Rockets restock with historic draft haul

Jalen Green #0, Josh Christopher #9 and Alperen Sengun #26 of the Houston Rockets
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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.

Less than a year ago, the Rockets were playing in the playoffs. They were James Harden‘s team. In every sense. Prioritizing the present, Houston had the oldest roster weighted for playing time in the 2020 postseason.

Harden’s trade request completely derailed the Rockets, who eventually dealt him to the Nets. A team designed to win around Harden made no sense without the superstar.

But Houston is quickly charting a new course, primarily around a record-tying four first-round picks:

Just two other teams had so many first-rounders in a single draft:

Trail Blazers in 2006:

  • No 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge
  • No. 6 pick Brandon Roy
  • No. 27 pick Sergio Rodriguez
  • No. 30 pick Joel Freeland

Kings in 1990:

  • No. 7 pick Lionel Simmons
  • No. 14 pick Travis Mays
  • No. 18 pick Duane Causwell
  • No. 23 pick Anthony Bonner

Obviously, those precedents yielded mixed results.

Portland built a winner around Roy and Aldridge. After Roy got hurt, Aldridge remained a star while the Trail Blazers ushered in a new era with Damian Lillard.

Sacramento’s 1990 second-rounder – Bimbo Coles, who was immediately traded – had a better career than any of the team’s first-round picks. Already in a four-year playoff drought, the Kings went another eight straight seasons with losing records.

The Rockets are certainly aiming higher.

Green headlines their draft class. An electric scoring guard, he has an upside unsurpassed by anyone in this draft – including No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Self-created scoring is the NBA’s premium skill, and Green can get buckets attacking the rim or shooting jumpers. His combination of talent and athleticism is tantalizing.

I’m usually a sucker for young players who, regardless of any other concerns, find ways to play productive basketball. Sengun (MVP of the top Turkish league at 18) and Garuba (EuroLeague Rising Star at 19) certainly qualify.

But I wasn’t smitten with either. Sengun faces athleticism issues, and unlike Nikola Jokic – a common favorable comp – isn’t particularly large. Though Garuba commendably became a positive contributor in Europe’s top league as a teenager, he’s a hustle player rather than someone with an easily projectable high upside.

Still, I ranked both Sengun (No. 11) and Garuba (No. 17) higher on my board than their actual draft slots (Nos. 16 and Nos. 23).

Christopher is more of a wildcard, a powerful athlete with an impressive bag of moves who underperformed at Arizona State last season. I like him just fine in the range he was picked.

For what it’s worth, Houston mostly assembled this draft capital before the offseason.

The Rockets earned the No. 2 pick the straightforward way – being terrible then getting a little lucky in the lottery. Houston’s expected draft position entering the lottery was between the No. 3 and No. 4 pick, leaning slightly toward No. 4.

The No. 23 pick came from the Robert Covington trade with the Trail Blazers in November. The No. 24 pick came from the P.J. Tucker trade with the Bucks in March.

Aside from choosing Green over Evan Mobley, acquiring Sengun was the Rockets’ big offseason move. Houston dealt two future first-rounders, albeit heavily protected Pistons and Wizards picks, to the Thunder. That’s not a cheap price, though it’s at least possible neither pick conveys as a first-rounder due to the protections.

The Rockets still have four extra future first-rounders from the Harden and Tucker trades, Christian Wood, Jae'Sean Tate, Kenyon Martin Jr., Kevin Porte Jr. and now Green, Sengun, Garuba and Christopher. This rebuild is on its way.

Houston also gave relatively hefty contracts to Daniel Theis (three years, $26,083,107 then a fourth-year team option) and David Nwaba (two years, $9,672,000 then a third-year team option).

Theis is a solid defensive-minded center who sets good screens and can shoot a little. Nwaba’s intensity and defense make him a helpful wing, a position where every team could use more depth.

But I’m not sure how Theis (29) or Nwaba (28) help the Rockets, who aren’t close to winning. Maybe Theis and Nwaba will maintain positive trade value, but by paying to get team options included on their deals, Houston raised the players’ salaries above the level potential suitors might value.

Even more curiously, the Rockets sent the Bulls $1.1 million cash to acquire Theis via sign-and-trade, allowing Houston to preserve its mid-level exception for… who knows what? The exception remains untouched. Maybe the Rockets chased a free agent who signed elsewhere. At this stage of rebuilding, Houston looks like an unlikely post-buyout destination during the season.

Credit Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta for spending to give his team more optionality. Having the mid-level exception still available only helps Houston.

But these are faint clues the Rockets might not be as patient with their rebuild as they should be.

Still, Houston actualized an intriguing young core from its (still-vast) pool of picks. That’s progress. The Rockets have a direction if they want it.

Offseason grade: B-

Grade updated.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.