Associated Press

Nicolas Batum scores 28 points, Hornets beat Thunder 123-112

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Nicolas Batum says there is an art to drawing a foul on a 3-point shot. Nicolas Batum says there is an art to drawing a foul on a 3-point shot.

“It’s not easy,” Batum said with a wide smile.

Batum twice drew whistles on 3-pointers en route to a season-high 28 points in the Charlotte Hornets’ 123-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Batum was a regular at the foul line Wednesday night, converting 13 of 15 free throws. As a team, the Hornets made 40 of 49 foul shots to snap a two-game losing streak.

Batum said he watched others like Kevin Durant and Reggie Miller work to perfect that art of drawing the foul, which includes reading the defender’s movements.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes you throw up a really bad shot,” Batum said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Batum just has a good feel and understanding on how to play the game.

“He subtly, very calmly impacts the game,” Donovan said. “He lets it come to him. He has a great pace and tempo to his game. Obviously, he’s very, very crafty in terms of understanding how to draw fouls. He’s a really good passer.”

Russell Westbrook had 33 points and 15 rebounds, but fell two assists shy of his 17th triple-double of the season for Oklahoma City.

The MVP candidate was assessed a technical foul in the first half after he hit a referee in the head with a ball. After the Thunder called a timeout Westbook was retreating toward the bench and tossed an overhead pass toward the referee, who wasn’t looking as the ball hit him in the side of the cranium. Another official came running into the Thunder huddle and called a technical. Westbrook reacted in utter disbelief, putting his hands over his face.

Donovan said it was “unintentional.”

Enes Kanter added 22 points, and Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams each had 18 for the Thunder.

The Thunder led by one after Kanter hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter. But they couldn’t sustain the momentum after erasing a double-digit deficit.

The Hornets took control with about six minutes left, outscoring the Thunder 22-11 the rest of the way.

Kemba Walker, who scored 34 and 37 points in his last two games while making an All-Star push, had nine points in the decisive final quarter. Frank Kaminsky carried the Hornets early, scoring all of 17 points in the first half as Charlotte took a 60-55 halftime lead.

TIP INS

Thunder: Had beaten the Hornets 11 straight times before Wednesday night. … Westbrook has 28 double-doubles on the season.

Hornets: Marco Belinelli returned to action after missing the last five games with a sprained left ankle. … Roy Hibbert was called for a technical foul in the third quarter after exchanging words with Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams.

A BETTER FINISH

Before the fourth quarter, the Hornets gathered together in a huddle making sure they were all on the same page heading down the stretch.

“The fourth quarter has been an issue for us defensively and we really wanted to play as well as we can,” Walker said. “We did a good job. We wanted to clamp down as best as we can. And we have to continue to be that way.”

DEFENDING WESTBROOK

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said he felt Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did a solid job defending Westbrook. Even though he had 33 points, Westbrook shot just 10 of 31 from the field.

“There weren’t a lot of easy (shots),” Clifford said. “I thought Mike played with great discipline and I thought our guys off the ball were great.”

Clifford called Westbrook “the MVP of our league right now.”

 

NBA Mock Draft 7.0: The final mock before the draft starts

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We’re now less than 48 hours removed from the start of the NBA draft, so here is the latest NBC Sports projections for who will be the best fit for the teams drafting them.

1. New Orleans — Zion Williamson, Duke

2. Memphis — Ja Morant, Murray State

3. New York — R.J. Barrett, Duke

I’m not really breaking new ground with any of these picks. Frankly, I would be shocked if this went any other way on Thursday night. We all know that Zion is the top prospect in this draft. We also all know that Morant and Barrett are, depending on who you ask, the second and third best prospects in this draft. They are closer than the consensus would have you believe, but Memphis looking to replace Mike Conley longterm with the impact that an all-NBA point guard can have on an organization makes Morant the obvious fit.

Either way, here is a full scouting report for each of those three players:

4. New Orleans — Darius Garland, Vanderbilt

This is the flash point for the 2019 NBA Draft, and it is the case for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is the presence of Garland.

There are some teams out there that believe Garland is the player with the highest ceiling that is not among the top three picks. He’s a terrific shooter that can play on or off the ball, knows how to operate a ball-screen and has the ability to create shots for himself in isolation. It’s not a perfect comparison — comparisons never are and ignore anyone that tells you otherwise — but if Garland maxes out his ability, he’ll could end up being C.J. McCollum-esque. Garland also plays the point, and there are a number of teams that are looking to add a point guard in this draft, and with the point guard crop falling off after Coby White, there is an incentive for those teams to try and move up, especially if they are one of the teams that believes Garland will be the best of the rest.

