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Rockets couldn’t afford to keep up with Warriors

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Who would you rather have?

  • Player A: Production worth $8 million, earns $15 million
  • Player B: Production worth $5 million, earns $1,621,415

That’s a version of a thought exercise I’ve long considered worth pondering for NBA team-building. The short answer is it depends. What’s the opportunity cost of picking the superior player, Player A? Player B provides more value per dollar and could allow the team to upgrade elsewhere.

For the Houston Rockets, the answer is clear: Player A is preferable to Player B. The Rockets wouldn’t open cap space anyway, and their title-contention window is open now. The better player should be the priority.

At least if winning is the only concern.

But real money matters, too. That’s why Houston lost its version of Player A (Trevor Ariza) and replaced him with a Player B (James Ennis) and, with other similar moves, lost ground to the Warriors.

The Rockets took care of their major business this summer, re-signing Chris Paul (four-year max contract that was probably fait accompli from the moment they acquired him last year) and Clint Capela (five years, $80 million-$90 million).

Capela’s deal was excellent for Houston. The threat of a max offer sheet with a player option after three years loomed. But the Rockets got him back for considerably less money and locked up the 24-year-old for five years.

Paul’s contract could age terribly. He probably won’t be worth $44,211,146 at age 36. But Houston knows that. The present value of keeping open their title window is well worth it to the Rockets. And they did well to avoid a fifth year.

However, Houston’s spending was limited after those two stars.

The Rockets lost Ariza (one year, $15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute (one year, $4,320,500 from Clippers) and ostensibly replaced those forwards with Ennis and Carmelo Anthony. Houston’s late trade – Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss – was another cost saver.

It’s easier to sell those moves when considering Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta’s bottom line. Ennis is a bargain compared to Ariza. Anthony could once again flourish in the right environment, and Mbah a Moute ended last season hurt. The No. 46 pick (Melton) is such a low cost for dropping from Anderson’s burdensome salary to Knight’s burdensome salary – a difference of $11,411,181 over the next two years.

But the bottom line: Houston downgraded on the court.

Though Ennis should fit well into the Rockets’ switching defense, he’s not as big of a 3-point-shooting threat as Ariza. Don’t discount Ariza’s ability to handle so many minutes, either – something Ennis has never done.

Anthony, 34, looked washed with the Thunder. Though I expect him to bounce back at least somewhat in Houston, I don’t see how he can survive defensively against Golden State. Mbah a Moute was a valuable defender who hit open 3s. If he gets healthy, admittedly a question, he’ll be a big loss.

Knight hasn’t played well in years. Chriss has been in over his head his entire NBA career so far. It’s a long way until either can be relied upon deep in the playoffs. At least Anderson – himself too much of a liability against top opponents – would have done more in the regular season to help the Rockets earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Besides, the Ariza and Mbah a Moute vs. Ennis and Anthony argument was always flawed. Houston didn’t have to choose between them. The Rockets could have signed all four instead of filling the end of the roster with players like Michael Carter-Williams, another minimum addition this offseason. That would have gotten quite expensive, but it also would have maximized Houston’s chances of beating the Warriors.

This isn’t to suggest Ferttita completely cheaped out or that the Rockets are doomed. They still have a top-five payroll and are in line to pay a sizable luxury-tax bill, and they could win the championship this season.

But Golden State is an all-time great team that leaves such little margin for error. Houston probably wasn’t going to beat the Warriors anyway, but there’s even less of a chance now. When the stakes are so high, that makes these otherwise-moderate downgrades so significant.

The Rockets might have the best team Fertitta would pay for. Unfortunately, that meant taking a step back at this critical juncture.

Offseason grade: D

NBA approves three rule changes, including reset of shot clock to 14 after offensive board

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The three rule changes approved by the NBA owners on Friday are not going to have a dramatic impact on this NBA season…

Until in a close playoff game in May it’s a little harder for a team getting offensive rebounds to just kill the clock. Or in that same playoff game, when clear path foul is called because an offensive player outraced a defender down the court.

As had been expected, the NBA’s Board of Governors — the owners — approved three rule changes for the coming NBA season. They are:

• The shot clock will reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound rather than 24 seconds. This has been experimented with in the G-League, the WNBA, and Summer League this year with some success. The goal is to speed up the pace of play, not letting a team get an offensive rebound then back it out and pound the ball for 20 seconds to kill time. Thing is, that was not much of a problem last season, as was noted at Nylon Calculus.

