NBA Sideline Chirps: Surprises, Shocks and Expectations


Welcome back to the next installment of NBA Sideline Chirps featuring a back and forth question and answer exchange between Editor Tamberlyn Richardson and Senior Writer Anthony Nguyen.

Since our last Sideline Chirps segment the Houston Rockets have been extremely busy on and off the hardwood. On the court, arguably the biggest news was the return of Donatas Motiejunas to action for the first time since season ending back surgery last April. Other notable on court happenings were the exchanges of Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela to the starting line-up for Ty Lawson and Terrence Jones and the continued career setting point production of James Harden.

After an extremely rocky start the Rockets had finally pulled even at .500 with the win over the Lakers, but then slipped against this season’s nemesis the Denver Nuggets and followed that with another loss in Sacramento. Strangely the Rockets had beat the Kings twice already and with a tougher line-up given Rajon Rondo was dressed for both previous games. Now miraculously Houston sit clinging to the 7th rung of the playoff ladder despite a losing record (12-14) and a quarter of the season in the books. Still there are more questions than answers regarding this team and a slew of strong opponents yet to come.

Other notable news around the Association is the retirement tour of Kobe Bryant, rookie Jahlil Okafor‘s off court troubles which likely precipitated the hiring of Jerry Colangelo as Special Advisor and Chairman of Basketball Operations in Philadelphia and the Golden State Warriors finally losing a game after 24 consecutive wins this season.

And just to make things a little more exciting yesterday (December 15th) announced the beginning of what we might call trade market opening as players who exchanged teams this summer are now eligible to be used as trade options.

Suffice to say there is a lot going on in Clutch City and around the Association, so with that we give you the third installment of NBA Sideline Chirps:

Fan Questions

Fan Question 1:

Anthony Brown of Rockets Nation Facebook group page made a statement, but in an exchange we agreed it offered a valid question:

If James Harden equaled last seasons’ defensive effort wouldn’t that be more conducive to Rockets victories? And isn’t it more sustainable?

Anthony: I don’t think the effort between this years and last years was much different. I believe his efforts on defense last year were hidden by Houston’s run throughout the regular season and post.

Now that Houston is losing to teams that are within the same breathe as the Nuggets and Nets, people are looking for someone to blame and Harden‘s defense just so happens to be the easiest target. Teams have also been attacking Harden more often than last year. Don’t get me wrong his defensive efforts have been atrocious thus far but in terms of adding to the win column, a better team effort has to come forth.

Tamberlyn: There are some simple truths:

  • The reason there wasn’t countless examples of his poor defense last season is because he played better defense.
  • Harden telling reporters he can’t play as many minutes and be expected to produce on both ends is a cop out…. and I’ll tell you why:
    • if he allowed anyone else to be the primary ball handler he wouldn’t have to do so much
    • if he passed the ball to other players (especially when they had hit their previous shots) he wouldn’t have to do so much
    • if he TRUSTED his team mates to handle the ball and make their shots it’s likely they would also help him more on defense
    • which speaks to the other issue .. defense is a problem across the board on this season’s team, not just with Harden

Having said that, if I’m Bickerstaff the first play Harden blows on defense I take him out of the game even if it’s in the first minute of the game. Post game I tell reporters well he said he can’t play both ends when he’s tired so I’m trying to make sure he’s well rested.

Don’t get me wrong I think James Harden is an amazing player, but how he is acting on and off the court is hurting NOT HELPING his team. He wanted the big money to be “the man” and the “leader” now it’s time he act like it. Instead, he is acting more like a petulant child who thinks he deserves special treatment and is pouting because the other kids told him so. I think he heard in the players only meeting teammates weren’t happy with him and now they also aren’t helping him on defense. In response Harden isn’t passing the ball much and for as many games as he single handedly is winning for the Rockets I could probably point out in their losses how he single handedly is losing the game (or is the main reason why they are losing).

Bottom line this team still has major issues and most of them are stemming from chemistry problems off the court and effort issues on it. Until they address the cancer(s) and get Harden acting like a leader this team isn’t going to magically turn into the defensive power house they were last season.

