Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Jones’

Report: Motiejunas out for season

Just when the Rockets were starting to feel good about having their starting lineup finally healthy and together as the playoffs approach, they keep getting bitten by injury.

The latest victim is forward Donatas Motiejunas, who played a key role in keeping the season afloat while Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones were on the mend.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle first reported the details:

Motiejunas has been out the past six games with lower back pain, but has not progressed with the rest. The team and Motiejunas have not decided whether a surgery or a more extended period of rest will be needed, the individual with knowledge of the situation said.

In his third NBA season, Motiejunas had gone from sitting out last season’s playoffs to become a key part of the Rockets’ rotation. He moved into the starting lineup when Jones went out after four games and could have been a starter again with Howard to provide spacing for Howard inside.

Motiejunas, 24, averaged 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in 71 games, 62 as a starter. Motiejunas has been the Rockets’ most reliable low-post scorer, making 50.4 percent of his shots this season, but also made 36.4 percent of his 3s. Only Motiejunas and Kevin Durant have made at least 50 percent of their shots and 36 percent of their 3-pointers while taking at least 100 of each.

The lineup of Howard, Jones, James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry will start their third game Wednesday night at San Antonio, more starts together than any current and available Rockets players.

Morning Shootaround — March 30


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Morey confident Rockets win it all this season | Report: Mullin mulling St. John’s job offer | Lakers’ Davis unhappy about sideline stint | Report: Magic ready to extend Hennigan’s contract

No. 1: Morey confident Rockets win it all this season — The MVP and a NBA title? It could happen this season in Houston. James Harden is working on snagging that Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey insists his team is working on the latter, sounding extremely confident that his bunch, with Dwight Howard back in the mix. Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com has more:

Morey’s team is currently the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with nine games remaining in the regular season. In order to reach the NBA Finals, the Rockets will have to overcome several health issues.

Forwards Terrence Jones (lung) and Donatas Motiejunas (lower back pain) have been out recently, and Morey expects them to return before the end of the regular season.

Starting center Dwight Howard has played the past three games under a minutes restriction after missing nearly eight weeks with swelling in his right knee. Howard will not play in Monday’s game at the Toronto Raptors.

Starting point guard Patrick Beverley has a torn ligament in his left wrist and is contemplating surgery. Morey said the team will make a final determination on Beverley’s status on Monday, but if they don’t have him, it won’t deter the team’s goal of trying to win a championship.

“We think we can win the title with or without Beverley,” Morey said on ESPN Radio’s Basketball Insiders show. “Obviously it gets more challenging without Beverley; he’s the key to our ability to guard a lot of these very good point guards in the West.”

Morey said the Golden State Warriors, who own the NBA’s best record and swept the season series against the Rockets this season, should be the favorites to win the title.

“We won’t go in as the favorite,” Morey said. “I think Golden State, deservedly so, gets to be called the favorite. They’ve had a very historic season. I think the Golden State training staff hasn’t been talked about enough this year. That team has been healthy and really that showcased everyone in Golden State. Coach [Steve] Kerr has done a great job. We won’t go in as the favorite. We do feel like we can beat anybody in a seven-game series, and we’re pretty excited to get going with the playoffs.”

*** (more…)

Howard out at least four more weeks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Houston Rockets updated the status of Dwight Howard on Wednesday.

This morning Dr. Walt Lowe of the Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute conducted a bone marrow aspirate injection on Rockets center Dwight Howard’s right knee. Howard will begin rehabilitation immediately and will be re-evaluated in approximately four weeks.

Houston sits in third place in the Western Conference, but is tied in the win column with the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks. The Rockets are 12-5 without Howard (if you include his last game, in which he played less than nine minutes), but have outscored their opponents by just 1.3 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.

That’s a point differential that suggests they should have gone 9-8 in those 17 games. Twelve of the 17 have been within five points in the last five minutes, and Houston has gone 8-4 in clutch situations without their center.

Now they’re now about to begin a rough stretch of schedule. From Feb. 4 to March 4 (four weeks), Houston will play 11 of its 13 games against teams currently over .500. Seven games in the loss column ahead of ninth-place New Orleans, they’re probably not in any danger of losing a playoff spot, but they can probably say goodbye to home-court advantage in the first round.

