Five Takeaways from an NBA Monday: Houston is just plain bad

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This early in the season it’s easy to say anything you think you see is just a case of “small sample size theater.” Some teams that looked bad can turn it around — Memphis on Tuesday seemed like maybe they can. Houston may be a different story. In case you were engrossed in college basketball tipping off, here are five things you missed from the NBA Monday night.

1) Houston is a terrible basketball team right now, and it may not be getting better. Trevor Ariza all but called his team soft Monday, saying that the Houston Rockets simply do not play hard enough — then the team went out and proved his point. Houston played well in the first half and was up by two on Boston at the break (thanks to a nifty Ariza layup at the buzzer), but the Rockets came out flat in the third and were just steamrolled into another loss. In the third the Rockets were outscored 32-13, shot 5-of-17, had seven turnovers, gave up six offensive rebounds, and simply were out hustled at every turn. Boston ended the quarter on a 15-0 run and never looked back (winning 111-95).

It’s easy 11 games into the season to dismiss some problems as the result of small sample size — but you can’t do that with Houston any longer, the issues are serious. And beyond just a “flip the switch” mentality. The 4-7 Rockets possess the second worst defense in the NBA this season (they were sixth in the NBA defensively last season when they won 56 games and went to the Western Conference Finals). They are getting outscored by 8 points per 100 possessions on the season so far. James Harden is playing at a slower speed than last season (he hasn’t been nearly as explosive getting to the rim), Dwight Howard does not look like the guy who had the strong playoff performance, Ty Lawson seems slow and is not making his expected contributions (he’s shooting 31 percent on the season and struggling from three), they have been awful at the power forward position, and worst of all Ariza is right — this team just is getting out hustled nightly. There are real locker room/chemistry questions. These are the kind of thing that gets a coach fired, and already Kevin McHale is talking about tweaking his starting backcourt of Lawson and Harden to find some chemistry somewhere (Patrick Beverley is out with a sprained ankle). Maybe getting Donatas Motiejunas back from injury will help at the four, but the issues are bigger than that. This is simply a poor basketball team right now.

And looming over it all — Dwight Howard is a free agent next summer and could just bolt.

2) Memphis plays its best game of season wearing awesome ABA throwbacks. Coincidence? I think not. I loved the throwback Memphis Sounds jerseys:

Mike Conley, Mario Chalmers
Mike Conley, Mario Chalmers

Wearing them the Grizzlies hit 12-of-17 from three and put up 122 points in beating the Thunder. Sure, you could say the poor Thunder defense this season played a role. Or that there will be nights when even the worst shooting teams can knock down shots. Or that Mario Chalmers has been key to turning their offense around (he had 29 points on 13 shots off the bench). Or that you know it’s your night when Marc Gasol is hitting this shot:

But we all know the truth — it was the uniforms.

3)Brandon Knight just abused Marcelo Huertas, spun him all the way around. I feel sorry for Huertas, who used to give Team USA some trouble as the point guard for Brazil, a guy who had a superb career in Europe, only to decide at age 32 to give the NBA a shot — he’s not up to defending at this level anymore. And the result are things like this.

4) Jabari Parker injured again. At least it’s not serious this time, a sprain of his right foot, but he’s not with the Bucks on their current three-game road trip. He was clear and away the best rookie last season until he blew out his ACL and missed the last 57 games, and recovery from that injury bled over to the first four games of this season. He’d been back for five games, looked a little rusty but was finding a groove (he had his best game in the win over Cleveland Saturday), and now this. There is no surgery needed, just a little time off. Still, come on basketball gods, give the kid a chance. Let him stay on the court.

5) Jimmy Butler blocks Paul George to save Bulls win. Paul George had another monster game — 26 points on 20 shots — and with the Pacers down one 96-95 and inbounding the ball with 5.1 seconds left, you know who was going to get the last shot. That’s where Butler made the defensive play of the night.

George — and a lot of Pacers’ fans in my Twitter timeline — wanted the foul on that call, but no way you’re going to get that fading away on a contested shot with the game on the line. Any contact Rose made with George was incidental to the shot — even Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel said so after the game. That was just great defense to save a win.

Also in this game, Derrick Rose had to leave with a little over two minutes left due to a sprained ankle, and he did not return. However, Rose said after the game it was nothing serious, and he should be back soon.

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 50-26, including LeBron, Durant

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This summer , the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

We put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players from the first week, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. To read more, here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26.

50. Cade Cunningham (Draft Class: 2021)
Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked…. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. (Rob Dauster)

49. Emoni Bates (Draft Class: 2022)
He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who [as a freshman] led his high school team to the state title in 2019…. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20…

He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”… Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. (Rob Dauster)

48. Klay Thompson (Age in 2024: 34)
Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets. Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade… The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. (Kurt Helin)

47. Cole Anthony (Draft Class 2020)
He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers…. In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be. (Rob Dauster)

46. Lonzo Ball (Age in 2024: 26)
With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball. (Tom Haberstroh)

45. Brandon Ingram (Age in 2024: 26)
Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court… He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t come together for him yet. (Kurt Helin)

44. Jarrett Allen (Age in 2024: 26)
Just how good can Allen ultimately be? Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high…. Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Kevin Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. (Kurt Helin)

43. Victor Oladipo (Age in 2024: 32)
Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32. But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. (Dan Feldman)

42. CJ McCollum (Age in 2024: 32)
McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense… McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. (Dan Delgado)

41. RJ Barrett (Age in 2024: 24)
I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. (Rob Dauster)

40. LeBron James (Age in 2024: 39)
He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort. LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive. (Dan Feldman)

39. Marvin Bagley III (Age in 2024: 25)
With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense. Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots… Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction. (Dan Feldman)

