Thunder have no problem with Rockets in James Harden’s return to OKC

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James Harden returned to Oklahoma City as a member of the the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, his first time doing so since the Thunder traded him out of town due to a failure to agree on a contract extension prior to the start of the season.

While the fans gave Harden a warm welcome during pregame introductions, his former teammates seemed hell-bent on making sure that his time spent playing the actual game would be nothing short of miserable.

The Thunder focused their efforts defensively in shutting Harden down, and were successful in doing so on the way to a 120-98 home victory over the Rockets.

Houston was without starting forward Chandler Parsons due to a shoulder injury, which just meant that the scoring burden would fall on Harden’s shoulders even more than usual. Playing against his former team, whose players not only knew that but also knew Harden’s tendencies, he didn’t have much of a chance, and his numbers on the night showed it.

Harden was clearly pressing in the first half, and whether trying to prove something to his former teammates or simply trying to ignite a spark for his current team, the result was a failed one all the same. He had just three points at intermission, which all came on free throws, after missing all eight of his attempts from the field, while committing two turnovers.

Harden had two of his first half shot attempts blocked viciously by Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, both of whom made sure to put a little extra on their defensive plays as a gift to their former teammate.

Harden got his first bucket of the game on a fast break layup with under a minute gone in the third, but finished just 3-of-16 from the field. He did manage 17 points thanks to two of his made shots being from three-point distance, to go along with his nine made free throws. But with no other reliable offensive threat on the floor for the Rockets to speak of, Harden faced various forms of double-teams all night long, with predictably dismal results.

OKC got a superstar performance from Kevin Durant, who finished with 37 points on 13-of-22 shooting, while playing almost 43 minutes. The man Harden was traded for, Kevin Martin, finished with 17 points in 28 minutes off the bench.

It was an unusually long and draining day for the Rockets, even by NBA standards. The team spent the first part of the day attending the funeral of Sasha McHale in Minnesota, who was the daughter of the team’s head coach Kevin McHale that passed away tragically over the weekend. The Rockets didn’t even arrive in Oklahoma City until late afternoon on Wednesday, which is highly unusual for any team playing a game in another city that very same night.

Harden’s performance should not be judged too harshly in this one, for a variety of reasons. The unusual travel circumstances, combined with the fact that his new team is simply not as good as the Thunder from a talent standpoint have to be weighed heavily when critiquing his game on this night.

Houston (and Harden) need to think of this in terms of the big picture.

Harden moved on to a better situation for himself in Houston. He got the max contract that he wanted, and he got the opportunity to be the number one option offensively as a member of his new team’s starting lineup.

Houston may not yet be able to play at the level that the Thunder can right now, but dealing for Harden was the first step in a process that the team hopes will be a successful one in making that a reality at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-