Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin

NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last Season: Riding a deep roster and the creativity of a coaching staff and front office to cover up their weaknesses with in-season trades, the Rockets were in the playoff hunt into the season’s final days only to fall short and finish 9th in the West. They battled injury, illness, and the transition to new coach Kevin McHale in a lockout shortened season to be one of the surprise teams of the west.

Through it all they saw Goran Dragic elevate his game to the level of a really good starter, got contributions from several young players (Chandler Parsons became one of those guys basketball nerds love), and saw a patchwork front court anchored by Samuel Dalembert, Luis Scola, and Marcus Camby play big down the stretch. No, it wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs but they showed a ton of grit and were a league pass darling by the time the regular season closed.

Key Departures: You could argue that the Rockets lost their top two players from last season and four of their best five overall. Goran Dragic left for familiar stomping grounds in the desert, signing a free agent deal with the Suns. He takes with him scoring and play-making that carried the Rockets down the stretch. Luis Scola joins him in Phoenix after his amnestied contract was claimed on waivers. Scola is declining as a player but still a credible starter at a difficult to fill position. His craftiness will be missed. Kyle Lowry was traded to the Raptors for a future lottery pick after issuing an off-season ultimatum that asked for only one of him and head coach Kevin McHale to return. Losing Lowry was likely a necessity after his war of words with McHale, but he had an incredibly good contract and is coming into his own as a player. Courtney Lee and his heady all court game and good defense have moved on to help remake the Celtic’s wing rotation.

Key Additions: The Rockets have long been trying to rework their roster by signing or trading for a big name player that could anchor their franchise. They again struck out in getting one of the trade market’s big fish but did bring in a nice haul of young players that add to an already nice core.

In free agency, Darryl Morey took advantage of a poison pill loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to nab point guard prize Jeremy Lin and underrated big man/defensive ace Omer Asik. Both will be penciled in as starters and the hope is that Lin will anchor their offensive attack while Asik does the same for the D patrolling the back line.

In the draft the Rockets had three draft picks and used them all to select some intriguing talents. Swingman Jeremy Lamb joins big men Terrence Jones and Royce White as players that should see meaningful minutes this year. All three are rotation players but all come with questions. White is an especially intriguing prospect as he’s a player with lottery talent but an anxiety disorder that led to his draft stock suffering. If there’s a player to root for, it’s him.

Three Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Can such a young team find their bearings quickly enough to remain competitive?

The old adage is that you win with veterans in the NBA. The Rockets are likely going to learn that first hand this season as every projected starter not named Kevin Martin will be 26 or younger when the season starts. Kevin McHale will be doing a lot of teaching on the fly and he can only hope the lessons stick. If they do, the Rockets could surprise teams by coming at them with waves of youngsters who can really play. If they don’t, the Rockets could find themselves out of the playoff hunt early in the season for the first time in a while as the young players they rely on play like their ages.

2) Will Morey make a deal?

Kevin Martin is in the final year of a contract that will pay him nearly $13 million this season. The hope is that Martin’s deal can act as the salary ballast in a big trade with some of Houston’s high upside youngsters tossed in as sweetner. You have to believe that Morey is still looking for a big name player that can pair with Lin to anchor his team and that he’s willing to do what is necessary to make a deal. After the Chris Paul veto cost him Pau Gasol and the Magic decided they’d rather deal Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Morey is zero for two in franchise altering moves the past two seasons. With Martin’s deal set to fall off the books after the season this may be his last best chance to grab a high profile player via trade.

3) How good is Jeremy Lin?

This last question really is the most important one to the Rockets’ success for this season and beyond. Lin was amazing for the Knicks and showed that a combination of hard work and the right situation could lead to stardom. But his success in the Big Apple came in a relatively small sample size of games. The Rockets need a lasting dosage of Lin-sanity to avoid being one of the lesser teams in the conference this year. If he delivers, this team has a foundational pillar to build upon. If he’s not up to the task — he’s had an unsteady preseason so far– the Rockets’ hefty investment may end up biting them in the backside and send their season into a tailspin.

