Houston Rockets Proving There’s Method to Daryl Morey’s Madness

The Houston Rockets remained undefeated with a 98-81 victory against the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, decisively claiming their sixth win as they continue a virtually impeccable debut to the 2014-15 season.

One man is especially satisfied with Houston’s start, and that’s general manager Daryl Morey.

His front office was responsible for parting ways with Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. His plans to acquire Carmelo Anthony and later Chris Bosh were foiled in short order. The Rockets roster appeared to have taken a significant step back under Morey’s watch.

For the moment, that narrative seems to be seriously flawed.

And it’s one Morey himself has never taken to heart.

“It comes with the territory,” he told reporters in July. “When we traded for [James] Harden and signed Dwight [Howard], I think everyone was positive about everything. I don’t see many stories like ‘that was a pretty good job’ or ‘that was slightly below average.’ You either get, ‘that’s amazing’ or ‘that’s completely ridiculous and terrible.’”

Some have already defended Morey’s thinking, including his decision not to match Parsons’ offer from the Dallas Mavericks in restricted free agency, when he instead opted to sign swingman Trevor Ariza away from the Washington Wizards.

In July, Kevin O’Connor argued for Hardwood Paroxysm that, “Parsons is a better all-around player because of his scoring versatility, age and upside, but it’s arguable that Ariza is a better fit for Houston’s current situation, especially considering he’ll be $6.2 million cheaper next season.”

Whatever you make of Morey’s summer maneuvers, the results are beyond dispute. This team may be a long way from winning its first championship since 1995, but it’s been nothing short of dominant through its first six games.

The Rockets have won those games by an average of 14.7 points per contest, holding opponents to just 89.7 points per outing. Though sample sizes remain limited, Houston currently ranks second league-wide with 110.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Hollinger Stats. And the 95.5 points it’s yielding per 100 possessions ranks fourth, indicating significant improvement on the defensive end.

Some of those numbers may come back down to earth as the season grinds on, but even skeptics have to admit this club is outperforming expectations.

Morey and Co. are making the rest of us think twice before questioning his master plan.

Asked if he felt vindicated after Houston won its first five games, owner Leslie Alexander took the high road while putting a positive spin on Morey’s work, via the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen:

I don’t want to answer it that way, but I think we made good moves. I think [Trevor] Ariza was a real good move to come here. He’s helped the team in many ways. I think [Kostas] Papanikolaou has helped us dramatically. On both sides, he’s been really good. And the players who were here last year are improving. I don’t think we diminished the team the way people think we have.

Ariza has been especially valuable so far, making 22 of his first 40 three-point attempts and solidifying Houston’s perimeter defense. Morey signed him to a reasonable four-year deal that pays $8.6 million this season and subsequently declines in value.

Quietly adding veteran spark plug Jason Terry to the mix may emerge as another savvy move. The 37-year-old dropped 16 points on San Antonio and is averaging over 21 minutes per contest after a forgettable season in which he never suited up for the Sacramento Kings and played sparingly in 35 games with the Brooklyn Nets.

Even with starting point guard Patrick Beverley sitting out three games due to hamstring issues, you wouldn’t be able to tell the Rockets miss Lin. Reserve Isaiah Canaan has filled in admirably, scoring a combined 42 points over his last four games and providing a measure of backcourt stability.

Third-year power forward Terrence Jones is also showing signs of improvement. Prior to sitting out the past two games with a leg injury, the 22-year-old averaged 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks through his first four games.

Harden and Howard have been predictably brilliant thus far, but few would have imagined this kind of show from the supporting cast.

And give Harden some credit for keeping that supporting cast involved. He’s had at least five assists in every game this season, twice tallying 10 of them. After averaging a career-high 6.1 dimes a season ago, the two-time All-Star is establishing himself as more than the “professional scorer” he’s been billed.

This guy makes plays for others, too. Lots of them.

He was one of the initiators feeding Howard in what seemed like an alley-oop drill against the Spurs, making his presence abundantly felt despite a relatively modest 20 points (in just 33 minutes).

There may be no Anthony or Bosh, but the Rockets probably have all the star power they need. The bigger question coming into this season was whether the other pieces would fit—and whether they’d be enough.

So far, so good.

Even after an offseason that was anything but.

“It was a very difficult offseason,” Alexander conceded to Feigen. “There were big decisions that really didn’t go our way. It was tough. It was tough going through it and hoping you’d be able to rebound and have a really good team. I liked the moves that we made. And we still have flexibility to make other moves, which I believe is important.”

