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Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook fit the pieces together? Will that be enough?

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This story tips-off NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video, and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

“We’ll figure it out. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be smooth at first, there are going to be ups and downs, and that’s part of an 82-game season. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ve caught a rhythm and everybody is on the same page going into the playoffs.”

That was a very rational sounding James Harden, echoing the mantra of his coach (for now) Mike D’Antoni: Great players figure out how to play together.

Harden enters this season paired with the third superstar who was going to help him bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Houston. First, there was Dwight Howard, an experiment that dissolved like Skittles in water. Then came Chris Paul, where the team had success but ran into the juggernaut of Golden State.

Now it’s Russell Westbrook — and from the moment the trade to land him went down, the questions about “how is this going to all work?” started to pop up.

We heard those same questions a couple of years ago: How are Harden and CP3 going to fit together on offense, they both need the ball in their hands? The answer turned out to be “very well, thank you” — the Rockets had one of the top two offenses in the league both seasons CP3 wore red. Both players had high usage rates but learned how to play off one another.

Can Harden and Westbrook — friends since high school who have played together before — find a fit that makes the Rockets even better?

Will that even be enough to lift Houston above the rest of the deep and very talented West?

There are no easy answers.

ABOUT THAT FIT…

The fit questions with Westbrook and Harden on offense focus on two key areas: Usage and three-point shooting.

Harden and Westbrook have been two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA in recent years (this is very different than when they played together on the Thunder years ago). Harden had a usage rate last season of 40.47, the second-highest in NBA history — behind Westbrook from two years ago. With Paul George on his team last season Westbrook’s usage rate came down to 30.9, still 10th highest in the NBA.

Harden also is the most isolation-heavy player in the NBA, with 48.7 percent of his possessions being in isolation last season (via NBA.com player tracking). Westbrook was ninth on that iso list.

Both players are used to having the ball in their hands and working without much help, so how is this going to work?

Probably better than people think. Eventually. As Harden said, “there are going to be ups and downs.” But one thing we will see is Houston getting the ball more to Westbrook to push the ball in transition — Chris Paul slowed the Rockets down the past couple of seasons (against D’Antoni’s instincts). Westbrook will speed them up, pushing from end-to-end and being a force of nature. And, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently, it’s easy to picture Harden being the trail man on those plays and stepping into wide-open threes.

“I think we’re going to get back to transition being more of a weapon for us,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the Houston Chronicle. “That was something Mike did very well his first year for us. Mostly because we were an elite halfcourt team, we got away from it. With a weapon like Russell in transition, you have to use it.”

Also expect D’Antoni to stagger the minutes for Westbrook and Harden a decent amount, making sure they each get their time to shine.

All that said, Harden is a much, much more efficient scorer in the halfcourt. When both stars are on the court and the play settles down, it would be a mistake by Houston to take the ball out of Harden’s hands. He is the best scorer in the league right now, with an unstoppable step-back, and he’s an elite playmaker for others. He wins games getting buckets and the Rockets need to let him keep doing that.

Maybe the most interesting thing to watch is D’Antoni’s impact on Westbrook’s shot selection.

Houston launches more threes than any team in the league, and players who go there and see D’Antoni’s flashing green light universally see an increase in attempts (usually by more than 20 percent). The past two seasons, Westbrook has averaged 4.8 three-point attempts per game, hitting 29.3 percent of them. Do the Thunder want him taking more threes?

Also, Westbrook took as many midrange shots per game as the Rockets entire team last season. Westbrook took 4.9 shots a game between the paint and the three-point arc (and he shot a dismal 31.8 percent on them), the Rockets as a team averaged 4.8. Those are not shots the Rockets want and you know they are going to encourage Westbrook to take the rock all the way to the rim and attack. He should, and try to start drawing fouls at a high rate again. If that results in a bump in efficiency for Westbrook, it’s good for everybody.

The bottom line: Harden and D’Antoni are right, star players tend to figure it all out. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did, with neither taking a big step back in usage rate. It’s been the same with other stars, including Harden and CP3. Westbrook can’t become a spectator when he doesn’t have the ball (as has been an issue at points in the past), but on offense expect the Rockets to figure it all out and be one of the top three offenses in the NBA.

