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Five Preseason Notes That Matter

Preseason basketball is only exciting because it precedes regular season basketball. It’s the first step towards asking questions that will (hopefully) be answered over the next six months. That’s about it. Otherwise, the action is similar to a writer’s rough draft—which is, for most (including this guy), sloppy and maddening.

Pretty much every team (except the Spurs, probably) is coalescing for the first time; figuring out what definitely doesn’t work is a higher priority than winning the game. Dunks happen, and they’re fun, but what gets people most excited is seeing what they spent the entire summer talking about come to life.

Watching Houston’s trip to Taiwan unfold was great because Omri Casspi Dwight Howard wore a red Rockets jersey for the first time, not because they swept a team that was one of basketball’s best a year ago. This isn’t to say what happens on the court is completely meaningless, just that a lot of it should be disregarded as, well, preseason basketball. Through the muck I cobbled together five big picture observations from that trip.

Each will be re-visited by myself and other fine writers on this site throughout the season. They’re important in their own way.

1. James Harden guarding Paul George

To say Harden’s defense was poor last season would be a colossal understatement, on par with suggesting Ryan Reynolds may not be a bankable actor. He’d regularly go two inattentive minutes allowing his man to dance wherever he wanted around the court, then spend the next few possessions being overly aggressive, conceding blow byes and unnecessary fouls. Harden could never quite find the stable middle ground needed to consistently defend on the ball and away from it.

Not all was his fault. In his first season as a starter he saw a sizable increase in minutes (11.3 more than his three season average with Oklahoma City) and usage (20.4 percent with the Thunder up to 29.0 percent with the Rockets, a quantum leap that translates to going from Caron Butler to Kevin Durant). Not only that, but the Rockets were basketball’s fastest team, averaging 98.6 possessions per 48 minutes. Their entire identity revolved around someone taking an outlet pass, then racing down the court before the defense could prepare itself.

Harden has transcendental offensive talent, but he’ll relinquish  a good chunk of last year’s responsibility now that Dwight Howard is standing in the middle—which should improve his energy, and, theoretically, his effort on the defensive end. This brings us to Saturday night in Taiwan, where Harden, not Chandler Parsons, began the game matched up with Indiana’s best perimeter player, Paul George. With his mind clearly focused on that defensive matchup, Harden attempted just one shot in that first quarter, and his overall effort bottling George up was commendable.

George went at Harden, and the Rocket guard responded with the same physical play some of the game’s great perimeter defenders (Tony Allen, Avery Bradley) exploit for a living. Harden also spent time on Lance Stephenson and Danny Granger, but his most significant work came against George.

Harden on George 1From Indiana’s point of view, the three to four inches Harden resigns to George made post work their logical plan of attack. Here’s where these two put on a must-see-TV battle, both treating this particular possession seen above like it was the last one they’d ever play.

Harden begins by fronting his cover, doing whatever he can to make David West’s entry pass as problematic as humanly possibly. It’s impossible to expect this type of effort on every possession (unless we’re talking about Ron Artest circa 2004), but what’s given here is more than satisfactory. Once George finally gets the ball, Harden prevents him from breathing, let alone making a positive move.

Harden on George 2

After a series of ball fakes and jab steps, George attempts the exact shot Houston wants Indiana to attempt: a contested, fading, prayer of a mid-range jumper. Because Paul George is an emerging top-10 talent, the ball goes in. But Harden stays committed throughout the play, a development that should make his coaches smile.

Great stuff. Okay, now here comes the bad news. To the great horror of all basketball fans in Houston, Harden also flashed levels of cluelessness away from the ball that would make Stacey Dash blush.

Harden 1

Harden 2

Harden 3

Before piling on, let’s be fair: Should Hill throw a lob over the top to Roy Hibbert, who’s being fronted by Howard, Harden is the primary help defender. (A defense should almost always prioritize stopping a sure two points over the possibility of three.)

But it’s still on Harden to keep tabs on both his man and the ball. He instead fails to realize that George is curling off a pin down screen until he’s already done so. Making matters worse, as the (WIDE OPEN!) shot is attempted, Harden is roughly three arm-lengths away from the ball. Even if he got a poor jump, where’s the recovery? This is exactly what Houston’s coaching staff spent the offseason lamenting. Hopefully it never, ever happens again.

 

2. Adjusting To Howard’s Clock

Against one of the league’s best defenses, Houston made 15 three-pointers on a healthy 33 attempts, had seven players score in double figures, dished out 27 assists (San Antonio led the league last season averaging 25.1 per game), and won the game by nine points.

Houston still had slight hiccups along the way. But unlike hiccups, which, as far as I know, are horrific and incurable, the Rockets task at hand is simple: whenever Howard changes the tempo, adjust.

In the clip below, Chandler Parsons deposits the ball in the low post with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Instead of waiting for Parsons to retreat back to the three-point line (something he should make a point of doing a tad quicker), Howard faces Hibbert up and makes a quick move towards the paint. Three Pacer defenders swarm him, and the ball is forced into Terrence Jones’ hands for a mid-range baseline jumper.

