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Three Things to Know: Durant’s pending free agency looms over Green suspension

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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) Kevin Durant’s pending free agency looms over Draymond Green suspension. It has been the subtle — and, at times, not so subtle — subtext to the entire Golden State season, the cloud casting a shadow over everything:

What is Kevin Durant going to do as a free agent next summer?

That was the foundation of what Draymond Green used to go back at Durant after Green did not pass him the ball on the final play of regulation against the Clippers, with Green saying Durant was making the season about himself. It was the foundation of why GM Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr came down so hard on Green with a one-game suspension (costing Green more than $120,000).

It shows the cracks in that Warriors foundation.

Maybe not big enough ones to keep them from winning the title this season. The players on the roster are too good and too professional for that. However, the cracks may well be big enough to break the team up next summer and send Durant elsewhere.

After the Warriors, without Green or the still-injured Stephen Curry, barely held off the Atlanta Hawks for a win Tuesday night, everyone around the team played down the incident.

It all came to a head when a frustrated Durant called out Green on the bench after the final play of regulation against the Clippers, which we all have seen — Green got the rebound and decided to go coast-to-coast and create himself, rather than defer to Durant, who was clapping his hands and calling for the ball.

Green is vocal, emotional, and will defend himself even when he knows he is wrong (and he was wrong not to give up the rock in that situation, other teammates called him out for it, too). Green, apparently showing off a built-up frustration (that, reportedly, is not just his own) came back hard at Durant calling him a “b****” and that is officially what got him suspended.

But Green also stomped into the space where all season the Warriors organization top-to-bottom has walked on eggshells — Durant’s looming free agency. Green reportedly said Durant has made it the season all about himself by very publicly keeping his options open (right out of the LeBron James playbook). Klay Thompson is a free agent next summer as well but has made it clear at every step he doesn’t want to leave the Warriors. Green is a 2020 free agent but has followed Thompson’s path. Durant has gone a different direction, and now all the Warriors have to answer media questions about KD’s future at every road stop.

Mentally, the Warriors players and organization are prepared for Durant to leave next summer. However, when Green threw Durant’s free agency out in the middle of the room and threw a light on it, the organization felt it had to signal to Durant it has his back. Ideally, the Warriors want to keep KD and the suspension — rather than a fine and handling it internally — was part of that. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a unique player and that emotion is part of what makes him one of the top 15-20 players in the league. Management felt Green crossed a line this time, but it’s also a message to Durant that the Warriors will back him.

All of that still hangs in the air in the Warriors’ locker room. How Green responds to this long-term — how pissed will he be the franchise backed KD? — now hangs out there, too.

Don’t think that this will get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together. These are adults and professionals, they can work together enough to get past it.

But next July when free agency hits, remember all of this.

2) Rockets win in Denver shows they have found their stride again. Maybe. Tuesday night up in the Rockies an interesting Xs and Os battle was going on.

In the first half Denver did what a growing number of teams have tried with Houston this season: Rather than switch when James Harden gets a high pick (allowing him to isolate on a big man or the victim of his choice), they double and trap Harden, taking the ball out of his hands. The idea is “make someone else beat us, not the MVP.”

Denver’s gambit worked in this sense: Harden didn’t get his first bucket until 5:22 was left in the second quarter, and he was officially 1-of-5 with three points in the first half. However, Denver’s strategy didn’t work in this sense: Chris Paul had 14 points in the half, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon each had 9, the Rockets still put up 54 points with a 117 points per 100 possessions net rating. The other guys did step up and looked like they might beat Denver.

Sensing it was not working as well as hoped, and because the Rockets were adjusting and getting better looks, early in the second half Denver went back to switching. Harden predictably tore the Nuggets apart and finished with 22 points, and 11 assists and the Rockets pulled away late for the 109-99 win.

That’s not why the Rockets seem to be finding their stride again. Rather, for the last couple of games Houston’s defense has looked better — not great, but close to last season’s version than we have seen this season. If the Rockets start defending well then they will be a threat again.

