Any eulogy for Daryl Morey’s groundbreaking tenure as Houston Rockets general manager should probably start with the 2017-18 season — when Houston took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals over perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, and might have upset those Golden State Warriors had Chris Paul not suffered a hamstring injury at the end of Game 5.
Morey’s critics — and there are many — might clown him today upon his resignation for failing to win a title; underestimating the importance of chemistry and culture; and tossing away much of Houston’s future to build a team — centered around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but without any centers — that is not good enough to win the title now and only projects to get worse as the Western Conference gets better.
Some of those criticisms have merit, even if some of the critics delivering them do so at least in part out of some visceral and almost personal distaste for what Morey represents: the invasion of analytics into basketball decision-making, and all the stylistic consequences of the revolution Morey portended. Morey is not the only analytics-savvy person to assume a position of enormous power within an NBA team. But he was the forerunner, and his influence on the game — on the rise of the 3-pointer, the advance of metrics to evaluate defense, hiring patterns within teams, much more — has been massive. It is reasonable to argue NBA basketball is both more mathematically efficient and (with some teams) less interesting to watch because of Morey.
But just remember that 2017-18 Rockets team that won 65 games and pushed Golden State to the limit — including in a Game 7 that was closer than some people remember, and close enough for the Rockets (in a fit of bitterness that came back to bite them) to produce a report arguing referees cost them the series.
Morey was good for the league because he was willing to go for it. Some teams cowered before the Warriors’ dynasty once Kevin Durant signed there. Morey didn’t. He has long argued that any team with a 5% chance to win the title in any given season should go all-in — that any title window, even a 5% sliver, is too precious to squander with risk-averse behavior. He lived up to his word after Houston acquired Harden, a trade years in the making that altered the NBA’s landscape in ways that still reverberate.
After the Warriors’ 16-1 scorched-earth run to the title in Durant’s first season there, Morey told ESPN he still wasn’t backing down — that he had “something up [his] sleeve.” That something turned out to be a megatrade bringing Paul from the LA Clippers.
No team besides Houston won more than a single game in any playoff series against the Warriors over 2017 and 2018. Houston got three in 2018. There is no shame in losing to the Durant-era Warriors. Sometimes, a historically great team — this one enabled by a fluke salary-cap spike — is just too good.
The second Paul-Harden team bowed out to the Warriors one round earlier in 2019, in one fewer game, even with Durant sitting out the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6 with a calf injury. The Warriors, dancing and sneering all over Houston’s home floor down the stretch of Game 6, broke the Rockets’ spirit and closed down that era of Houston basketball.
But it wasn’t an era, really. Paul and Harden lasted two seasons, and then it was time to pivot again — to chase another star, another identity, another chance to find something sustainable around Harden.
Maybe the constant reshuffling around Harden — the lusting for superstars intrinsic to Morey’s stars-over-everything philosophy — cost Houston some ineffable continuity or trust that every champion must have. It’s certainly a tempting logical leap. Just remember in taking that leap how close the Rockets got in 2018, and what a juggernaut it took to derail them. Morey’s way could have worked.
Maybe the constant reshuffling is linked to Harden himself — the challenges of his style of play. If so, is that about Harden or Morey — or both of them?
Harden and Morey have become so closely connected that it is very hard now to untangle one from the other. From the moment Houston acquired Harden late on a Saturday night in October 2012, Harden became the on-court avatar for so much of what Morey believes about basketball: an algorithm come to life, all 3s, layups, and free throws.
Acquiring Harden was Morey’s masterstroke. Houston has made the playoffs all eight years since, the league’s longest-running streak. It was the culmination of almost a half-decade’s work that began as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady declined.
Yao and McGrady were true-blue superstars. Morey understood any team hoping to win a championship had to feature a top-10 player, and likely two. There were exceptions, of course. But exceptions were by definition long shots, and Morey was interested only in what gave his team the best shot. History said that was two stars, and you can’t get the second without one already on the roster.
The easiest way to get a star is to tank. Easiest is not the same as easy. The NBA’s lottery does not guarantee anyone the No. 1 pick, and even picking there does not guarantee the chance to select a franchise superstar. Every path to a superstar is a bad-odds path. Some are less bad than others. Tanking is the least bad. That is why Sam Hinkie, Morey’s longtime lieutenant, triggered The Process in Philadelphia — and why Morey would likely not be averse to taking that route if his next job (he does want one, sources say) comes with a green light from ownership to play the draft game and circumstances that favor it.
