June 30, 2016 at 10:35 am

Rockets set to meet with free agent Al Horford on Friday

Al Horford Houston Rockets

It was not 100% clear who the Rockets would consider a top target outside of Kevin Durant in this free agent class, but that picture may be starting to come into focus.

The Rockets are scheduled to meet with Atlanta Hawks free agent center Al Horford on Friday, according to local Fox 26.

The 30-year old Horford averaged 15.2 points on 50.5% from the field to go with 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks last season for the Hawks. The nine-year veteran started to show three-point range for the first time this past season, putting up 256 triples at a 34.4% clip. Horford had shot a grand total of 66 three-pointers in his first eight seasons in the NBA.

Horford was a college teammate of Rockets small forward Corey Brewer at Florida where the pair won back-to-back NCAA championships together in 2006 and 2007.

With Dwight Howard an unrestricted free agent, the Rockets are likely going to need some help inside. Horford is a different kind of big man, one who shot nearly 80% from the free throw line last season, which must make him look like a unicorn to Houston fans.

The Rockets declined to extend a qualifying offer to Terrence Jones, highlighting that they are placing a premium on cap space. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but an approach the Rockets are likely taking here is to get a guy like Horford early, which could make the Rockets more attractive to other free agents. Easier said than done, but they’re still hunting big game.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 30, 2016 at 10:05 am

Rockets extend qualifying offer to Donatas Motiejunas but decline on Terrence Jones

Donatas Motiejunas Terrence Jones

As expected, the Rockets have extended a qualifying offer to Donatas Motiejunas, making him a restricted free agent as free agent negotiations open in the NBA tonight at midnight. We reported last week that the Rockets are making a push to let D-Mo know they want him back.

However, the Rockets have declined to extend a qualifying offer to Terrence Jones, according to the Houston Chronicle, making him an unrestricted free agent.

I knew Jones was not in the Rockets’ plans after falling completely out of the rotation last season, but it was still unexpected to see this. At a little over $3 million, and with salaries expected to explode, I thought the Rockets would extend the offer, knowing they could always pull it back later to create the cap room.

To me, it shows just how far he has truly fallen that the threat of him accepting that offer was too big of a risk to the Rockets.

Jones appeared to be ready for a breakout heading into 2014-15, but since then he has been hammered by bizarre injuries, including a collapsed lung, nerve inflammation, eye laceration and recovery from a car accident. But even when healthy in 2015-16, he was just plain unproductive, shooting a career-low from the field and routinely getting lost in switches and pick-and-roll defensive sets. In the final 27 games of the regular season and postseason, Jones played a grand total of 5 minutes — all in garbage time of a rout of the Timberwolves on April 11.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 30, 2016 at 9:37 am

Value-Oriented Rockets set to meet the Summer of Overspending

NBA Free Agents 2016 Mike Conley Kevin Durant Ryan Anderson

Trades, draft picks… it’s been pretty uneventful for the Rockets so far this summer, but the real show is set to begin. The Rockets could have in the ballpark of $40 million in cap room and are banking on that to make improvements to the team.

With NBA teams cleared to start negotiating with free agents at midnight tonight, David Weiner, aka BimaThug, joins the podcast as we discuss how the Rockets, a team that covets value, could approach the craziest salary explosion the NBA has ever seen.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
June 29, 2016 at 8:21 am

Rockets preparing push to let Donatas Motiejunas know they want him back

Donatas Motiejunas James Harden

The Rockets are preparing materials to deliver to Donatas Motiejunas on July 1 to let him know they want to keep him, sources confirmed to ClutchFans.

We first tipped off the community about this on Draft Night when I learned that the Rockets were filming a video to deliver to D-Mo with messages from Rockets staff and media personalities communicating to him that he is wanted back in Houston.

This may seem odd for a restricted free agent, given that the Rockets control the situation and can match any offer sheet that Motiejunas signs. D-Mo’s case is unique, however.

The Rockets traded Motiejunas to Detroit in February, only to have the deal voided by the Pistons days later based on D-Mo’s back issues.

The Rockets feel it is important to show him that they really want him back, despite the trade.

Motiejunas seemed to be on the verge of a breakout after the 2014-15 season in which he averaged 12.0 points, hitting 36.8% from distance, to go with 5.9 rebounds. He was an especially critical piece to the team with Dwight Howard missing half of the season. But a back injury late that year ended up derailing him for the entire 2015-16 season when he played in just 37 games, averaging 6.2 points and connecting on just 28.1% from deep.

