NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets


Last season: 42-40. They were average on offense, average on defense and had an average record — which is actually pretty impressive considering they had no stars to carry them. This was a good squad of role players waiting for a leader.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman, who missed the playoffs last season for just the third time as a coach. That’s impressive.

Key Departures: Trevor Ariza, who left as part of the four-team deal that brought Coutney Lee in to Houston. Ariza went from being a cog in the Lakers machine to a key player in the Rockets offense — and with that increased usage on offense came far less efficient — his True Shooting percentage dropped from .544 in Los Angeles to .488 in Houston. Not everyone is suited to be the guy creating the offense — Ariza could do that well on the break but not in the half-court roles Houston had for him.

Key Additions: Yao Ming is back. Limited in minutes, not moving as well as he did before missing a year due to foot surgery (particularly laterally). But he is still a 7’6” guy with touch on the midrange who can defend the rim with insanely long arms. Even 80 percent of Yao makes the Rockets a much better team… if he can just stay healthy.

The Rockets also locked up Luis Scola, who reminded us at the FIBA World Championships that he is dang good and gets overlooked. Other guys in the door are Courtney Lee and Yao’s backup Brad Miller. Houston also drafted Patrick Paterson, who seems to fit their mold.

Best case scenario: Yao Ming stays healthy and as the season moves on plays more and more minutes, becoming more and more his old self. Then by the playoffs everything is clicking and they are serious threat to the Lakers.

For that to happen: It really is all about Yao.

Sure, there are other things that have to happen. Aaron Brooks has to continue as a catalyst for the Rockets inside-out offense and has to continue to play up to his Most Improved Player status. Kevin Martin needs to be the wing scorer and three-point threat this team needs to stretch the floor. Scola and Shane Battier need to continue to do their thing efficiently. Kyle Lowry needs to lead a change-of-pace second unit that runs and puts up points.

Basically — the Rockets need to play like they did last year, but with Yao now as the leader.

On defense the once formidable Rockets took a hit because after Yao this is not a big team and they lacked someone who could protect the rim. Last season the Rockets allowed teams to shoot 62.7 percent at the rim (eighth worst in the league) and get 28.1 shots per game there (sixth worst in the league). Yao has to change that, force teams to shoot from the outside more, miss more when they do get in the lane. That allows guys like Battier to be more dangerous and aggressive out on the wings.

The Rockets need to keep the flow in the offense and work inside out with Yao — who is a fantastic passer, so it should work. Yao also should help the Rockets on the boards, another area they needed to improve last season.

The question is, can Yao do all this now? After a year off for major foot surgery at age 30?

More likely the Rockets will: Be better, but Yao will be a step slow from his old self, and with that the Rockets will be a step behind their ultimate goals. They will end up like a lot of teams in the West, good but not quite good enough to best the Lakers.

And the risk of injury to the Rockets seems higher than a lot of teams. Yao and Martin have very thick doctors files.

But also know this — a healthy Rockets might be the Lakers toughest matchup in the West. A reasonably healthy Yao stymies Bynum, Battier can slow Kobe, the Lakers are susceptible to quick penetrating point guards like Brooks. Remember that two seasons ago the Rockets took the Lakers seven games (the series where Yao injured his foot). If one team in the West can upset a fairly healthy Lakers squad, it might well be a healthy Rockets squad.

Prediction: 48-34, one of the bottom couple seeds in the West. And we may get to see my theory about them matching up well with the Lakers early on.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder prepare for life without Kevin Durant

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 11:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on October 11, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Maybe life after Kevin Durant won’t be so bad for the Thunder.

After the longtime face of the franchise left for Golden State, crestfallen Oklahoma City fans were worried it was just a matter of time before the team’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, would follow suit. In a move that shocked many, Westbrook re-signed with Oklahoma City. The former scoring champion and two-time All-Star MVP’s return gives the team hope.

New faces such as shooting guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis, both acquired in the deal that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando, might take some time to fit in. Westbrook believes the team is talented enough to succeed if it is focused and the new pieces blend with the old ones who helped the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals last season.

“Just play hard, man,” Westbrook said. “I don’t know, win or lose. The only thing I know is that as long as we play hard, we give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Westbrook could post historic numbers. He averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds last season and had 18 triple-doubles, the most since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. Without Durant, more of that could be on the way.

Sabonis, a rookie out of Gonzaga who played for Lithuania’s Olympic team, played with the starters throughout the preseason. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points and 4.0 assists in three years with Orlando. He joins Westbrook to form arguably the most athletic backcourt tandem in the NBA.

“Defensively, I think we can be the best defensive backcourt in the league because we can do different things with our size and using our length and our speed,” Westbrook said.

Here are some things to watch for the Thunder:

Steven Adams

The 7-footer from New Zealand was already a top-notch defender and rebounder before stepping up his offense and averaging 10.1 points during the playoffs last season. In his final two preseason games, he scored 20 points against Minnesota and 17 points against Denver. He could be a breakout star.

“I think we’ve had an opportunity these last two nights (against Minnesota and Denver) how good he is around the basket, how smart he has become and how much of a presence he is in the middle,” Westbrook said.

Enes Kanter

The natural expectation was that Ibaka’s departure would prompt coach Billy Donovan to move Kanter, who finished third in balloting for the league’s sixth-man award last season, into the starting lineup. Instead, Donovan started Sabonis throughout the preseason. Perhaps Donovan knows best – Sabonis showed he can hang with the starters, and Kanter averaged 17.8 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent in the preseason.


