Clint Capela

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Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook fit the pieces together? Will that be enough?

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This story tips-off NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video, and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

“We’ll figure it out. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be smooth at first, there are going to be ups and downs, and that’s part of an 82-game season. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ve caught a rhythm and everybody is on the same page going into the playoffs.”

That was a very rational sounding James Harden, echoing the mantra of his coach (for now) Mike D’Antoni: Great players figure out how to play together.

Harden enters this season paired with the third superstar who was going to help him bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Houston. First, there was Dwight Howard, an experiment that dissolved like Skittles in water. Then came Chris Paul, where the team had success but ran into the juggernaut of Golden State.

Now it’s Russell Westbrook — and from the moment the trade to land him went down, the questions about “how is this going to all work?” started to pop up.

We heard those same questions a couple of years ago: How are Harden and CP3 going to fit together on offense, they both need the ball in their hands? The answer turned out to be “very well, thank you” — the Rockets had one of the top two offenses in the league both seasons CP3 wore red. Both players had high usage rates but learned how to play off one another.

Can Harden and Westbrook — friends since high school who have played together before — find a fit that makes the Rockets even better?

Will that even be enough to lift Houston above the rest of the deep and very talented West?

There are no easy answers.

ABOUT THAT FIT…

The fit questions with Westbrook and Harden on offense focus on two key areas: Usage and three-point shooting.

Harden and Westbrook have been two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA in recent years (this is very different than when they played together on the Thunder years ago). Harden had a usage rate last season of 40.47, the second-highest in NBA history — behind Westbrook from two years ago. With Paul George on his team last season Westbrook’s usage rate came down to 30.9, still 10th highest in the NBA.

Harden also is the most isolation-heavy player in the NBA, with 48.7 percent of his possessions being in isolation last season (via NBA.com player tracking). Westbrook was ninth on that iso list.

Both players are used to having the ball in their hands and working without much help, so how is this going to work?

Probably better than people think. Eventually. As Harden said, “there are going to be ups and downs.” But one thing we will see is Houston getting the ball more to Westbrook to push the ball in transition — Chris Paul slowed the Rockets down the past couple of seasons (against D’Antoni’s instincts). Westbrook will speed them up, pushing from end-to-end and being a force of nature. And, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently, it’s easy to picture Harden being the trail man on those plays and stepping into wide-open threes.

“I think we’re going to get back to transition being more of a weapon for us,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the Houston Chronicle. “That was something Mike did very well his first year for us. Mostly because we were an elite halfcourt team, we got away from it. With a weapon like Russell in transition, you have to use it.”

Also expect D’Antoni to stagger the minutes for Westbrook and Harden a decent amount, making sure they each get their time to shine.

All that said, Harden is a much, much more efficient scorer in the halfcourt. When both stars are on the court and the play settles down, it would be a mistake by Houston to take the ball out of Harden’s hands. He is the best scorer in the league right now, with an unstoppable step-back, and he’s an elite playmaker for others. He wins games getting buckets and the Rockets need to let him keep doing that.

Maybe the most interesting thing to watch is D’Antoni’s impact on Westbrook’s shot selection.

Houston launches more threes than any team in the league, and players who go there and see D’Antoni’s flashing green light universally see an increase in attempts (usually by more than 20 percent). The past two seasons, Westbrook has averaged 4.8 three-point attempts per game, hitting 29.3 percent of them. Do the Thunder want him taking more threes?

Also, Westbrook took as many midrange shots per game as the Rockets entire team last season. Westbrook took 4.9 shots a game between the paint and the three-point arc (and he shot a dismal 31.8 percent on them), the Rockets as a team averaged 4.8. Those are not shots the Rockets want and you know they are going to encourage Westbrook to take the rock all the way to the rim and attack. He should, and try to start drawing fouls at a high rate again. If that results in a bump in efficiency for Westbrook, it’s good for everybody.

The bottom line: Harden and D’Antoni are right, star players tend to figure it all out. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did, with neither taking a big step back in usage rate. It’s been the same with other stars, including Harden and CP3. Westbrook can’t become a spectator when he doesn’t have the ball (as has been an issue at points in the past), but on offense expect the Rockets to figure it all out and be one of the top three offenses in the NBA.

WILL THAT BE ENOUGH TO WIN A TITLE?

This is the bigger question, and it rests on depth and defense.

Houston can roll out a closing five of Westbrook, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. That’s impressive. Few teams can put a better five on the court.

