In their past 11 games, no team has been better than the Houston Rockets. They've gone 10-1 and now own the third spot in the Western Conference playoff picture.
So what's made the difference?
For starters, they've always had the three standout scorers a team needs to make and set up plays: James Harden on the ball, Chandler Parsons off the ball and Dwight Howard in the post. Add in Jeremy Lin. With each of them shooting and distributing the ball well recently, that's been a big factor behind the Rockets' success. Credit better chemistry, more trust in each other and roles being better defined.
The last point starts with a greater focus on Howard in the offense and a bit less on Harden, who can be ball-dominant in half-court sets with his teammates standing around and watching. Harden also tends to take too many deep three-pointers out of the flow of the team's offense.
Coach Kevin McHale going through Howard more on the block—and unleashing some new backdoor plays for him—has created better spacing for the Rockets, who have stepped up their three-point shooting from 35.5 percent on the season to 40.5 percent in their past 11 games. Notably, Harden has shot 44.6 percent during the 10-1 stretch (33.8 percent previously).
The Rockets' improved half-court play has also benefited Parsons' underrated passing ability, and when he penetrates the paint, his camaraderie with Howard operating down the baseline has been a highlight. This month, Parsons is averaging 4.4 assists per game, an increase from his 3.7 season average. He's even had four recent games of six or more assists. Parsons' court vision, along with the Rockets' upgraded passing—22.8 assists per game recently, up from 20.7—has enabled Harden to become a dangerous scoring threat more often as a decoy.
However, while the Rockets are more in sync offensively—in many ways duplicating the Orlando Magic's style in 2009 when Howard was the focal point during their Finals run—they haven't been the same defensively, still allowing opponents to score more than 102 points per game.
Until they can become a more physical team and defend the pick-and-roll better—they simply look lazy and tired at times, perhaps because they're overly focused on shooting threes (they lead the NBA)—they won't be taken as seriously as the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. They are in the top tier in defensive efficiency and make up the two best teams in the conference.
Here are 10 other insider observations from around the league this week:
1. After the Rockets, how can the mid-tier West teams compete?
If the Thunder, Spurs and Rockets are the top three right now in the West, where do the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors stack up? Here's an NBA scout's playoff outlook on each of those teams, with my take on where each needs to improve:
Scout on the Clippers: "They have a strong chance because of one reason: Chris Paul. He's the most fierce leader in the league. Combine that with his basketball skills, Blake Griffin and Doc Rivers, they have a solid chance. Their offense is good enough to carry them to the Western Conference Finals, but their defense may hinder them from winning it. Griffin will also have to dominate during the series. Right now, he's playing like he can, but the game becomes a lot more physical in May and June."
My take: Other assets they have include two playmakers who can come through in the clutch, a prerequisite for playoff basketball: Paul and Jamal Crawford; a coach known for adjusting well game-to-game in the postseason, especially with defensive coverages on star scorers; and new acquisition Glen Davis who will come in handy against all of the big-time power forwards in the West.
A big worry, though? J.J. Redick's long-term health (he has a bulging disk in his back and is out indefinitely). His presence running off screens creates space for others to take advantage. Redick is also an underrated defender, and as the scout mentioned, D is not the team's strong suit.
Scout on the Blazers: "They are talented offensively, but I'm not sure if they are tough enough, nor is their defense good enough to make it to the Western Conference Finals."
My take: Regarding their defense, it starts with Damian Lillard's lack of tenacity and that he's still learning the game in only in his second season. Too often he tends to be more reactive than proactive when picking up his man—usually behind the arc—and along with his backup Mo Williams' ineffectiveness making stops, it puts a damper on the team's big men. Their overall defensive problem is that they look to contain only the three-point line, not the mid-range area.
Offensively, while the Blazers have great floor balance, they could be challenged not getting much low-post scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez to break up their heavy long-range attack. On their opponents' side, Griffin dominates down low, and the Blazers haven't had an answer for him all season.
Scout on the Warriors: "I can't see the Warriors getting past round one. They don't defend well enough and much of their offense is predicated on (Stephen) Curry and (Klay) Thompson making threes. They can't rely on that in the playoffs."
