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Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

Rockets Build Bench From The Deepest Of Pools

Chandler Parsons has received most of the press, but he's not the only important player the Houston Rockets need to replace, as they also gave away Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for essentially nothing in terms of present assets. Even worse, because the Rockets were already pressed close to the salary cap, they were forced to shop in the free agency bargain bin for Lin and Asik's replacements, signing a few European free agents and second round picks on minimum-salary deals.

The guys they are bringing in - Joey Dorsey, Jeff Adrien, Nick Johnson, Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington - have proven nothing at the NBA level. Nevertheless, there's still reason for optimism about their ability to contribute immediately, as no front office in the NBA has done a better job of finding players off the street than the Rockets. Houston jump-started the careers of Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith and Troy Daniels, all players the rest of the league passed over.

A former second round pick of the Miami Heat in 2008, Beverley had refined his game after bouncing around Europe for a few seasons, but few NBA teams noticed a guy who had slipped through the cracks the first time. He was brought in to back up Lin, but he eventually won the starting PG job due to his superior defensive and spot-up shooting ability. He is one of the best bargains in the league, a starter on a 54-win team who makes only $1 million a year until 2016.

Coming out of college, Smith had the size (6’10 250 with  7’3 wingspan) and the athleticism to play in the league, but he didn’t get a lot of publicity on a bad Fresno State team and went undrafted in 2011. In three seasons with the Rockets, he put up per-36 minute averages of 13 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 62% shooting. Still only 23, he signed a guaranteed contract with the Dallas Mavericks this offseason and looks headed for a long NBA career.

Daniels was one of the best shooters in the country at VCU, but his one-dimensional game caused him to go undrafted and he wound up in the D-League. After averaging 21 points a game with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers while hoisting 12 3’s a game, the Rockets gave him a shot on the biggest stage of the sport. He responded with a game winner in Game 3 and a 17-point scoring outburst in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers.

With their most recent signings, Houston is gambling they can find the next versions of those players. Dorsey, Adrien, Canaan, Johnson and Covington all have holes in their games, but they also have skill-sets that could allow them to thrive in roles on a second unit. That’s what separates the Rockets from a lot of other NBA franchises - they aren’t afraid to give younger players chances rather than recycling brand name players and established veterans on their last legs.

At 6’9 260 and 6’7 245, respectively, Dorsey and Adrien were caught between positions in their first runs through the league, without the height of a center or the skill to play out on the perimeter. However, either would be an interesting frontcourt partner on the second unit for Donatas Motiejunas, a 7'0 stretch 4. Playing behind Dwight Howard should also minimize their lack of size, since few NBA teams play two traditional centers in their rotation anymore. 

Neither Johnson nor Canaan is a pure playmaking PG, which is why they both slipped into the second round, but they both have the athleticism and scoring ability to create shots against second-unit defenses. Canaan, the Rockets second-round pick in 2013, spent last season in the D-League, where he averaged 22 points a game. Johnson, their second round-pick in 2014, was a second-team All-American and Pac 12 Player of the Year as a junior at Arizona last season.

Covington, like Canaan, spent most of last season in the Rio Grande Valley, where he averaged 23 points and 9 rebounds a game on 44% shooting while taking 8 3’s a game. At 6'9 215, he has the size and shooting ability to be a stretch 4. He was undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State because of concerns about his level of competition in college as well as his position at the next level, but he has the athletic ability to at least hold his own defensively on a second unit.

There's no guarantee that any of the five will make it, but you could have said the same thing for Beverley, Smith and Daniels. What all three needed was a chance, which doesn’t always happen for young players on the fringes of the NBA. Far too many teams are blinded by NBA experience, bypassing more talented guys for “proven veterans”. Just as an example, at the same time the Rockets signed Beverley, the Mavs brought in Mike James to be their backup PG.

However, for teams looking to round out their bench, the upside of looking under every nook and cranny for talent is clear. Alan Anderson, Gerald Green, Chris Copeland, Anthony Parker, Pero Antic - the list of NBA rotation players who played in the European leagues grows every year. They don't cost much money and they don't cost anything in terms of assets. That's what a lot of teams don't understand - there's no shortage of professional basketball players out there.

The NBA is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to professional basketball players. By the time guys reach their prime, they are at least 3-4 seasons removed from college. Whether or not they played in the NBA, they have learned how to last as pros and have been forced to mature on and off the court. Even if we assume the top 450 in the world are in the NBA (and they aren’t), players right outside that group can improve dramatically in their mid to late 20’s 

If Canaan, Johnson, Covington, Adrien and Dorsey don't stick in Houston, they'll bring in more guys with NBA measurables and resumes that are just as good until they find some players who do. While their bench is a question mark coming into the season, my guess is they’ll figure out a mix that works by the playoffs. There's so much talent in the world there's no reason for any of the 30 NBA teams to have a bad bench. You just have to be willing to give guys a chance.

