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).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at Democratic National Convention (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at the South Los Angeles Get Out The Vote Rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Leimert Park Village Plaza on June 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The presidential hopeful is attending a series of campaign stops on the eve of the California presidential primary election, where polls indicate a close divide between Clinton supporters and those of Democratic rival Senator Bernie Sanders.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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With so much focus in recent weeks being on NBA players speaking out on social issues, it’s worth remembering that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been one of the most vocal athletes in America on these things for decades. The Hall of Fame and all-time leading scorer in NBA history addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday evening, urging voters to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and opened his remarks by introducing himself as Michael Jordan, because “Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference.”

You can watch the video of his speech below:

Kevin Durant denies report he told Russell Westbrook he was returning to Oklahoma City

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant #35 discuss play during the first half against the Los Angeles ClipperLos Angeles Kingsat Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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In the weeks since Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors, we have yet to hear Russell Westbrook speak on his former teammate’s decision. This week, ESPN.com’s Royce Young indicated in a podcast interview that Durant was telling Westbrook and others in the days leading up to his decision that he was coming back to Oklahoma City. He later walked back his report, saying he misspoke. On Thursday, Durant himself told The Vertical‘s Shams Charania that he never said any such thing, or misled Westbrook or anyone else about his intentions.

“It’s false,” Durant told The Vertical on Thursday. “I didn’t say that – words about me telling Russell or Nick that I would stay or leave never came out of my mouth. We met as teammates, but no promises came out of it. In this day and age, I can’t control anything people claim out there. Someone can go out and say something random right now, and people will believe it.

“I never told Russell or Nick [Collison], ‘All right, guys, I’m coming back to the Thunder’ – and then a week later, I decide not to. Never happened. I don’t operate like that. I heard people say that story, but it’s not the truth.”

So that settles that.

Report: Spurs agree to two-year deal with free agent forward David Lee

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 01:  David Lee #42 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 1, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.   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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Lee will have a player option in the second year of his deal, which will be worth the veteran’s minimum.

Lee, 33, considered more lucrative deals elsewhere, but committed to the Spurs’ opportunity to win a championship and play a backup role to LaMarcus Aldridge andPau Gasol.

General manager “R.C [Buford] and coach [Gregg] Popovich put a lot of time and energy to give David a visual of how much they wanted him and would use him,” Bartelstein told The Vertical. “A lot of people talk about taking less money, and not many people do it, so the Spurs get a lot of credit for selling David on joining their organization.”

After winning a championship with the Warriors in 2015, Lee was dealt to Boston last offseason, where he fell out of the rotation quickly. He was bought out midseason and signed with the Mavericks. He was solid in Dallas, but at his age and with almost no defensive ability, he didn’t draw much interest on the market. In San Antonio, he likely won’t have a big role, but he’s a solid veteran scorer in the frontcourt off the bench in limited minutes.

Bulls sign guard Spencer Dinwiddie

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Spencer Dinwiddie #8 of the Detroit Pistons in action against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Bulls acquired Dinwiddie in a trade with Detroit last month and waived him three weeks ago. He spent two years with the Pistons and appeared in 12 games last season, averaging 4.8 points and 13.3 minutes.

The Bulls announced the move Thursday.