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).

Michele Roberts says fans should not have expected “supermax” to keep players around

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When it came into existence in the latest CBA, it was nicknamed the “Kevin Durant rule.”

Officially called the “designated veteran extension, the idea was to give teams leverage to keep their best home-grown players. To qualify, a player had to be in his 8th-10th NBA season (the end of the first extension of his rookie contract), still with the team that drafted him (or he was traded during his rookie contract), plus the player needs to have made been named MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, or have made the All-NBA team in the most recent season or two previous ones. If a player meets the criteria, they could get a “supermax” extension that gave them 35 percent of the salary cap to stay, plus a fifth year, rather than the 30 percent of the cap and four years that other teams can offer.

Except guys are not sticking around for that extra cash.

Anthony Davis is the latest in a line of guys who forced their way out (Paul George) or were traded (DeMarcus Cousins) rather than use that extension.

Players’ union Executive Director Michelle Roberts told Tim Bontemps of ESPN the supermax is working as intended, the problem is people thought it would be a panacea that would keep players in the same city for most of their careers.

“I mean, the players that are eligible, frankly, are players that are going to get paid, and they’re going to have any number of alternatives,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told ESPN. “It hasn’t hurt them. It was something that they were able to secure and they were interested in getting it, and it was going to be a tremendous advantage in terms of just the amount of money.

“But I still don’t see a downside. The only downside is to the extent that people absolutely believed that it was a slam dunk way to keep their guys. And it just isn’t. And if they doubted it, they can now take a look at Anthony [Davis] and see, ‘Oh, wow, there is no way.'”

Expect the process to be tweaked in the next round of negotiations. The league is always looking for a way to give small and medium market teams a leg up in keeping stars.

Of course, put the right team around those stars (ala Milwaukee) and it’s not much of a problem.

NBA cancels 2019 Global Camp, showcase for international prospects

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Right as the NBA Finals are tipping off here in North America, there was going to be a collection of potential NBA players — plus scouts and members of team front offices — gathering in Monaco for a showcase of their own. The NBA 2019 Global Showcase is a chance for draft-eligible international prospects to impress teams and see if they can find their way into the second round, or higher. Think of it as an NBA Combine for international prospects.

Except the event has been canceled. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has been all over the story.

“We have canceled the NBA Global Camp 2019 due to logistical issues and other contributing factors that jeopardized our ability to successfully conduct the camp,” NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe said in a statement to ESPN. “The camp will return in the future.”…

Sources say that confusion over which venues actually were booked by the organizers are among the key reasons for the last-minute cancellation. AS Monaco Basket, a professional team that competes in the French first division, said it was not consulted about the availability of its arena, which was slated to host the Global Camp.

AS Monaco is favorited to still be playing in the French league playoffs at that time, and if so their building would not be available for the camp.

There are 59 international players currently eligible for the draft, many of them would have been working out and showcasing their skills at this event.

For years, Adidas hosted the EuroCamp in Italy at this time, and it served as sort of a combine for these international prospects. However, the event evolved and last year the NBA took it over to make it more like what the American players go through. The NBA hosted the event in Italy last year, but was moving it to Monaco this year.

Next year, the event will back on… somewhere in Europe.

Watch Klay Thompson scoff upon learning he missed All-NBA, super-max eligibility (video)

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James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker were All-NBA guards this season.

Not included: Klay Thompson.

That’s a costly missed opportunity for Thompson, who also finished behind Bradley Beal in voting. Thompson’s max contract in free agency this summer projects to be worth $190 million over five years. If he made All-NBA, it would have been a projected $221 million over five years.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Thompson:

That’s cool and all, but when you go to five straight Finals – I respect those guys. But, holy, when you go to five straight, it takes more than just a couple All-NBA guys.

But whatever. I’d rather win a championship than be third-team All-NBA. So, it’s all good.

Do I think there’s that many guards better than me in the league? No.

To me, the All-NBA teams should honor the players who had the best regular season that year. It’s not about who the best players are. It’s not about who advanced furthest in prior years. It’s about who performed the best during that regular season. (Obviously, better players are more likely perform better.)

That wasn’t Thompson, and I didn’t think he was particularly close.

Maybe Thompson conserved energy for the playoffs. That would have been the right approach. The Warriors are good enough to bank on reaching the postseason, and the organization should emphasize this time of year.

But a side effect is being less deserving of regular-season awards.

That’s why super-max contracts probably shouldn’t be tied to All-NBA. A player’s value to his team stems so much from the playoffs, and these awards are voted upon immediately after the regular season.

For the most part, it will work out fine. But Thompson is the exact type of player to get slighted. I wouldn’t blame him for resenting the system.

He’s focused on a different question – who are the best guards, especially in the playoffs? – than most All-NBA voters were answering. Incidentally, Thompson’s question is much more similar to one teams ask themselves when determining players’ salaries. Unfortunately for Thompson, the All-NBA voters’ considerations will matter much more in how much he gets paid.

Warriors: Kevin Durant likely to miss start of NBA Finals

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The Warriors have a historically long nine-day layoff before the NBA Finals.

It probably won’t be long enough for Kevin Durant.

Warriors release:

Warriors forward Kevin Durant (strained right calf) and center DeMarcus Cousins (torn left quadriceps muscle) were evaluated by the team’s medical staff earlier today.

Durant, who has not yet been cleared to begin on-court activities, continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation. At this point, it is unlikely that he will play at the beginning of the 2019 NBA Finals, but it’s hopeful that he could return at some point during the series.

Cousins also continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation and practiced with the team today for the first time since suffering the injury on April 16. It’s anticipated that he will play at some point during the 2019 NBA Finals, but the exact date is to be determined and depends on his progress.

The status for both players will be updated next Wednesday.

The Warriors are better with Durant. They’re also really darned good without him.

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala still make Golden State extremely talented. Those players fit well together.

The competition will get harder against the Bucks or Raptors, but the Warriors can still prevail without Durant.

Of course, as soon as he’s healthy, Golden State will welcome him back with open arms. Whatever complications he brings, his ability justifies dealing with them

DeMarcus Cousins is trickier. He’s been out longer and not the same level of player. He could help in small doses, but it’s harder to find a place for him in the rotation, even if he’s healthy enough to play.