Monthly archive

July 2013

How Parsons Helped Houston Hook Howard

in NBA by
parsons

Even if Chandler Parsons sat out every game of this upcoming season, he’d still be a strong contender for the MVP on the Houston Rockets. That’s because no contribution that Parsons can make on the court, outside of morphing into a LeBron James clone, will surpass what he did for the Rockets off the floor: recruiting Dwight Howard.

Parsons was amongst the group of players, former players and executives that the Rockets sent out to Los Angeles to meet with Howard when free agency began and played a critical part in convincing Dwight to leave the Lakers. Parsons’ recruiting of Dwight didn’t start that night, though, as the two had been friends since Parsons was in college at the University of Florida and have shared an agent since May.

“I think I had a big impact,” Parsons told Yahoo! Sports about his role in getting Dwight to Houston. “The first thing he said at the press conference was that, ‘You guys should thank Chandler Parsons because he is a big reason why I am here.’ I think I just gave him that comfort that you got one of your boys here who is also a key part to the team.”

Dwight being someone that has other interests outside of basketball and clearly enjoys joking around in the lockerroom, surrounding him with people he likes to be around may be just as important as surrounding him with players that fit with his game. And Parsons just so happens to fit with Dwight on and off the floor.

“We got a lot of guys that are just friends. We enjoy playing with each other. We hang out off the court,” Parsons told me. “I think we are going to do something really special. ”

We thought the same thing of the Lakers last season when they landed Dwight Howard around this time, but the one  thing that team never had, and never really had a shot at having, was camaraderie. Kobe is the kind of leader that demands excellence out of his teammates and isn’t afraid to berate them openly if they don’t live up to expectations. Howard has the exact opposite personality and was never going to completely dedicate himself under those circumstances, especially when he also didn’t see eye-to-eye with the coach.

Howard will be the class clown of any lockerroom he steps into, and his act didn’t sit well with the veteran laden Lakers. The Rockets offer him a lockerroom with a much more relatable and hospitable crowd.

“We’re the youngest team in the league,” Parsons said. “We love playing basketball, we have fun doing it. We’re gonna smile, we’re gonna laugh, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t’ going to work hard. We’re going to really get after it.”

Houston offers Howard a much more open, friendly and jovial environment, one that much better suits his personality. The players are younger and more animated than the veteran Lakers and Kevin McHale should also fit extremely well with Howard, as he’s a player’s coach that loves to rib his guys in good fun. Of course, Mike D’Antoni is also a pretty playful coach, but his dislike of post-up offense doomed his relationship with Howard from the start.

Now that he’s in a situation tailor made for his particular charisma and playing for an organization that fell head over heels for him, assuming he’s healthy, Howard should be back to being one of the five best players in the league this season.

The Rockets also offer Howard a tremendous supporting cast basketball wise, and Parsons is a big part of that as well. Houston’s roster has continued rounding out since Howard signed with the team and things look even better than they did then. The Rockets have brought back Fransisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks, added a pair of solid wing players in Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams, signed big man Marcus Camby and they drafted Isaiah Canaan back in June, all of which will cost the team about $5.5 million this season. When you have over $33 million committed to your two max players, in addition to the $16 million Houston has committed to their two big pick-ups from last summer (Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin), it’s vital for the general manager to unearth good players that will play for minimum contracts, and there’s nobody better at that than Daryl Morey.

In that sense, Howard and Parsons represent the completion of Morey’s rise to elite status as an NBA executive.

Parsons was not a highly regarded NBA prospect when he graduated from Florida, but Morey saw something in Parsons when he was a Gator and landed him with a second round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Since then Parsons has developed into the NBA’s best bargain, offering up a multitude of services at the small forward spot for less than a million dollars a year (and his recruiting services are just a bonus). It’s a similar story for Patrick Beverley, the best point guard on the roster, who Morey plucked from Russia and signed to a deal that won’t pay him over $1 million a year for another two seasons.

Once Morey landed James Harden last season, a trade that came about because of his asset compiling, of course, the only thing left for him to do was to attract a max free agent to Houston. And thanks to the players, and the people, that he put in place heading into this off-season, he can now cross that off his bucket list, too.

“He’s brilliant,” Parsons said of Morey. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. He made some moves last year that people questioned, but it was all apart of his plan. And it is starting to work out for us.”

