TrueHoop: Houston Rockets

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:29
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

James Harden's 3s and Frees

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
10:36
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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What makes James Harden's scoring output so unique?

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MIT Sloan 2014: Oh, the humanity

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
10:41
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference isn’t about stats anymore. Not coincidentally, it’s much-improved.

Stats really never stood a chance at Dorkapalooza. As Danny Nowell demonstrated, a belief in information as currency quickly begets a reluctance to share information. If you think stats are the future, you’re hoarding the future a la Biff and his Grays Sports Almanac in "Back to the Future Part II."

Yes, there are still academic papers at the conference up for discussion. But the stars of the show are the stars -- the nationally famous owners, general managers and coaches.

So don’t attack this conference as a bunch of geeks trading slide rule war stories. The convention is no longer proliferating the academic advancement it symbolizes. They moved this thing away from MIT, remember.

Instead, SSAC 2014 offered us an enticing look at the future of sports entertainment. Paradoxically, that future has all to do with messy, imperfect humanity, and little to do with statistics.

Malcolm Gladwell grilling newly minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver on James Dolan’s tax benefits? Yes please. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive getting into it over which of their teams is tanking? Don’t mind if I do. Stan Van Gundy mocking the Sixers in extreme language? Pass the popcorn already.

After so much focus on the rather dehumanizing process of commodifying athlete performance, the Sloan Conference somehow managed to commodify the humanity of its speakers. Nearly everyone at Sloan believes in the competitive power of data, but Sloan, like sports, is a personality-driven business. Selling tickets to Phil Jackson talking extemporaneously is easier than selling tickets to a guy you’ve never heard of expounding on rebounding.

It’s hard to beat live, reality TV. Adam Silver seemed a bit nervous and it was riveting. Stan Van Gundy waxed angry and it was hilarious. In their panel on negotiations, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers appeared vulnerable and it was cathartic.

The latter event was the least contentious, which is funny when you consider how these men are supposedly tasked with swindling each other up until trade deadlines. Morey and Myers both vented about the travails of dealing with GMs who try to lecture you on what’s best for your team. They expressed frustration with peers who seek to win the trade as opposed to finding common ground. The normally opaque general managers dropped the veil and conveyed the exhaustion of working in a world so steeped in secrecy and paranoia.

Most memorably, Morey dished on his fear in response to Golden State’s deal for Andre Iguodala. Morey revealed how he thought the trade might put Houston’s Dwight Howard venture in jeopardy: “This is where my emotion takes over. I go into a complete panic. I really did. I thought it was down to us, Dallas, L.A." What followed was an anecdote about how a frantic Morey called Mark Cuban to inquire about Dirk Nowitzki (Cuban assumed that Morey was sarcastically taunting him).

Morey is among the most media-friendly GMs -- he invited the media to this conference that he co-founded, after all. “Friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean “open,” though. But alongside Myers, Morey was startlingly open.

That’s the secret for turning a suit into a storyteller. He needs some company up there on stage, people who hail from his cloistered world and can validate the statements. This is how many of these panels evoked the loose, conversational, and at times, contentious comedy of shows like HBO’s "Real Time" and ESPN’s "Pardon the Interruption."

The Parade of Loosened Ties has yet to reach the mainstream in the way many advanced statistics have. The Sloan conference is more entertaining than ever before, but it still (intentionally) plays to an exclusive audience. In Boston, we can see the future of how sports leagues will feed the fan’s increasingly voracious appetite: Get the most powerful people in sports together and get them talking.

Might you enjoy a panel of GMs discussing team needs a week before the trade deadline? Would you listen to two famous coaches razz each other for your amusement?

Suit-based sports entertainment would be the natural outgrowth of the statistical revolution that turned Billy Beane into someone Brad Pitt plays in a movie. And even though “suit-based sports entertainment” sounds terrifyingly corporate, the results at the Sloan petri dish were captivating.

Information is currency, so owners, GMs, and coaches won’t spend it on us. But celebrity is the rare currency that earns as you spend it. If the analytics movement pulled "the geeks" into the spotlight, it’s only a matter of time before those geeks grab the mike and make use of their newfound fame.

Checking out the Chan-Chan Man

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
4:44
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Is Houston's Chandler Parsons special? Does he complement Dwight Howard and James Harden? David Thorpe weighs in.

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Jeremy Lin on Jason Collins: 'A big step'

February, 23, 2014
Feb 23
3:33
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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Two years after Linsanity, the month that took him to dizzying heights never before reached by an Asian American player in the NBA, Jeremy Lin offered his perspective on Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in the four major American professional team sports.

"I think it's definitely a big step," Lin said after the Houston Rockets' morning shootaround before their game at the Phoenix Suns. "The game is evolving. You see a lot of different people breaking barriers in a lot of different ways. This is just another one of those."

Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. But Collins won't just be playing for the Nets ... or for himself ... or for his family. Collins now carries the hopes of the gay community with him, an additional responsibility that Lin handled as a representative for Asian Americans.

"It was definitely not easy," Lin said. "For me, if I didn't have faith, in terms of my Christianity, I'm not sure how I would have been able to handle it or understand it or process it. For me, I try to think of it as living or stewarding God's platform. That's kind of how I approached it."