(There is uncertainty around the league over whether Morey’s role in igniting the NBA’s China controversy — with a tweet in support of Hong Kong — might make some teams wary about the fallout of hiring him. In a vacuum, Morey should shoot toward the top of the candidate list for any open front-office job.)
Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Rockets, wanted Houston to stay relevant. Morey would have to tread water while somehow cobbling assets to trade for a star.
Every move the Rockets made was geared toward that theoretical superstar trade. They acquired extra first-round picks for Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill, and a young Kyle Lowry. When Harden became available, they threw everything they had at Oklahoma City.
It’s hard to remember now, but there was skepticism about how good Harden could really be. He came off the bench in Oklahoma City. Some potential suitors did not share Houston’s belief in Harden’s star potential. There was much snickering, including in the local Oklahoma City media, when Harden shot 2-of-17 in an October 2012 preseason game both Durant and Westbrook sat out: That’s what life as a No. 1 option is.
The Rockets saw it all along. They were not the only team to see it, but they were the only one among those that did in the right moment — and with the right assets — to strike an agreeable deal.
Morey then spent his working life crafting an on-court identity around Harden, and searching for second and third stars to complement him. After years hoarding picks, Morey began trading them.
He lured Dwight Howard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2013 — considered a coup then. A year later, he tried to sign Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat as the Heat were reeling from LeBron James‘ departure. Morey was confident enough in Houston’s chances that he gave the Lakers a first-round pick to take Jeremy Lin — and unlock the cap space required for Bosh. (The Rockets also lost Chandler Parsons that summer after declining a cheap option on him, but pivoted by snagging Trevor Ariza — who became an indispensable role player.)
Houston made the conference finals in 2015, and Morey then traded another first-round pick to acquire Ty Lawson from Denver — where Lawson had fallen out of favor in part because of a DUI arrest. As part of the deal, Morey somehow persuaded Lawson to make his contract non-guaranteed for 2016-17. Part of Morey’s legacy to date is his stretching the collective bargaining agreement to its breaking point. He helped pioneer the concept of reverse-protected picks in trading Lowry to the Toronto Raptors, and was ahead of the curve extending players — including Harden — before most teams would have contemplated doing so. In other cases, Morey’s creativity backfired — including in his attempt a year ago to sign Nene to a bonus-laden deal designed to make his contract an artificial trade asset. (The league vetoed it.)
Houston fell to 41-41 in 2015-16; the Harden-Howard synergy dissipated. Howard walked that summer — a mutually acceptable divorce, something that would become a pattern. The Rockets then veered from character, splurging on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — non-stars. There were rumors Morey was on thin ice. He acknowledged the moves ran counter to his track record. “Last year hurt us in terms of perception around the league,” Morey told ESPN at the start of the 2016-17 season. “We felt like if we didn’t have a more successful season this year, our ability to be a top destination would be hurt.”
Morey traded another first-round pick for Lou Williams in 2017, but the Rockets fell in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs — with Harden wilting in the clincher. Anderson’s salary became an albatross. Gordon’s extension, which runs through at least 2023, looks like one now.
The Rockets appeared stuck — before Morey traded Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, another first-round pick, and some other assets for Paul. Clint Capela was the only homegrown first-round pick left on Houston’s roster. Morey also landed P.J. Tucker for about $8 million per season — a shrewd signing. They leaned into a switch-everything defense and more isolation on offense — reinvention after reinvention.
Two years later, the Paul-Harden partnership expired just as the Harden-Howard tandem had. (In fairness, Howard had trouble finding a home before landing with the Lakers this season.) In one last, wild swing, Morey swapped Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps for Westbrook. It was an overpay for a much worse fit. Westbrook’s jumper so impinged on Harden’s driving lanes that the Rockets had to trade Capela and another first-round pick for Robert Covington.
Harden has become the only constant. He isn’t the center of Houston’s universe so much as he comprises the entire universe. They get the players he wants — no matter the cost.
They play the way he wants. Perhaps that has a shelf life. Players and coaches talk often about how staying involved on offense — touching the ball, moving around — motivates players to go hard on defense, and keeps morale high.
Mike D’Antoni hoped winning would resolve any chafing from everyone else about standing still to watch the Harden show.
