ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: The Rockets began the year with the somewhat surprising trade for James Harden — surprising because of the Thunder’s choice to deal him so soon instead of pursuing a title with him in place for one more season. It was the right call on Houston’s part, as Harden immediately turned into the offensive star many believed he was capable of becoming.

It was enough to get the team to 45 wins and and eight seed in the West, although facing the Thunder in the first round, even after Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury, proved to be too tough, and the Rockets were eliminated in six games.

Signature highlight from last season: There was no one game or single play that defined the Rockets last season as much as the overall play of Harden did, so it seems appropriate to simply enjoy his top 10 plays from last season.

Key player changes: Unless you were living in a cave during the summer, you’re probably aware of a certain high-profile free agent center that chose to sign in Houston.

  • IN: Dwight Howard, signed to a five-year max contract in free agency. Omri Casspi, Marcus Camby, and Aaron Brooks were all signed to one-year guaranteed deals, and Ronnie Brewer was signed to a non-guaranteed deal for some depth defensively.
  • OUT: Thomas Robinson, essentially given away to the Blazers to create the cap space necessary to sign Howard. The headache known as Royce White was dealt to the Sixers, and Carlos Delfino signed with the Bucks in free agency.

Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Dwight Howard: The man who has been more about drama than bona fide basketball results over the past two seasons has a fresh start in Houston, and he’ll be expected to immediately begin earning that max contract the Rockets handed him this summer.

The good news is that by all accounts, Howard is healthy, and fully recovered from the back surgery that limited him over the first half of his ill-fated season in Los Angeles. The other positive is that while Howard is as high-profile an acquisition as possible, he doesn’t have to be “the man” in Houston — at least not offensively. That’s Harden’s role, so while Howard will have plenty of opportunity to score and will get plenty of touches both on the low block and in pick-and-roll situations, he won’t be relied upon as the primary offensive option.

All the Rockets need Howard to do is return to form as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who protects the rim, rebounds, and intimidates other teams from even thinking about coming inside. The Rockets were sixth in offensive efficiency last season, but 16th defensively. Howard’s presence should immediately change that.

2) James Harden: Harden was the focal point of the offense last season, and while the team has capable point guards in Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley (who are currently competing for the starting spot at that position), more often than not it was Harden who ended up with the ball in his hands creating for himself or for others. There will be an adjustment period with Howard now, not only because he will warrant a certain amount of touches, but also because his presence in the middle won’t leave as much space for Harden to do what he does best, which is getting to the basket.

There will be an adjustment period while Harden and the Rockets figure out the spacing and use both players’ talents to their advantage. How quickly it all comes together may partially determine just how many regular season wins are piled up in Houston.

3) The rest: Harden and Howard are monster talents at their respective positions, but how much production the team gets from everyone else is more likely to determine their ultimate postseason fate. Camby is a guy who could be of real value in the playoffs, and won’t be expected to be ready long before then.

Omer Asik will be interesting to watch, as he was initially unhappy with the Howard deal for fear his role would be diminished. It will be, despite head coach Kevin McHale vowing to try to play his two big men together, though most don’t believe that will work in anything more than very short stints against very specific matchups.

Guys like Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, along with Chandler Parsons are going to need to contribute regularly for this team to get where it wants to go before the year is through.

Why you should watch: James Harden is one of the more entertaining offensive players in the game, and a healthy Howard is one of the best defensively.

Prediction: The West is stacked, but if Howard and Harden are able to figure it out then the Rockets should approach 60 wins, and be a top-three team in the West by the time the regular season is finished. It’s tough to see them getting to the Finals in their first year together, but a deep playoff run should not only be the goal, it should be expected.

Doc Rivers says Chris Paul left to be with James Harden not because of Clipper players

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Chris Paul essentially forcing a trade to the Houston Rockets was an earthquake that shook the Los Angeles Clippers and destroyed them as any kind of contender. (How much of a contender they really were is up for debate, they did win 50+ games five of the past six years, but a combination of injuries, mediocre chemistry and toughness questions never let them get past the second round.)

Then came the aftershocks — or spin. First, there was the report that Paul had it with Doc Rivers because he and the team felt Austin Rivers gets favorable treatment. That was followed by the Clippers spin saying they never formally offered Paul a five-year max deal because they were concerned about paying a 37-year-old CP3 more than $40 million.

Now Doc Rivers entered the fray, defending his players saying Paul left he wanted to play with James Harden, via Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times (below is his comments from a series of Tweets combined).