Only a handful of reporters faced Lin as he spoke, a big drop off from the media throngs he attracted when he averaged 21 points per game at the height of Linsanity in February 2012. Lin is averaging 13.1 points per game in his second season with the Houston Rockets and recently moved to a reserve following the return of Pat Beverley from injury. Just as Collins will receive more attention than the typical player on a 10-day contract, Lin has found that he can't recede completely into the background.

"When I'm with my friends and family back home, it's as normal as it will ever be," Lin said. "But I think I'm getting used to a lot of the changes."

Warriors still learning how to use Curry

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
4:06
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry presents a difficult problem for opposing defenses while also testing the decision-making of his own team. The star point guard excels at creating offense on and off the ball. Although that’s an enviable combination, it’s difficult to know how exactly to profit off the embarrassment of offensive riches.

The Warriors eventually figured it out on Thursday en route to a 102-99 overtime win over the Houston Rockets, a team that has bedeviled them in the recent past. After suffering poor results with a series of late David Lee isolations, Golden State put the ball in their star’s hands down two points with six seconds left in regulation. It wasn't the worst of plans.

Curry received the inbounds pass at the top of the key in what looked to be a setup for a catch-and-shoot. Instead, with Chandler Parsons hot on his tail, Curry sharply turned and went right at Dwight Howard’s hulking frame. Somehow, Curry’s lefty layup sneaked over the top of Dwight’s enveloping presence and saved the game for the Warriors.

“Truth be told, the last play of regulation I set it up for him to shoot a 3 and left it in his hands,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said after the game. “It shows you how far he’s come as a basketball player that he didn’t settle. He made a big play for us.”

The Warriors just traded for Steve Blake, after trading for Jordan Crawford earlier in the season. The goal of both moves is to help Curry by easing his burden. To ensure that Curry doesn’t wear down, others will be tasked with bringing the ball up and creating offense. That’s a difficult balance, considering that “easing the burden” can mean taking shots away from your best player.

When asked about the juxtaposition of feeding Curry versus getting other players involved, Jackson said, “You just read it. Fortunately as a point guard in this league and a point guard my whole life, those are decisions I had to make my whole life.”

Curry backed up that sentiment, reducing these seemingly difficult decisions to a matter of basic basketball literacy.

“It’s just about reading the situation,” Curry said. “When you have mismatches, you feel pretty confident in guys to make plays. Obviously you want to make the right call and the right adjustment each play down the stretch.”

Those calls, those adjustments, were made difficult Thursday by an absolute pest of a defensive presence. The Rockets' Patrick Beverley is about as unknown a name as you’ll find when listing starting players on playoff teams, but he’s one of the best at humanizing opposing playmakers. The most interesting aspect of his biography, that he played professionally in Russia, just speaks to his relative anonymity. The league’s best point guards know who Beverley is, though.

“He makes me better,” Curry said of Beverley, who fouled out in overtime. “I love that challenge. You know that’s his mission on a night: to come in and stop you.”

Through six meetings between them, Curry has shot 39 percent with Beverley on the floor. Perhaps this game represented a shift in Curry’s tactics and his success.

Beverley wasn’t the only person flaunting a dogged defensive game. The Warriors rank third in the league on that end and managed to hold Houston’s vaunted offense to a night of 36.6 percent shooting. If the play of the game wasn't Curry’s sneaky floater, it was definitely Jermaine O’Neal’s vicious block of Chandler Parsons' dunk attempt with 23 seconds left in overtime.

"[O'Neal] timed it well at the rim. It was just perfect timing on his part," Parsons said.

The Warriors, contrary to public perception, are carried by their defense. To truly be a multiround playoff threat, they must find a way to improve their much-talked-about offense. Right now that offense implodes when Curry takes to the bench, scoring 18.4 fewer points per 100 possessions.

Although the Warriors' offense runs far better when Curry is in, it can get into ruts where there’s little ball movement and many post-ups to ball stoppers like O’Neal, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Now that they’ve added more pieces through trades, the Warriors must strike a more favorable balance. The task likely won’t be as easy as “just read it.”

James Harden is the new Carmelo Anthony

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
2:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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James Harden is an incredibly talented scorer, but David Thorpe says that comes with a lot of ball-stopping, and some questionable decisions.
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James Harden settles in as a star

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
10:42
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport"I’m still new to this whole 'star player' thing" says the Rockets' leading scorer, James Harden.
The most famous beard in the NBA was getting a touch-up, and it needed it: In minutes, it would be starring in a major ad campaign.

“I’m super selective,” said James Harden from the stylist’s chair on the Houston set of the ad shoot, “about who trims my beard.”

It was an off day in mid-January, and Harden was in full NBA-leading-man mode. It's not just that the iconic global brand on his chin was being groomed. It's routine offseason trips to Asia on behalf of sneaker companies, his status as a shoo-in All-Star, his highlight-ready score-from-anywhere game, his flirting with the unofficial "NBA's best shooting guard" title. On top of all that, Harden had a reporter on speakerphone and an assortment of “people” hovering at the ready -- from Foot Locker, from various agencies -- to fetch things or chime in to protect Harden, the beard or the brand, as necessary.

