Dan Feldman

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Rockets turned themselves into a championship wildcard

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The walls are already closing in on the Rockets’ championship window.

On one side, James Harden and Chris Paul will need time to acclimate to each other. As talented and as smart as they are, the ball-dominant guards won’t instantly and completely mesh. It might take a full season. It might take longer.

On the other side, Paul is headed into unrestricted free agency next summer. Even if he re-signs, most of the team’s likely rotation – Paul (32), Trevor Ariza (32), P.J. Tucker (32), Luc Mbah a Moute (30) and Nene (34) – is on the wrong side of 30. Their productive days might be numbered.

But the window exists, and that’s everything.

A highly successful offseason has elevated Houston from good to potential champion. Trading for Paul was the banner move, but the Rockets followed it with a savvy series of additions that better equip them to challenge the Warriors.

Tucker (mid-level exception minus a sliver to sign 2016 second-rounder Zhou Qi to a three-year contract) and Mbah a Moute (minimum) will provide versatile and chippy defense. They’re capable of executing the switch-heavy schemes necessary to keep up with Golden State. Tucker and Mbah a Moute have also developed reliable corner 3s, which will be particularly useful while playing with Houston’s playmaking star guards.

Nene (Non-Bird Exception after an over-38 snafu) and Tarik Black (bi-annual exception) add size behind Clint Capela. They’ll help through the slog of a long regular season. The Rockets need everyone fresh for the playoffs, when Mike D’Antoni shrinks his rotations especially tight.

Houston also locked up Harden with a massive contract extension. A loyal face of the franchise, Harden showed faith in Daryl Morey after the Dwight Howard experience fizzled, saw the team improve from 41-41 to 57-25 then recruited Paul.

Paul now lifts the Rockets to the next level. They’re far from the favorites, but they’re alluring in the championship chase.

They’re in the championship chase.

Offseason grade: A+

Report: Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury more than just torn labrum

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The Cavaliers refuse to reveal much about Isaiah Thomas‘ torn labrum – which leads to reporters finding other sources of information about the injury.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

One source with direct knowledge of Thomas’ hip condition told The Athletic last week that he is dealing with more than just a tear. Some of those secondary issues in the hip he has played with for years now, such as a loss of cartilage and some arthritis, are complicating his healing process.

“No one has any idea how quickly this will heal or if it even will heal at all,” the source said. “It’s hard to predict.”

Are the Cavs sure surgery isn’t the answer?

Until Thomas plays or Cleveland provides a timeline, there will be a lot of worry about Thomas’ health. The point guard, acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, could be the difference between a championship or not. He’s also entering a contract year in search of a max contract.

The stakes are so high, and this revelation is doesn’t bode well for anyone involved.

NBA must avoid chasing 76ers’ ghost with lottery reform

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When the NBA considered lottery reform in 2014, a 29-1 vote in favor seemed possible.

The lone dissenter? Philadelphia.

The league was mad at the 76ers, who had just tanked their way to a 19-63 record and indicated a plan to tank for years to come. This was a large market team enacting a strategy that would reduce revenue, revenue that could have been shared among the NBA’s 29 other teams.

But no matter how much ire the 76ers drew, they were just cleverly working a system that rewards losers with high draft picks. So, the league tried to change the system.

Flattening lottery odds to disincentivize all-out tanking came up for a vote, a majority of teams – 17 of 30 – approved. But the measure fell short of the 23 votes (75%) necessary to pass. NBA commissioner Adam Silver put the issue on hold as new national TV contracts sent the salary cap skyrocketing.

The 76ers tanked again. And again. And, though not as forcefully, again.

Now, the league is re-considering lottery reform with a proposal similar to 2014’s.

NBA owners, who were once in a fervor to stop Philadelphia, ought to think twice about voting yes. It’s too late to punish the 76ers, who’ve moved past the extreme-tanking phase of their plan onto vying for the playoffs. Consequences, intended and unintended, of these rule changes would reach far further than Philadelphia.

Lottery reform isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Tanking hurts the product and should be disincentivized. Would flattening lottery odds actually do that, though?

High draft picks would remain just as coveted. They’d still provide dibs on elite prospects for four cost-controlled years plus a leg up for the following nine years, especially with designated-player contracts. That’s so valuable in a sport where it’s nearly impossible to win without a superstar. The easiest way to acquire a superstar, especially for small markets, is a high draft pick.

Maybe teams wouldn’t tank, because that’d be a too-uncertain path to a high draft pick. Or maybe they’d tank longer, needing more time until their reduced lottery odds resulted in a high pick.

Teams that are earnestly bad could get stuck, as they’d be less likely to land the star who lifts them from the cellar. It’s easy to say not to reward failure, but hope sells. In a collective like the NBA, it’s not a terrible idea to give fans of the most helpless teams reasons to be invested.

Maybe owners will cerebrally consider these issues and the countless others related to this proposal. After all, about a dozen owners changed their leaning in 2014 after hearing all the arguments.