Important, though perhaps unnecessary.

This iteration of the Rockets has become fast friends, building on chemistry born a season ago—Howard’s first with the club. There may be room for improvement, but some of that improvement will almost certainly continue to come from within, from guys like Canaan and Jones.

Or from 24-year-old big man Donatas Motiejunas, a third-year veteran still trying to carve out a more prominent role in the rotation.

So long as these Rockets keep winning—and winning big—it’ll be hard to justify tweaking this roster. And even harder to justify criticizing this roster.

Not that the judgment-passing public really factors into head coach Kevin McHale’s equation. When ESPN Insider’s Tom Haberstroh asked McHale “if he thought that people were sleeping on his team a bit” after the uninspiring offseason, the former Celtics great pivoted to his bottom line.

“I don’t know, man,” he told Haberstroh (subscription required) after Houston’s fifth win this season. “Let me tell you something—this is the truth, too—I don’t care what anybody thinks. Why would I care what you thought? I don’t care about anything. I care about what we do in that locker room with our guys. All that caring goes away as soon as you step on that floor. Then you have to go out there and compete.”

By all appearances, McHale’s Rockets have taken that mantra to heart.

And made their GM look like a genius in the process.

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Watch Tom Izzo Transform into a Member of Kiss for Midnight Madness

Tom Izzo celebrates Midnight Madness better than any other college basketball coach. In years past, he has been shot out of a cannon, dressed up like Iron Man and arrived by fighter jet. But this year, he went all out.

Tom Izzo embraced his true rock ‘n’ roll personality and went full Kiss. Bleacher Report was there to see all of the preparation, including his makeup and his costume. 

Midnight Madness stage footage is courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

Go to the Big Ten Network’s website to see Izzo’s entrance to Midnight Madness as well as the full archive of Michigan State’s Midnight Madness (subscription required).

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Duke Countdown to Craziness 2014: Midnight Madness Recap and Twitter Reaction

If the entire Duke basketball team plays the way the White team did on Saturday night in the Countdown to Craziness scrimmage, the program might add to its national championship haul. 

The White team won both halves of play and top recruit Jahlil Okafor was the star. The 6’10″ freshman had double-digit scoring in both periods. Duke M. Basketball provided first-half stats:

Okafor led all scorers overall and quickly proved that the hype was real surrounding his mature low-post game.

After scoring 12 points in the first session, he topped off his night with 15 in the second half. He’s not known as a huge leaper, but after shining so brightly in the scrimmage, you had to wonder whether Okafor would get into the event’s dunk contest. Blue Devil Nation was impressed, and Duke Basketball felt “everyone in attendance” was impressed by Okafor’s performance: 

Let’s not get carried away.

The finals came down to Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee. These young men have the hops to buck a common stereotype. Adam Rowe of 247Sports.com highlighted the matchup:

Though Allen landed a 360 during his run, he had some issues completing dunks in the final, and that gave Plumlee the title, as Duke M. Basketball tweeted:

 

Close Call

While the scrimmage was all fun and games for the most part, there was one moment of concern. Justise Winslow went down with an injury, but it turned out to be a cramp. Stephen Wiseman of The Herald-Sun and Duke Basketball provided insight on Winslow’s injury:

Winslow is expected to be a major part of Duke’s success this year. Along with Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones, the 6’8″ freshman small forward is listed as a potential lottery selection by Draft Express.

The injury was obviously very minor because Winslow participated in the dunk contest. Still, the collective hearts of Duke nation had to skip a beat when Winslow went down. No team wants to lose a key player, but it would be especially tough to see a guy go down for an extended period in a scrimmage.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to feel confident that Winslow was fine as he allowed him to compete in the dunking exhibition. 

 

Expectations are High

Clearly, Larry Winters enjoyed Countdown to Craziness:

Between the playmaking of Jones, the athleticism of Allen, Plumlee and Winslow, as well as the post presence of Okafor and the leadership of Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke looks every bit as stacked as its No. 3 preseason ranking in the USA Today poll would suggest.

If the team stays healthy and matures, it will be among the sport’s best teams all year.

 

Follow Brian Mazique on Twitter. Basketball is awesome.

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Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo Dresses as a Member of KISS for Midnight Madness

We have officially seen it all. 

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo really went all out this year for Midnight Madness, as he dressed as a member of the band KISS. 

The photo below says it all. 