WILL THAT BE ENOUGH TO WIN A TITLE?

This is the bigger question, and it rests on depth and defense.

Houston can roll out a closing five of Westbrook, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. That’s impressive. Few teams can put a better five on the court.

After that… things are less impressive. Austin Rivers is a solid backup point, and they have Danuel House and Gerald Green on the wing. Backup center, Tyson Chandler. Backup at the four, Gary Clark. Things get thin along the front line, and really once that first five is off the court this team is far less of a threat. Injuries can undo any team with title aspirations, but the Rockets, in particular, are not well equipped to be without one of their key guys for a lengthy stretch.

That’s another reason to expect D’Antoni to stagger Harden’s and Westbrook’s minutes during the regular season — he will want the offensive punch. Also expect some load management for the Rockets’ stars, even though neither is a fan of resting when healthy.

The bigger title question: Can this team defend well enough to win it all with Harden and Westbrook on the court a lot together in the playoffs?

The Rockets were 17th in the NBA in defense last season, although they were much better — 4.8 points per 100 possessions — better after the All-Star break (after assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik got them back in shape, but he’s in New Orleans now). Harden is a better defender than his reputation, he has quick hands and can get steals, but he’s not great on ball, and off-ball his focus can wander. Westbrook, for all his athleticism, also has a lot of defensive lapses and the Trail Blazers went at him at points in the playoffs a year ago.

Tucker is a quality, physical defender, and Capela can protect the rim, but can the Rockets slow down the West duos of LeBron James/Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard/Paul George, or even Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray? Nobody is going to stop those duos — just like nobody is going to stop Westbrook and Harden — but the teams that can best slow the other top duos down in the playoffs will have the best shot to advance. That’s where it’s hard to see the Rockets as elite.

Can Westbrook and Harden figure out how to play together and become an offensive force? The smart money is they do.

Is that going to be enough, or will the Rockets remain the second or third best team in the West? That is the real question, and Houston fans may not like the answer.

Report: Rockets exiled Anthony rather than just dropping him from rotation ‘because his name was Carmelo’

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Why isn’t Carmelo Anthony in the NBA?

That’s the question everyone obsesses over, but the answer is quite simple: He’s washed up. Anthony played poorly for the Thunder then even worse for the Rockets. He’s now 35. Occasionally, washed-up players still land on NBA rosters, but they usually don’t. It’s not worth fretting over the common outcome happening.

The question that really intrigues me about the latter stages of Anthony’s career:

How did Houston go from giving Anthony a major role to deciding he suddenly couldn’t be with the team at all?

Baxter Holmes of ESPN:

Still, the Rockets know they can’t just take him out of the rotation; doing so would cause a media firestorm. “Because his name was Carmelo, we treated it differently,” one team source says.

The Rockets hope that parting ways with Anthony quickly might allow him to join another team.

This is a strange explanation.

What made a “media firestorm” so inevitable? Even if it were inevitable, what made a “media firestorm” so difficult to deal with? The Rockets couldn’t handle a few questions about Anthony?

If Anthony protested about a reduced role, that would’ve been one thing. But by all accounts, he did what Houston asked of him while there. He didn’t even get a chance to show whether he could’ve helped as a non-rotation player.

The Rockets gave him 20-39 minutes in each of his games with them. If he deserved that much playing time, he couldn’t have helped at all in situational spot minutes? Maybe Anthony’s awful defense would have been at least tolerable if he could’ve conserved his energy for smaller bursts on the court.

If Houston tried to do him a favor, it failed. Anthony never landed with another team. His abrupt and confusing end with the Rockets certainly didn’t instill confidence around the league.

Anthony has expressed resentment for how Houston exiled him. He deserves some blame for the predicament. His prior objections about coming off the bench in Oklahoma City contributed to everyone being on pins and needles about his role.

But it remains strange the Rockets handled the situation in such an extreme manner.

Report: Lakers player lost $1 million endorsement deal in China

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LeBron James publicly criticized Daryl Morey and reportedly pressed NBA commissioner Adam Silver on punishing the Rockets general manager.

