NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: 42-40. They were average on offense, average on defense and had an average record — which is actually pretty impressive considering they had no stars to carry them. This was a good squad of role players waiting for a leader.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman, who missed the playoffs last season for just the third time as a coach. That’s impressive.

Key Departures: Trevor Ariza, who left as part of the four-team deal that brought Coutney Lee in to Houston. Ariza went from being a cog in the Lakers machine to a key player in the Rockets offense — and with that increased usage on offense came far less efficient — his True Shooting percentage dropped from .544 in Los Angeles to .488 in Houston. Not everyone is suited to be the guy creating the offense — Ariza could do that well on the break but not in the half-court roles Houston had for him.

Key Additions: Yao Ming is back. Limited in minutes, not moving as well as he did before missing a year due to foot surgery (particularly laterally). But he is still a 7’6” guy with touch on the midrange who can defend the rim with insanely long arms. Even 80 percent of Yao makes the Rockets a much better team… if he can just stay healthy.

The Rockets also locked up Luis Scola, who reminded us at the FIBA World Championships that he is dang good and gets overlooked. Other guys in the door are Courtney Lee and Yao’s backup Brad Miller. Houston also drafted Patrick Paterson, who seems to fit their mold.

Best case scenario: Yao Ming stays healthy and as the season moves on plays more and more minutes, becoming more and more his old self. Then by the playoffs everything is clicking and they are serious threat to the Lakers.

For that to happen: It really is all about Yao.

Sure, there are other things that have to happen. Aaron Brooks has to continue as a catalyst for the Rockets inside-out offense and has to continue to play up to his Most Improved Player status. Kevin Martin needs to be the wing scorer and three-point threat this team needs to stretch the floor. Scola and Shane Battier need to continue to do their thing efficiently. Kyle Lowry needs to lead a change-of-pace second unit that runs and puts up points.

Basically — the Rockets need to play like they did last year, but with Yao now as the leader.

On defense the once formidable Rockets took a hit because after Yao this is not a big team and they lacked someone who could protect the rim. Last season the Rockets allowed teams to shoot 62.7 percent at the rim (eighth worst in the league) and get 28.1 shots per game there (sixth worst in the league). Yao has to change that, force teams to shoot from the outside more, miss more when they do get in the lane. That allows guys like Battier to be more dangerous and aggressive out on the wings.

The Rockets need to keep the flow in the offense and work inside out with Yao — who is a fantastic passer, so it should work. Yao also should help the Rockets on the boards, another area they needed to improve last season.

The question is, can Yao do all this now? After a year off for major foot surgery at age 30?

More likely the Rockets will: Be better, but Yao will be a step slow from his old self, and with that the Rockets will be a step behind their ultimate goals. They will end up like a lot of teams in the West, good but not quite good enough to best the Lakers.

And the risk of injury to the Rockets seems higher than a lot of teams. Yao and Martin have very thick doctors files.

But also know this — a healthy Rockets might be the Lakers toughest matchup in the West. A reasonably healthy Yao stymies Bynum, Battier can slow Kobe, the Lakers are susceptible to quick penetrating point guards like Brooks. Remember that two seasons ago the Rockets took the Lakers seven games (the series where Yao injured his foot). If one team in the West can upset a fairly healthy Lakers squad, it might well be a healthy Rockets squad.

Prediction: 48-34, one of the bottom couple seeds in the West. And we may get to see my theory about them matching up well with the Lakers early on.

LaVar Ball denies leaking Lonzo Ball’s knee injury

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The Lakers reportedly believe someone in Lonzo Ball‘s camp leaked his knee injury to depress his trade value and keep him in Los Angeles.

So, of course, speculation turned to his media-savvy father who has a major financial interest in maintaining footing in the Los Angeles market.

LaVar Ball, via TMZ:

“I don’t leak nothing. I always say what’s on my mind, so you don’t never see me saying, ‘I think I should say this now and let it leak.’ I don’t do that.”

It would be more in-character for LaVar just to announce Lonzo’s knee injury or – especially now that the Lakers are publicly acknowledging Lonzo’s need for surgery – brag now about his maneuvering. So, maybe he wasn’t behind this.

But it still could have been someone else in Lonzo’s camp, with or without LaVar’s knowledge.

The Balls don’t need to apologize if they disclosed Lonzo’s injury. It’s his knee. He can say what he wants about it, however it affects the Lakers.

But these accusations and subsequent denials certainly don’t signal a strong relationship between the team and player.

Bucks unprecedentedly squander value of a No. 2 pick (Jabari Parker)

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I rated Jabari Parker No. 1 on my 2014 NBA draft board – which obviously turned out wrong.

I was wrong about Parker’s position. I thought he’d be a small forward, but he’s clearly more of a power forward in the modern NBA.

