The Inbounds: Houston, We Have A Solution

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Maybe no team will have the kind of predicted-win variance from fans and experts this season than the Houston Rockets. Some think that they’re going to be downright awful, a wretched mishmash of forwards and injured guards, built around a lack of size and no real starpower. Others think it’s entirely possible this team can swing for the playoffs. A young, versatile core with Jeremy Lin making the plays, a defense built around Omer Asik, and if even one of the three rookies breaks out, look out. They could massively exceed expectations or completely crash and burn into the ground prompting a full-scale re-reboot, and you wouldn’t really be surprised at either, nor would you be shocked at a good-not-great late lottery finish, typically referred to as the “Rockets” finish every year.

They’ve got four separate gambles going on. First, that Jeremy Lin is the player he was for two weeks in February and not the player he was, you know, any other time. That in the right system, with the confidence and what he learned about himself last year, he can be the kind of playmaking, odds-defying producer who set the league on fire. Second, that one of the rookies will work out. If Jeremy Lamb works out? Great. An athletic two-guard who can fill up the scoreboard and whose length on the perimeter provides the anchor of the defense on the edge. If it’s Terrence Jones, a relentless inside attacker with elite athleticism who can also step out and hit a few shots (probably more than he should take), a kind of Josh Smith 2.0 model? Neat. If it’s Royce White, a combo-forward who passes like Bird and leaps like LeBron, fantastic. Just one of them has to pull it off.

Three, that Kevin McHale’s defensive system can take the spare parts and make them into a unit. McHale struggled last year on several fronts. Scheme, execution, and most especially, player relations. Kevin Martin is in the doghouse, Luis Scola was given the amnesty heave-ho, and Kyle Lowry is inexplicably a Raptor. McHale has to take a team with Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, three rookies, Donatas Motiejunas, and Chandler Parsons, and get them to communicate, attack, and rotate.

It is not a small hill to climb.

And finally, the most likely gamble, and maybe the most important. That somewhere in this combination of guys is the ability to trade for a major player and that the other players will fit around him.

GM Daryl Morey has missed out on the stars. There’s just no getting around it. From Carmelo Anthony  to Chris Paul to Dwight Howard, he’s oh-fer since the end of the Yao Ming era in drawing a major player to Houston’s traffic jams. He’s constantly built the team ready to acquire and take on a star, and he’s managed to field competitive non-playoff teams without sacrificing payroll or draft picks. But the criticism of him is valid until he’s able to schmooze a big name to buy in, and be able to pull off the deal to acquire him.

He’s certainly got the tools. The Rockets can offer any team that has to ditch its best player a combination of Kevin Martin’s contract, extra draft picks, and young players, without cleaning out the cupboard. Especially if they need forwards.

Lord, can the Rockets offer forwards.

So if the Rockets can just find that situation that’s ripe, and there seems to be a superstar moving every year in this league now (and they’ve run out of big markets to move to), they can snag the guy. And they’ll have so much left over, they’ll be able to build right away. A team with a good center in either Asik or Motiejunas (neither of which are locks but it’s possible both could be retained in trade and that one would work out), a capable point guard in Lin, and the wings to fit around the player means that there’s no need to build up, no spending splurge needed like in New Jersey or Miami.

The bad news? They’re not the only one. The Sixers just got their guy in Andrew Bynum, so they’re off the list. But Denver, Utah, Phoenix, Cleveland all have similar situations and the ability to take on deals. It’s a stronger market now, and the Rockets have the most, but that doesn’t mean they have the most chances. Plus, that guy may never come available.

But the real key here is you have to do everything you can, and the Rockets have. If they can’t acquire a superstar despite having the most assets, and if none of the young players turn into legitimate stars, and their combination of players don’t gel, and they can’t lure free agents, then you know what? Everything has gone wrong that can go wrong, and that’s just the way it goes.

The ability for Houston to absorb a major contract and to still retain their ability to compete without major rebuilding should not be overstated. They don’t have players with set tendencies who need X or Z to succeed. All of their players are either young enough to be malleable, or their games fit snugly around an alpha scorer.

In short, the have the best archaeologists, the most resources, the finest scholars, and every mode of transportation available, including camels.

But the trick is still finding the Holy Grail.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.