But staying hell-bent on stopping the 76ers is the wrong approach. It’s too late for that. They’ve already built their young core – led by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz – with high draft picks.

There should be better logic behind lottery reform this time around.

Perhaps, owners realize this and just want to stop the next multi-year tank. But the league might have found a more effective prevention mechanism.

The Process was massively successful at acquiring elite young talent. And Sam Hinkie still got forced out! What general manager would dare emulate his plan after that?

Hinkie was the first to set out to tank for so long, and it cost him his job. No matter how wise the strategy, real people are involved, and Hinkie’s bosses were ashamed of all the losing. That experience will curb tanking.

The lottery reform being discussed might. It might not.

It might curb tanking and lead to worse unintended consequences – like the 76ers barely missing the playoffs then riding increased lottery odds to another high pick.

They’re too good now to tank fully, but they’re also not playoff locks. In other words, they’re the exact type of team that would benefit from this proposal.

So, if the owners are going to get this right, they must find better rationale than the Philadelphia resentment that popularized this issue three years ago. Those 76ers are gone.

The bigger issues of competitive balance, tanking and revenue maximization remain and are ready to be tackled thoughtfully.

More details of NBA’s lottery-reform proposal emerge

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The NBA is considering lottery reform, just as it did in 2014.

The gist of both proposals: Disincentivize tanking by rewarding the very worst teams less than they are now.

That’s accomplished two ways:

1. Giving teams with the worst records fewer lottery combinations than they get now. This will make it less likely their number is called for a high pick.

2. Using the lottery to determine more picks. Currently, the top three picks are drawn then the remaining 11 non-playoff teams are slotted in reverse order of record. Increase the number of picks determined in the lottery, and the worst teams could "fall" further.

Using information from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, here’s a breakdown of the current lottery rules and the 2014 and 2017 proposals:

Rule Current 2014 proposal 2017 proposal
Top X picks determined 3 6 4
Odds of No. 1 pick for worst, second-worst, third-worst records 25%, 19.9%, 15.6% 12%, 12%, 12% Equal
Difference in odds of No. 1 pick between worst and fifth-worst records 16.2 percentage points 0.5 percentage points "only have a few percentage points"

The 2017 proposal appears to be less aggressive than its 2014 counterpart, which was defeated. The top four picks – up from three currently, but down from six suggested in 2014 – would be drawn in the lottery. Otherwise the proposals appear similar, though we’ve gotten only vague explanations of the latter.

Wojnarowski also reported prohibiting teams from picking top three in consecutive seasons was being considered, but he noted that rule is not currently part of the official proposal. That’d be a massive change – far more radical than anything reported so far, this year or in 2014. Considering the 2017 proposal appears to soften the changes more than the 2014 proposal did, I’d be surprised if that’s implemented.

Report: NBA again pursuing lottery reform

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When draft-lottery reform was defeated in 2015, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the issue was on hold for a couple years.

Well, it’s been a couple years.

The cap has surged higher under new national TV contracts, and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is in effect. With the league relatively stable, it’s time to revisit the issue.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The National Basketball Association is aggressively pursuing draft lottery reform that could be voted into legislation before the start of the 2017-’18 season, league sources told ESPN.

Commissioner Adam Silver is a strong advocate to de-incentivize tanking by implementing lower odds on the NBA’s worst teams to gain the top picks in the draft, league sources said.

If passed, the lottery reform would be phased into use over time, and there’s no indication that the 2018 NBA Draft would fall under new legislation, league sources said.

Wojnarowski added on ESPN that one of the proposals is that no team can have a top three pick in consecutive drafts. The Celtics have had top three picks in the last two drafts, the Lakers the last three, and the Sixers the past four.

This won’t eliminate tanking, but it could curb the most extreme forms. Currently, the team with the worst record has a 25% chance of picking No. 1, 47% chance of picking top two, 64% chance of picking top three and a 100% of picking top four. If those odds were lower, teams would presumably be less eager to chase last place.

However, by consequence, better lottery teams would be more likely to land a high pick. That could invite some unintended consequences:

Will fans of awful teams lose hope and become less likely to spend money on the NBA? Might teams tank into the lottery rather pursue a playoff berth likely to end with a quick exit? What else could happen that’s not predicted today?

A majority of NBA owners, 17 of 30, voted in 2015 to smooth the lottery odds. But the proposal fell short of the 23 votes necessary to change the system. At one point it looked like lottery reform would pass, but there was a push back by smaller and middle market teams that thought this could hurt their chances to rebuild down the line. Has that sentiment changed?

It’s so unclear what’s in each team’s self interest, especially because the reform could take effect at any time. Not only does every team have at least most of its own first-round picks, six – the Cavaliers (with that 2018 Nets pick acquired from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade), Celtics, 76ers, Hawks and Suns – own another team’s pick that could land in the lottery.

Silver wants reform, and I think the owners will get behind him to pass something. But it’s far from certain.