Winners and losers to this point in NBA free agency

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Teams began entering into agreements with free agent players shortly after midnight Eastern on July 1, but due to a league-imposed moratorium on activity, no deals can be officially signed until July 10.

We’re almost there, and plenty of the top names available have indeed been swooped up by teams looking to make a splash next season. While there are still some major impact players left on the market, let’s take a look on some of the winners and losers to this point in the free agent sweepstakes.

WINNER: Houston Rockets. Dwight Howard chose Houston as the place he’ll sign for the next four seasons, even though his deal contains an opt-out after three that could either see him walk, or sign an extension to remain there into the twilight of his career. In addition to Howard, the team is locking up shooters like Francisco Garcia and guys that can contribute meaningful minutes off the bench if called upon like Omri Casspi.

It remains to be seen if Houston is done making moves, or if they’ll look to do something with the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. But for now, pairing Howard with James Harden is a huge win for the Rockets organization.

ALSO A WINNER: The Lakers. It’s true that the Lakers wanted Howard to stay in Los Angeles, and were willing to see their payroll exceed $90 million next season (even before luxury tax penalties, which would have been massive) to make that happen. A max contract for five years was what the Lakers happily would have offered for Howard’s services, but now that he’s gone, the reality that he was never a match for the franchise can finally be allowed to sink in.

Howard didn’t enjoy playing with Kobe Bryant, felt marginalized in Mike D’Antoni’s system, and never embraced the pressure of playing for a franchise where championships were not only expected, but demanded. Shaquille O’Neal was right about Howard to a certain extent, and even if he had chosen to stay with the Lakers, trouble would have been brewing in that relationship very soon, and it would have caused more harm than good for both sides.

The Lakers have nothing to do in free agency but wait a season until they have an almost completely clean slate from a salary cap perspective, but it seems as though they dodged a bullet where Howard was concerned, despite the organization’s best efforts to sign him.

LOSER: Milwaukee Bucks. We qualified these characterizations up top by saying it’s as of right now, with plenty of time left for things to change. But at the moment, Milwaukee isn’t looking all that sharp. The Bucks traded for J.J. Redick at the deadline last season, only to deal him away to the Clippers in the three-way trade that sent  Eric Bledsoe to the Suns, which netted Milwaukee nothing more than a couple of future second round draft picks.

Combine that with Monta Ellis appearing as though he’ll leave, along with the yet-to-be-resolved situation with Brandon Jennings, and it’s been a rough go of it so far. The team did add O.J. Mayo as a more cost-effective (but less dynamic) replacement for Ellis, and signed a solid veteran big man in Zaza Pachulia. But none of that screams improvement for a Bucks squad that finished six games below .500 last season, and it appears as though they’re grabbing players to fill roster spots without much of a long-term plan for success.

LOSER: Utah Jazz. The Jazz had two high-quality, unrestricted free agents in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. There were rumors that at least one would be dealt at the trade deadline last season, because it would have made sense to get some assets in return for guys you weren’t planning on signing once the season was over.

The trade deadline came and went, however, and both Jefferson and Millsap remained on the roster. Utah fought for the final playoff spot in the West, before ultimately succumbing to Houston and the Lakers to finish the season as part of the group of teams in the draft lottery.

Now, Jefferson has chosen Charlotte, and Millsap has agreed to play in Atlanta. The Jazz, meanwhile, chose to start from scratch by taking on the bad contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins from the Warriors.

WINNER: The Clippers. There was no question that Chris Paul would stay in the big market of Los Angeles and take all of that guaranteed money that staying with his current team would provide. But the Clippers tried their best to screw things up by having ownership publicly hang Paul out to dry where Vinny Del Negro was concerned, and Paul wasn’t at all happy with how that whole saga played out.

It’s amazing, however, what a few shrewd moves can do to quickly change those perceptions.

The Clippers managed to get Doc Rivers to leave the Celtics to become their head coach, before going out and solidifying the roster in hopes of making a deeper postseason run next year. L.A. retained Matt Barnes, added Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick in the trade that sent Bledsoe out of town before his salary demands became too unmanageable, and then replaced Bledsoe with a similar but more reasonably priced version of a backup for Paul in Darren Collison.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Nets, Pistons, Bobcats. The view you have on the moves that these three teams made largely will depend on your opinion of how to best go about building an NBA franchise.

If you’re of the opinion that you need to get worse before you can get better, by bottoming out to clear cap space and then earning high-lottery draft picks in order to secure a young and talented roster, then it’s more than likely you’re not in favor of the moves made by these franchises.

Let’s start in Brooklyn, where the Nets are never going to pursue that model as long as billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov is running the show. He favors immediate success and relevance above all else, so bringing in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to add to a starting lineup already featuring Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez is pretty much going to be the way things are done in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future.

The bench depth, along with just how effective Pierce and Garnett can be at this late stage of their respective careers, will be serious questions in terms of just how far the Nets can go during a run through the postseason. But on the flip-side, they’ll be a top-four team in the East, and will be extremely intriguing to watch.

As for the Bobcats and the Pistons, both teams made similarly big moves to add star power immediately instead of waiting (or in this case, continuing) to try to rebuild in the conventional way. Charlotte added Al Jefferson from the Jazz, and Detroit went out and got Josh Smith from the Hawks.

Neither of these moves make a ton of sense when you consider the rest of the players currently in place on the respective rosters. But at some point, teams need to stop being terrible in favor of being just bad in order to give the fans a certain level of hope, and give them a top-level talent to root for while adding a few more wins to the season-long struggle to develop the youth for the future.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.