NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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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.

Report: Orlando hires Toronto GM Jeff Weltman to be president of basketball operations

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In Toronto, Masai Ujiri is the head of basketball operations and the guy with the hammer on deals. Jeff Weltman was his right-hand man and team GM.

Make that was his right-hand man, Weltman has been hired by the Orlando Magic to run its basketball operations, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Orlando Magic have hired Toronto Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, league sources told The Vertical.

Weltman met with Orlando CEO Alex Martins and ownership on Monday, finalizing a five-year deal, league sources said.

Orlando officials had been intrigued with Cleveland GM David Griffin, but moved steadily toward Weltman as they became further engaged with his candidacy in recent weeks, league sources said. Weltman has been deeply involved in every aspect of the Raptors’ front office under president Masai Ujiri as Toronto became a perennial Eastern Conference contender.

Making a move now is smart in this sense: The Magic have the No. 5 pick in this draft and would want the guy making the big picture decisions about this roster on board to make this selection.

That roster already has some quality pieces — Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, maybe Elfrid Payton — but has underachieved. There were questions about the culture and a lack of accountability, and that blame ultimately fell on GM Rob Hennigan and he was let go. Frank Vogel is locked in as

Frank Vogel is locked in as coach, so how well Weltman and Vogel work together — and share a vision — will be key.

Weltman is well-respected around the league. He spent five seasons as an assistant GM in Milwaukee, and has been with the Raptors since 2013 as that team has risen up the Eastern Conference standings and had its best run in franchise history. He also has worked with the Clippers and in Denver. He’s been one of those guys expected to get a chance in the big chair for a few years now.

He’s got it, and it’s an interesting challenge in Orlando.

Celtics’ Guerschon Yabusele has foot surgery, expected to be ready for training camp

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When the Boston Celtics head to training camp next fall, all eyes will be on Markelle Fultz whoever the Celtics take with the No. 1 pick. He will be the guy expected, in a few years, to lead the Celtics to the top of the mountain in the East (assuming LeBron James ever leaves that space).

But they will have another high first round pick coming in: Guerschon Yabusele, a 6’8” power forward out of France. The Celtics drafted him No. 16 a year ago, then had him go get a year of seasoning in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Yabusele is having foot surgery but is expected to be ready for training camp, reports Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

Guerschon Yabusele, a 2016 first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, underwent surgery recently to remove bone spurs from the top of both feet and will not participate in summer league, according to a league source.

Yabusele, the 16th overall pick in last year’s draft, spent much of his first professional season stashed in China. He came stateside in March and latched on with the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s D-League affiliate.

For a team that lacks rebounding, Yabusele could be a fit in Boston. He has the build of an old-school power forward, but he has a face-up game on offense, a quicker first step than people think, and he can shoot the three.

The Celtics also have Ante Zizic, last year’s No. 23 pick, who played last season in Turkey. The Celtics are a deep team, will they have a roster space for Yabusele or Zizic next season? Or will at least one of them play another year overseas, stashed away and waiting for their chance? There are a lot of questions about the Celtics’ plans this summer, that is just one of them.

Could Game 4 Monday be Manu Ginobili’s last in the NBA? He hasn’t decided.

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If the San Antonio Spurs fall to the Golden State Warriors Monday night, their season comes to an end. A frustrating one because of the “what might have been?” questions if Kawhi Leonard had not rolled his ankle.

It also could be the last time we see Manu Ginobili play.

The Argentinian with the clever passing and high IQ game will turn 40 before next season starts and has hinted at this being his last year. He’s also not thinking about that right now and told the San Antonio Express-News he has yet to make a decision on his future.

“I’m going to go game by game,” Ginobili said. “We’ll see if (Monday) is the last one of the season. We hope that it’s not, and that we have a few more. Once it’s over, then I’ll start wondering what the future brings.”

Of course he said that, what else would he have said?

The question for athletes at his point in their careers becomes this: Do I want to still put in the extra work it takes to get my body ready to play at this level? Listen to the greats that left the game recently — Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett — and that’s the common theme. They were ready to move on, they didn’t want to be working out at 7 a.m. all summer long and avoiding trips to In-n-Out (or Whataburger for Duncan) because they had to prepare for another long grind of a season.

Does Ginobili want to put in the work? It didn’t sound like it over the course of the season, but who knows. He made $14 million this season, that’s a lot of motivation to come back.

If he does leave, he will be missed. There hasn’t been anyone quite like him in the game.

 

Death threats may prompt Thunder’s Enes Kanter to become US citizen

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Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter said Monday he routinely received death threats for criticizing the government of his native Turkey, and he may seek an expedited process toward becoming a U.S. citizen.

Kanter was detained at an airport in Romania over the weekend, with border police there saying they did so because Turkish authorities canceled his passport. Kanter eventually was allowed to leave for London and then New York, after he said officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others intervened on his behalf.

Kanter held a news conference in New York on Monday and said he was the target of two more death threats earlier in the day.

“This is definitely crazy right now,” he said.

Kanter has long been a critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he has likened to Adolf Hitler on multiple occasions. Kanter contends, among other things, that a failed coup attempt last year was actually staged by the Erdogan-led government.

“I call it the fake coup attempt,” Kanter said. “Last year, they did a fake coup attempt themselves, so they can control everything. So right now, the Erdogan government is controlling the army, controlling the police, controlling judges, controlling journalists, everything.”

Kanter makes no secret of his support of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who opposes Erdogan. Kanter said that when he was detained in Romania, he feared he would be sent back to Turkey.

Kanter said he has not spoken with his parents and other relatives in Turkey in more than a year.

“There’s no democracy. There’s no freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It’s definitely been crazy,” Kanter said. “Right now, even if I tried to communicate with my parents, my mom, my dad, my brother or sister, they would probably right now listen on their phones and as soon as they are in contact with me they’ll put them in a jail. And the jails are not fun, of course.”

Kanter has a green card for entry to the U.S. but no passport, which is problematic on several fronts. He had several international trips planned this summer on his foundation’s behalf, and he also likely would not be able to enter Canada without the passport – a problem considering Oklahoma City plays once each season in Toronto.

Romanian Border Police Spokesman Fabian Badila told The Associated Press that Kanter arrived Saturday at about 1 p.m. from Frankfurt at Bucharest’s Henri Coanda Airport, traveling on a Turkish passport.

“My colleagues discovered … that the passport had been canceled by Turkish authorities, and legally he is not allowed to enter Romania,” Badila said.

Kanter has been in the NBA for six seasons. He averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds this season for the Thunder. He said it’s his understanding that the process to become a U.S. citizen can take five years, though he hopes that can be accelerated in his case.

“I feel like this is my home now,” Kanter said.