38. Gary Harris (Age in 2024: 29)
At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position. The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short. (Dan Feldman)

37. James Wiseman (Age in 2024: 23)
Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

36. Aaron Gordon (Age in 2024: 28)
Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post… The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? (Kurt Helin)

35. Caris LeVert (Age in 2024: 28)
LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive). But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be. (Dan Feldman)

34. Lauri Markkanen (Age in 2024: 27)
There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be. The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. (Kurt Helin)

33. Damian Lillard (Age in 2024: 34)
Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason. (Dane Deldago)

32. Rudy Gobert (Age in 2024: 32)
Rudy Gobert is underrated. Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year. Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. (Dan Feldman)

31. Stephen Curry (Age in 2024: 36)
I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38… Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. (Tom Haberstroh)

30. Paul George (Age in 2024: 34)
George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list. (Kurt Helin)

29. Kevin Durant (Age in 2024: 35)
Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily. In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level. (Dan Feldman)

28. D’Angelo Russell (Age in 2024: 28)
Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped… Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. (Kurt Helin)

27. Jaylen Brown (Age in 2024: 27)
What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season. (Kurt Helin)

26. Myles Turner (Kurt) (Age in 2024: 28)
“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.” (Kurt Helin)

Kyle Kuzma’s ankle injury will keep him out of World Cup, Team USA roster now set

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Kyle Kuzma, whose game had matured in recent weeks he soaked up the wisdom of Gregg Popovich and his other USA Basketball teammates, was on the bubble but seemed likely to make Team USA.

“Playing with a team of stars is super fun, you want to play the right way, you want to make that extra pass, you want to play defense at a certain level, up to the USA standard,” Kuzma said last week when the team was training in Los Angeles on his Lakers’ regular practice court.

That is, Kuzma was on his way until he tweaked his ankle. Kuzma was sidelined for the USA loss to Australia on Saturday, and later in the day USA basketball announced that the injury will force Kuzma to miss the World Cup, leading to him withdrawing from Team USA.

That locked the roster in at 15 for the World Cup. It is:

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)
Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs)

This roster has one former Olympian on it — Barnes — and just two players who were All-Stars last year, Walker and Middleton.

The Americans have one more exhibition game, against Canada, then will fly to China to open up their World Cup play against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1. The USA will also face Turkey (Sept. 3) and Japan (Sept. 5) in group play. While those three games in China count, none of those are elite international teams that should be a threat to the USA (like Australia, Spain, Serbia and maybe a couple of others), giving Gregg Popovich and staff more time to build roster chemistry and improve the USA’s defense, two areas that Australia exploited in their upset win.

After the first round of group play, the top two teams from each group move on to a second round of group play with four teams per group. The top two teams from those groups move on to an eight-team knockout tournament to determine the winner.

Cavaliers owner Gilbert back home following stroke

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CLEVELAND — Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has been home for nearly a week in Detroit as he continues to recover from a stroke suffered in May.

Gilbert had spent the past two months in a rehabilitation center in Chicago. On Thursday, Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner provided a brief update on the 57-year-old billionaire businessman.

“On Friday, Dan Gilbert returned to Detroit to continue his rehabilitation locally,” Farner said. “We are extremely thankful for all of the skilled medical professionals who have played a significant role in Dan’s recovery and are glad to have him back home.”

Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, suffered the stroke on May 26 after he was taken to a hospital by a family friend. He was immediately taken into surgery for a catheter-based procedure, which doctors have credited with being a key to his recovery.

He spent more than a month at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, before going to the rehab facility.

The Cavs and Gilbert’s numerous other dealings have operated while he’s been absent, and Farner said that will continue.

“While Dan focuses his energy on the rehabilitation process, our teams across the family of companies will continue to execute at a high level, serving and supporting our clients and team members,” Farner said.

In a video recorded for Quicken Loans employees, Gilbert said earlier this month he was grateful for the outpouring of support.

Gregg Popovich on USA loss: ‘You can learn as much or more from losing as winning’

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A philosophical coach Gregg Popovich was looking at the big picture after Team USA lost an international exhibition game for the first time since 2004.

The ultimate goal is to win the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup, which starts in a week in China, and a sloppy loss to a cohesive Australian team — led by a red-hot Patty Mills who had 30 points — may be what lights the fire under Team USA in a way nothing else can.

“You can learn as much or more from losing as winning,” Popovich said (via an NBL video of his postgame press conference). “We’re all used to winning and losing. USA has been a little bit different over the last 12 years, used to winning, so hopefully, we can get back on that track….

“The Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we want to be and how you have to play in this kind of competition, so we’re getting used to that and hopefully learning.”

People forget that in the 2016 Olympics the Australians gave Team USA — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — a tough game, with the Americans needing a late push to win by 10 (Mills was a force in that game, too).

Popovich was quick to compliment the Australians — calling the Spurs’ Mills “a pain in the ass” — a lot of his focus was on the defensive issues Team USA showed in the loss.

“That’s got to be our calling card. We scored 94 and that’s good enough, but we didn’t hold them the way we needed to defensively,” Popovich said. “To us, it’s obvious that that’s what we have to be. We have to be a good defensive and rebounding team. We did that [in a 15-point win over this same Australian team two days before], but we didn’t do it today.”

This game was a reminder that while the Americans may be the most talented and deepest team in the World Cup field, their margin for error is small. Blame that on the guys who stayed home for the Americans if you want, but the reality is the rest of the world is closing the gap on the USA also. For this USA Basketball squad there is a slim margin for error, and the Australians were the more cohesive and physical team on Saturday.

Team USA has one more exhibition game, against Canada in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup. Team USA’s first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic. The USA also will face Turkey and Japan in the first round of group play.