Oklahoma City’s defense could slip with Ibaka in Orlando. Sabonis has great potential, but he’s young, and NBA defense takes some time to learn. Donovan said Sabonis has caught on quickly, but there still could be a dip early because Ibaka’s level of play is difficult to replace – he was a three-time first-team All-NBA defender and a two-time blocks leader.


The Thunder added several foreign players to the roster who will add depth – Spain’s Alex Abrines, France’s Joffrey Lauvergne and Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova. Donovan said he likes the maturity foreign players add to a team. Abrines played for Spain’s national team that earned bronze medals at the Olympics. Lauvergne played for France in Rio.


Andre Roberson has shifted from the starting shooting guard to starting small forward. That means the Thunder still have Roberson’s dynamic athletic ability, defensive prowess and nose for the ball on the boards in the lineup. He was a liability on offense in the past, but he started becoming more of a factor on offense during the playoffs last season.

“I think he feels more comfortable and confident offensively,” Donovan said. “He’s put forth effort in that area. It’s just him continuing to grow offensively and trying to put him in situations where he slashes to the basket and he can cut and he can get out in transition and he can take his open corner threes.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP

Raptors’ Jared Sullinger to have foot surgery, miss “extended time”

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics looks on from the bench against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Raptors are counting on Jared Sullinger to cover for the loss of Bismack Biyombo by crashing the boards, helping them space the floor on offense, and just being solid.

But they are going to have to get by without him for a while, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports, and confirmed by the team.

There is no timeline for Sullinger’s return, but it’s going to be a while. Sullinger had battled a stress reaction in his foot a year ago, this is likely an extension of that problem.

This certainly hurts the Raptors’ depth up front, but it’s also not a massive setback for a team with lofty aspirations this season. Patrick Patterson will get more minutes, which is a good thing, plus the Raptors need to play DeMarre Carroll more at the four. They can wait for Sullinger (who they signed this summer after Boston let him walk in the wake of signing Al Horford.

Heat waive Beno Udrih, Briante Webber, two others to keep Rodney McGruder

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  Beno Udrih #19 of the Miami Heat drives on Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs during a game  at American Airlines Arena on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Beno Udrih sacrificed $90,000 last season to get the Heat an additional $2.7 million last season.

They repaid him with more than $1.5 million this season (though less than $1 million of it from their own pockets).

And that’s all they gave him.

Miami won’t even give Udrih a regular-season roster spot, waiving him to allow Rodney McGruder to make the team.

Heat release:

The Miami HEAT announced today that they have waived Vashil Fernandez, Luis Montero, Beno Udrih, Brianté Weber and Okaro White.

To recap: Out for the rest of the final season of his guaranteed contract due to injury, Udrih took a buyout that lowered his compensation by $90,000 last season. That brought the Heat under the luxury-tax line, preventing them from paying the repeater rate and allowing them to receive about $2.5 million given to non-tax-paying teams. Miami then re-signed Udrih this offseason, giving him a one-year, $1,551,659 fully guaranteed contract. Most players with guaranteed salaries stick into the regular season, but it seems the Heat paid Udrih for a reason other than their faith in him as a backup point guard.

Here’s the kicker: Because Udrih was a 12-year veteran on a one-year minimum contract, the league – funded by the very teams that rightfully protested Miami’s arrangement – has to fund $571,228 of his salary.

The Heat seemed high on Briante Weber, but he’s young and needs polish. McGruder, who went undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013, is probably more capable of helping now.

This leaves Miami without a clear backup point guard behind Goran Dragic, but combo guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson can handle the role.

Chris Paul hopes Clippers develop real home court advantage this year

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin #32 and DeAndre Jordan #6 share a laugh during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 26, 2016 in Playa Vista, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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At Clippers home games, you generally wouldn’t use the word “rockin'” to describe the atmosphere. With that, the Los Angeles Clippers are a good team at home, but not a whole lot better than they are on the road. Last season the Clippers won 29 games at Staples Center, 24 away from home. The season before they won 30 at home. The Clippers don’t defend their home court like other elite teams: The past two seasons combined the Clippers have won 19 fewer home games than the Warriors, 15 fewer than the Spurs, five less than the Cavaliers.

Chris Paul wants that to change.

Staples Center can get loud — it has for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Chris Paul isn’t laying the blame on the building or Clippers game operations, he told Dan Woike of the Orange County Register it’s on the players to give the fans something to cheer about.

“One of the biggest things for us is our home court hasn’t really been a home court,” Paul said. “I don’t know. For some reason we just haven’t made it a tough place to play.

“ … Obviously it’s our mentality. We’re the ones playing. We have to give our crowd something to cheer about, something to get behind. We’ve got to make Staples Center, for our home games, a tough place to play.”

“I feel like sometimes we’re a better road team than we are a home team, and that’s not good,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “I mean it’s good, but we want to be a great team at home and a really, really, really good team on the road. We need to figure out how to transition that, and we’ll be fine, but we’ve got to pick it up at home.”

Los Angeles is a city visiting players circle on the schedule — there’s a lot of fun to be had in the City of Angels. That can have opposing players less focused and not at 100 percent when they take the floor for the game, but the Clippers don’t seem to have that advantage. Do the Clippers relax more at home? Are they too comfortable?

The Clippers are an elite team, but if they are going to advance to the Western Conference Finals it’s not going to be one big thing but a lot of little ones that take them to the next level. Having Staples Center become a real house of horrors for opponents is one of those things. We’ll see if things are different for the Clippers this year.