet for more than two hours with a prospect in any given week. And during none of that time can teams ask a player to perform any sort of workout.

“It’s different for sure,” an Eastern Conference executive from a playoff-bound team told NBC Sports. “Fortunately, we push ourselves to have most of our in-person scouting wrapped before the NCAA postseason. We’re at the conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but we don’t want our year-long process swayed by a couple of games. It’s just another piece of information for our book.”

It’s gathering that information that has teams worried. You can watch tape and analyze stats, but not being able to see prospects in-person in their own facility has some teams concerned.

“We look for a few things when a guy shows up to see us. First, and most important of all, is the medical. If there are medical red flags, it can take a guy right off our draft board. Now, we have to trust what we get from the agent, and there’s different motivation there,” a lottery team from the Eastern Conference’s general manager said. “Then we, of course, want to see the guy workout. People laugh about going against a chair and shooting in an empty, but it’s our chance to see the guy. And you talk all throughout. We had one guy come in and bomb our shooting drill. He demanded we let him go again. That’s the competitive spirit we want to see.”

The in-person meetings are also a chance to get to know players better. Talent and skill matter, but personality and fit in a team’s culture matter a lot too.

“It’s our chance to see how they are as a person,” a playoff-bound Western Conference execute said. “We’ll get some of that over these video calls, but it’s not the same. We also like to find out who is around the kid. Does he show up with an entourage of 10 people? Who are those people? We had a player come in once with like 15 guys and girls. At first, we were like ‘What the hell?’ But as we talked, we realized it was his family and they were just excited to support him. That’s a great support system.

“We’ve also had guys show up with all these hanger-on’s and you talk to them too. Some of them are fine. Some are people you don’t want around. It’s all part of the process.”

Not being able to meet in person as a staff is also a bit daunting too.

“Normally by now the NCAA Tournament is done. Overseas leagues are wrapping up. Most of our people are at our facility. We’re used to meeting virtually, but it’s now when we start coming together. And some of our older scouts hate the technology stuff. They do their best work in the room. We’re having to drag them into this a little bit more. And thank God for our IT guys. They’re the real heroes of our organization right now!” said an Eastern Conference executive.

One lottery-bound Western Conference executive said this year’s strange process is different, but he’s excited to see it play out.

“No one will like this, but we waste a lot of time during this time of year,” the executive said. “We go to the PIT (Portsmouth Invitational Tournament) every year, but we haven’t gotten a guy from there in years. I’m also not really upset the NCAA tournament got canceled. Every year our owner falls in love with a couple of kids who have a big tournament. Every year we need to talk him down. I’m glad not to have that hassle this year.”

It’s not just owners hitting up general managers.

“Our coach is watching film on guys. He never has time for that,” the GM of an Eastern Conference lottery GM said. “Even when your team is bad, your coach isn’t looking at draft stuff until the season ends. If you make the playoffs, which we usually do, coach doesn’t look until after you get knocked out. Now, he’s hitting us up multiple times a day about guys he likes. It’s good and it’s bad. We like knowing who he thinks fits. But the draft is a 5-to-10-year decision. Our coach today probably isn’t our coach in five years. We can’t just pick the guys he likes.”

It’s not just NBA decision-makers who have mixed feelings on this new process. NBA agents are also struggling a bit.

“It’s really dependent on the player. If he had an awesome season, you might want it to stop there. Leave that as the last impression,” one agent who has as many as 10 prospects in this year’s draft told NBC Sports. “On the other hand, I’ve got some guys who were hoping to use the combine and the workouts to boost their stock. There are guys who don’t jump out at you on tape, but in-person, they’re dynamic. That’s missing now.”

Compounding matters is that this is considered to be a very flat and talent-deficient draft.

“This draft class just isn’t great,” said an executive from one playoff-bound Eastern Conference team. “There are some players for sure, but it’s not anything like last year. Last year’s group might have as many as 10 All-Stars. It was that good. This year? Maybe a couple of All-Stars? That makes it tough. And not getting all the information you can makes it even harder.”

Another area of particular concern is with international players.

“You feel good because your book on those guys is probably really thick already. Some of them we’ve been watching since they were young kids. Flip side is, it’s going to be a real pain in the butt to meet with these guys. It’ll be months for some of them since we’ve seen them in person. And virtual meetings with a guy who doesn’t speak great English and has to work through a translator? Good luck!” said the lottery-bound Western Conference executive.

The best teams and executives will learn from this year’s upside-down process.

“This draft will tell us who really does their work and when they do it,” the playoff-bound Western Conference executive told NBC Sports. “Our guys are out there as soon as kids are back on campus and as soon as the overseas teams are back together. We know people who don’t really start until the preseason college tournaments. We see them every year in Hawaii (at the Maui Invitational) and they tell us they’re really just getting started. That’s too late. My guys know if they aren’t working, they won’t be working for us. Look, it’s a bad draft, alright? There are going to be major mistakes made because teams just won’t have enough info. Having a late pick isn’t the worst thing this year.”

