Are The Rockets Set To Take Off In The NBA?: Harden And Houston Having Fun

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 19, 2016

This is the most fun Houston Rockets’ James Harden has had in years. Even by his admission.

“I’ve been having fun all year, even in games we lose,” the NBA’s assist leader said in a blowout 126-109 win over the Portland Trailblazers. “This is a special group of guys, coaching staff included, and this locker room is definitely enjoying this ride right now.”

And what a ride it has been.

Harden, the eight-year veteran, picked third by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 Draft, is carving up NBA defences, doing so effectively and, more importantly, efficiently. Averaging a near triple-double, Harden’s 28.5 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 12.5 assists per game make him an even bigger all-round offensive threat, with NBA teams unable to figure out how to contain him when he’s firing on all cylinders.

Those rebounding and assists numbers are career highs by some margin*, yet have barely eaten into his offensive efficiency as he continues to score the ball at a near career-high* while shooting 47% from the field and 37% from three-point land, both career highs for Harden as a Houston player.

Things were not this rosy as recently as eight months ago.

After barely scraping through into the 2016 Playoffs**, the Rockets were pitted against a historic Golden State Warriors team, that would have swept them, if not for a game winning three pointer in Game 3 at Houston by none other than, well, James Harden.

That Houston made the 2016 Playoffs, was in itself a surprise. Discord plagued the team’s locker rooms right from the start of the season as the Rockets began with a dismal 4-7 record***. Harden, the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up, showed up for the season disinterested, his fitness (or lack thereof) and body language, making that message loud and clear. Dwight Howard, brought in to be the cornerstone of a dynasty that Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey was trying to build, did not help matters as he too played accomplice to the lethargy of the Rockets’ star. The organisation reacted by firing Kevin McHale and replacing him with J.B. Bickerstaff, the former assistant coach.

That move rejuvenated Harden, who went on to post career highs in nearly all categories, and the rest of the team. They still struggled during the season, finding their groove in spurts, but eventually stumbled over the Playoffs finish line.

The Mike D’Antoni masterstroke

It was, however, in the summer of 2016 that Morey did his best work as Rockets GM this far. Recognising the offensive force that Harden is, Morey decided to switch directions and create an offensive powerhouse in Houston. In addition to locking up Harden with a four-year, $118 million contract, he snagged Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two prolific scorers capable of dropping 30 on a given night. But the master stoke was hiring Michael. That is Mike D’Antoni for the uninitiated.

One of the greatest offensive masterminds to walk the sidelines, D’Antoni’s penchant for quick possessions and blistering offense makes the Rockets the perfect team for him.

D’Antoni’s check list:

  • Highly skilled offensive wingmen – 2. Check.
  • Aggressive big men to set screens and crash the board – 2. Check.
  • Reliable and Effective bench guys – 3 to 4. Check.
  • All-Star Point Guard to spearhead the offensive juggernaut – 1. Double check.

And that’s why this is working.

Offensively, the Rockets feature in the top 10 in nearly every category. They are scoring 108.9 points a game (fourth in the NBA), are shooting 46.4% from the field (fourth) and 37.4% from deep (fifth), and, thanks to Harden’s new found confidence in running an offense, 60.8 % of their baskets have come from assists, good for seventh in the league. More importantly, they have achieved all this with a +/- efficiency of 3.8 (10th).

A mild cause for worry would be their pace (possessions per 48 minutes), which at 99.77 puts the Rockets at just above the middle of the pack ranked at 13th.

Then, there is the Rockets’ defence.

Defensively, the Rockets are still below average. It does not help that the team let go of Howard, brought on two wingmen (Gordon and Anderson) who are not exactly known for their defensive abilities, and a coach who heavily favours the “offence is our defence” strategy.

Trevor Ariza’s 2.3 steals per game (fourth in the NBA) and Clint Capela’s 1.8 blocks per game (11th) keep the Rockets somewhat honest on defence. However, the team can barely hold its opponents to 105 points per game (17th), and gets scorched for 45.4 % from the field (20th).

There is some hope.

Defensive specialist, Patrick Beverly is back and suited up against the Portland Trail Blazers. That should take care of any defensive slack on the second unit. And although he is on the wrong side of 30, the Rockets will take any defensive intensity that veteran Nene brings to the team.

It is important to remember that, the Rockets’ still have to gel as a seamless unit to ensure a smoother flow on offence and better communication on defence. That responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of Mike D’Antoni, and one of the most prolific offensive guards the NBA has ever seen, Harden.

At least, this time around he is having fun.

*His previous career highs: 29.0 ppg, 7.5 apg and 6.1 rpg (2015-16)

**Houston and Utah were tied for a playoff spot up until their last regular season game

***Fresh off a 56-win 2014-15 season, and taking care of both Dallas (4-1) and LA (4-3) before falling to the eventual champions, Warriors (4-1).

When The Cubs Become Wolves: Minnesota’s Rise In The NBA

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 13, 2016

“This is a unique opportunity for us to go for the championship again. Not for one year. Not for two years. But over many years if we can put this together right”: Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If.

Things are not right just yet.

