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

NBA owners, players union agree to push back CBA opt-out date. Again.

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The NBA and players union are progressing toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Just not very fast progress. In December, they pushed the opt-out date for both sides — when either the owners or players could opt out and end the CBA on June 30 of this year — to Feb. 8.

They aren’t going to hit that deadline either so the two sides have agreed to push the new opt-out date back to March 31, they announced.

“The NBA and NBPA have mutually agreed to extend the deadline to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) from Feb. 8, 2023, to March 31, 2023, as the two sides continue negotiations to reach a new agreement,” the sides said in a joint release. “If either party exercises the opt-out, the CBA’s term will conclude on June 30, 2023.”

There is one bit of good news in the talks, the owners have backed off the “upper spending limit” idea, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. At least some owners — troubled by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — pushed for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams, which the players saw as a hard cap and a deal breaker.

As the sides pursue an early labor deal, a significant part of what has allowed discussions to progress has been the NBA’s willingness to soften from its original push for an upper spending limit on team payrolls — a de facto hard cap, sources said.

Still, expect changes to the luxury tax system to attempt to rein in the spending of some owners. There are a lot of economic concerns that will push toward a deal getting done, including this interesting note:

There are broader economic concerns looming for the league that are motivating factors in reaching a new labor deal in the coming weeks and months — including the potential bankruptcy of the Sinclair/Diamond Sports Regional Sports Networks, which is responsible for broadcasting 16 of the league’s teams on local deals. The longer labor talks linger, the more moderate positions among ownership can harden on financial issues and risk deeper difficulties on reaching a new labor deal.

The conventional wisdom has long been there would be no lockout and potential work stoppage because every side was making money again, the trajectory of the league was good, and nobody wanted to slam the breaks on that momentum. But there is always a risk, especially if the owners are fighting among themselves. Which is why a deal getting done sooner rather than later is best for everyone — especially fans.

Focus on body, conditioning has LeBron James on cusp of scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James has prepared for this day since high school.

Maybe he didn’t envision this day exactly — the day he would break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record, something he is just 36 points shy of heading into Tuesday night against the Thunder— but LeBron was preparing for playing at a high level deep into his career. A career that has seen very few injuries (in 20 seasons his only surgeries have been LASIK and oral surgery in the offseason), very little time missed, and a lot of points.

Through all the years, teams and tribulations, LeBron’s focus on preparing his body has never wavered.

“I’ve just learned more about my body and how to prepare my body. But I’ve been taking care of my body since I started playing basketball,” LeBron said earlier this season. “Like, even when I was younger — you can ask any of my best friends growing up — before I went to sleep I would stretch and as soon as I would wake up I would stretch. I was like, 10 years old. In high school, I was one of the few guys that would ice after the game. My rookie year I was icing after the game, as well.

“But, as I got older and older and older, I started to figure out other ways that I could beat Father Time by putting in more time on my game and on my craft. But mostly on my body and my mind. I feel like if my mind can stay as fresh as it possibly can through a grueling up-and-down NBA season — which it is — then my body is going to be able to try and perform at the highest level. So, I’ve always wanted to maximize even the most out of my career and squeeze the most juice I can out of my career.

That level of investment in his body — financially, but more importantly with time and energy — has made his fitness routine a legend around the league. It’s the reason he is still an All-NBA-level player when the rest of his draft class — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Kyle Korver, David West, Steve Blake, Kirk Hinrich — have hung up their sneakers.

“LeBron is taking care of himself so well that he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years. And that’s what he takes,” said Spurs legend Gregg Popovich. “But he gets credit for taking care of himself and being able to be out there. The way a lot of players don’t even come close to. His commitment to the game and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”

LeBron has made fitness and recovery a core part of his daily routine. That commitment to his body means he works out at least five days a week even in the slow weeks of the offseason. Get close to the season and into the grind and it’s seven days a week.

These are not ‘I’m going to jump on the elliptical and get in a little cardio’ workouts, these are specially designed HIIT workouts with his personal trainer, Mike Mancias, that target on different days his core, legs, upper body and other areas, plus mixes in yoga and stretching, and then a recovery program. It is holistic and includes a diet low on refined sugars but with enough carbs to fuel his workout and play.

All that doesn’t even include his pregame stretching and workout routine.

LeBron puts his money into maintaining his conditioning — his business partner and friend Maverick Carter once said LeBron spends about $1.5 million a year on not just trainers and a personal chef, but equipment such as cryotherapy chambers, hyperbaric chambers, NormaTec leg boots, and much more.

Does LeBron have a go-to cheat? Wine. But he’s earned it.

Players don’t reach the NBA, or especially, stick around, without an impressive commitment to fitness. Plenty of players enter the league with bad habits that, by season three or four, they figure out they have to dump if they are going to stick around (and get paid). LeBron’s focus, consistency, and relentlessness is on another level, and it is what has him as the best player the league has ever seen in his 20th season, at age 38. Nobody has ever played this well, this long.

