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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

Rumor: Suns have tried to trade for Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, other point guards

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While you can make sense of the Suns’ trade for Ryan Anderson — if you believe De'Anthony Melton can turn into a quality NBA rotation guard, although the jury is still out on that — the deal sent Brandon Knight to the Rockets and left a burning question for the Suns:

Who is going to play point guard on this team next season?

The Suns spent this summer trying to construct a trade that would answer that question with a star player, but fell short, according to the well connected John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 in Phoenix.

That shouldn’t be a surprise — that the Suns tried and that they were shot down.

Right now the Suns have Shaquille Harrison and rookie Elie Okobo at the point. Harrison played 23 games for the Suns last season and showed a great work ethic and some real potential, he was solid when he was in for them. Okobo, out of France, was the 31st pick in last June’s draft and showed flashes at Summer League but has a lot of adjusting to do, and his game needs to mature, to really fit at the NBA level.

Neither of those are particularly good options. The Suns could put the ball in the hands of Devin Booker as their primary playmaker, and while he can get buckets he is not a true playmaking point guard and floor general. Those results have been mixed, at best.

Look for the Suns to make a trade and/or scour the waiver wire during camp, looking for someone who can give them quality minutes at the point. Because outside of the one slot the Suns have an interesting starting five — Booker, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton, with Josh Jackson and Mikail Bridges coming off the bench.

Rockets finally find taker for Ryan Anderson, trade him, De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix

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For 18 months, the Houston Rockets have been trying to unload the bloated contract of trade Ryan Anderson — who has two years, $41.7 million left on his deal — but could find no takers. Teams wanted multiple first-round picks and other sweeteners that were just too steep a price for Houston.

The Rockets finally found a trade partner in the Phoenix Suns, but it came at a steep price — promising rookie De'Anthony Melton. Of course, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN never sleeps and broke the story.

For Houston, they unload a salary they desperately wanted out from under in Anderson, a player who can hit threes but was basically unplayable in the postseason because of his defense. This is part of Houston’s money-saving summer (letting Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah-a-Moute go), the Rockets were $20.4 million over the tax line before this trade and will save about $11.4 million in salary/tax because of it. In return, they get a potential backup point guard in Brandon Knight who — if back to form after a torn ACL, something still up for debate — can give them solid minutes behind Chris Paul, or at least better ones than Michael Carter-Williams. Marquese Chriss is long and athletic and could fit in an uptempo style, it’s just hard to imagine him getting many opportunities on the deep Rockets roster.

For taking on an additional $5.6 million a year in salary, Phoenix gets a guy who will start at the four for them (splitting time with Josh Jackson) and a promising rookie in Melton, a player who sat out this college season because he was in the middle of the NCAA/FBI recruiting scandal. With that, Melton fell to 46th in the draft but at Summer League stood out as one of the rookies with real potential, averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, he played good defense and showed potential as a three-point shooter. It’s just Summer League, and Melton has a lot of development to do, he could well spend time in the G-League this season, but it’s a good roll of the dice by the Suns (plus they get off two contracts/players they wanted away from). One can envision the 6’4″ Melton and Suns star Devin Booker as a quality backcourt someday.

However, it means the Suns are going all in on Booker as the team’s primary playmaker and ball handler if they cannot find another point guard. That has had mixed results (at best) in the past, he’s really a two guard who can handle the ball at times, but we’ll see if the Rockets can find their point guard.

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.