Ime Udoka

Rockets’ Rafael Stone Talks Draft, Udoka, Free Agency, More

This season, the Rockets finished with a solid 41-41 record but missed the postseason as the West’s No. 11 seed. The team then moved up in this past weekend’s draft lottery, claiming the No. 3 pick.

General manager Rafael Stone recently explained to The Athletic’s Kelly Iko that, despite the middling reputation of this year’s draft class, his front office likes a lot of the prospects available.

“I think it’s a really talented draft, and there will be very good players in it,” Stone said. “Historically, what we’ve seen is that people do not do a very good job predicting how good a draft is or is not. There are kind of unicorn-type players that occasionally appear in drafts and that signal early on in their lives that they have a chance to be extraordinarily special. And you see teams kind of falling over themselves to get themselves in positions to pick No. 1 in those drafts, even though the way everything’s set up, that’s a pretty impossible task. In that sense, there’s not someone like that in this draft.”

Their conversation is well worth reading in full, but here are some key highlights.

On how new Houston head coach Ime Udoka’s input impacts Stone’s draft process:

“Ime is a really good coach and basketball mind. We definitely solicit his opinion and get his thoughts as another smart person who can give us some insight on who’s likely to be successful. But in terms of draft philosophy, it’s very much let’s try and bring in guys who can be good basketball players.”

On whether the team’s strong season will affect its offseason approach:

“We’re comfortable with our team and we think we’re going to improve internally. Because of that, I don’t think we’re likely to be super aggressive. It doesn’t mean we won’t listen. And it doesn’t mean if we think that there’s a unique opportunity, we won’t jump at it. But we have very talented players, they’re young and we lost a ton of games to injury. That combination means our primary focus is bringing back our core group as a better core group than it was last year, both through internal improvement and health.”

On the growth of young talent like Alperen Sengun and Jalen Green, both of whom are extension-eligible:

“We want those guys to start next year at or above the level they finished at the end of the year. I think all of our young players got materially better. They understood what Ime wanted, how to play defense better, the right reads on offense. It needs to not be two steps forward, one back. If we do that, we’ll be in a good position. Those guys just have to work and we have workers. I’m very confident they will do it, but there is no magic elixir. It’s all about putting in the work. We don’t expect it to be linear. And some of the reason is because of externalities — playing time from the coach, the way the offense flows. All these other things can influence how people play. But notwithstanding, it’s mainly on them. They need to make sure they stay on this trajectory.”

Mazzulla, Udoka Named Coaches Of The Month

The Celtics Joe Mazzulla and the Rockets Ime Udoka were named the NBA’s Coaches of the Month for March, the league announced today (via Twitter).

Boston, which has clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference, finished 12-4 last month. Houston, which is battling for a play-in tournament berth in the West, posted a 13-2 record in March, winning 11 consecutive games at one point.

It’s a bit of an ironic twist, as Mazzulla was named Boston’s interim coach prior to last season after the team suspended Udoka for an improper relationship. Mazzulla eventually had the interim tag removed during last season, while Udoka ended up in Houston.

The Magic’s Jamahl Mosley and the Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau were the other Eastern Conference nominees. The Thunder’s Mark Daigneault, the Mavericks’ Jason Kidd and the Nuggets’ Michael Malone were the other Western Conference nominees (Twitter link).

Southwest Notes: Sengun, Udoka, Rockets, Doncic, Pelicans

Alperen Sengun‘s breakout 2023/24 season almost didn’t happen, according to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, who looks back at the Rockets‘ pursuit of Brook Lopez during 2023’s free agent period. Sengun would’ve still played an important role in Houston if the club had landed Lopez, but he likely wouldn’t have been in position to post the same type of numbers he has as the Rockets’ unquestioned starting center.

“You know, of course, when you’re hearing that sh-t, you’re getting nervous, of course,” Sengun said of last summer’s Lopez rumors. “You don’t want to lose your spot. But if (Lopez) was coming, I was ready for a fight.”

While Sengun has increased his offensive output significantly (21.3 points and 5.0 assists per game), he’s just as proud as the improvements he has shown defensively. He told Fischer that his focus on defense this season wasn’t a direct result of Houston’s interest in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.