Although Harden has a disarmingly low-key way of talking -- part of his appeal is everyday nonchalance -- his message can veer into star territory. At one point, he circled back to add “you know, me and Dwight,” after, accidentally or not, calling the Rockets “basically my own team.”

And the commercial he's in the middle of making pivots, with a wink, on the notion that Harden is incredibly famous.



Of course, there’s nothing wrong with one of the best basketball players in the world acting and talking like one of the best basketball players in the world. Harden is a business worth many millions. He is the centerpiece of a team that’s hanging tough in a stacked Western Conference. He is one of the most skilled scorers in the game. He is all that.

The surprising part of Harden’s place in the spotlight is that Harden was known, not long ago, for the opposite.

Less than two years ago, Harden was a delightful young surprise off the Thunder's bench, and his GM in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti, was telling The New York Times that what made Harden special was that fitting into a team was “really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player.”

If that was wishful thinking from a GM hoping to hold his contending squad together, it didn't sound like it. Everyone in the organization, including Harden, talked like that. It was believable, and, to those fans who prefer players who don't act like millionaires, delightful. Here was a player you could love for his jaw-dropping highlights, his blue-collar attitude or both.

Then, in the summer of 2012, coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the Thunder faced a dilemma. Assorted hard realities -- no team has ever had three maximum-contract wing players, the owners were feeling a financial pinch, the team was destined for heinous salary-cap and luxury-tax issues -- drove Presti to offer Harden less than a max deal to remain with the team.

When Harden declined, he was promptly traded to the Rockets, causing an uproar that still simmers. “If the Thunder could have kept Harden” is one of the league’s enduring memes.

In Houston, famously analytical general manager Daryl Morey was ready to pounce. He had examined Harden’s production every which way and saw the elite double-team-drawing scorer his team sorely lacked. The Rockets were only too happy to give Harden all the dollars, minutes and touches any All-Star could dream of. And, more than any other move, nabbing Harden made Morey's early career. Although there will always be grousing about Harden’s defense (it’s not great) and his high usage rate (he shoots a lot) -- not to mention the coming barrage of "What has he won?" critiques that are standard for ringless All-Stars -- there's no disputing that Harden is a top-tier NBA scoring talent, and now he's a Rocket.

Yet Harden remains a source of anguish. The Thunder had the closest thing the NBA has to a fairy tale -- all those supertalented young Durants, Westbrooks, Hardens and Ibakas putting the team first. A lot of NBA watchers and Thunder fans liked the idea of Harden sticking around for the long haul as an icon of good-natured ego management. A lot of people wanted the dream of that Thunder team to last forever. Even Harden sounds wistful at times, saying, for instance, that he wishes the team could replay Game 2 of the Finals the Thunder lost to the Heat.

But it's over. And, in part, Harden plays the hero in that story -- as the player everyone wanted. At the same time, he's part villain. His insistence on more dollars helped bring it all to an end. At times, Harden has been reluctant to discuss his transition from Oklahoma City backup to Rockets leading man, but, from the beard stylist's chair on the set of a commercial shoot in Houston, he was gracious enough to address it in some detail. The conversation has been edited for length.




Can you talk? Are you allowed to move your jaw while you’re getting a beard trim?

Yeah. Little movements. But I can do it.

Challenging environment.

Right.

Do you have a beard-care strategy?

No strategy. I just let it grow. It’s got a mind of its own. If it needs trimming, it gets trimmed. I’m super selective about who trims my beard. My barber usually does it to make sure it’s fresh. But if he’s not around, then I usually comb it a lot and occasionally trim it myself.

Take me back to June 12, 2012. You were up 1-0 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and I think, if you asked Vegas, people would have bet that the Thunder were about to reel off multiple championships. What were you feeling like that day?

Oh. Three more. Three more, and our next game is at home. We’re going to win that game, and try to take care of business in Miami. Three games away from a championship is closer than ever. Seems like everything slipped away from there.

I guess the vast majority of NBA players never get to that point.

Right. It’s so tough in this league. You’re talking about championships, and some players go 10, 15 years without even making the playoffs. So it’s difficult. You have to cherish it every single time that you’re there.

Did you picture it? Did you picture winning it all?

Of course! Of course we pictured it. Like I said, we were there. We needed three more games. Our Game 2 was at our home court, and it was tough to beat us there. We would have to steal two in Miami. And if we didn’t, we would come back home. Like I said, it seemed like it just slipped away from there, and we lost four straight.

Miami did a pretty good job in just doing what they did. They were in that situation the previous year, and so they kind of knew, you know, how to play and especially on the road in the Finals. They stole one! And then they came home and took care of business at home.

If you had won that year, would you be in Oklahoma right now?

I have no idea. It’s a great question. I wish we could go back and play Game 2 again.

Then you had that crazy summer of contract uncertainty. I know you played it cool, but it must have turned your stomach a little not knowing what was going to happen.

No, not really. That summer was pretty busy for me. I didn’t really have time to think about it. Right after the Finals, it was off to USA Basketball for the entire summer, so I really didn’t have much time to think about it.

