How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

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NBC Sports

How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

The clock almost hit midnight on June 30, 2015 when Anthony Davis tweeted his contract announcement with the “#6MoreYears” hashtag. Davis had just inked a five-year, $145 million extension and posted a photo of him standing with his agent, Thad Foucher, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry and New Orleans GM Dell Demps. 

It was a moment of celebration for the Pelicans franchise. The future seemingly looked bright. They made the playoffs in Year 3 of The Brow era, improving each season in the win column. They had poached Gentry from the champion Golden State Warriors’ bench. Most importantly, Davis was in.

But that’s really when the clock began to tick on Demps and the Pelicans organization. This was their opportunity to prove that Davis, now 25, should spend his prime years and beyond in New Orleans. This coming summer, Davis will be eligible to sign a five-year, $239 million supermax extension with the Pelicans, if the Pelicans choose to offer it. But New Orleans’ financial advantage may not be an advantage at all.

“I’d take legacy over money,” Davis told Yahoo! Sports recently.

The sharks are circling. LeBron James made it known he’d love to play with him in Laker Land. The Boston Celtics have loads of assets to dangle (though a trade offer will have to wait until this summer due to a CBA quirk). The Golden State Warriors would “surely be interested,” per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, if he became available. And you can never count out Houston, who can put Clint Capela on the table starting Jan 15. As one general manager told NBC Sports, it “seems like 29 teams are in the AD chase.”

You can include the Pelicans on that list and make it 30. 

* * *

New Orleans got lucky on May 30, 2012. 

That night on national television, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that New Orleans (then called the Hornets, now the Pelicans) won the draft lottery over the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets -- confusing, I know). 

It was a stunner. New Orleans had the fourth-best odds at winning the No. 1 overall pick and thanks to a fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls, it jumped the three teams ahead of it -- Washington, Cleveland and, most surprisingly, Charlotte, which went just 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season.

With just a 13.7 percent chance, New Orleans won the day.

"Obviously, we're very excited," Demps said that night. "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans, our fans. ... This is the start of a new beginning."

Demps and the rest of the NBA knew Davis was a game-changer, head and shoulders above the rest of his 2012 draft class. DraftExpress once described Davis as “the most impressive blend of athletic tools we've seen in a big man prospect in our nine years evaluating the NBA draft.” 

For a tiny city like New Orleans, this was hitting jackpot. New Orleans is the smallest of the NBA small markets, according to Nielsen TV designated market-area research, ranking 51st among United States cities. By pure market size, New Orleans shouldn’t have an NBA franchise. Albuquerque, NM., Grand Rapids, MI., and Harrisburg, PA., are more deserving of a franchise from a TV market standpoint. 

For the franchise in the smallest of small markets, the best big man of a generation fell into its lap. What did they do with that lottery ticket? 

Not much.

Let’s say you hopped into a time machine and traveled to the morning following that 2012 draft lottery and asked NBA fans to make a prediction: Who would have a better record over the next seven seasons, through the 2018 calendar year: New Orleans or Charlotte? 

Those fans would probably say New Orleans, right? Duh, they just landed the Brow. And Charlotte just went 7-and-freakin’-59!

But take it a step further. Guarantee that Davis stayed with the team through 2018. Guarantee those NBA fans that Davis would become everything they imagined and more. Tell them that Davis would average 23.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his NBA career before hitting his prime. Tell them that he would own the third-highest player-efficiency rating among all players since he entered the league -- only LeBron James and Kevin Durant rank higher

Tell them that, despite the occasional gripe that Davis is injury-prone, he’d play more games over the next seven seasons than other superstars like Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Don’t stop there. Tell those NBA fans that Charlotte, coming off the worst season ever, would select Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he’d become a solid role player, who, by 2018, would be a full-time reserve. 

Now ask them: Knowing all that, which team through 2018 would have a better record? 

