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5 Up, 5 Down: The Rockets are who we thought they were (and so is Portland)

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

I’m not going to pretend the Houston Rockets shouldn’t be afraid of the Golden State Warriors. But this weird, lurking feeling that the Warriors are going to make this wild surge back and dethrone the “pretending” Rockets? It’s just flat out wrong. It’s been wrong all season, and Mike D’Antoni is probably going to win the NBA Coach of the Year for figuring out how to pair two of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. Maybe he learned something the first time around with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant?

Houston’s win over the Blazers was incredible, exciting, and electric. While the game was in doubt for the No. 1 team in the Western Conference throughout the game, the way they closed was confidence-inspiring. The Rockets aren’t just a team with legitimate scorers, they are a defensive hassle. D’Antoni’s gameplan led to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining for just 28 points on 32 shots. Tuesday night, we learned that the Rockets are who we thought they were. That also applies to Portland, but not in the way that you might think.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Is this the year for the Toronto Raptors?

There are a lot of times we’ve wondered this, collectively, out loud. Usually right before a playoff game in which LeBron James disembowels Toronto right in front of us. I get it, it’s a touchy thing to broach. Still, the Raptors are playing in a way we’ve never seen them do before, and it’s not been all about DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas looks trustworthy, Kyle Lowry is having another career year (it feels like his third or fourth one) and guys like Pascal Siakam are contributing.

Despite what folks in Toronto are telling themselves, pretty much everyone in the NBA is talking about the Raptors and for once that doesn’t feel like the thing that’s going to tip them over the edge. Their lead over both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers feels wholly earned and un-precarious. And if the Cavaliers can’t straighten themselves out with Kevin Love back and if the Celtics aren’t going to play with a full roster, I think we’d all rather see the Raptors in the Finals.

This LeBron Dunk

It’s just … *chef’s kiss*

The makeup of the NBA’s best teams

This is a complete Shower Thought but it hit me the other day that we have had the benefit of a lot of teams around the league being good this year that maybe have not always been top-of-mind for casual NBA fans. Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans. Heck, even Cleveland before LeBron came around was likely a blind spot for folks on the West Coast. That the league isn’t dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks in this decade is more of a gift that we realize, I think. Plus, you know those teams will eventually be back, so get it while it lasts. Well, maybe not the Knicks but you get the idea.

The Blazers, the Rockets, and the end of a winning streak

The Blazers finally lost a game, and in doing so solidified their position as the favorites in any first round playoff series they find themselves in come spring. Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless were all dazzling on a night in which Portland’s 13-game winning streak came to an end.

Houston looked great, naturally, but the Blazers didn’t shy away from the spotlight for a single moment even with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum coming up short during Tuesday night’s big battle royale. I’ve been a doubter for longer than most when it comes to Portland, and they didn’t seem out of place at all against the league’s best team. Blazers fans should feel more secure even after their loss. They can hang, which is more than we could say about them when they sorted themselves out over the New Year.

This insane “LeBron to Portland” billboard

Look, if you thought it was a longshot that this billboard was going to actually get put up, you were dead wrong. Some Blazers fans who run a popular culture brand in Portland wanted to put up a billboard — mostly as a joke — to entice LeBron James to come to Rip City. They started a Go Fund Me, and despite starting slow have now gained momentum and have more than $6,800 to do what they will with it.

Not only have they made their goal, but they’ve blasted past it with the help of sponsors. They are now looking at other options, including a second billboard in Cleveland or transit ads, according to the Oregonian.

This was an inevitability. LeBron to Portland? Not so much.

5 Down

Dwane Casey got ejected even though he didn’t do anything

The battle between the NBPA and NBRA, apparently, rages on. It wasn’t helped when Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected from a game for a comment he didn’t even make. A fan behind him said something, which an official mistakenly attributed to Casey.

The entire end of that Raptors-Thunder game was a cluster and Casey getting tossed really was the icing on the cake. Like I’ve said before, look for big announcements this summer regarding officiating as a way for the league, the NBRA, or both to save face and get some viewer confidence back in the grey shirts.

Ty Lue is out with an illness

The Cavaliers are a reality show that any cable network would love to syndicate. But, if you can peel back the curtain for a minute, you can humanize these guys in a way that isn’t so much fun to poke and prod throughout the course of a championship-hopeful NBA season. Lue, much like Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, is having some serious health issues and no doubt the stress of the season has to be contributing factor.

Hope he gets well soon.

This whole dinosaur thing with Jordan Clarkson

Let’s get a little meta for a second.

First, both Kyrie Irving and Jordan Clarkson have said patently insane things on Channing Frye‘s podcast that nobody should believe. Are all NBA players secretly hiding easily-debunked opinions that can be disproved with 7th grade Earth Science? Maybe, but there’s another common component here and it’s Frye.

