NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

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Last Season: Riding a deep roster and the creativity of a coaching staff and front office to cover up their weaknesses with in-season trades, the Rockets were in the playoff hunt into the season’s final days only to fall short and finish 9th in the West. They battled injury, illness, and the transition to new coach Kevin McHale in a lockout shortened season to be one of the surprise teams of the west.

Through it all they saw Goran Dragic elevate his game to the level of a really good starter, got contributions from several young players (Chandler Parsons became one of those guys basketball nerds love), and saw a patchwork front court anchored by Samuel Dalembert, Luis Scola, and Marcus Camby play big down the stretch. No, it wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs but they showed a ton of grit and were a league pass darling by the time the regular season closed.

Key Departures: You could argue that the Rockets lost their top two players from last season and four of their best five overall. Goran Dragic left for familiar stomping grounds in the desert, signing a free agent deal with the Suns. He takes with him scoring and play-making that carried the Rockets down the stretch. Luis Scola joins him in Phoenix after his amnestied contract was claimed on waivers. Scola is declining as a player but still a credible starter at a difficult to fill position. His craftiness will be missed. Kyle Lowry was traded to the Raptors for a future lottery pick after issuing an off-season ultimatum that asked for only one of him and head coach Kevin McHale to return. Losing Lowry was likely a necessity after his war of words with McHale, but he had an incredibly good contract and is coming into his own as a player. Courtney Lee and his heady all court game and good defense have moved on to help remake the Celtic’s wing rotation.

Key Additions: The Rockets have long been trying to rework their roster by signing or trading for a big name player that could anchor their franchise. They again struck out in getting one of the trade market’s big fish but did bring in a nice haul of young players that add to an already nice core.

In free agency, Darryl Morey took advantage of a poison pill loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to nab point guard prize Jeremy Lin and underrated big man/defensive ace Omer Asik. Both will be penciled in as starters and the hope is that Lin will anchor their offensive attack while Asik does the same for the D patrolling the back line.

In the draft the Rockets had three draft picks and used them all to select some intriguing talents. Swingman Jeremy Lamb joins big men Terrence Jones and Royce White as players that should see meaningful minutes this year. All three are rotation players but all come with questions. White is an especially intriguing prospect as he’s a player with lottery talent but an anxiety disorder that led to his draft stock suffering. If there’s a player to root for, it’s him.

Three Keys to the Rockets season:

1) Can such a young team find their bearings quickly enough to remain competitive?

The old adage is that you win with veterans in the NBA. The Rockets are likely going to learn that first hand this season as every projected starter not named Kevin Martin will be 26 or younger when the season starts. Kevin McHale will be doing a lot of teaching on the fly and he can only hope the lessons stick. If they do, the Rockets could surprise teams by coming at them with waves of youngsters who can really play. If they don’t, the Rockets could find themselves out of the playoff hunt early in the season for the first time in a while as the young players they rely on play like their ages.

2) Will Morey make a deal?

Kevin Martin is in the final year of a contract that will pay him nearly $13 million this season. The hope is that Martin’s deal can act as the salary ballast in a big trade with some of Houston’s high upside youngsters tossed in as sweetner. You have to believe that Morey is still looking for a big name player that can pair with Lin to anchor his team and that he’s willing to do what is necessary to make a deal. After the Chris Paul veto cost him Pau Gasol and the Magic decided they’d rather deal Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Morey is zero for two in franchise altering moves the past two seasons. With Martin’s deal set to fall off the books after the season this may be his last best chance to grab a high profile player via trade.

3) How good is Jeremy Lin?

This last question really is the most important one to the Rockets’ success for this season and beyond. Lin was amazing for the Knicks and showed that a combination of hard work and the right situation could lead to stardom. But his success in the Big Apple came in a relatively small sample size of games. The Rockets need a lasting dosage of Lin-sanity to avoid being one of the lesser teams in the conference this year. If he delivers, this team has a foundational pillar to build upon. If he’s not up to the task — he’s had an unsteady preseason so far– the Rockets’ hefty investment may end up biting them in the backside and send their season into a tailspin.

What Rockets fans should fear: The worst case scenario is that the Rockets can’t get a top flight player for a package centered around Martin but deal him anyway for a good but not great player who impacts their future cap flexibility. Meanwhile their young players show promise but prove mistake prone, and Jeremy Lin is good but not great, but the team plays hard and shows enough scrap to not be a cellar dweller in a competitive Western Conference. This would leave them with a mid-grade lottery pick in next year’s draft and the chance to draft another talented player who isn’t quite elite enough to be the type of difference maker that propels a franchise. In other words, the Rockets spin their wheels for another season and go into next year looking very much like the team they already are.