We started discussing it right after the Olympics. That’s when the discussions really started to begin.

It ended up they had some salary cap and money concerns and didn’t offer you as much as you could make elsewhere. If the money had been equal and you could choose OKC or Houston, where would you have chosen?

Um. It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question.

I don’t know.

Like I said, I grew in Oklahoma City. They taught me a lot. Now I’m in Houston, I’ve got my own, basically, my own team. You know, me and Dwight. It’s kind of different situations. Oklahoma City: came off the bench. Now, I’m starting. There’s a larger role. Both are great situations.

I found this old Sam Presti quote: “James really wanted to be a part of something … [being part of something bigger] was really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player. We loved that mentality. We thought it was a really mature outlook.” Was that a phase? Was it never really the case?

Definitely that was the case. Winning is the most important thing. Winning is how anybody gets recognition. We already had our groove. We had me coming off the bench, the starters did what they did. Everybody felt comfortable in their role. That’s how it worked.

I fit in, and I bought in. And it was good for us.

Could it have ever lasted? One thing someone explained to me, that makes sense to me, is that no team has three max wings. It has never happened. If you had gotten there first, and Kevin Durant had arrived later, it would have been a no-brainer that he would have looked for his own team because he’s Kevin Durant. That you happened, by random chance, to get there later, doesn’t make it weird that you’d like to run your own team, because you’re James Harden.

I didn’t look at it that way. Like I said, those were my brothers; we were focused on one thing, and that was winning. If I had to take a backseat, I was comfortable with it. Just ’cause, you know, the most important thing was winning.

You have this incredible array of ways you score. Jabs, step-backs, Euro-steps, floaters, hesitations ... how does that evolve? Does it come from the offseason? Does it come from watching film? Do you steal from other players? Do you have a personal coach who helps you with that? Is it Rockets staff, do they help you develop it?

All of the above. I do a lot of work in the summertime. I have coaches helping me out with the Rockets. I watch a lot of film and see how defenders are guarding me. Even during the season, every single day I’m constantly working on something in my game. I’m still new to this whole "star player" thing, so I have to be on point at all times. Just me working every single day is going to help me out.

If you work on something alone, how do you know it’s going to work with defense there? What are the signs of a good maneuver?

Just by watching film. Like I said, by watching film and seeing how different defenders are guarding me and different counters to how they’re guarding me. Obviously, it’s a lot different when they’re there, but if you focus on the move and you go hard enough, it doesn’t matter if the defender’s there or not.

How deep is your shooting range? If they had 4-pointers that were 35 feet or whatever, would you take ’em?

I would probably take ’em. But not often. Not often. I’d leave that to other guys in the league.

People can do it though, right? In practice, people can hit very long shots.

Oh yeah, definitely. I see it all the time. I see it all the time. But I wouldn’t be one of those guys to take a lot of 4-pointers.

Does your left hand, still, at this level, get you buckets from the fact that people are used to guarding righties?

Yes.

Us lefties are very rare. So, um, I don’t know if people forget sometimes that I’m left-handed or whatever, but it’s difficult to guard.

What was your role in recruiting Dwight?

Very small. I guess Dwight knew his choices and options and what he wanted to do and where he wanted to spend his career, and he chose Houston for the reasons that, you know, he did. As far as that we have a lot of options and a lot of growth. I guess he felt this was the right fit for him.

I saw that, when teams were pitching Dwight, some people told him that James Harden uses the ball just as much as Kobe does, so he shouldn’t go play with the Rockets because he won’t get the ball. How does that make you feel?

Uhh ... I mean, I never heard that. But I handle the ball a lot. A lot. As far as bringing the basketball up. But I’m definitely a willing passer. I would rather average 18 points and 10 assists than 28 points.

So, whatever it takes to win, that’s the kind of team player that I am. You know, my job is to make my teammates happy, and Dwight happy.

Houston's improbable midrange winner

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
1:15
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- The Houston Rockets use an offensive formula they’ve been cultivating for years under their current regime: 3-pointers and rim shots. Everything in between is for suckers.

The Rockets attempted 35 field goals in the first half of their 103-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. Only four of the 35 occurred between eight feet from the basket and the 3-point line. The trend held throughout the game, as more than 80 percent of the Rockets' shots occurred in their sweet spots.

That is, until the final minute of play, when Old Man Midrange reared his head and the Rockets soared back in time. Two possessions yielded two isolation plays for James Harden, the first resulting in a pair of free throws that briefly gave the Rockets a one-point lead, the second an ankle-breaking, step-back jumper that put the Rockets up 102-100.

But heroball this wasn’t. The Rockets didn’t run a 1-4 flat set with Harden pounding the ball into the hardwood until he felt inclined to put it on the floor. And though these shots didn’t originate from the Rockets’ preferred zones, each was cleverly crafted with one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A "small-small" pick-and-roll -- one guard picking for the other guard.

"Teams don't know how to guard it," Harden said. "Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight."