Imagine their faces when you tell them that Charlotte, not New Orleans, is the correct answer. Since that 2012 lottery, Charlotte has gone 235-293 (.445 win percentage), per Basketball-Reference.com and reached the playoffs twice. The Pelicans have gone 235-295 (.443) since lucking into Davis. They’ve reached the playoffs the same number of times and gotten past the first-round once. Charlotte is one of 20 teams with a better record than New Orleans since he entered the league. 

The question is, why?

* * *

The Pelicans swept the Blazers last postseason, but aside from that brief moment in the sun, the events over the past four months must be nauseating for Pelicans fans. 

In September, Davis fired his New Orleans-based agent Foucher and hired LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul. Then, in an October profile in Sports Illustrated, former NBA commissioner David Stern took a shot at Pelicans brass when discussing how the Chris Paul trade fell apart in 2011, calling Demps “a lousy general manager … and he may lose Anthony Davis.”

With Davis rumors swirling, the Pelicans swiped back at the former de facto owner of their franchise and defended their longtime decision-maker with a public statement:

"We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA Commissioner regarding the New Orleans Pelicans. Our organization has the utmost confidence in our General Manager, Dell Demps. He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of our team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017/18 playoffs.” 

(The statement concluded with a not-so-veiled line endorsing Stern’s successor, Adam Silver.)

But shortly after beating their chest about a 3-0 start, the Pelicans lost six straight and the season began to spiral. In one of the most important seasons in franchise history, the Pelicans are currently 16-21 and sitting 14th among 15 Western Conference teams. What’s in front of them is daunting: They’d have to leapfrog six teams just to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the four seasons since Davis signed his extension.

To top it all off, in the week leading up to the Christmas Day games, LeBron told ESPN “that would be amazing” if Davis joined him on the Lakers. 

James’ comments led to an outcry from small market teams about LeBron tampering with Davis, but the Pelicans’ problem has nothing to do with big markets bullying small markets, tampering or LeBron James. It has to do with a team stumbling upon a winning lottery ticket and having little to show for it.

* * *

The Pelicans have tried to put talent around Davis, starting with Eric Gordon in 2012. Gordon was supposed to be Davis’ first co-star before injuries and early disagreements with the front office marred his future in New Orleans.

Demps then acquired Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins. When healthy, Holiday has played at an All-Star level and Cousins flourished alongside Davis in 65 games as a Pelican. Demps also made a shrewd trade for Nikola Mirotic and added Julius Randle on a team-friendly deal this past summer. 

But as is so often the case in New Orleans, Davis’ supporting cast largely ended up sidelined for long stretches. These things can be subject to random variation. Some years, you’re healthy. Some years, you’re banged-up. The Pelicans have been routinely banged-up for years.

With Davis’ name churning through the rumor mill, the microscope is firmly on the Pelicans now. And the long collection of injuries -- coupled with the disagreements stemming from those injuries -- do not paint a rosy picture.

Last season, the Pelicans suffered the most player games lost due to injury, per an InStreetClothes.com analysis, costing the team nearly $30 million in lost salary. The season before that, they ranked third-last in games lost due to injury. The season before that, they ranked dead-last again. Over the last five seasons, the Pelicans have lost the second-most games due to injury or illness. Only the Sixers have fared worse over the last five seasons, which has been well-chronicled.

This pattern isn’t a total anomaly if you ask rival team executives, who have long chided the Pelicans’ medical team for being run by “football guys” instead of those who have experience in the NBA. Fair or not, the Pelicans are fighting against a league-wide perception.

“The organization only cares about the Saints,” one league exec told NBC Sports.

Run by the Benson family, the Pelicans are one of three NBA teams whose primary ownership group also owns an NFL franchise (the Allen family owns the Blazers/Seahawks and the Kroenke family owns the Nuggets/Rams). But the Pelicans are the only NBA team that shares both its staffing and practice facility grounds with the football team, which many around the league see as a “corporate synergy” cost-saving measure. In 2012, the late Tom Benson appointed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to be president of basketball operations for the Pelicans, overseeing Demps in the org chart. While the Lakers have Magic Johnson and the Celtics have Danny Ainge, the Pelicans have a football executive.

