What’s next for the Houston Rockets?

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The Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs in dramatic fashion on Friday, when Damian Lillard’s incredible three splashed home at the buzzer to allow the Blazers to advance.

But Houston being ousted in the first round was no miracle. The Western Conference is as deep as ever, and Portland was simply a terrible matchup for the Rockets. LaMarcus Aldridge was too nimble and successful in the mid-range for Dwight Howard and Omer Asik to deal with, and the guard play of Lillard and Wes Matthews throughout the series — in terms of both quickness and shooting ability — was too much for Houston’s weak perimeter defense to deal with.

None of that makes being bounced in the first round any easier to accept, however, and the first season where Howard and Harden were paired to contend for a title will undoubtedly go down as a disappointment.

So, where does Houston go from here?

Target another big star via trade or free agency: Carmelo Anthony is the highest profile free agent on the market, but is more scoring really what Houston needs? The offense was rarely the problem this year, as the Rockets finished fourth in the league per 100 possessions. There is something to be said for simply outscoring people, however, and Anthony would certainly help if that’s the way Houston wants to go.

There’s Kevin Love to discuss, too, but it remains unlikely that Minnesota would trade him unless he essentially demands it by deciding well ahead of time he won’t be re-signing once his contract is up at the end of next season. ESPN’s Marc Stein also reports that Houston’s GM will revisit Rajon Rondo’s availability in a trade with the Celtics, just in case Boston decides to go in a different direction.

Does Kevin McHale return as head coach? McHale technically isn’t under contract yet for next season, but he has an option for one more year that the Rockets are able to pick up. Being one of the greatest low post players to ever play the game, McHale is a natural choice to remain on to continue to work with Howard on developing his offensive game. But when a team underachieves, everyone’s job is in jeopardy, and McHale’s is no different.

Anytime you look to replace a decent head coach, you better have some options in mind that will make things significantly better. Depending what happens to the roster, McHale seems likely to return — but it’s far from guaranteed until his contract for next season is in place.

Upgrading from Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik: Asik was on the trading block earlier in the year, due to a combination of his unhappiness with a reduced role and the team realizing that the fit wasn’t the best with Howard now in place. But Houston’s asking price remained high, so Asik played out the season.

It’ll be even more difficult to trade him this summer, and the same goes for Lin, thanks to the way their contracts are structured. And because of that, Houston may have to part with an additional asset in order to get something done.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

Teams are likewise said to be telling the Rockets all the time, when Morey is shopping either Asik or Lin, that it will also cost you Parsons if you’re expecting us to take on one of those infamous balloon payments scheduled to lift both Asik and Lin to the brink of $15 million in annual salary next season … albeit with a salary-cap number of just $8.4 million.

Parsons is not someone Houston wants to lose, so it’ll be interesting to see how, exactly, the Rockets go about overhauling the roster. They need to improve a defense that was ranked just 12th this season, while providing enough of an upgrade around Harden and Howard to help the franchise reach its championship aspirations.

There are more questions in Houston than answers right now, which should certainly make for a fascinating summer.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.