What Rockets fans should fear: The worst case scenario is that the Rockets can’t get a top flight player for a package centered around Martin but deal him anyway for a good but not great player who impacts their future cap flexibility. Meanwhile their young players show promise but prove mistake prone, and Jeremy Lin is good but not great, but the team plays hard and shows enough scrap to not be a cellar dweller in a competitive Western Conference. This would leave them with a mid-grade lottery pick in next year’s draft and the chance to draft another talented player who isn’t quite elite enough to be the type of difference maker that propels a franchise. In other words, the Rockets spin their wheels for another season and go into next year looking very much like the team they already are.

How it likely works out: The hodge-podge of young talent shows some promise but is ultimately a mixed bag. Jeremy Lin doesn’t quite reach the level he showed in New York but is good enough to not be a bust signing. The Rockets make a final push to trade Martin but don’t find an acceptable deal and let his contract fall off their books. The mostly young team plays hard and shows grit but that’s not enough to keep them close to the playoff hunt in a stacked Western Conference. The Rockets end up with a relatively high lottery pick and cap space next summer for them to try and finally rebuild.

Prediction: 27-55, 13th in the West and another lottery pick to try and package in a deal for whatever star is on the market next off-season (cough, James Harden, cough).

Grizzlies sign guard Toney Douglas under NBA’s hardship rule

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 06:  Toney Douglas #16 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives against Amir Johnson #90 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at TD Garden on April 6, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies have signed guard Toney Douglas under the NBA’s hardship rule.

The Grizzlies announced the move Monday, a week after Mike Conley broke several bones on the vertebrae of his lower back. Conley will not have surgery but is expected to miss at least six weeks.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Douglas has started 65 of his career 370 games during a seven-year career with the New York Knicks, Houston, Sacramento, Golden State, Miami and New Orleans. He played 10 of his 15 postseason games in Miami with Memphis coach David Fizdale.

Douglas was the 29th pick overall by the Lakers in 2009 out of Florida State.

Conley joined Chandler Parsons, James Ennis and Brandan Wright on the Grizzlies’ lengthy injury list.

Memphis plays at New Orleans on Monday night.

NBA: Grizzlies got away with two fouls in final minute of three-point win over Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14), Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9), and Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson (6) look on as the ball heads out of bounds in the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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The Grizzlies were down Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, James Ennis, Zach Randolph, Brandan Wright and Vince Carter against the Lakers on Saturday.

But Memphis got a little outside help in its 103-100 win – from the late-game officiating.

The Grizzlies got away with two loose-ball fouls in the final minute, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

(The report also notes a third incorrect call: Jordan Clarkson getting away with a travel with 1:33 left. But the Lakers didn’t score on that possession, anyway).

With 30.7 seconds left, Tony Allen got away with committing a loose-ball foul on Brandon Ingram:

Allen (MEM) clamps Ingram’s (LAL) arm and affects his ability to retrieve the rebound.

A correct call would’ve put Memphis into the penalty and sent Ingram – who has made 77% of his free throws – to the line for two attempts. Instead, though they got the ball after the rebound scrum, the Lakers came up empty on their possession.

Then, Marc Gasol also got away with committing a loose-ball foul on Luol Deng with 3.5 seconds left:

Gasol (MEM) dislodges Deng (LAL) affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

Again, a correct call would’ve given the Lakers two free throws. Deng is shooting 70% this season and 77% for his career from the line.

Instead, Gasol grabbed the game-clinching rebound.

The game obviously would have played out differently if these calls were made correctly. But, as it stands, the Lakers missed out on four free throws from solid shooters in the final minute of a three-point loss.

Week 7 NBA Power Rankings: A team in the East ahead of Cleveland? For now.

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 26:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 and DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors high five after defeating the Detroit Pistons in an NBA game at Air Canada Centre on October 26, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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For the first time this season, a team in the East has climbed above the Cleveland Cavaliers in the rankings — but it may be short-lived with Toronto taking on Cleveland on Monday night. The top of the West still dominates the top of the rankings.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (17-3, Last Week No. 1). The Warriors are running. They are third in the league in pace (103 possessions a game, per NBA.com) and 16.7 percent of their possessions are in transition, where they score at a 123.1 points per 100 possessions pace (best in the NBA). Bottom line, they get 23 points a possession from transition, and if you give that team easy buckets on the break it’s almost impossible to beat them. Golden State heads out on a five-game road trip Wednesday that includes the Clippers, Jazz, and Grizzlies.

Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (16-4, LW 3). Does it shock anyone the Spurs are the best catch-and-shoot team in the NBA? They don’t shoot the most (that’s Brooklyn, actually), but about one-third of their shots come this way and they get a league-best 118 points per 100 possessions off them. They move the ball, and they have shooters, it’s a system that works. Winners of 11 of their last 12, the Spurs start the week with three games on the road (including in Milwaukee and Chicago) before coming home to take on the Nets.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (16-6, LW 4). Thursday’s win in Cleveland was the kind of game Los Angeles lost in recent years — three losses in a row coming in, they didn’t point fingers but regrouped and blew out the defending champs. It looked like the Clippers had matured and taken a step forward, then they came home and had a sloppy loss with lots of complaining to the officials in a loss to Indiana. Which Clipper team do we get when the Warriors come to town Wednesday?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (14-6, LW 8). The Raptors are the hottest team in basketball. In their last six games, they have outscored their opponents by 138 points, playing well on both ends. Toronto’s defense the last couple weeks has been elite. But, they have beaten depleted teams, which still counts in the win column but has us hesitant to put them ahead of Cleveland. We did it anyway, but Monday is the real test when the Raptors take on the Cavs.

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (13-5, LW 2). Losers of three in a row, and they still are playing with a championship hangover, as evidenced by their 20th-ranked defense. However, the offense is still humming. We’ll see if they bounce back Monday vs. Toronto. Great note via Brian Windhorst of ESPN: This season LeBron James is averaging the fewest shots (17.2) and most assists (9.3) per game of his NBA career. That speaks to the talent around him having learned how to play with him, and Kyrie Irving coming into his own.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (13-7, LW 7). The win over Golden State on the road Thursday in the best game of the season was impressive, but so was going to Denver the next night and getting a victory at altitude when tired. The Rockets are now 7-2 since the return of Patrick Beverley, but that has mostly been about the second unit as their defense has remained bottom five in that time. Celtics and Thunder on the schedule this week, providing good tests.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (12-8, LW 9). Good teams pad their record against the soft parts of their schedule and that’s what the Celtics have done the past couple of weeks. Al Horford’s return certainly helped, but Boston’s last six wins are against teams below .500. Better tests this week vs. the Rockets, suddenly-hot Magic, Raptors, and Thunder, as the Celtics head into a road-heavy part of their schedule.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (12-9, LW 11). This team just cannot stay healthy — George Hill is missing time with a sprained toe — but they keep on finding a way to win, and of late that’s been as much about a good offense as a lock-down defense. They head into a home-heavy stretch of the schedule where Utah should be able to pick up some wins and solidify its spot in the standings.

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (13-8, LW 13). Russell Westbrook has 10 triple-doubles this season and the Thunder are 8-2 when he has one, they are 5-6 when he does not. OKC has a Top 10 defense, but they need him to carry the offense if they are going to win. Set the DVRs for Friday night when the Thunder takes on Houston: Westbrook vs. Harden is going to be entertaining.

Bulls small icon 10. Bulls (11-8, LW 5). They have suspended Rajon Rondo for one game due to “conduct detrimental to the team” — he got into an argument with an assistant coach during the loss to Dallas last week — and he will sit out Monday against Portland.They picked up a quality win against the Cavaliers last week, but surrounded it with bad losses to the Mavericks and Lakers. Blazers, Pistons, and Spurs will not make it easy this week.

Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (13-8, LW 6). The Grizzlies were -30 in total points for the week but managed to go 2-2, which is kind of what they need to do for the next month or so to keep their heads above water until Mike Conley’s return. The games this week against Portland, Philly, and New Orleans are also the kinds of games where they might be able to steal wins.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (10-8, LW 19). They have won four in a row (who cares if half of that was a home-and-home with Brooklyn). Giannis Antetokounmpo outdueled LeBron James last week and just has the ability to get the the rim and finish — he leads the NBA averaging 14 points in the paint a game — is breathtaking. It almost makes up for the lack of a jumper that should limit him more than it does. Going to be tough to keep the win streak going opening the week against the Spurs and Trail Blazers.