“There is something to the human nature of it,” D’Antoni said in 2016. “But I don’t want to believe it. Because when they feel their paycheck every two weeks, shouldn’t that make you play hard on both ends? Look: You have to be a star in your role. And here, your role is: When James gets the ball to you, shoot it, and then run back and play hard as heck.”
Players did chafe, off and on. Houston has not had much of a Plan B in tough playoff games. The math says Harden isolating is the best option, and the Rockets under the Morey-Harden regime obeyed the math. The monotonous predictability of it is one reason Harden has struggled in the biggest moments of his biggest games. Harden refuses to move away from the ball. Take it from him, and he recedes into nothingness.
Morey and Harden have been equal partners in building the Rockets. If Houston has sacrificed culture, continuity, and damn near every future asset at the altar of efficiency, that is on both of them.
Contrary to the popular caricature of him, Morey has said chemistry matters. But he would probably also say it doesn’t matter quite as much as we think it does — that we sometimes fetishize it, or assign it importance in hindsight. Star talent matters, above all.
That philosophy got Houston to the precipice of history. Houston falling short does not invalidate Morey’s tenure.
The Westbrook trade leaves a stain. For the first time since acquiring Harden, the Rockets’ short- and medium-term future feel rickety. They are out so many picks that retooling via the draft and trades will prove difficult. If things go south, they may have to explore the trade market for Harden, who has two guaranteed seasons left on his deal — plus a $47 million player option for 2022-23.
The Rockets are not nearly ready to go there as they fill their coaching vacancy. They want to win, as they did year after year after year under Morey. Perhaps the best sign of Morey’s success is that the league at large mimicked Houston’s embrace of the 3-pointer — an imitation that flattered Morey, but also reduced his mathematical edge.
He tried to bump it back up by dispensing with centers, and going all-in on small ball. In Year 1, it failed. Houston’s next reinvention — another cycle of churn — falls to someone else now.
Indiana Pacers’ new coach Nate Bjorkgren says he wanted job because of team’s talent
INDIANAPOLIS — New Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren went right to work Wednesday.
Less than 24 hours after accepting the job, the 45-year-old former Toronto Raptors assistant started explaining his plan.
He expects the Pacers to move the ball and take more 3-pointers. He wants the defense to be more disruptive. He promises not to get locked into rotations and will be willing to take risks. Perhaps most important, he believes there needs to be more communication between coaches and players.
Those are exactly the traits president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard hoped to find when he embarked on a coaching search two months ago.
“There are people in this world who bring energy and you like being around them,” Pritchard said after introducing Bjorkgren on a Zoom call.
“I think the litmus test is when those guys call you, you can’t wait to pick up the phone. Nate has those characteristics, and when he went through his presentation he created a vision that I could physically see in my mind how he was going to coach. We knew he was the right guy.”
The proof will come in time.
But the first-time NBA head coach certainly presented a different kind of vision, one Pacers fans may embrace after watching years of stodgy, half-court basketball.
Bjorkgren wants to shatter those norms. He prefers an evolving style that conforms only to circumstances.
“We’ll be a fun team to watch,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of movement on both sides of the ball, different guys handling the ball, pushing it up the floor. We want to utilize the 3-point line. My approach to defense is you change and change quite frequently, between quarters, after timeouts, during an 8-0 run. I think that’s the disruptive part.”
Bjorkgren developed his coaching style working largely with Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
Nurse first hired Bjorkgren as an assistant in 2007 with the Iowa Energy. Following their first season together, Bjorkgren described how he and Nurse held daily whiteboard sessions to discuss strategy.
It was there, in the G-League over the next seven seasons — three as Nurse’s assistant, four as a head coach — where Bjorkgren learned the value of flexibility. With small coaching staffs and ever-changing rosters, Bjorkgren managed to go 126-74 with the Dakota Wizards, Santa Cruz Warriors, Energy and Bakersfield Jam before joining the Phoenix Suns in 2015.
“You have to adapt very early and quite often,” Bjorkgren said. “You could be at a shootaround and two guys get called up and another is going overseas so you have to coach on the fly. You have to know the next guy will be there and that’s the part of the coaching, keeping everybody ready at all times.”
He put those lessons to work when he was reunited with Nurse in Toronto two years ago.
In Bjorkgren’s first season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard led the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed to its first NBA championship. Leonard’s departure in free agency last summer didn’t change much in terms of philosophy or success.
The Raptors still went 53-19, still earned the second seed in the East and still reached the conference semifinals before losing to Boston in seven games.