“At the end of the day, when you lose a CP, it’s a big loss. I thank him for the years he was here. He left because he wanted to be with James Harden. Let’s not get that twisted. I wish him well. I have no problem with that. Do I disagree? Yeah, I think he would have been better served here. But that’s not for me. That’s CP to decide and he decided against that. We’ve heard all the stories about Blake and DJ and Austin. I can’t comment just on Austin because it’s just not right. We’ve heard he left because of all three today. He left because of DJ, he left because of Blake and now he left because of Austin. We know he didn’t leave because of that. There is a lot of speculation on why he left. The one thing I know is he didn’t leave because of any of those three guys. He left because he felt like he would have a better chance to win somewhere else.”

Doc is right. And wrong. Almost all spin is like a myth — there’s some truth in it, then everything around that gets blown up to put that truth in the light that best suits one side. All of the aftershocks in the wake of Paul’s exit from L.A. have some truth, what any one person believes to be “the truth” speaks more to their viewpoint.

Did Paul leave the Clippers because he wanted to play with Harden and saw that as his best chance to a ring? Absolutely. After six years of playoff frustration, it was clear what the Clippers were not: A team getting to the Finals past the Warriors. These Rockets have a better chance of that and CP3 is a very competitive person.

Were Paul, and many of his teammates, frustrated with what they saw as favoritism toward Austin Rivers? I can tell you that is also unequivocally true. Any reporter that has been around this team at all in recent years has heard that from a variety of sources, myself included.

Were the Clippers worried about the fifth year of CP3s deal? Of course they were, any sane executive would be. Now, if Paul had demanded a five-year max to stay with the Clippers I also have no doubt they would have given it to him, they just would have done it knowing the last year or so of that deal was an anchor. Teams do that all the time.

Life is rarely something black and white, it’s always shades of gray. Major decisions — like changing where you work and live — are not based on just one factor, but a variety of them. Did the chance to win weigh more on Paul than money or frustration with Doc Rivers? Only Paul can answer what the ratios were, but winning probably was the biggest factor. That doesn’t make the other factors less true.

It also doesn’t change the fact Doc Rivers and the Clippers have some hard choices — and some recruiting of Blake Griffin to do — coming up this summer.

Ex-financial adviser gets 4 years in federal prison for defrauding Tim Duncan

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) An ex-financial adviser to retired San Antonio Spurs player Tim Duncan has been sentenced to four years in federal prison for defrauding the former NBA star of millions of dollars.

Federal prosecutors say 49-year-old Charles Banks of Atlanta was sentenced during a court hearing Wednesday in San Antonio.

A judge also ordered Banks to pay $7.5 million in restitution.

Banks had pleaded guilty in April to one count of wire fraud.

Investigators say Banks manipulated Duncan -who retired last year after five NBA championships with the Spurs – into guaranteeing payment of a $6 million debt related to a merchandising business.

Prosecutors say Banks failed to disclose commissions and loans he received in the deal.

Banks is set to report to federal prison as early as Aug. 28.

Lakers exercise David Nwaba’s $1.3 million contract option

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers have exercised their $1.3 million contract option on guard David Nwaba for the upcoming season.

The Lakers announced the move Wednesday.

Nwaba earned a job with the Lakers after they called him up from their D-League affiliate on Feb. 28. The rookie averaged 6.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while impressing Luke Walton’s coaching staff with his hustle and defensive play.

The Lakers signed him to a new contract with a multi-year component just three weeks after his NBA debut.

Nwaba is a local product, attending University High School in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica College before finishing his college career at Cal Poly.

Stephen Curry to play Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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HAYWARD, Calif. (AP) — Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is set to test his golf game against the pros.

The Web.com Tour said Wednesday that Curry, coming off his second NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors, will play in the Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae on Aug. 3-6.

It’ll be the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event for Curry, who has competed in various celebrity events and pro-ams. The top 25 on Web.com Tour’s regular-season money list will earn PGA Tour cards.

Curry will maintain his amateur status, competing on an unrestricted sponsor exemption in the event that benefits the Warriors Community Foundation.

Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice played in the event in 2011 and 2012. He missed the cut in 2011 with rounds of 83 and 76 and withdrew in 2012 after playing 27 holes in 23 over.

Also Wednesday, Nissan’s upscale Infiniti brand announced that Curry would be its new global brand ambassador. The point guard will be featured in ads for the Q50 sports sedan beginning this summer.