So does this mean it’s a lock D-Mo returns? Definitely not. As we saw in 2014 with Chandler Parsons and his restricted free agency, there is a value line that the Rockets won’t cross. With so many teams having max cap space and salaries expected to soar, it’s possible some team could far surpass in an offer what the Rockets feel is his value. But the Rockets want to smooth over any ill feelings and make it clear to him that they want him back.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 24, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Film Study: Chinanu Onuaku

Chinanu Onuaku Houston Rockets

The NBA Draft is the annual opportunity for organizations to improve depth, find a probable starter, and gamble on potential contributions from international and collegiate prospects. Many pundits, reporters and fans did not know if the Rockets would stick with their two second-round picks at 37 and 43.

The Rockets were reportedly looking at trading into the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, and I heard on Thursday morning that it was the goal. However, the Rockets stayed at those two second-round positions and selected 6-foot-9 Louisville PF/C Chinanu Onuaku with 37th overall pick, and 7-foot-2 Chinese C Zhou Qi with the 43rd overall selection.

After the draft, the Rockets reportedly agreed to deals with three players at positions of need for this upcoming season. Oregon State guard Gary Payton II, Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer, and Texas guard Isaiah Taylor all signed three-year deals with team options as undrafted free agents. Not all rookies will contribute right away, and many will lack the opportunity to crack the rotation. A majority of these players will likely see time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

With that in mind, it’s important to highlight two specific players who will have a chance to prove their worth and ability to contribute and develop a role in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense: Chinanu Onuaku and Gary Payton II.

This will be a two-part series. I’ll first highlight how Chinanu Onuaku fits the Rockets spread pick-and-roll system and how he can continue to develop offensively and defensively. For the second piece, I’ll analyze Gary Payton II and break down his offensive and defensive strengths.

Chinanu Onuaku

First things first. Onuaku is younger than me by one month. He’s 19.5 years of age, but boasted a 13.9 Box Score Plus-Minus — which is an ELITE statistic for a college sophomore (or anyone his age). He’s an inch shorter than your prototypical NBA center at 6’9, but he makes up for this with his 7’3 wingspan. The Rockets value their draft and scouting models when evaluating collegiate and international players. Chinanu Onuaku excelled in various in-depth statistical categories, and factoring this with his age made him a very underrated prospect by different models. Onuaku was seen as a potential lottery selection by statisticians, and it’s not surprising for Morey to take this route, as he has done with Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell in previous seasons. Despite his statistical accomplishments, Onuaku was ultimately drafted for his contributions on the basketball court.

Defense

Defense is where Onuaku should make his biggest contribution to the Rockets. As a 6’9 center, he is undersized, but he does have intangibles that allow him to excel on the floor. During his two years at Louisville, Onuaku had a 2.2% steal rate. His wingspan and length created mistakes for ball-handlers, deflected passes and ignited fast break opportunities. Onuaku blocked two shots per game in about 25 minutes/game (3.4 blocks per 40 minutes), ranking third in the ACC. He also had a defensive rating of 84.9, second-best in the entire NCAA. Even better? When Onuaku was on the floor, Louisville only allowed 82.7 points per 100 possessions. His interior defense can be categorized as “pretty good” to “really good”, with a chance at becoming elite in the NBA.

He doesn’t have the best vertical, but his feel for the game allows him to position himself around the paint to contest and alter shots. With Louisville, he had the flexibility and freedom to roam the paint area and help on backdoor screens and other off-ball screens. He’s also smart and quick enough to rotate over and patrol the lane. Anticipation is a skill that many interior-based Bigs lack, but Onuaku possesses that and more. Combine this with his wide frame and size, and the Rockets have a defensive player who can impact the opposing team’s shot selection immediately.

In the modern NBA, it’s important for defenses to have personnel who are athletic, versatile, and smart defenders. This allows defensive schemes to increase complexity, switching everything and forcing miscommunication and mistakes (in this case, creating more transition opportunities for the young, athletic Rockets).