Mo Shots In Motown

in NBA by
jennings

I understand the risks you are taking when you sign Brandon Jennings to a multi-year deal that will eat up a significant portion of your camp space. He’s shown some maturity issues, his on-court production has never matched the hype (and he’s yet to realize this) and the Bucks were an astounding 12.45 points per 100 possessions worse with Jennings on the floor last season per Basketball Value, which was the second worst mark in the league.

And yet, I am still shocked that it took until July 30th for a team to finally work out a deal to acquire the young point guard. After all, Jennings is just 23 years old, he’s spent most of his career playing for a coach that many players, including himself, clashed with and the potential for him to emerge as a more efficient point guard that effectively utilizes his scoring and distributing talents is still there.

But that’s the era that we are in right now. As the off-season played out and teams like Dallas and Utah and Sacramento found themselves new point guards via free agency, trades and the draft, the market for Jennings became extremely bare. There’s no better illustration of this golden age of lead guards than the fact that a 23-year old point guard with obvious talent had no logical suitors. Jeff Teague was in a similar situation a couple of weeks ago, and at one point a Jennings-for-Teague rumor sprouted up presumably so the basketball gods could kill two birds with one stone.

After weeks of waiting, and even some rumblings that Jennings was considering playing for the qualifying offer this season and becoming an unrestricted free agent next year, today we learned that the Detroit Pistons, who have had one of the most active summers in the league, will acquire Jennings in a sign-and-trade deal that will send former lottery pick Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to Milwaukee.

Given what Joe Dumars did the last time the Pistons had cap space, it was hard to envision them having a positive off-season, but I find myself liking the team they’ve put together. Dumars essentially pulled off the same move that Dell Demps did with the Pelicans, quickly shifting his team out of rebuild mode and into playoff competition. The reason the Pistons won’t get as much praise for their off-season is because they’ve acquired a couple of unsure things and added them to a core that was already unproven.

The Pelicans started with a strong base of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis and added an all-star caliber point guard in Jrue Holiday and likely sixth man Tyreke Evans. Of that group, assuming Gordon actually plays this year, only Evans is a question mark, and I’m not sure you can blame him for establishing that reputation on that dysfunctional Kings team. Under the leadership of Monty Williams and on a team that actually makes sense roster-wise, I expect Evans to find his niche this season, and overall this is a roster that fits together extremely well.

The Pistons started their quick rebuild with a potential laden base of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. While that duo has shown promising signs, we don’t know for sure that Drummond will ever be more than a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker; though a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker is always an asset, Drummond did shoot 37% from the free throw line last season and he made all of two baskets outside of the restricted area. Monroe has shown a much more polished offensive game with a decent set of post moves and a nice feel for things when distributing from the high post, but he too has his limitations with a lackluster jumpshot and slow feet on defense. It’s a young duo that several teams would envy, but by themselves that’s not a particularly strong foundation.

The additions of Josh Smith and Jennings certainly make the Pistons better, but that doesn’t mean that they solve all of their problems, either. Both players have shown that they can be all-star caliber players when they play to their strengths – Smith with his uncanny ability to defend the rim and the perimeter at an elite level and Jennings with his lightning quick speed and expansive court vision – but they also have a tendency to get lazy, jack up bad shots, gamble on defense and portray a mopy attitude if things don’t go their way.

Smith is also an awkward fit positionally, as he’s been at his best as a power forward; now, he may end up playing power forward alongside Monroe a lot this season, but that means the Pistons will be playing Drummond less, and he was one of the few players on the team to have a positive statistical impact on their performance. A Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt is likely the best way to utilize the talents of all three of these players, but the floor spacing of that unit will not be pretty.

While the Pelicans found a way to add impact players that fit in perfectly with what they had in place, the Pistons have gambled on some impact players that may not mesh with the Drummond/Monroe duo. On top of that, the team also hired a new head coach – former Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks – this off-season that will be tasked with managing all of these egos for the first time. All signs point to Detroit’s transition to contender going less smoothly than it will in New Orleans, and yet I don’t think Dumars massively screwed up this off-season, at least not compared to what happened in 2009.

I’m not sure this is a playoff team right away – not with Washington, Cleveland and Toronto also freshly in the playoff hunt and only the Celtics definitely dropping out of the post-season picture – but I’ll back the method used to build it.