“I didn’t understand that as, ‘Brook was gonna come and I needed to (improve on defense).’ I just know I have to do a better job on defense. If you want to win, if you want to be a ‘winning player,’ you have to do everything on the court,” he said. “I mean, Brook Lopez is a really good player. A really good defensive player, you know? But, I mean, he’s a good shot blocker. I don’t think he’s as good one-on-one player (as me).

“We have different physical bodies. Like, he’s so tall. He’s big. He can block all the shots. I know I can’t block all the shots. I know that. I don’t have long arms. I’m not (that) tall. I just need to be where I have to be and just stay vertical. To jump straight up and just make their job harder.”

Here’s more from around the Southwest Division:

  • Speaking to Fischer, Sengun also had high praise for head coach Ime Udoka and the rest of the Rockets‘ coaching staff. “Ime’s a perfect coach. He’s the best coach I ever had, probably,” Sengun said. “But not just Ime. Our whole coaching staff is amazing. Everybody’s doing a great job. Everybody wants to win. I’ve never seen a coaching staff like this in my life. And when you see, you understand. They’re tough. They’re talking to us. They’re not scared of anything.”
  • Kelly Iko of The Athletic takes a look at the burgeoning relationship between young Rockets guards Jalen Green and Cam Whitmore, noting that the team – which ranks 24th in offensive rating – has an opportunity to experiment with the duo down the stretch now that a play-in spot is all but out of reach. “They complement each other well, being two wings that attack and are aggressive,” Udoka said. “When they’re both rolling on the wings and guarding at a higher clip, we like to see what they’re doing together. Two dynamic scorers, and we’ve taken a look at that.”
  • In leading the Mavericks to a win over Miami on Thursday, Luka Doncic helped the team snap a three-game losing streak and became the first player in NBA history to record 35-point triple-doubles in four straight contests. “You’re seeing something as rare as a Picasso,” head coach Jason Kidd said of his All-NBA guard, while recently acquired forward P.J. Washington called his new teammate’s play “insane,” per Tim MacMahon of ESPN. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Washington said. “I mean, he’s one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen play and just to be on his team, I think it’s special. So just cherish every moment.”
  • After ranking 27th in Willie Green‘s first season with the team and 15th last season, the Pelicans are up to fifth in the NBA in three-point shooting (38.2%) in 2023/24. As Christian Clark of NOLA.com details, a combination of new additions – including rookie Jordan Hawkins – and internal improvements from players like Herbert Jones have made New Orleans a much more dangerous team from outside.

Southwest Notes: H. Jones, Udoka, Rockets, THJ, Fudge

After seeing the way that opposing defenders sagged off of him during his first two NBA seasons, Pelicans forward Herbert Jones was determined to develop a more consistent three-point shot. He has done just that in 2023/24, writes William Guillory of The Athletic.

After knocking down just 33.6% of 2.3 attempts per game from beyond the arc in his first 144 NBA games, Jones has taken a career-high 3.5 three-pointers per game in his third NBA season and made 42.9% of them.

“Above anything else, the guy is a worker. No one could ever question his commitment to the game,” Pelicans head coach Willie Green said. “It’s no shock to us to see him improve as much as he has this season because he’s done what it takes to get those results.”

Jones’ improved three-point shot, which has helped boost his scoring average to a career-best 11.4 points per game, has made the 25-year-old a more well-rounded offensive player, but most of his value still comes on the defensive end of the court. As Rod Walker of NOLA.com details, while Jones isn’t particularly interested in making his own case for All-Defensive recognition, his teammates and coaches are happy to do it for him.

“I don’t know who is first-team All-Defense if it’s not Herb Jones,” Green said. “He’s one of the best in the league. The beauty is the guys he plays against, his peers, they understand that. When you have one of the best guys defensively, he should be rewarded for that.”