The medical staff is also filled with football résumés. The Pelicans’ head trainer, Jon Ishop, was hired in 2010 after eight seasons with the Houston Texans. When Ishop left to go to the Pistons in 2016, Demps said “an organizational decision” was made to replace Ishop with Duane Brooks, who had been an assistant trainer with the Saints before being brought over to the NBA side (This summer, the Pelicans decided to part ways with Brooks after his contract expired, sources tell NBC Sports.).

In August 2017, the Saints made national headlines after firing two orthopedists following a misdiagnosis of cornerback Delvin Breaux’s broken leg as a bone bruise. One of those fired physicians, Dr. Misty Suri, was serving dual roles with the Saints and the Pelicans. 

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton explained the dismissal by saying, “I think it’s not one event, it probably builds up over a period of time. You’re not gonna bat a thousand here, but you’re just hoping that more often than not, you’re getting the right information.”
 
Despite being let go by the Saints, Dr. Suri maintained his position as the Director of Medical Services and Head Team Physician for the Pelicans. He has been there ever since, overseeing this rough spate of injuries.

The football-heavy influence on the training staff is something that has caught the eye of Davis’ longtime trainer, Marcell Scott, a New Orleans native who also works closely with Pelicans forward Jahlil Okafor.

“Let the Saints be the Saints,” Scott told NBC Sports. “They get all the recognition [in New Orleans] anyways. As a city, we need basketball guys with basketball guys and football guys with football guys. That’s how you get better as an organization moving forward.”

It’s not rare to see a player need multiple surgeries to correct an injury or problem area. But the Pelicans seem to deal with this more than most teams: Tyreke Evans’ three knee surgeries in 10 months; Quincy Pondexter’s multiple knee surgeries and scary battle with MRSA; two surgeries on a broken foot for 2017 No. 31 overall pick Frank Jackson; multiple knee procedures on both knees for Alexis Ajinca. 

Evans never panned out as a Pelican, and other clashes with the medical staff included players on the margins. New Orleans needed to protect players brought in to be co-stars next to Anthony Davis: Gordon, Holiday, and Cousins. Ultimately, they’ve failed in that regard. 

New Orleans fans will remember the Chris Paul trade and Gordon’s subsequent knee injury saga that kicked off his bumpy tenure with the organization. In 2012, Demps went against Gordon’s initial public wishes to leave New Orleans and matched Phoenix’s max offer for Gordon. The team physician and Gordon disagreed on the severity of a right knee injury that caused Gordon to miss training camp and the team forbade its max player from speaking to reporters, prompting Gordon to go straight to the national media himself and declare he’d be out four to six weeks. 

A series of stress fractures and stress reactions to Holiday’s right leg wiped out half his 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Stress fractures are not uncommon. But in 2015, Holiday’s long-time personal trainer Mike Guevara, in an interview with SB Nation, questioned the Pelicans’ return-to-play procedure and said that Holiday’s “minutes were not managed as well … his minutes were relatively high and in my opinion he was thrown into the fire too soon.” 

(The following season, in 2015-16, the Pelicans lowered Holiday’s minutes and Guevara was officially brought on as a sports-performance consultant by the Pelicans.)

Last season, Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon after an excessive workload just before the All-Star break. Playing on the fastest team in the NBA, Cousins also endured the most taxing month of his career from a minutes perspective, which included playing four overtimes in nine days and one game in which he played a career-high 52 minutes. His Achilles tendon snapped in the fourth quarter, his fourth game in seven days. 

In Cousins, Demps appeared to finally get his Davis co-star. But once again, the Pelicans seemed to mismanage a golden opportunity and run it into the ground.

* * *

The Pelicans have every right to be nervous about Davis’ future. 