Knicks small icon 13. Knicks (11-9 LW 17). While I am loath to use the term “vintage” with Derrick Rose there is this: He is getting to the rim for 38.4% of his shots, his highest percentage since his rookie season. Combine that with the exciting change of pace and dynamic energy that Brandon Jennings brings off the bench and the Knicks have found a working point guard combo. Now they just have to figure out what to do with Joakim Noah. Good measuring stick game against the Cavaliers this week.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (11-11, LW 18). Reggie Jackson is back in the lineup and while that didn’t get them a win Sunday it will help them down the line. They won three-of-four on a recent road trip, a good sign with four of their next six still away from The Palace. They face Chicago, Charlotte, and Minnesota this week, the kinds of week where playoff teams find a way to get a couple of wins.

Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (11-9, LW 12). With Frank Kaminsky starting in place of the injured Marvin Williams the Charlotte offense has stumbled, and because of that they lost two-of-three last week in what were winnable games. That needs to change with games against Dallas, Detroit, and Orlando to start the week before the Hornets head out on a five-game road trip that starts in Cleveland.

Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 17). They get Al-Farouq Aminu back Monday after a 13-game absence, which will be a boost to their defense. They are going to need it — they head out on the road for eight of their next nine (they are 4-6 on the road so far this season). That road trip starts in Chicago, then heads to Milwaukee, followed by a back-to-back in Memphis.

Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (10-10, LW 16). Paul George and Cj.J. Miles are back healthy and in the rotation for the Pacers, which couldn’t have come at a better time. The Pacers also have gotten better bench play of late as Rodney Stuckey has started to thrive in that role. The Pacers just seem to have the Clippers’ number, and a quality win Sunday has them splitting the first two games of a five-game swing through the West.

Lakers small icon 18. Lakers (10-12, LW 14). Julius Randle has been a revelation on a lot of levels this season, but he has work to do. Like defending at the rim — he has a defensive field goal percentage of 60%, which is worst in the NBA for players with at least 70 attempts. The Knicks come to Los Angeles Sunday, hopefully this doesn’t lead to another stupid round of “Phil Jackson to the Lakers” talk — even if Jackson does opt-out in New York the Lakers are on the right track and better off without him.

Hawks small icon 19. Hawks (10-11 LW 10). Losers of six in a row and 9-of-10, I’m not sure I dropped them far enough in these rankings. They are banged up (no Paul Millsap the last three games), but this is more than that, it’s an entire offense coming undone. Early in the season the Hawks looked like a Mike Budenholzer/Spursian team the way they moved the ball, but that has fallen off and we see more isolation and far more contested looks. The players say they recognize the problem, but will they fix it?

Magic small icon 20. Magic (9-12 LW 26). Before the season we said the Magic should be a defensive powerhouse — they have finally figured that out and over the last 10 games have the best defense in the NBA. The offense is still a work in progress, but it’s improving, and the Magic picked up some quality wins against the Spurs and Pistons recently. Is Orlando going to be a playoff team? We get some measuring stick games against Boston and Charlotte this week.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (7-13, LW 22). Goran Dragic leads the NBA in drives per game at 15.5, but he only ends up with about 7 points per game on them as he passes out of nearly half those drives (he gets an assist on 15 percent of the drives). Overall, it’s just not very efficient. Still tough to judge how good this team would be healthy, but they should get Derrick Williams back in the rotation this week.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (7-14, LW 21). If you’re looking for the best player on a bad team this season, may I submit Anthony Davis, who leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 per game), blocks per game (2.8), and PER (31.9). The Pelicans dropped four-of-five against a tough stretch of the schedule, but there are winnable games this week with Memphis, Philadelphia, and Phoenix — if they want to get back in the playoff hunt in the West they need to rack up some wins.

Kings small icon 23. Kings (7-13, LW 24). I’m not sure what happened in the nightclub in New York over the weekend with Matt Barnes, but I do know it’s not the kind of distraction the Kings need if they have playoff dreams. As James Ham told us in our Kings-centric podcast last week, Sacramento remains convinced they can make a run into the postseason this year — and no, they are not thinking about trading DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings need wins, they are 1-3 on a current road trip that ends in Dallas, but four of their next five are on the road (where the Kings are 3-8 this season).