I was wrong about his fit with the Bucks, who drafted him No. 2 (behind Andrew Wiggins, the other player in my top tier that year). Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a star worth building around, and his pairing with Parker has been unfulfilling at best.

I mainly just wrong about Parker’s ability to produce in the NBA. He has twice torn his ACL. He’s a high-usage offensive player who has improved his 3-pointer and passing (at least when healthy). His defense has been lousy, save one game in last year’s playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean pre-draft evaluations should be completely discarded.

Parker is just 23. He’s still trying to find himself in the NBA. The work ethic that helped build him into the No. 2 pick hasn’t necessarily vanished. (By some accounts, it has only hardened.) The perimeter skills that made me see a small forward could be waiting to emerge in full force once he gets healthy and improves his feel.

The last four years should count more than anything else. But completely ignoring his time at Duke and even prior would be foolish. Assessing Parker’s entire record is the optimal way to evaluate him.

And Parker’s entire record makes him a clear candidate for the “second draft,” a term popularized by John Hollinger. Second-draft players were selected high in the actual draft, didn’t pan out with their original team and maybe could use a change of scenery.

Parker will get that with the Bulls, who signed him to a two-year, $40 million contract.

And the Bucks will get nothing.

That’s unprecedented for a No. 2 pick in this draft era.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement gives teams massive control over players drafted in the first round.

A first-round pick, unless he waits three years to sign, is bound to a rookie scale with relatively low salaries. The contract is four years with two team options. The team gets exclusive negotiating rights on an extension after the third year. If no extension is struck and the player completes the four-year deal, the team can make him a restricted free agent, which often chills his market.

Essentially, the drafting team gets first crack of the player panning out on the court. If he doesn’t, the drafting team often holds enough leverage to get value from him another way.

That’s especially true with high first-round picks.

The higher-picked a player was, the more likely other teams also coveted him, the more suitors likely in a “second draft.” A team with a highly picked bust still on his rookie-scale contract can often still trade him.

The Cavaliers traded Anthony Bennett in the Kevin Love deal. Though that was probably mostly about using Bennett’s salary for matching, the Timberwolves certainly didn’t mind getting someone only one year removed from being the No. 1 pick. And, at minimum, Bennett’s salary was useful.

The Pistons traded Darko Milicic to the Magic for the first-round pick that became Rodney Stuckey. Even after two-plus seasons of Milicic struggling, Orlando still had hope the former No. 2 pick would realize his potential.

The Wizards and former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown were so fed up with each other in 2005, Washington suspended him in the playoffs and described it as mutual. But the Wizards still extended Brown’s qualifying offer that summer and used the threat of matching to land Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers.

It is not hard to get something for a high draft pick before his fifth season. But Milwaukee failed in that regard.

The former No. 2 pick, Parker is the highest-drafted player to leave his original team high and dry in free agency at the conclusion of his rookie-scale contract since 1998, when the NBA instituted four-year rookie-scale contracts.

Just five other top-five picks have left their original team via free agency that quickly in that span:

Mario Hezonja (No. 5 pick in 2015)

The Magic declined Hezonja’s fourth-year option, and he signed with the Knicks in unrestricted free agency this summer.

O.J. Mayo (No. 3 pick in 2008)

After four up-and-down seasons with the Grizzlies, Mayo didn’t receive a qualifying offer. He signed with the Mavericks then spent three years with the Bucks. He’s currently banned from the NBA.

Shaun Livingston (No. 4 pick in 2004)

Livingston blew out his knee in his third season, missed his entire fourth season then didn’t even receive his qualifying offer from the Clippers. He bounced around a few years before finding a niche on the Warriors.

Marcus Fizer (No. 4 pick in 2000)

Fizer underwhelmed in four seasons with the Bulls, to the point they left him unprotected in the 2004 expansion draft. Charlotte selected him, which made him an unrestricted free agent, and he signed with Milwaukee. After a season with the Bucks then a couple 10-day contracts the following year, Fizer fell out of the league.

Lamar Odom (No. 4 pick in 1999)

Odom signed a six-year, $65 million offer sheet with the Heat in restricted free agency. The Clippers declined to match. Odom spent a season in Miami then was the centerpiece of the Heat’s trade for Shaquille O’Neal. Odom stuck in Los Angeles and helped the Lakers win a couple titles.

Unlike the Clippers with Odom, the Bucks never officially declined to match an offer sheet for Parker. Milwaukee actually rescinded Parker’s qualifying offer, allowing him to sign directly with Chicago.

That was mostly a favor to Parker, whom the Bucks seemed content to part with. Hard-capped after signing Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee would have had to dump salary to match and almost certainly wasn’t going to.

But rescinding the qualifying offer also allowed the Bulls to include a team option in the second year of Parker’s contract. Offer sheets must be for at least two seasons (not counting options). If forced to sign an on offer sheet, Chicago and Parker could have made the second season unguaranteed, and it would have been mostly similar. But a team option – which doesn’t require Parker to clear waivers if declined – was preferable to both him and the Bulls.

That Milwaukee allowed a division rival to get Parker on more-favorable terms speaks volumes. That’s how little the Bucks value Parker at this point. They’d rather be nice to him than hinder a nearby foe’s acquisition of him.

What if the Bucks kept Parker’s qualifying offer in place? Would the Bulls have just signed him to an offer sheet with an unguaranteed second season with the expectation Milwaukee wouldn’t match? Would Chicago have engaged the Bucks on a sign-and-trade to ensure getting Parker (though players signed-and-traded must get at least a three-year contract)?

What if the Bucks hadn’t hard-capped themselves by rushing to sign Ilyasova? How much more leverage would have held?

Perhaps, most significantly, what if Milwaukee just traded Parker last season? It was easy to see this situation coming.

Parker played just a few games before the trade deadline, but he at least proved he could get back on the court. And his performance since then was totally in line with projections – and led to a contract that pays $20 million next season. No team would have sent the Bucks a small asset for Parker last February?

The optics would have been bad, Milwaukee dealing a former No. 2 pick for peanuts. But that’s better than losing him for nothing now. The Bucks don’t even gain cap space, as they’re already well over.

Maybe Milwaukee didn’t get any offers before the trade deadline that were better than keeping Parker for the rest of the season and hoping – even against the odds – everything would work out. Maybe pleasing Parker’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, carries more importance than getting value from Parker directly. Maybe the Bucks will be better off with Ilyasova.

But it’s worth recognizing this is a unique way to turn a No. 2 pick into nothing in just four years.

Fight involving Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker caught on video

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Devin Booker was upset with the Suns for waiving Tyler Ulis without first telling the franchise player.

Want a glimpse of their bond?

Watch this 2017 video, recently published by TMZ:

TMZ:

We’re told Tyler was trying to hold the elevator for his friends when another group of guys tried to get on.

When Tyler continued to hold it … they took offense and a scuffle broke out.

A short time later, Ulis’ friends — including Suns superstar Booker — took the elevator to the scene of the fight and found the men who attacked Ulis. Another fight broke out, Ulis threw punches.

Booker — who covered his face with a bandana — does not appear to hit anyone.

azcentral:

The Suns say they are looking into the incident.

TMZ:

A source close to the Suns administration tells us, “While these guys know they are always potential targets for others trying to cause trouble, it’s hard to blame them for defending their friend who is on the bad end of a 4 on 1 attack.”

It sounds as if the Suns have already made up their mind and are saying they’re looking into the incident because that’s what they’re supposed to say.

Ulis – who was at the heart of the fight – is already gone. Booker, who signed a max extension this month, was involved but not much more than that.

The Suns should investigate further to better understand the situation, but based on that video and report, it’s hard to see anything for the team to do at this point.

Reversing reported course, Clippers fully guarantee Milos Teodosic’s salary

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The Clippers reportedly wanted to move on from point guard Milos Teodosic.

Teodosic opted in anyway, guaranteeing $2.1 million of his $6.3 million salary. Why not get as much money as possible on the way out?

But apparently Teodosic isn’t leaving L.A., as his contract became fully guaranteed yesterday.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The Clippers are expected to keep guard Milos Teodosic despite their crowded backcourt, according to an NBA official not authorized to speak publicly.

The Clippers traded guard Austin Rivers for center Marcin Gortat since the initial report, but that hardly ended the backcourt logjam. Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Lou Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, C.J. Williams and Jawun Evans remain at guard.

The bigger logjam is with the overall roster, though. The Clippers now have 17 players on standard contracts, two more than the regular-season limit. That doesn’t bode well for Williams, whose salary is unguaranteed. Without another trade, Evans or Sindarius Thornwell could get cut.

Why the change of heart on Teodosic? Perhaps, he’s progressing better than expected medically. The 31-year-old missed 37 games last season with a foot injury, and there was concern about his long-term health. But when on the court, he’s a dazzling passer and long-distance shooter. Being slowed won’t help his already-woeful defense, though.

The Clippers were already over the cap, and they’re in little danger of entering the luxury tax. So, the only costs of guaranteeing Teodosic are owner Steve Ballmer’s real money, a roster spot and him potentially blocking playing time of L.A.’s lottery-pick guards. But the Clippers could even cut Teodosic in the preseason if someone else emerges as more deserving of the roster spot, and Doc Rivers can choose whether to play Teodosic or Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson.

So, the biggest development is the roster spot. Teodosic is now extremely likely to hold it into the season, which means monitoring who gets dripped.