It’s the smallest market in the NBA, which is no small thing for a global star like Davis. He fired his New Orleans-based agent and hired LeBron’s agent and then LeBron courted him, creating a media firestorm. His tenure with the organization has been marred by a poor track record with injuries and public disagreements about diagnoses. David Stern’s comment added insult to injury.

Ask any GM and they’ll rank their medical and training staff as above-average. Statistically, that can’t be true. The Pelicans internally believe they have a top-five practice facility, which is something that most teams would likely say about their own operation. A famous psychological study found that 93 percent of polled Americans believed themselves to be more skillful than the median driver. Same goes for the injury prevention industry.

Still, by the win-loss column, 20 teams, including Charlotte, have fared better than the Pelicans since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012. One can only wonder what the organization might look like if it hadn’t gotten so lucky on that 2012 draft lottery day. It’s becoming harder and harder to blame Davis if he decides to try his luck somewhere else.

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

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NBC Sports

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

Global pandemic aside, this was not the season the Philadelphia 76ers expected in 2019-20. On Monday, Ben Simmons reportedly underwent surgery in Philadelphia to remove a loose body from his left knee, all but ending his season. The Sixers are locked into the No. 6 seed in the East with Joel Embiid already dealing with a sore left ankle. 

Before this season, ESPN pegged the new-look Sixers as more likely to win the 2020 NBA Finals than the Los Angeles Lakers. In early October, Vegas placed their over/under at 54.5 wins, the Sixers’ most bullish rating in decades. Instead, they have the win percentage of a 48-win team and no Simmons to rescue their playoff hopes.

Now, the 76ers have some decisions to make. With the title out of reach, should they play Embiid the rest of the way or shut him down? If Embiid plays, should Al Horford replace Simmons’ spot in the lineup or will that push Embiid out of his comfort zone? 

But the bigger question looming beyond this season is: Why is the Simmons-Embiid era trending in the wrong direction?

With the playoffs around the corner, let’s dive into one of the great mysteries in the NBA.

Embiid’s dilemma: to play or not to play?

This was supposed to be Embiid’s postseason of redemption. After several bounces on the rim at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid and the Sixers’ 2018-19 season ended at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. The Sixers were right there.

And Embiid wasn’t even himself. Laboring through a bothersome left knee injury that limited him throughout the season, Embiid shot just 42.8 percent from the floor last postseason and missed a game in the Brooklyn series dealing with the leg issue. A healthy Embiid in the postseason meant the sky was the limit for the Sixers. It didn't come to fruition in 2019.

As a result, last offseason the Sixers front office shook things up and decided to bolster the backcourt to help keep Embiid fresh and healthy. They signed former Celtics big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109- million contract and traded Butler for Josh Richardson. But after last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Raptors, Embiid’s redemption tour hasn’t gone smoothly. On The Old Man & The Three podcast with his former teammate JJ Redick, which was recorded before Simmons’ injury, Embiid expressed that he hadn’t been in the groove this season.

“I won’t lie, during this season, I was not myself,” Embiid said. “I was not there. Like, I just wasn’t comfortable. The offense wasn’t the same. The basketball wasn’t the same to me. The way things happened last summer, it was just so frustrating. I was just mad at the whole world and I was just like, eh, whatever.”

Despite that discomfort, Embiid still thought the Sixers could take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

“But I still believe,” Embiid added. “We’ve got a big chance to make it happen. We can win the whole thing.”

With Simmons sidelined, the calculus has inevitably changed. Now, the question becomes whether the unlikely reward of a deep playoff run is worth the risk of Embiid getting seriously hurt. The 7-foot center has already missed 22 games this season dealing with various injuries and we’ve already seen major injuries befall Simmons (patella subluxation), Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. (torn meniscus) and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL). 

The good news is that injuries haven’t spiked beyond the norm in the Orlando bubble, according to injury tracking by InStreetClothes.com’s Jeff Stotts. Some of that might be due to the recent aggressive resting strategies by teams as they gear up for the playoffs. Unfortunately, in the opening minutes of the second game of Simmons’ absence, Embiid landed awkwardly on the stanchion and hurt his left ankle, ending his night. Embiid’s sore ankle kept him out of Tuesday’s game ahead of Wednesday’s juicy matchup against the Raptors, a game in which Embiid only played 14 minutes.

