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Three questions the Houston Rockets must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
55-27, lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: Re-signed James Harden to a mega contract. Drafted Isaiah Hartenstein and Dillon Brooks in the 2017 NBA Draft. Sent roughly a thousand players to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Chris Paul. Added P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute.

THREE QUESTIONS THE ROCKETS MUST ANSWER:

1) Who is going to play the point guard spot? On paper the answer here is obvious: it’s Chris Paul. However, the big issue with the pairing of Paul with Harden is that Harden had an MVP caliber year last season while playing at the point guard position in Mike D’Antoni offense. There is a natural pairing between D’Antoni and Harden, and the Rockets had the second most efficient offense in the NBA with that combination.

Paul, meanwhile, is not necessarily a high tempo point guard and does not have a lot of experience playing in the off ball position. That really begs the question about whether or not the Rockets will be using the talent they have in the best positions for them.

Of course, you add talent when you can get talent, and Paul is an upgrade in terms of the roster they had last season. It’s also not as though Harden wasn’t already one of the best 2-guards in the NBA before last year’s big switch, so take potential issues with a grain of salt.

There is no doubt that the Rockets will be an excellent offensive squad this year, but it still remains to be seen whether they will completely blow teams out of the water as they did last season. They have a lot of 3-point shooters returning to this roster including Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon. Harden and Paul should make quick work of disturbing the ball to those players, so perhaps this question won’t be as pertinent 45 days into the season.

2) Do they still have a move to make? The Rockets really thought they were going to get Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony thought he was headed to Texas. Houston wasn’t able to make that move, likely because they were unable to unload Ryan Anderson onto a willing party.

Houston has high expectations for the season — many players said as much during their media day interviews — but whether they can really compete with the elite in the Western Conference remains to be seen. As noted above, I think that their offense will actually be quite good when compared to the rest of the West. Where they really need help is on defense, and it remains to be seen whether the players they added this offseason can help patch them up.

If the Rockets can’t find their way into a top 10 defensive rating, GM Darryl Morey might have more work to do.

3) Will the new players make this a better defensive team? Every NBA team talks about improving their defense during NBA media day. Not as many teams had the roster moves to make that change, but the Rockets were busy this summer.

Houston’s offseason moves included a former defensive player of the year candidate in Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luke Mbah a Moute. All three of them are rated as good individual and team defenders, and certainly will act as an upgrade over what Houston brought to the floor last season.

That could be the real key to this Houston run. Their offense is already good enough, and even with the change of Harden going back to playing the 2 guard, the defense will be the thing that keeps them from moving to the next level. Houston was 18th in defense of efficiency last season, and if they want to get into the Western Conference Finals they will need to be much better on that end of the floor.

Report: Cavaliers flying blind into draft because LeBron doesn’t know what he’s going to do

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The first day we’re going to get a hint of LeBron James‘ plan this summer is June 29 — that’s the date he has to opt into, or out of, the $35.6 million on his contract for next season.

Opt-in and that means either he’s staying with the Cavaliers or there has been an arrangement made to trade him (likely to Houston). Opt- out and he becomes a free agent on July 1 — he could re-sign with the Cavaliers, or he could sign anywhere else for next season.

What LeBron is doing could impact what the Cavaliers do at the NBA draft, keep the No. 8 pick and draft for the future or try to trade it (probably packaged with Kevin Love or another player) to get LeBron more help now.

But LeBron isn’t going to let the Cavaliers know because he himself doesn’t know, reports Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

According to sources, the Cavs’ front office and James’ camp have been in contact over the phone and in person, though there has been no meeting with James present, nor has there been any real dialogue as far as James’ future is concerned.

Because the superstar himself doesn’t know.

The Cavs have been signaling (strongly, in some cases) that they’re looking to upgrade their team from the group that was swept out of the Finals this month, whether James stays or goes.

If LeBron is going, then the Cavaliers should consider trading that pick to a team eager to land someone still on the board (if Michael Porter Jr. is still available there likely would be plenty of solid offers). However, if he’s going they should use that pick to start the rebuild (and Porter would be a good step that direction).

In reality, the Cavaliers have to act as if LeBron is gone. That was the sense one got being around the team through the playoffs and Finals, that this relationship had run its course. The Cavaliers should draft the best player they can with that pick, unless some team comes through with a killer offer for the slot (and Love plus the No. 8 is not going to land Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are not moving that fast to trade anyway). Then, if and when LeBron leaves, start looking at possible trades for Love, Kyle Korver, and every other veteran on the roster. Start the rebuild.

Still, new GM Koby Altman is flying blind on draft night, and LeBron’s not going to help the team out.

 

Brad Stevens says Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward should be fully cleared by Aug. 1

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Everyone watching the Boston Celtics in the playoffs kept thinking the same thing: Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into this lineup next summer and — bang — instant contender.

That leads to the question: Just where are Irving and Hayward on their recovery tracks? Glad you asked.

That’s a good sign for the Celtics. And for fans of good basketball.

One word of caution: Progression when adding stars into a system is not necessarily linear. Or, to put it more plainly, throwing superstars who need the ball in their hands into the mix comes with its own set of adjustments and challenges, things do not always go smoothly or as planned. There could be some fits and starts as the Celtics figure things out next season. (And that’s not even getting into the Kawhi Leonard rumors, which are legitimate but also a long way from reality as of today.)

If you were going to trust one coach to figure it out and get guys to buy in, Brad Stevens would be your guy. The Celtics are rightfully going to enter next season as the bar to clear in the East (free agency depending). Just don’t expect things to go smoothly from day one, because that’s just not how basketball or life work.

Michael Porter Jr. says his injury situation “got exaggerated a lot”

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If healthy, Michael Porter Jr. might be as talented as anyone in this draft. He’s a 6’11” wing or small ball four who can shoot from the NBA three-point line and has the athleticism to get up and down the floor then finish with authority.

But health is a concern. There was the back injury which forced a microdiscectomy surgery that forced Porter to miss all but three games last season. Back injuries in big men are tricky things and can linger. Then last week there was an off-again-on-again workout and medical evaluation with the pause due to a hip issue. Was that soreness tied to the back issue?

In an interview on ESPN radio, Porter played down the injury concerns.

Former Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., who had issues with his hip and back, said Monday that he’s “feeling great” and wouldn’t dismiss the idea of working out for teams this week ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft.

“It’s a possibility,” Porter said on The Will Cain Show on ESPN Radio. “I feel good. … I got evaluated. I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

As for last week’s hip issue.

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. … None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter is the mystery man in this draft — and those guys always seem to rise and have someone fall in love with them. It’s hard to imagine Porter going lower than eighth, but he has been linked to teams as high as the Kings at No. 2.

Porter is the kind of player that some team lower in the draft may fall in love with and be willing to trade up to the top five to snag him. The health is the question. An NBA front office member who has seen Porter’s medical reports described them to NBC Sports as “fine.”

There are also concerns about Porter’s grit and toughness. He has the reputation of having been insulated and having been a bit of a diva, what happens when he gets to an NBA team where he is not the first (and, at first at least, maybe not the second) option. What happens when he has to play more of a role and have it not be about him and his touches? Teams are asking about that.

Despite the concerns, there will be a team taking him in the first half of the lottery. It could be a home run. Or… that’s what makes the draft interesting.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.