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.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.