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Rockets-Blazers: Behind the numbers

The Houston Rockets will square off against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. Ben DuBose takes an early look at the matchup.

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The defense of Omer Asik could be crucial against Portland

The defense of Omer Asik could be crucial against LaMarcus Aldridge and a large Portland front line.

The scenario math is over. Courtesy of Portland’s overtime win over Golden State on Sunday night, we know the Rockets (53-27) will open up the postseason next weekend against the Blazers (53-28) in the 4 vs. 5 series, with the winner likely to play No. 1 San Antonio in the next round.

What we don’t know is where each game will be played. The Rockets are still in the driver’s seat for home-court advantage, but they need one more result to seal it.

If that happens, and assuming good health, the Rockets have to feel good about their chances. The Rockets won the tiebreaker vs. Portland by virtue of taking three of four regular-season matchups, including both in Houston.

There’s also the fact that in a similar 4 vs. 5 battle five years ago, the Rockets took out LaMarcus Aldridge and his Blazers in six games, marking Houston’s only playoff series win since 1997. (Though it should be noted that not even one current Rocket was on that roster.)

As far as the current crop of Rockets goes, a quick look at the schedule and numbers between the teams shows several trends. Here’s a rundown of the relevant issues:

Don’t Depend on Portland Losing For Home Court

As most of us know, Houston’s magic number to clinch the No. 4 seed, and home-court advantage over Portland, is one. It seems simple enough on paper: basically, the Rockets need only one of three games (Spurs at Rockets tonight, Rockets at Pelicans on Wednesday, Clippers at Blazers on Wednesday) to go in their favor. In a usual circumstance, the pro-Rockets outcome would be favored by oddsmakers in all three (though San Antonio might be a tossup).

But Houston shouldn’t count on help from the Clippers. Unless current No. 2 Oklahoma City somehow loses each of its final two games (at New Orleans tonight, home vs. Detroit on Wednesday), the No. 3 Clippers will know by their West Coast tipoff in Portland on Wednesday whether they have anything left to play for. Since it’s highly likely they will not, expect very limited minutes – if any – for the likes of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, thus giving Portland a probable win.

So, the Rockets will likely need to close the door themselves. They will likely be favored in each, considering the ravaged state of the New Orleans roster and the probability that Gregg Popovich will keep his biggest stars on a minutes limitation in Houston. But given that it’s the Spurs, and remembering the trouble the Pelicans gave the Rockets (albeit without Chandler Parsons) just two nights ago in Houston, it’s far from a done deal.

Twin Towers Redux?

The week-plus-long experiment to open the 2013-14 season of playing Omer Asik at power forward alongside Dwight Howard was mostly a failed one… with one very notable exception. Back on November 5, the Rockets rolled into Portland and crushed the Blazers, 116-101, behind strong performances from both big men. Asik, who spent most of his 22 minutes guarding Aldridge, held Aldridge to 21 points (9-of-19 shooting) and only 5 rebounds and a plus/minus number of -22, easily the worst on Portland’s roster that night.

On the day before the most recent Houston-Portland matchup on March 9, the Rockets brought back the Howard-Asik combination in practice. It didn’t end up happening in the game due to foul trouble, but head coach Kevin McHale and the rest of the Houston staff clearly had the possibility on their minds. And with Asik averaging over 10 points and 15 rebounds in a recent 8-game stint filling in as a starter for Howard, he appears very much in game shape to potentially take on a larger role.

Meanwhile, Howard has to like his chances against Portland center Robin Lopez. Howard has averaged 25.5 points against Portland – his highest per-game average against all West opponents – on a ridiculously impressive 63.3% from the field and even 65% from the free throw line. Oh, and he’s also grabbed 13.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in those four games.

On the whole, most of the Houston bigs probably like this matchup. The exception is starting power forward Terrence Jones. In three starts against Portland, Jones put up just 4 points and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes. That could spark a renaissance of the Asik-Howard experiment, or it may also force the Rockets to go small with Jeremy Lin at shooting guard and Harden and Parsons at the forward spots, as they did during the recent March 9 comeback in Houston.