How it likely works out: The hodge-podge of young talent shows some promise but is ultimately a mixed bag. Jeremy Lin doesn’t quite reach the level he showed in New York but is good enough to not be a bust signing. The Rockets make a final push to trade Martin but don’t find an acceptable deal and let his contract fall off their books. The mostly young team plays hard and shows grit but that’s not enough to keep them close to the playoff hunt in a stacked Western Conference. The Rockets end up with a relatively high lottery pick and cap space next summer for them to try and finally rebuild.

Prediction: 27-55, 13th in the West and another lottery pick to try and package in a deal for whatever star is on the market next off-season (cough, James Harden, cough).

Hawks could turn deep supply of picks into draft-day trade

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ATLANTA (AP) — As the only general manager holding three first-round picks in Thursday night’s NBA draft, including No. 3 overall, Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk has been a popular target for trade talk.

Overall, the Hawks have four picks in the top 34. That’s more than enough depth to attract interest, but the rebuilding Hawks are even more attractive trade targets because they also have about $20 million in salary cap space. That creates more attractive options for a team needing to unload a contract in a trade.

Schlenk says he is answering every call and considering all options – including the possibility of trading up or down from the No. 3 spot.

It’s an exciting time for Schlenk, who never held such a high draft pick in his previous job as assistant GM with the Golden State Warriors.

“This is the highest pick that I’ve been a part of,” Schlenk said last week. “At Golden State, the highest pick we had was six. So it’s exciting. Having the four picks, along with the third pick, we get a lot of phone calls, which is exciting as well, and we’re going to go through all the options that are presented to us and make the best decision, hopefully.”

He says he’s comfortable with the idea of opening the 2018-19 season with four rookies.

Schlenk is planning the Hawks’ future with a new coach. Former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce was hired on May 11 to replace Mike Budenholzer, now the Bucks coach.

Schlenk might use his first pick to select a forward-center to pair with 2017-18 rookie John Collins. Among players who could be available are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III , Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba of Texas.

Guards Luka Doncic of Slovenia, Trae Young of Oklahoma and forward Michael Porter of Missouri could be alternatives for Schlenk.

Pierce stressed defense in his first news conference in Atlanta. Schlenk said it’s important to land players with balanced offensive and defensive skills.

“Obviously when you look at the best teams in the league, the majority of the time they’re good defensive teams,” Schlenk said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re not scoring 100 points you’re probably not winning, so we’re going to look for guys that are two-way players, who can play defensively, but also we’ve got to be able to score the ball on the other end.”

Bagley qualifies as that two-way talent, but he could be drafted at the No. 2 spot by Sacramento.

“I put a lot of work into this and I think I’m the best player in the draft,” Bagley said after his draft workout in Atlanta last week. “I mean that in the most humble way possible, not to be cocky.”

Phoenix is projected to select Arizona center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick.

Jackson is an accomplished shot blocker with less polish on the offensive end. He is regarded by many to have the potential shooting skills to develop into a well-rounded NBA big man.

With point guard Dennis Schroder‘s future in Atlanta uncertain, the Hawks can look for talent at any position. Their wealth of picks could make it easier to take a chance on Doncic, who has the skills to play multiple positions even though his ability to create space in the NBA has been questioned by some critics.

“I’ve maintained all along, and I honestly believe this, we’re going to take the best player,” Schlenk said. “We’re in a situation where we’re looking to add the most talent we can, and we’re going to get a good player at the third pick.”

The No. 3 spot is the Hawks’ highest since 2007, when they selected Al Horford at No. 3.

Atlanta also has the No. 19 and No. 30 picks in the first round and No. 34 early in the second round. Those selections give Schlenk a wealth of options, including a deal for a higher pick next year.

Schlenk said he has considered if the possibility to “trade back to collect more assets would be advantageous.”

 

Nate Robinson says Larry Brown made him cry then told the whole Knicks team about it

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In 2013, Kurt Helin declared Nate Robinson “The people’s champion.”

The 5-foot-9 guard won a record three dunk contests. He played fearlessly, especially as a scorer. He gambled defensively. He played hard and with emotion. He had an outsized personality, talking smack and serving as team jokester.

But there was more beneath the surface during his 11-year NBA career with the Knicks, Celtics, Thunder, Warriors, Bulls, Nuggets, Clippers and Pelicans.

Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report:

While in therapy, Robinson questioned himself and God. He wondered if he should have pursued football instead. He opened up about struggles few knew about, like the time, he said, Brown allegedly referred to him daily as “the little shit.” On another occasion, Robinson came into Brown’s office, crying, telling his coach to stop demeaning him. Ten minutes later, in front of the team, Brown called Robinson “the little shit” again and shared that he had cried.

(When asked about the nature of these interactions, Brown said: “I don’t have any recollection. I don’t, I don’t know … I don’t know what I called him, to be honest with you. If I did that, shame on me. I would feel terrible about that. That’s not who I am, but I don’t want to dispute Nate.”)

“The NBA gave me my depression,” Robinson says. “I’ve never been a depressed person in my life.”