This past summer, while other teams were in the hunt for a meeting with Kevin Durant, or maybe even Al Horford, the Timberwolves shook things up by strengthening their sidelines. Taylor dished out a whopping $10 million to lock up Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. The move, he believed, could lead them to the Promised Land, an NBA Championship, especially with the incredibly young but exceptionally talented roster they put together.

Karl-Anthony Towns has three double-doubles this season and has breached the 30 point mark twice (32 vs Denver and 33 vs Oklahoma City) this season. His decision making ability has matured, as he moves the ball around at 2.9 assists per game and is shooting 52% from the field. He has also added range, lighting it up at an unreal 44% from beyond the arc.

Andrew Wiggins, with the exception of the outing against Oklahoma City, is averaging 24 points a game while shooting a blistering league-leading 64% from beyond the arc, and doing everything right this season to hit the All-Star All-NBA ceiling that both experts and NBA personnel have raised for him, well in time.

Minnesota is ranked fourth in offensive rating and are scoring nearly 107 points a game (ranked 11th). They lead the league in 3-pt percentage (41%) and shooting 46% from the field. On the flipside, they rank 19th in defensive rating with opponents dropping 104 points per game against them (ranked 17th). They have a -1.9 plus-minus rating and, most worrying of all, are allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, nearly tying them with Indiana’s league-worst record.

Therein lies the problem. And the confusion.

The inexperience is hurting

Tom Thibodeau, the defensive savant who relied on airtight defence to help Boston to its first championship in 22 years and who made the Bulls relevant again, has not been able to get his young core to buy into his defensive philosophies.

This should not have been hard at all. After all, as President of Basketball Operations, Thobideau assembled the roster to suit his vision. With all the length and versatility they possess, and nearly every player on their roster capable of switching defensive assignments with relative ease, turning the Timberwolves into a defensive juggernaut should have been easier.

Not that this glaring failure is lost on Thibs.

“Unless we correct the defensive end, it’s going to be a struggle,” he said in a 110-119 loss against the Nets. “That has to become a priority by everyone, otherwise nothing positive is going to happen.”

So what is the problem? Well, experience. Or rather the lack of it.

Minnesota’s most used line up of GorguiDieng/Kris Dunn/Zach LaVine/Towns/Wiggins, does not feature a player who has played more than three seasons. Switch Dunn for Ricky Rubio (who is struggling this season, both with numbers and injuries) and you still have a five-year veteran at best.

Not only does this manifest itself on the defensive end, but also on the offensive end. Minnesota averages just 19.7 points in the third quarter. That average was helped greatly by the 35 points they put up against an underhanded Memphis team, the only third quarter battle they have won this season.

“The third quarter is haunting us right now,” Wiggins said after a narrow 99-102 loss against Denver.

Nikola Pekovic, their most reliable veteran who is out for the season, is sadly, not the answer. While Dieng does not bring the quality that Pekovic does, he is not a pushover. He is averaging career highs in every category, and whatever he leaves off the table can be chalked up to Towns’ and Wiggins’ stats column.

To be fair, we are seven games into the season. And save for Denver, Milwaukee and (maybe) the Sixers, no other team has a better young nucleus to build upon for the future. League veterans know the dearth of teams with young legs and eager hearts to carry them to a ring, and also know the toughness and experience that Coach Thibodeau brings.

All that is needed is to turn some of the chips that Minnesota has, into a couple of reliable battle-tested veterans that help this immensely talented roster to stand their ground in tough game situations.

Safe to say, Thibodeau is not done, and if the management manages to keep the core of Wiggins/Towns intact, the Timberwolves are not way off to becoming the title contenders Taylor said they would.

Is DeMar DeRozan Taking Over Toronto?

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 6, 2016

Micheal Jordan. DeMar DeRozan.

Odd, isn’t it? Something does not quite fit. What has DeRozan done to be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness?

Well, everything. So far.

MJ was the last player to begin a season scoring 30+ points in five straight games. The season he did it in? The 1986-‘87 season where Jordan finished with an average of 37.1 Points Per Game, the fifth highest scoring average for a single season in the history of the NBA.

DeRozan has opened his 2016-‘17 campaign by carving up five NBA defences, including the reigning champions Cleveland Cavaliers, for 40, 32, 33, 40 and 34 points, respectively. This, while shooting a wild 55% from the field (he shot 63% in the season opening game vs. the Detroit Pistons) and just one three-pointer. Yes, one.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said the eight-year veteran when informed that he had scored himself into the same conversation as arguably the greatest player ever. “I’m just trying to go out there and win. When you hear something like that, you cannot believe it”

Drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2009 NBA Draft, DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, caught the tail end of the Chris Bosh era during the 2009-‘10 season. Bosh, an All-Star who never quite became the franchise cornerstone the Raptors hoped he would, parted ways in a sign-and-trade with Miami Heat to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

While Bosh embraced his new role, reinvented himself and went on to win two championships in the next three seasons, DeRozan and the Raptors were in rebuild mode. It took them two more miserable seasons, muddled with an oversized roster of role players, to finally catch a break on the trade block.