Here’s more from around the Southwest:

  • Rockets head coach Ime Udoka spoke to Kelly Iko of The Athletic about a handful of topics, including his young players, Houston’s offensive inconsistency, and the need to be patient with a young team. Udoka said he “knew what he was signing up for” when he was hired by a franchise that hadn’t won more than 22 games in a season since 2019/20. “We have six first-round picks over the last three years with the task at hand, so I’m not surprised,” he said. “Just continuing to stay positive. We see glimpses and signs of how close we can be. And so you look at it as a positive and you’re optimistic about everything going forward.”
  • Although they’re six games out of the No. 10 seed at 26-34, the Rockets haven’t thrown in the towel on their push for a play-in spot, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required). While it’s an extreme long shot, the fact that Houston has the most favorable remaining schedule of any Western Conference team provides a glimmer of hope, Feigen points out.
  • With Tim Hardaway Jr. in the midst of a slump, Tim Cato of The Athletic digs into the Mavericks‘ dilemma with the veteran wing, who has been considered a trade candidate for multiple seasons but continues to play a key role in Dallas. “We trust and need (Hardaway) if we’re going to win a championship,” head coach Jason Kidd told reporters.
  • Alex Fudge‘s two-way contract with the Mavericks is for two years, Hoops Rumors has learned. It will cover 2024/25 as well as the rest of this season.

Rockets Notes: Smith, Green, Trade Assets, Udoka

Jabari Smith spent the All-Star break figuring out how to have a strong finish to his second NBA season, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. While Smith has improved since his rookie year, especially in terms of shooting, he still believes he can take his game to new levels. He has responded to the week of introspection by averaging 20.0 points and 15.3 rebounds over his last three games.

“For sure, it was an examination, just trying to figure out how can I improve, how can I help the team win,” Smith said. “I’m a big part of the team, and I feel like my play affects winning a lot. I just tried to figure out ways I can affect the game and ways I can improve and ways I need to improve. (Self-examination) is something that’s just natural at the break. You kind of just see the first half of the season and find things to improve. Us finishing going into the break how we did (with a loss at Memphis), you kind of look in the mirror.”

The third pick in the 2022 draft, Smith earned second-team All-Rookie honors last season. However, he struggled with his three-point shot early in his career and wasn’t able to find a consistent role the Rockets’ offense.

“I feel more sure, more like I belong,” Smith said. “Last year, I was very unsure, floating around, not knowing what to do. Now I have more knowledge, and I’m more confident. I feel like it’s been not what I want it to be, but it has been better than last year. There’s definitely some bright spots to it, but definitely not where I want to be.”

There’s more from Houston:

  • There’s not much chance Jalen Green will be moved to the bench for the rest of the season, Kelly Iko of The Athletic states in a mailbag column. Coach Ime Udoka refused to discuss the possibility when Iko asked about it earlier in the year, and Iko doesn’t believe Udoka would consider the move now, even though Green has frequently been sitting out the fourth quarter in favor of rookie Amen Thompson. Iko acknowledges that Green is frustrated about his current situation, but notes that his decision-making is improving and he benefits from playing alongside the other starters.
  • Although the Rockets are counting on more internal improvement, a trade is their best path toward improving this summer, Iko adds in the same piece. They have plenty of young talent and veteran contracts to match salaries if a star becomes available, along with a Brooklyn first-round pick that appears likely to land in the top 10 in this year’s draft.
  • Udoka picked up a technical foul Tuesday at Oklahoma City and now leads all NBA coaches with 10, Feigen writes in a separate story. Udoka will receive an automatic one-game suspension if he reaches 16.

Southwest Notes: Champagnie, Wesley, Thompson, Mavs, Jackson Jr.

Julian Champagnie knows that defense and rebounding must be his calling card to remain a rotation player in the league for years to come. The Spurs forward has started 35 of 50 games this season despite modest averages of 5.9 points and 4.8 shot attempts in 16.7 minutes per game.

“Whether I have five (points) or 15 or 20 or six, I think it’s just make sure I’m not a negative defender on the court,” he told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News.

Point guard Blake Wesley, a 2022 first-round selection, has received steady playing time the last two months and wants to keep it that way. He’s cut his turnovers dramatically in his second season, committing only 29 in 36 games.

“I want to stay consistent and build on each and every game,” Wesley said. “Play hard and stay in the rotation. That’s my main goal.”