 

<em>Over 30 percent of offensive rebounds result in putbacks (the 0 Duration value on the graph) and 75 percent of offensive rebounds result in a possession that is five seconds or less. Only 6 percent of all offensive rebounds resulted in possessions that are 14 seconds or greater last year. Given that the league average for offensive rebounds was the lowest ever this past season at 9.7 per game, this rule would apply to roughly half a rebound per team per game last year.</em>

When fans will notice it, when it will have the intended impact is end-of-game situations — rather than a team grabbing offensive rebounds then killing the clock for 20 seconds, they will have to get up a shot, which will lead to the other team getting an opportunity.

• The league “simplified of the clear-path rule. The NBA’s old clear path rule was overly complicated and it led to things that looked like clear path fouls not being, and things that clearly were not being fouls. Here is the NBA’s explanation of the new rule, with some video help below.

A clear path foul is now defined as a personal foul against any offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity in the following circumstances: the ball is ahead of the tip of the circle in the backcourt; no defender is ahead of the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity; the player with the transition scoring opportunity is in control of the ball (or a pass has been thrown to him); and if the foul deprives his team of an opportunity to score.

As part of the clear path foul rule simplification, referees will no longer need to make judgment calls as to whether or not a defender was between (or had the opportunity to be between) the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity and the basket.  In addition, referees will no longer have to determine whether or not the defender was at any time ahead of the offensive player prior to committing the foul, nor will it be relevant whether or not a defender beat the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity into the frontcourt.  Further, plays of this nature will no longer have to originate in the backcourt (since transition scoring opportunities can originate in the frontcourt).

• The NBA expanded what is defined as a “hostile act” so that replay can be triggered more easily. Currently, to be a hostile act according to the NBA rulebook it has to be an altercation between players that is “not part of a normal basketball play” or where a player “intentionally or recklessly harms or attempts to harm another player.” Broadening the scope of this will give referees more chances to review off-ball or other altercations, and these are the kinds of serious situations the league should review.

Dirk Nowitzki likely to come off bench this season, coach Rick Carlisle says

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Dirk Nowitzki said something this summer rarely seen from future Hall of Famers who are the best player in their franchise’s history, he was willing to come off the bench.

It looks like Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is going to take Nowitzki up on that offer, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

That might have been happening at the start of the season anyway, as Nowitzki’s injured ankle is not 100 percent and you can be sure the Mavericks are not going to push him.

Nowitzki off the bench just makes more sense for the Mavericks. DeAndre Jordan is the starting center, Harrison Barnes is really a four (56 percent of his minutes were at that spot last season), rookie Luka Doncic is a ball-handling three, Wesley Mathews is finally healthy and should be the two guard, and Dennis Smith Jr. is at the point.

Then the bench is a throwback to Mavericks favorites with Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, plus Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell, and Devin Harris.

Nowitzki is going to get the grand farewell tour this season, as he deserves. He’ll start a few games, particularly his final one at home. But for the team this season, which has dreams of a playoff spot (as long a shot as that may be in the West), this is the best move.

 

 

Magic Johnson: I told Luke Walton not to worry if Lakers start slow with LeBron James

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The Heat started 9-8 in their first season with LeBron James. There were calls for Miami to fire coach Erik Spoelstra, maybe even from LeBron himself.

The Cavaliers started 19-20 in their first season with LeBron back. Coach David Blatt didn’t get off the hot seat until Cleveland fired him the next year.

How will Lakers coach Luke Walton fare coaching LeBron early this season?

Lakers president Magic Johnson, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“As I was talking to Luke [with GM Rob Pelinka], we said don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,” Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, said Thursday as the team’s brass met with the media. “We have seen that with LeBron [James] going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be really a good team.”

If the Lakers are committed to Walton, they did well to get ahead of the story. Last year, after LaVar Ball said Walton lost control of the team, the Lakers let the story get away from them.

These comments should also anchor Johnson. It’s one thing to soberly assess the situation, as Johnson can do now, and back Walton. It’s another to support the coach while dealing daily with the emotions of losing. Johnson can always look back to these comments as a reminder of his views if necessary.

And it could be necessary. The Lakers have some, um, interesting ideas about how they want to play. There could be significant growing pains.

But the Lakers seem ready to ride them out with Walton.

Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.