Pick-and-roll defense is a requirement for any NBA big who hopes to see consistent playing time. With Louisville, Onuaku had many situations where he was forced to roam around the perimeter or contain the ball-handler off pick-and-rolls. He has quick feet that produce lateral movement, using his knees and footwork to stay in front of speedy ball-handlers. If beat by the first step of the ball-handler, Onuaku has long arms to recover and mitigate high-percentage shot attempts or eradicate passes inside the paint. He’s also a diligent communicator, constantly pointing out screens or player movement while making sure his teammates are in their proper assignments. Where he struggles in pick-and-roll defense is consistency. The Rockets will not want him to switch onto a smaller guard on every possession because he’s prone to immaturity in stance and hand placement. He has problems with reaching, generating poor foul calls (foul rate of almost 5 times per 40 minutes). Assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers will work closely with Onuaku in this area. They’ve had extensive experience in developing NBA bigs, teaching them to use frame and size to manipulate angles and gain advantages against smaller players.

Offense

At 6’10 (with shoes) and 245 pounds, Onuaku has a perfect frame and core for the new and revamped Rockets offense. His strength can open up spacious driving lanes for ball-handlers and shooters. Screens in D’Antoni’s offense require the screener to set a pick at a 45-degree angle on the bottom side of the on-ball defender. Essentially, the screener picks the waist of the on-ball defender, forcing them to go over the top of the screen. With this 45-degree angle, the contact gives the ball handler enough space to maneuver inside. Onuaku isn’t polished offensively, but he possesses attributes and a terrific body to provide contributions in the heavy spread screen-and-roll and pick-and-roll offense.

Most of Onuaku’s points will come off of offensive rebounding and rim running. He had 4.9 offensive rebounds every 40 minutes, one of the best rates in all of college basketball. As mentioned before, Onuaku has great anticipation and feel. He can locate the ball, move quickly towards the area, and box-out any defender (great contested rebounding percentage). He grabbed 13.8% of Louisville’s available misses by using his high motor and relentless energy. Lobs, dump-offs, and layups consisted of 53% of his field goal makes. Louisville’s offense was very guard-oriented, explaining why he did not have many attempts during the season. When he was involved in the offensive movement or set, he was in the 27th percentile for pick-and-roll scoring. He has great hands and cutting ability, utilizing the duck-in to get easy looks at the rim. However, he doesn’t have the most explosive vertical or speed to escape from defenders, and thus can have trouble finishing over opposing players who are bigger and longer. The good news for Onuaku is that D’Antoni is terrific at cultivating and molding young bigs into competent pick-and-roll players.

Chinanu Onuaku’s biggest strength on offense may be his ability to pass the basketball. He does boast a high turnover rate of about 23%. However, he has a very high basketball IQ for someone of his age and experience level. His passes aren’t overzealous – instead, they’re soft and accurate while often putting the ball in position for the player to catch and move. For those questioning the turnover rate, consider Louisville’s offense and the movement involved. With more polish and systematic consistency, that number should decrease dramatically over the course of his career.

With the new Rockets offense, ball movement and player movement will be emphasized. Onuaku’s strength as a passer is hitting the cutter as they dive inside and finding the open shooter in the corner or along the wing. It may seem easy, but rarely do players of his size and length possess such mastery of passing at such an early age. With him on the roster, and if Motiejunas returns, the Rockets may be changing the style of player they want at that position. Bigs on D’Antoni’s roster must possess the ability to pass the basketball and help facilitate movement and scoring on offense, something Onuaku clearly has and will improve upon.

Conclusion

Chinanu Onuaku isn’t the most explosive or flexible athlete. His standing reach is incredible, but his lack of a significant vertical limits him offensively as a pick-and-roll threat. He’s not a professional scorer. However, that’s not what the Rockets were looking for when they drafted him. They marveled at his interior defense, ability to switch onto perimeter guards and eradicate possibility of penetration, passing to cutters and open shooters, and his high IQ on offense.

Onuaku should get playing time on the second unit as someone who can anchor the defense and grab rebounds at a high rate over opposing front-line players. Will he be a star? No. But he’s someone who can star in his role, develop into a consistent and dominant back-up PF/C, and provide the Rockets with consistency at a position which has had a revolving door in effort and play the last few seasons.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 24, 2016 at 9:22 am

Daryl Morey excited about upside of Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi

Daryl Morey 2016 NBA Draft

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey came down to talk to us late Thursday night after the 2016 NBA Draft. The Rockets drafted Louisville big man Chinanu Onuaku with the 37th overall pick and Chinese prospect Zhou Qi, who Morey said has “as high an upside as anyone in the draft”, with the 43rd selection.

The Rockets also signed undrafted free agents 6’2 point guard Gary Payton II out of Oregon State, sharpshooter big Kyle Wiltjer out of Gonzaga and 6’3 guard Isaiah Taylor out of Texas, but Morey could not discuss those players just yet.