Just as DeRozan was coming into his own, the Raptors landed him a running mate in Kyle Lowry for the 2012-‘13 season. The duo and the Raptors have not looked back since.

Best Raptor ever? Not just yet

Barring an injury, DeRozan will finish this season as the Raptors’ all time leading scorer and atop nearly every conceivable offensive category. It is hard to surpass the overall impact of Chris Bosh who contributed at both ends of the floor, or even Vince Carter who, in addition to his dynamic scoring, left this memory etched in everyone’s mind. The argument can be made, just not yet.

Not that it bothers DeRozan. “I’m just a student of the game,” he humbly reminded us. “I just try and put everything together, be a student of the game while working, always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”

Kyle Lowry, his running mate in Toronto’s now starry backcourt, gushed, “He’s playing on another level right now. He’s saving possessions, he’s creating possessions. He’s creating offence.”

While Lowry and DeRozan both, had break out seasons in 2015-‘16, it was Lowry that inadvertently (but not undeservedly) became the face of the franchise. This, however, is Lowry’s last guaranteed year on a four-year $48 million deal that has an opt-out option after this season. Armed with tons of money from the television deal, there are more than enough NBA teams that would gladly take a 30-year old All-Star with no discernible history of injury, and who has at least four good years left in the tank.

Lowry is 30 and has most likely hit his peak as a player, which means this season until next summer is when his trade value will be at the highest. Nothing about Lowry’s personality indicates that he wants to leave Toronto, and LeBron “The King” James even endorsed the city’s passionate loyal fans. But we all thought the same, or better, of Kevin Durant, and see how that went.

DeRozan is just 27, and is just as good as, if not better than his running mate. More importantly, his loyalty was rewarded with a big payday this past off season: a five-year deal worth approximately $145 million that took a chunk off the Raptors’ books.

It is obvious the Raptors will have to find a way to pay Lowry immediately. But in the likely scenario they cannot, they have on their hands a 30-year-old two-time All-Star de-facto franchise player who has reached his max trade value. The decision to trade Lowry is a bit too obvious, and one they have to take soon to avoid a disaster.

In the meanwhile, let us enjoy this Raptors back court thrive, and DeRozan aim for greatness in the annals of NBA history.

The Mighty Warriors Will Be Just Fine

This article originally appeared in The Field at scroll.in on October 29,2016.

It’s understandable. Folks are worried. No one said this was going to be pretty.

The Golden State Warriors are 4-1 in their last five games since imploding in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals against eventual NBA Champions the Cleveland Cavaliers (No, the pre-season does not count). This would have been just another story, except that the 2015 NBA Champion Warriors were coming off an NBA record 73 regular season wins and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Yes, the same Kevin Durant who, weeks later, signed on the dotted line to fortify the Warriors’ front line.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia.

Now that is an enviable frontline. Question is, who holds the fort in the second unit?

There isn’t an argument about upgrading a slipping Harrison Barnes with one of the purest scorers the NBA has ever seen in Kevin Durant; and while Zaza isn’t as polished an offensive presence as Andrew Bogut, he doesn’t take anything off the table. Where the Warriors failed, and miserably so, is the inability to assemble a second unit that took care of business while the starters rested.

Shaun Livingston and Andre Igoudala are the only two bench players of any significance that remained in Golden State once the summer frenzy died down. Gone is veteran leader Leandro Barbosa and his playoff chops. Gone is the hustler and rim protector in Festus Ezeli. Gone is the enforcer and floor spacing of Mareesse Speights. More importantly though, gone is the camaraderie that held that championship winning, record breaking core together.

The modern NBA game has spread out even more

The pace and space era is putting more miles on NBA players. NBA coaches now spread out and stagger their stars’ regular season minutes, saving their legs for the playoffs. This shift places greater emphasis on second units that can stand their ground while the starters catch their breath.

Golden State has a unique problem. They have a loaded first unit. Extremely loaded.

Although their bench got drubbed (they were outscored 54-16) against the Spurs, Kerr has enough firepower between Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green to ensure at least one, if not two, All-Stars are on the floor all the time. This may not work in the playoffs, when firing on all cylinders (or All Stars) becomes crucial. And that’s why we have the regular season.

Unlike in the English Premier League where every single game matters in a 38 game season decided on wins / losses / points, the NBA’s regular season games, while critical for that coveted playoff seed, are a playground for coaches to figure what works and what doesn’t, until things get real in during the playoffs.

This is an ever so slight deviation from our high expectations of the 2016-‘17 season for Warriors. Golden State will be just fine. They have two former NBA Most Valuable Players in Durant and Curry, the NBA’s third best two-way player in Thompson (behind LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard), and the NBA’s most versatile player Draymond Green. Most importantly they have a student to two of NBA’s greatest coaching minds, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, calling the shots: Steve Kerr.

If you still are worried, go ahead and find solace in this video of Durant’s shoot around on Thursday night as he was preparing to face the Pelicans. He sums up the Spurs’ loss it best: “It’s one game of 82 and you f***ing guys make me feel like the world’s going to end.”