Donatas Motiejunas has filled in admirably for Howard, and the additions of Josh Smith and a healthy Terrence Jones give the Rockets more frontline depth than they had earlier in the season. But the Rockets’ margin for error from game to game will be pretty thin for the next four weeks, because there’s no replacing the impact that Howard makes on both ends of the floor.

Ailing Howard to miss unbeaten battle

HOUSTON — Another night, another anticipated showdown between Western Conference heavyweights goes up in smoke.

Rockets center Dwight Howard will sit out Saturday’s game between the 6-0 Rockets and 4-0 Warriors suffering from flu-like symptoms.
 Howard is coming off a rousing 32-point, 16-rebound, two blocked shot performance Thursday night against the Spurs.

However, that meeting between the unbeaten Rockets and the defending champs lost some of its shine when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to rest Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.


The Rockets were already going to play without starting point guard Pat Beverley (left hamstring) and power forward Terrence Jones (right leg contusion).

Rookie Tarik Black will start for the Rockets at center and rookie Kostas Papanikolaou will open in Jones’ spot.

First Team: CP3, Doc make strides in L.A.

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Chris Paul turned in a third straight All-NBA first team bid with the Clippers.

Chris Paul turned in a third straight All-NBA first team bid with the Clippers.

Chris Paul always has the ball on a string. He can dish with either hand, making any bounce pass through tight holes — and lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — possible from any angle. His pull-up jumper is lethal, and you have to get a hand up on him when he’s 23 feet out.

On the other side, he hounds. He flops. He annoys. He barks. His hands are active. In Game 4 of the 2014 Western Conference semis, he alternated between guarding Russell Westbrook (First Team-worthy) and Kevin Durant (a fellow First Teamer) as his team completed a rally back from 22.

But then came the yang of the last 49 seconds of Game 5. A turnover, a foul on a four-point play and another turnover from Paul gave the Thunder the game. They would close out the series in Game 6. It was the type of loss that encapsulates Paul: The smart, methodical, ball-on-a-string point guard can be too smart, too methodical and too ball dominant at the worst moments.

He is still a cut above the rest, continuing to redefine the Clippers’ brand to newbies who have no clue about their inept past. At 29, he is an historically great hardwood bandit (2.41 spg ranks fourth all time) and passer (9.91 apg also third all-time). There are deeper playoff successes and a MVP award to be had, but with a capable motivator in coach Doc Rivers in his ear, his point guard supremacy threatens to remain for the foreseeable future.

Here are his top games last season:

October 31, 2013 – Dawn Of A Season-Long Rivalry

The Line: 42 points, 15 assists, 6 steals, 6 turnovers

The Quote:Man, I had six turnovers. That’s ridiculous. That means there was six times I didn’t give us an opportunity to score. I’m big on turnovers. I hate turnovers.” — Paul


VIDEO: Chris Paul carves up the Warriors in a Halloween matchup

Tiny Archibald should have been proud. Two nights after being handled by the Lakers in the season opener, Cliff Paul’s brother dealt out the complete package. He was sinking free-throw line jumpers, baseline turnaround jumpers. He had his way with a pre-Team USA Klay Thompson, including a bullying score on a post-up. He even got in a sneaky dunk in Jermaine O’Neal’s mug.

Then there were those three consecutive alley oops with Blake, as well as the verbal jabs and scowls at the Warriors bench. This was CP3’s point god night, only if god coughed up the pill six times. (more…)

Numbers preview: Rockets-Blazers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Court Vision

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — At the midway point of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers were just a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Blazers went 23-18 from then on, winning nine of their last 10 games. But that wasn’t good enough to even secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Houston Rockets went 25-11 to close the season and edge Portland for the 4 seed.