Why is LeBron so upset with Morey, who merely tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters trying to expand and maintain their freedom?

Following the money often provides an answer.

Due to Chinese backlash, the NBA will reportedly lose millions of dollars of expected revenue, which affects players’ salaries. Lakers players also felt even-more-direct consequences while in China for preseason games.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo — to name a few — had appearances canceled. One Lakers player, sources told ESPN, had agreed to a $1 million endorsement deal with a Chinese company prior to the trip. When he arrived — poof — it was gone. A seven-figure payday went out the window.

It’s understandable someone would be agitated by losing a $1 million endorsement deal because of someone else’s tweet. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it’d be to miss out on that money.

Morey chose to take a political stand. Others are paying the price. He definitely rankled people around the league.

But perhaps scorn for Morey is misdirected.

This is the peril of chasing money in a place where an endorsement deal can fall apart because of someone else’s tweet. Maybe a bigger problem is a business environment where free expression is so stifled.

Report: Kings offer four-year, $90M contract extension to Buddy Hield, who wants $110M

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Buddy Hield is making noise about leaving the Kings in free agency next summer if they don’t sign him to a contract extension by Monday’s deadline.

Where do negotiations stand?

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The Kings have an offer for Hield on the table for four years and $90 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Hield and his agent, Brandon Rosenthal, are seeking a number closer to $110 million, sources said.

This will primarily come down to two factors – Sacramento’s willingness to bend and Hield’s appetite for risk.

A four-year, $90 million extension seems quite fair. I bet many players of Hield’s caliber would’ve already accepted it.

But in a weak free-agent class, he has a chance to get much more next summer. He could even draw a max offer sheet, which projected to be worth $125 million over four years (though that was before the NBA began losing China revenue).

Of course, the Kings would have matching rights on Hield, who’d be a restricted free agent without an extension. So, Hield can’t unilaterally leave Sacramento next summer. The Kings also have another good young shooting guard in Bogdan Bogdanovic (who has his own extension offer on the table). These factors all give Sacramento reason not to pay Hield generously now.

If the Kings up their offer, that’d make it easy on Hield. He and Sacramento are trending in the right direction together. A big payday would clearly satisfy him.

If the Kings hold firm at less than Hield’s desired $110 million, he faces a choice: How much risk is he willing to incur to bet on himself?

With those numbers so close, perhaps there’s room for compromise. In addition to salary, guarantees, incentives and options could help bridge the gap. But evident by the lack of a signed extension, a significant divide clearly remains.

Report: LeBron James pressed Adam Silver on Daryl Morey repercussions, perceived double standard for players

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Lakers and Nets players – who were meeting with Adam Silver in China – reportedly told the NBA commissioner they would’ve been punished for a tweet as costly as Daryl Morey’s and asked Silver what he’d do to Morey. LeBron James reportedly spoke up in that meeting. LeBron also later criticized Morey.

It wasn’t difficult to connect the dots.

But in case you wanted confirmation LeBron was among the players questioning Silver on Morey…

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Silver opened the floor. James raised his hand.

His question was related to Morey — and the commissioner’s handling of the Rockets’ GM. James, to paraphrase, told Silver that he knew that if a player caused the same type of uproar with something he said or tweeted, the player wouldn’t be able to skate on it. There would be some type of repercussion. So, James wanted to know, what was Silver going to do about it in Morey’s case?

Silver pushed back, reminding the players that the league never doled out discipline when they publicly criticized President Donald Trump. Morey was exercising the same liberty when he challenged China. Regardless of the financial fallout of one versus the other, that’s not what should matter. Silver might have disliked the ramifications of Morey’s tweet, but he would defend the right to say it.

We can’t know what would’ve happened if a player tweeted like Morey. But Silver is right: The NBA has a track record of allowing players – including LeBron – to speak unchecked on social issues. I think a player would’ve gotten the same treatment as Morey. Still, as the WNBA showed, there might be limits for players’ freedom of expression.

This line of questioning also reveals something about LeBron. There are many possible responses to this situation. Seemingly suggesting Morey – who supported Hong Kong protesters, who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms – deserved punishment is, um, one way to go.