Beverley’s Defense on Lillard

Patrick Beverley

Beverley’s defense has given Damian Lillard fits.

The biggest perimeter reason the Rockets won three of four regular-season games from Portland was the inefficiency of Damian Lillard. Hounded by Patrick Beverley and his relentless defense, Lillard shot 38.5% against the Rockets (including a 1-of-10 clunker in Portland) and averaged nearly as many turnovers per game (4) as assists (5).

There is some caution, though. After not being in foul trouble in any of the first three games vs. Portland, Beverley was whistled for six fouls and disqualified in overtime during Houston’s miraculous come-from-behind win last month. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lillard also had his best game from the field (7-of-13) that night. It’s still a favorable matchup for Houston, but Beverley has to be careful to not pick up cheap fouls and remain on the floor.

Parsons vs. Batum

On paper, it’s an intriguing matchup of long, athletic small forwards with handles. In reality, it’s been a mismatch in favor of Houston. Parsons has averaged 17.5 points (on 46% shooting) and 7 rebounds in his four games, while Nicolas Batum has been limited to 10.5 points on just 40% from the field, well below his efficient season-long average of 46.5%.

If Beverley is able to contain Lillard, it stands to reason that the Blazers will need someone else to step up as a perimeter creator on offense in order to beat Houston four times in seven games. Batum is one candidate, but Parsons has held him considerably in check. That leaves one question…

Will Harden’s Defense Offset His Offense?

James Harden's contract includes incentives that could impact the team's salary cap situation

Harden’s ability and desire to defend will be tested by Wesley Matthews and the Blazers.

We all remember the wizardry James Harden has pulled off vs. the Blazers, none more impressive than the stunning comeback he orchestrated against them in March. And the numbers certainly bear it out – in four games, Harden has averaged 30.2 points (on 48.1% shooting), 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. In short, Harden has been dominant and efficient at a Kevin Durant-level on offense against the Blazers.

But Harden has needed all of those points to have a significant impact because of his struggles on defense against Wesley Matthews. Portland’s steady two-guard has torched the Rockets for over 20 points per game this season, including 26 on March 9 when he went to the free-throw line a staggering 13 times. Harden actually did a decent job in defending Matthews from the field (5-of-15 shooting), but it was the endless penetration and trips to the line that wreaked havoc.

The Rockets have to like their chances on the defensive end of the floor. Beverley and Parsons have each held Lillard and Batum well below their usual marks. Asik has shown considerable promise in guarding Aldridge. Lopez isn’t really a creator of his own offense, which should allow Howard to offer some help elsewhere.

The remaining X-factor is Matthews. If Harden can keep him out of the lane and resist the temptation of leaving his man to unnecessarily help elsewhere, the Rockets should be just fine. If not, that’s the matchup Terry Stotts and the Blazers will likely look to exploit.

Houston Rockets

Podcast: Houston Rockets options with the #3 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft

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Houston Rockets 2024 NBA Draft prospects Zaccharie Risacher Stephon Castle Reed Sheppard Donovan Clingan

The offseason is now underway.

The forecast looks good for the Houston Rockets, but… there’s pressure as well this offseason because there are a handful of other West teams that might have rosier futures. Ime Udoka wants to win and win big. As we are about five weeks away from the NBA Draft, what are the Rockets looking to do this summer?

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Rockets shockingly landing the #3 pick and their options in this draft, including Reed Sheppard, Donovan Clingan, Zaccharie Risacher, Stephon Castle, Matas Buzelis and others. They also discuss the possibility of some big game hunting in Houston.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Podcast: Steven Adams, Mikal Bridges and Trade Possibilities for the Rockets

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Houston Rockets Trade Deadline 2024

The Houston Rockets already made one deal, acquiring center Steven Adams from Memphis for a handful of second-round picks, but we still have several days left before this Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline.

Are more deals on the way?

Rumors of interest in Mikal Bridges have swirled, with the Rockets holding precious (and unprotected) first-round picks from Brooklyn. They also could use some help inside this season, which Adams can not provide. Shooting is always in demand.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Adams trade, its impact on the Rockets in 2024-25 and beyond, the Mikal Bridges rumors, the Brooklyn picks, other trade possibilities and options for Rafael Stone moving forward. Also discussed is the play of Houston’s core 6 prospects: Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and Jalen Green.