Here’s the video of Daryl’s full Q&A after the draft discussing the picks.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 23, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Rockets draft Louisville big man Chinanu Onuaku

Chinanu Onuaku

The Rockets talked about making trades in this Draft, but they did not happen.

Instead, the Rockets stayed pat in the second round, taking Louisville big man Chinanu Onuaku with the 37th overall selection. This is the second straight season that the Rockets have taken a Louisville big in the second round after selecting Montrezl Harrell last season.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Onuaku after being drafted by the Rockets. “It was unbelievable. I’ve been working for this all my life. Just to finally hear my name called… I didn’t know what to do. I just praised God and I cried.”

I like this pick. Onuaku is just 19 years old, standing 6-foot-10 with a nearly 7-foot-3 wingspan and coming in at 245 pounds. Hes got good potential as an interior defender, averaging 9.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in just 24.6 minutes as a sophomore. The Rockets will need some help inside with only Clint Capela currently under contract at the five.

In talking with Rockets staff at Toyota Center, they love how he boxes out and carves out space. He’s a good rebounder — strong and not easily moved.

The newest Rocket considers himself “coachable” and loves the idea of coming to Houston.

“I know they’re a playoff team,” said Onuaku of the Rockets. “I know that Dwight Howard just opted out so I have a chance to take that position. I know they have James Harden. I’m coming into a great situation.”

He was direct and to the point when asked about his strengths.

“Right now, I’m more of a defensive player,” said Onuaku. “Post defense, pick-and-roll defense, blocking shots and offensive and defensive rebounding.”

Posted in Houston Rockets |
June 22, 2016 at 10:17 am

Film Study: The Alessandro Gentile Scouting Report

Alessandro Gentile Houston Rockets

Teams have long been stashing international prospects. The idea is to draft them in their late teens or early twenties, but leave them in Europe to develop with their specific team or country. This allows the player to continue developing and honing their craft in a comfortable environment where they have the support system to help develop consistency in their skill set.

That’s exactly what’s happened with the Rockets and Alessandro Gentile, who is rumored to be potentially joining the Rockets this season. Gentile, who was selected with the 53rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, is a 23-year-old small forward and shooting guard who has averaged double figures in Euroleague competition for Italy and in the Italian league Serie A. As such, a case can certainly be made that Gentile is ready for a higher level of competition.

In Houston, fans are hoping to see the team bounce back from the disappointing 2015-2016 campaign. But after the mildly surprising hire of Mike D’Antoni as head coach, some are skeptical on whether steep improvement can be made. No matter what, in order to be successful, a team needs to surround its head coach with players that can star in their role. The Rockets have numerous complementary pieces that need to integrate, not assimilate, in order to create true chemistry on both ends of the floor.

Enter Gentile.

This 6-7, 230 pound Italian has a specific skill set that can infuse the Rockets second unit with scoring, shooting, and playmaking. The Rockets need players who can facilitate the offense and play a certain role in the read-and-react and spacing system that Coach D’Antoni will implement. Gentile is a physical player, using his footwork and length to create scoring opportunities. He’s able to score and facilitate movement with and without the basketball. That last point is important, especially with a Rockets team that will attack defenses after forcing miscommunication and mistakes.

Gentile prefers to attack off the dribble and has the ability to use both his hands when finishing around the basket. With the Rockets, he won’t likely be the primary ball handler whenever on the floor, but don’t discount his ability to attack closeouts and beat bigger defenders off the dribble. Here’s an example of Gentile attacking Jae Crowder of the Boston Celtics during a 2015 NBA Global Game.

gentile1

In D’Antoni’s offense, there are two shooters camped in the corner, one shooter in the slot and the ball handler and screener on the angle. The slot is theoretically the opposite wing of the pick-and-roll ball handler. The angle is defined not as the middle of the floor, but slightly adjacent to the wing. With three shooters on the floor, including the power forward as a stretch forward, there’s enough spacing to run a spread pick-and-roll and attack inside. Notice Gentile is in the slot position. Once the ball-handler makes the pass to Gentile’s side, the team clears the left side to let him operate. Crowder allows the baseline, not willing to give up the inside elbow and middle of the floor. Gentile immediately attacks Crowder and begins his drive towards the lane.

Gentile2

Gentile3

Gentile, as many savvy European players do, uses his inside shoulder to create space and contact. He has great body control, attacking closeouts and using both of his hands to produce variety of finishes around the basket. With his physicality, Gentile seldom resists contact and often uses space well to finish past defenders who rotate over to protect the paint.

