What the Rockets should do if the lockout ends

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It’s official — after years of half-seasons and broken hopes, the Yao Ming era is officially over in Houston. The Rockets have been essentially playing without Yao for a while now, so it won’t be a huge transition for them, but at least they now know that they won’t b building around Yao going forward. In Yao’s absence, Daryl Morey has built a team of fast, sweet-shooting offensive players that don’t play defense terribly well, and while the team was over .500 last season, it wasn’t able to grab the final playoff spot in the West. Here’s what Morey and Co. should focus on if the lockout ends:

1. Play Defense.

The Rockets were 6th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency last season. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where they need to make their biggest improvements. Morey has been described as “bringing the Moneyball” philosophy to basketball, and two of his best players, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, fit that mold — they weren’t big college stars, they’re not great athletes, but they’re both superlative offensive players because of their uniquely polished offensive games. (In fact, I even compared Kevin Martin to former SABRmetric darling Adam Dunn a few years back.)

The problem is that while baseball position players’ defense isn’t nearly as important as their hitting, basketball players have to play both ways in order to be successful. Scola isn’t a great defender by any stretch of the imagination, and Martin is horrifyingly inept defensively, which will make defensive success tough for Houston.

(Of course, Morey was lauded as a “Moneyball” GM for embracing +/- stats and players like Shane Battier — players who don’t have great stats, but impact the game in positive ways by taking smart shots, playing good defense, and having good intangibles. In other words, Morey was compared to Billy Beane for valuing the exact opposite kind of players that Beane did in Lewis’ book. What I’m saying here is that I’m not all that thrilled about the return of “Moneyball” as a buzzword.

Maybe the answer can be former defensive phenom and#2 pick Hasheem Thabeet, who is still young and can block just about anything. If he can find some way to play serviceable NBA basketball and take pressure off Scola defensively, the Rockets would really benefit. Then again, Hasheem Thabeet is not good at basketball, which is an issue the Rockets will have to deal with. In fact, forget I wrote this paragraph unless Thabeet miraculously finds his game. If that happens, disregard these last few sentences.

2. Find a way to run the ball.

The Rockets have some serious weapons in transition. Kyle Lowry is a lightning-quick bowling ball of a point guard, Chase Budinger can run the floor, soar through the air, and stretch the floor, and Martin is deadly trailing the break and shooting those threes. The Rockets also have a lot of other quality athletes on their roster who haven’t quite put it all together in terms of their skills, and a more open game could work well for them.

Basically, the Rockets are a team with a lot of solid role players, some serious defensive issues, a few semi-stars, and no true star. They can be dangerous, but unless they find a way to miraculously turn themselves into a defensive powerhouse or find a two-way superstar, I don’t see them making it out of the first round of the loaded Western Conference.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.