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Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Toronto police: Report of shooting at Raptors championship parade

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Update: Toronto police:

 

 

The Raptors’ championship parade was interrupted by a scary situation.

Toronto Police:

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star:

Especially in large crowds like this, chaos and confusion can spread quickly. Hopefully, everyone is OK.

The scene was quite strange, as speeches were interrupted while people in sections of the crowd fled:

The Raptors are continuing their speeches now.

Report: Nets not extending qualifying offer to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

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The Nets appear to be on the verge of signing Kyrie Irving. They opened double-max cap space to pursue a second star like Kevin Durant, Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler.

Brooklyn isn’t going to let Rondae Hollis-Jefferson foil that plan.

The Nets could make Hollis-Jefferson a restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any offer he receives. But do so, they must extend a $3,594,369 qualifying offer. That’s essentially a one-year contract offer he could accept at any time. If he did, he’d count against the cap at $3,594,369. Brooklyn doesn’t want to risk that.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Nets could still re-sign Hollis-Jefferson. This just prevents him from unilaterally accepting the qualifying offer and jamming up cap space.

But this signals Brooklyn is ready to move on. Hollis-Jefferson, who become an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four years with the Nets, might also be ready.

The 24-year-old Hollis-Jefferson has settled in as an undersized power forward. He’s a switchable defender and active offensively. Playing power forward somewhat covers for his lack of shooting and ball-handling ability, but that can still be exploited.

Why timing of Anthony Davis trade matters so much for Lakers

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The Lakers will get Anthony Davis.

That’s clearly the only thing that matters to them.

Not only will they send the Pelicans a massive haul of draft picks and young players, the Lakers could lose significant cap space with the trade’s structure.

Los Angeles and New Orleans can’t complete the reported deal until the league year turns over June 30. Then, the NBA immediately goes into a moratorium in which most transactions aren’t allowed. The moratorium ends July 6. That’s when two main options emerge.

Option 1: Trade July 6

Let’s start with Davis’ trade kicker, a bonus paid to him if traded. Davis’ base salary next season is $27,093,018. His 15% trade bonus could raise his salary $4,063,953 to $31,156,971. Davis could waive all or a portion of the bonus. The Pelicans would pay the bonus, but the Lakers can also include enough cash in the trade to cover the full bonus amount.

The Lakers will send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (combined salary: $17,918,965) and the No. 4 pick (which will count about $7 million against the cap) to New Orleans.

Davis’ salary will be between $27,093,018 and $31,156,971 next season, depending on his trade kicker.

Simply, the Lakers’ incoming salary in the trade will be about $2 million-$6 million higher than their outgoing salary in the trade.

That works just fine under the cap rules. The Lakers will have way more than $2 million-$6 million in cap space. As far as salary matching, teams can always trade when they end up under the cap.

So, after this deal, the Lakers would have about $24 million-$28 million in cap space.

But there’s another path that would give the Lakers even more flexibility.

Option 2: Trade July 30

On July 6, if they renounce all their free agents and waive Jemerrio Jones‘ unguaranteed salary, the Lakers project to have about $33 million cap space.

That’s about enough for a max salary for a free agent with fewer than 10 years experience – someone like Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving. Or multiple helpful role players.

The Lakers could spend all that money then trade for Davis.

Here’s how they could get Davis after reaching the cap line:

They’d sign the No. 4 pick June 30. (Signing first-round picks is one of the few moves allowed during the moratorium.) He couldn’t be traded for 30 days after being signed. Hence, the July 30 date on this trade. But his actual salary would count toward the trade. Unsigned draft picks count $0 in trades.

In this salary range, the Lakers could acquire 125% of the outgoing salary in the trade plus $100,000. Aggregating Ball, Ingram, Hart and the signed No. 4 pick would allow the Lakers to acquire about $31 million of salary. That covers Davis’ full salary and most, if not all, of his trade bonus.

But why would the Pelicans wait?

That’d mean the No. 4 pick can’t play for them in summer league. There’d also be complications flipping the No. 4 pick to another team.

It’d also tie up a portion their cap space until the trade is completed, as they’re the ones holding the more-expensive Davis through July. Most good free agents will be off the market by July 30.

New Orleans could always reach an unofficial agreement with a free agent then make the deal official after the Lakers trade. But that requires trust, and some free agents might not go for that.

There’s no upside in waiting for the Pelicans. The only question is how much downside.

What’s at stake?

A quick recap:

If the Lakers trade for Davis sooner, they’d project to have $24 million-$28 million in cap space (depending on his trade bonus).

If the Lakers trade for Davis later, they’d project to have about $33 million in cap space.

That extra $5 million-$9 million could go a long way.

What now?

It doesn’t sound as if the Lakers pressed New Orleans to wait until July 30 before accepting the trade.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

For now, the plan is to execute the trade on July 6, right after the moratorium ends on the start of free agency — and it’s unlikely that will change.

The Lakers could always negotiate with free agents June 30-July 5 then decide. If they want the additional cap space, the Lakers could try to entice the Pelicans with extra draft picks to delay. But that’d make the trade even more costly to Los Angeles.

The alternative might be even more grim – the Lakers not finding worthy players in the first week of free agency. Los Angeles could even view that as a face-saving move to justify the timing of this trade.

But if the Lakers make this trade July 6 then claim they didn’t have good use for an extra $5 million-$9 million in cap space, they’ll only be telling on themselves.

Report: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has griped about Chris Paul’s contract in front of rival executives

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In 2017, Chris Paul opted in to facilitate a trade to the capped-out Rockets. By forgoing free agency and a max salary, Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 that season. With Paul and James Harden, the Rockets became a championship contender and pushed the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The bill came due last summer.

Houston re-signed the aging Paul to a four-year max contract worth $159,730,592. That deal always looked like it could age poorly, and Paul – now 34 – is already slowing.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has noticed.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Fertitta has grumbled about Paul’s contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.

Fertitta bought the Rockets after they traded for Paul. Though the sale was completed before they re-signed Paul, it seems the contract terms were at least discussed as far back as the opt-in-and-trade.

So, Fertitta didn’t necessarily sign off on this arrangement.

But it was good for Houston! It made the Rockets the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant-supercharged Warriors to that point. Re-signing Paul helped keep Houston in title contention this year. The Rockets were limited in that pursuit by Fertitta’s spending limitations, not by locking Paul into this contract.

Yes, there’s downside to Paul’s deal. Houston is feeling it now. Paul will be difficult, though not impossible, to trade this summer.

But as much as Fertitta talks about winning, he yet again shows why that’s all bluster.