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Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

76ers coach Brett Brown says he doesn’t expect rookie Zhaire Smith to play in NBA this season

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Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons.

Zhaire Smith?

A few recent 76ers first-round picks missed their entire first professional season due to injury. Smith, the No. 16 pick in last year’s draft could join them.

Smith has missed the entire season so far with a broken foot then allergic reaction. He just returned to practicing with the 76ers, but maybe not in time to play for them this season.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

If the 76ers clinch their playoff seed before the regular season ends, I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith plays for them. But meaningful minutes seem unlikely.

Philadelphia is trying to win now, and a rookie who entered the NBA relatively raw then missed so much time is unlikely to help.

That said, backup wings James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons aren’t exactly reliable options. If everything breaks right for Smith – essentially the opposite of his season to date – maybe, just maybe, he plays for the 76ers this season.

Warriors vs. Bucks or Raptors betting favorite to be NBA Finals matchup

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Who will we see in the NBA Finals come June?

The West looks cut and dried — if the Warriors are healthy, it’s hard to imagine any other team in that conference giving them too much trouble.

The East? That’s wide open. A good case can be made for Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee finding their way in. (For a more detailed breakdown, listen to the latest PBT Podcast where Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports and myself break down the East in more detail.)

The bookmakers over at BetOnline put together these odds on potential Finals matchups, and after the first four options the odds get pretty long.

Milwaukee Bucks vs Golden State Warriors 9/2
Toronto Raptors vs Golden State Warriors 9/2
Boston Celtics vs Golden State Warriors 5/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Golden State Warriors 5/1
Indiana Pacers vs Golden State Warriors 28/1
Brooklyn Nets vs Golden State Warriors 33/1
Boston Celtics vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Milwaukee Bucks vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Toronto Raptors vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Charlotte Hornets vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Detroit Pistons vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Miami Heat vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Orlando Magic vs Golden State Warriors 66/1
Washington Wizards vs Golden State Warriors 66/1
Boston Celtics vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Milwaukee Bucks vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Toronto Raptors vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1

A few quick thoughts on that list:

• Interesting that the Sixers and Celtics are just a little behind the Bucks and Raptors in the minds of the bookmakers.

• I don’t know that I’d have Houston in front of Oklahoma City as the second-best option in the West. Not this season. The Thunder have the defense and star power to do playoff damage.

• If you’re thinking about putting money on Washington or Orlando to make the Finals — against anyone — just donate that money to charity instead. That way it will do some good.

Likely No. 1 pick Zion Williamson leaves Duke-North Carolina game with knee injury

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Zion Williamson will probably be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

He’s a generationally good prospect. The rest of this draft also looks relatively weak.

In fact, Williamson has such a stranglehold on the top pick, some have suggested he sit out the rest of his freshman season.

His injury during Duke’s game against North Carolina tonight will only heighten those calls.

Duke:

Hopefully, Williamson is OK.

And hopefully, the system changes. The NCAA is a cartel in which schools conspire to cap compensation for athletes at a scholarship plus some expenses. In a free market, Williamson would earn far more.

Unfortunately, it probably can’t be both. If Williamson escapes this without major injury, the status quo will likely endure.

But, if this injury even allows him to play again this season, it might be a warning shot that causes him to sit until he can enter the NBA draft.

Again, I hope he’s healthy enough to make that decision for himself.

Jayson Tatum guarantees Celtics will win 2019 NBA championship

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Friday morning, Jayson Tatum guaranteed the U.S. team would beat the World team in the Rising Stars game that night. The U.S. team won.

So, Tatum was asked Saturday morning whether he wanted to guarantee anything for that night. He guaranteed he’d win the Skills Challenge. He won.

So, then ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Tatum whether he wants to guarantee anything else. And he really let it ride.

Tatum:

We’re going to win the Finals this year. February 16th, mark it. Jayson Tatum says we’re going to win the Finals this year.

Obviously, Tatum wasn’t going to pick against Boston. But this wasn’t that. He could have easily avoided such a grand proclamation.

Instead, even if he were just caught up in the emotion of an All-Star Saturday Night victory and taking the interview especially seriously, Tatum put a little more attention and pressure on the Celtics.

I’m not convinced that’s what this team needs.