It’d be understandable if the Sixers decide to exercise caution with their franchise pillar and keep Embiid sidelined with his sore ankle and various ailments. This wasn’t the Sixers’ year, why risk it? But if the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana’s TJ Warren have taught us anything: crazy things can happen in the bubble. Maybe an Embiid-led Sixers squad can shock the world and take down the Celtics. 

If Embiid plays, what’s the best chance of a deep playoff run?

Horford will likely step into the starting lineup and replace Simmons next to Joel Embiid, an alignment that coach Bret Brown loathed to use this season. Before Simmons got hurt last week, Horford and Embiid played without Simmons for only 128 of the team’s 3,327 minutes this season, according to PBPstats.com tracking. (Brown’s intuition may have been onto something: the Sixers’ opponent actually outscored by exactly one point in those Simmons-less minutes with Horford and Embiid on the floor.)

Statistically, Embiid has been better off individually when he doesn’t play with Horford. And that brings us to the short-term dilemma facing the Sixers: the best thing for the Sixers might be bringing Horford off the bench, but the optics of putting a $100-million player in the second unit may not sit well.

The team’s decision to pivot away from the Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick era and sign Horford was met with mixed reviews. But I was bullish on the move simply because Horford would help rescue the hellacious Embiid-less minutes that torpedo’d the Sixers’ East Finals hopes last season.

Horford hasn’t been the Sixers’ savior. Perhaps that’s putting too much on his shoulders. But then again, nine-figure contracts bring high expectations. Ironically, by far the most successful Sixers look this season has been Embiid playing solo without Horford or Simmons on the floor at all. In 439 minutes this season, per PBPstats.com, the Solo Embiid lineups have blasted opponents 981-860, or 13.9 points every 100 possessions. 

If the Sixers are going to make a run, that’s how they’re going to do it: maximizing Solo Embiid time and turning Horford into the Sixers’ Montrezl Harrell. 

My suggestion would be to replace Simmons with Mike Scott, not Horford. The Sixers need to surround Embiid with as much shooting as possible. Simmons’ willingness to shoot 3s would have been such a game-changer but his injury means we won’t get to see whether the 24-year-old was going to finally add that weapon to his arsenal.

Scott won’t hesitate to let it fly, giving Embiid ample room to dominate in the post. Yes, Charles Barkley sometimes goes over the top with his Embiid criticism, but the notion that Embiid should spend more time on the block is a fair one. 

If you want Superstar Embiid, chances are Horford can’t be in the picture. With Horford on the floor, Embiid shoots 5.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. There just isn’t as much space for Embiid to operate when he’s flanked by the paint-dwelling Horford. When the former Celtics is on the floor, Embiid’s rates of basket attacks and free throws go south.

But when Horford is on the bench, Embiid’s launch rate from downtown falls to 3.4 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, which is a much healthier number considering Embiid is a below-average marksmen from downtown (33.1 percent). Perhaps most importantly, Embiid playing without Horford has far better results on the scoreboard (plus-147 without Horford versus plus-7 with Horford).

You don’t have to remind this phenomenon to Celtics fans. Back in December, Horford sat out the Sixers’ visit to TD Garden and Embiid destroyed Boston’s frontline, tallying 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and going to the free-throw line 14 times. The Celtics had no answer for Embiid and the Sixers won a road game in the toughest of environments, a rarity for this Sixers squad. When Horford and Embiid played in February in Boston, the Celtics blew out the Sixers while Embiid struggled throughout the night.

The Horford-Embiid partnership is awkward, but it’s easy to see why the Sixers want to make it work. Nine-figure salaries don’t typically go to reserve players. But the evidence is clear. If the Sixers want to raise their playoff ceiling, they should look to maximize Embiid first and the rest will take care of itself.

