Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

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We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

Matt Barnes says he’s been warned for chewing gum, using bathroom during national anthem

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 19:  NBA players Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick attend the David Yurman in-store shopping event to celebrate the launch of Men's Faceted Metal Collection at David Yurman Boutique on March 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman)
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman
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The NBA has long taken a hard stance on the national anthem.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was infamously suspended for sitting during the national anthem 1996. The league has a specific rule  – which it doesn’t plan to change – that states, “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

That makes it more difficult for the NBA and union to compromise on national-anthem protests – especially because precedent has set a strict tone on the rule.

Kings forward Matt Barnes on The Vertical Podcast with JJ Redick:

They don’t want you chewing gum. They told me, take the gum out of your mouth.

I was using the bathroom. They said you can’t miss the anthem. I’m like, “Man, I had to pee.” “Next time you’ll be fined.” I said, “Ohh, OK.”

I doubt NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to punish players for demonstrating on behalf of important social issues. But he’s also behold to the team owners and corporate sponsors, and he must enforce the league’s rules.

It’s a fine line, one that the NBA’s prior warnings on national-anthem conduction make even more difficult for Silver to walk.

Maybe the solution is raised fists? Kneeling, like Colin Kaepernick, would seem to violate the “stand” requirement. But if players are on their feet and in place, would the league really deem a raised fist an undignified posture?

Joel Embiid to start in Sixers first preseason game

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Here’s a little bit of good news for beleaguered Sixers fans:

Joel Embiid will start the Sixers first preseason game next Tuesday. Embiid was the No. 3 pick and a very highly rated prospect coming out of Kansas, but foot injuries sidelined him the entirety of his first two seasons. Now he’s healthy and going to get a start next Tuesday, according to coach Brett Brown.

This will be a process. It will be two steps up and one step back all season for Embiid, but at least he’s healthy enough to take those steps now.

Now the focus shifts to when Ben Simmons will be able to take his first steps.

Another report Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets nowhere near deal as deadline approaches

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is fouled as he shoots by Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on December 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Donatas Motiejunas and his agent had given the Rockets a Saturday deadline to make a contract extension offer they liked.

But the sides aren’t even talking in a serious way.

That was reported early on Friday, and now comes another report — this was from Calvin Watkins of ESPN — that the two sides are nowhere close to a deal.

With the deadline to sign a qualifying offer approaching, restricted free-agent power forward Donatas Motiejunas and the Houston Rockets have exchanged contract proposals but remain far apart on an agreement, multiple sources told ESPN.

Motiejunas is seeking a larger financial deal from the Rockets, but the two sides haven’t had serious contract discussions in a month, the sources said.

Motiejuas, a restricted free agent, has a $4.4 million qualifying offer on the table that expires Sunday. He likely will sign it — if so he will have the ability to veto trades during the season then would be a free agent next summer.  Motiejuas could let the deal expire then sign a new one-year deal with the Rockets, but he would make less money.

Last season the Rockets agreed to trade Motiejunas to the Pistons. However, Pistons voided the deal after he failed his physical. Motiejunas hammered Detroit for how it went down. That left Motiejunas a restricted free agent this summer, but he didn’t land any offers from other squads (many thought the Rockets would just match).

That gets us to where we are today, where Motiejunas appears headed to signing the qualifying offer, then testing the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.

Sacramento Kings prepare to open state-of-the-art downtown arena

This photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, is the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. The 17,500-seat arena, the new home of the NBA's Sacramento Kings basketball team features among other things, the NBA's first 4k ultra HD video board that stretches 84 feet above the court with more than 38 million pixels. The Kings' first game in the arena will be a preseason match against Maccabi Haifa, of Israel, Oct. 10. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — After years of searching for a new home, the Sacramento Kings are set to open a new venue that raises the bar of what an arena can be.

Along with some of the modern accouterments that have become commonplace like smartphone apps that allow fans to order food or watch replays from their seats, giant screens to watch the game and high-speed connections that let fans post photos almost instantaneously, the Golden 1 Center also has many first-of-its-kind features.

There are the airplane hangar doors that can open to turn the venue into an indoor-outdoor arena and the “smart turnstiles” that will allow fans to enter at more than triple the usual speed. But perhaps most important to Kings owner Vivek Ranadive are the environmental features that make it the first indoor venue to receive LEED Platinum certification – the highest level of recognition for environmentally conscious buildings.

The 17,500-seat arena will be the first professional sports venue powered completely by solar energy, will save about 1 million gallons of water a year compared to a typical venue of its size, was built with recycled material from the mall that stood at the site before construction began and will get 90 percent of its food and beverages from within 150 miles.

“We felt we had to set a new bar,” Ranadive said. “We have to be cognizant of the kind of planet we want to leave our kids and next generations. This had to be the greenest arena ever built. … I fully expect that arenas in the future will be even better, be even more sustainable. Hopefully what we have here is an example of how to build a great arena and still be responsible to the environment.”

Ranadive bought the team in 2013 for $534 million, saving the franchise from a planned move to Seattle. The next task was getting the new downtown arena built.

Ranadive wanted an “iconic” venue that would anchor a revitalized downtown and he believes the nearly $600 million facility that opens this weekend has achieved that goal.

The arena is part of a $1 billion development project that includes 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use property that will have a hotel, restaurants, retail shops, offices and condos. About $500 million in outside investment is also expected in the area.

“This arena is the 21st century cathedral,” Ranadive said. “It’s the communal fireplace where people used to gather in old times. For us, it’s always been about more than basketball.”

Befitting a team owned by a tech mogul who made his billions in Silicon Valley, the arena was built with enough technology to “future proof” it. It has enough bandwidth for a small city, allowing fans to post 250,000 Instagram photos per second and 500,000 Snapchats per second, according to chief technology officer Ryan Montoya.

It has the NBA’s first 4K ultra HD videoboard – providing a picture four times clearer than HD – that stretches 84 feet long. The in-stadium app will give fans the best driving instructions based on traffic and parking spots. It will allow them to order food or merchandise to their seat, watch live-streamed video on their phone and even place non-monetary bets on the outcomes of plays that can earn fans points that can be redeemed for prizes.

There will even be facial recognition software that will allow players to enter secure areas and could one day be expanded to fans if they opt in to that option, making a more “frictionless” experience.

“Our arena is more about code than it is concrete,” team President Chris Granger said. “The idea is to create a platform that allows us to grow and expand and change the fan experience as the technology adapts.”

Overseeing all of the technology is a mission control room that will feature law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel, building operations officials, social media and guest services workers and others who will monitor all aspects of the arena on game days.

Perhaps the most unique feature will be the hangar doors, which can open to allow the delta breeze to cool the building and provide the option for concerts – or eventually even basketball games – with an indoor-outdoor feel.

The Kings have had talks with the NBA about what conditions would need to be met before they could play a game with the open doors but the team believes it will be able to control the temperature, humidity and wind well enough to make the conditions on the court comparable to a fully indoor arena.

The team plans to hold its open practice with the doors open and could do the same for an exhibition game against a non-NBA team. The Kings also could open the doors for college or high school games in order to gather enough data to show the league.

“They know we want a home-court advantage and they know that we want to enjoy the indoor-outdoor arena,” Ranadive said. “I fully expect we’ll figure out a way to get that home-court advantage.”