December 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

Talking Three-Point Philosophy and Rockets Prospects with Vipers Coach Nevada Smith

Rio Grande Valley Vipers coach Nevada SmithLast night notwithstanding, the Rockets have run the NBA’s top-ranked offense this year, but there’s one offense that may be out-Rocketing the Rockets.

Through the first five games, the 5-0 Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the NBDL affiliate for the Rockets, are averaging 133.4 points per game, shooting an unbelievable 47.2 three-pointers per game.

Vipers head coach Nevada Smith joins Dave Hardisty on the podcast to talk about their success and how his uptempo, fast-paced style fits with what appears to be an organizational philosophy that cuts out the mid-range shot and focuses on points in the paint and three-point shots.

Smith also fills us in on the development of Rocket rookies Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington as well as sharpshooter Troy Daniels.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
November 29, 2013 at 11:09 am

Jeremy Lin out two weeks with knee sprain

Jeremy Lin hits 9 three-pointersThe Rockets will be without sixth man Jeremy Lin for awhile.

Lin will miss two weeks of action with a Grade 1 knee sprain. Lin suffered the injury on this play when he collided with Paul Millsap in Houston’s 113-84 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday.

There are a few tough games over the next couple of weeks. The Rockets play in San Antonio tomorrow and will face the Warriors twice and Portland on the road during that span. The Rockets have already been without James Harden (sore left foot) for the past three games.

If Harden can’t go, Aaron Brooks will see an even bigger role. Brooks has averaged 16.7 points, connecting on 11-17 three-pointers, to go with 3.3 assists and 1.67 steals in just 22.7 minutes in the past three games with Harden out.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm

X-Factor: The Impact of Terrence Jones

Terrence Jones Houston Rockets X-Factor

The Rockets came into the season not knowing who their starting power forward would be. 15 games in, they just might have found their answer in Terrence Jones.

“He’s the X-Factor going into every single night,” said James Harden.

The four spot has been in flux for the Rockets since last season when they traded the steady production of Patrick Patterson and backup Marcus Morris right before the trade deadline. Early in the preseason they experimented with all of their options, with Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and Omri Casspi all seeing time at the position as coach McHale tried to see who might emerge from the crowd as the front runner.

The Failed Twin Towers Experiment

With no clear preseason solution, McHale threw a bit of a curveball by starting Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard in a so-called “Twin Towers” lineup. The move was done for two reasons – to see how much havoc a defense of two of the league’s best rim protectors could create together and to appease the disgruntled Asik who had already requested a trade over the summer and was concerned over his minutes.

The results were less than stellar and Asik and Howard reminded few of the famous famous Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon pairing of the 1980’s. The Asik-Howard lineup was poor offensively — player spacing was off, the offense was clunky and the previously “go-go” Rockets were plodding.

The Beverley/Lin-Harden-Parsons-Howard-Asik lineup mustered a measly 0.87 points-per-possession (PPP), while giving up 1.06PPP on the defensive end, so playing the two bigs together was a net negative for the team as a whole.

In fact, in the first eight games, the Rockets finished the first quarter behind their opponents in five of them – against the Bobcats, Jazz, Clippers, Trail Blazers and Lakers. McHale and the Rockets finally decided to make a change against the Sixers, inserting Jones into the starting lineup to replace Asik. Jones has more than answered the call, playing the best week of basketball of his career and propelling the Rockets out of the starting gates offensively.

A Natural Fit with the Starting Group

Despite sporadic early season minutes off the bench, Jones has looked like a natural fit as a starter, meshing beautifully with the Rockets’ fast break and pick-and-roll heavy offense and living up to much of the potential that Rockets scouts saw when he was drafted out of Kentucky with the 18th pick last year. So far in 7 games as a starter, he’s averaged 14.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2 assists in 31.6 minutes per game while running the floor and providing energy at both ends. Jones’ PER of 19.5 for the season is the third highest on the team after Harden and Howard and it’s no wonder he’s scoring so efficiently: he’s played within himself, taking high percentage shots that fit within the flow of the offense.

