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).

Did the Clippers change their name?

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 04:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers helps Chris Paul #3 get up from the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on November 4, 2015 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Clippers rebranded themselves with a new logo and uniforms last year.

Did they also give themselves a new name?

Mike Chamernik of Uni Watch:

The Los Angeles Clippers not only changed their name, but they did it a year ago. No one has seemed to notice. Yes, they are still known as the Clippers. The L.A. Clippers.

L.A.

As in, that’s their location name. Not just an abbreviation.

The proof is everywhere. The Clippers refer to themselves as the L.A. (or, sometimes LA) Clippers on their own website, and on their various social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. NBA.com refers to them as the L.A. Clippers in stories, transactions listings and site menus, even when mentioning the Los Angeles Lakers (who still go by the full city name). And now, ESPN.com has all references to the city name as LA, both on the team’s page and in standings and schedules.

One of my key pieces of evidence is the team’s media guide (PDF), which says copyright L.A. Clippers.

Chamernik presents a compelling list of evidence, but the Clippers’ silence on the issue – they didn’t return his requests for comment – is odd. Teams usually trumpet any rebranding with grandiose announcements and contrived rational.

Look at this line from the Clippers’ new-uniform announcement: “In addition, the silver lining seen in the Clippers wordmark signifies the renewed collective optimism of Clipper Nation.”

If they want to be L.A. rather than Los Angeles, why didn’t the Clippers tout their edgy and modern new name style? That’s more believable than silver lining representing the collective optimism of the fan base of one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports.

Whatever peculiarities have accompanied the rollout of this apparent renaming, the proof is in the pudding – and that seems to say they’re the L.A., not Los Angeles, Clippers.

76ers butt of Daily Show joke about Donald Trump’s plan

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 31:  Donald Trump sits courtside at the New Jersey Nets and the Chicago Bulls game at the Izod Center on October 31, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the term and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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This is why the 76ers fired Sam Hinkie.

They’ve become a national laughingstock, even beyond NBA circles.

Philadelphia’s younger players developing and the addition of a couple veterans should help the team become regularly, rather than historically, bad. But the 76ers haven’t yet escaped the dismal reputation that became an embarrassment to ownership (which will still reap the rewards of Hinkie’s Process).

See this clip from The Daily Show on Donald Trump’s policing plan for the latest example (hat tip: CSN Philly).

 

Report: Lakers signing Zach Auguste

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 27:  Zach Auguste #30 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a basket in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional Final at Wells Fargo Center on March 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The Lakers have given 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – a guaranteed salary for next season.

But they could open a roster spot by trading (ha!) or waiving Nick Young.

Who could fill it? One candidate: Undrafted Notre Dame big man Zach Auguste.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

Auguste is probably getting a partial guarantee, but I wouldn’t pencil him in for the regular-season roster just yet – even if the Lakers waive Young. I expect the Lakers to sign multiple players to partially guaranteed deals and bring them to camp to compete.

If they waive Auguste, the Lakers could assign his D-League rights to their affiliate, the D-Fenders. Ideally, though, he’d make the regular-season roster – but that outlook will probably be true for multiple Lakers by the time training camp begins.

Auguste is a skilled interior scorer who excels in the pick-and-roll and can also post up. He improved greatly as a rebounder last season, but how much of that is due to outgrowing his competition as a senior? He’s already 23. Auguste has shown no range on his jumper, and he’s not a rim protector. Despite his mobility, his pick-and-roll defense is also lacking.

Good for the Lakers getting him in their pipeline, but don’t expect too much.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim: Carmelo Anthony probably won’t win NBA championship

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the United States poses with Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jim Boeheim urged Carmelo Anthony to leave the Knicks in 2014. The Syracuse coach suggested the Bulls for his former player.

At the heart of Boeheim’s pitch: He wanted Anthony to win an NBA championship.

Well, Anthony discarded Boeheim’s advice and re-signed with the Knicks. So, Boeheim is predicting the outcome he always predicted if Anthony returned to New York.

Boeheim, via Mike Walters of Syracuse.com:

“He’s unlikely to win an NBA title,” Boeheim said. “He’s never been on a team that even had a remote chance of winning an NBA title. As a player, all you can do is try to make your team better and every team he’s been on he’s made them a lot better. Denver hadn’t done anything prior to him getting there and he took them into the playoffs. They weren’t going to beat the Lakers or the Spurs. In those years, they won the championship most of the time.

“But he’s always made his team better,” added Boeheim. “It’s obvious. You look back on your total basketball experience and he had a great high school team, he won the NCAA championship and he’s won three gold medals in the Olympics. That’s a pretty good resume.”

This is a classic controversy. Boeheim caused it by being honest.

Anthony probably won’t win a title.

He’s 32, playing for a team with a middling-at-best supporting cast and seems content remaining in New York. His most valuable teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, is so young, his prime might not overlap with Anthony’s. The Knicks limited themselves in the next few seasons by guaranteeing 31-year-old Joakim Noah more than $72 million over the next four years.

Most players are unlikely to win another championship. Most of exceptions play for the Warriors. I’m not even sure LeBron James is more likely than not to win another title.

Anthony sure isn’t.

That’s not the end of the world, and as Boeheim – and Anthony – said, Anthony can still have a good résumé. But it has to sting for such a prominent basketball figure in the state of New York and proud Anthony supporter tell the truth so bluntly.