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On a budget, Hornets prudently address their flaws

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At 36-46, the 2016-17 Hornets’ had the second-worst record ever by a team that outscored its opponents.

Point difference, rather than record, tends to better predict future success. So, simple regression to the mean should lift Charlotte – which finished the season +16 – firmly into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

But the Hornets didn’t stop there, addressing their two biggest issues in a quietly focused offseason.

Charlotte fell apart when Cody Zeller missed games (3-17 record) or Kemba Walker went to the bench (-7.0 net rating) last season.

Enter Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams.

The Hornets moved $44,106,060 of salary (Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli) for Howard and his $47,319,725 remaining salary – and moved up 10 spots in the second round. Howard isn’t necessarily the answer at center in Charlotte, but he might be, and Plumlee definitely wasn’t. Plumlee is also due $12.5 million each of the next three seasons while Howard’s deal expires after only two. Belinelli was a helpful reserve on an expiring contract, but drafting Malik Monk at No. 11 completely softens the blow of a deal that was already pretty cushy.

After going from the No. 41 to the No. 31 pick in the Hawks trade, the Hornets moved back down to No. 40, getting Dwayne Bacon and pocketing $1.8 million for the swap. It’s still about money in Charlotte.

That’s why the Hornets had to settle for Carter-Williams, who’ll earn just $2.7 million on a one-year contract. Jeremy Lin shined as Charlotte’s backup point guard on a similar contract a couple years ago, but I wouldn’t count on similar success for Carter-Williams. The former Rookie of the Year fell out of favor with the Bucks and Bulls fairly quickly. It wouldn’t be hard for him to outperform the low bar Ramon Sessions set behind Walker last season, but the Hornets paid for a flier – not a sure-fire fix.

Most of their mid-level exception is left unused, and it will likely remain that way with Charlotte butting up against the luxury tax. The Hornets have never paid the luxury tax, and I doubt Michael Jordan changes the policy now.

Monk was a steal at No. 11, and maybe the 6-foot-3 combo guard eventually factors at point guard. But it’s no guarantee he ever makes that transition full-time, and it’d be shocking if he did it as a rookie. A more reasonable case: Monk makes Jeremy Lamb expendable, though that also requires Lamb  – owed $14,488,372 the next two years – to play well enough to maintain value.

Steve Clifford could have his hands full setting this rotation, especially at center. Howard can play only center, which is also Zeller’s best position by far. Between the two, they probably deserve more than 48 minutes per game – which means one or both will get less playing time than warranted and/or Zeller will play some power forward.

There’s also a matter of who starts. Howard is far more established, but Zeller – seven years younger – will soon be better if he isn’t already. Would Howard chafe at coming off the bench? He spent his season in Atlanta doing the dirty work then seemingly griping about his role after the fact. If Zeller is superior, how would sticking him behind Howard affect team chemistry?

Clifford might be the Howard whisperer, but this situation could get tricky.

Still, having too many centers sure beats last year’s problem of not having enough. If Carter-Williams becomes a competent point guard – certainly possible, but unlikely – this could be a team with no glaring weaknesses. That’s a big deal after two holes sunk Charlotte last year.

The Hornets still rely on Walker, a fringe All-Star, for all their star power. But Monk was a steal at No. 11, and he could eventually shape this franchise’s future.

The Hornets were never as far off as they looked.

They might be even closer now.

Offseason grade: B-

Chris Paul injures right hamstring, status unclear for Game 6 vs. Warriors

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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.

After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.

But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.

The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.

That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.

As expected, Chris Paul said he will be good to go (players are the worst at providing a timeline for their injuries).

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.

Chris Paul plays the hero as Warriors devolve to iso ball in Game 5 loss

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I personally thought a Western Conference Finals game couldn’t get any uglier after I watched Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday night’s Game 5 matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors two teams produced three heinous quarters of NBA playoff basketball, made even more unbearable by the fact that we know how good these two teams can be when they’re really humming.

Much as it was in Game 4 it was Houston’s defense that was on display, ironically forcing the Warriors to play much in the way the Rockets do when they lose. Golden State battled the shot clock with isolation ball much of the game, with Kevin Durant getting the ball at the top of the arc as some of the league’s top players — including a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry — widened the floor in a 1-4 flat set for the 7-foot wing.