An End to the First Quarter Woes

Inserting Jones into the lineup has thankfully seemed to solve the Rockets’ first quarter futility: in the 7 games since T-Jones has been a starter, they have “won” the quarter six out of seven times, suffering their only first quarter deficit in Monday night’s disjointed start against the Grizzlies. Whereas the Asik-Howard tandem was a net negative for the Rockets, the offensive potency of the new first quarter Jones-Howard is a positive. The Rockets are scoring 1.17PPP overall with Jones in the lineup, a 35% increase from the Asik-Howard lineup. While Jones isn’t known as the defender that Asik is, there has been only a negligible difference on that end of the floor with him starting.

Much-Needed Floor Spacing

Jones’ individual production has been nice but his “stretch 4” qualities have had a synergistic effect on the rest of the team too, opening up space on the interior for the likes of Dwight Howard to operate and creating room for the perimeter players to drive to the basket.

Teammates and coaches alike have understandably gushed about his recent play.

“Rebounding, defense, the ability to make plays, float game, finish around the rim, cut right, spacing, hit threes… He’s been doing it all for us,” said Jeremy Lin. “I don’t know if anyone has been playing better than he has over the last week.”

While his shooting has been questioned in the past, Jones has shown range all the way out to the three-point line this year where he’s connecting at a smoking 47% of his attempts (7/15). Of course, that percentage is going to come down over time but his high arcing trajectory and soft hands suggest he has the mechanics to be a consistently good long range shooter for the rest of his career.

Versatility is his biggest weapon

Jones has an array of offensive weapons and so far this season, he’s shown glimpses of all of them, highlighting his ability both with and without the ball, in the halfcourt and in transition. While the term “tweener” is usually a negative, in Jones’ case, the versatility that his small forward skillset in a power forward’s body is starting to look like it could be a deadly combination.

Athletically gifted, Jones is gazelle-like in transition, often out-sprinting the other team’s defense to collect the pass and finish the break, whether it be taking a quick dribble around a defender first or just slamming home a dunk. He’s already one of the best fast break finishers for the Rockets (converting 80% of his attempts so far) and has the potential to be one of the best in the league, too.

Not just an athletic lefty with a nice J, he’s also effective in the pick-and-roll, capable of popping out for the mid-range jumper or rolling to the hoop and getting an easy basket. We’ve even seen him handle the ball in the pick-and-roll a couple of times, using a screen from a Rockets guard to create a mismatch that he can easily take advantage of to dribble to the hole against a smaller defender. Not bad for a 6’9” power forward.

Jones has underrated smarts too. He loves to hide on the weak side wing until his defender falls asleep before cutting to the basket and receiving the pass from a posting Dwight Howard, a sequence that most often leads to an easy dunk or layup. If his defender sags into the paint, he’ll simply find some open space and wait for an opportunity to spot up.

Jones is still developing as a defender. His one-on-one defense and weakside help have been good, but he can get lost in pick-and-roll defense and rotating matchups. His back-to-the-basket game is also an area where he can improve.

Apart from those things, Terrence Jones, at just 21 years of age, has the tools to be one of the more complete offensive players in the game, reminding me of a better-scoring version of Lamar Odom in his championship-winning Laker days.

Jones’ Play Opens Options For Rockets

Much of the early season trade speculation (and in some cases wishful thinking) on Clutchfans has centered around the idea of trading for a proven starting four along the lines of a Paul Millsap or Ryan Anderson, or for the super optimistic, LaMarcus Aldridge. While Daryl Morey would love (no pun intended) to get All-Star level output from the power forward position, Jones’ recent play makes the need to upgrade the four less of a pressing need. Logging solid production from Jones, the Rockets can now look to trade Asik for the best player (or future asset) available, regardless of position. I tend to leave the trade speculation to others, but a blockbuster deal for an All-Star on a non-contending team (Rajon Rondo, anyone?) becomes more of a feasible concept now.

Of course, it may be that trading Asik isn’t the foregone conclusion that we all think. As Monday’s Memphis game showed, there is tremendous value in having a starting caliber center on the bench. Asik provides a high quality alternative to Dwight in case he’s having a bad game, is injured or needs a rest. But Asik has asked for a trade twice now and the smart money still says that he’s eventually moved for a player that can help them get even closer to becoming a contender.

Now, The Hard Part

Can Jones keep this up?

While Jones has been a great addition to the starting lineup, it has only been seven games and Rockets fans can’t get too carried away just yet. But there is no reason why any of the positive things Jones has brought to the Rockets – especially his ability to run the floor, spot up and score off cuts and pick-and-rolls – should drop off too significantly. If he can keep up his recent fine form, it both helps Houston’s performance on the court now and allows them to trade from a position of strength should the opportunity to move for a special player present itself.

