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).

Warriors first team to clinch playoff slot with win over Nets

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 27 points on a night Kevin Durant missed his first game of the season with a hand injury, and the Golden State Warriors beat the Brooklyn Nets 112-95 on Saturday to clinch a playoff berth.

Klay Thompson added 24 points. Curry converted a four-point play just before halftime to put his team up 62-51 at the break. The two-time reigning MVP had five 3-pointers and five assists.

This is just a first step for these star-studded, NBA-best Warriors (49-9): They want the No. 1 seed in the West. Oh, and a championship.

Durant sat out with a bruised left hand. He injured his pinkie in the first quarter of a 123-113 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night, and X-rays were negative. He practiced Friday with his left hand heavily taped and still had some discomfort Saturday.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 16 points in the Nets’ 16th straight defeat.

Nate Robinson goes through players’ legs to get out of double team in D-League

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Nate Robinson is trying to make an NBA comeback by starting in the D-League, playing for the Delaware 87ers, the affiliate of the Sixers.

They were going up against the Raptors’ affiliate when Robinson was trapped on the wing by a double-team — so he literally went between the legs of 7’3″ Walter Tavares and drove out of it. He got into the lane and was fouled.

If a pass between the legs is a nutmeg, what exactly is that?

This is my new favorite highlight of the year.

Carmelo Anthony’s jumper with 0.3 seconds left gives Knicks 110-109 win over 76ers

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony made a jumper with 0.3 seconds left to give the New York Knicks a 110-109 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.

The Knicks blew a 17-point lead and fell behind by one when Jahlil Okafor scored with 9 seconds remaining. But Anthony dribbled left after a timeout, pulling up over Robert Covington to cap his 37-point performance.

The Knicks then intercepted the 76ers’ inbounds pass to hold on and snap their two-game losing streak.

Derrick Rose added 18 points and Justin Holiday had 14 for the Knicks, who won for just the third time in 11 games. They played without starters Kristaps Porzingis (sprained right ankle) and Joakim Noah (sore left hamstring).

Okafor had a season-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the 76ers nearly pulled out the victory after beating Washington on Friday. Dario Saric had 19 points and 15 rebounds, and Covington finished with 20 points and 10 boards.

The Knicks avoided falling behind the 76ers into 13th place in the Eastern Conference, but they seem to realize it might be too late to get ahead of the teams they need to. They came in five games behind Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot, and coach Jeff Hornacek before the game talked of players’ development as a goal instead of trying to make a playoff push.

Before the game, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said his experience was that teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back usually started quickly before getting fatigued. But it was the Knicks was started fast thanks to Anthony, who was 7 for 10 for 17 points as New York led 31-25.

The Knicks led by 10 at halftime and Rose scored 10 in the third to keep Philadelphia from cutting into it. The Sixers were still down double digits well into the fourth quarter before Okafor and T.J. McConnell led them in what became a frantic finish.

TIP-INS

76ers: Philadelphia had won four of its previous five games. … The Sixers have dropped six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Hornacek said Porzingis was considered day-to-day, with a possibility of returning in their next game Monday. But he said Noah would be out longer after having a setback in his recovery during the break. … Noah celebrated his 32nd birthday.

TWEETS

Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson tweeted for just the fourth time this season on Saturday, wishing Tex Winter a happy 95th birthday. Winter was his former assistant coach and is considered the pioneer of the triangle offense. Jackson ended the tweet with a triangle emoji.

SPEAKING OF THE TRIANGLE

The Knicks have started running it more, according to Hornacek. He says it not only benefits the younger players on offense but also helps the Knicks be in better position to get back on defense. The Knicks ran the offense that Jackson used to win 11 championships as a coach under Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis the previous two seasons, but Hornacek had opened up the offense this season to get the Knicks playing quicker.

UP NEXT

76ers: Host Golden State on Monday.

Knicks: Host Toronto on Monday. The Raptors have won the last five meetings.

Anthony Morrow says he’ll switch from No. 1 with Bulls after Derrick Rose fans complain

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 24: Anthony Morrow #1 of the Chicago Bulls participates in warm-ups beofre the Bulls take on the Phoenix Suns at the United Center on February 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Anthony Morrow clearly didn’t follow the Michael Carter-Williams saga.

Morrow, like Carter-Williams, took No. 1 when joining the Bulls.

And Morrow, like Carter-Williams, swiftly changed course when Derrick Rose fans protested.

Morrow:

Morrow had never worn No. 1 in the NBA. The No. 23 he wore with the Mavericks is obviously retired in Chicago for Michael Jordan, and two of Morrow’s other previous numbers — No. 2 (Jerian Grant), No. 3 (Dwyane Wade) — were already taken. As far as Morrow’s other previous number, Cameron Payne, who came from the Thunder with Morrow, kept the No. 22 the point guard wore in Oklahoma City.

So, Morrow needed a new number. I’m just not sure why the Bulls didn’t warn him off No. 1 and the backlash that would come with it.