This is a matchup of two of the top five offenses in the league and two franchises that have just one playoff series win in the last 13 years.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Houston Rockets (54-28)

Pace: 98.8 (5)
OffRtg: 108.6 (4)
DefRtg: 103.1 (12)
NetRtg: +5.5 (5)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Portland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Rockets notes:

Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

Pace: 97.5 (10)
OffRtg: 108.3 (5)
DefRtg: 104.7 (16)
NetRtg: +3.5 (8)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Houston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Blazers notes:

The matchup

Season series: Rockets won 3-1 (2-0 in Houston)
Pace: 100.2
HOU OffRtg: 114.6 (2nd vs. POR)
POR OffRtg: 105.0 (10th vs. HOU)

Matchup notes:

Numbers reveal four strong MIP candidates

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Kia Most Improved Player award is thought of as the most nebulous of the six major end-of-season awards and typically gets the widest range of votes. Last season, though Paul George finished with a vote total of more than twice that of any other player, 15 different players received at least one first-place vote and another 18 received at least one vote for second or third place.

But the award also lends itself to simple statistical analysis. It should be fairly simple to determine whose numbers have improved most from season to season.

If you want to get real simple, we can just compare the raw numbers, using the efficiency statistic.

Biggest increase, total efficiency

Player Season 2012-13 2013-14 Diff.
Kevin Love 6 372 2,060 1,688
Terrence Jones 2 147 1,048 901
Miles Plumlee 2 20 894 874
Andre Drummond 2 826 1,561 735
Andrew Bogut 9 418 1,103 685
Khris Middleton 2 167 836 669
Timofey Mozgov 4 174 837 663
Gerald Green 7 319 923 604
John Wall 4 949 1,511 562
James Anderson 4 180 740 560
DeAndre Jordan 6 1,079 1,638 559
Anthony Davis 2 1,167 1,705 538
Jordan Hill 5 275 810 535
Jeremy Lamb 2 48 579 531
Dirk Nowitzki 16 1,005 1,531 526
Jared Sullinger 2 454 975 521
Tony Wroten 2 84 601 517
Trevor Ariza 10 637 1,151 514
Reggie Jackson 3 465 955 490
Richard Jefferson 13 200 678 478

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

At this point, the big question has to be asked: Should second-year players be considered for the Most Improved Player award? If not, we can eliminate several guys on the list above, though both Terrence Jones and Miles Plumlee — two starters on Western Conference playoff teams — feel like strong candidates. Only two of the top 10 in last year’s voting — Nikola Vucevic (4th) and Chandler Parsons (10th) — were second-year players.

There are also a handful of veterans on the list who missed large chunks of last season with injuries, though Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza are having the best seasons of their careers.

Timofey Mozgov and Gerald Green are interesting candidates, but were both out of their team’s rotations last season, so their improved raw numbers may also be about opportunity.

But Mozgov’s name comes up when we look at PIE improvement. PIE takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. So it adjusts for pace and there’s a team-success element to it, because if your opponent doesn’t score as many points or grab as many rebounds your individual number will be higher.

Biggest increase, PIE

2012-13 2013-14
Player Season MIN PIE MIN PIE Diff.
James Johnson 5 879 5.3% 836 11.5% 6.2%
DeMarcus Cousins 4 2,289 13.2% 1,978 18.3% 5.1%
Kevin Love 6 618 14.4% 2,438 19.4% 5.0%
Markieff Morris 3 1,837 7.5% 1,864 12.3% 4.8%
Lance Stephenson 4 2,278 8.8% 2,487 13.0% 4.2%
Kris Humphries 10 1,191 9.2% 1,272 13.3% 4.1%
Bismack Biyombo 3 2,186 6.3% 957 10.1% 3.8%
Kendall Marshall 2 702 5.8% 1,270 9.6% 3.8%
Draymond Green 2 1,061 5.1% 1,481 8.9% 3.8%
Timofey Mozgov 4 366 6.9% 1,479 10.5% 3.6%
Xavier Henry 4 625 3.9% 895 7.5% 3.6%
Patty Mills 5 656 8.2% 1,306 11.7% 3.4%
Marco Belinelli 7 1,882 7.0% 1,749 10.3% 3.3%
Avery Bradley 4 1,435 4.9% 1,602 8.1% 3.3%
Andrew Bogut 9 786 9.2% 1,661 12.5% 3.3%
Isaiah Thomas 3 2,121 10.6% 2,450 13.8% 3.2%
Anthony Davis 2 1,846 13.5% 2,248 16.6% 3.0%
Marcus Morris 3 1,524 6.7% 1,601 9.7% 3.0%
Brandon Knight 3 2,366 8.2% 2,051 11.2% 3.0%
Alec Burks 3 1,137 7.4% 1,909 10.4% 3.0%

Minimum 300 minutes in 2012-13 and 800 minutes in 2013-14

Love, Mozgov and Andrew Bogut are the only players on both lists. But Bogut had better seasons in Milwaukee and Love’s increase is just 1.0 percent over his third season in the league. Mozgov has taken a decent jump, but still isn’t a real impact player in the league.

