Will the Nets or Rockets make a Finals splash?

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Flash back to April 26, 2012.

The Nets closed the season with their six straight loss, missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. The Rockets picked up a meaningless win that day, but they had just lost seven of their previous eight games to ensure they’d miss their third straight postseason.

Both teams had plenty of reason for despair, but there were faint signs of hope.

The Nets were moving to Brooklyn that offseason, a figurative fresh start if not a literal one. And the Rockets had their sixth straight winning record, an impressive accomplishment if it could be viewed without the sting of repeatedly barely missing the playoffs.

Then-Nets coach Avery Johnson was hopeful:

“This is our farewell, for good,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “Now we embark on a new opportunity, and it starts when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Even though we lost this game this is a new era in Nets basketball, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Johnson said Brooklyn fans will see a better team next year than this season’s 22-44 squad that finished by losing six straight.

“We like a lot of our guys,” Johnson said. “We definitely need to upgrade in some areas and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Rockets coach Kevin McHale, not so much:

“There’s no way we shouldn’t be in the playoffs this weekend, but we’re not,” McHale said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Both teams were stuck in different places, but both could see cracks to break through into the next level.

And, boy, did they break through.

A year-and-a-half later, both have followed solid steps into the playoffs with monster offseasons that have them holding legitimate NBA Finals aspirations.

Just 15 players have appeared in most of the last 10 All-Star games. Among that select group, only three changed teams this offseason, and all three now play for the Rockets or Nets: Dwight Howard (Houston) and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (Brooklyn).

Though neither team even won a playoff series last season, that type of talent infusion changes the goals considerably.

Yet, as much as the teams seem linked by their stellar summers, Brooklyn and Houston face different challenges now.

The Nets’ aging core – Garnett (37), Pierce (36), Jason Terry (36), Reggie Evans (33), Joe Johnson (32), Andrei Kirilenko (32) and Deron Williams (29) – and their ridiculously high payroll point to a team that has a very short, but very open, championship window. The Lakers’ struggles last season after they splurged to build around old players should give Brooklyn pause, but the Nets are deeper than that Los Angeles team ever hoped to be. If Brooklyn uses that depth to limit minutes  and save players for the playoffs, the results could be tremendous.

On the other hand, the Rockets are not quite as deeply talented. When the Heat dipped far below the cap to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh, it took them a couple years to re-stock the roster by using their cap exceptions. The Rockets probably faces a similar timeline, and thankfully for them, they seem young enough to wait. James Harden (24), Chandler Parsons (25), Jeremy Lin (25), Patrick Beverley (25), Omer Asik (27) and Howard (27) should give Houston a chance to add pieces and tinker.

The Rockets need time. The Nets are probably already running out of it.

But the fact that we can even reasonably discuss both teams’ championship windows is astounding considering where they were just 18 months ago.

Jazz deny rumored promise to draft D.J. Wilson

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Michigan forward D.J. Wilson said he’d stay in the draft only if he’d go in the first round. Yet, despite not doing any on-court work at the combine, the borderline first-rounder remained in the draft beyond the withdrawal deadline.

What gives?

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune:

NBA teams sometimes promise to draft a player. They never reveal that before the draft. So, Utah’s denial doesn’t mean much – even if it’s true.

The Jazz were the last team to give Wilson a full work out before he injured himself in a Spurs workout. So, this rumor could be based on circumstantial evidence rather than leak of a Utah guarantee.

Wilson would make sense for the Jazz, who could see their payroll bloat if they re-sign Gordon Hayward and George Hill (and maybe even Joe Ingles). They could move Derrick Favors, an interior who doesn’t exactly fit with Rudy Gobert. Wilson would give Utah another option with Trey Lyles as developing stretch fours behind Boris Diaw. (Utah could even move Diaw and count on Lyles/Wilson to emerge sooner than later.)

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).