Grading The Deal: Pelicans Trade For Ömer Aşık

The Houston Rockets receive a first round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Ömer Aşık. The pick protection reported by Brian Windhorst is that Houston receives the pick if it falls anywhere from 4th to 19th. Subsequent year protection is unknown at present.

The trade for New Orleans

Aşık is a very good player and a true difference-maker on the defensive end. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, he has two huge downsides that make the trade incredibly short sighted: Aşık only has one year left before becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent and his contract calls for a substantially higher salary in the final year than his cap number.

The first fact substantially worsens the trade for New Orleans because they have no meaningful advantages to keep him beyond this season, making Aşık a rental. Beyond the small benefits in percentage raises (not a big financial difference on a non-max contract) and a fifth year the Pelicans should never offer, the best retention tool New Orleans has at their disposal is a successful season. Considering the fact that many teams are looking to clear their books for 2015 and some teams are not going to get the top targets, it stands to reason that Aşık will get overpaid on his next contract anyway.

With that combination of factors, it makes sense to evaluate the Aşık acquisition as a one year investment. He certainly makes New Orleans better for the 2014-15 season but the timing makes little sense because of how strong the top of the Western Conference will be. New Orleans finished 12th in the conference and I fully expect most if not all of those teams to be good enough to make the 50-win mark a reasonable line to even make the playoffs. In fact, the Rockets themselves likely are using this transaction to set up adding a major piece. Even if New Orleans has their dream scenario, they land somewhere in the 5-8 range in the West and likely get some positive attention and two playoff home games. Is that really worth giving up another first round pick?

That is where the balloon payment comes in. By having a cap number of $8.37 million and actually getting paid $14.9 million, the market for Aşık narrows substantially. We saw at the trade deadline that many owners simply have little interest in that kind of financial outlay and that was with at least some of the cheaper part of his contract. A thinner market means that there were less teams competing for the Rockets' center. Even then, the Pelicans gave up a likely lottery pick for one season plus zero team control of a player who will help them win but not likely enough to make any long-term difference for the franchise.

The crazy thing is that I really like the fit of Aşık on the Pelicans for this one glorious season. He can play with either Anthony Davis or Ryan Anderson and can provide the team a defensive identity even with some flawed defenders on the team. Rim protectors are pivotal in today’s NBA and there are not many better than Aşık. Unfortunately, the timing and cost of acquiring him make it the second straight year the Pelicans sacrificed future assets in an attempt to contend before they are ready for prime time.

Grade for New Orleans: D

The trade for Houston 

While Daryl Morey may have asked for the moon for Aşık in February, he got a pretty solid return for him in June with even less leverage. We can expect New Orleans to be good enough to avoid the 1-3 part of the pick protection but out of the playoffs, meaning the Rockets likely picked up a late lottery pick for one year of a player they were seemingly inevitably going to lose anyway.

Despite the fact that I will continue to think that a Dwight Howard / Ömer Aşık pairing at the two big man positions could have worked dangerously well for stretches, the Rockets now have the pieces in place to make one last major upgrade and enhance their core. Since Aşık is owed so much money this season in actual dollars, I would have been surprised if one of the teams with a desirable free agent would have been happy taking him in a sign-and-trade. Since both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would require their current team’s active involvement to acquire without cap space, that becomes a relevant consideration in terms of whether Houston would need to create cap space to bring in the final piece. As such, moving Aşık was fundamental to those hopes even though it appears no agreement with a bigger fish is clearly in the offing.

Not having Aşık this season absolutely weakens the Rockets some, especially if Dwight Howard misses time due to injury. Even if his sole value came as a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” big (which it did not), Ömer had plenty of usefulness to a Houston team gunning for a top seed in a stacked conference in a race with zero room for an extended stumble. That said, if the choice had to be made between him and any of the Rockets’ other expensive non-Lin pieces, it makes complete sense. While Morey did not get two picks for his hyped trade piece, I would rather have a pick in the late lottery than two deep firsts, especially with an owner potentially willing to spend to acquire a pick in the twenties anyway.

Trading Aşık now clears one major hurdle that would have gotten higher a week from now as teams use up their cap space on other players through free agency (particularly with his balloon payment) and getting a likely late lottery pick for it makes the move even better.

Grade for Houston: A-

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