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Three Things to Know: Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much.

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much. There were hints of optimism in both the Jazz and Rocket locker rooms heading into a Thursday night TNT showdown. Utah had won 3-of-4 since the Kyle Korver trade with better spacing in their offense, and as a team they were knocking down shots and defending better. Houston was finally healthy — Chris Paul, Nene, and the rest were back — and rested, and after a couple of recent wins thought they were turning the corner.

The question Thursday was “are the changes for real?”

For Utah, the answer appears to be yes. For Houston… there is a lot of work to do. The Jazz blew the Rockets out 118-91.

At the heart of this outcome was the genuinely improved Jazz offense (fourth best in the NBA over the last five games) picking apart the struggling switching defense of the Rockets (fifth worst in the NBA this season).

In the second round of last year’s playoffs, Houston’s switching defense stymied the Jazz offense and was critical to a 4-1 series win. Utah’s coaching staff spent the offseason studying how to better attack the trend of switching defenses and their work was on full display Thursday. Utah focused on getting James Harden (or other smaller defenders) switched onto Derrick Favors, then had the Jazz big pound them inside on the roll, to the tune of a game-high 24 points. Utah also used crisp ball movement (credit Ricky Rubio) to pick apart the missed help rotations (or Clint Capela just playing back to protect the rim) to get clean looks from three.

Houston may be getting healthy, they may have defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik back on the bench, but their defense remains a mess and is going to hold them back until it improves. The Jazz are playing smarter and better of late, but any good offense is going to pick that defense apart right now.

None of that is what people are really talking about out of this game.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert was ejected 2:47 into the contest when, after two very questionable calls (the second an obvious flop by Harden), he vented his frustration by knocking drinks and powder on the scorer’s table onto the court.

Gobert gets his share of the blame here — he lost his cool and that kind of swipe knocking stuff off the scorer’s table is going to mean an ejection every time. He owned up to that after the game.

If you know me, you know I generally scoff at all conspiracy theories (alien abduction, Bigfoot, frozen envelops, 9/11, George Soros’ plans, and the list goes on), but I buy into this theory that was popular on NBA Twitter Thursday: The referees in this game were targeting Gobert after he got a $15,000 fine for calling out officials for treating the Jazz like a small market team and saying “Every night has been the same s***.” Referees protect their “fraternity” because they don’t think the NBA league office does it well enough. So Gobert was hit with a bad foul call on literally the opening tip, then picked up a quick second on the Harden flop. The NBA league office will push back on all of that, but to me, it’s pretty obvious. A message was being sent, then a frustrated Gobert played right into it.

What’s most important for the Jazz is they didn’t let it change how they played — if anything it fired them up. Utah stuck to the game plan, and Houston has plenty of flaws to exploit right now.

2) LeBron James reportedly wants Carmelo Anthony on the Lakers. Does L.A. want that? Since the other games last night were duds (Utah/Houston kind of was, too), let’s talk about what everyone seems to be talking about:

LeBron James reportedly would like Carmelo Anthony to join the Lakers.

Anthony is currently in limbo, on the Rockets roster but away from the team, not playing while both the Rockets and his agent look for a landing spot. ‘Melo could be waived by the Rockets right now, however, if no team claimed him off waivers the over-the-tax Rockets would be stuck with his salary on their books. Houston wants to avoid that. So, they are looking for a trade, something that cannot happen for him until Dec. 15 because he signed last summer. It’s a holding pattern.

This new rumor/report strikes me as LeBron wanting to help out a friend, although LeBron and his camp reportedly think Anthony could help the Lakers. In theory, yes he could, but Anthony could have helped the Rockets if he was willing to accept a role (coming off the bench) with limited minutes and touches. He couldn’t and didn’t. Let’s be blunt: Anthony is at the point with his declining game that he is a role player in this league — a future Hall of Famer, no doubt, but right now that’s not where his game is at. He has, by all accounts, not accepted that reality and wants a bigger role and to be treated with the deference of a star. Is that what the Lakers want to bring into their locker room?

The Lakers have a full roster, they would have to waive someone to make room for Anthony, and before the season the Lakers were one of the teams that was clear they didn’t think he fit with where they were headed.

There is one interesting thing to watch out of this: Just how much leverage, how much power does LeBron have in the organization? He has not made a formal request to management about ‘Melo, and likely will not, but his desire is out there now. In Cleveland, where LeBron signed a series of one-year deals to keep pressure on Dan Gilbert and his franchise, they might have acquiesced to keep LeBron happy. But in Los Angeles LeBron signed a 3+1 contract, he’s back next season no matter what. Will the Lakers still give LeBron what he wants? I’d be surprised, but it’s worth watching.