We have more from the Southwest Division:

  • Amen Thompson, the fourth pick of last year’s draft, has seen his role expand this month, including crunch-time minutes, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle notes. Thompson is averaging 13.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.6 minutes per game across nine February outings. He played 20 second-half minutes in a four-point win over Phoenix on Friday. “He’s growing on a nightly basis,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “He gives us some versatility.”
  • The Mavericks began a tough four-game road trip on Sunday but coach Jason Kidd has plenty of depth now, due to the addition of big man Daniel Gafford and the imminent return of Dante Exum from injury. Kidd said his rotation could include 10 or 11 players for the time being. “We’ve got to be playing our best basketball going into April,” Kidd told Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News. “That’s the goal.”
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.‘s offensive role has grown due to the heavy toll injuries have taken on his Grizzlies teammates. He’s also had to adjust to playing center often, rather than power forward. “JJ’s handled all these recent growth opportunities beautifully,” coach Taylor Jenkins told Kelly Iko of The Athletic. “We’ve thrown a lot of things at him purposely, the nature of where the roster is at.” Jackson is averaging 25.4 points and 20.7 shot attempts, along with 3.6 assists, per game this month.

Rockets’ Stone Discusses Adams Deal, Green, Deadline Talks

After the Rockets acquired Steven Adams a week before the trade deadline in a move with next season in mind, the front office had plenty of discussions about deals that would’ve helped the team more in the short term, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required). According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, Houston kicked the tires on players like Kelly Olynyk, Andre Drummond, Jericho Sims, and Xavier Tillman, among others, but couldn’t find a trade that worked for both sides.

“We certainly weren’t going to do something that would hurt us on a going-forward basis,” general manager Rafael Stone said. “The moves we were the most excited about were moves where we thought that could help us in the short term and also the long term, the moves subsequent to (the trade for) Steven.
 
We were very excited about acquiring Steven. Subsequently, a lot of the ones we had long discussions about were moves that would have provided elements this year maybe that we don’t have, as well as stuff for the future.

“But they didn’t happen, and we’re fine with that. We like our group, and this gives everybody on our current roster an opportunity to shine.”

If the Rockets had wanted to make a more significant deal, it would’ve likely required them to part with a player from their young core: Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Tari Eason, Amen Thompson, or Cam Whitmore. But Stone said the team wasn’t looking to move on from any of those youngsters, adding that he and head coach Ime Udoka were in agreement on the deals they pursued and those they didn’t.

“We’re looking at the long term more so than anything,” Udoka said. “When you have that many young, talented players, you want to see what they become and not rush to judgment on anything.
 … 
As far as those guys, everyone’s going to check in when you have this amount of young talent. We’re trying to win. We’re in the development and winning stage at the same time, so people checked in. We knew they would. They are talented young guys, and we have some duplicated positions there. We like what we’re seeing from those guys and want to see what we are as a whole unit.”

Here are a few more of Stone’s most notable comments from Monday’s post-deadline media session:

On the acquisition of Adams:

“I think we got a really high-level basketball player. A guy who’s been a dominant rebounding force in the NBA for the last five, six years. One of the best defenders in the NBA. We obviously feel great with Alperen, but now we have two truly starter-level centers next year. Depth is extraordinarily important. On top of that, he’s a very different player and will be a good complement on and off the court for our group.”

On the long-term fit of Jalen Green, whose name popped up in some predeadline rumors:

“Jalen has been and continues to be, on paper, a great fit with us. He has a skill set that isn’t really replicated on our roster. My expectation of him – and he knows this, and I think he echoed in his postgame comments – my expectation is that the defense, which has gotten better, is still going to get a lot better. That the physicality and the efficiency are all going to get better. He needs to take those steps. That’s extraordinarily important. He’s aware of it. We’re aware of it. And that’s the challenge for him and for us.”

On Stone’s assessment of his own job performance in the past year:

“I’m happy with the choices we made. I think for the most part, we’ve gotten what we want. And the additions of Fred (VanVleet) and Dillon (Brooks) were necessary and really important. I like that we brought Boban (Marjanovic) back. I like that we have Jeff (Green). I love the hire of Ime. And then I think we did well drafting Cam and Amen. So we had a very successful offseason, which set us up to make the right steps for this season.