3) Good news: Caris LeVert’s injury not nearly as severe as it looked. When you watched the video of Caris LeVert’s injury, you couldn’t help but flash back to Gordon Hayward and Paul George and some of the other more gruesome and terrible injuries we have seen in the NBA, and in sports, in recent years. It looked that bad for the young Nets star, so bad other players were crying on the sideline.

Fortunately, it out it was not that bad. LeVert’s diagnosis is a dislocated right foot, but without a fracture and with relatively minor ligament damage. No surgery is required and the Nets said he is expected to be back on the court this season.

That is amazing news.

Report: Most NBA executives expect Jimmy Butler trade saga to end by early next month

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The Rockets reportedly offered the Timberwolves four first-round picks for Jimmy Butler.

But that trade wouldn’t work on its own. Houston must send out matching salary.

Previous talks centered on Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, but the Rockets reportedly wouldn’t include Tucker. However, Houston will be able to aggregate the salaries of Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss on Wednesday (two months after acquiring them from the Suns).

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

With leaks, it’s worth considering who would leak the information and why. In this case, a common theory was the Rockets leaked it to pressure Minnesota into making a deal.

Another theory: The Timberwolves plan to take Houston’s offer once Knight and Chriss become aggregation-eligible and leaked it to try to drum up a better offer first. That could explain the widespread expectation Minnesota will complete a trade soon.

We’ll see whether this sparks action from other Butler suitors. Four first-round picks sounds like a whopping haul, but taking back Knight’s toxic contract and the protections of the picks would cut into the package’s value for the Timberwolves. So, it isn’t necessarily a great offer to beat, but it might be time for other teams to make Minnesota their last best offer.

With 1-3 start, Rockets reportedly ramp up Jimmy Butler trade efforts again

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The weekend before the NBA season started, trade talks to send Jimmy Butler to the Heat went far enough that Minnesota and Miami shared medical data on players potentially in the deal. Then, somehow, the trade fell apart on the three-yard line. After that the season started, Miami backed off some, and there seemed to be little movement on the Butler trade front.

Now the Rockets have started 1-3 with an offense and defense in the NBA’s bottom 11, and they will be without James Harden for at least a couple of games and new wing defender James Ennis longer than that.

Probably not so coincidentally comes a report the Rockets are ramping up efforts to trade for Jimmy Butler again. From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets are making a renewed bid to acquire Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Jimmy Butler, including four future first-round draft picks in their most recent offer, league sources told ESPN…

Houston’s push represents a desire to sacrifice some long-term roster flexibility and go all-in with a legitimate third star to partner with All-NBA guards James Harden and Chris Paul in pursuit of a championship.

The Rockets’ offer constitutes the maximum number of first-round picks allowable in a deal, factoring in league rules that necessitate no first-rounders can be conveyed in successive years, and no pick can be traded farther out than seven seasons.

How exactly would this work?

If one of those picks doesn’t convey because of protection put on it, this could get insanely convoluted.

A few thoughts here:

• Houston one of the teams with some urgency to trade for Butler because they do not have the cap space to sign him as a free agent next summer. Miami is in that same situation. Things are different for teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, who will have the cap space next summer and will offer less because they are willing to wait.

• Rockets GM Daryl Morey realizes his window is now and that getting past the Warriors will require bold moves (and a bit of luck still). He is taking his home run swing. This would be an all-in move for the next two seasons to get a ring, and the price would come after that when the team is capped out, Chris Paul is 37, the window has closed and this team is very, very expensive.

• Houston and Minnesota talked before, and a deal could be done involving Eric Gordon or P.J. Tucker (both of them together would make the numbers work). That seemed to gain little traction.

• Houston still needs to send salary back to Minnesota to balance this out, it just can’t be picks. Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss together would make the numbers work and they can be traded on October 31.

• Is four future first-round picks going to work for Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves? One of the priorities in this trade for Minnesota is to stay good enough now to make the playoffs, a draft pick heavy trade would be focused more on the future and less on this season. It also doesn’t get rid of any bad contracts on the Timberwolves. Plus, the 2019 pick for sure and likely the 2021 one will not be high in the first round.