So when Pritchard saw Toronto’s 23-12 postseason record over the past two seasons and compared it to the Pacers’ playoff mark of 3-16 over the last four seasons, he was sold.
“I think it’s important to take risks in the NBA today,” Pritchard said. “We think that helps you down the line. Maybe not early, but down the line in the playoffs and that’s where we want to get better.”
The biggest offseason question for Pritchard is the future of two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, who can become a free agent after next season.
“He feels good about the team. He’s talked to me about how he thinks this team can be very good,” Pritchard said. “We hear a lot of things, but until it comes to me, I don’t really worry about that.”
And perhaps Bjorkgren, with his new approach, can help convince Oladipo to stay.
“I wanted this job so bad because of the talent on this team,” Bjorkgren said. “As you know, they’re great basketball players, and they’re even better people. Just getting to know them more in the last 24 hours is really special to me, and I look forward to getting to know them more as we move forward.”
NBA draft to be held virtually at ESPN studios on Nov. 18
The 2020 NBA draft on Nov. 18 will be held virtually and hosted from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut, the NBA and ESPN announced Thursday.
Commissioner Adam Silver will be in studio at ESPN to announce the selections for the first round, and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will be in studio to announce the second round.
Top players will join the telecast virtually.
The NBA draft presented by State Farm will air live on ESPN, ESPN Radio and the ESPN App at 7 p.m. ET.
How former NBA star Nate Robinson ended up boxing on Mike Tyson’s undercard
Nate Robinson’s alarm goes off before the sun rises. The NBA’s lone three-time Slam Dunk Contest champion rolls out of bed — no snooze button allowed — to get ready to train. The 36-year-old isn’t currently focused on returning to the basketball court but is instead pursuing a new endeavor that has him to the gym six days a week, twice a day.
At age 36, with no prior professional or amateur experience, Robinson is getting ready for his first boxing match. “It’s brutal. Waking up early, running six or seven miles, it’s something I’ve never done in my life and I’m doing it at 36, so it’s definitely making me feel young and energetic,” Robinson told ESPN. “It’s really tuning me in to another part of myself that I never knew I had.
“But I just want people to respect me as a person, as an athlete and as a boxer because I’m going through it,” he continued. “I’m not taking it easy and going through the motions. What they’ll see Nov. 28 is a Nate Robinson that really put in work to really get to this point, and I hope I surprise a lot of people because a lot of people think I’m gonna lose.”
Robinson will enter the ring that night for a six-round bout against famed YouTuber Jake Paul (1-0, 1 KO) on the undercard of Mike Tyson-Roy Jones Jr. Robinson’s camp started at the end of August and is expected to wrap almost a week and a half before the fight date. His team includes strength and conditioning coach Chris Denina — who typically works with Robinson in the mornings — and boxing trainer Francisco “Paco” Reyes of Tenochtitlan Boxing Club in Renton, Washington, who oversees the evening sessions.
“We’re really pushing him and molding him to be more of an endurance athlete. And Nate’s a very explosive athlete,” Denina said. “There’s certain things, which are nice, that I don’t really need to work on. It’s mainly just his conditioning and making him use his body in ways that he’s never really done on the basketball court.”
When the idea of training Robinson was originally presented to Reyes, his initial reaction wasn’t positive.
“Hell no,” Reyes said, not wanting his gym to become some sideshow for an ex-NBA player whom he didn’t know much about. Eventually he was persuaded.
“I realized that he was serious about it when he came back after that first sparring session,” Reyes said. “Not a lot of people come back after the first sparring session, but he came back, he wanted more, he wanted to keep going, and that really got my interest. A lot of people will come and spar and are like, ‘Oh, no, I’m good,’ but not Nate. He has the heart.”
At 5-foot-9 and less than 200 pounds throughout his NBA career, Robinson developed a reputation for toughness and athleticism. In high school, he excelled in track and football, as well as basketball. At the University of Washington, he also starred on the gridiron and hardwood before deciding to focus solely on basketball. But boxing is something completely different, especially experiencing it for the first time at his age.
“It’s been a challenge learning how to breathe and fight while you’re tired,” Robinson said. “That’s been the fun part. Like Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,’ and then you have to figure it out. I never understood that until I actually got in the ring for the first time with sparring, and I knew exactly what he meant.”
Since his last stretch in the NBA in 2015-16, on a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, Robinson played basketball in the BIG3, the NBA Developmental League (now the G League), the Israeli Basketball Premier League and the Liga Profesional de Baloncesto in Venezuela. He also signed to play in Lebanon in 2018, before an injury scuttled those plans.