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Role reversal: As Howard sacrifices minutes for wins, Bryant cripples Lakers’ future

Dwight Howard at Rockets training camp

Dwight Howard is leading by example in his first season with the Rockets.

Remember when Dwight Howard was portrayed by so many as the selfish one in Los Angeles?

Ever since leaving the Lakers for the Rockets, numerous national media voices have criticized him for supposedly running from a leadership role and lacking the commitment to win an NBA championship.

Monday offered an interesting contrast on that front. In Memphis, the Rockets (10-5) pulled off a miraculous 93-86 come-from-behind victory, all with Howard not playing one second in the fourth quarter.

Statistics, shot attempts, post-up opportunities… Howard didn’t seem bothered by the lack of any of those on Monday night.

Because his team won.

Remember when Howard supposedly brought a stat sheet around the locker room in Los Angeles to complain to teammates about how he didn’t get enough field-goal attempts? That’s not happening in Houston. In four of the Rockets’ last six games, Howard has seen his shot attempts limited to single digits. In three of those games, he played fewer than 30 minutes.

Yet no one around the Rockets has heard the slightest complaint. Why? It starts with the fact that the Rockets won all of those games, and Howard is embracing the concept of leading by example.

“We have to play four consistent quarters,” Howard recently told the Houston Chronicle. “It can’t be one quarter or two quarters or three. It has to be four. Guys have to know their limits, know when they need a break, be humble enough to raise their hand and get somebody else in to play those minutes. A lot of times, guys cruise. I’ve cruised a couple times, wanted to stay out there longer.

“You can’t do that if you want to be a great team. You have to go out there and go hard and play 48 minutes as hard as you can, whether that’s 20 minutes, five minutes, 30 minutes, we have to all give it all and trust that the guy off the bench is going to give us the same effort or more. We all have to get to that level where we trust each other and trust that the guy that is going to come in for us will come in with the same intensity. Once we get there, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”

On Monday, Howard practiced what he preached. Though his big-picture numbers were solid with 15 points (6-of-10 FG) and seven rebounds in 27 minutes, he turned it over five times and didn’t seem to have his ‘A’ game. The Rockets then caught fire late in the third quarter and early in the fourth with Omer Asik (10 rebounds, 2 blocks in 21 minutes) in the middle to defend Zach Randolph.

Head coach Kevin McHale opted to ride the hot hands, leaving Howard and Jeremy Lin on the bench as the Rockets put away the Grizzlies with a 38-23 burst. Most impressively, neither star seemed bothered at all. Howard, in particular, was routinely the first one off the Houston bench to high-five his teammates and encourage Asik (his own replacement) to keep up the good work.

Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 miles away in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant put pen to paper a few hours earlier on a two-year contract extension for $48.5 million. That deal ensures that Bryant, coming off a debilitating tear of his Achilles, will remain the highest paid player in the NBA through the 2015-16 season — when he’ll be 37 years old and in his 20th season.

The NBA salary cap for this season is $58.6 million, and the Lakers just committed an average annual salary of $24.3 million — over 40% of the cap — to one player. In a league where Hall-of-Fame veterans such as Tim Duncan (making $10.3 million/year) and Kevin Garnett ($11.5 million/year) are routinely accepting below-max contracts to help their teams build a championship roster, Bryant’s new contract means the Lakers only have room for one other max deal.

The problem with that, of course, is that the Lakers are more than one max player away from contention. They had Howard with Bryant last season, and it was barely enough to squeak into the playoffs. It seems doubtful that a 30-year-old Carmelo Anthony, should the Lakers succeed in their quest to lure him away from New York next summer, would do much more.

A popular rumor over the summer was that Howard wanted the Lakers to either amnesty Bryant or offer up a firm timetable on how they planned to move on. It was never confirmed, but it made sense. If the Lakers wouldn’t cut the cord then, with Howard holding enormous leverage, how could he trust the team to move on from Bryant in the future when that leverage went away?

The bottom line is that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers each prioritized security, stability and their own glamour status ahead of making the sacrifices needed to build a true contender.

On the other hand, Dwight Howard — playing on a contract worth $30 million less than what he could have received in Los Angeles — sat on the bench Monday in Memphis without complaint for an entire fourth quarter. Because it was what the Rockets needed to win.