CLUTCHFANS PODCAST: SPOTIFY | APPLE

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Rockets trade for center Steven Adams

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Steven Adams Houston Rockets

The Rockets made a surprise trade on Thursday, sending the contract of Victor Oladipo and three second-round picks to Memphis for center Steven Adams.

The deal came together quickly and the Rockets had a small window to get it done, hence why this trade was made with a week to go until the trade deadline.

The Price

When you consider that Memphis did this for cost savings primarily and that Adams would not play for any team in the league this season, the price seemed a little high to me. The Rockets gave up the OKC second-round pick this year, which is no big loss, but they also give up the better of Brooklyn’s or Golden State’s second-round pick this season. That’s a pretty good pick (likely in the late 30’s). They also give up the better of Houston’s or OKC’s second-round pick in 2025. If things go as planned for the Rockets, that pick should be in the 45-55 range.

But they didn’t sacrifice a first-round pick, which would have been brutal, and they were not going to use all those seconds this season. So it’s just a matter of opportunity cost — who else could they have gotten for this package?

My understanding is they (particularly Ime Udoka) are very high on Adams.

The Rockets also did this move for cap purposes as well. By moving out the Oladipo contract, which was expiring, and bringing in Adams’ deal, which is signed for $12.4M next season, the window for the Rockets to put together a trade package for a star player is extended out until the 2025 trade deadline. They continue to wait to see which players, if any, shake loose here and become available. They want flexible (see: expiring) contracts that they can combine with assets and this gives them another year to be in that position.

The Trade

It’s not often that the Rockets acquire a player I had not considered beforehand but that’s the case with Steven Adams. The Rockets sorely need a big with size that provides more traditional center strengths, making Clint Capela, Robert Williams, Nick Richards or Daniel Gafford potential candidates, but Adams was overlooked for a few reasons.

First, the 30-year old big man is out for the season after knee surgery cost him the entire 2023-24 campaign, so the Rockets won’t get any benefit from this trade this season. Secondly, Adams is not your traditional center either when it comes to rim protection.

But what Adams does do, he’s really good at and he has some of the same strengths of Brook Lopez, who the Rockets tried to sign in the offseason. Adams is quite possibly the strongest guy in the league and a legitimate 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He’s an outstanding screen-setter, something that could really benefit the likes of Fred VanVleet, Amen Thompson and Jalen Green. He was also an elite rebounder last season, finishing 6th in the league in caroms at 11.5 a game despite playing just 27.0 minutes a contest.

After watching Jonas Valanciunas absolutely bully the Rockets inside on Wednesday, it should be apparent by now to everyone that this was a pretty big need.

In 2021-22, the Memphis Grizzlies finished #2 in the West at 56-26. Their top two players in Net Rating that season were Dillon Brooks (+11.0) and Adams (+8.3), key cogs in a defense that held opponents to 108.6 points per 100 possessions. They’re both now Houston Rockets.

So this adds another trusted vet to Ime Udoka’s rotation.

The question is will the 30-year old Adams return to form after the knee injury? Adams sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a year ago, which cost him the end of that season and the playoffs. He tried rehabbing it and it never got better, so surgery became the option just as this season was kicking off.

I like to think the Rockets did their due diligence on that, despite the short time it took for this deal to come together, but that’s unclear.

If he does bounce back, then Udoka has a big man he can turn to reliably in situational matchups or on nights when the younger bigs struggle. He wouldn’t be Boban or even Jock Landale in that scenario — he’s going to play, so the frontcourt depth in 2024-25 should be better. In the end, they got a starting-caliber center who will have no problems coming off the bench, and that’s what they were looking for.

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On the KPJ trade and future of the Rockets

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The Houston Rockets are back to being a professional NBA team once again.

The Rockets finally ended the Kevin Porter Jr. era on Tuesday, coughing up two second-round picks in order to unload his contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, getting back the contract of Victor Oladipo and third-year forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The move puts an end to a long investment and very rocky tenure with KPJ.