The first possession was more elaborate and took longer to materialize. It was a familiar NBA set: The point guard (Jeremy Lin) gets a staggered screen up top -- one screener a shooter (Harden), the other a big man who can roll (Dwight Howard). Harden pops while Howard rolls. The Pelicans defended it beautifully. Brian Roberts was able to fight over the first screen, allowing Gordon to stay home on Harden. When Roberts got hung up on the second screen, Jason Smith bought him some time, then quickly rotated back onto Howard. New Orleans survived the action with everyone in their right place.

That’s when Lin got crafty. He probed, reversed course and circled back out of the lane counterwise, with the sole intention of rubbing Roberts off Harden, thereby forcing Gordon to switch off of Harden and onto Lin.

The ploy worked. A pass from Lin went to Terrence Jones out on the perimeter, then Jones zipped it quickly to Harden. From there, Harden did his thing: one dribble, collision, whistle, two free throws, Rockets by one.

"I feel like it’s really hard to guard," Lin said. "You see, like, OKC [the Oklahoma City Thunder]. They run a 1-3 pick-and-roll, which is really hard to guard just because you’re not used to being in that position where they have to get out and show and do different coverages. They’re usually like sized enough where they’re, like, 'We can switch this.' But that gives us the matchup we want."

The game winner was more basic: Jones, Howard and Chandler Parsons along the baseline, with Harden at the foul line poised to set the 1-2 pick-and-roll for Lin.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams elaborated on the theme in Lin’s comment: It’s easy to say, "Don’t switch," but the consequences can be dire.

"The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot," Williams said. "If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again."

Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.

"We run that play a lot, especially late in the game," Harden said. "We don’t really run it in the beginning of the game. They switched it, and Jeremy threw it back to me."

Harden explained that the element of surprise contributes to the 1-2’s effectiveness. Defenses tighten up in the closing minutes, which is one reason we see more switches late out on the perimeter. Nobody wants to be left out to dry. Switching poses the risk of a mismatch, but at least somebody picks up the ball handler.

Harden held the ball for a moment, thrust a head fake or two, then went right -- to his off hand.

"I was reading what the other four players were doing," Harden said. "They all stayed home. It was mano-a-mano."

Harden took one slick dribble, yanked the ball back as he thrust his arm forward at Rivers. Did it make contact? Hard to say. Harden then lurched back, with all the space in the Bayou to rise and shoot.

"[Harden] made a tough shot on Austin," Williams said. "Austin played him well. Austin thought he got pushed, but in that situation, you got to just play tough. You can’t even ask for the ref to bail you out in that situation. It’s just not going to happen."

With that, the team that’s driven the midrange jumper out of fashion won the game on a 21-footer.

10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

Rockets in revolt

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:23
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Dwight Howard, James HardenScott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe young and brash Rockets are helping to redefine what a "good shot" means in the NBA.
If there were a Power Rankings for "Boisterous Locker Rooms," the Rockets might top that list. Upon beating the Warriors on a Friday night, Houston players loudly revel in the visitors' quarters. Crosstalk floods the ear, but you can hear Francisco Garcia curse while fist-bumping energetic assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. "[Roy Hibbert's term for reporters]," Garcia spits.

Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard giddily debate the looks of their dream Hollywood starlets. James Harden and Terrence Jones yell and laugh about something, but who can hear it amid the sudden distraction of Dwight singing and dancing in his underwear?

The Spurs, these aren't. Youth dominates the leadership in Houston, and it's not the kind of youth that expresses itself as deference. "Looks like you have somewhere to go," a reporter knowingly teases in the direction of Harden's beard and accompanying resplendent wardrobe. Harden pauses, then confidently proclaims, "I ALWAYS have somewhere to go." And with that, he's off into the night.

Blessed with the vigor of youth and a good deal of talent, this team can go places far beyond what its 17-9 record would indicate. These guys also might be more inclined to set their own boundaries.

"Only thing we're shooting in practice are layups and 3s," starting point guard Patrick Beverley explains. "We don't like midrange," Garcia and Beverley say in unison.

The two of them have a firm grasp on Houston's mission, but I want to know just how extreme their team's approach is. "Did you know that LaMarcus Aldridge has shot ..." Beverley interrupts my question with the exact number of midrange shots Aldridge has hoisted relative to the entire Rockets team. As of Friday, the Portland power forward has attempted 98 more midrange shots than everyone on the Houston roster combined. That's a startling statistic, but it's not especially novel to Beverley, who "keeps up with everything," as he puts it.

Beverley responds with, "What would you rather shoot, a 3 or a 2?" Now that he's won locker room "Jeopardy!," he turns the tables and quizzes me. All I can manage in return is, "I think you guys might be on the forefront of something."

Houston's three most commonly used lineups employ a four-out approach (four 3-point shooters, one non-shooting big man). The style has gained popularity since Mike D'Antoni and the Suns redefined NBA offense in the mid-aughts.

The Rockets are a threat to go further, to get even bolder from beyond the arc than D'Antoni ever dreamed. As Kevin Pelton and Zach Lowe have detailed, Houston is heavy on D-League experimentation. Their Rio Grande Valley Vipers affiliate shoots 3s at a ridiculous 46 per game clip. The big brother Rockets are at a mere (league-leading) 27.2 3-pointers per game, but look for that gap to close. Houston isn't even notably proficient; it manages only 35.7 percent from deep.