Based on the above lists and deeper dives into the numbers, there are four non-second-year candidates that stand out.

Marco Belinelli, Spurs

Choosing between the Spurs’ two back-up guards is tough, because Patty Mills‘ play has been eye-opening. But Belinelli has had a bigger role on the league’s best team.

Belinelli’s points per game have increased from 9.6 season last season (with Chicago) only to 11.4 this year. And he averaged more than that (11.8) two seasons ago with New Orleans. But he’s having, by far, the best shooting and rebounding seasons of his career.

Among 168 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (51.9 percent last season, 70.2 percent this season) ranks second in improvement, behind only Love.

Among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 mid-range shots each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.9 percent, 44.0 percent) ranks sixth in improvement.

And among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 3-pointers each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.7 percent, 43.7 percent) ranks fifth in improvement.

No other player is in the top 25 of all three lists, and only one (Markieff Morris) is in the top 10 of more than one. It certainly helps (quite a bit, one could argue) that Belinelli has gone from a bottom-10 offensive team last season to a top-10 offensive team this year. But he also ranks 10th in improved rebounding percentage among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Boogie has seen a jump in both usage (USG%) and scoring efficiency (TS%). Though he’s still not a great shooter (his 49.3 effective field-goal percentage is below the league average), he has gone to the line a lot more than he ever has. He has also rebounded at a career-high rate.

Defensively, he’s not exactly Roy Hibbert or Kevin Garnett, and transition defense is a major problem. But the Kings have been almost six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor. He’s a plus-62 for a team that’s 25-46.

Cousins’ teammate Isaiah Thomas seems like another good candidate and is 16th on the most-improved PIE list above. But his scoring effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have barely budged (his 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage have gone down), and his numbers jump is mostly about an increased usage rate and a small jump in assist rate.

Markieff Morris, Suns

If you could vote for the Morris twins as one entity, that would be the clear favorite. You can’t, but Markieff (No. 11 in your programs) should be on the short list.

He’s been a much more efficient player this season, even though his usage rate has jumped quite a bit. And the Suns, who are an improved defensive team, have been better on that end of the floor with Markieff in the game.

As referenced above, he’s the ninth most improved mid-range shooter in the league and also ninth most improved in the restricted area. He’s played about the same number of minutes as he did last season and he’s gone to the line more than twice as many times.

With both Morris twins, Plumlee, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic all worthy of some consideration for Most Improved, it’s obvious that Jeff Hornacek should be in the running for Coach of the Year.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

Like Cousins and Morris, Stephenson has seen a big jump in both usage rate and efficiency. But he’s also the most improved rebounder among 203 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons, with his rebounding percentage jumping from 7.5 percent to 11.4 percent (best among guards).

Stephenson still has some improving to do. He’s a below-average shooter from outside the paint and his turnover rate has jumped as he’s been asked to handle the ball more. But overall, he’s taken a step forward this season.

Is Aldridge’s pick-and-roll defense a problem for Blazers?


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge talks after the Blazers’ win against the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — When we looked at the teammates that had defended the pick-and-roll the best on Wednesday, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez were sixth on the list, but the Portland Trail Blazers were nowhere near the top 10 in team rankings.

According to SportVU, the Blazers ranked 26th in pick-and-roll defense through Monday’s games and are up to 22nd after a game against the reeling Hawks on Wednesday. They’ve allowed 1.06 points per pick-and-roll possession overall, even though they’ve been pretty good when Lopez has been the guy defending the screener, allowing just 1.01. That ranks 55th among 134 players who had been the screener’s defender on at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions through Wednesday. Not great, but above-average.

Note: All stats included here are through Wednesday, March 5.

