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).

Markelle Fultz’s new trainer describes him as having the “yips”

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It was about this time last year that Markelle Fultz started to change his shot. As Sixers coach Brett Brown said just before the start of training camp: “Markelle has made some personal adjustments to his shot since we last saw him in Vegas, we’ve done stuff with him but really he’s been with his personal trainer over the month of August and since Summer League ended.” What followed was a chicken-and-egg debate about whether the new shooting form caused his shoulder problems or the injury forced the change, either way the combination of the two sidelined for most of his rookie season.

Fultz’s new trainer — the well known and respected Drew Hanlen, who has worked with Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, and many others — admitted Fultz now has the “yips” and he needs to get the young player back to who he was in college. Hanlen spoke on the Talking Schmidt Podcast (hat tip Bleacher Report and Kyle Neubeck) about Fultz.

“With Markelle, obviously he has one of the most documented cases of kind of the yips of basketball in recent years, where he completely forgot how to shoot and had multiple hitches in his shot. So for me it was, ‘Hey listen, how can I get this kid that was No. 1 in last year’s draft back rolling and get him to the point where he was before, if not better?’…

“We’ve been working hard every day, working on rewiring his body and getting a kind of smooth stroke back into his shot. We’re way ahead of pace where I thought we were going to be, I thought it was going to take me at least six weeks before we had kind of a serviceable jump shot, and we’re already starting to shoot with a jump in week two.

“It’s not perfect yet, but I think by the end of the summer it will be perfect, he’ll be back rolling and he’ll show people why he was the No. 1 pick. Even though I still give him trouble on a daily basis and tell him and remind him I still believe Jayson Tatum was the best player in that draft.”

That should light a fire under Fultz.

It’s far too early to write off Fultz as some want to do, we just do not know yet what kind of player he will be at the NBA level. His rookie year was lost to the yips, and someday there will be a great 30-for-30 (or maybe just a Drunk History segment) about what happened to Fultz’s shot. It will get the full D.B. Cooper treatment.

The Sixers just want the guy they drafted back, not the one who came to camp last fall. With where he is in the process, we may not see Fultz at Summer League (the Sixers have yet to release their Summer League roster). It may be training camp before we get a good look at his reworked form.

Dwyane Wade wants to own an NBA team someday, ideally in Seattle

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It’s a sign of how much NBA players get paid these days, and how much money they can make off the court with shoe deals and other endorsements, plus investments and their personal businesses:

More than one big name NBA star hopes to be part owner of an NBA team someday. They still want to be like Michael Jordan (chairman/owner of the Charlotte Hornets).

Put Dwyane Wade in that group. Not only did he tell Joel Weber of Bloomberg News he wants to own a team, but also he wants to own one in Seattle.

I definitely want to be a part of ownership in the NBA. I’m not going to try to buy a team. I don’t have that kind of bread, but I definitely want to be a part of a great ownership group. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is all about players being involved in an ownership capacity. You’ve got players like Grant Hill involved in the Atlanta Hawks. Shaquille O’Neal is involved in the Sacramento Kings. It’s definitely something that I’ve talked about, some of my friends have talked about. But, first of all, I’d have to be retired.

Which team?

Seattle. I want Seattle’s team, the Sonics, to come back. I think Seattle is a great basketball town. I would love to be a part of that. But I’m open—if you know somebody.

It’s not now, but it’s not going to be that long before Wade retires. Then he’ll have to pick his spots with ownership, just like any business.

Seattle deserves to get a team back (wearing the Sonics colors and uniform). It’s just going to take a while. Right now there is no appetite for expansion among NBA owners, if a team goes to Seattle (or Las Vegas, or Mexico City, or anywhere else) it will be because an existing team moves. Current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is more about stability and teams staying in cities rather than seeing them move — he helped create the opportunity for Vivek Ranadive to keep the Kings in Sacramento rather than move to Seattle — but the day will come when an owner sells and the new one is looking to get out of the lease and on to a new (usually bigger) market. That’s not on the immediate horizon with the NBA, but it’s coming.

And Dwyane Wade will be ready.

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.