After that… things are less impressive. Austin Rivers is a solid backup point, and they have Danuel House and Gerald Green on the wing. Backup center, Tyson Chandler. Backup at the four, Gary Clark. Things get thin along the front line, and really once that first five is off the court this team is far less of a threat. Injuries can undo any team with title aspirations, but the Rockets, in particular, are not well equipped to be without one of their key guys for a lengthy stretch.

That’s another reason to expect D’Antoni to stagger Harden’s and Westbrook’s minutes during the regular season — he will want the offensive punch. Also expect some load management for the Rockets’ stars, even though neither is a fan of resting when healthy.

The bigger title question: Can this team defend well enough to win it all with Harden and Westbrook on the court a lot together in the playoffs?

The Rockets were 17th in the NBA in defense last season, although they were much better — 4.8 points per 100 possessions — better after the All-Star break (after assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik got them back in shape, but he’s in New Orleans now). Harden is a better defender than his reputation, he has quick hands and can get steals, but he’s not great on ball, and off-ball his focus can wander. Westbrook, for all his athleticism, also has a lot of defensive lapses and the Trail Blazers went at him at points in the playoffs a year ago.

Tucker is a quality, physical defender, and Capela can protect the rim, but can the Rockets slow down the West duos of LeBron James/Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard/Paul George, or even Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray? Nobody is going to stop those duos — just like nobody is going to stop Westbrook and Harden — but the teams that can best slow the other top duos down in the playoffs will have the best shot to advance. That’s where it’s hard to see the Rockets as elite.

Can Westbrook and Harden figure out how to play together and become an offensive force? The smart money is they do.

Is that going to be enough, or will the Rockets remain the second or third best team in the West? That is the real question, and Houston fans may not like the answer.

Lakers reportedly interested in Dwight Howard as possible Boogie Cousins replacement

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DeMarcus Cousins was a big part of the Lakers’ plans this season, but he is now out until next year with a torn ACL.

That leaves a big hole at center — the Lakers don’t want to play Anthony Davis extended minutes at the five — so the Lakers are looking at the free agent center market. Which is pretty slim.

One guy they want to talk to is former Laker Dwight Howard, currently on the Grizzlies roster (but expected to be bought out), reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The first question to think about here: Who benefits from this report being out there? I’m in no way questioning the validity of the report — Charania is one of the best-connected reporters around the NBA — but things are told/leaked to media members with perception and spin in mind. In this case, who benefits from this being out there? Draw your own conclusions, it’s just something to consider.

Howard’s last time in a Laker jersey did not exactly go well. In the same way the Titanic’s maiden voyage did not exactly go well. Howard rushed his return from back surgery to join a perceived superteam (with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant) but never got healthy and right, and it showed on the court. Plus, Howard’s “I want to have fun, joke around, and eat Skittles” approach to the game at that time clashed with Kobe’s “I am Batman” approach. Howard became the scapegoat in Los Angeles for a disaster of a season.

Some Lakers fans will not want to hear this but… Howard is not a bad option to seriously consider. For the three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18 Howard was a solid, above-average NBA center, who efficiently averaged low 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, plus was a big body on defense. Most importantly, he played at least 71 games in all of those seasons, he was healthy and reliable. Not great, certainly nothing near the Defensive Player of the Year and perennial MVP candidate he was early in his career (the guy the Lakers thought they were getting the first time around), but a solid NBA big who could play 28-30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use right now.

However, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season following another back surgery and some hamstring issues. He was not healthy. The Lakers have to seriously assess Howard’s health because both LeBron James and Davis are going to get plenty of DNP-Rest nights and the Lakers need role players they can count on to absorb minutes. Can Howard be that guy? Do the Lakers want to bet he can be?

Joakim Noah, who has had his health issues but impressed a lot of people around the league with his solid 41 games for Memphis the second half of last season, also is mentioned in the report. Noah is a free agent, brings a defensive mindset, is a good passer, and will not demand touches on the offensive end.

Also on the free-agent market is Kenneth Faried, who played well for 25 games in Houston last season when Clint Capela was out. Faried hustles, can get buckets (he averaged 12 points a game with the Rockets) but is not much of a defender at this point in his career.

Now what for Lakers after DeMarcus Cousins injury?

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“He was going to be a big part of what we’re going to do.”

