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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

Bucks’ Eric Bledsoe out two weeks due to right fibula avulsion fracture

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The Milwaukee Bucks keep right on rolling, they won their 18th straight on Saturday night, cruising past the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now they’re going to have to keep this winning streak going without point guard Eric Bledsoe.

Bledsoe will miss at least two weeks with a right fibula avulsion fracture, the team announced Saturday. The injury happened Friday night in a win against Memphis.

An avulsion fracture is where a strain to ligament pulls a little bit of bone off where the two connect. It sounds worse than it is medically, and while it hurts rest is usually the only treatment needed.

Bledsoe is averaging 15 points and 5.7 assists per game for the Bucks, shooting 34.4 percent from three, playing solid defense, and providing another ball handler and shot creator next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee has been +4.1 points per 100 possessions this season with Bledsoe on the court.

George Hill, who has had a strong season for Milwaukee off the bench, will step into the starting role for now.

The injury comes at a rough time as the Buck hit a tougher part of the schedule this week, facing Dallas (which may be without Luka Doncic) and the Lakers on Thursday.

Hornets’ rookie P.J. Washington out weeks with fractured little finger

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In what has been a disappointing rookie class so far, Charlotte appears to have a steal drafting P.J. Washington at No. 12. The power forward out of Kentucky has started every game for the Hornets this season and is loving the spacing in the NBA game, scoring efficiently in the paint while shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc on 3.4 attempts per game, plus is averaging 5.3 rebounds a game.

Now the Hornets are going to be without him, likely for a couple of weeks, due to a fractured fifth finger on his right hand (pinkie). He suffered it in the fourth quarter against Chicago Friday night.

While the Hornets officially only list him as out for Sunday against the Pacers, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports he’s going to be out through Christmas, which would mean at least five games.

Usually this would mean more minutes for Marvin Williams, but he is out with a sore right knee. Most likely, coach James Borego slides an undersized Miles Bridges over to the four — which had been the preseason plan until Washington surprised everyone — but he has a variety of small-ball players who likely will get a little run there.

The 12-16 Hornets are hanging around the playoff picture, just 1.5 games out of the eight seed (Orlando).

Watch Zach LaVine’s driving and-1 game-winner to lift Bulls past Clippers

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CHICAGO (AP) — After blowing several late leads to lose games, the Chicago Bulls were able to flip the script Saturday night.

Zach LaVine scored 31 points and converted a decisive three-point play in the Bulls’ 109-106 victory over the short-handed and weary Los Angeles Clippers.

Chicago trailed by five points with less than two minutes to go. Tied at 106, the Bulls inbounded with 5.4 seconds left. LaVine got the ball near the 3-point line, drove to his right and was fouled by Montrezl Harrell as he scored with 2 seconds left.

Paul George then missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We made big plays,” LaVine said. “I think that’s what it comes down to, making plays.

“We’ve been playing good, but we just haven’t been able to get that win in the last two minutes, three minutes of the game. Hopefully, we can start stringing some together.”

Lauri Markkanen had 13 points and 17 rebounds, Thaddeus Young scored 17 points, and Denzel Valentine had 16 for the Bulls.

Harrell had 30 points and George had 27 for Los Angeles. The Clippers had won four in a row.

Besides playing for the third time in four days at the end of a six-game trip, the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard (injury management, left knee soreness), Lou Williams (right calf), Patrick Beverly (concussion) and JaMychal Green (tailbone contusion).

This was the eighth game Leonard has missed. He scored 42 points Friday night at Minnesota.

George was asked if the poor finish was a result of fatigue. “Not necessarily,” he said. “This isn’t new. We just got outplayed tonight.”

Los Angeles led by 15 points midway through the second quarter before Chicago closed the first half with a 19-6 run to pull to 57-55.

The Bulls continued the surge early in the third, scoring 17 straight points for a 75-61 lead. The 75 points were two more than Chicago scored Friday night in an 83-73 home loss to Charlotte.

The Clippers answered with a 12-1 run to trim the deficit to 76-73 and pulled to 81-79 in the final minute of the third on a three-point play by Harrell. LaVine then hit a 3-pointer to give Chicago an 84-79 lead entering the fourth.

In the final three minutes, George hit a pair of free throws to break a tie at 98 and Landry Shamet hit a 3-pointer for a 103-98 Clippers lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. With L.A. up by five a minute later, LaVine and Valentine hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions — sandwiched around one of two free throws by George — for a tie at 106 with 47.9 seconds left.

Blake Griffin does not play second half due to knee soreness; Pistons hang on to beat Rockets

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This summer, Blake Griffin had arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee, it cost him the first 10 games of the season.

Saturday night, Griffin sat the second half against the Rockets because that same knee is sore.

That’s concerning, although there have been no further reports on the severity of the issue. Griffin is averaging 17.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game — both career lows — and remains the fulcrum of the Pistons offense.

Even without him and Andre Drummond, the Pistons held on to beat the Rockets 115-107, thanks to 12 points from Derrick Rose and 11 from Bruce Brown in the second half.