Robinson, who’s 34 and two seasons removed from the NBA, is trying to return to the league. It’s unlikely he makes it. Small guards like him are so reliant on athleticism, and when it slips, they usually fall fast and don’t come back.

But I hope he finds sharing his experience cathartic.

DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre have opened up about their mentalhealth struggles and been embraced for it. Robinson should be, too.

This anecdote also speaks to how Larry Brown, once a great coach, is too old-fashioned in his thinking. At least he seems to realize that about this episode (maybe).

Report: Top draft prospects trying to avoid Kings

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The Kings – with their image as “basketball hell” – struggled to get top draft prospects to work out for them in 2016 and, to a lesser degree, last year.

This year, Marvin Bagley went to Sacramento and declared, “I love it here.”

That differentiated Bagley from Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mohamed Bamba – to the point the Kings are increasingly expected to draft Bagley No. 2 overall.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN on The Lowe Post podcast:

Who even wants to go to Sacramento? Because a lot of the top guys in this draft are openly trying to avoid going there. Jaren Jackson, Mo Bamba, Doncic – no medical for Sacramento. So, if they’re going to take one of these guys, they’re taking him blindly without knowing, what is this person’s medical status going to be down the road?

The one guy who wants to go there is Marvin Bagley. He actually went out there to work out, and they have his medicals.

He’s the kind of guy that he dreamed of being the No. 1 pick his whole life. And so if he’s not going to go No. 1, then he has to go No. 2.

You earn more money, and it’s prestige thing. And so, he’s been in competition his whole life with DeAndre Ayton, his former teammate. So, DeAndre is going to go one. Bagley is going to go two. We were the first ones to put Bagley at two, and Kings fans were up in arms and said, “Oh my god. There’s no way that Vlade passes on Luka. Can’t see it happening.” And, yeah, that’s the way it’s looking right now. But a lot of things can happen.

Zach Lowe:

It’s at least three or four months now that this buzz has been permeating the world, that Vlade Divac does not like Luka Doncic as a prospect.

The buzz has been so loud and so universal that it’s almost strange. So, it’s either true and Vlade has been telling everyone in the world that he does not like this guy for whatever, does not like him as a prospect, taking him at No. 2, anyway. Or it’s the greatest con job in NBA history.

Givony:

All year, it’s not just Vlade, but also his staff was very openly criticizing Luka, saying he’s not athletic enough. He’s too emotional. He’s not this. He’s not that.

Some of it might be, like we talked about, who wants to go to Sacramento? The fact that Marvin Bagley went to a workout, wore the Kings jersey and did that whole thing, I think that really put him in position to be No. 2, because I don’t know if they’re feeling that same love for Luka.

It’s just not the kind of embarrassment that they want right now. They’re really trying to show people that it’s a new Kings, that they’ve changed. It’s not the same mistakes that they’ve made two, three years ago. It’s a thing of the past. So, that potential embarrassment, I think, of him coming out and saying, “Trade me. I’m not coming to training camp,” that’s enough maybe to steer them into thinking that they shouldn’t take him.

This is hustling backward. The Kings seem to care more about their reputation than the actual things that gave them that reputation in the first place. Those surface-level fixes won’t work.

Want to improve the team’s image? Draft the best prospect available and use him to get good. Attack the substance of the problem.

Sacramento has made many ownership and management missteps that indicate a chaotic culture. But nothing lowers the Kings’ prestige more than their 12-season playoff drought (which is obviously influenced by ownership and management but is far more easily identifiable).

If that best prospect is Bagley, great. But I don’t think it is, and his eagerness to get drafted high to the point he’s embracing Sacramento doesn’t change his abilities as a player.

Fear of Doncic staying in Europe seems to be overthinking. If the Suns draft Deandre Ayton, Doncic would be my choice.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Kings are right to take Bagley.

But it seems increasingly likely they’ll pick him for the wrong reasons, which only lowers the odds of him actually be the optimal choice.

Sterling Brown’s lawsuit: Police officer involved in tasing/arrest posted on Facebook about getting same chance with J.R. Smith after NBA Finals Game 1

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Bucks guard Sterling Brown said he’d sue the Milwaukee police department over his tasing and arrest last January. The now-filed lawsuit makes the involved police officers look even worse than videos of the incident already did.

Somehow, J.R. Smith and his gaffe in Game of the NBA Finals got involved.

Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post:

Lowery posted the full lawsuit here.

There is a systematic problem where police too frequently trample on the rights of people, disproportionately minorities. Celebrating that intrusion of governmental forces is disgusting and speaks to the mindset that fuels the problem.

A few suspensions won’t fix the problem. Brown’s lawsuit won’t fix the problem.

But, hopefully, it sheds light on the bigger issue and is a step toward a solution. Unfortunately, history suggests the city will settle and just views it as a cost of doing business.