David Weiner joined Dave Hardisty on the ClutchFans podcast to discuss the Porter Jr. Experiment, the price paid to move him, Houston’s potential trade options moving forward, the new culture and the current state of the Rockets young core.

ClutchFans Podcast: On Apple | Spotify

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Heavy investment in Kevin Porter Jr raises serious questions about Rockets front office

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Kevin Porter Jr. Rafael Stone

Soon-to-be-ex Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr was arrested last week for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, resulting in a fractured neck vertebra and a deep gash above her right eye after an attack at a hotel in New York. He allegedly woke her up by punching her repeatedly, strangled her and did not stop hitting her until she ran out of the hotel room screaming for help and covered in blood.

“This is a serious domestic violence case,” said assistant Manhattan district attorney Mirah Curzer.

First and foremost, I wish the victim healing. I don’t know what to say about the nightmare she went through. She and her family will forever be impacted. As for KPJ, if this is true, he doesn’t belong on the Rockets or in the NBA at all. He belongs in jail.

Secondly, this can’t be overlooked and just swept under the rug: Why did the Houston Rockets bank on and invest so heavily in this guy?

Kevin Porter Jr. being accused of crimes of this severity should not be shocking – at all. Before he even came to the Rockets, he had a long list of serious problems. He was suspended multiple times in high school. In 2019, he had a “conduct issue” significant enough that USC suspended the 5-star recruit indefinitely. He fell to the end of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft because of his behavior liability. He was accused of punching a woman in the face in Cleveland. He also had a gun and marijuana charge later dismissed after getting into a car crash. He went into a tirade and got into a nasty confrontation with both the Cleveland coach and GM, resulting in the Cavs severing ties immediately and dumping him to the Rockets for nothing.

You could make the argument that initially giving Porter Jr. a second chance in Houston was praiseworthy, but the Rockets experienced KPJ’s anger management and immaturity issues firsthand on several occasions.

Former Rocket Austin Rivers said this week that this isn’t the first, second or even seventh issue with Porter Jr. and that Rockets “higher-ups” confided in him that they had no idea how to handle him.

“I remember talking to guys in the Houston Rockets organization, higher-ups, [and] they were having issues then,” said Rivers. “They were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with him.’ And that’s when he just got there from Cleveland!”

Porter Jr. was routinely a nightmare for Rockets coaches to deal with. On several occasions, he confronted and cussed out members of the coaching staff, saying they didn’t have the “credentials”, per source, a reference to the fact that him playing heavy minutes at point guard was a decision they did not control.

Once at a night out, Porter Jr. had a disagreement with a DJ over music choice and he snapped, smashing the DJ’s laptop to the floor. He needed to be restrained and removed. Rockets personnel and several of Porter’s teammates witnessed the incident.

Curzer also dropped a bombshell at the arraignment in saying that Porter Jr. has a history of abusing his girlfriend, who he had only been dating since early last year, his second season with the Rockets. Curzer specifically cited an incident in which KPJ allegedly rammed his car into hers.

There were dozens of maturity issues visible on the court to anyone paying attention. He refused to check out of games. He got into an argument on the bench with assistant Lionel Hollins. On numerous occasions, he would visibly shut down when he wasn’t passed the ball. I invite you to watch this video from a game against Memphis on March 20, 2022. Just listen to the Grizzlies broadcasters, particularly starting at the 1:40 mark, talk about what they are witnessing here:



Privately, people around the league would say they were baffled by the Rockets continued fascination with Porter Jr. Nobody could understand it.

That fascination starts with Rockets general manager Rafael Stone, who by every account over the last two years was the driving force behind the investment in Porter Jr. It has been no secret. Trading for him in January 2021 was seen by some with the team as his “Harden acquisition”, code for a signature move that makes an executive’s career, much in the way landing James Harden did for Daryl Morey in 2012.

For example, former Rockets head coach Stephen Silas never considered Porter Jr. to be a point guard, per sources — playing him there was a Stone mandate because the GM believed that is where his future lied.