And New Orleans has an incentive to move the pick, too. Not only do they already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday on the roster, but if they can drop down a few spots in the draft while adding picks — either later in this draft or in future drafts — it makes more sense. They’ll be able to draft in a position of need without really seeing the quality of the prospect they end up with being affected; the difference between whoever gets picked fourth and the players at the back end of the lottery is not all that great.

So I’m leaving Garland slotted as the No. 4 pick for now.

I just don’t know who is actually going to be drafting him.

5. Cleveland — Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

There are a couple of reasons why I think it makes the most sense for the Cavs to pick Culver. For starters, I think that he fits nicely alongside Collin Sexton, as I believe his future is as a secondary playmaker. Sexton is more of a scorer at heart, and adding the shot-creation and pick-and-roll ability of Culver would give John Beilein more options to initiate offense.

I also think that Culver fits in nicely with the kind of player that Beilein has had the most success with in recent years. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, even a guy like Jordan Poole. They’re wings that were capable of creating in isolation while also thriving in ball-screens, which is where Culver does his best work. If Garland ends up going fourth, the smart play for the Cavs to make is to pick Culver.

(Here is the full scouting report on Culver.)

6. Phoenix — COBY WHITE, North Carolina

What Phoenix needs is obvious: A primary ball-handler that can be used alongside Devin Booker. The ideal pick, then, is probably Garland, but White wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize. He’s lightening quick in transition, he has three-point range and he is deadly off of the dribble. His shooting ability would also allow him to play off the ball, which fits with Booker, who has developed into more of a lead guard than many expected him to be. The concern here is that White is not known for his playmaking ability and can, at times, be ball-dominant. That is not ideal, and it would make some sense for the Suns to trade down if they can find someone willing to part with a veteran guard that fills their needs.

7. Chicago — De'Andre Hunter, Virginia

Chicago, like Phoenix, needs a point guard, as neither Zach LaVine nor Kris Dunn appear to be the longterm answer at the position. With Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. already on the roster, they certainly don’t need to target big men in this draft. So Chicago will have some choices to make. They can trade up to get a guard they want to target. They can trade down to add assets if they believe they can land a free agent to bolster their backcourt. Or they can take the best available player, which, in this case, would be Hunter.

He’s the best two-way wing available, he will be able to contribute immediately and there’s a chance that his ceiling as a scorer is higher than some believe. I think that he’ll likely end up being somewhere between DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Ariza, with a real chance of developing into an all-star down the line.

(Here is the full scouting report on Hunter.)

8. Atlanta — Cam Reddish, Duke

This is yet another pick that could every well end up being involved in a trade, as the Hawks have three picks between 8-17 and six picks in the top 44. Packaging two of their first rounders to jump up into the top five to snag Culver or Hunter seems like a very real possibility. Whatever ends up happening, eight seems like the floor for Reddish, who has a world of potential but spent his one-and-done season at Duke finding myriad ways to make people question it.

(Here is the full scouting report on Reddish.)

9. Washington — Sekou Doumbouya, France

Who knows.

The Wizards still are in front office limbo, as interim GM Tommy Sheppard will be running the draft this year. They have a thin roster loaded with aging veterans, a star in Bradley Beal that could end up being shipped out and an ailing John Wall, who is recovering from a torn Achilles. The position of need for them is on the wing, and Doumbouya is probably the guy with the highest ceiling in that spot, but there are plenty of options for them in this range — Nassir Little, Rui Hachimura, P.J. Washington, etc.

10. Atlanta — Jaxson Hayes, Texas

Hayes is a project. He’s big, he’s athletic, he has great hands, he’s mobile and he’s in theory a guy that will be a terrific rim-running, lob-catching, rim-protecting five to pair with Trae Young. He fits alongside John Collins, too. But he’s raw, he’s super-young in basketball years (he didn’t even start in high school until his senior season) and he has yet to prove himself a quality rebounder. This also could end up being a pick that is traded by the Hawks, but for now, let’s send Hayes to the A.

11. Minnesota — Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

I understand why there will be some hesitancy when it comes to drafting Clarke. His jumper is not something that can be trusted. He’s 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds and more or less limited to playing the five in the NBA. He’s not a great passer. His efficiency, elite athleticism, shot-blocking feel and basketball savvy should make him a useful player in the NBA, but he needs the right fit.