Still, 35.7 percent on 3-pointers translates to 53.5 percent from 2-point range, so all the chucking represents a solid investment. Houston currently ranks third in offensive efficiency. The Rockets are using the smart approach, but subjectively, something about it just feels decadent if not wrong. "Only thing we're shooting in practice are layups and 3s," is enough to make a basketball purist feel as if he just swallowed Naismith's peach basket.

Basketball at its most elemental is "finding the open man." But as we learn more about basketball, we learn more about the folly of good intentions. Passing up a moderately contested 3 to get your teammate an open midrange look is often more generous to the opposing defense than to your offense.

Last season saw the record for most 3-pointers by a player in a season and most 3-pointers by a player in an NBA Finals. Now that the analytics movement is popularizing the shot that counts for 50 percent more, "the good shot" as we know it may have an expiration date. Obviously, a team will doggedly seek open 3-pointers and open dunks, as those are the most valuable attempts in basketball. But not every possession can end that way. Drives are stymied, passes are bobbled, screens are eluded. With a finite amount of shot clock, there's a fair argument for just hurling it up from deep if you can't get what you want out of early offense. There's actually just a fair argument for hurling it up from deep regardless.

The Rockets haven't publicly admitted that they've embraced the contested 3-pointer. Beverley said the strategy is more, "If you're open from midrange, take a step back." But the Rockets are fourth in pace and first in 3-point attempts. They're 23rd in assist rate. This is a team of chuckers, and calling them such isn't even an insult. Their subversive strategy is working, even if it doesn't look like basketball as we've loved it.

Has Houston found its missing piece?

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
9:46
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Terrence JonesAP Photo/David J. PhillipOnce an afterthought, Terrence Jones may be just what the Houston Rockets have been looking for.
On draft night 2012, in the media workroom deep in the bowels of Toyota Center, a collective groan evinced upon the announcement of the No. 18 pick. Most present were content with the Houston Rockets’ earlier selections of Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. They were both tantalizing prospects with some of the most unique skill sets in the entire draft – a prototypical shooting guard and a powerful 4 with the playmaking ability of a point guard. But Terrence Jones? With Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson already on board, were the Rockets attempting to corner the market on unimpressive, undersized power forwards?

A year and a half later, the tune in Houston has changed. After a rookie season in which Jones often rode the pine, the Rockets entered training camp for the 2013-14 season with no veteran power forwards on the roster. That made Jones the default option next to Dwight Howard in the starting unit. With Houston desperate to make an Omer Asik-Howard “Twin Towers” lineup work, Jones remained chained to the bench to start the season. But when that experiment failed, Jones was sent back out with the starters to start the second half on Nov. 11 against the Toronto Raptors. He hasn’t given up the spot since, and as result, the Rockets’ offense has taken off.
[+] EnlargeRockets
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsAfter a lengthy search, the Rockets' first unit has fit together quite well in Terrence Jones' 18 starts.

The quintet of Jones, Howard, Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons has posted an offensive rating of 115.3 in 228 minutes played. They’ve posted a net rating of plus-17.9 per 100 possessions and accumulated a true shooting percentage of 60 percent. By comparison, that same lineup with Asik in for Jones scored 82.6 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of minus-26.5. Their true shooting percentage was 45.7 percent. While Houston’s 17-9 record to start the season is worse than one might have expected, Jones was the antidote to its early-season offensive woes. With Asik out and Jones in his place, the offense has worked exactly as Daryl Morey had envisioned.

Jones, a former Kentucky standout once projected to be drafted in the top five, doesn’t have any elite indicators: average size; no post game to speak of; and while athletic, you wouldn’t pin the “freakish” label on him. But what he can do fits the Houston lineup.

A former point guard, Jones’ best attribute is his handle. The 6-foot-9, 252-pounder gets low on the dribble, a fundamental ballhandling habit ingrained into young children but a trait rare for NBA big men. Setting out on the perimeter almost exclusively during his court time, Jones attacks off the catch either with a pump fake or a hesitation dribble.

One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn't handle.

After attempts to honor Asik’s long-standing trade request, reports surfaced on Thursday that the Rockets had backed away from the negotiation table and planned to hold onto the big man for the time being. Undoubtedly, they weren't too thrilled by the available offers. But it's fair to assume that the urgency over filling the power forward spot has also diminished.

Still in just the infancy of his development, Jones’ next assignment will be developing the ability to create on his own out of nothing. As this face-up game evolves, a midrange jumper and some varied finishing moves would also be of use.

Jones will also have to improve on defense. While he averaged 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season (by comparison, Serge Ibaka averaged 2.6 per 36 his rookie year), too often he gets lost in rotations, not reacting quickly enough to help out his teammates in the scheme of the team’s defense. For the Rockets to seriously contend, this will have to change. The good news is that he is only 21 years old and will get better with each opening tip.

It’s unclear how and when the Asik situation will be resolved. The team will probably look to deal him again closer to the trade deadline. It will surely try to get him back out on the court in the meantime. But one thing is already clear: In Jones, the Rockets have their power forward.