Gal Mekel’s Big Dream

in NBA by
mekel

After the final buzzer of the day had sounded at the Las Vegas Summer League on Tuesday, I stood in the tunnels of the Thomas and Mack Center waiting to have a quick chat with Dallas Mavericks point guard Gal Mekel. As the minutes ticked by, I wondered whether or not I’d be late for my reservation at BURGR, a gourmet burger spot curated by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Mekel wasn’t giving me the superstar treatment of taking 30 minutes to get dressed, but a foul fest broke out during the game which prolonged the night.

Finally, I saw Mekel walking out of the lockerroom and towards the designated media area and prepared my iPhone recorder. But before I could get out my first question, an unsuspecting media member that I hadn’t noticed started a casual conversation with Mekel in his native language of Hebrew.

Mekel was born in Ramat HaSharon, a city centrally located on Israel’s central coastal strip, and has taken a unique route to the NBA. He came over to the United States and played two years at Wichita State University back in 2006 before leaving in 2008 to play pro basketball back in Isreal. He won the equivalent of the Rookie of the Year award in his first season in the Israeli Super League and has won two league titles and two MVPs between Israel and Italy since then.

After Mekel concluded his interview in Hebrew, he turned to me, grabbed me on the shoulder and with a smile asked: “Did you understand anything we just said?”

***

Mekel had just finished up his best summer league game so far. Against the D-League Select Team, which, by the way, may be the best team here, Mekel dished out nine assists, racked up three steals and scored seven points. Seven points won’t stick out at you, but with Mekel, the individual scoring column is always the least important; he’s a pass-first point guard, someone whose first reads off of pick-and-roll action are almost always related to finding an open teammate and not about finding enough space to get his own shot off.

As Mekel continued to burn the D-League defense by attacking their aggressive closeouts and getting into the lane to create for his teammates, D-League Select head coach Alex Jensen swiveled around in anger, yelling out to noone in particular “He’s not a shooter! He hasn’t taken a shot yet!”

Normally such a remark wouldn’t irk anyone on press row, but in this instance, one particular media member’s full attention shifted to Jensen as he critiqued Mekel. That media member would be ESPN analyst David Thorpe, who doubles as a coach and trainer at the IMG Sports Academy during the off-season and was interested in how Jensen’s scouting report on Mekel broke down. Thorpe began working with Mekel in September, and the jumpshot Jensen was dismissing was of primary importance during their sessions.

Thorpe is perhaps the main reason that Mekel is suiting up for the Mavericks right now, outside of Mekel’s own natural ability and drive, of course. Omri Casspi, the first Israeli born player to ever play in the NBA, called Thorpe last year and asked him to train his friend Gal. At the time, Thorpe had no prior knowledge of Mekel’s game outside of a few video clips and wanted to talk to Mekel to see if training him would be a good idea. After one call, Thorpe decided that he would work with Mekel based on the passion for growth that he exuded over the phone.

Mekel contacted Thorpe during a dry part of the year, when Thorpe’s NBA clients were off to training camp and when it was time for him to shift into writer mode. Even Thorpe’s assistant was gone at the time, leaving Thorpe and Mekel alone in an empty gym, the only thing in their company being the potential that Mekel was dying to reach. Mekel wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to focus on improving, but Thorpe saw that his jumpshot needed some mechanical work and that his physical attributes could be enhanced with the right training and skill work.

“We wanted him to have more command of his dribble,” Thorpe said. “We tried to get him to play more explosively, to play with more pace. And to learn how to use that pace; it’s one thing to be fast with the ball, it’s another thing to know how use that speed.”

While there were some specific aspects of Mekel’s game that Thorpe wanted to work with him on, he said it didn’t take him long to realize that Mekel was a special player.

“Three days,” Thorpe said when I asked how many days passed before he figured out Mekel could play in the league. “After three days, I told him ‘You are probably an NBA player.'”

It didn’t take me long to draw that same conclusion, either. Upon watching him here in Vegas for the first time, Mekel’s superior feel for the game was evident. The game just flows differently when he’s running the show. Mekel not only understands how important running through every option of an offensive set is, but wants to put his teammates in optimal situations; when his teammates are getting good looks off of his passes, that is when Mekel has the most fun on the floor.

“That’s what I do,” Mekel said when I asked him about his affinity for searching out his teammates. “I am the point guard and I need to get everybody going. That’s the whole key for me: to play happy and to bring energy.”

While Thorpe, myself and many other analysts and executives in Vegas have swooned over Mekel’s slick passing abilities and his expert navigation of pick-and-rolls, at the end of the day, our opinion matters little. Getting a vote of confidence from Mr. Shark Tank is what really counts, and it appears Mekel has a fan in Mark Cuban.