John Wall also told us as much publicly when he explained the phone call he got from Silas about coming off the bench. He said Silas told him “This is what the GM wants,” adding again that Silas said, “Man, you don’t deserve that. You should be the starter. This is just what they want to do.” Wall was upset because he believed KPJ should have to earn the spot.

“I have a hard time finding anybody outside of the Rockets front office that believes that Kevin Porter Jr. is a starting point guard in the NBA,” said ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon in December.

There were plenty of warning signs about KPJ to the public too.

After Porter Jr. got into a heated argument in which KPJ “physically shoved” Rockets assistant coach John Lucas and quit on the team in the middle of a game against Denver in January of 2022, leaving the arena at halftime, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix famously wrote that the Rockets should “Cut Porter Jr. Waive him. Release him. Whatever. Eat what’s left of the $1.8 million he’s owed this season and the $3.2 million he’s got next and move on.” It became a source of mockery for Porter Jr’s fans, a line they would bring up after each game he hit a few threes or handed out some assists.

In February of this year, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, one of the most connected reporters in the league, flat out warned us that he was hearing awful things about the Rockets culture and locker room. He was blunt in what the Rockets needed to do — waive Kevin Porter Jr. outright and bring in a new coach and GM.

“Just cut him. That’s it,” said Givony of Porter Jr. “And you’re sending a signal to the league that we’re going to do things differently from here on out.”

“When you talk to people around the NBA about Houston, you just don’t hear good things about their culture, about that locker room. You talk to people that are on that team, and they are like, ‘We are a mess’,” said Givony. “Do people want to work with this organization? But you can change that fairly quickly if you come in, get rid of the bad apples and you change the coaching staff, and all of a sudden, you’re Houston. It’s the third-biggest city in America. There’s a history here of you actually being good.”

Porter came to the Rockets for “free” (in exchange for a top-55 protected second-round pick, which was designed not to convey), but he proved far from it as the Rockets continued to pour investment into him. Over the last 2-3 seasons, no Rockets player got more developmental capital than Porter Jr. – not Jalen Green, not Alperen Sengun, not Jabari Smith Jr. The Fertittas paid John Wall $85+ million over two years to sit at home so the team could groom Porter Jr. to be their future point guard.

Then they doubled down. With restricted free agency on the horizon and a seemingly non-existent market for KPJ’s services, the Rockets gave Porter Jr. an extension a year sooner – a contract that was presented as a four-year, $82.5 million deal. The deal was more team-friendly than that, putting team options in it after years 1 and 3. Going from the potential disaster that was initially reported to a deal they could escape after one season felt like a “win”, but the biggest question was why they wanted him long-term at all. The unprecedented nature of a contract that size with that kind of club control clearly showed the Rockets knew there was unique and significant risk here.

After KPJ signed the extension, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko summarized the Rockets view of Porter Jr. – “As has been [their] stance for months, the Rockets have maintained the notion that Porter is a priority and is considered a huge part of their core, along with Green and Jabari Smith Jr.”

The Rockets actions to kick off the 2022-23 season showed exactly that – that he was a priority. They benched Sengun to start the season, in large part to give KPJ a “lob threat” and defender in the starting lineup. They gave him the superstar “Harden Locker”. They introduced him last in the starting lineups. They treated him as the star and empowered him to be the self-proclaimed “Head Honcho” of Clutch City.

But the extension proved unwise and foolish. Porter Jr. never even made it to the first year of it. With over $80 million on the line, he snapped again. The Rockets signed him to one of the team-friendliest deals ever and still managed to both overcommit and overpay as Stone now scrambles to attach real assets to it to get another team to take it off his books.

Is it fair to question the judgment of the Rockets front office? Absolutely and without question. Whether you look at their ability to value character, evaluate risk, scout basketball, build culture, manage assets or allocate development resources, they failed at every level here. Why didn’t they act sooner? Why did they double down? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Why did everybody in the league see it but them?

“We value the player and the person that [Kevin Porter Jr.] is becoming and are eager to invest in him and his journey,” said Stone after rewarding him with the extension less than a year ago.

The question you have to ask yourself now is, with all they knew and witnessed about Porter Jr. both on and off the court — why were they eager at all?

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