It’s a little unfair to be so critical of one preseason possession—that resulted in an open jumper—but in order to squeeze everything they can out of post touches, spacing and timing have to be perfect. (Howard probably attacks so quickly here because he’s weary of Indiana sending a double team. He gets doubled anyway.)

There’s no reason to think they won’t smooth themselves out as the season goes along, but it still qualifies as something to keep an eye on.

 

3. Dwight Howard’s Passing

Howard is not Kevin Garnett or the Gasol brothers. Despite nearly 10 years of experience facing double teams in the post, he lacks involuntary feel as a passer. Howard’s career high for assists in a season remains 158, back in 2007, his first All-Star season. (That same year he led the league with 317 turnovers—not a happy ratio.) He’s never averaged 2.0 assists per game, which is pretty jarring when you think about how often he has the ball in his hands.

In his first season with the Rockets is there any reason to believe he can get better? Remember, we’re not talking about re-inventing the wheel here. Howard should spend time in five-man units that are loaded with three-point shooters. All he needs to do is recognize the open man, and hit him as quickly as possible.

Lin's 1st 3 1

The picture above was taken moments after Jeremy Lin entered the ball to Howard in the mid-post. With George sagging down to double, Lin slides over to the top of the key for a straightaway three. As this happens, Terrence Jones comes flying in from the weak side to set a back screen on George, ensuring an open look.

This is Houston’s second possession of the game, and it’s a well-executed play. But it’d be nice to see Howard find teammates on his own instead of by preordained design. (Lin’s shot was good, by the way.)

Lin's 1st 3 2

 

4. Pick-and-Roll Threats from the Weakside

This doesn’t need much explanation, but out of all the wonderful things Howard will bring the Rockets, this might be my favorite. No matter who it’s against, or when in a game it takes place, whenever Howard flies towards the rim after executing a pick-and-roll, the defense tends to overreact. In the clip above we have Parsons as the ball-handler (Side Bar: what a serious luxury it is for Houston to have three capable pick-and-roll initiators in their starting lineup) with Francisco Garcia stationed on the opposite wing.

Howard sets the screen, Parsons takes two dribbles towards the paint, and before Indiana knows it they have three defenders guarding two Rockets. The play is run to perfection as Parsons draws George towards the foul line and kicks it back to Garcia for the open three, which he hits.

C.J. Watson thinks about contesting Garcia’s shot, but he’s too worried about his own man, Patrick Beverley, getting an open look in the corner.

Screen shot 2013-10-16 at 10.09.41 PM

 

5. Defending the Corner Three

As the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen pointed out earlier this month, Houston’s defensive prioritiy in 2014 will be eradicating as many corner threes as possible. Against the Pacers they tried several different strategies, including having their guards switch on cross screens in the paint.

This worked well, but it’s not a long-term solution by itself; too often Houston’s players looked discombobulated whenever Indiana whipped the ball around the perimeter. Here’s one such example.

Look at Parsons whirling around the court. His ball pressure and effort are both fantastic. First he’s up on David West, then he’s darting to the opposite corner to run Lance Stephenson off the three-point line. Kudos to him. But here’s where young Terrence Jones makes a crucial mistake.

Screen shot 2013-10-16 at 9.52.34 PM

With Lin and Howard in solid position (Harden could afford to be one step closer to the elbow, being that his man is roughly 75 feet from the rim) Jones needs to understand his responsibilities on the weak side. He’s far too deep in the paint, ball-watching and oblivious to David West and George Hill. Once Stephenson weaves into the middle of the floor, it’s too late.

 

BONUS

When I first heard Houston signed Omri Casspi, the first thing that popped in my head was his rookie season with the Kings. He was such a beast back then, with great size, a pretty stroke, and fantastic poise. That was four years ago, and it sadly stands as Casspi’s most productive season as a pro.

After clashing with Kings head coach Paul Westphal (who didn’t?) back in 2011, the team traded him to Cleveland for J.J. Hickson in one of those transactions where everyone loses and nobody feels like smiling. Almost immediately, Casspi stopped functioning as an NBA player. (After shooting 44.6% from the floor his rookie year, he knocked in a subterranean 39.4% of his shots last season.)

Casspi’s career appeared all but over until Houston resurrected it. He averaged 16.7 points on 55.6% shooting in the team’s first three preseason contests, and earned a starting spot in last night’s game against the Magic.

Here are a few snapshots detailing one way he can help the team while away from the ball.

Lin:Casspi:Harden 1It’s a high 1-4 pick-and-roll with Casspi screening for Jeremy Lin. David West, who’s covering Casspi, is forced to stay with the shooter, and he does just that, eventually following him to the opposite wing. Even though Casspi’s screen isn’t perfect, Lin is still able to knife his way towards the paint.

Lin:Casspi:Harden 2

Since this sequence is supposed to be about Casspi, let’s talk about him. West is completely taken out of it with his back to the action (which is fundamentally unusual). With Lin getting the step on George Hill, the play turns into a four-on-three scramble, forcing Paul George to over help off James Harden, who’s sharpening a set of knives in the corner. A wide open corner three. They’ll take it every time.

Right now the Rockets look like a baby who’s interested in sprinting up a flight of stairs only a few hours after mastering the crawl. As an evolving organism, think of these preseason moments as both necessary and nourishing.

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