“There are basketball skills and then there are skills above the neck,” Cuban said. “In terms of understanding the game and basketball IQ, (Mekel) sees it before it happens, and that’s rare to find. You don’t see that a lot.”

Mekel’s shot is still a bit wonky – as Thorpe says, his guide hand is too involved in his shot – but he’s shown a pretty good inbetween game that is helping him bridge the gap between the paint and the three-point line. Mekel has torn apart a few unsuspecting defenders this week with a lightning quick crossover that helps him get by his defenders, and he has the size and strength to survive the war in the paint.

Speaking of size and strength, Mekel has good height for a point guard at 6’3″ and he has chiseled bulk that gives him a physical advantage over a lot of the smaller guards here. Thorpe believes that Mekel’s strength and solid defensive foundation will provide Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle with a lot of flexibility in the backcourt, with Mekel offering up the ability to guard most shooting guards and even some small forwards. Small forwards with limited off the dribble games and no post ability – your Shane Battier and Jeff Taylors of the world – wouldn’t be able to punish Mekel for his height disadvantage, which would allow Dallas to put out some guard heavy line-ups featuring Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and/or Monta Ellis alongside Mekel. “There are a lot of skinny threes in our league,” Thorpe said.

How soon Mekel will have a major role with the Mavs is unclear, but the 25-year old is already ready to assume some responsibilities in Dallas. With Shane Larkin out for up to three months with a broken ankle and Devin Harris, who Cuban said will likely be with the Mavs this season after their earlier contract negotiations were put on hold, recovering from toe surgery, Mekel will be one of two fully healthy point guards in training camp. And if he performs anything like he has this week, he’ll likely have made too good of an impression to be kept on the bench.

***

As my chat with Mekel winded down, I tried to get out one last question about what he was looking to improve on the most during his first season playing pro ball in the states. But instead of getting an answer out of Mekel, Thorpe popped his head in and said: “The list is endless.”

While Thorpe’s quip was taken in jest, Mekel is not quite a finished product. What he is is an incredibly gifted basketball mind with tremendous instincts and leadership qualities and the ideal physique and athleticism for the NBA game, someone capable of playing a meaningful role on a good team. What he can become is a better shooter (Thorpe, by the way, believes Mekel has the potential to be a great shooter) and a more careful passer, someone that can be one of the top tier point guards in the league.

Whether or not Mekel will ever be universally recognized as an elite lead guard is a question best answered a bit down the road, but you can rest assured that any shortcomings with Mekel won’t be the result of laziness or lethargy.

“His work ethic – on the scale of 1-10 – it’s a 10. It’s as high as you are going to get,” Thorpe said. “And he’s self-driven. I have great NBA players that I have trained, but they need me to push them. He doesn’t need me to; he pushes himself.”

And yet, despite all of the grueling physical sessions that Mekel pushed himself through, it was the inspiration and wisdom that Thorpe supplied the Israeli guard that mattered most during his training. Thorpe could have drilled Mekel to the point where he could crossover all those stationary chairs with his eyes closed, but it would have all been for not had Thorpe not planted the idea that he could play in the NBA in Mekel’s mind.

“Besides the fact that I think I got much better,” Mekel said in an interview with TrueHoop TV about working with Thorpe. “He made me dream big.”

For most folks, our dreams are forged when we are most naive, making the realization of our dreams that much more magical as we look back and remember that it all started with our imagination running wild during recess.

For Mekel, the dream of playing in the NBA is freshly formed and backed by the respected opinion of a successful coach like Thorpe. But that doesn’t mean he’ll enjoy the realization of that dream any less.

“In the life of an athlete, you have some ups and downs,” Mekel said. “The key, is to maximize the ups.”

Howard, Harden, Houston

in NBA by
howardharden

A year ago today, Daryl Morey sat in his office after a long couple of weeks of negotiating, his roster still without the superstar he desperately craved. He had hoarded draft picks and potential laden youngsters for months in an attempt to pry Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic, but as the draft passed and Howard remained in Orlando, Morey found himself without a face for his franchise. Morey would make one more push for Dwight in August, but ultimately it would the Lakers that landed Howard, and Morey’s boom-or-bust roster building philosophy was questioned more than ever.