To their credit, both Curry and Durant were in good shooting form through the first half but as the periods ground on they started to slow. Draymond Green was Draymond-y, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds with four assists. Statistically, it’s hard to understand how the Warriors lost. Golden State shot better from the field, from the arc, and from the charity stripe. But their scoring was concentrated and their offense predictable at just the wrong moments.

Houston’s attack was nothing to shake a stick at, either. James Harden‘s scored just 19 points on 5-of-21 shooting, and as a unit the Rockets doled out 12 assists. Incessant switching and a tendency to hound the ball on defense allowed Houston to force a whopping 18 turnovers from Golden State. It was the most important statistic of the game for the Rockets, who scored 18 points on those turnovers despite being outpaced in 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and in fastbreak buckets.

Then, the fourth quarter happened. Everything changed, and as we are wont to do, the game felt much cleaner. Both teams had their energy up, they traded baskets, and the lead went back-and-forth.

Enter Chris Paul.

Houston’s point guard was the savior, scoring 20 points on a piddly 6-of-19 shooting performance. But Paul’s box score did not tell the tale of his impact on the game. Several times with the shot clock winding down, Paul came up with big beyond-the-arc buckets, at one point hitting one over Curry, giving him back a shoulder shimmy much the way the Warriors point guard did in Game 4.

Paul’s leadership pushed Houston forward, but his commitment during Game 5 might get overlooked after the Rockets point guard was forced to check out of the game after a play with 51 seconds remaining. On a floater in the lane, Paul appeared to hurt his right hamstring. Unable to play, Paul had to watch the final minute from the Houston bench, and his availability for Game 6 is currently up in the air.

It was ugly and it was gritty, but the Rockets beat Golden State on Thursday night, 98-94, to take Game 5 and a 3-2 series win as the Western Conference Finals heads back to Oakland.

Now, we look toward Game 6 in California on Saturday, May 26 at 6:00 PM PST.

Eric Gordon buckets, Draymond Green turnover seals game for Rockets

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For the second game in a row, the Houston Rockets were clutch in the fourth quarter and the defending champion Warriors clanked and fumbled their way to a loss.

Houston won Game 3 98-94 because down the stretch Eric Gordon made plays (and free throws) and Draymond Green fumbled away the Warriors chance.

It started with the Rockets up one with less than two minutes to go, when Eric Gordon — who led the Rockets with 24 points — drained a three that gave Houston some breathing room.

Six seconds later, Draymond Green answered with a three to keep it a one-point game.

With 10 seconds left in the game, a Trevor Ariza free throw made it a two-point game, giving the Warriors a chance to come down and tie or win. Then Green did this.

Gordon was fouled, hit two free throws, and it was ballgame.

The Rockets are now up 3-2 in the series and are one win away from the Finals.

Draymond Green thought Warriors might trade him after fight with Steve Kerr

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Draymond Green is the backbone of the Golden State Warriors, not just because he was the 2016-17 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Green sort of does it all, including passing, scoring, rebounding, and myriad other scrap work that doesn’t show up on regular box scores.

But there was some doubt in Green’s mind in 2016 that he would stay with the team. Green was involved in an argument during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and after things settled down the Warriors big man was concerned the team might trade him.

The thought of doing so is sort of ridiculous, but apparently that was something that flashed into Green’s mind given the tenseness of the situation between he and Kerr.

Via Bleacher Report:

But Green’s mood was still foul, and he left the arena that day believing his days as a Warrior were numbered. He feared the relationship had been fractured, that the Warriors would choose Kerr over him. That he’d be traded.

“One hundred percent,” Green tells B/R. “Especially with the success that he was having as a coach. Like, you just don’t get rid of that.”

The thing that makes Golden State great isn’t just the players, or the system, or Kerr. It’s the human resources management aspect of their organization that allows them to compete on the court in the way they do.

It’s not crazy to think that a player could be shipped out of town thanks to a disagreement with a coach, although the leverage players have these days likely has put a stop to that realistically happening. But that Kerr, Green, and management were able to get things back under control that season was to the benefit of everyone involved.