[Big Ten Network, h/t CBS Sports]

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The 10 Best Moments from ‘Midnight Madness’ Celebrations Around the Country

The games themselves mark the true start of the 2014-15 college basketball season, but at this point we’ve gone long enough without hoops action that any glimpse of what’s in store is welcomed with open arms.

Midnight Madness definitely did the trick.

Since practices officially began Oct. 3, schools throughout the country have been holding events that are heavy on flair and light on actual basketball. Meant to hype up the fanbase for the season ahead, some schools go a little overboard trying to make their Midnight Madness celebrations stand out.

This leads to highlight-reel dunks, high jinks and hilarious getups, as you’ll see in our ranking of the best Midnight Madness moments.

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Drake is at Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness

He can’t be good at everything.

      
 

 

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Kentucky’s deep squad delights at Big Blue Madness

Kentucky’s talented 12-deep roster has physical workout during sold-out Big Blue Madness

      
 

 

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Kentucky wows at Big Blue Madness

Wildcats embrace the spectacle as they get to work.

      
 

 

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Kentucky’s deep squad delights at Big Blue Madness (Yahoo Sports)

The Kentucky Wildcat mascot descends from the ceiling during the team's NCAA college basketball Big Blue Madness, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Just as Drake appeared to draw the biggest cheers at Big Blue Madness, the rapper introduced Kentucky coach John Calipari and the noise then became a roar.


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Kentucky Big Blue Madness 2014: Recap and Twitter Reaction for Wildcats

The Kentucky Wildcats have national title aspirations, but Friday night’s Big Blue Madness was all about enjoying the arrival of basketball season and entertaining their legions of fans.

If there was any doubt just how big basketball is in the state of Kentucky, every ticket to the event was snatched within the first 30 minutes of availability on Saturday morning. Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal set the stage:

Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio noted that the Wildcats players weren’t the only big names in attendance Friday:

The women’s team was announced first, and Kentucky Athletics provided fans who weren’t in attendance a glimpse at the accompanying video:

Women’s head coach Matthew Mitchell attempted to steal the spotlight right away when he came out after his team. Writer Jerry Tipton and Alex Forkner of Rivals described the scene as the coach serenaded the crowd with Bruno Mars songs. It was something you only see at Midnight Madness events:

UK Hoops shared a picture of the entertainment and pointed out that the country took notice:

While the ceremony and crowd involvement is certainly a worthy aspect of an event like this, the real value lands in the recruiting department. Kentucky basketball always puts on a show, and Friday’s Big Blue Madness was no exception.

Kentucky sophomore Aaron Harrison recalled his experience at Big Blue Madness as a recruit, via Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal, “It just gave me the whole idea of how serious Kentucky basketball is, and it was just a great feeling, exciting feeling. Once you witness something like that, there’s no way you can not want to play in an atmosphere like that.”

Matt Jones and Steve Jones shared some rather interesting developments:

Back on the actual floor, Steve Jones and Forkner shared the most interesting moment during the women’s scrimmage:

Then it was time for the main event, as the men’s team came out. As to be expected, there was quite the introduction with a video of the program’s greatest moments followed by a hype video for this season’s squad. 

Forkner described the scene, which was capped off by digital national championship banners hanging from the rafters:

Kentucky Athletics provided fans who were not in attendance a glimpse at the video used:

After the players were introduced, Drake took the stage and addressed the crowd before introducing Calipari. Matt Jones and Forkner described the proceedings: 

After the histrionics, the team hit the floor in a number of three-on-three games. It split the crowd’s attention a bit before the five-on-five scrimmage, but the recruits were likely already impressed. The team then transitioned to a five-of-five scrimmage, which let the players demonstrate their incredible ability.

Kentucky Athletics provided some early updates:

The game actually came down to the wire, but Alex Poythress put it away with a three-pointer in the final minute. It put the white team up 40-36, and it eventually won the contest 42-36. Jeff Drummond of AllWildcats.com provided one final update:

Honestly, the most important thing of the entire evening was the fact that the team remained healthy throughout the scrimmages.

Now that Big Blue Madness is in the rearview mirror, it’s time for Calipari’s Wildcats to focus on the upcoming season. If the No. 1 ranking in the initial coaches poll didn’t give it away, this is one of the nation’s best teams.

The freshmen will clearly play a major role, as they almost always do in Kentucky, as Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis should all see significant minutes. However, this team will have a veteran presence as well since Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Poythress and the Harrison brothers all returned.

Kentucky has so many pieces that it will have more talent on its bench at any given moment during a game than most teams will have on the floor. It truly is national championship or bust this season for Big Blue Nation.

 

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