But then something happened. Just days before the 2012-13 season was set to tip off, the Oklahoma City Thunder, after failing to workout an extension with him, decided to make James Harden available rather than playing out the year and letting him take a max offer in free agency. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, GM wunderkind Sam Presti accepted an offer of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and and two first round picks (one of which turned out to be “meh” big man Steven Adams), and all of the sudden the Rockets had their superstar.

Fast forward to today, when a confounded Dwight Howard sat at some resort in Aspen, Colorado, and started crossing suitors off his list. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks were first to go, and then the Golden State Warriors seemed out of the mix, leaving just the Rockets and Lakers standing. Of course, no Dwight Howard sweepstakes would be complete without drama, and today’s plot twist came when the Warriors completed a salary dump trade and agreed to a deal with free agent forward Andre Iguodala, whom Howard is reportedly a fan of. With Iguodala in the fold, Golden State was prepared to offer some combination of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut to the Lakers in a sign-and-trade deal for Dwight.

While playing with Stephen Curry is a very intriguing proposition, Howard ultimately decided that Harden was the better right hand man, and USA Today’s Sam Amick is reporting that Superman is headed to Houston.

Houston seemed to be the favorite throughout this entire process, but the Warriors made a very compelling case when they added Iguodala. At that point – about three hours ago – whichever team Howard decided to join between Houston and Golden State would immediately be considered a title contender, and we now know that team will be the Rockets. While the Lakers could have offered Howard a longer and richer deal, the lack of state taxes in Texas will actually make the monetary sacrifice much smaller, and Houston is the team that offers Howard the best shot at a championship.

Howard had a down year in 2013 and has turned some people off because of how he’s handled himself off-the-court over the past two years, but there’s no denying that he’s the best big man in basketball when he’s healthy. If he’s able to get back to even 90% of his former self, the Harden-Howard duo will be the best in basketball, surpassing the Westbrook-Durant combo. Houston’s dynamic duo is a better fit, too, as Harden and Howard should mesh extremely well together. Howard is the prototypical pick-and-roll big man with unparalleled athleticism and agility and good hands while Harden was the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler last season. I’m sure Kevin McHale will do his best to make Howard into a supreme post-player, but the Rockets will still use the pick-and-roll as their primary process for point scoring, and they are going to be very, very good at it.

Howard will also help sure up Houston’s shaky defense. Omer Asik is one of the better defensive big men in the game and was tremendous last season in his first year as a starter, but he can’t affect the game as dramatically or for as long as Howard can. Howard won’t be able to make Harden any better on defense – that’s all about Harden’s effort level – but Dwight consistently made a Magic team with several poor individual defenders into an elite defensive unit when he was in Orlando. With the right scheme, Houston can become a top 10 defensive team, and with an elite offense, that is good enough to make them a title contender.

As if pairing up an offensive savant like Harden with a defensive building block by Howard wasn’t enough, the off-season isn’t over for the Rockets just yet. There’s a chance that the Rockets may be able to acquire a third star player to add to their already solid core. The most logical option is free agent power forward Josh Smith, a close friend of Howard’s and a former AAU teammate. It appears as if Smith is interested in joining Howard in Houston and the Rockets can kill two birds with one stone in a potential sign-and-trade deal by getting either Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik’s contracts off the books. Putting Smith with Howard and Harden, along with Chandler Parsons at the three and Patrick Beverley at point, would give the Rockets four above average (and two elite) defensive players in their starting line-up, which is a scary thought given how much that team would score.

Another domino that may fall involves free agent point guard Jose Calderon. It has been reported that Calderon was waiting to see where Dwight would go so that he could follow him (what an odd connection, by the way), and the Rockets could really use a veteran like Calderon that can play in crunchtime and give them elite shooting from the perimeter. If the Rockets can get rid of Lin, they may have some money left over to nab Calderon, and the two-man point guard rotation between Beverley and Calderon would offer Kevin McHale tremendous versatility with his backcourt.

Regardless of who the Rockets are able to add from this point on – and it’s worth noting that no GM has proven better at finding dirt cheap rotation players from the bargain bin than Morey – the core they have now already has championship potential. Harden and Howard will combine for some of the best looking basketball that the NBA has to offer, and with role players like Parsons and Beverley complimenting them perfectly, Houston has become one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

After years of searching for the right stars, Morey has finally secured two of the brightest superstars in the league to be the cornerstones of his franchise. So get ready, NBA, because Houston is going to be a problem.

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