“But I would say for myself, similar to our young guys, it’s not good enough. And so they need to improve. Our front office — not just me, all of us, our coaching staff, all of us — we’ve got to continue on the grind and make sure the choices we make between now and the end of the season, the ones in the offseason all set us up to have the best possible chance to win a championship in the short term. Not meaning like a year or two, but not 20 years either. And that’s very much our goal. And my goal.”

Rockets Rumors: Bridges, Centers, Tate, Brogdon, Core

Despite a modest 22-24 record that places them 11th in the West, the Rockets are motivated to be buyers on the trade market at next week’s deadline and will be seeking high-level talent, according to Kelly Iko, Shams Charania, and Sam Amick of The Athletic.

As The Athletic’s trio explains, the presence of new head coach Ime Udoka – and his strong influence with the team’s top decision-makers – has contributed to an acceleration of the Rockets’ timeline. Udoka has been frustrated by the team’s “inconsistencies” and is determined to make the postseason, and his level of urgency has helped convince the front office to adjust its expectations for the club and its strategy on the trade market.

The Rockets’ interest in Nets forward Mikal Bridges, reported earlier today by Michael Scotto of HoopsHype, is one example of the club’s pursuit of impact players. The Athletic’s reporters confirm that Houston’s level of interest in Bridges is “extremely high,” but echo Scotto in saying that Brooklyn continues to view the 27-year-old as a cornerstone piece and has no interest in moving him.

Here’s more on the Rockets:

  • Houston also continues to scour the trade market for more frontcourt help, with Kelly Olynyk (Jazz), Clint Capela (Hawks), Andre Drummond (Bulls), and Robert Williams (Trail Blazers) among the big men on the team’s radar, per Iko, Charania, and Amick. Udoka would like to find a center capable of not only manning the position when Alperen Sengun is on the bench but also potentially playing alongside Sengun, like Williams and Al Horford did during Udoka’s time in Boston.
  • While the Rockets will likely look to package draft capital with expiring or pseudo-expiring contracts like those belonging to Victor Oladipo, Jock Landale, and Boban Marjanovic, they also view forward Jae’Sean Tate as “movable,” according to The Athletic’s report. League sources tell The Athletic that the Celtics and Suns have shown some level of interest in Tate.
  • A ball-handler who can defend would also be on the Rockets’ wish list, league sources tell The Athletic’s trio, who mention Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon as one player who fits the bill. However, Houston isn’t eager to cut into Cam Whitmore‘s or Amen Thompson‘s minutes, which may affect the club’s aggressiveness in pursuing backcourt help.
  • Whitmore and Thompson are considered off-limits in most trade talks, according to Iko, Charania, and Amick, who say the Rockets aren’t interested in moving Jabari Smith or Tari Eason either. Jalen Green is also in that group of young players Houston would be very reluctant to trade, though The Athletic’s reporters suggest he’s not necessarily viewed as untouchable like he would’ve been a year or two ago, with Sengun having overtaken him as the player prioritized in the Rockets’ schemes. It sounds as if Houston won’t move any of its young core players in a deal for a mere rotation upgrade, but would consider including one in a package for a star.

Southwest Notes: J. Smith, Eason, McCollum, Spurs, Grizzlies

Rockets forward Jabari Smith will miss a fourth consecutive game on Saturday due to a sprained left ankle, tweets Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Houston will also continue to be without forward Tari Eason, who has been hampered by a lower left leg injury for the entire season. Eason has appeared in 22 games, but has been sidelined since January 1 and his return isn’t imminent.

“He’s been doing a little bit here and there, getting shots up, just not doing the contact,” head coach Ime Udoka said of Eason earlier this week, per Feigen. “He’s feeling better. We still don’t have a definite date (for Eason to return) but the fact he’s getting out here, getting shots up, moving, it’s a good sign. It’s more week-to-week. We were giving him a few weeks initially. He’ll be reevaluated soon, and we’ll go from there.”