3) Just how valuable is the three-point shot to winning? Maybe not as much as you think. In the first great book on NBA analytics — Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper — he put forward the “four factors” that were key to winning games, which is now accepted as common knowledge around the league. The biggest key is shooting (he used eFG%), second was turnover percentage, third was defensive rebounding (in large part as a way to measure forcing missed shots), and then getting to the free throw line.

How much has the onslaught of threes in the NBA changed that? Not much. NBC’s own Tom Haberstroh did the math correlating box score stats from every game this season to winning and the results were one for the old school.

With that in mind, the most important stat on the traditional box score is … field-goal percentage! Basketball purists, rejoice! If you shoot better from the floor than your opponent, you’re probably going to win the game. In fact, teams this season are 246-69 (.781) when they win the FG% column….

The team that won the defensive rebound battle is the next-most likely to win, going 225-71 (.760) this season. Don’t believe it? Look at the league’s top defensive rebound teams: Milwaukee, Philly, Portland, L.A. Clippers, — yeah, they’re really good this season!…

All right, 3-pointers have to be the next most pivotal category in the box score, right? Nope. Plain ol’ field goals made is still more important than the 3-ball. The team that reigned supreme in the field goals column went 225-72 (.758), regardless of where they took them.

We can keep going. Turns out that assists (.699), rebounds (.690) and 2-point field goal percentage (.689) are still more tied to the win column than 3-pointers made.

This does not mean Gregg Popovich’s obstinance is entirely right because the math is still 3>2 and if you live on a heavy diet of midrange jumpers while your opponent gets good looks at the three ball, you’re in trouble.

But it does mean the simple things are true: Hit more shots than your opponent and you win. It seems obvious, but sometimes we can get away from all that, and this is a reminder not to.

Report: Despite rumor to contrary, Suns would draft Zion Williamson over Ja Morant with No. 1 pick

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The rumor the Suns might draft Ja Morant over Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick? It was never that believable.

Now comes concrete reporting to the contrary.

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

The Suns need a point guard and clearly like Morant. But Williamson is the far-superior prospect. That’s the good reason to take Williamson. There are even bad reasons, too – like Williamson’s marketability.

Remember, there’s only a 14% chance Phoenix gets the No. 1 pick. So, this probably won’t matter.

But good for the Suns settling this quickly. The rumor only made them look bad (which might have been part of the point of people spreading it). James Jones’ regime has hit at least a tolerable level of credibility.

Report: Lakers offered to retain Luke Walton as coach after Magic Johnson resigned

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Johnson clearly intended to fire Lakers coach Luke Walton. Then, Johnson stunningly resigned as Lakers president.

Still, the Lakers and Walton “mutually agreed to part ways,” as team described it.

Most people figure Walton got fired, but had his departure put into kinder terms. But maybe it wasn’t that simple.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

sources say Walton was given the chance to stay on as head coach in a subsequent meeting that included owner Jeanie Buss. But Walton, who was already aware that Buss had given Johnson the full authority to fire him and who had long harbored concerns about general manager Rob Pelinka’s style, was ready to head for the exits himself.

Why is this leaking now? Walton is being sued for sexual assault. The Lakers say they didn’t know about the alleged incident while employing him. Kelli Tennant claims it occurred while Walton was still a Warriors assistant coach, and it didn’t become public until after he left Los Angeles. That the Lakers invited him to return supports their claim (or opens the door for them to look far worse if it turns out they did know).

From a basketball standpoint, it’s unclear under what terms Walton could have returned. Perhaps, the Lakers would have required him to change his coaching staff and/or schemes. It might not have been as simple as Walton continuing on the job as he was doing it previously.

Even if he stayed, Walton would have been on the hot seat. His record was underwhelming, and LeBron James‘ camp reportedly wanted him gone.

He found a soft landing spot with the Kings. The security of the Sacramento job might have been more appealing than continuing with the Lakers.

Also add Walton to the list of people concerned about Pelinka. For better or worse, the Lakers appear to be going forward with Pelinka in charge, anyway.

Igor Kokoskov joins unfortunate ranks of head coaches fired after first NBA season

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Igor Kokoskov worked 18 years as an NBA assistant coach. The Serbia native worked tirelessly to convince teams he was more than just a mentor for European players. Finally, the Suns hired him as their head coach.

“It’s a dream job,” Kokoskov beamed. “And it’s a special day for me.”

Less than a year later, Phoenix fired him.

What a tough business.