But near the bottom of the list is Lopez’s frontcourt-mate, LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers have allowed 1.17 points per possession when Aldridge has been the guy defending the screener. Of those 134 players who have defended at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions, only one – Trevor Booker – has a higher mark (1.18).

The discrepancy between Lopez’s and Aldridge’s numbers is rather remarkable, because both bigs basically defend pick-and-rolls the same way (though Portland will mix things up a little with Aldridge). While the Pacers drop back with their centers and show high with their power forwards, both Aldridge (most of the time) and Lopez drop back…

20140307_aldridge_pnr

20140307_lopez_pnr

Who are they guarding?

Is it a power forward vs. center thing? The players Aldridge is guarding (Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, etc.) are generally more potent offensively than those Lopez is guarding. And the biggest difference in Aldridge and Lopez’s numbers is the field goal percentage that the screener has shot when he has got the ball…

Pick-and-rolls vs. Lopez and Aldridge

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss BH FGM BH FGA BH FG% S FGM S FGA S FG%
Lopez 948 908 914 1.01 140 347 40.3% 59 131 45.0%
Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 102 249 41.0% 75 132 56.8%

BH FGM, FGA, FG% = Ball-handler shooting
S FGM, FGA, FG% = Screener shooting

But other defenses in the West don’t have the same discrepancy.

When the starting power forwards from the other top 10 teams in the West have defended the screener on a pick-and-roll, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. And when the starting centers on those same teams have defended the screener, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. No discrepancy at all.

The Suns’ pick-and-roll defense has been slightly better when Miles Plumlee has defended the screener than when Channing Frye has, and the same goes for the Warriors, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. But none of the other nine teams has nearly the difference that we see with the Blazers.

The eye test

Watching film, Aldridge doesn’t come across as a noticeably bad pick-and-roll defender. He’s usually in the right position, he doesn’t get caught standing still, or get turned around and lost on possessions (like a couple of bigs in New York).

The Blazers track every defensive possession themselves and say that Aldridge grades out closer the league average on pick-and-rolls (and that Lopez still grades out as better). And when we look at the 57 percent that the screener has shot on Aldridge-defended pick-and-rolls, we’re only talking about 132 shots, not the greatest sample size.

But Synergy Sports grades him as “poor” in regard to defending the roll man. And it’s not hard to find examples (via NBA.com/stats video boxscores) where he fails to close out and lets an opposing big shoot in rhythm…

You can also find examples of him closing out fine, but other West power forwards grade out better via SportVU. The screener takes more shots and shoots them better against Aldridge than any of the other nine guys listed below (from the other West teams at or above .500), even though they’ve all had to defend Aldridge himself, who has attempted almost 200 more mid-range shots than any other player in the league.

Pick-and-roll defense, West power forwards

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss Rk S FGM S FGA S FG% Rk
LaMarcus Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 10 75 132 56.8% 10
Tim Duncan 849 817 854 1.05 8 42 96 43.8% 4
Channing Frye 729 698 755 1.08 9 39 96 40.6% 2
Blake Griffin 925 896 935 1.04 7 46 91 50.5% 7
Serge Ibaka 733 706 687 0.97 2 32 71 45.1% 5
Terrence Jones 584 561 560 1.00 4 30 72 41.7% 3
David Lee 657 629 592 0.94 1 31 77 40.3% 1
Kevin Love 638 609 593 0.97 3 38 71 53.5% 9
Dirk Nowitzki 668 645 659 1.02 5 44 85 51.8% 8
Zach Randolph 794 767 788 1.03 6 48 98 49.0% 6

Right shots, wrong results

Again, we’re only looking at 132 of the 5,350 shots that Portland opponents have attempted this season. And the Blazers do force the right shots.

The intent of their drop-back scheme is to force the least efficient shots on the floor, between the restricted area and the 3-point line. And 45.4 percent of Portland opponents’ shots have come from there. That’s the fifth highest mark in the league, behind only teams that rank in the top five in defensive efficiency. Portland also ranks in the top 10 in percentage of jump shots that they’ve contested.

But their opponents have made 41 percent of those shots between the restricted area and 3-point line, the fourth highest percentage.