Who is the selfish one, again?

Posted in Houston Rockets |
November 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

Podcast: Taking a look at Omer Asik Trade Possibilities

Ersan Ilyasova, Paul Millsap and Ryan Anderson

Omer Asik has returned to Rockets practice and is expected to be available for tonight’s game with the Boston Celtics, but that doesn’t mean he’ll survive the season in Houston.

David Weiner (aka BimaThug) joins Dave Hardisty on the podcast to talk about the cap and salary impact of an Omer Asik trade. They also discuss the myriad possibilities around the league, both where Asik would be a fit and trade targets that would make sense for Daryl Morey and company. The possibility of the Rockets having significant cap room in 2015 could still play a key role in what the Rockets do with Asik.

Though Asik dominates the discussion, the two also talk about the Rockets’ 7-4 start — what’s working and what’s not — and the early hot shooting from Jeremy Lin.

Posted in Houston Rockets, Podcasts |
November 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Asik Trade Demand Doubles The Trouble For Rockets

Omer Asik on the bench

McHale said Omer Asik was not feeling well, but he did not look happy on the bench Thursday

So Omer Asik has requested a trade. Again.

How exactly did we arrive at this quandary? Well, you could really make an argument that both parties are right and both are wrong.

The Rockets absolutely should have signed Dwight Howard — he’s the best center in the game. On the other hand, it makes no sense to be in this spot, 10 games into the season and wasting one of the NBA’s best defensive centers by nailing him to the pine. Asik, if he has any pride, is right to be upset as he is. After all, he was one of the primary reasons the Rockets were in the playoffs last year and he’s still growing as a player. He deserves to play, but he’s taking the wrong approach by letting it impact his play on the court.

So let’s talk about what’s next. I’ll reiterate what we’ve been saying since the summer: Omer Asik is going to be traded. There’s no getting around that. His contract is up after next season and he’s not inking another deal in Houston. When Asik is traded is the question, and that’s why the timing of this trade demand is compounding the problem.

The Rockets really needed the Twin Towers lineup to work, at least to the point where it could be used consistently. It isn’t because they feel that’s the long-term solution, but because they need to be in a state where they don’t have to make a trade… until the right trade opens up. That means they need Asik satisfied and the squad winning at a decent clip so front offices around the league don’t circle the Toyota Center like vultures on a carcass.

With that experiment failing (so far), the Rockets can’t make use of a very effective player. This isn’t anything like the Jeremy Lin-Patrick Beverley debate, which is much ado about nothing. With two interchangeable guard spots and occasional three-guard lineups, there’s no reason that both Lin and Beverley can’t log 30 minutes a night. If the Rockets can’t play Dwight and Omer together, that caps Asik’s minutes to about 12 a night, tops.

So with Asik logging very few minutes, the Rockets are getting little from a prime asset. Combine that with his unhappiness and the timeline to make a move may be accelerating on Daryl Morey, yet he can’t just trade Asik for simply a useful player — this is his chief trade asset to improve this team.

Ideally, you want to get closer to the trade deadline to field your best offers and see which teams change directions. The dream was to see either Minnesota (Kevin Love) or Portland (LaMarcus Aldridge) fall short of expectations, but both of those teams have come out of the gate strong. There’s no reason to think either team will trade their best players (certainly not right now).

The Rockets need a power forward that has, at a minimum, a strong mid-range game. Without Asik, the Rockets have a backup center issue, so in a perfect world, this four would have the ability to slide over and give the Rockets minutes at the center position in smaller lineups. That’s what makes both Love and Aldridge terrific fits.

The Lakers (4-6) and Pau Gasol are interesting. Gasol is a free agent this summer and any trade would be difficult given that his salary is a beast to match ($19.3M). New Orleans (3-6) would seem to be a good fit — Ryan Anderson is a floor-spacing four with deadly three-point efficiency while Asik could hold down the paint alongside Anthony Davis. Atlanta (4-4) is another intriguing possibility as many think Al Horford is better suited at the four than five. The Hawks recently signed Paul Millsap, who might fit well here (though he can’t be traded until December 15th).