My take: The Warriors have made more moves than the Clippers or Blazers entering and during the season, so there is still roster development ahead. But to get beyond the first round with more than just three-point shooting, their efficiency will need to improve. That's why picking up proven backup point guard Steve Blake will be key for their second unit, which has struggled this season.
Blake will also help reduce the Warriors' high turnover rate, which starts with Curry. He averages a league high for point guards with nearly four fumbles per game. While he has the green light from coach Mark Jackson to do whatever he wants to on the court, he needs to get smarter with the ball and limit his rushed shots and passes leaving his feet. He sometimes plays too rushed. That speaks to a big reason that—if the Warriors or Blazers meet the Clippers in the playoffs—Paul gives his guys a huge upper hand. He's always under control and sees the best read seconds before the defense.
2. Arguably the best trade this season didn't come at the trade deadline
It came when the Phoenix Suns received a first-round draft pick in October in a deal with the Washington Wizards. That means the Suns could have four first-round picks in this year's prestigious draft class: their own pick, the pick from the Washington trade (top-12 protected), Indiana's (top-14 protected) and Minnesota's (top-13 protected). With the Pacers making the playoffs, that pick is a guarantee, and the Wizards should make the postseason as well. The Timberwolves are not out of the race just yet.
With the Suns surprisingly competitive in the West, the draft could mean just the few players they need to become a top-four team in the conference next season. With potentially four picks, they'll have major leverage to move up in the draft or make a trade for a prized commodity. The team has already said its plan is to match any offer for upcoming restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe, which makes the prospects of strengthening the core around him and Goran Dragic scary.
3. If you thought LeBron James' surgery for his broken nose was ...
... the first time the Man of Steel went under the knife in his NBA career, like I did, you missed just one other. It happened in June 2009, when the Miami Heat All-Star underwent a five-hour operation to remove a benign parotid gland tumor from his jaw.
Interestingly, in his 11-year career, James, arguably the league's most durable player, has only sat out 31 regular-season games due to injury—an average of 2.8 per season. He's missed 10 more games simply to rest, most of those coming in the final days of the season to prepare for the playoffs.
James' list of games missed because of injury includes (starting with the most): 14 with a sprained ankle, six with a hamstring strain, five with a sprained finger, two with a sore toe, one with knee tendinitis, one with back spasms, one with a strained groin and, most recently, one with a broken nose. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, James plans to return Thursday night for a home game against the New York Knicks.
Another interesting fact: One of the injuries—the sprained finger—made James return to action coming off the bench, which is the only time he's done that in his career. After the game on Dec. 11, 2007, in which his Cavaliers beat the Indiana Pacers, he made it known he was never going to do that again.
"Uh, never," he said. "That was one and done for me. I will not be coming off the bench anymore."
4. What's the future of Greg Monroe in Detroit?
From the outside, a young and talented frontline featuring Monroe, Josh Smith and Andre Drummond is a luxury to have, and there are probably some coaches—perhaps one who will get hired in Detroit this summer—who believe they can turn around their chemistry issues. For one, that means getting Smith to play better with Monroe. In some respects, because of their similar position, Smith interferes with Monroe's development.
But that might never happen, as there's a bigger issue with money to re-sign Monroe, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason.
"To be honest, I think the owner thinks (Monroe, Smith and Drummond) can work and wants to keep Greg," a source close to the Pistons said, "but I don't know if Joe (Dumars) agrees and/or wants to pay Greg the max. It all depends on whether Joe is there after this year. I don't think that's a sure thing. So Joe may like or not like, and the new GM may have a different opinion on all of it."
The source said at this point, five teams—most in the Eastern Conference—"want to make a play" for Monroe this summer.
"It will just come down to money in the end," the source said. "I think it will happen pretty quickly after July 1."
5. Speaking of the Pistons, here is one trade the New York Knicks should look to make with them ...
If the Knicks wait to make any major move until 2015, when they'll have significant cap space, it's simply too much of a gamble for a marquee free agent to either replace or complement Carmelo Anthony. That's a big what-if. The team already has one of the two best offensive threats in the game; it's about investing in Anthony and making some kind of splash before free agency starts on July 1 to bring him some reinforcements.