Gentile4

Gentile5

David Lee rotates over to help, but Gentile plants his left foot and uses his right foot to balance himself in the air, ultimately finishing around Lee and the outstretched arms of Crowder. Gentile has a stronger upper body compared to most European wings, however he’s very slow and methodical in how he attacks off the pick-and-roll, off screens, and most close outs.

His 6-7 size will allow him to play the shooting guard or small forward position off the bench for the Rockets. There will be opportunities for him to attack mismatches against smaller guards from opposing teams. A strength of Gentile’s is his ability to get the ball in the post and either score/facilitate off face-up or post-up possessions. He’s a master at manipulating his pivot foot and body to contort in ways to bypass his defender and score inside. He can also utilize his underrated passing ability to create scoring opportunities on the opposite side of the floor. This past season (2015-2016) for EA7 Emporio Armani Milano, Gentile had an AST% of 24.08 (AST% is the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on while he was on the floor). Therefore, Gentile assisted on almost 25% of his team’s field goals. Incredible numbers that indicate that he has the ability to facilitate the basketball and create opportunities in a spread pick-and-roll offense.

Here’s an example of his post game against smaller players. Notice how he uses the drop step as a counter to the smaller guard who aggressively attacks Gentile’s right hand. The drop step allows Gentile to maintain positional and size advantage over smaller defenders, and his leg, hip, and waist ultimately mitigate the defender’s capability to alter or block the shot. In this play, Gentile uses his drop step to pivot around towards the baseline and release a hook shot with his left hand (he was also fouled). As was mentioned before, he is ambidextrous with the basketball when around the basket and will use it to his advantage. Coach D’Antoni will look to utilize Gentile’s post-up play in pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations where Gentile can play the screener or ball handler.

As for Gentile’s passing, here’s an example where hedging is used on the screen and Gentile must recover and make the correct decision. After Gentile is contained by the defense hedging the screen, he’s still able to make an accurate bounce pass to his Big inside for the slam dunk. This skill will surely be utilized in D’Antoni’s offense, which relies heavily on players’ abilities to read-and-react and make passes to keep the offense moving and the defense from attacking passing lanes. The spacing created from shooting and proper lineups will allow Gentile’s strength to shine. Perimeter passing and cross-court passes to the corners are where Gentile excelled with his Italian team, opening up three-point high percentage opportunities.

His lack of athleticism and explosiveness off the dribble will create problems for him offensively, but his high basketball IQ and ability to attack closeouts will provide fresh scoring to this Rockets team. Offensively, he struggles shooting the basketball at a consistent rate. He was a 24.3% three-point shooter this past season, struggling at finding rhythm from the perimeter. He needs to improve the mechanics of his release, giving his shot more arc and better accuracy. Defensively, he struggles against stronger and faster players due to his limited lateral quickness. When placed in isolation situations, Gentile struggles to stay with his assignment and will likely be picked on in pick-and-roll defense situations. He’ll likely play the passing lanes when/if the Rockets trap pick-and-rolls and try to force offenses into rushed turnovers. Gentile will also need to learn how to defend without using hands and reaching. He does have quick instincts and creates steals, but the NBA level will punish him and yield a high foul rate.

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Look at Gentile using his arms and trying to reach into David Lee’s body to force a turnover. Luckily for him, a foul was not called, but Lee was able to get past Gentile and pass to Bradley in the corner. This will be an area of emphasis for Gentile and the Rockets coaching staff this upcoming season. As an offensive weapon and scorer, Gentile will surely be utilized by Coach D’Antoni and the Rockets coaching staff. What will determine his playing time and impact on the team will be his ability to improve defensively and provide enough offensive spark as a rotation player to offset his weaknesses. His passing, shooting, and craftiness as a facilitator will provide another component of the spread pick-and-roll attack.

Lastly, I would like to introduce myself to Rockets fans here on ClutchFans. My name is Alykhan Bijani, you probably recognize me as @Rockets_Insider on Twitter. I cover and write about the Rockets for ESPN975.com. I also write about the NBA for Hardwood Paroxysm. I’ll be contributing to ClutchFans throughout the offseason and into the 2016-2017 NBA season. Looking forward to sharing my thoughts and film analysis on all things Houston Rockets. Look out for a Mike D’Antoni Houston Rockets playbook in the coming weeks that will detail multiple sets and plays the team will utilize with Harden and the rest of the roster.

Posted in Houston Rockets |