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.

NBA rookies name Kevin Durant their favorite player

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses with his new jersey during the press conference where he was introduced as a member of the Golden State Warriors after they signed him as a free agent on July 7, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant faced tremendous backlash for leaving the Thunder for the Warriors.

But not from NBA rookies.

In the league’s annual rookie survey, a plurality of first-year players voted Durant their favorite player:

1. Kevin Durant, Golden State — 29.7%

T-2. Carmelo Anthony, New York — 9.4%

LeBron James, Cleveland — 9.4%

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City — 9.4%

T-5. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio — 6.3%

Kobe Bryant (retired) — 6.3%

Paul George, Indiana — 6.3%

Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers — 6.3%

T-9. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota — 4.7%

Others receiving votes: Vince Carter, Memphis; Stephen Curry, Golden State; Marc Gasol, Memphis; Kyrie Irving, Cleveland

This is the third straight year Durant has claimed the top spot, matching LeBron and Kobe for combined wins in the six years this question was asked of rookies:

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This is further evidence: If you resent Kevin Durant for exercising his right to switch employers after nine years with a company that acquired him by producing an awful product, you’re out of touch. Follow the kids’ lead and get with it.

Jason Terry: Luke Walton ‘utterly declined’ my offer to provide Lakers veteran leadership

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 19:  Guard Jason Terry #31 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Luke Walton #4 of the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on January 19, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Before signing with the Bucks, Jason Terry said he reached out to multiple contenders.

He also spoke with the Lakers.

Terry tried to leverage his relationship with Lakers coach Luke Walton, who also played at Arizona (though their time there didn’t overlap).

Terry on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

I called my good friend Luke. I told him if he needed any help, veteran leadership, in that capacity – Lakers – with an ability to coach at the end of my deal, then that was something I would be looking forward to. He utterly declined, and I respect him for that.

Gotta love a guy who announces to the world his pitch of providing veteran leadership was “utterly declined.”

The Lakers should be just fine with Jose Calderon and Luol Deng.

Report: Nuggets trade Joffrey Lauvergne to Thunder for draft picks

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Joffrey Lauvergne #77 of the Denver Nuggets battle for rebounding position at Pepsi Center on January 19, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Thunder defeated the Nuggets 110-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The Nuggets already had too many quality young big men who won’t easily mesh in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.

Joffrey Lauvergne only complicated the issue.

So, Denver is moving him.

Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post:

Oklahoma City already had 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Semaj Christon (who’s likely headed to the D-League). Lauvergne’s salary is only partially guaranteed, but given his ability and cost, the Thunder surely plan to keep him.

The bigger question is how they use him. They’re already loaded with big men: Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary – though perhaps McGary, facing a five-game suspension for drugs, gets waived to make room for Lauvergne.

The 6-foot-11 Lauvergne runs the floor well, and he can score in the pick-and-roll and on post-ups. He’s an impressive passer for his size, and he crashes the glass hard. But he’s not much of a rim-protector defensively. At age 24, he should produce well over the next several years – though he’s headed toward restricted free agency next summer.

Depending on the second-round picks, this might have just been a value play by the Thunder. They can figure out the rest later.

Report: Bucks signing Xavier Henry

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Xavier Henry #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on November 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Warriors won 136-115.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks hope Xavier Henry is just another thing Byron Scott is wrong about.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Henry – the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft – never found his footing in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets or Los Angeles Lakers. He made some strides with the Lakers in 2013-14, but he tore his Achilles early the following season. That compounded the knee injuries that made Scott doubt Henry could meet the expectations placed on him coming out of Kansas.

Milwaukee now has 15 players, the regular-season roster limit. If Henry’s deal is unguaranteed, he’s obviously not a lock to stick. But the Bucks could use another wing. I’m guessing they’ll add more players to compete with Henry for that final spot.