What about the Simmons-Embiid duo long-term?

No, I don’t think the Sixers need to break up the Simmons-Embiid duo. The team has them under contract for at least three additional seasons. Simmons just turned 24 years old. Embiid is 26. Their primes should be in Philadelphia.

But it’s fair to bring up the possibility, given their trajectory. After a breakout season in 2017-18, the Sixers have seen their win percentage fall in each of the last two seasons. With Simmons sidelineed, the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since the Allen Iverson era remains elusive.

And they may be stuck with what they have. Because the Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris acquisitions haven’t worked out exactly as planned, the team has not only fallen short of expectations this season, but each player’s individual value around the league has also soured. Likewise, any attractive retool strategies will be gummed up by the lukewarm stock of Philadelphia’s supporting cast. 

This is the double whammy of having a down season. So, how do they get out of it? 

It won’t be easy. They need shooting, shooting and more shooting. Losing Redick’s marksmanship and two-man game with Embiid devastated the Sixers. Last season, the Sixers’ starting lineup with Butler and Redick scored a blistering 121.9 points per 100 possessions. This season with Richardson and Horford? It plummeted to 105.4 points. The defensive upgrade simply hasn’t stopped the bleeding on the offensive end.

The Sixers should  focus on Joe Harris this offseason. The Brooklyn sharpshooter is an unrestricted free agent and the Nets retain his Bird rights, allowing them to offer a higher salary than any other team. A sign-and-trade could be doable. The question is whether the Nets would want in return, supposing he’s even on the table.

The Nets have a hole at power forward and they could be interested in bringing home Long Island native Tobias Harris as a high-quality safety net for Kevin Durant, allowing the two-time MVP to ease back into the flow of things after his Achilles injury.

The Nets may have some motivation to find some value in return for Joe Harris. The team already has committed a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension to shooting guard Caris LeVert, which kicks in next season. With Spencer Dinwiddie already looking for minutes behind LeVert and Kyrie Irving, Harris might be the odd one out.

The Nets could orchestrate a complicated Joe Harris sign-and-trade to get him to Philly but it would likely require Philly giving up an asset like Matisse Thybulle in the deal. It’s hard to see the pathway to get a Harris-Harris swap (Tobias makes $34.3 million next season), but the Sixers should at the very least kick the tires on what it’d take to acquire the best free agent shooter on the 2020 market.

Another intriguing option is Sacramento’s Nemanja Bjelica. If Bjelica hadn’t made a last-minute reversal in 2018 free agency, he'd be on the Sixers right now. Bjelica is due $7.2 million next season and the Kings have an interesting offseason ahead with Bogdan Bogdanovic being a restricted free agent. Trading for Philly’s Richardson could be a fallback option if Bogie’s pricetag gets too high for Sacramento’s liking.

The Sixers may just stand pat and try to make it work with this group rather than retool for the third straight year. Trading Simmons or Embiid is not the right answer. The incessant noise about breaking up the Simmons-Embiid duo drowns out the real issue which is finding the right pieces around the star duo. Horford is an expensive battery for Embiid, but bringing Horford off the bench may be the best way the Sixers can salvage a lost season. No matter what happens in the bubble playoffs, another fascinating offseason awaits Philadelphia.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

The bubble has revived a lot of the NBA's best rivalries and helped flame some new ones but one thing that's been missing during the regular season restart is elevation. 

Everyone seems to be a little less bouncy since they've arrived at Disney World, and that shows in the number of dunks per NBA game in the bubble being down 25%. 

What's causing this deflation in elevation? The biggest factor is NBA players not having their legs quite yet. 

Another big factor is how teams are responding to certain opponents. 

Don't buy that? The Lakers led the NBA with 7.8 dunks per game before March 11, but the bubble environment has sapped that element of their attack -- down to just 4.7 per game.

And perhaps most notable, the Lakers finished with 0 dunks for the first time all season against the small-ball Houston Rockets. 

Seems like someone is changing their plan of attack.