Highest percentage of opponents shots from between
the restricted area and the 3-point line

Team FGM FGA FG% Rank %FGA
Indiana 943 2,462 38.3% 7 48.5%
San Antonio 974 2,469 39.4% 15 48.2%
Golden State 964 2,503 38.5% 8 47.9%
Chicago 905 2,377 38.1% 4 47.6%
Portland 994 2,428 40.9% 27 45.4%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts

Whether that’s a case of bad luck or because they don’t really contest that well, that’s still just 0.82 points per attempt, which is fine defensively. The Blazers also rank 11th in 3-point defense and second in defending the restricted area.

So, in terms of defending shots, the Blazers do a pretty good job, despite the Aldridge pick-and-roll issue. They rank seventh in opponent effective field goal percentage. But they rank 19th in defensive efficiency, mostly because they force the fewest turnovers in the league, just 12.3 per 100 possessions. And they force only 11.3 with their starting lineup on the floor.

In part, that goes back to their pick-and-roll defense. Not only do the bigs drop back (which means that ball-handlers don’t have to pick up their dribble and make a pass as often), but the guards (especially Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews) don’t apply much pressure up front and can get caught on those screens. No Blazer ranks in the top 80 in steals per game.

Still, the Blazers are OK when Lopez defends pick-and-rolls. And it may be that his ability to stop the ball-handler and stay in contact with the roll man that allows his teammates to better defend their own guys. If Aldridge is a step slower, that can have a domino effect two or three passes away.

Trending up?

The Blazers actually have the No. 1 defense since the All-Star break. That number has been schedule-aided though, as they’ve played the Jazz, Lakers, Hawks, and two games against the depleted Nuggets. It also may have been aided by Aldridge’s absence in the first five post-break games, as they found some defensive success playing smaller and quicker.

Aldridge is back and we’re going to find out if the Portland defense is really improved over the next 10 days, when five of their six games are against teams that rank in the top 12 offensively (and the other is against the improved Grizzlies).

A five-game trip begins against the fourth-ranked Dallas offense on Friday and we’ll see how well Aldridge contests Nowitzki.

Taking A Crack at Rising Stars Draft

Do they pick Anthony Davis, who will have his chance to shine in front of the hometown crowd in New Orleans? Or jump at the chance to get reigning Rookie of the year Damian Lillard?

BBVA Compass Rising Stars ChallengeDo they go with point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who’s dazzled in his first year in the Eastern Conference, or Trey Burke, who’s lived up to the advance billing in the West?

Those are just a few of the questions confronting Grant Hill and Chris Webber when they act as “general managers” and pick the teams for the 2014 BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge (tonight on TNT at 7  ET). The choices will be part of a special one-hour addition of TNT NBA Tip-Off.

Al the participants in State Farm All-Star Saturday Night (featuring the Sears Shooting Stars, Taco Bell Skills Challenge, Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and Sprite Slam Dunk) will also be revealed, along with a revamped format.

But the heavy lifting will be done by Turner Sports analysts Hill and Webber in assembling their teams. So NBA.com colleague Steve Aschburner and I thought we’d lend a hand by providing a few tips in advance.

Here’s the way we stocked the teams, alternating picks, with me going first:

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

1 — Anthony Davis, F/C, Pelicans (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “One brow, one choice. It’s got to be the obvious hometown favorite who was snubbed for the big show.”

2 — Damian Lillard, G, Trail Blazers (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Could dominate if he uses Friday as dress rehearsal for Sunday.”

3 — Michael Carter-Williams, G, Sixers (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Foundation to Philly future, a steal at No. 11, probably should have gone here in 2013 draft.”

4 — Jonas Valanciunas, C, Raptors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “On a roll lately: stats 16.7 ppt, 10.2. rpg, 58 percent last six games.”

5 — Tim Hardaway, G, Knicks (Rookie) — Blinebury: “From the D-League to NBA, baskets the same size and he can fill them.”

6 — Brady Beal, G, Wizards (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Mature beyond years, will be comfortable in second Rising Stars Game.”

7 — Steven Adams, C, Thunder (Rookie) — Blinebury: “You can’t teach height, or sharp elbows.”

8 — Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Bucks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Re-draft the class of ’13 and this guy’s in the top three.”

9 — Andre Drummond, C, Pistons (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Young, tall and knows how to get me the ball.”