Here’s a conspiracy theory of my own: All these crazy quotes are simply Frye orchestrating listens for his podcast. The only other alternative is to suggest that a lot of NBA players sincerely believe things that no good organizational base — whether they be the public school system or the financial managers, agents, and business managers hired by players — should let these guys think. Someone is failing these dudes if they believe these things in earnest.

I’ve got my eye on you, Channing.

The reading guy

This guy was reading during Spurs-Warriors this week. Was he reading Proust? Or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? No. He was reading a book because a movie was really popular this year.

Step your reading game up, bro. Give your ticket away to someone who is going to watch the in-game entertainment. I’m pretty sure those stunt teams don’t even make minimum wage, the least you could do is look up at them during a timeout.

Players Only has got to go

I have an honest question, free of snark that I genuinely need answered: Who asked for this? Team broadcast crews are, sometimes to their detriment, already oversaturated with former NBA talent that often seem ill-equipped to handle the job. Many former players, looking to stay close to the game, get slotted into the booth for their former teams, usually as color commentators without much training or an interesting perspective to offer. There’s already been a slow creep of NBA dudes moving into the booth, and the idea of “Players Only” almost seems redundant at this point.

The mark of a good commentator differs between the play-by-play and color guys, but there should be baseline of performance that often isn’t met. Just because a guy played in the league — or because he’s gregarious — doesn’t mean he can communicate the ins and outs of the modern NBA, or even know what’s relevant when calling a game. I’m not sure what the answer is, although shows like ESPN’s “The Jump” and NBATV’s “The Starters” seem to suggest a mix of experienced broadcasters, polished players, and knowledgeable writers would be a good mix.

Because they’re all on one broadcast where a few shine and the majority fail expectations, the “Players Only” broadcasts are an embarrassing highlight of the fact that too many guys aren’t ready for a national spot in the booth. Twitter hates it. Reddit hates it. They’ve got to get rid of it.

Report: Tobias Harris turned down $80 million extension from Clippers

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Is $80 million enough for Tobias Harris? Tobias Harris certainly doesn’t think so.

The lengthy Los Angeles Clippers forward is just 26 years old, and is in line for not one but probably two more significant contracts. That being said, according to a report from TNT’s David Aldridge, Harris recently turned down an extension offer from the Clippers in the area of four years, $80 million.

That reported number would have been a significant increase over the contract Harris signed with the Orlando Magic back in 2015. That deal was for four years and $64 million, but it appears that Harris is biding his time and waiting for the summer of 2019 when more teams have cap space.

Via Twitter:

Harris turning down this extension sort of leans into something I’ve been mentioning lately, and that is that some of these mid-range or cusp-level stars might end up taking less than they expect while waiting for 2019.

Yes, there is cap space to be had next summer. But there’s not an unlimited amount, and I believe that many GMs will be reticent to spend money the way they did a couple of years ago after the cap spiked. Teams handed out some crazy contracts in 2016, and several GMs will have learned their lesson.

Eighty million dollars is completely reasonable for Harris, so it seems he is either wanting more cash or perhaps he wants a change of scenery. What LAC reportedly offered Harris was an extension, and now it appears he will head straight into unrestricted free agency.

Harris is still young, and he is a good 3-point shooter. He shot 41.4 percent from deep for the Clippers last season, and he has the ability to play several positions. It’s possible that a team who wants to move into the modern, small ball type of play we’ve seen over the last couple years steps up with a big offer.

The question is who that might be.

James Harden on adding Carmelo Anthony: ‘It would be a great acquisition for us’

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Carmelo Anthony is all but a Houston Rocket at this point. The veteran forward secured his buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder this week, and the favorite to land him are the Rockets.

We are still waiting for everything to be official, but it seems that Anthony’s potential future teammates are excited about having him on board.

Speaking to media this week, NBA MVP James Harden said that he felt like Anthony was a good pick up for the team that gave the Golden State Warriors a run in the Western Conference Finals before losing Chris Paul to injury.

Via Chron.com:

“It would be a great acquisition for us,” said Harden, who did run into Anthony at Paris Fashion Week last month when Harden was making the rounds with teammate P.J. Tucker. “Melo’s a proven vet. He just wants to win at this point, so it would be great for him to be on our team. The current roster we have now, we’ve got good guys back and we keep making forward progress.”

It’s not clear how Carmelo will integrate into Houston’s offense just yet. The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns this summer, and we’ll need more 3-point shooting outside of Eric Gordon. Anthony shot 35.7% from 3-point range last season, which is just about league average.

Even in an offense with a lot of isolation sets, Carmelo isn’t a home run. People make the mistake of thinking that the Rockets simply dribble the ball down the floor then go one-on-one. That’s not really the case.

