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).

Joel Embiid wants the center position to return to the NBA All-Star ballot

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The NBA got rid of the center position on the All-Star ballot starting in 2013, thanks in part to some positional confusion around former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. But just a handful of years later, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid says it should make a comeback.

Embiid — who finished third in the Eastern Conference for forwards in All-Star fan voting — told CSN Philly that due to the plethora of talented big men in the NBA, the position should return.

Via CSN Philly:

“There’s a lot of talented big men in the league, especially at the center position,” Embiid said. “That’s something the NBA should think about, putting the center back on the All-Star ballot.”

There has been a resurgence of talented and burgeoning centers that have entered the league and are performing at a high level. Embiid is one of them, and so too is DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Hassan Whiteside, Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, and Jahlil Okafor.

Adding the center position back might be a tough sell as having it doesn’t reduce eliminations from the roster. It’s much more free-flowing now, and there’s nothing keeping great centers off the All-Star team.

It would also be a little strange if center was added back but there wasn’t a point guard spot, too. ESPN’s Zach Lowe has suggested three categories for the roster in point guard, wing, and frontcourt. That idea is as good as adding the center position, perhaps moreso to many folks in the NBA.

I don’t think adding the center position will make a comeback any time soon. Meanwhile, we’re all just waiting to see if Embiid makes the All-Star reserves.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon skies for reverse alley-oop jam (VIDEO)

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Is Aaron Gordon a three or a four?

That’s a debate for another day. What we all know he can do is leap out of the building, and he showed off how that can be useful during a game Friday night — Jabari Parker actually defends this fairly well, Gordon can just go over the top of him and get it. With that, we get a highlight.

The Magic upset the Bucks 112-96, behind 20 from a resurgent Elfrid Payton. Parker had 25 for the Bucks.

 

Warriors embrace/struggle through yoga

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 05:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in the second quarter of Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on June 5, 2016 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Anderson Varejao lowered his 6-foot-11 frame into a runner’s lunge and raised one arm high into the air to add a twist, demonstrating after a recent shootaround the new yoga pose he just learned.

Then, he took it up a notch and attempted an airplane balancing pose on one leg with his arms spread wide.

The Golden State Warriors have become yogis.

Coach Steve Kerr is committed to changing things up, and he gave Golden State a day off from the practice floor one day last week so the players could practice yoga instead. In the middle of a prolonged stretch at home with a more regular routine, the schedule allowed for some improvising.

“I really liked it,” Varejao said. “I’m going to do more.”

Doubt you’ll see Draymond Green or Klay Thompson doing downward-facing dog again soon – though Green might be talked into another try eventually.

“I’m bad,” Green said. “Yoga isn’t for everybody. I think it’s a great thing, I just don’t think my body is made for all of those different positions. I did well at a few of them. It’s hard, it’s tough. My body really isn’t cut out for yoga.”

The very next night after the group class, during warmups for a home game with the Pistons, player development coach Bruce Fraser pulled his foot to his opposite inner thigh for an impromptu tree pose. He laughed as an amused Shaun Livingston watched from the baseline.

Andre Iguodala is an experienced yogi who can really cat-cow and is considered top on the team, often taking classes. Center Zaza Pachulia also can forward fold with the best of them. They took prominent positions in the class led by Lisa Goodwin, Golden State’s director of corporate communications and also a yoga teacher, at a Berkeley studio – a first for Kerr taking the team away from team headquarters for a yoga session.

No surprise, two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry can bring it on the mat, too.

“We’ve had some optional yoga sessions at our facility. This is the first time we took everybody and made it mandatory,” Kerr said. “It was good.”

The temperature was about 92 degrees for the hour-long power vinyasa class, so it was steamy.

Everybody was drenched in sweat by the end for final resting pose, or savasana.

“My muscles felt good,” forward James Michael McAdoo said, rubbing his stomach where his core got a workout. “It was fun. It was hot in there, like working in a sauna. I told our strength and conditioning coach, `You got to step up your game. Lisa embarrassed us.'”

“It’s awful, it’s pitiful,” Thompson said of his own yoga ability. “It’s something I worked on and it’s something I actually enjoy. More than just being physically challenging, it’s an incredible mental workout. It tests your pain tolerance and your ability to push yourself mentally. That’s why I like it. It was really good. I think it helped a lot of us – everybody, even the coaches.”

Along with the experienced yoga veterans, there were some first-timers.

A few found it extremely tough.

“I’m not the most flexible,” acknowledged player development coach Chris DeMarco.

Assistant coach Mike Brown described his debut as “terrible.”

“For me, it was really hard, but it was fun,” he said, later adding, “I nearly passed out.”

Ron Adams, another assistant who focuses on preparing Golden State’s defense, happened to work out in the hottest corner of the room for his first time practicing in that high temperature.

“It’s such a cleansing exercise,” he said.

The Warriors aren’t the only ones doing it.

Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy has scheduled yoga time for the Pistons, saying: “It’s got its value, no question about it. Would I consider doing it with them? Probably not.”

Kerr goes whenever he can fit it in, typically taking an hour-long class during the lunch hour on game days when the schedule – and his body – allows.

It’s a time he can focus on taking some deep breaths, literally, away from the pressure-packed NBA workload and just be just another yoga student for 60 minutes out of his day.

This weekend marks one year since Kerr formally returned to the bench last Jan. 22 against Indiana after a lengthy leave of absence to deal with complications from a pair of back surgeries. Current Lakers coach Luke Walton led the way during a record 24-0 start and went 39-4 before Kerr’s comeback on the way to winning Coach of the Year after an NBA record 73-9 finish.

While the 51-year-old Kerr still has some discouraging, physically challenging moments dealing with pain and headaches, he considers himself fortunate to be on the sideline doing what he loves.

“I guess normal is a good way to say it. He seems like his old self,” Curry said. “You know he’s been through a lot just physically trying to recover from the surgeries he’s had. I can’t imagine the frustration, how long it took and things he had to do and all the doctors he’s met with. His whole story is crazy. We’re obviously happy to have him back but not only that, you see him with energy and his presence like he wants. It’s been good to see.”

Whether Kerr will take his team back to yoga any time soon, time will tell. The Warriors are at the season’s midway point and the “dog days” of January as Kerr has put it. Golden State was home for all but a night from Dec. 26 until leaving for Houston on Thursday for Friday’s game against the Rockets, with just a quick bus ride to Sacramento as the lone road trip in a 10-game stretch during that span.

Because there was so much time to practice, the yoga day was a nice change of scenery.

“Just to get away and go do something else,” Green said. “We’re still together doing something productive. But, it’s not for me.”

Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell slips, mildly sprains knee ligament. MRI Saturday.

Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young, right, takes the ball away as Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, center, falls to the floor with an injury during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell mildly sprained a ligament in his right knee in the opening minutes of Los Angeles’ game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night.

Russell was re-evaluated at halftime and did not return to the game.

Russell was hurt while going around a screen set by teammate Julius Randle on Los Angeles’ second possession. The point guard’s left leg alarmingly stretched backward when he lost his footing, and he stayed down on the court for several moments.

He eventually walked on his own to the locker room, where the sprain was diagnosed.

Russell is averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds during the second NBA season for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft.