ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Houston Rockets

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Last season: There were high expectations with James Harden and Dwight Howard being paired in Houston, and the Rockets were good, but not great. Which felt like a first step or a disappointment, depending on your point of view. Make no mistake, the Rockets were a good team — 54 wins, which tied them for the four seed in the West — but the team never really seemed to form an identity. While statistically Harden and Howard were good together (+9.3 per 100 possessions when on the court together) they seemed more to play next to each other than with each other. This all came to a head when the Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers in about the most painful way possible. Again, the Rockets had a good team and a good season, but they need to hope it’s a first step.

Signature highlight from last season: There were some James Harden game winners and great blocks by Dwight Howard, but was there any play more fun than Patrick Beverley dunking on Chris Bosh’s head?

Key player changes: It was almost a monster off-season for the Rockets, GM Daryl Morey was going to move them into contender status by grabbing Chris Bosh out of Miami to make his own big three. And he came thisclose. But then Bosh took the big payday to stay put and all the moves Morey had made to clear out cap space became holes.

Gone is some key depth: Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, as well as Omri Casspi and Jordan Hamilton.

In their place comes Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, rookies Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, Ish Smith, Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, and Kostas Papanikolaou.

Keys to the Rockets season:

Depth behind their stars. James Harden and Dwight Howard are elite players, but that alone doesn’t win you games, especially come the playoffs. The Rockets lost quality role players this summer and some lesser known guys are going to have to really step up for the Rockets to even match last season’s success. Trevor Ariza got paid after a big season in Washington, can he put up similar numbers again? Donatas Motiejunas has to take on a bigger front court role. Jason Terry needs to show he still has some game left. And so on down the line, the Rockets need to find depth and rotations that can work when Harden and Howard sit.

Can they improve defensively? The Rockets offense was top five in the league last season, they put up plenty of points (although Howard/Harden need to reduce their turnovers), but their defense was pedestrian. They were 12th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. Their defense didn’t really improve last season over the season before despite bringing in Howard to patrol the paint and glass. (Howard isn’t as explosive as he was back in Orlando but he’s still a very good rim protector.) They have Patrick Beverley out top, and Ariza should be a defensive upgrade over Parsons. Harden is Harden but says he’s going to work on being more focused on defense. This needs to be a team thing, not just one guy, and the scheme needs to fit the personnel. The bottom line is this is the end of the floor where improvement needs to happen.

Is Kevin McHale coaching for his job? This question circled around the Rockets during last season and this summer: Is Kevin McHale the right coach for this team? McHale is very well liked around the NBA and has done a good job as coach in Houston (they won 54 games last season, made the playoffs the year before when they probably shouldn’t have) but there are questions about his game planning and fit with this roster. Particularly the question is can he coach this team up defensively. Expectations are high and if this team doesn’t take a step forward this coming season there will be changes and coach is the most likely option (especially since this is the last year of McHale’s deal). Remember Howard can opt out in the summer of 2016 so the Rockets don’t want to take a step back, if they do they might give Howard a chance to have a say in picking a coach (something Howard didn’t feel he got in Los Angeles).

Why you should watch the Rockets: James Harden has taken a lot of criticism the past year, but the fact is he remains one of the best and most efficient scorers in the league. The man isn’t just a beard, he’s a legit No. 1 offensive option in this league and just fun to watch play.

Prediction: 50-32, which is still good but in the West nets you more like the 7 seed, which will net the Rockets another first round playoff exit. (That is unless Morey makes a big in season trade, however in season deals are a dying breed.) The expectations remain high around the Rockets and it’s hard to see how they meet them. Which means we could see far more changes next summer (and McHale back calling games for TNT).

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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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

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

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.