Laker forward Kyle Kuzma summed it up well when asked about DeMarcus Cousins tearing his ACL during an off-season workout in Las Vegas this week. The Lakers were counting on a bounce-back season from Cousins — for him to play more like the guy from Game 2 of the NBA Finals against Toronto when he was vital to a Warriors win — because it would take some of the burden off of just-acquired Anthony Davis.

Make no mistake, Davis is the best center the Lakers have — he is arguably the best center in the game  (two seasons ago he was the First Team All-NBA center). However, Davis is not built like Joel Embiid and does not want to bang in the post for 30 minutes a night, he wants to play more at the four, face-up, run and space the floor, and play next to a traditional center (then slide to the five in certain situations/lineups, not unlike how the Warriors use Draymond Green at the five).

Cousins was to be that traditional center, and he already had chemistry with Davis from the time they played together in New Orleans.

Now, considering all his body has been through, it’s almost certain Cousins will miss the entire upcoming NBA season.

“I’m devastated for DeMarcus…” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Injuries are a part of the game, but you are talking about a player who has now dealt with the two most feared injuries for NBA players — the Achilles and ACL — each knocking you out for an entire season… It’s unheard of.”

For Cousins, it means another year of hard-work rehab. It’s a grind that will understandably wear on him.

For the Lakers… the options are not pretty.

There is nobody readily available who can provide near the level of production they hoped to get from Cousins.

The Lakers are not going to make Davis play the five more — he does not want to, and while it’s a longshot he leaves as a free agent next summer he still has that leverage and the Lakers want and need to keep him happy.

So who are the Lakers best options? Right now they have JaVale McGee as a traditional center and that’s it. Remember, they also only have a minimum contract to offer.

The name that bounced around as speculation at the Lakers practice facility (where Team USA practiced this week) was Joakim Noah. The veteran played solidly last season in Memphis after New York wanted him out, and with the Grizzlies he played respectable defense while scoring 7.1 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting. Noah also is a good passer and smart player. He would fit with their veteran mindset, if LeBron James signed off on bringing Noah in.

Nene also is available as a free agent, but at age 37 he showed considerable decline the past couple of seasons in Houston. Marcin Gortat is another option here, he showed a decline at age 35 last season, but at this point the Lakers can’t be too picky. If the Lakers want a good pick-and-roll big, Salah Mejri has been that for Dallas in recent years.

The best available free agent is the Manimal, Kenneth Faried. He is 29 years old, always plays hard, and averaged 12.9 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting in 25 games for the Rockets last season after joining them mid-January. He picked up the slack until Clint Capela returned from injury, but once that happened Faried fell out of the rotation. The main reason for that, and for his limited playoff role, is that Faried is not much of a defender anymore. But he can get buckets.

Another name — one that sends shivers down the spines of Lakers fans — is Dwight Howard. He was traded to Memphis this summer for C.J. Miles and is expected to be bought out. If/when that happens, he has played solidly in recent years. When healthy. And that’s the bigger concern, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season. On a team where both LeBron and Davis are going to get a lot of nights off, the Lakers need role players they can count on to absorb minutes, and Howard is just not that guy.

The Lakers could look to the trade market — guys such as Nerlens Noel could eventually become available, Detroit may listen to offers for Christian Wood — however, Los Angeles does not have a lot to give up in a deal.

Bottom line, the options for the Lakers are not good. While the loss of Cousins does not take them out of contender status, it makes reaching their potential that much harder. The margin for error has shrunk again.

They will need to add someone at center, but at this point it’s a case of holding their nose and taking whatever they see as the best fit.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook will be under load management next year

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It should be no surprise to anyone given what Kawhi Leonard went through last season, but both Russell Westbrook and James Harden will apparently be under load management next year with the Houston Rockets.

Load management will forever be in our lexicon thanks to Leonard. Because of this fancy term for “rest” the Toronto Raptors were able to mitigate his nagging injury issues, ones that showed Leonard still looking a bit gimpy through the 2019 NBA Finals. Leonard had been dealing with issues ever since Zaza Pachulia slid under him in the 2017 NBA playoffs.

Westbrook and Harden are both on wrong side of 30, and as the two main stars they will be expected to carry the load for the Rockets. But they will also need to make sure they can get all the way to the finish line, with the NBA Finals in June and being the end goal.

With that being said, Houston general manager Daryl Morey told Dan Patrick this week that both players will have a load management system in place to make sure they can go the distance.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense in a modern NBA where some teams are expected to have the amount of talent necessary to be able to win games without having to play all of its Stars.

