Last season, the Houston Rocket’s defense surprised everyone and almost got them to the NBA Finals. They switched every pick — on and off the ball — all season long, both as a philosophy that most teams could not exploit it, and in preparation for playing Golden State in the playoffs. It almost worked. The Warriors struggled for a while before adjusting (and leaning on Kevin Durant), and the Rockets were up double-digits in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals at home. While their James Harden/Chris Paul led offense was their biggest strength, the Rockets became the sixth best defensive team in the NBA last season.
Jeff Bzdelik, Mike D’Antoni’s right-hand man, deserves a lot of credit for that.
And now Bzdelik has decided he is going to step away from it all. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.
Bzdelik has been a coach at the college and NBA level for 40 years, he has earned the retirement and chance to relax a little. Like players, sometimes coaches getting ready for the season realize they just do not want to do this anymore.
Matt Brase also likely will have a few more things on his plate.
While the defensive foundation is there in Houston, it will be harder to execute without Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, both of whom left via free agency and both of whom can guard multiple positions, making switching more effective.
Give Victor Wembanyama and his handlers credit — they have got him out there playing. The management teams for a lot of future No. 1 picks would have their guy in bubble wrap by now, not doing anything but solo workouts in a gym, not wanting to risk any injury or risking his draft status.
Wembanyama — the 7’4″ prodigy on both ends of the floor — is on the court in the semi-finals of the French LNB league (the highest level of play in France). His team, Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92, is one win away from the LNB Finals. While they lost on Friday to Lyon-Villeurbanne (the best-of-five series is now 2-1 Boulogne-Levallois), Wembanyama put up some highlights worth watching.
The San Antonio Spurs will select Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft (June 22). San Antonio — and possibly Wembanyama — will make their Summer League debut at the California Classic Summer League in Sacramento in early July, before heading on to Las Vegas for the larger, official Summer League. While Wembanyama is playing for his French team in the playoffs, how much the Spurs will play him in the summer leagues — if at all — remains to be seen (top players have been on the court less and less at Summer League in recent years).
DENVER — The days between NBA Finals are filled with talk of adjustments. After an ugly Game 1, much of that falls on the Heat — what can Erik Spoelstra draw up to get Jimmy Butler better lanes to attack? How must the Heat adjust their defense on Nikola Jokick?
Spoelstra sees it a little differently.
“Scheme is not going to save us,” he said.
His point is straightforward, the team’s best adjustment is simply to play better. More effort, more resolve. The trio of Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson must do better than 2-of-23 from 3. The Heat can’t settle for jumpers like they did in Game 1, they have to attack the rim and draw some fouls, getting to the line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1). Their halfcourt defensive decisions have to be sharper. Those are not scheme-related things.
The Heat saw some of that in the second half, but Spoelstra made it clear the better last 24 minutes (particularly the last 12) was more about effort than the adjustments they made (such as playing more Haywood Highsmith and putting him on Jokić for a while).
“I never point to the scheme. Scheme is not going to save us,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be the toughness and resolve, collective resolve. That’s us at our finest, when we rally around each other and commit to doing incredibly tough things. That’s what our group loves to do more than anything, to compete, to get out there and do things that people think can’t be done.
“The efforts made that work in the second half, but we’re proving that we can do that with our man defense, too.”
Among the things many people don’t think can be done is the Heat coming back in this series. But Spoelstra is right, proving people wrong is what the Heat have done all playoffs.
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Frank Vogel won a title coaching two stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — in Los Angeles.
Now he will get the chance to coach two more stars with title aspirations, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in Phoenix. The Suns are finalizing a deal to make Vogel their new head coach, according to multiple reports. This is reportedly a five-year, $31 million deal.
New Suns owner Mat Ishbia — who took over in early February and immediately pushed for the Durant trade — reportedly has been the man at the helm of basketball operations since his arrival, making this primarily his choice. Doc Rivers and Suns assistant Kevin Young also were in the mix for the job.
Vogel may not be the sexiest hire on the board — and it’s fair to ask how much of an upgrade he is over Monty Williams — but it is a solid one. The Suns can win with.
Vogel is a defense-first coach who has had success in both Indiana — where he led the Paul George Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals twice — as well as with LeBron’s Lakers (Vogel struggled in Orlando, but that was more about the roster than coaching).
Vogel is a good coach for superstars because he is relatively egoless, low-key, and a strong communicator — this is not a big personality with a hard-line attitude. Instead, he works to get buy-in from his guys and gives his stars plenty of freedom on the offensive end. Durant and Booker will have their say in what the offense looks like, but Vogel will demand defensive accountability.
There is a “good chance” Kevin Young — the top assistant under Monty Williams who had the endorsement of Devin Booker for the head coaching job — will stay on as Vogel’s lead assistant, reports John Gambadoro, the well-connected host on 98.7 FM radio in Phoenix. If true, that be a coup for the Suns, who would keep a player favorite coach to be more of an offensive coordinator. It is also possible that Young and other assistant coaches (such as Jarrett Jack) will follow Williams to Detroit, where he was just hired (on a massive deal).
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In his first day on the job, Nick Nurse didn’t shy away from the hard topics and high expectations — he embraced them.
Nurse is the new 76ers head coach — and Doc Rivers is out — because the team was bounced in the second round. Again. Nurse said at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t see the way past this is to ignore the problem (from NBC Sports Philadelphia).
“We’re going to hit that head-on,” he said… “We know we’re judged on how we play in the playoffs. It was the same in Toronto. We hadn’t played that well (in the playoffs) and certain players hadn’t played that well, and all those kinds of things. So the reality is that’s the truth. I would imagine that from Day 1, we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to try to attack that. We’re going to have to face it and we’re going to have to rise to it.”
Nurse stuck with that theme through multiple questions about the past and what he will do differently. Nurse talked about the players being open-minded to trying new things, some of which may not work, but the goal is to get a lot of different things on the table.
He also talked about this 76ers team being championship-level and not getting hung up on that past.
“My first thought on that is this team could be playing tonight (in the Finals), along with some others in the Eastern Conference that wish they were getting ready to throw the ball up tonight… And as far as the rest of it, I look at it this way: I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it’s going to be only focused on what we’re trying to do going forward. … Whatever’s happened for the last however many years doesn’t matter to me.”
The other big question in the room is the future of potential free agent James Harden.
Harden has a $35.6 million player option for next season he is widely expected to opt out of, making him a free agent. While rumors of a Harden reunion in Houston run rampant across the league, the 76ers want to bring him back and Nurse said his sales pitch is winning.
“Listen, I think that winning is always the sell,” he said. “Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be a goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there’s a possibility of that.”
Whatever the roster looks like around MVP Joel Embiid, the 76ers should be title contenders. Nurse has to start laying the groundwork this summer, but his ultimate tests will come next May, not before.
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