• Is this leak designed to pull Miami back to the negotiating table in a serious way? Pat Riley has taken a step back from the talks after the last deal fell through and the talks have been recently described as “dormant.”

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: ‘I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.’

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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.

Anthony Davis-led Pelicans thrash Rockets in opener

AP Photo/Michael Wyke
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HOUSTON (AP) — Anthony Davis couldn’t help but notice James Harden‘s freshly minted MVP trophy sitting at midcourt before a ceremony during warmups on Wednesday night.

After Harden hoisted the trophy for the first time before the Toyota Center home crowd and received a few MVP chants throughout the night, Davis began to make an MVP case of his own.

Davis had 32 points, 16 rebounds and a career-high eight assists while Nikola Mirotic scored 30 points to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 131-112 win over the Houston Rockets in their season opener.

“When it was sitting there before the game, I glanced at it, and then I had to lock back in for the game,” Davis said. “That stuff will take care of itself. As long as we keep doing what we’re doing as a team, the rest will come on its own.”

Davis added three blocks and three steals, while Mirotic shot a sizzling 6 of 8 from 3-point range, and Julius Randle had 25 points off the bench.

“We moved the basketball and we made shots, but we put our hats on and defended,” Davis said. “To come out with a win against a team like that after the season they had and coming off the season we had, we wanted to come out and set a tempo for ourselves.”

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 21 points off the bench, while P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul both added 19 points. James Harden had 18 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

“A little bit of legs and non-communication and giving them easy points, easy opportunities — a little bit of everything,” Harden said. “But first game, you just continue to build those good habits and continue to get better every single game. We’ll be all right.”

The Pelicans dominated the first half, taking an early lead and never relinquished it as they hammered the undersized Rockets in the paint. New Orleans led 71-54 at the break and led by 29 points in the second half. The Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 54-37.

“It was a good win for us, but to be honest, we feel like if we play at the level we’re supposed to — we’re not surprised,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We played exactly how we have to in order to beat that team.”

New Orleans dominated Houston in paint scoring, 76-44, and also shot 40 percent on 10 of 25 shooting from 3, compared with a rusty 33.3 percent (16 of 48) from the Rockets.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t seem overly alarmed by the defensive display, praising New Orleans’ energy.

“They played harder, longer and did a better job,” D’Antoni said. “They played great, but at the same time, there was a period in there where we got really tired and then trying to figure things out, being tired doesn’t work, and we didn’t have the energy and we kind of let go of the rope at the end of the first half. We obviously have some things to work on, we’ve got to get our legs and then go after it.”

Coming off the bench for Houston with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Rockets offseason pickup Carmelo Anthony received a standing ovation when he entered the game wearing his trademark headband and the No. 7. Anthony made his first two shot attempts, the first, from 3, and finished 3-of-10 shooting for nine points in 27 minutes.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: C Jahlil Okafor (right ankle sprain) entered the game late in the fourth quarter, playing less than two minutes.

Rockets: PG Michael Carter-Williams (left knee soreness) played on a minutes restriction as a precaution, with D’Antoni setting the cap around 15 minutes. Carter-Williams played 16 minutes and had 10 points. … Centers Nene (right calf tightness) and Zhou Qi (left knee sprain) did not play.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

Before the game, the Rockets honored the life of late Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen on the big screen wearing a Portland hat, offering a tribute and moment of silence. Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who also owned the Seattle Seahawks, died Monday in Seattle from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his company Vulcan Inc. He was 65.

A PERFECT 10

Elfrid Payton‘s minimalist triple-double made him the first player to record exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a single game since March 2, 2013 when Kyle Lowry did it for Toronto. It was Payton’s 11th career triple-double.

HE SAID IT

“For all you analytics guys, we’re not winning 82 (games) this year. That’s done, that’s all about how it’s been proven.” – D’Antoni.

UP NEXT

Pelicans: Host Kings on Friday.

Rockets: At Lakers on Saturday.