Fan Question 2:

Another of the BBoyz Will Petker sent me a message directly to Tamberlyn’s Tip Off Facebook Page

Tambz I love this new segment! Preseason you told the BBoyz to watch out for Minnesota and Orlando this season and so far that prediction looks solid.  With a little less than three-quarters of the season remaining which team from each conference:

  • Has been the biggest surprise?
  • Has disappointed the most?
  • Will either make a late charge or sustain early success?

Anthony: The biggest surprise has definitely been Charlotte. There’s just so much going on with that team that it’s beyond anyone’s explanation. Who styles Lin’s hair? Are we actually living in the past where Batum was awesome? How the hell are they 5th in offensive efficiency when they finished 28th last season? Again, who styles Lin’s hair?

(Disappointment) Although they did take down the beast in Golden State, the Bucks were a team I thought would be where Charlotte is right now, but boy was I wrong. They’re near last in defensive efficiency and have struggled to score all season long. I once compared Michael-Carter Williams to Shaun Livingston and after watching him miss wide open teammates and lose his handle on the ball more than he does score or assist, I’ve come to the conclusion that I should probably stop making NBA comparisons after a couple drinks. The dude is not a point guard and the move to get rid of Brandon Knight was perhaps the second dumbest thing to happen within the past year and a half (coming second to anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth).

Charlotte will continue to be awesome because Steve Clifford knows what he’s doing and theirs a good mix of veteran and young guys on the team. Everyone seems to get along pretty well and The Time Warner Cable Arena (that is an awful name) has been a tough place to play in as of late.

Milwaukee will be in the playoff picture come seasons end. The addition of Greg Monroe has been I would say the most vital part to this team’s defensive failures as of late, time and continuity is needed for him to build familiarity within the system. They’ve been slowly moving up the ranks in terms of defensive efficiency so there have been signs of improvement and they ended the Warriors win streak..

Tamberlyn:  It’s a toss up between Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets on who is the bigger surprise. In the case of the Hornets they revamped their squad to make offense an emphasis and it worked. Then when Michael Kidd Gilchrist got injured they were forced to expedite the offense.

Recently Steve Clifford has dialed back his squad to find a balance between offense and defense and since Charlotte was a top defensive squad last season it was more a matter of returning to their system with the new players in the rotation. Overall, I’d say the addition of Nicolas Batum was the most under rated of the summer and he is making the squad tick.

Note, when Anthony and I write our responses we do it separately and them merge them and just in case you were wondering about that here’s my early Monday morning podcast where I said basically the same thing:

AIST Blue Monday is out! Joined by @TTOTambz from @raptorsrepublic / @SpaceCity_Scoop On iTunes, Stitcher & here:

— Hendrick & Gennaro (@allinsportstalk) December 14, 2015

In the case of Dallas who would have thought they would be competing as the level they are. Not only did they lose out on DeAndre Jordan in the biggest punk move (that only the Clippers could muster) of the summer they also lost out on valuable time during free agency to try to sign someone else. Hindsight is 20-20 though with Zaza Pachulia posting nightly double-doubles (10.4 each of points/rebounds per game) and the Mavericks have been nothing short of a revelation.

My disappointment hits on 3 teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans. All 3 teams were expected to compete for a high playoff seed after their performances last season.

In the Bucks case the shock was how much they would regress defensively with the loss of Jared Dudley, the aforementioned Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova.

In the case of the Pelicans the fact they were decimated by injury doesn’t completely buy much sympathy. They still had several top players including their star and looking at what Dallas have done or the Raptors who had the toughest schedule to start the season and have played a good portion of their season without 2 starters.

And obviously, the Rockets were expected to not only perform well, but to challenge for the top spot in the West.

In all three cases the issue can be summed up in one word: DEFENSE! Until these teams fix their effort and bring consistent energy nightly they’ll have issues moving forward.

Which in essence answers your final question. I don’t think the Bucks or Pelicans can rebound at this stage to make the post season. In Houston’s case they have hung around and I think after their third loss to Denver it will guarantee Daryl Morey makes an early move to try to fix the team by adding another defensive specialist. It might do more harm than good, but I would count on him shaking up the team with some sort of move. And though Charlotte will have to travel and show consistency there I believe they have enough depth, versatility and experienced defense from last season to stay in the 4-6 seed range.

