Rockets, Blazers could emerge from draft much improved

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Five years from now, we may remember this as the New Orleans Hornets draft. It’s the one where they landed Anthony Davis and set the franchise on a path to contention.

But there are other teams that could be making bold moves to become contenders.

Specifically, Houston and Portland could come out of Thursday night significantly better than they went into it.

The Rockets have already started to make moves — trading Chase Budinger to Minnesota for the No. 18 pick. That gives them picks 14, 16 and 18 and no team wants three picks in the teens. These are trade bait to move up the first round — rumors have the Rockets talking to the Kings at No. 5 through the Raptors at No. 8 and all points in between. The goal: turn these picks and a couple of players (maybe Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry, others) into better picks.

Which they would then trade for a star.

The ultimate goal would be to go after Dwight Howard, but that’s not likely. Not only because the trades and moves are hard to string together before Thursday, but also because all indications are Orlando and new general manager Rob Hennigan aren’t ready to make a deal yet.

But if not him, maybe the Rockets trade for Atlanta’s Josh Smith. They’ve long had interest in Pau Gasol, and while the Lakers are more in win-now mode, they also need to lower payroll in the coming years. There are a lot of options.

But the Rockets and GM Daryl Morey are thinking big.

Portland may not be moving as big, but they don’t need to. They come with the advantage of having LaMarcus Aldridge in house. They have an All-Star power forward as good as most in the game to start building around. They will keep Nicolas Batum, who gives them a coveted swingman.

But they need a whole lot of everything else.

What they have are two picks — Nos. 6 and 11 — where they can get good players to develop. New Blazers GM Neil Olshey is reportedly high on Weber State point guard Damian Lillard. Or they can trade a pick for a player they need. Portland also has cap space where they can go after free agents this summer.

Olshey is aggressive and has a lot of cards to play. By the time we get to the second half of July, they could be a radically constructed team.

Earlier Tuesday on Twitter, talking about the Rockets, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz hit on why I would be happy right now if I were a fan of either team:

You can get stuck in the middle in the NBA. You can be pretty good, make the playoffs as a low seed, get a little talent in the draft and just kind of survive for years and years. The product isn’t bad, but you’re never talking titles, either.

Both Portland and Houston are trying to get out of that place. If he Rockets did trade for Howard, they’d be contenders. And if he left after one season, they’d fall to rock bottom. But you can rebuild from there; you might luck out in the lottery. You’re no longer “meh.” If you’re a fan, you want your team to go after it all — not just be safe. These teams are doing that.

And it could pay off big.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”