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (6-12, LW 25). Bradley Beal is finding his shooting groove — in his last five games he is averaging 24.8 points per game, hitting 48.8 percent from three, and the Wizards are +4.8 points per 48 minutes when he is on the court. That’s not been enough, as a poor Washington defense tends to get them in trouble, particularly late in games when they cannot get a stop. The Wizards need wins this week against the Nets, Magic, Nuggets, and Bucks.

timberwolves small icon 25. Timberwolves (6-14, LW 20). The Timberwolves early-season struggles (particularly on defense) have been exacerbated by the schedule — 11 straight games against teams over .500. They are 1-4 so far in this stretch and this week get the Spurs, the red-hot Raptors, Pistons, and Warriors. Maybe the comeback win against Charlotte was the kind of win this team needs, but it’s going to be hard to build confidence in this stretch.

Nuggets small icon 26. Nuggets (7-13, LW 23). Jamal Murray is looking special, and Wilson Chandler is playing in a way that should boost his trade value as the deadline nears, but the Nuggets are just not finding an offensive groove. They lost the first game of a six-game road trip in Utah, but have some winnable ones coming up in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Washington.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (6-14, LW 28). With the Suns’ guard-driven lineup, it shouldn’t be a surprise no team has the pick-and-roll ball handler use more possessions a game than the Suns (28.2 a contest, via Synergy sports). They have an eFG% of 43.5 percent on those, which isn’t great but is more middle of the pac in the league. The Suns tried starting a three-guard lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight but have abandoned that plan and Knight is coming off the bench again.

Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (4-15, LW 29). Dirk Nowitzki is going to be out “a while” as the Mavs are rightfully cautious with the 38-year-old’s Achilles. Dallas has dug too deep a hole to get back in the playoff chase, but with six of their next eight at home and plenty of winnable games in there, they hope to make their record look more respectable.

Nets small icon 29. Nets (5-14, LW 30). It’s a strange thing to say, but as Sean Kilpatrick goes so go the Nets. When he is on the Nets can pick up wins, he dropped 38 on the Clippers and Brooklyn picked up an OT victory. Can he replicate that against Washington or Denver this week? They’ll need it as the Nets still have a bottom 5 defense to overcome nightly.

Sixers small icon 30. 76ers (4-16, LW 27). When Joel Embiid is on the court the 76ers allow just 98.8 points per 100 possessions on defense (which would be best in the NBA this season) and are only outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. However, when he sits the Sixers give up 110.6 per 100 (worst in the NBA) and are outscored by 14.6 per 100. Boosting his minutes limit to 28 a night will help a little, but the Sixers need to find who else on that roster is a keeper. And get Ben Simmons back this season, hopefully.

Rajon Rondo reportedly threw towel toward Bulls assistant during game, and they feuded more after

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 10: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Chicago Bulls gestures during the first half of the game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on November 10, 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. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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The Bulls suspended Rajon Rondo for tonight’s game against the Trail Blazers for conduct detrimental to the team.

But what does that really mean?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Rondo had an emotional exchange with an assistant coach during and after Saturday’s loss to the Mavericks, according to a source. One source said Rondo threw a towel in the direction of associate head coach Jim Boylen during the game and the situation escalated postgame.

Rondo has already apologized to the coaching staff and his teammates, the source said. He met with coach Fred Hoiberg on Sunday and also attended a team function that day.

Rondo has long been notoriously difficult to coach. That reputation has only intensified in recent years as his play has declined, which is probably not a coincidence. Struggling on the court – Rondo had two points, two assists and five turnovers against Dallas – will only lead to frustration. Plus, tolerance for players acting out exists on a sliding scale with their ability.

But it’s also worth noting teammate Jimmy Butler and coach Fred Hoiberg continue to speak positively about Rondo:

Butler said following Monday’s shootaround that Rondo “has been great” during his stint with the Bulls.

“I think this is just another bump in the road,” Butler said. “He’s a phenomenal damn teammate and I back him on everything.

Hoiberg refused to get into details about the suspension but echoed Butler’s opinion on Rondo’s stint with the Bulls.

“Rajon, as we’ve all said, has been great,” Hoiberg said. “A great teammate. I’ve enjoyed the relationship that we developed, and … it’s not going to change moving forward.’’

This could explain why Rondo got a one-game suspension for throwing a towel at a coach when Markieff Morris, who was already feuding with the Suns, got two games just last year (as could the fact that Chicago is not Phoenix and can administer discipline differently).

Player-coach feuds happen over a long season. The reaction is often telling. Some get ignored. Some result in suspensions.

The Bulls are treating this like an isolated incident from an otherwise model player – but a situation serious enough to warrant a suspension. Rondo will eventually prove that approach right or wrong.