Minnesota is that fit. He can be slotted alongside Karl Anthony-Towns, who will have the size to allow Clarke to guard opposing four and has the perimeter ability to keep the paint from getting too crowded. Clarke will also provide the Wolves with defensive cover, as KAT is not exactly known for his desire to play on that end of the floor. He can step into the league right away and contribute, and for a team that really isn’t that far away from being in the playoffs, there’s value there.

12. Charlotte — RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Charlotte needs to fill a hole at the four, and there are plenty of options in this range. Clarke and Doumbouya could both drop while Nassir Little and P.J. Washington are still on our board. But Rui makes sense to me here. He fits the Charlotte profile of drafting players that have had a ton of success at the collegiate level — he was an All-American this past year — while also having A) elite physical tools and B) plenty of room to grow. Remember, he grew up in Japan playing against totally outmatched competition. His first year at Gonzaga was spent trying to learn to speak English. He needs to continue to develop his shooting, and learn how to play defense, but he has the stroke and the athleticism to, in theory, do both.

13. Miami — P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

Washington makes sense in Miami. He can compliment Bam Adebayo in the frontcourt, and he has the length and defensive ability to guard multiple positions. He’s continued to develop as a shooter and he is more athletic than he looks at first glance. His ceiling is limited, but I do think that he is the kind of player that will be a solid rotation piece for a decade in the NBA. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic called him the next Patrick Patterson, and I’m going to steal that comparison because I love it. Getting P-Patt at 13 is solid value in this draft.

14. Boston — NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

With the news that Al Horford is going to opt out of his contract, the Celtics will be in the market for bigs that can defend and space the floor. There are a number of them in this range — Mfiondu Kabengele, Goga Bitazde, Bol Bol, even someone like a Nic Claxton. But the Celtics also have picks at No. 20 and No. 22, and it’s likely that at least one of those four will still be on the board then. So I’m going with Little here, who is the kind of hard-nosed wing that Brad Stevens seems to love. He was a top three prospect in the class before an up-and-down season with North Carolina, but some of that was due to simply being a weird fit with Roy Williams’ system. He’s worth the risk.

15. Detroit — Tyler Herro, Kentucky

The Pistons have Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. They need a wing, and there are plenty to choose from in this range — Romeo Langford, Keldon Johnson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kevin Porter Jr. For my money, Herro is the best of the group. He’s a big-time shooter with a developing off-the-dribble game, he’s wired to be a shot-maker and he’s tougher defensively than he gets credit for. I also think he has a higher ceiling than the rest of that group, save Porter.

16. Orlando — NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

The Magic need shooting, they need backcourt help and they need someone that can help take some of the playmaking load off of Markelle Fultz, as the former No. 1 pick looks to restart his career in Orlando. Alexander-Walker makes perfect sense, as he has the size and length to defend multiple positions, thrived in ball-screens under Buzz Williams this past season and has proven to me as adept as a spot-up shooter as he is as a creator.

17. Atlanta — MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State

If Atlanta ends up making a trade in this trade, there’s a real chance that the No. 17 pick is the one they move. At that point, all bets are off, so I’ll slot Kabengele in here, because I think that he is underrated in terms of his longterm potential, he is developed enough that he can play a role immediately and he fits with the teams that the Hawks would likely be trading with to move up in the draft — New Orleans and Cleveland.

If Atlanta ends up shipping off the No. 10 pick and Minnesota picks someone other than Clarke at No. 11, then I can see the Hawks ending up with Clarke here. He’d fit well alongside John Collins, he’d boost their defense and he would be a terrific lob target for Trae Young.

18. Indiana — ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

An Indiana schoolboy legend turned Hoosier that goes to play for the Pacers is just too good of a story, isn’t it? There are some very real reasons to be concerned about Langford’s upside — namely the poor perimeter shooting and the fact that he is right-hand dominant — but he spent the season playing through a thumb injury that required surgery. He’s a risk, but at No. 18, it’s a low-cost risk that could return value, both on the court and in ticket sales, if he maximizes his upside.

19. San Antonio — GOGA BITADZE, Georgia

The Spurs have some solid pieces on their perimeter, but with an again LaMarcus Aldridge anchoring their frontline, it’s time for a rebuild there. Enter Bitadze, who was impressively productive in the Euroleague and whose combination of shot-blocking and floor-spacing is intriguing.

20. Boston — BOL BOL, Oregon

I have my doubts about Bol’s future as a pro, but it’s not because I don’t see the potential there. He has a ton of red flags, as detailed in this scouting report, but he is also a 7-foot-2 center that is a lights-out three-point shooter and an elite rim-protector when he is engaged. This is also the kind of organization that will A) take a risk on a guy with red flags and B) has proven to be a place where players can develop. He needs their culture more than any other prospect in this draft.