10 — Victor Oladipo, G, Magic (Rookie) — Aschburner: “East Rookie of Month in December, guards can thrive in this game.”

11 — Trey Burke, G, Jazz (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Comes off the injured list to be the everything the Jazz hoped.”

12 — Jared Sullinger, F/C, Celtics (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Stepping up as soph starter, he brings toughness.”

13 — Terrence Jones, F, Rockets (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “He’s filled the Rockets’ void at the 4, maybe making a trade unnecessary.”

14 — Harrison Barnes, F, Warriors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Coming off bench has been a challenge, he’s ready for reset button.”

15 — Dion Waiters, G, Cavaliers (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Since he doesn’t have to rely on Kyrie Irving to get him the ball, should get plenty of shots.”

16 — Kelly Olynyk, F/C, Celtics (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Averages half this, but per-36-minute numbers are: 13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.”

17 — Mason Plumlee, F/C, Nets (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Up and down with limited playing time, but has a true shooting percentage of 64.8.”

18 — Pero Antic, C, Hawks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Lock as All-Star Weekend’s Macedonian MVP.”

G.M. Steve Aschburner: Since Team Fran cheated on the coin flip – funny how that can happen over the phone! – I picked second and lost out on host-city favorite Anthony Davis, who probably has the game’s MVP award half in the bag on sentiment alone. But that’s OK, because I managed to round up enough bigs to occupy Davis – Jonas Valanciunas with his size and skills inside 15 feet, Jared Sullinger with his burly game and Kelly Olynyk with pick-and-pop proclivities.

Besides, games of this All-Star ilk tend to be dominated by the guards, who have the ball in their hands and initiate plays. My backcourt of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo is superior, and those three will spend a lot of time on the floor together to run his crew ragged in small ball. I’m counting on Lillard, who will participate Sunday in the big game, to take this one seriously and not save himself. Surely the 2013 Rookie of the Year doesn’t want any half-season wonders like Carter-Williams, Hardaway or Burke getting over on him.

My squad also has the game’s X factor: the Greek Freak. Given Milwaukee’s dreary season, this will serve as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s coming-out party on a national – wait, international – stage. As the youngest rookie, whose coltish skills and breathtaking moments inspire all sorts of enticing, five-years-from-now dreams, Antetokounmpo conceivably could challenge Davis in wowing the crowd and ride that adrenaline high to a special night.

Prediction: Team Asch 138, Team Fran 127.

G.M. Fran Blinebury: Maybe it was the good fortune that came with wearing my Broadway Joe Namath lucky coyote fur coat. Or maybe it was because when Team Asch, acting like wide-eyed rubes on their first trip to Bourbon Street, asked about having a coin flip, I quickly agreed and bounced a quarter off the coffee table. It was legit and I’d give you a link to the video, but we seem to have had some technical problems. Anyway, it was a no-brainer to make the Anthony Davis the No. 1 pick in the draft (again). With the hometown support he’ll have from the crowd, A.D. should pile up enough dunks and rejections to have the MVP award tucked safely inside his Pelican pouch by halftime.

Asch only thinks he’s got the most physical a lineup up front. I’ve got Andre Drummond and Terrence Jones, who like to mix it up on the inside and can get the ball off the backboard. And don’t forget those sharp elbows of Steve Adams that occasionally (oops!) deliver a message.

In a game where point guards control the ball and set the tone, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke will push the pace and take turns setting up A.D. for highlight reel dunks (and they’ll finish some themselves). If you want a dark horse contender to steal the spotlight, Tim Hardaway Jr. could carry the banner for the NBA D-League.

Prediction: Team Fran 152, Team Asch 131


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried was the MVP of the 2013 version of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge in Houston

Rockets Still Adjusting To Expectations




VIDEO: Ahmad Rashad goes one-on-one with Rockets superstar Dwight Howard

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin McHale has been at this long enough to know that “title talk” in July, even when you have all the ingredients seemingly in place, is delusional.

So many things can happen between winning the free-agent sweepstakes and winning a Larry O’Brien trophy that banking your season on winning the NBA’s summer title (last summer it was wooing the top free agent on the market, Dwight Howard, to Houston) means next to nothing to the Rockets’ coach. A Hall of Famer and champion during his playing days with the Boston Celtics, McHale that once the reality of the regular season sets in, none of that summer hubbub matters.

