The summer of 2014 is remembered in Houston for what might have been. The most noteworthy names to highly consider forming a “Big 3” with James Harden and Dwight Howard were Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, but former Rocket point guard Kyle Lowry is firmly on that star-studded list as well.
In a wonderful feature by Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams on Lowry’s career-long search for trust, Abrams outlines Lowry’s falling out with Houston head coach Kevin McHale in the 2011-12 season and the subsequent personal growth that allowed Lowry to take responsibility for his mistakes and consider a possible reunion with the team that traded him to Toronto back in July 2012.
[Rick] Adelman left Houston in 2011, replaced by Kevin McHale. The transition did not sit well with Lowry, who felt the familiar sting of being left behind by an authority figure he’d learned to trust. “From Rick Adelman to Kevin McHale, it was a big difference,” Lowry said. “Things are a lot stricter with McHale, and with Rick, things are a lot different, offensively, defensively. You go from being successful as hell with one coach and being comfortable with the coach to, yes, I was really successful with Kevin McHale, but I just didn’t do it the right way. If I did it the right way, I would still be in Houston.”
That’s Lowry’s perspective, of course. The reality is that in 2012, the Rockets were desperate to land any star on the market – and the first-round pick from Toronto that Houston received in the Lowry trade was the focal point of the trade package that netted Harden from Oklahoma City. So even if Lowry were a model citizen, he still might not have lasted in Houston back then.
Nonetheless, as the Houston roster evolved over the next two seasons, Lowry seemed to be an ideal fit in 2014 to complement Harden and Howard. Led by McHale and GM Daryl Morey, the Rockets met with Lowry shortly after the clock ticked to July 1. According to Abrams, Lowry began that session by apologizing to McHale for the mistakes he made two-plus years prior.
“I was an immature kid, and I wish I would have learned a lot more from him, and I wish I had a chance to play for him longer,” Lowry recalled telling his former coach. McHale responded that if he rejoined Houston, Lowry would have to regain the trust of the coaching staff. In a different time, the request may have irked Lowry. He had worked hard to position himself for this moment, this free agency, and to become one of the league’s better point guards.
“It wasn’t about basketball with that,” Lowry said. “It was about being a team player, being a stand-up guy. It never was about basketball with me and [McHale]. It was about other things, about being a complete professional.”
Lowry told Abrams he was very open to leaving Toronto this offseason and did his homework on winning situations. Undoubtedly, the talent around Lowry with the Rockets would’ve been better than what Lowry has with the Raptors. The problem with Houston was that while Lowry was committed to being a better teammate, the Rockets weren’t as committed to him specifically. He was Plan B, not Plan A. The team only had salary-cap room for one big-ticket acquisition, and Morey wanted to wait for the Anthony and Bosh situations to play out before committing his money to Lowry.
In the meantime, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri sold Lowry on being the centerpiece of a team that finished 2013-14 with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. It was his team, and there was no playing second fiddle to Anthony or Bosh. Lowry quickly re-signed with the Raptors on July 3 for $48 million over four years, eschewing the extended drama that followed other marquee free agents. As a result, while both Lowry and Houston had interest in a reunion, a formal offer was never made.
We all know what happened from that point forward in Houston. Bosh jilted the team at the 11th hour, and without a third star in place, the team chose to let Chandler Parsons walk, retain their flexibility moving forward and replace Parsons with a more cost-efficient Trevor Ariza. And sure, many players thrown out as potential Houston targets down the road – Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, just to name a few – would be significant additions.
But it could be argued that Lowry — still only 28 and coming off a career year with averages of 17.9 points and 7.4 assists, a 38% three-point stroke and a PER of over 20 – is as good or better than any. And had the Rockets prioritized Lowry in July, the odds are that he signs in Houston, with the team keeping Parsons instead of Ariza at small forward and using Pat Beverley in the quintessential bulldog, sixth-man role. On paper, that team would seem to be a legitimate, top-tier contender.
Instead, the Rockets now enter a transition season in which the leading focus seems to be on when – or if – Morey will make his next big move. But if Lowry continues to shine in Toronto, they may also find themselves wondering what could’ve already been.
BOSTON OWNER CALLS RONDO STUBBORN, QUESTIONS HOW COACHABLE HE IS
The Celtics have said all the right things about building a long-term future around point guard Rajon Rondo. His contract expires after this season, and with the Celtics in rebuilding mode, many had speculated that it would make sense for Boston GM Danny Ainge to send Rondo to a contender for a package of younger players.
To this point, that hasn’t happened. Just this week, Ainge said he wants to keep Rondo in Boston, and the team reportedly hasn’t been satisfied by any outside trade proposals.
But it’s far from a perfect relationship, and it remains to be seen whether the team truly wants Rondo as a centerpiece and mentor for its rebuilding efforts. A few weeks ago, Boston-based columnist Jackie MacMullan said Rondo wanted out. This week, Wyc Grousbeck – the team’s CEO, governor and co-owner – was critical of Rondo’s temperament in an appearance on WBZ-TV.
“He’s super stubborn,” revealed Grousbeck, adding Rondo is a good, generous kid who loves being in Boston. “I don’t know how coachable he really is.
“I know if you ask [former, long-time head coach] Doc [Rivers], ‘Was he the most coachable guy, or in the top half, 50 percent,’ he’d say, ‘No, he’s in the bottom 50 percent of being coachable.’ It’s hard with him.”
This isn’t the first time that whether Rondo is coachable has come into question. Last summer, our own Chris Sheridan reported that Rivers had an intense dislike for Rondo. On one occasion, Rondo was said to have dropped an F-bomb on Rivers in the locker room during a team meeting. Rivers then went after Rondo and tried to fight him before the fracas was broken up.