The real question is whether Houston is actually that kind of team. Westbrook and Harden are great, but we don’t know how they will mesh together some years on from their time in Oklahoma City. Clint Capela had an… interesting year last season, and the Rockets aren’t as strong as they once were.

What this probably means is that Houston will try to win as many games as they can up front, then find a way throughout the spring to manage the load of both of its stars so they are healthy over the last few months of the year.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook forming unprecedented MVP backcourt

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By rejecting the Thunder’s sub-max contract-extension offer seven years ago, James Harden set two superstar careers in motion.

When last teammates, Russell Westbrook and Harden complemented each other fairly well. Westbrook was a young star, prone to wild play. Harden was a backup who provided steadiness. Both were very good. Neither was great. They leaned on each other.

Separated, both blossomed into Most Valuable Players.

Westbrook advanced through stardom then really took off when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Westbrook became an all-around marvel, averaging a triple-double with excellent clutch play in 2016-17. He won MVP, edging Harden in the closest vote of the last dozen years.

After multiple runner-up finishes, Harden snagged the award the next year. He led the Rockets with one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history then topped himself last year.

Now, Harden and Westbrook reunite in Houston. Barring a sudden drop, they’ll become the first teammates in NBA history who are both in-their-prime former MVP guards. The pairing offers incredible upside – but plenty of potential pitfalls.

Harden and Westbrook will become just the fourth duo to play together within three years of already having won MVP, joining:

  • Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017 Warriors)
  • Moses Malone and Julius Erving (1983 and 1984 76ers)
  • Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (1959 and 1960 Celtics)

Those other top-end twosomes had more positional balance. Curry is a guard, Durant a forward. Malone was a center, Erving a forward. Russell was a center, Cousy a guard.

Harden and Westbrook will be just the third set of former MVP guards ever to play together. The other two:

  • Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (2013 and 2014 Lakers)
  • Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy (1970 Cincinnati Royals)

By the time he got to Los Angeles, Nash was rapidly declining out of stardom. Bryant missed nearly all of their second season together due to injury. Nash was washed up by that point, anyway. After six years of retirement, Cousy – who was coaching the Royals – returned to play seven games mostly as a publicity stunt.

Harden, 29, is definitely still in his prime. Westbrook remained in his prime last season. Though there’s risk the 30-year-old reliant on his athleticism falls off quickly, Westbrook should remain pretty darn good next season.

That creates a tough question for the Rockets: How do they deploy both stars?

Star guards generally provide their value by handling the ball. That’s why super teams have rarely stocked up on multiple guards. The fit is especially tricky because both Harden and Westbrook are lead guards. Westbrook has spent his whole NBA career at point guard. Harden has become so good at point guard under Mike D’Antoni, there’s no going back now.

Harden is better than Westbrook. But Harden’s superior shooting also makes him a far better off-ball player than Westbrook. When Westbrook is away from the ball, defenses will sag off him and clog spacing.

Will the Rockets take the ball from their best player to give it to their second-best player? That doesn’t seem ideal.

Westbrook can attack scrambled defenses rotating back to him when he gets the ball from Harden. But closeouts won’t be coming hard at Westbrook.

One of the disappointing developments of Harden’s time with Chris Paul was Harden not developing his off-ball game. Harden just doesn’t seem into whizzing around screens, pressuring defenses without the ball.

Harden also hasn’t shown much pace in starting his moves in isolation. He often pounds the ball until the shot clock gets low, neutralizing his teammates. That was a problem when Harden played with Paul. It’ll be an even bigger issue with Westbrook.

Maybe Westbrook’s attacking style will spread to Harden. The duo could be dangerous if attacking quickly. But there are questions about whether an up-tempo system would wear down Harden before the end of a deep playoff run.

Harden and Westbrook can stagger their minutes as much as possible. That’ll allow each time to have the offense catered to him. But that will still leave significant time they must share the court.

And that’s only offensively. The defensive issues are far worse.

Harden is a lousy defender at everything other than guarding post-ups. Westbrook is sometimes active and often reckless defensively. His reliability on that end is low.

P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can cover for some miscues in front of them. But that’s a big ask, especially with Eric Gordon playing in three-guard lineups.

D’Antoni has never looked especially interested in defense. It’s hard to see who will address the inevitable problems, if they’re even solvable.

But the Rockets get a major talent boost with Westbrook. He’s better and more durable than Paul. The upgrade is evident with the picks surrendered and extra year of salary absorbed by Houston.

That’s what the Rockets are betting on – MVP-level talent, no matter how it comes.