The Suns gave Kokoskov a roster ill-equipped to win. They were comically thin at point guard. They had one of the NBA’s least-experienced teams. Even rising star Devin Booker still has significant flaws that inhibit his ability to win. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler appeared apathetic in Phoenix.

And now Kokoskov will pay the price for the Suns’ 19-win season.

His time as an NBA head coach is over already, and he might not get another opportunity. Kokoskov is the first coach to get fired after his first season as an NBA head coach since Mike Dunlap with Charlotte in 2013.

Here’s every coach to get fired after only one season, or less, of his first head-coaching job since the NBA-ABA merger. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following year.

Season Tm Coach W L Future jobs
2018-19 PHO Igor Kokoskov 19 63
2012-13 CHA Mike Dunlap 21 61
2010-11 GSW Keith Smart 36 46 SAC
2008-09 DET Michael Curry 39 43
2007-08 CHA Sam Vincent 32 50
2003-04 PHI Randy Ayers 21 31
2003-04 TOR Kevin O’Neill 33 49
2000-01 WAS Leonard Hamilton 19 63
1999-00 WAS Gar Heard 14 30
1999 DEN Mike D’Antoni 14 36 PHO, NYK, LAL, HOU
1997-98 DEN Bill Hanzlik 11 71
1996-97 PHI Johnny Davis 22 60 ORL
1995-96 TOR Brendan Malone 21 61
1993-94 DAL Quinn Buckner 13 69
1992-93 SAS Jerry Tarkanian 9 11
1987-88 PHO John Wetzel 28 54
1983-84 SAS Morris McHone 11 20
1980-81 CLE Bill Musselman 25 46 MIN
1979-80 LAL Jack McKinney 10 4 IND, KCK
1977-78 SEA Bob Hopkins 5 17
1976-77 BUF Tates Locke 16 30

Of the 21 coaches fired in or following their first season as an NBA head coach, only five – Keith Smart, Mike D’Antoni, Johnny Davis, Bill Musselman and Jack McKinney – got another head-coaching job. Kokoskov faces long odds.

At least he got to finish the season. Phoenix had a late 5-2 stretch that included wins over the Bucks and Warriors. That could be a selling point for Kokoskov.

Randy Ayers (2003-04 76ers), Gar Heard (1999-00 Wizards), Jerry Tarkanian (1992-93 Spurs), Morris McHone (1983-84 Spurs), Bill Musselman (1980-81 Cavaliers), Bob Hopkins (1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics) and Tates Locke (1976-77 Buffalo Braves) all got fired during their first seasons as NBA head coaches. Jack McKinney (1979-80 Lakers) lost his job due to a bicycle crash during the season, and Los Angeles officially fired him after the season to keep Paul Westhead, who guided the team to a title in McKinney’s absence.

The Suns weren’t necessarily wrong to fire Kokoskov. Under his watch, they were sloppy and undisciplined and had chemistry problems – areas where the head coach usually gets credit or blame. General manager James Jones deserves a chance to hire his own coach.

Kokoskov might be a good coach. Even if he’s not, he could grow into one.

But he didn’t do enough to secure his job, as tall as that task might have been.

The above list is filled with coaches who had awful records. McKinney is the only one with a winning record, and his situation was complicated by the bike crash. Michael Curry (2008-09 Pistons) is only first-time head coach to take his team to the playoffs and still get fired since the merger, but Detroit had a losing record and got swept in the first round.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate Kokoskov didn’t get a better chance to prove himself. His job security took a major hit when the Suns fired the general manager, Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov before the coach’s first season even began. Kokoskov survived rumors of a potential firing in February, but that was clearly only a stay of execution.

The Suns’ problems go way above the head coach, and Kokoskov’s experience in Phoenix could dissuade potential candidates from replacing him.

But there are only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs. Except for the most-coveted candidates, many coaches would rush to take this job.

As precarious as it can be.

Blake Griffin joined in on the “refs you suck” chant in Detroit

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The Pistons didn’t get swept by the Bucks because of the officiating, but the calls did frustrate Detroit and their fans throughout the series. (Good luck finding a fan base that doesn’t believe the officials have it in for them.)

During the Pistons’ Game 4 loss, frustrated fans started a “refs you suck” chant that reverberated throughout the arena. Blake Griffin got in on the act, quietly joining in with the chants.

Griffin continued to express his frustration with how the game was officiated from the podium after the game.

Griffin missed the first two games of the series, then tried to play through a knee issue the last two, wearing a bulky brace the entire time. Griffin made plays and the Pistons looked better, but it was never going to be enough. When his pain caught up with him and Griffin was taken out of the game in the fourth, Pistons fans gave him a standing ovation.