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.

LeBron James on Colin Kaepernick: ‘I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap.’

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LeBron James is no stranger to standing up for social justice issues, and he’s a leader in American sports when it comes to his sphere of influence.

James and his teammates wore “I can’t breathe” shirts back in 2014 to raise awareness of the treatment of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police. Before a game in 2012, LeBron and his Miami Heat teammates stood in a photo in hoodies, heads bowed, to raise awareness of the death of Trayvon Martin.

So it made sense that James had an opinion about Colin Kaepernick when The King was asked about the former NFL quarterback at All-Star Weekend.

Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid recently reached a settlement with the NFL with regard to their collusion case. James said that he didn’t feel as though anyone was ever really trying to understand what Kaepernick was trying to call attention to — police brutality — by kneeling during the national anthem.

Via Twitter:

“I think it’s important to stick up for what you believe in, you what I’m saying?” James said. “I think with Kap, I stand with Kap, I kneel with Kap. I just feel what he was talking about no one wanted to listen to. Nobody ever really wanted to understand where he was actually coming from. I think that anybody that would sacrifice their livelihood for the betterment of all of us, I can respect that and he’s done that. I mean, you got a guy who basically lost his job because he wanted to stand for something that was more than just him.”

That’s a pretty resounding endorsement by James for Kaep.

I think some are disappointed that Kaepernick is likely bound by some kind of NDA as part of his settlement, but it seems likely that he’s going to use whatever cash the NFL paid him for good. Kaepernick has already made significant charitable donations, a list of which you can see here.

Nice to see LeBron being vocal about being on the right side of history yet again.

Here’s every 50-point dunk in NBA dunk contest history (VIDEO)

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Saturday night was yet another entertaining entry into All-Star Weekend lore, with both the 3-point contest and dunk contest coming through in expected fashion.

Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo won the dunk contest thanks in part to an entertaining move where he dunked over Shaquille O’Neal while wearing a Superman outfit underneath his regular uniform.

There were several 50-point dunks on Saturday night, including Diallo’s Superman dunk and Dennis Smith Jr.‘s dunk with rapper J. Cole. Despite a limited field of contestants, the contest many feel is the highlight of NBA All-Star Weekend did not disappoint.

To that end, the NBA decided to put together a video of all the 50-point dunks in NBA history. Check them out in the video above, and see if you agree on their perfect scores.

Adam Silver on Dirk Nowitzki: ‘I saw him painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season’

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CHARLOTTE – For the first time in NBA history, All-Star rosters each have 13 players.

Don’t expect that to be a permanent change.

Don’t expect it never to happen again, either.

In addition to the five starters chosen by fans, players and media and the seven reserves selected by coaches, NBA commissioner Adam Silver named Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki extra All-Stars.

“I didn’t think about it in terms of the next year or whether there will be other opportunities,” Silver said. “I think that, as a league, I like to think we have the flexibility, when there are special occasions.”

Except 1971-73, when they went a whopping 14 deep, All-Star rosters have had 10, 11 or 12 players. It’d been 12 the last 36 All-Star games.

Meanwhile, the league has grown larger than ever. There are now 30 teams.

The result: It’s harder than ever for players to become All-Stars.

The NBA should use adding Wade and Nowitzki as a springboard to keeping All-Star rosters at 13 players. Going forward, the extra spot should go to someone deserving based on their current play, not used as a lifetime achievement award. Two players snubbed annually now usually deserve All-Star status based on historical standards.

Plus, 13-player All-Star rosters would match regular-season active rosters, which expanded to 13 in 2011. Most current players have spent their entire career with 13-player active rosters. It has become strange to have just 12 in the All-Star game.

But Silver – who once said he supported expanding All-Star rosters – views this as a “special occasion.”

“I thought it was a very unique situation in which you had two NBA champions, two NBA players who had long, fantastic careers, both of whom had been All-Stars multiple times in their career,” Silver said, “and both of whom, in the case of Dwyane Wade, had already announced it was going to be his last season. In the case of Dirk Nowitzki, I saw him painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season. And it just seemed like a wonderful opportunity to honor two greats.”

Whoa, that is harsh about Nowitzki. (Also accurate.)

This is a nice honor for Wade and Nowitzki. But it’s also an opportunity to normalize 13-player All-Star rosters.

Hopefully, the NBA isn’t slow to seize it.

Stephen Curry brings back jacket similar to one he wore at 1992 All-Star Weekend with dad Dell (photos)

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CHARLOTTE – Stephen Curry got legitimately fired up, pumping his fists and screaming, after making his last 10 shots – including his entire money-ball rack – in last night’s 3-point contest.

That contest doesn’t usually spark so much emotion, but this is a special time for Curry and his family. He’s back in North Carolina, where he grew up, for All-Star Weekend.

Curry honored the occasion with a sweet windbreaker reminiscent of the one he wore at 1992 All-Star Weekend. Back then, he was a 3-year-old accompanying his father, Dell Curry, a Charlotte Hornets guard competing in the 3-point contest.

Jasmine Watkins:

Adorable.