“I think he’s gonna have the greatest career of all time,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of LeBron. “I think he’s already had it, you know, and I think Michaels the greatest of all time. But that doesn’t take anything away from LeBron. LeBron has had the greatest career.”

And he put in the work to get there.

On fringe of rotation, Sixers guard Korkmaz reportedly requests trade

NBA: JAN 17 76ers at Clippers
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Last season, Furkan Korkmaz was a regular part of the 76ers rotation — he played in 69 games, started 19, and averaged 21 minutes and seven shot attempts a night.

With De'Anthony Melton added to the rotation this season, Korkmaz has played in 25 games (less than half of the team’s games) at 10.2 minutes a night when he does get in, and he averaged 3.1 shots per game. Korkmaz wants to be somewhere he is wanted and used and has requested a trade, reports Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have said the Turkish player has requested to be traded before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Asked about it, Korkmaz would only say he “would not confirm nor deny it.”

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey didn’t immediately respond to a text message asking if Korkmaz asked to be traded. But sources have said Korkmaz was informed the Sixers will try to package him in a deal.

Korkmaz is not the only 76ers whose name comes up in trade conversations, wing defender Matisse Thybulle also has drawn trade interest. The Sixers are looking for a backup point center for their playoff run.

Korkmaz, 25 and in his sixth NBA season, is a career 35.4% shooter from 3 at the guard spot, but his competent shooting has not made up for limited playmaking and poor defense at the NBA level. The Sixers went out and got an upgrade this offseason in Melton.

Korkmaz makes $5 million this season and has a fully-guaranteed $5.4 million on the books for next season. A fair price if a team believes the Turkish guard can help their guard rotation, but the market for him is likely limited.

Still, it’s another name to watch in Philadelphia as we move toward Thursday’s trade deadline.

After missing out on Kyrie Irving, now what for Lakers?

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The Lakers tried. Maybe not as hard as some segments of Lakers’ nation wanted, but Rob Pelinka and company tried. Los Angeles had serious negotiations with the Brooklyn Nets about bringing Kyrie Irving to Los Angeles, potentially giving them a true at-his-peak third star next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It didn’t work out — Irving is headed to the Dallas Mavericks.

Why it didn’t work out is a glimpse into the mindset of the Lakers’ front office — whether fans think they did the wise thing or should have pushed more chips into the center of the table — and informs what will come next for the Lakers.

The primary reason the Lakers’ trade offer didn’t work out was beyond the team’s control — Brooklyn wanted to quickly retool a competitive, contending team around Kevin Durant and the Lakers couldn’t offer the quality of players needed to make that happen. The core of any Lakers’ offer was two distant first-round picks — 2027 and 2029 — and Russell Westbrook, a player the Lakers moved out of the starting lineup. Dallas (and for that matter, the Suns and Clippers) could always offer a better version of what the Nets wanted. (It didn’t help that Irving wanted to go to the Lakers and Nets’ owner Joe Tsai didn’t want to send Irving to his desired destination, Marc Stein reports.)

There were other players the Lakers could have added to the mix — Austin Reaves and Max Christie — but L.A. was only going to do that if Irving agreed to a two-year, $78.5 million contract extension (the max the Lakers could offer), reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic. Irving would never accept that, his trade request was always about maximizing his income with a new team.

So where does all this leave the Lakers?

They can’t trade Westbrook without attaching at least one of those highly-valued first-round picks — his $47.1 million contract this season is still an anchor on a deal — something they are unwilling to do unless it brings back a true third star. That reduces the Lakers to making a smaller trade to bring in a role player that could give them depth and help them win a few more games, pushing into the postseason. The Lakers have reached out to Utah and Toronto primarily, Buha reports, although the entire league is waiting to see what Toronto will do at the deadline.

Kyle Goon at the Los Angeles Daily News sums it nicely:

But instead of an All-Star like Irving in return, the Lakers face figuring out if a package of role players can help them push toward the playoffs. Those have less glamorous possibilities attached: Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt or Malik Beasley from Utah; Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson or Doug McDermott from San Antonio; Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier or Mason Plumlee from Charlotte…

So Pelinka and the Lakers seemingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place, already committed to making another move before the deadline, but also without an obvious trade that boosts them to new competitive heights.

The Lakers are shopping around that smaller deal using the contract of Patrick Beverley and second-round picks but trying not to use one of those first-rounders, sources tell NBC Sports. Plus, if the Lakers are hesitant to put young players such as Reaves or Christy in a trade for a player the caliber of Irving, they are not about to do it for a role player.

The historic distraction of LeBron James breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record will dominate a lot of the Lakers’ storylines, very possibly just past the trade deadline. That could be a good thing for the Lakers. But when the smoke of the trade deadline clears, Lakers fans — and LeBron — are not likely to be happy with the new landscape.