The team(s) I think could make the late charge are the two I pointed you to preseason Will. Minnesota and Orlando have both lost at least 3 games each off whistles this season (that I’ve personally seen) and both have shocked solid teams by upsetting them in wins. It’s conceivable either team will make a trade if they are close to the 8 seed (or already seeded) to push them over the top.

With Skiles focus on defense and obvious disdain for Nikola Vucevic disinterest on that end of the floor he could be dangled for a more defensive minded center. I wonder would Chicago part ways with Joakim Noah for Vucevic?  And if not Vucevic, it’s possible teams will be sniffing around regarding Canadian Andrew Nicholson‘s availability since Skiles has not only released the chains Jacque Vaughan had him strapped down with but proven he can defend as well as score. Could Toronto look to add yet another Canuck to their roster if Nicholson is available?

As for my dark horse T-Wolves I hear rumblings teams are interested in Shabazz Muhammad, but I’m thinking the Wolves might be better served to move Kevin Martin. Either way they are literally one player away (or one summer away) from being able to consistently win.  I’m probably wishing this upon the Magic and T-Wolves more than logically thinking it through and that’s because I want both of these squads to get the playoff experience even if it means they get ousted in a sweep.

Sideline Chirp: Curiously news out of L.A. is Doc Rivers isn’t happy with Josh Smith, so I wonder if Morey would try to get him back in Houston to reignite the chemistry from last season.

Anthony asks Tamberlyn:

Jeff Van Gundy brought up this idea on the ESPN broadcasting of the Bulls-Celtics game not too long ago. He pitched the idea that the Bulls should bring in Tom Thibodeau as an offensive coordinator because of how well they performed offensively last season as opposed to how inconsistent they’ve been this year. With some teams being above average on O while being almost non existent on defense, I can kind of see it as making sense. What is your take on this and do you think it’ll happen in the near future where teams start hiring offensive and defensive coordinators?

A: To a certain extent I’d say it’s already happening. Case in point: Steve Kerr tweaked the Warriors offensive schemes and had Alvin Gentry work specifically on that aspect. Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is known primarily for defense, but the 2 new assistants brought in came with specific skill sets: Rex Kalamian for his offensive experience in Oklahoma City and Andy Greer for his defensive experience in Chicago under Thibs. And they also added Jerry Stackhouse to work closely with the players.  The results are noticeable as the team has improved in specific areas on both ends of the court.

While the Raptors were known as a strong offensive team they were terrible at end of game or time out plays so plays like this are invigorating for the fan base north of the border:

Just like the game has shifted to position-less roles and small ball so to is coaching shifting. Sure there are the wise old sages Pops and Carlisle, but there are also the new mind sets of Brad Stevens, Houston’s own Bickerstaff and Mike Malone who are showing new styles of coaching. I’ll put it like this: every team should have a coach on staff who is a specialist at either offense or defense. But in my opinion, the head coaches true talent should lie in his/her ability to assess problems (in game) develop a solution and adapt (in game).  Regardless of whether this last factor comes from an innate ability to see the issue personally or via data input from the coaching staff it’s what separates the men from the boys. Perhaps that’s why Pops, Carlisle, Stevens, Snyder, Clifford, Kerr, Malone top my coaches list because they are the best at adapting in game.

Sideline Chirp to Jeff Van Gundy: If Chicago was going to bring back Thibs to coach the offense (when he’s known as a defensive specialist) why did they both firing him in the first place?

Tamberlyn asks Anthony:

J.B. Bickerstaff was said to be a defensive oriented coach yet it seems like the moves he’s made so far have been paying dividends more so on the offensive end of the court.  Despite recording a winning record of 7-5 the Rockets continues to rank in the basement defensively (numbers as of Sunday December 13):

  • 30th in opponent Field Goal Percent allowed (47.0%)
  •  28th in total points allowed (107.2 per game)
  • 29th in opponent points off turnovers (19.7)
  • 30th in opponent second chance points allowed (15.5)
  • Tied 25th for opponent fast break points allowed (14.4)
  • 30th opponent points in the paint allowed (47.4)

Breaking down the record of the opponents is even more disconcerting:

McHale had a 4-7 record prior to being fired with the 4 wins coming against teams winning 52% of their games and the 7 losses versus teams with a 54% win percentage. Examination of the Rockets victories for Bickerstaff is a little startling as his 7 wins come versus teams boasting a win percentage of 35.8% whereas the losses are to teams with a 47.4% win percentage.  What I’m most concerned about isn’t that the Rockets haven’t beat the better teams it’s that their defensive stats aren’t improving despite their easier opponents.