That process needs to start with the Knicks, once again, exhausting their efforts to try and dissolve Amar'e Stoudemire's $23.4 million contract for next season. Options are very limited, but I have a potential target. Because the Knicks badly need an upgrade at point guard and a skilled two-way frontcourt player to play alongside Anthony, they should consider this trade that matches salary-wise: Stoudemire for Detroit's Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, who the Pistons are interested in moving. Even with Anthony's pending free agency, that deal could happen independent of his new contract.
While the Pistons would receive Stoudemire's seismic salary, it's one that expires in 2015, which they might prefer over Smith's contract until 2017 and Jennings' until 2016. And while the Knicks would have both of those players locked in for the foreseeable future, they would provide immediate needed help for next season, and then Tyson Chandler—who could be shipped around after this season—and Andrea Bargnani would be both off of the books next summer. So there's some financial flexibility long term even with bringing in Smith and Jennings.
"It's a perfect example of the type of trade the Knicks would have to make for Stoudemire, where one team wants to dump players that have long-term contracts while taking back an expiring contract," said Moke Hamilton, NBA analyst and capologist for SportsNet New York. "That makes sense from a financial standpoint."
Detroit could be more inclined with making the move on draft night if they select a point guard they want or trade for one already in the NBA. That would be because of Jennings' looming departure to New York.
Of course, no team really wants Stoudemire's horrendous contract—arguably the worst in the league—so dreaming up any trade involving him tends to end with a big sigh. And in this trade scenario, there's also the basketball-related questions of could Jennings become more of a leader and team player, and could Smith loosen up with his hard-nosed personality to accept a supporting role to Anthony. Perhaps their high school connection—Oak Hill Academy—would facilitate a good-standing playing relationship.
My other thought for the Knicks is to continue to aggressively work the phone with the Boston Celtics, who are not a lock to keep Rajon Rondo after this season. Rondo is the one top point guard who's up for grabs and needs a premier scoring option around him. That's Anthony.
The Celtics are interested in signing and trading Kris Humphries this summer, so perhaps the Knicks could spark a three-team deal to get Rondo by giving up Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and a future second-round selection (the Knicks' 2018 first-round pick is too important at this point). Humphries would have to go to a third team because, according to Hamilton, "Any team receiving a player in a sign-and-trade deal must be no more than $4 million above the luxury tax threshold after the trade is complete, and the Knicks may not be if they do re-sign Melo."
Avery Bradley's future in Boston is cloudy—he could be too pricey for them—and Shumpert would be a valuable two-guard in his place. But, most importantly, the Celtics would likely need to receive a first-round pick or a standout point guard in return from that third team. While GM Danny Ainge would prefer to keep Rondo, if an offer blows him away, he would consider it. The same goes for Jeff Green, a power forward the Knicks should also inquire about who doesn't have an untradeable tag in Boston.
There was a time earlier this season when Anthony seriously considered pushing for a trade, but then the 62-point night gave him a change of heart. He would love to stay in New York—he has roots in the biggest sports market, he's refurbished basketball courts in his hometown of Brooklyn, he's expanded his business portfolio within the high-end culture of the city, he's the man at MSG and the list goes on—but the thought of that first ring is more top of mind than ever.
That's why outside of New York, Chicago poses the biggest threat to steal Anthony, who's intrigued with teaming up with Derrick Rose—the star point guard he's never had—renowned coach Tom Thibodeau and their strong supporting cast. The Los Angeles market, Anthony's other favorite destination, takes a backseat because Clippers owner Donald Sterling is completely committed to Griffin and the Lakers are already tied up with Kobe Bryant's max contract. With Anthony also there, the Lakers would be hard-pressed to build a championship-caliber team around the two of them.
6. What could Lillard's sneaker market be?
This summer's upcoming class of sneaker free agents was already a heavyweight one: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. While the latter two haven't even worn an NBA uniform, their hype alone entering the draft should fetch them mega bucks like an All-Star.
Now, add Lillard to that group. According to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes, he will opt out of his Adidas contract after the season. So what could he earn in the open market? Two sneaker insiders believe at the low end, he could receive a five-year deal worth $6 million per year, including his own signature sneaker. And all of the major sneaker brands—Adidas, Nike, Jordan Brand, Reebok and Under Armour—would be in play.
"I think he could go anywhere," one insider said. "He has proven to be a heck of a talent and carries himself well, so I would think all endorsers would be interested."