TrueHoop TV: Conversation starters

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
12:46
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
These three players come off the bench for their current teams. But David Thorpe says Harrison Barnes, Reggie Jackson and Omer Asik would all flourish as starters.

Killer Lineup: Houston's rim squad

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
11:14
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive





Memphis GrizzliesLineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.

The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.

James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”

Yes and no.

Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.

All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.

A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
[+] EnlargeHarden
Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames Harden thrives in the chaos created by the Rockets' offense.

Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.

But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.

This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.

Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.

The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.

Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.

This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.

That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.

 




How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.

Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.

The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.

At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
[+] EnlargeDwight Howard and Raymond Felton
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard isn't as spry as he once was, but he still must be reckoned with on defense.

Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.

Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.

One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.

The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.

Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.

Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.

Surprisingly productive defenders

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
12:11
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Roy Hibbert
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsRoy Hibbert isn't the only reason the Pacers have the NBA's best defense.

A tricky thing about basketball is that it's tough to know what's happening on defense. So tough that credit and blame are almost impossible to hand out from afar.

Back in the days of isolation basketball, maybe you could say, with some confidence, that Mark Jackson just scored on John Starks and that's that.

But nowadays, by the time Kevin Durant gets to the rim, the primary defender was supposed to force him to the baseline instead of the middle, but he got to the middle anyway because he's Kevin Durant. The big man was supposed to meet Durant as he arrived near the hoop, but that big man has also been drilled to close out on the wide-open 3-point shooter he has left to be here. So he's a half-step farther away, and all that together created a tiny seam, which is all Durant needs.

You could probably watch a play like that and figure out good ways to blame all five defenders, or their coach, for the Durant bucket.

It's tricky stuff. And yet we can't ignore it -- indeed it really is half the game.

Offense is easy, by comparison. So many little things have long been tracked on offense -- who shot the ball, who passed it to them before they shot it and whether it was a 3 or a 2 have always been fundamental to recording a game. That stuff has always been in highlights and box scores. It's public, searchable and well-known. In the last decade, our understanding of all that has only grown with many new measures.

It's not hard to get a sense, at a glance, who can score.

On defense, though, wow. It used to be that notoriously noisy adjusted plus/minus was the go-to measure, but that's not readily publicly available anymore. There are SportVU cameras in the sky at every arena this season, but it takes a dozen hours of Zach Lowe or Kirk Goldsberry sifting to glean anything conclusive from them. Haralabos Voulgaris has long been tracking this stuff, but his database is private. In other words, it's tricky even to find out the most basic things such as which players were on the darned court when the other team scored most efficiently.

Which means making an evidence-based case that one player or another is awesome at defense is tough -- or nearly impossible this early in the season, when the sample sizes are small.

But we're not entirely without tools. And we do have lineup data, and the fact is there are combinations of players against whom it is crazy tough to score. Whether or not those players are the cause of the other team's bad offense, it's too soon to say. But if I were looking for players who are making it happen on defense, here are some names for the early season short list.

Casspi
Omri Casspi
The resurrection of the pioneering NBA Israeli's game has been told as one of stroking 3s and attacking the rim.

But something is certainly happening on defense, too, which may overshadow all of that.

With Casspi on the floor, the Rockets have given up 94.8 points per 100 possessions, which is almost as good as the league-leading Pacers. When he's on the bench, the team has given up 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which is pedestrian.

The defensive bottom line is that the Rockets have gotten 9.3 points worse on D when Casspi checks out. The number could be thick with early-season noise, but it's eye-opening nonetheless.

Looking at two-man combinations, you can see that almost any Rocket with Casspi is effective. With Terrence Jones and Casspi in, the Rockets only give up 85.8 points per 100 possessions. With Patrick Beverley: a stingy 90.6. Seven of the top 12 Rockets defensive combinations feature Casspi. Dwight Howard appears in that list only once ... with Casspi. Meanwhile, there aren't many Rocket lineups that perform well on D without Casspi.

It's possible his defensive qualities are overstated by these stats. But I don't think it's possible he's bad on defense.

I'd also suggest it's a long shot the plus/minus obsessed Rockets are eager to sit him. Casspi is also helping the team on offense. Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons have been similarly effective. Which makes you wonder, as Omer Asik trade rumors heat up ... does it really make sense to trade for a shooting forward such as Ryan Anderson? Maybe so, but if playing Anderson means limiting minutes for Casspi, Jones or Parsons, it's tough to imagine the Rockets getting more effective in the process.

KCP
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Pistons' rookie hasn't gotten much attention this season, and rookie guards almost never have good defensive statistics.

But a quarter into the season, Caldwell-Pope looks like an exception.

The list of the NBA's top three-man defensive units so far this season are largely Pacers, as we'll discuss. At the time of this writing, nine of the top 25 are from Indiana, in fact. Which means players on 29 rosters are competing for the 16 remaining spots. So when I tell you that Caldwell-Pope is on the list five times himself, with a grab bag of Pistons ... well, something is up.

Worth noting: The Pistons, generally, aren't even good at D, ranking 20th in the league.