According to Feigen, Eason is expected to begin contact work next week and ramp up from there.

Here’s more from around the Southwest:

  • Nearly two years after the Pelicans acquired CJ McCollum from Portland, William Guillory of The Athletic explores how the veteran guard has adjusted to a new city, a new team, and a new role, which continue to evolve. McCollum has served as more of a floor spacer than a point guard this season. “I think originally we approached it as, ‘Yeah, (CJ’s) the smallest player (in our starting lineup), so he’s the point guard,'” Larry Nance Jr. told Guillory. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. He can be, but he doesn’t have to be. We can run offense through (Brandon Ingram), (Zion Williamson) or a bunch of other people in the lineup. That was one of the biggest realizations for our team and for CJ. We don’t have a Tyrese Haliburton who sets the table for everybody. We have a lot of guys who are good at passing and seeing the court. We can run the offense through a few people and that makes us harder to defend.”
  • Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News passes along a couple Spurs updates, writing that Blake Wesley appears to have taken over Malaki Branham‘s role as the backup point guard and tweeting that Victor Wembanyama is confident he’ll be available for the second end of the team’s back-to-back set on Saturday after playing on Friday. Wembanyama hasn’t played in both games of a back-to-back since November.
  • Damichael Cole of The Memphis Commercial Appeal takes a look at how the Grizzlies may approach the trade deadline, noting that the team currently has something of a roster logjam, with 14 of the 15 players on standard deals also under contract for next season. Xavier Tillman is the only one who is on track for free agency, while Luke Kennard has a team option — the other 13 have guaranteed salaries.

Celtics Notes: Udoka, Mazzulla, Tatum, Kornet

Meeting with reporters in his return to Boston tonight, Rockets coach Ime Udoka expressed regret that he wasn’t able to stay with the Celtics long enough to lead them to a championship, writes Tim Bontemps of ESPN. Udoka took Boston to the NBA Finals in 2022, but he was suspended shortly before the start of last season over an affair with a staff member. Joe Mazzulla was named the team’s permanent head coach before the season ended.

“Job not finished,” Udoka responded when asked to look back on his lone season with the Celtics. “[I] formed a lot of relationships within a year, and obviously want to get a chance to run it back with a group you feel you can build and grow with. So, letting the people down. I talked about the players, the relationships I built with them, the coaches that came with me, and then everybody else that was impacted by it. So for me that’s the biggest thing I would say overall is letting some people down, for sure. But we’ve talked it out and I’ve seen a lot of these people throughout the summer and talk regularly and so we move past it.”

Udoka received a mixed response from fans at TD Garden, according to Bontemps. The game marked the first matchup between Udoka and Mazzulla, his former assistant, but Bontemps says both coaches downplayed its significance.

“Obviously, the fact that Ime is back, that’s great,” Mazzulla said. “We worked together, and guys on the staff, but I don’t think that really has anything to do with winning or losing.”

There’s more from Boston:

  • Some Celtics players complained last season that they were kept in the dark about the reasons for Udoka’s suspension and dismissal, but Udoka contends that’s not accurate, according to Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe. Udoka told reporters he was “upfront” with his players and explained the situation to some of them. “I would say they lied to [the media],” Udoka said. “They knew, some of them knew and, you know, obviously I could talk to them and they wouldn’t share stuff publicly. So, who needed to know, knew.”
  • Jayson Tatum got ejected early in the fourth quarter tonight even though the Celtics had a huge lead at the time, per Souichi Terada of MassLive. Tatum was angry after not getting a foul call on a dunk attempt. “At some point throughout the course of the night, you’ve got to stand up for yourself,” he explained. “It’s not an every game thing or every night, but I’m not perfect. I’m going to get techs throughout every season. Tonight I just had to kind of let him know how I felt and that was that. I wasn’t holding no grudge or anything after the game. I wasn’t kicking (expletive) over in the locker room. I’m not holding no grudge. It happened, we move on, and we get ready for the next one.”
  • Luke Kornet is in front of Neemias Queta on the depth chart because Mazzulla has more trust in Kornet’s defense, Brian Robb of MassLive states in a mailbag column.