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Rockets couldn’t afford to keep up with Warriors

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Who would you rather have?

  • Player A: Production worth $8 million, earns $15 million
  • Player B: Production worth $5 million, earns $1,621,415

That’s a version of a thought exercise I’ve long considered worth pondering for NBA team-building. The short answer is it depends. What’s the opportunity cost of picking the superior player, Player A? Player B provides more value per dollar and could allow the team to upgrade elsewhere.

For the Houston Rockets, the answer is clear: Player A is preferable to Player B. The Rockets wouldn’t open cap space anyway, and their title-contention window is open now. The better player should be the priority.

At least if winning is the only concern.

But real money matters, too. That’s why Houston lost its version of Player A (Trevor Ariza) and replaced him with a Player B (James Ennis) and, with other similar moves, lost ground to the Warriors.

The Rockets took care of their major business this summer, re-signing Chris Paul (four-year max contract that was probably fait accompli from the moment they acquired him last year) and Clint Capela (five years, $80 million-$90 million).

Capela’s deal was excellent for Houston. The threat of a max offer sheet with a player option after three years loomed. But the Rockets got him back for considerably less money and locked up the 24-year-old for five years.

Paul’s contract could age terribly. He probably won’t be worth $44,211,146 at age 36. But Houston knows that. The present value of keeping open their title window is well worth it to the Rockets. And they did well to avoid a fifth year.

However, Houston’s spending was limited after those two stars.

The Rockets lost Ariza (one year, $15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute (one year, $4,320,500 from Clippers) and ostensibly replaced those forwards with Ennis and Carmelo Anthony. Houston’s late trade – Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss – was another cost saver.

It’s easier to sell those moves when considering Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta’s bottom line. Ennis is a bargain compared to Ariza. Anthony could once again flourish in the right environment, and Mbah a Moute ended last season hurt. The No. 46 pick (Melton) is such a low cost for dropping from Anderson’s burdensome salary to Knight’s burdensome salary – a difference of $11,411,181 over the next two years.

But the bottom line: Houston downgraded on the court.

Though Ennis should fit well into the Rockets’ switching defense, he’s not as big of a 3-point-shooting threat as Ariza. Don’t discount Ariza’s ability to handle so many minutes, either – something Ennis has never done.

Anthony, 34, looked washed with the Thunder. Though I expect him to bounce back at least somewhat in Houston, I don’t see how he can survive defensively against Golden State. Mbah a Moute was a valuable defender who hit open 3s. If he gets healthy, admittedly a question, he’ll be a big loss.

Knight hasn’t played well in years. Chriss has been in over his head his entire NBA career so far. It’s a long way until either can be relied upon deep in the playoffs. At least Anderson – himself too much of a liability against top opponents – would have done more in the regular season to help the Rockets earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Besides, the Ariza and Mbah a Moute vs. Ennis and Anthony argument was always flawed. Houston didn’t have to choose between them. The Rockets could have signed all four instead of filling the end of the roster with players like Michael Carter-Williams, another minimum addition this offseason. That would have gotten quite expensive, but it also would have maximized Houston’s chances of beating the Warriors.

This isn’t to suggest Fertita completely cheaped out or that the Rockets are doomed. They still have a top-five payroll and are in line to pay a sizable luxury-tax bill, and they could win the championship this season.

But Golden State is an all-time great team that leaves such little margin for error. Houston probably wasn’t going to beat the Warriors anyway, but there’s even less of a chance now. When the stakes are so high, that makes these otherwise-moderate downgrades so significant.

The Rockets might have the best team Fertitta would pay for. Unfortunately, that meant taking a step back at this critical juncture.

Offseason grade: D

Badgered by Shaq, Trae Young says he’ll surpass Stephen Curry as shooter within year

Trae Young and Shaquille O'Neal
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Stephen Curry is the best shooter of all-time.

He’s also 32. Eventually, someone will surpass the Warriors superstar as the NBA’s best current shooter.

Could it be Hawks guard Trae Young, who’s famous for his deep range? Appearing on Shaquille O’Neal’s podcast, Young said he’d top Curry as a shooter within a year.

The context tells a more-complete story, Shaq and co-host John Kincade pressing Young into a meaningless statement:

  • Shaq: “How many years before you overtake Steph Curry as the best shooter in the league? Put you on the spot. Put you on the spot. Let’s go.”
  • Young: [Laughter] “I mean, Steph has done crazy things, crazy numbers.”
  • Kincade: “Yeah, but he’s old as hell, right, though? I mean, c’mon. C’mon”
  • Shaq: “Trae, Trae, Trae.”
  • Kincade: “C’mon, Trae.”
  • Shaq: “Trae, don’t give it that politically correct. One year? Two years? How many years? Say it.”
  • Young: “Ehhh, you – I mean”
  • Shaq: “Say it.”
  • Young: “I don’t know. I don’t know, Shaq. I’m trying to…”
  • Kincade (talking over Young): “C’mon he’s old as hell. Come on, Trae. Say it.”
  • Shaq: “Say it, Trae. Two years? Go ahead and say it, Trae.”
  • Young: “OK. A year.”
  • [Clapping and celebrating by hosts]
  • Young: “That’s just me being, I work too hard.”

