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).

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.