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Jeff Bzdelik, assistant coach in charge of Rockets’ defense, retires

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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.

 

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

Joel Embiid learned shooting from YouTube videos of “white guys shooting 3 pointers”

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Joel Embiid is a treasure.

Not just a beast on the court and a future Defensive Player of the Year, not just a guy who can get buckets, he’s a guy who is loving his experience — and taking it to social media. He’s holding nothing back and jumped into American culture and the NBA with both feet.

That includes a fantastic story he penned at the Players’ Tribune. Embiid shot 30.8 percent from three last season and has to be respected out there, but how did he come up with his shooting form? Watching YouTube videos. And not just any YouTube vids, because he said he didn’t search “good shooting form” or “how to shoot three pointers” but instead…

Then the light bulb went off, man. I typed in the magic words.

WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Those are the guys I learned from on YouTube. Just random people shooting threes with perfect form. Me and Michael [Frazier II, who went on to play in college at Florida] would play after practice for hours, and I’d just try to imitate how they shot the ball, and I started being able to compete. It was crazy, because getting some range changed my whole game. Teams couldn’t play off me anymore, and I started doing a lot better.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how J.J. Redick learned. Stephen Curry just watched his father.

It’s worth reading the entire piece, Embiid talks about the misconceptions of what it was like growing up in Cameroon. How his parents were strict, how he used to sneak out of the house to play soccer, and when he wanted to play basketball his father told him to play volleyball. (For the record, Embiid would probably be really good at volleyball.) He talked about wanting to be Kobe, about being invited to Luc Mbah a Moute‘s camp in Cameroon and how that changed his life, about Tarik Black dunking on him at Kansas, about almost quitting, and about how his parents’ worth ethic and how much they valued education kept him going.

It’s a great story. And it includes some random white dudes on YouTube.

P.J. Tucker on Carmelo Anthony joining Rockets: ‘He’ll fit right in’

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Since the day the rumors started that Carmelo Anthony was headed to Houston, the question that came up was:

“Does he really fit there?”

Defensively he does not replace Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Offensively, would he accept a role? Outside Houston there have been a lot of questions, but within the team there have not been. GM Daryl Morey is on board, Chris Paul says it will work, and so did James Harden.

Add P.J. Tucker to the list. He was on ESPN’s The Jump and said this about Anthony (hat tip Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic).

I think this is going to fit better than some people think — Anthony wants to win, respects CP3 and Harden, and coach Mike D’Antoni is not going to try to force a square peg into a round hole like he did in New York. Anthony can still get a team buckets, still punish mismatches, and will get his touches.

The challenge is Anthony’s game is in decline, he is not as efficient as he once was. Father time wins every race and he’s starting to catch up with the 34-year-old Anthony. He’s not the player he was four or five seasons ago, and the guy the Rockets are getting is more rotation player than All-Star now, especially on a team where the Rockets don’t want to take the ball out of the hands of their two main stars.

But we shouldn’t bash Houston, Anthony will help them in areas. The Rockets are still the second best team in the West (in my book) and a contender, but their margin for error shrunk this summer. And it was already very small.

Rockets’ James Harden on Games 6 and 7 losses to Warriors: ‘It’s on my mind every day’

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The Rockets were near maximum levels of obsession with beating the Warriors last season.

After losing to Golden State in the Western Conference finals, how much more driven could Houston be?

James Harden, via Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

“It’s on my mind every day. It’s Game 6, Game 7, that’s what drives me every day,” Harden said.

This can be the Rockets’ edge next season. They should be extremely motivated after falling short last year. It’s the type of disappointment that sometimes propels good teams to greatness – or, in this case, a great team even greater.

The Warriors can’t match that. Sure, they’ll also be motivated and work hard. But after consecutive championships and three titles in the last four years, Golden State can’t simply summon the hunger that comes naturally in Houston.

While the Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins this offseason, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and settled for cheap replacements in Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis. The gap in roster quality between these teams increased this year.

To have a chance, Houston’s determination must surpass Golden State’s by a great deal.

Harden sounds like his might.