21. Oklahoma City — Cam Johnson, North Carolina

Oklahoma City badly needs to add shooting, and Johnson may just be the best shooter in this draft. He’s a finished product, as he is already 23 years old, but he stands 6-foot-9 and can will immediately contribute to a team that needs all the floor-spacing they can get. This is also a pick that has been rumored to be on the market.

22. Boston — KEVIN PORTER JR., USC

Like Bol Bol, Porter is an extremely high-upside player that has myriad red flags. He missed six weeks with a mysterious thigh injury. He was suspended on a road trip due to what sources close to the program said was a long list of relatively small problems that kept building up. He’s immature, but that doesn’t mean that he is a bad person. With the right infrastructure and influence around him, he could thrive, and if that happens, his ceiling is as the best scorer in this draft. He is that talented.

I don’t expect Boston to end up with both Bol Bol and Porter, partly due to the fact that I can see the Celtics being active on the trade market, but both players would make perfect sense on that roster.

23. Memphis — KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky

Johnson doesn’t have one elite skill, but there are plenty of things that he does well: He’s a willing defender if not an elite athlete. He’s a good-not-great shooter. He’s a capable straight-line driver. He’s tough. He’s versatile. He may not be the kind of a player with a super-high ceiling, but he has a floor because of how well-rounded he is. He’s good value this late in the draft.

24. Philadelphia — Ty Jerome, Virginia

I love Jerome’s toughness, shot-making ability and savvy in running ball-screens. He’s not a great athlete, but he makes up for it because of how smart he is, and it’s hard to imagine a guy that spent three years playing under Tony Bennett being a liability defensively. More importantly, he’s excellent at running off of screens and knocking down jumpers. He can be everything that Landry Shamet was for the 76ers before getting traded.

25. Portland — K.Z. Okpala, Stanford

Okpala plays a position of need for the Blazers, and while he struggled late in the season, he’s has the size, length and fluidity to project as an effective big wing down the road. Drafting him here means that you trust in his jumper, which fell off of a cliff in the last six weeks of the college hoops season.

26. Cleveland — NIC CLAXTON, Georgia

Claxton has quite a bit of upside, as he’s something of a late-bloomer that has been the biggest riser throughout the draft process. Outside of SEC nerds, I’m not sure how many people actually knew about this guy before February. He’s going to need to add some weight and continue to develop his perimeter ability, but his athleticism and versatility makes him easily projectable as a forward down the road, not just a center. Drafting Claxton is like chasing the next Pascal Siakam, and if he pans out, he could end up being the best value pick in this draft.

27. Brooklyn — Grant Williams, Tennessee

I love Grant Williams. He’s only 6-foot-6, but he has the strength and the length to guard up. He’s a very good rebounder and a super-smart passer that allowed Tennessee to run their offense through him. He’s also effective in the post and the kind of guy that is going to step up and make big plays in big moments. But I think the most important thing to note here is that his role needs context: He was not really allowed or encouraged to shoot at Tennessee, and I do believe he is going to be better in that area at the next level. I think you’re getting a 10-year pro with the potential to be a starter in the mid-to-late first round, and that is great value in my mind.

He’s precisely the kind of player that would be ideal to get into this Brooklyn organization.

28. Golden State — Dylan Windler, Belmont

I think Windler is super-interesting as a role player in the modern NBA. He can really, really shoot it, and while that’s more or less where his bread is going to be buttered, I do believe that he is better at doing the little things that he gets credit for. He can rebound, he can jump passing lanes, he makes the right reads. He was a superstar for Belmont in the OVC, but at his heart he’s built to be a complimentary. I can see him latching on for a number of years as a role player coming off the bench for a playoff team, and the Warriors have had a lot of success finding college guys that can fill a specific role for them in the late-first and second round.

29. San Antonio — LUKE SAMANIC, Serbia

For all the reasons that Bitadze makes sense in San Antonio, Samanic does as well.

30. Milwaukee — Eric Paschall, Villanova

Like many Villanova products before him, Paschall seems like he’ll fit seamlessly onto the roster of a playoff and contribute. He’s spent the last four years in a system that preaches positionless offense and switchability on defense, and with his size, athleticism and ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, he’s exactly what NBA teams are currently looking for. He’s almost 23 years old, so he’s more or less a finished product, but he’s good enough right now to play in an NBA rotation.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.