Dan Feldman and Rob Mahoney have both dug into this phenomenon recently. The gist is that the Pistons started the season terribly on defense, when Caldwell-Pope never played. They got a little better all in all, and then Chauncey Billups -- who has been terrible on defense at this age -- got hurt. So Caldwell-Pope earned his minutes by replacing a bad defender and while joining a lineup that was finding its feet.

He's also, to the naked eye, a wiry and active defender who gets around screens far more effectively than Billups or Rodney Stuckey.

Caldwell-Pope has played close to 500 minutes, during which time the Pistons have given up a stingy 96.9 points per 100 possessions.

When he has sat, Pistons are allowing 108.4. The difference is 11.5, at least some of which, you'd think, has to do with the fact that this rookie guard is living up to his predraft reputation as a committed defender.

MKG
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
It's a closely guarded secret that the Bobcats are good at something, but today their defense is fourth best in the league, just after the Bulls and just ahead of the Heat and Thunder. But line up the NBA's best defensive player combinations in terms of points allowed per possession, and Kidd-Gilchrist's long and noticeable name is all over the place. There are three four-man Bobcats lineups with MKG that play better defense than the best four-man combination of Indiana Pacers. If you rank the whole league's best two-man defensive combinations, the top five pairs are all Pacers -- except for Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson, who are third in the whole NBA in that ranking.

Kidd-Gilchrist, who is out with a broken finger at the moment, has played nearly 500 minutes this season, during which time the Bobcats have basically been the Pacers, with a 94.8 points per 100 possessions. When he's on the bench, they give up more than 100.

Jackson
Durant
Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson
This is fascinating. Durant is famous as a scorer and was not long ago derided for sub-par defense. Jackson is a guy who can create his own shot. But they can, evidently, make you feel them on defense.

A lot.

When opponents have the ball, Durant and Jackson have been, by the numbers, a top-10 NBA defensive duo. And it's not a simple case of the Thunder being great at defense. It's worth considering it might be something about this combination. One of the best five-man defensive units in the NBA (minimum 50 minutes played) is Durant and Jackson with Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. That lineup is one of the Thunder's most used and has an incredible defensive rating of 78.3. At the moment, if you substitute Westbrook in for Jackson, you have one of the Thunder's most familiar lineups, and one that gives up 103.3 points. The Westbrook lineup faces the best opponents and would be expected to perform a little worse. But 25 points per 100 possessions is a massive difference.

It's also noteworthy that lots of Thunder players have great defensive ratings when they're on the floor. Jackson, though, is the standout for whom, thus far, sitting has led the team to play much worse defense. Could be a fluke. Worth keeping an eye on.

Related: Put defense and offense together, and Durant and Jackson are, at the moment, literally the best-performing duo in the whole NBA.

The other Pacers
We know Roy Hibbert is really good at defense. We know his Pacers have been one of the best defenses ever thus far. When Kevin Pelton (Insider) wrote about this the other day, he pointed out that the Pacers were giving up fewer than 94 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 106. No other team is close. So the Pacers are killing it.

And as I just dug through NBA.com/stats looking at player combinations, there's no arguing Hibbert is the dominant reason. In fact, if you take every two-player combination in the league, from every team, the best combination out of all of those thousands, in terms of holding opponents to the fewest points per possession, is the Pacers' Roy Hibbert and David West.

In and of itself, that does not prove they are the two best defenders. Far from it. But it would be just about impossible for them to be so high on the list while being lousy at defense. And that they belong there is affirmed by this: The second best combination out of the whole league? Hibbert and Paul George. Fourth best is Hibbert and George Hill. Amazingly, Pacers account for nine of the league's dozen most effective two-player defensive combinations, and Hibbert is part of most of 'em.

Just as it's impossible to argue Hibbert is anything but great on defense, it's also impossible to argue that he's the only reason the Pacers are good. The Pacers' center is only playing 30 minutes a game, and the Pacers are good on defense all night.

This is not a question of the starting five carrying everybody. None of the Pacers' five-man lineups, in fact, are in the league's 10 most effective defensively. It really is a team effort.

When Hibbert is on the bench, the Pacers give up 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which would still be a top-10 NBA defense.

Of course, George, who has been discussed as a candidate as both MVP and a first-team all-NBA defense, is a big part of that. Even though he's the epicenter of the Pacers' offense -- in a role where many players would catch their breath on defense -- George expends serious energy guarding some of the league's finest scorers. Despite those challenges, he's still a mainstay among the Pacers' best defensive combinations. When George sits, opponents score a little better than when Hibbert sits.

But you know who else has been on the floor for long minutes of great defense for the Pacers? Almost everybody. David West, C.J. Watson, George Hill, Orlando Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Luis Scola -- these are not the Pacers' most famous defenders. I have named eight Pacers in this article. Put any three of those players together on the court, and Pacers are playing good defense.

When any or all of them are on the court, the Pacers as a team average better defensive performance than the Spurs, who are the league's second-best defensive team.

It's almost impossible to find any combination of Pacers players that is bad on defense. It's amazing. (3-point specialist Chris Copeland might be the one exception. He has not been great on defense, the statistics say, but he is also new to the team and has averaged less than four minutes a game, so it's hard to know what the future holds for him.)

Clearly, coach Frank Vogel knows something.

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