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Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

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NBC Sports’ 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.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ 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.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-