Nets Joe Harris says he hopes to remain with Brooklyn long-term

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Brooklyn Nets wing Joe Harris recently did a virtual video interview with Nets broadcaster Ian Eagle. The two touched on many subjects, including Harris’ upcoming free agency.

Harris made it clear his hope is to be back in Brooklyn. He said, ““In the ideal world, I’d play my whole career in Brooklyn. I came in with (Nets general manager) Sean (Marks), even the ownership. It’s just one of those things where you have a close connection with a lot of people that are within the organization. You kind of all came in together.”

Furthering his comments, Harris expounded on his desire to remain with the Nets long-term, “Now I’ve been here for four years and built unbelievable relationships with everybody that’s a part of the organization. It’s amazing just to see where we’ve gone from Year 1 to now. And I obviously want to be a part of that, and a part of it for a long time.”

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, following a two-year, $16 million contract he signed with Brooklyn in 2018. The Nets originally plucked Harris off the scrapheap in 2016, after he was traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived by the Orlando Magic. Harris signed a two-year deal for the veteran minimum and quickly became one of the best bargains in the league.

In four seasons with the Nets, Harris has started in 164 of 269 games. Over that time, he’s averaged 11.9 points per game while shooting 42.3% on three-pointers. Harris led the NBA in three-point shooting at 47.4% in 2018-19 and won that season’s three-point contest at All-Star Weekend.

2020 PBT Awards: Defensive Player of the Year

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lakers star Anthony Davis
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

2. Anthony Davis, Lakers

3. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

I think Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to pull off something only done by Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon — win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Much like the Milwaukee offense, the Bucks defense is built around the Greek Freak’s unique skill set where he can contest a three and then fly in and get the defensive rebound. His length and athleticism essentially make him an NFL-style lock-down corner taking away his half of the floor, forcing bad passes and then turning them into transition buckets. Anthony Davis is a very close second, he was phenomenal for the Lakers this season, he would be a deserving winner. It was very difficult to leave off Brook Lopez and Marcus Smart, both of whom are fully deserving of being in the top three.

Dan Feldman

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

2. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

3. Anthony Davis, Lakers

The Bucks had an all-time great defense, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez (who’d rank No. 4 on my ballot) worked in tandem to lead it. Ultimately, I valued Antetokounmpo’s ground-covering harassments ahead of Lopez’s stout paint protection.

Though not quite up to his usual standard this season, Rudy Gobert is the NBA’s most consistently impactful regular-season defender. Anthony Davis gets credit for both his own excellent and versatile defense and raising the defensive level of his teammates – most notably getting LeBron James to give more effort.

Keith Smith

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

2. Anthony Davis, Lakers

3. Joel Embiid, 76ers

Get ready to start seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo a lot on the awards ballot. He’s had a great year as a defender on the best defensive team in basketball. Milwaukee’s defensive rating is more than three points better than second-place Toronto’s. That’s not all Antetokounmpo, but he’s the driving force. The raw counting stats might not jump out at you, until you get to the defensive rebounding. But Antetokounmpo has become great at dominating in help situations and he’s very hard to score on one-on-one. His defense is nearly as dominant as his offense, and that’s saying a lot.

Anthony Davis has been the backbone of the Lakers’ better-than-expected defense. He’s been a shot-blocking machine and his rim protection numbers are near the top of the league. His rebounding is down a bit, but that’s more a product of his teammates than his play. Joel Embiid has somewhat quietly been a monster defender when he’s played. He’s missed some games, but not enough to take him out of the mix. He narrowly edges Rudy Gobert for the third spot.

Duke’s Cassius Stanley declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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Two Duke players, point guard Tre Jones and big man Vernon Carey Jr., are expected to be in the 2020 NBA Draft and be taken in the late first-round or early second. We talked about them on the recent PBT Podcast breaking down some of this draft class.

Now a third Duke player, wing Cassius Stanley, has thrown his name in the mix.

“It was an absolute joy to coach Cassius this season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “I want to congratulate him and his great family on this decision. I’ve seen Cassius grow both as a player and person here at Duke, and I can’t wait to see how his career develops at the next level. Any NBA team will be very fortunate to get such a mature young man who is not only an incredibly-gifted athlete but a leader that wants nothing but the best for himself and his teammates.”

Stanley is projected as a second-round pick, but his incredible athleticism could get a team to use a late first-round pick on him.

Stanley is a 6’6″ wing and it’s his elite athleticism that will get him drafted as a potential 3&D wing. He averaged 12.6 points per game and shot 36 percent from three as a freshman (but on only three attempts a night). His athleticism gives him potential as a defender. The challenge is he relies on that athleticism, something that alone will not set him apart at the NBA level, he is not a shot creator for himself or others, and he struggles to shoot off the dribble. He can finish in transition, but at the next level nearly everyone can do that.

Stanley is a development project, but his athleticism makes him a good gamble for a team with a strong development program.