Young doesn’t lack confidence when asked even neutral questions. By the time Shaq and Kincade applied their pressure, Young’s response became meaningless. Young clearly didn’t want to say something so bold.

For good reason.

Young shot 36.1 percent on 9.5 3-pointers per game this season, both career highs.

Curry hasn’t take so few 3-pointers per game in five seasons. Aside from his five-game season this year, Curry has never shot below 41.1 percent from beyond hte arc.

Eleven years younger than Curry, Young will probably surpass Curry as a shooter at some point. That could be when Curry enters the twilight of his career with Young in his prime. It might not be until Curry retires. But it’ll probably happen.

It also probably won’t happen soon, as even Young seems to know.

Bookie: Derrick Jones Jr.-Kevin Durant video-game result leaked, tilted betting

Kevin Durant and Derrick Jones Jr.
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Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. beat Nets star Kevin Durant in an NBA video-game tournament.

Their matchup was televised Friday night on ESPN. But Jones said they played and record the game earlier, according to a since-deleted tweet by Ira Winderman of the South Florida SunSentinel.

That pre-taping has opened the door to a scandal.

Cool Media PR:

The NBA 2K Players Only Tournament over the weekend caused a headache for sportsbooks because it was pre-taped, and information was ultimately leaked.

“We initially made Durant the favorite to win the tournament, but he was taking very little action over the course of the first 24 hours,” Robert Cooper, Odds Manager at SportsBetting.ag, said. “When we posted the first-round matchup lines and the bets were completely one-sided toward Jones Jr., it became obvious that someone knew the outcome of the game.”

That’s a major allegation.

The NBA is embracing gambling, trying to draw the related revenue while remaining secure. That’s easier said than done, and this episode should serve as a grave warning for the league.

Before going forward, this situation alone is serious. There ought to be major questions facing everyone involved.

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey, likely lottery pick, declares for NBA draft

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey
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Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans declared for the NBA draft yesterday.

Now comes the main attraction from Lexington.

Tyrese Maxey:

Maxey will likely be a lottery pick, though that requires significant projection to justify.

The guard sometimes looks like a premier scorer. He handles the ball well and create his own shot. He shot well from outside before Kentucky and made 83 percent of his free throws last season. But he connected on just 29 percent of his 3-pointers. That 3-point percentage must – and could – increase majorly in the NBA.

Maxey’s inside game is more advanced. He can change speeds, and his floater is effective.

He’s also a solid defender who plays hard. His approach to the game is commendable – and it has to be. Maxey is not an especially explosive athlete. That gives him a narrow needle to thread as he enters the NBA.

At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Maxey could settle in at either guard position. His potential is highest at point guard, where he’d have the ball in his hands more. But he must distribute better – another skill he showed flashes of but didn’t sustain consistently.

2020 PBT Awards: Rookie of the Year

Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson and Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

That Zion somehow lived up to — if not surpassed — his over-the-top hype is “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” stuff. He is (barring injury) going to be the best player out of this class. That, however, is not what Rookie of the Year is based upon, it’s the best rookie of this past season. Morant wins that based on one simple stat: 59 > 19. Or, to use a coaches’ cliché, availability is the greatest ability. Williamson was injured much of the season while Morant averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists a game, turning a team that was expected to be one of the NBA’s worst into a playoff team (as of when play was suspended). Morant is special too, and he had the better season.

Dan Feldman

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Ja Morant is my runaway winner. I want to reward the rookie who produced the most this season. That was clearly Morant, who led the Grizzlies into playoff position – a rarity for a rookie point guard. He was electric. Zion Williamson was even better, but in just 19 games, he didn’t come close to matching the overall contributions of Morant in 59 games.

The actual close race was between Williamson, Nunn and Memphis big Brandon Clarke for the rest of the ballot. Even in his limited availability, Williamson still significantly altered more games than the other two.

Kendrick Nunn gets credit for carrying a much bigger load than Clarke, who was exemplary in his more-limited role.

Keith Smith

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Had Zion Williamson been able to play the rest of the season, and if he dragged New Orleans past Memphis and into in the playoffs, I may have given him the nod. As it stands, it’s Ja Morant’s award to win. Not only was his play terrific all season, but he had Memphis as the surprise of the year. No one had the Grizzlies as a playoff team, and when the season was suspended, they had a 3.5 game lead. A lot of that is owed to Morant. Kendrick Nunn is a distant third, but his first year in the NBA has been one of the biggest surprises in recent memory for a single player. A G League player who had to scrap his way into the league and a full-time starter, Nunn earned this third-place finish.