Reebok and Under Armour are the dark horses for Lillard. Reebok, which has re-branded itself in the past couple of years, could be looking to make a splash after losing John Wall last year to Adidas. Reebok still misses the days when it had an elite point guard in Allen Iverson to build around, and Lillard would be a nice pickup. As for Under Armour, it's still trying to land more big-name talent after signing Curry last fall to a deal around $3 million per year.
7. OK, we get it: The NBA is a pick-and-roll game. Anything next?
Does it ever feel a little too predictable watching pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll? You're not the only one. Even some of the greatest former players are with you.
"It really is repetitive," an NBA scout said. "I've even heard legends and old-timers say the same thing—that the game is not interesting to them."
Years ago, when the big man was in style, the inside-out game ruled half-court offenses. Now, it's the small ball pick-and-roll. Looking ahead, could you see the return of more motion or flex sets to take advantage of the continued emergence of stretch 4s and three-point shooters? Not likely, and they're not really needed. While one reason is that coaches don't have much time to implement a system in today's NBA culture of constant change, it's more so that the pick-and-roll is just too effective.
"There isn't a next big play," the scout said. "So many players and teams struggle to guard (the pick-and-roll), so there's no need to change. Sure, it makes the game a little boring, but when you have great pick-and-roll players, and a team that can space the floor with shooters, it's not so boring."
8. China update
While the Chinese Basketball Association playoffs are underway, one American player is already back in the states going through NBA team workouts for a potential prorated minimum contract. That would be former Atlanta Hawks forward Ivan Johnson, who's coming off of a season in China in which he averaged 25.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and a CBA-leading 2.9 steals per game.
As to which NBA team is the front-runner, Johnson's agent, Jeremiah Haylett, said, "To be determined at this time."
"It's going pretty good weighing options and working out with teams," he continued. "We aren't looking for a quick fit, but a good fit, where Ivan can help the team get into the postseason."
Johnson, like other American standouts in the CBA—including Bobby Brown, Jonathan Gibson, Pooh Jeter, Chris Johnson, Dominique Jones and Randolph Morris—could be in the cards for 10-day deals.
9. Could three NBA players help change the social media app game?
After Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is CLIQ next to popularize how people interact on their smarphones? Carlos Boozer, Ty Lawson and Dorell Wright believe so, as they've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars each into CLIQ, which is designed to give "users a chance to give their group a voice in a social media world that is only focused on the individual."
The app's president of business development, Jack McClinton, a former University of Miami basketball star who was drafted by the Spurs in 2009 and then played overseas, said CLIQ is the group version of Instagram, which he believes has "reached its peak."
"It can't really do anything else," said McClinton, who attended the annual NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans. "It did photos, videos, it did the DM, but it's not bringing people together. It's only making the individual cooler. We're coming to this day and age where we are stronger together. CLIQ is all about the group."
CLIQ, which launches in early March on the iPhone and was founded by former UCF player Amara Thompson, has three main functions for users: they can create a profile for their CLIQ group and then upload status updates, and post pictures and videos; initiate a specific conversation item within the group that covers topics in sports, movies, music, fashion, technology, etc.; and start a private group chat for select members within the group.
10. Food for thought
For years, NBA agents have looked to secure popular endorsement deals for players with soft/energy drinks and fast food companies, many with attractive sports marketing budgets. But could you start to see more players sponsoring health products at a potentially lower investment, but one with a greater impact in society with fitness and nutrition being more emphasized?
Power agent Bill Duffy is looking to accomplish that through a new partnership between his BDA agency and Crunch and Brain Bar, in an effort to incorporate healthy living into the marketing opportunities of his roughly 40 NBA clients. Crunch is a chain of approximately 40 U.S. fitness clubs located in and around numerous major cities, and Brain Bar is a snack bar designed to give you a "positive sensory experience," according to its website.
"The Crunch business is more fitness-related, and then the Brain Bar is actually even more interesting if you studied brain health," Duffy said. "We're all focused on physical health, but early detections of Alzheimer's and concussion syndrome are just general brain health. So Dr. (Keith) Black devised a product that I want to make sure my clients are aware of."
One of Duffy's premier clients, Steve Nash, actually owns 18 health clubs in the Vancouver area, and he's a franchisee with Montreal-based Liquid Nutrition, which provides nutritional functional beverages, fresh juices, and vitamin, supplement and health bar and supplement products.