The Rockets were 13th in the NBA in pace last year, and scored a league-leading 1.2 points per possession in transition. Their isolation sets were additive to their transition offense, and even then a lot of their iso ball sets were designed to create assists on mismatches.

Anthony has shown the ability to be a good passer over his time in the NBA, although last season with the Thunder he recorded a career-low two assists per 100 possessions. Many of his isolation plays are geared toward Anthony getting a shot up for himself, so whether Mike D’Antoni can convince him to work within the system is a big question moving forward.

Anthony could be useful for the Rockets, there’s no doubt about it. But what seems more likely is that he might gunk up the works for Houston, especially come playoff time. The Rockets need to do something — or at least they feel they do — to get past the Warriors this time around.

Will Anthony be the answer there?

Drew Hanlen is rumored to have fixed Markelle Fultz’s jumper

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All aboard the Markelle Fultz PR train. Last stop is the Eastern Conference Finals.

On Sunday, two rumors surfaced about the embattled Philadelphia 76ers point guard’s jumper. The first came from former teammate Richaun Holmes‘s mother, Dr. Lydecia Holmes.

Speaking on The Burner podcast, Lydecia said that Fultz has had his jumper rebuilt and that he should be a much better shooter for the Sixers in 2018-19.

Via The Burner Podcast, h/t Sixer Sense:

“Markelle is going to be very, very surprising this season. You’re going to be very pleased with Markelle. He is going to show you something this year… on and off the court.”

Fultz had his jump shot mysteriously disappear last year. It was supposed to have been something having to do with a shoulder issue, but over time the public opinion gradually shifted to Fultz perhaps having the yips.

The Sixers point guard has been working out with jump shot expert Drew Hanlen, and many have high hopes for Fultz’S new stroke for the upcoming season.

According to Yahoo’s Jordan Schultz, Fultz is coming along nicely as we move through the summer.

Via Twitter:

Getting Fultz back would be a huge boost for the 76ers. They failed to land Kawhi Leonard in a trade this year, and having the No. 1 overall pick from a season ago will bolster their guard rotation if he shows flashes of what he did during his one season playing for the Washington Huskies.

Then again, this could all be to prop up Fultz given the idea that much of his issue was mental. Either way, there is hope that Philadelphia will get him back from one of the oddest injury lapses in recent NBA memory outside of Leonard himself.

We don’t need to see a million videos of Fultz and his in-progress jumper from practice like we did last season. I’m hoping we can wait and see it as a finished product sometime as we approach the fall.

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Rumor: People close to Kawhi Leonard think he’ll re-sign with Raptors

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Kawhi Leonard has made it known that he wants to play in Los Angeles. Specifically with the Lakers, although playing for the Clippers reportedly has become more of an option as of late for Leonard.

Still, for the meantime the former San Antonio Spurs star will be playing with the Toronto Raptors, at least to start the season. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri leveraged his goodwill from the city as well as the future of his team by trading DeMar DeRozan to get Leonard. Now, the question is whether Leonard will be healthy enough to play, or whether he will prove difficult much in the way he was last season in Texas.

Rumors are already swirling in Ontario about whether or not Leonard will prefer to stay with the Raptors after this season when he can opt out of his current deal. According to at least one rumor, some close to Leonard think he will stay with Toronto.

Via The San Diego Union-Tribune:

Here’s what someone who knows Leonard as well as anybody told me privately: “He’s going to fall in love with Toronto – it’s going to happen. He’s not going to leave, I’m telling you.”

We have to treat this as hearsay at this point, as a lot of the recent talk from people rumored to be close to Leonard has turned out to be inaccurate.

Even further, Leonard’s wants and actions have been hard to predict. Two years ago, Leonard changed agents and with the help of his uncle, has taken a new direction with his business management. It’s been staunch, and conservative, and stubborn. On paper, forcing his way away from the best-run franchise in the NBA is a real head-scratcher.

That’s also why you can’t necessarily dismiss the idea of Leonard staying in Ontario. His wants and needs seem to shift, and what will affect him one day to the next seems hard to gather. It’s entirely possible that he ends up liking playing in Toronto, and the city itself, which is magnificent.

Yes, we all saw the rumor that Leonard doesn’t like the cold, but that contradicts with the idea that Leonard is “all about basketball”. It’s not as though the basketball situation in Los Angeles is better than the basketball situation in Toronto. And despite their playoff failures, you could say that management installed in Canada is better than those acting in Southern California.

We will see whether Leonard even plays a significant amount of games for the Raptors. We all thought it was impossible that he would sit out an entire season for San Antonio last year, and now we can’t dismiss that possibility moving forward. Getting him on the floor and in a Raptors jersey is first.

Then we can talk about him re-signing in Toronto.

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