Off the court, Robinson appeared in the 2018 film “Uncle Drew” with Kyrie Irving, tried out with the Seattle Seahawks in 2016 and collaborated with former NBA player Carlos Boozer to launch the HOLDAT clothing brand.
These other pursuits have kept him busy, but the idea of entering the ring started over a year ago, when Robinson’s manager, Napoleon “Polo” Kerber, met Paul at an event. As he continued his search for new challenges post-basketball, Robinson agreed to fight Paul despite no professional experience.
What Robinson does carry into his fight is a longtime appreciation for the sport.
“I’ve been a fan of boxing my whole life. Me and my brother, we used to slap box and use boxing gloves in the backyard with my dad. So, it’s nothing new, it’s just real business now,” Robinson said. “I’ve played in front of thousands of people my whole life hooping, so just being able to step into a realm that I’ve never been in before is challenging for me, but it’s also fun to try to see how far I really can go with this.”
Robinson’s father, Jacque Robinson, was a legendary athlete at Washington, who entered the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame after being named MVP of the game in 1982 as a freshman. He also enjoyed a brief NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1987.
Jacque introduced his son to boxing through Muhammad Ali and, a bit coincidentally since he’s fighting on his undercard, Tyson. Growing up, if you stayed at Robinson’s home for a sleepover or just for fun, somehow the gloves would get pulled out as a teacher of life. Nate’s brother, Anthony “Chicken” Stewart — who also was a running back at Central Washington University — also wasn’t afraid to get busy, either.
“We had a heavy bag in our backyard. We had weights and we had boxing gloves and my dad was like, ‘At least y’all are going to know how to fight and y’all will know how to take care of each other,'” Nate recalled. “So my dad was like, ‘If you’ve got some homies that are coming around you, and guys are being around y’all and something happens, and they run or they’re not trying to fight or protect the crew, then y’all don’t need to hang around them.'”
Robinson got into a handful of fights over the years in middle school in high school, but that was the extent to which he used his backyard boxing experiences. Until now. These days he’s receiving advice from Floyd Mayweather Jr. via FaceTime, and although he couldn’t make it, was invited to train with welterweight champion Terence Crawford.
Robinson spent 11 seasons in the NBA, and hasn’t ruled out an NBA return if there’s an opportunity.
“I do. If it’s possible,” Robinson said. “I just want the chance to show a team, even at 36, I could still play and still ball out, still be a good spark off the bench. But times have changed, the NBA has changed so much. Naw, I will never say I’m retired. They retired me. I didn’t retire.
“Of course I would love to hoop,” Robinson added. “I would love to be able to finish my career playing the game I love and showing them that I really could still ball and be effective. Even if it’s five minutes, 10 minutes, just being there helping out with whatever they need. Whatever they need me to do, I’m there. That’s what I’m here for.”
Whether or not he plays another minute in the NBA, Robinson’s connections to the league are still deep. Fellow Washington native Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls has gotten to know Robinson over the years, and has watched the transformation of Robinson’s body into a boxer. He will be tuned in to the bout.
“He is a supreme athlete. Realistically, he was one of UW’s best cornerbacks and probably could’ve been an NFL cornerback. Obviously, you know how good he was in the NBA, and right now he’s in the best shape of his life. The dude is built like a fire hydrant,” LaVine said. “I mean, like, he is stacked, so whatever he puts his mind to, I know he can get it done.
“Boxing is a whole different world, so he’s been training for the last eight or nine months,” LaVine continued. “He’s transformed his body into looking like a real boxer, too, so I don’t think anybody’s gonna be stepping to him in Seattle anytime soon.”
Outperforming expectations has become Robinson’s calling card, and that boils down to his determination and effort in everything he pursues.
“I hope I surprise a lot of people, because a lot of people think I’m gonna lose,” Robinson said. “They don’t believe in me and that’s cool. I told them, ‘S—, people didn’t believe I could make it to the NBA. People didn’t believe I’d be able to score 40 points in a game, to average 18 as a 5-foot-9 point guard playing with the Knicks. Nobody thought I was going to win three dunk contests.’
“People have been putting me behind the eight ball my whole life, but it’s something that I’m used to. I’ve been the underdog forever, and it’s just going to be sweet to know that so many people didn’t believe in me and I get a chance to show them again.”
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