If the Rockets can’t make the kind of trade they need now, I wouldn’t be surprised if they Kyle Lowry-ed this thing, flipping Asik for an asset (first round pick) that would be more attractive to rebuilding teams for a follow-up move. Teams looking to the future are the ideal trade partners for Houston right now since they would be looking to unload win-now talent for draft considerations.

But make no mistake — Asik is going to get traded. It may be this week, this February or this summer, but his days in Houston are numbered.

UPDATE: Yahoo! reports the Rockets have talked to teams about Asik
Posted in Houston Rockets | Tagged |
November 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Lin and Yang: Why Choose One Point Guard When You Can Have Two?

Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley

A lot is being made over the fact that Jeremy Lin leads all NBA point guards in true shooting percentage through the first handful of games this season. Conversely, Patrick Beverley, the named starter, has had a rough go of it so far, fighting through a rib injury and some poor shooting. As those who spend any time at all on message boards like the one here at ClutchFans can attest, those who like Lin are more than a tad miffed.
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Posted in Analysis, Houston Rockets | Tagged , |
November 11, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Terrence Jones makes Rockets’ rotation debut

Terrence Jones entered Monday’s game against Toronto with a whopping 15 minutes played in the first seven regular season games combined, all in mop-up duty. Once considered the favorite for Houston’s starting power forward spot, a strong preseason from Omri Casspi coupled with a desire to experiment with Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard pushed Jones out of the rotation entirely.

terrence jones raptors1 Terrence Jones makes Rockets rotation debut

Terrence Jones wasn’t sure when his first significant regular-season minutes would come, but he proved ready to play.

But with reserve swingman Francisco Garcia out with the flu, the Rockets (5-3) had minutes to fill, and the second-year power forward from Kentucky took full advantage. In 32 minutes, Jones collected 10 rebounds and blocked four shots on the interior, in addition to playing excellent perimeter defense down the stretch against Rudy Gay (who shot 11-of-37 from the field — below 30%).

Oh, and his 7 points on offense included the go-ahead basket with the game tied in double overtime, 104-104, with barely over a minute left.

“I prepared [for tonight] like I prepare every game, to be ready to play if coach gave me the opportunity,” said Jones. “I think I did real well, because we came up with the win.”

Despite not playing a single meaningful minute to begin the season, head coach Kevin McHale trusted Jones enough that he played every second of two overtimes — and that confidence paid off in Houston’s 110-104 win over the Raptors. Against a Toronto team that started the athletic Amir Johnson and Gay at the forward spots, Jones’ versatility and transition skills proved critical.

“I thought his energy was amazing on both ends of the floor,” said Howard, a guy who knows quite a bit about the value of versatile forwards, having played alongside Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson in his prime years with the Orlando Magic. “I think [Jones] did an excellent job on Rudy Gay tonight. He’s big enough to guard threes, fours and fives.”

At one point late in the game, with McHale wanting Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley to both play for ballhandling, the Rockets removed Chandler Parsons from the lineup (to make room) and not Jones.

“I thought Terrence played really well,” McHale said after the game. “Coming into the year, I really thought that Terrence or D-Mo [Donatas Motiejunas], one of those guys would have to play that style of ball. Terrence has worked hard and continued to do all his work. For Terrence not to play and then go out there and play 32 minutes, that’s hard to do. I’m proud of him.”

Casspi was still the first big man off the Houston bench, replacing Asik with about six minutes remaining in the first quarter, as he usually does.

But with two minutes left in the opening frame, Jones entered the game in place of Parsons, pushing Casspi to the small forward spot. The Rockets bumped their lead from three to 10 almost immediately, and Jones was rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup for the second half (replacing Asik). It marked the first half of the 2013-14 season in which Asik did not start, and McHale said following the game that he was only “50/50″ regarding the Asik/Howard lineup going forward.

Should the two-center experiment ultimately fail, the debate has been whether Jones, Motiejunas or Greg Smith would be the first spare Houston big man to earn significant playing time alongside Howard. It turned out Jones was first in line, and he made the most of his initial opportunity.

“He’s a second-year player, and it’s very easy to start getting down on yourself [if you don't play], but I told him to stick with it,” McHale said of Jones. “I thought he did a really good job.”

Garcia is likely to return when the Rockets play in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. But with Casspi nursing a strained left knee ligament and results from the Howard/Asik pairing mixed at best, Jones should have every opportunity to hold his rotation spot going forward.

Posted in Houston Rockets |