Long winded way to get to my question: What can Bickerstaff do immediately to address the defensive short comings? AND… is the winning record since McHale left fools gold?

A: No I don’t think the wins we’ve piled up since McHale’s absence is fool’s gold but I also wouldn’t pay much attention to the wins being because of Bickerstaff. I believe the firing of McHale alone was enough to make this team pile up some wins, kind of like a slap in the face or Leslie Alexander trying to light a fire under these guy’s asses.

Bickerstaff has made more adjustments offensively then he has defensively. Houston still switches on almost everything which worked well last year because it was sort of new but now that 80 percent of the league does it, teams are use to the look so coming up with a game plan for it is a lot more less complex. But it all boils down to attitude and the personnel. Draymond Green and Tim Duncan (just to name a few) are leaders who pride themselves on their defensive efforts and it reflects on the team. I’m not sure I can say the same about Harden.

Generic Question For Both:

It’s All-Star voting time, so lets look at the back court this week (same question on the front court will appear in our next segment) and break down who should be receiving votes to start based on this season’s performance to date.

Anthony: In the midst of all this Golden State goodness, the play of Skinny Lowry has been over looked. He’s having a stellar season and should definitely be one of the leading vote getters.

Although Chicago has been the league leaders in the “not as good as their record indicates” category, Jimmy Butler has made the jump into legitimate conversations as one of the league’s premier two way players.

As for the West lets take a step outside of the obvious (Curry, Westbrook, Paul) here:

Once you take the greatest foreign player to ever play the game to dance class, you should automatically have a spot on the All-Star roster. CJ MCCOLLUM FOR PRESIDENT!

It’s weird how two people who share a passion for hating other people can get along so well. Rondo and Boogie Cousins have been must watch TV this season and science has yet to explain it but the Kings have been pretty impressive this year. RONDO IS BACK!

Tamberlyn: Okay so let’s just get this out of the way… I’m Canadian, live in Toronto (where the All-Star Game is)  and have suffered for years with rarely having a Raptors in the Sunday event let alone starting. I’ve also been a big proponent of not believing players should get the “old school vote” like Carmelo and Kobe who in my opinion don’t deserve to be there. If Adam Silver wants to send the Mamba to the ASG then let him make an exception to add him.

So with the Raptors hosting I’d like to see Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan end up as the starting back court. Lowry specifically is producing at an MVP type level leading the league in steals (2.3), scoring 21.3 points, dishing out 6 assists and despite his size is grabbing 4.9 rebounds. His off season commitment to getting himself in top shape isn’t something we see every day or at least as dramatic as his was.  DeRozan will have some valid competition from Jimmy Butler  but it would be awesome for the 2 of them to get voted in as starters.

In the West, Steph Curry has the starting point guard on lock and despite the Rockets struggles I suspect James Harden will join him in the back court. There’s an argument to be made for Russell Westbrook and the back courts of Phoenix and Portland however their win percentage will probably keep them out.

Again I’ll appeal to the Canadian fans and hope Andrew Wiggins receives significant votes at the shooting guard. He’s playing well enough to get the consideration and it would mark a likely once in a life time event for him if he could start in his home town!

How YOU can be a part of this weekly series

More from Space City Scoop

Clutch City has some of the best fans in the world, so we are inviting you to participate. Each segment will feature what’s most topical about your Rockets and around the NBA . And just like this week you the reader can be a part of this series.

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That brings to a conclusion this weeks installment of NBA Sideline Chirps. Are you in agreement? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section on whether you agree, disagree or have a completely different take. Again, make sure to tweet your questions for next week using the hashtag #SidelineChirps for an opportunity to be the featured fan question.

Next: NBA Sideline Chirps First Installment

Next: NBA Sideline Chirps Second Installment

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