And make no mistake, the Rockets are in the midst of adjusting to that new reality. The expectations haven’t changed, the ultimate goal is still trying to get on par with the rest of the best in the Western Conference. They’re still aiming for that No. 1 spot and a chance to play for that title trophy … but it just may not be as soon as many Rockets fans hoped.

Injuries to key players (it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact), growing pains, significant off-court drama (Omer Asik) and general inconsistency throughout the season’s first two months have the Rockets sitting outside of the top four in the Western Conference standings in advance of tonight’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“I think we’re still in the searching mode,” McHale said recently. “We had so many injuries that it’s hard to get any symmetry. We’ve had two or three main eight or nine guys out for stretches. So where are we at? We’re still searching, trying to find ourselves. And at a certain point, if you never do find it, it’s called lost. But I assume we’re going to find it at a certain point. We’re in that phase where I think we’re getting a lot better in some areas, but it just seems like it’s the two steps forward-one step back phase right now.”

James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and Asik have all missed games with injuries since the start of training camp, squashing any chance the Rockets had of developing the chemistry McHale knew Houston would need in order to try and live up to its summer and preseason hype.

Howard is the only Rocket to have played in all 39 games this season, which is an impressive bounce back from the tumultuous season he had alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with the Los Angeles Lakers last season.

In fact, Howard is the one certainty the Rockets have been able to count on this season.

His work ethic, attitude and spirits are at all-time highs. The petty chatter and foolishness that marked his lone season playing alongside Bryant in the L.A. fish bowl have dissipated with the change of scenery.

“From what I understand he’s been fantastic in every way imaginable,” said a former Eastern Conference executive now working as a scout. “He’s back to the Dwight he was before the past two years changed so many people’s perspective on him. He’s back to working without all that added stress and it shows. He’s playing with that energy we used to see from him in Orlando.”

McHale confirmed as much about Howard’s transition and fit with the Rockets.

“That’s the positive,” McHale said. “Dwight’s playing a lot better. I think we’re figuring out how to get Dwight the ball a lot better. We’re not missing him as much. We’re starting to figure out the angles we have to get at to get him involved more and to get easy baskets and stuff. We put in some different stuff offensively and defensively that works, because I don’t know if you knew this or not but everything works on paper. So I just think everybody, the staff and this entire group, is getting more accustomed to each other and how we’re going to have to operate. You know, hopefully, in the future you can bring back the entire core group healthy and then you can know what works and what doesn’t work.”

The dynamic inside-out duo of Howard and Harden definitely works. It is the Rockets’ answer to what the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — when healthy), Los Angeles Clippers (Chris Paul — when healthy — and Blake Griffin) and San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker and Tim Duncan) boast. The Rockets’ stars have found a way to thrive without either star having to subjugate their game for the other to flourish.

Harden is the league’s fifth-leading scorer (24.6 points) and Howard is a walking double-double with his customary perches among the best rebounders (4th in the league, 12.7) and field goal percentage leaders (5th in the league, 58.0 percent). But they’re also still in the midst of getting comfortable playing off of one another.

“It takes time,” Harden said. “We knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But we’ve got a good team. When you get new faces, though, you have to give it time, you have to adjust.”

That’s not a problem for Howard. No transition could be tougher than the one he tried to make in Los Angeles last season. He never fully embraced the change of working in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s system and the Lakers’ faithful never seemed to fully embrace him as the future of the franchise. That made for a messy breakup totally understandable to anyone paying attention to the details of what went down.

Whatever hiccups he had playing with Kobe, Howard is working hard to avoid with Harden. They’re developing some synergy and continuing to explore the boundaries of what they can do.

“It’s getting better,” Howard said. “We talk every day. We try to find ways to get better between me and him, pick and roll situations, where he likes the ball and where I like the ball and stuff like that. It takes a while. This is our first games together. But we should have it by the time the end of the [regular] season comes.”

Whether or not that’s in time to pave the way for a deep playoff run remains to be seen.

Then again, those plans have been adjusted, right along with the Rockets’ championship expectations.


VIDEO: Chandler Parsons joins the Inside the NBA crew to talk all things Rockets