From a practical standpoint, as long as Rondo is on the roster, the team has to say they believe in him and want him around long-term. Smearing Rondo’s reputation could weaken trade offers and ultimately force them to deal him for pennies on the dollar. But in reality, it would seem that a young, non-contending roster with an inexperienced NBA coach in Brad Stevens and without star veterans to command respect could make for an awkward locker-room dynamic.
There’s no reason for Boston to make a deal now, of course. The trade market has largely dried up, so the Celtics will likely start the 2014-15 season with Rondo and see what happens. Perhaps Rondo fully regains his pre-ACL-tear form and lifts the Celtics into playoff contention, potentially making them an attractive destination for future free agents to play with Rondo. But with red flags mounting and the ever-present possibility of Rondo leaving without compensation in July 2015, comments like those from Grousbeck make it seem Rondo could be heavily shopped by February’s trade deadline.
TRISTAN THOMPSON LOOKS FOR BIG MONEY IN CLEVELAND EXTENSION
The contract-extension deadline is looming for the 2011 draft class, and an interesting case is Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson. According to Jason Lloyd, the Cavs beat writer for the Akron-Beacon Journal, Thompson will ask for the type of money previously given to Derrick Favors (four years, $49 million) and Larry Sanders (four years, $44 million). Lloyd writes that Thompson and the Cavaliers have yet to discuss numbers, which could be an ominous sign since the team has already extended Kyrie Irving, the #1 overall pick in the same class.
The case against extending Thompson, especially for big money, is rather obvious. His career numbers — 10.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 47% shooting in 29 minutes/game with a PER of 15.0 — are average at best for a starting power forward. Greg Monroe is a good example of a comparable-style big man with better numbers, and he had to settle for the qualifying offer in Detroit. Furthermore, with the recent arrival of Kevin Love in Cleveland, Thompson might soon be headed to the bench (though he could start at center).
There is one factor in Thompson’s favor, though, and it’s a big one. He’s close with LeBron James, and the two share Rich Paul as an agent. And Paul will undoubtedly use LeBron’s return to Cleveland as leverage to try and get GM David Griffin to reward another one of his clients.
But it’s still hard to imagine Cleveland giving Thompson the type of money he’s reportedly seeking. Even with James, Irving and Love, the Cavs have few long-term salary commitments beyond those three. So if things don’t go as well as envisioned in 2014-15, they are positioned to potentially have some flexibility, especially given the rapidly-rising NBA salary cap.
Extending Thompson before Oct. 31 would essentially lock in the Cleveland core, and that may not be something the Cavaliers are willing to do before seeing the product on the floor in regular-season games. And remember, if Thompson isn’t extended, he would only be a restricted free agent in July 2015. If Thompson blossoms playing alongside James, Cleveland would still have the right to match any outside offer and retain him. It’s also possible that making Thompson a restricted free agent could artificially depress his market and allow Cleveland to get Thompson on a very team-friendly deal, much like the Pistons did with Monroe.
The X-factor, of course, is James. If LeBron pushes hard enough and sells his vision of the team with Thompson in it, there may be a deal to be struck this year. But unless James goes out of his way to pull strings, Thompson may have a hard time finding the type of deal he’s said to be looking for.
OTHER NEWS FROM AROUND THE NBA
Former Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen blames Kevin McHale more than James Harden for Harden’s weak defense. In an interview with Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, Bowen was asked whether Harden’s defense makes him cringe, and Bowen instead pointed a finger in the direction of McHale and Houston’s coaching staff.
“See, I don’t cringe, because I remember him in OKC,” Bowen said. “In fairness to James, yes, (his defense) has been terrible, but what are the principles in Houston? I’m very disappointed in their team concept. That’s what I don’t see. So, if there are no rules and regulations, how do you hold anyone accountable? Speaking to James about this, he’ll say it — ‘I know I have to do a better job’.
“But without any direction, without a coach saying, hey, we’re going to send this player baseline because that will be our best bet, it’s really tough. Defense is something you have to practice very day, especially rotations. We went over our rotations every day in all my eight years in San Antonio. You would think me, Tim, Tony and Manu all knew what we were supposed to do. But others don’t. They have to become as familiar as we were. That’s why I go back to principles. Go back to OKC and they’re playing the Lakers, he guarded Kobe pretty well. That’s why I say, what’s going on (in Houston) is about something else.”
With Harden showing improved defense on Team USA throughout the FIBA World Cup, expect more blame to be placed on McHale if Harden reverts back to old habits in Houston.
Further north in Texas, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks rolled out new alternate jerseys at a Dallas press conference on Tuesday afternoon. While the change is too new to be approved for the coming season, it will take effect in 2015-16, with Cuban committing to using the blue model for eight games. Dallas will also have the option to use similarly-modeled white and green jerseys by the same designer, should they see fit.
The change is a result of a crowd-sourcing project by Cuban. The winner was Geoff Case, a local brand designer, whose use of the Dallas skyline behind the name is reminiscent of the vintage Denver Nuggets jerseys of the 1980s.
Pau Gasol continues to have quite the eventful summer. The upshot was his move in free agency from the rebuilding Lakers to the contending Chicago Bulls (assuming Derrick Rose’s health). The downside was Spain’s stunning home loss to France in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup. Pau certainly did his part (17 points, 7-of-12 shooting), but his two frontcourt mates — his brother Marc, and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka — shot a combined 2-of-14 in the shocking defeat. With Pau now 34, it might have been his last run with the Spanish national team.
That said, things are looking up again. Training camp starts in a few days, but for now, Pau is enjoying the final days of his shortened offseason by singing with Pau Donés, lead singer of the Latin rock band Jarabe de Palo. They’re known for their hit single, “La Flaca”.
Ben DuBose is a veteran Houston-based sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter.