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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.

Rudy Gobert says if officials don’t start protecting him from fouls ‘it’s gonna get ugly’

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Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert has been no stranger to NBA officials this season. The Frenchman has already been fined for his comments on what he believes is poor officiating, and he doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon.

After the Jazz lost a heartbreaker to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, 122-113, Gobert again decided to make it known how he felt about the folks in gray.

Specifically, Rudy Gobert said that if officials weren’t going to start protecting him against other players fouling him with disregard, he would have to take it into his own hands.

Via the Salt Lake Tribune:

“Tonight, someone grabbed my arm, pulled me down — that was a very dangerous play, and I got called for the foul. So if I gotta do justice myself, I’m gonna do justice myself. And it’s gonna get ugly,” Gobert said. “Hopefully I don’t have to do that. I just want to play basketball.”

That’s about as close as we’ll ever get to fighting words in the NBA, and Gobert was probably pretty heated after the loss when he said those things.

Still, officiating has been a question around the league this season, and it’s possible that Gobert has some legitimate complaints. Hopefully the coaching staff and front office in Utah is doing what they can to lobby the league so that Gobert doesn’t take it out on his fellow players. He’s already slapped a water bottle off the scorer’s table this year, and the Jazz can’t afford Gobert boiling over.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim to take over as president of the G-League

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You likely remember Shareef Abdur-Rahim as No. 3 overall pick in the 1996 Draft out of Cal who went on to play a dozen seasons in the NBA, even making an All-Star Team in 2002 as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.

Since his playing days, he has stayed in basketball. He was the GM of the G-League’s Reno Bighorns, assistant general manager of the Sacramento Kings, and most recently has been the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations. He’s climbed the ladder fast at age 42.

Now he will take over as president of the G-League, the NBA announced Tuesday. Abdur-Rahim replaces Malcolm Turner, who is leaving the position to take over as the athletic director at Vanderbilt University.

“I am thrilled to have this extraordinary opportunity with the NBA G League,” Abdur-Rahim said in a released statement. “I’ve seen firsthand the NBA G League’s remarkable growth under Malcolm’s leadership, and I look forward to working with the players, teams and my colleagues to take the league to even greater heights.”

“Shareef’s unique experiences as a player, team executive and member of the NBA’s Basketball Operations department make him a fantastic fit to be the next President of the NBA G League,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in a statement.

The NBA is working to turn the G-League into a true minor league where teams develop players — they have had success in the past year with two-way contracts bringing us guys such as the Knicks’ Allonzo Trier — as well as making the league a real option for young players leaving high school who don’t see a year or two in college as a fit for them. It’s also where the league experiments with rule changes before putting them in action in the NBA, such as resetting the shot clock to 14 (instead of 24) after an offensive rebound.

For Abdur-Rahim, running the G-League could prove to be another stepping stone in his career.

 

 

Anthony Davis hears your cheers, reiterates he wants to win in New Orleans

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When Anthony Davis was introduced and stepped on the court at the Boston Garden Monday night, Celtics fans did their best to recruit him and show their love.

Davis has gotten the same reaction in Los Angeles and other cities. If the Pelicans ever decide they have to trade him — something that will not happen until this summer, if it happens at all — or if he decides to leave the Big Easy as a free agent in 2020, the Celtics, Lakers and every other team in the NBA will be lined up for the chance to get a transformational player entering his peak.

Davis has heard the cheers. He knows the situation. He knows every other fan base in the NBA covets him.

And he reiterated again Monday night — after his squad fell to a shorthanded Celtics team — that what he really wants to do is win In New Orleans. Davis told Tim Bontemps of ESPN he thinks the Pelicans can repeat or improve on their trip to the second round from last season.

“For sure,” he said after scoring 41 points to go with 7 rebounds in Monday’s loss. “We had everybody healthy the first four games, and we went 4-0. Then Elfrid [Payton] goes down, I’ve been out a couple games, Niko [Mirotic] … a lot of guys have been out. Every time we’ve had a full roster, we’ve been a tough team to beat….

“I heard it tonight,” the 25-year-old said when asked if he heard the local fans cheering for him during the game. “But I’m just focused on this team. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team get wins with the roster we have. It’s been a rocky season, so it’s on me to try to figure it out….

“So for me, I just go out there and play with this team and go out there and try to have fun and get wins. That’s all I’m worried about is getting wins for this team and hopefully we can get further than we did last year.”

The 14-15 Pelicans sit as the current 10 seed in the West, just two games out of the final playoff slot. If they can get healthy, if they can string some wins together they can certainly make the playoffs. There it will become all about matchups, but the Pelicans showed last season that behind Davis they have the talent to advance.

Will that be enough for the competitive Davis, who wants to take his seat with the best in the game today?

Only Davis knows, and all he has ever said is he wants to win in New Orleans.

Come July 1, the Pelicans will offer Davis the designated veteran max extension, which is in the ballpark of $230 million (or more) over five years. That’s more than any other team will be able to offer him, and it’s A LOT of money. Not something someone walks away from lightly. He may well re-sign in New Orleans (he would sacrifice $33 million guaranteed if traded to another team and he re-signs there, he would give up $84 million guaranteed to leave as a free agent).

If Davis and new agent Rich Paul say no to the contract extension, then the Battle Royale to trade for his services would be on. Probably. Would the Pelicans trade him or try to woo him for another season, players like this don’t come around often? Would Davis try to exert control over the trade process saying he would only re-sign with certain teams? Would a team roll the dice with an over-the-top offer thinking that they could win him over (sort of like OKC did with Paul George and Toronto did with Kawhi Leonard)? There are a lot of variables.

But that is all just speculation. Right now, Davis is just trying to win with the Pelicans.

Jimmy Butler says he shot only once while leading Timberwolves’ third-stringers to practice win over starters

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Fed up with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins not matching his competitiveness, fed up with the Timberwolves for not trading him yet and apparently fed up with being told he must practice… Jimmy Butler unleashed hell during a scrimmage before the season.

Butler reportedly arrived late, led third-stringers to a win over the starters, talked smack and then left early. The Minnesota practice instantly became legendary.

And we didn’t even realize the full extent of Butler’s showing.

Butler, via The Ringer:

The most interesting detail of that whole scrimmage that nobody knows: I only shot the ball once.

Oh, I was dominating, but I only shot the ball once. Dimes, boom, boom, boom. Steals, blocks. I only shot the ball one time.

That is peak Jimmy Butler. He is so good. Though he’s a quality scorer, he affects the game in so many ways. Nearly all stars are excellent with the ball, but the ones who contribute to winning without the ball give their team an extra edge.

Butler has those skills, and it allows 76ers teammates like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid more room to operate in their comfort zones. With so many questions raised about Butler as a teammate, I’d take him on my team any day.

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