Eric Gordon

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Mock NBA expansion draft: Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs

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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, Northwest Division and Southeast Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Seven of Dallas’ protections were easy calls. They’re all players locked up long-term. That left deciding between Tim Hardaway Jr, who has been a starter for the Mavericks but has a player option, and several other useful players.

Ultimately, the Mavs can’t afford to lose Hardaway, who has rediscovered his solid offensive play from his Hawks years. That leaves Justin Jackson and three big men in Dwight Powell (coming off a torn Achilles’) and Boban Marjanovic and Willie-Cauley-Stein (both backups for Dallas). The most likely to be selected player is probably Jackson, but that’s a risk Dallas has to take.

Houston Rockets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: No decision points for the Rockets. Houston is protecting the entirety of their eight-man rotation.

Chris Clemons could make for an interesting expansion pick because his scoring ability at guard. Isaiah Hartenstein has shown some flashes in the G-League as well.

Memphis Grizzlies

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Just how hard the Grizzlies’ protection decision were is a testament to how well their rebuild has gone. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton were all locks. Justise Winslow was just acquired at the trade deadline as the centerpiece of a deal. Tyus Jones is the ideal backup point guard behind Morant, so he stays as well. That left Jonas Valanciunas vs Kyle Anderson for the final protected spot. Valanciunas’ presence allows Jackson to play power forward, so the big man gets the final spot.

Memphis is gambling that Anderson’s slow-mo style of play and $9.5 million salary isn’t what an expansion team is looking for. Jontay Porter is another risk, but he’s got a lengthy injury history of his own. The Grizzlies will hope one of the other three is selected and might be willing to offer a small incentive to make it happen.

New Orleans Pelicans

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: New Orleans’ protections are cut and dry. Every player protected, minus Brandon Ingram, is signed for at least one more season. This includes several players on rookie scale contracts. Ingram will most assuredly be re-signed this summer, so that decision was easy as well.

The only gamble among the unprotected players is Nicolo Melli. He’s become a rotation player for the Pelicans, but he’s not as valuable as the younger players. The other three players are mostly out of the New Orleans’ rotation and not anyone the team will worry about if they are selected.

San Antonio Spurs

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Spurs are banking on keeping DeMar DeRozan this summer. He either opts in or re-signs in San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge is an easy decision as well. Dejounte Murray will start his extension this coming season. Everyone else is on their rookie scale contract, minus Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl is a restricted free agent that the Spurs hope to retain this offseason.

San Antonio is gambling that the big salaries of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will keep them from being selected. That exposes Trey Lyles, who has a relatively small guarantee, and young big man Chimezie Metu. The Spurs would like to keep both, but not at the expense of losing a rookie scale player.

Jazz defense no match for small-ball Rockets, James Harden scores 38 in win

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SALT LAKE CITY — Team are trying to get creative in guarding the Houston Rockets.

Russell Westbrook doesn’t think the ploys are effective.

James Harden shrugged off traps to score 38 points, Westbrook faced two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and still had 34 and the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 120-110 on Saturday night.

“I don’t know if it’s working. I get whatever I want. I get to the basket. I shoot. I drive and kick. The pace and speed you can’t scout for,” Westbrook said.

Harden (13 for 23, 6 3-pointers) and Westbrook (14 for 26) were efficient all night and the Rockets rode a big third quarter to their third straight win.

“It obviously didn’t work,” Harden said when asked about putting the 7-foot-1 Gobert on the 6-3 Westbrook.

Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore each scored 12 off the bench for Houston.

Donovan Mitchell scored 31 and Jordan Clarkson had 22 for the Jazz, who cut the Rockets’ lead to seven in the fourth quarter a couple times but could never get closer.

The Rockets made the Jazz pay when they occasionally double-teamed Harden and couldn’t rotate fast enough to the perimeter shooters. After a season high-tying 25 3-pointers in their last outing against Golden State, the Rockets made 20 of 48 from beyond the arc.

“We have two guys, even more than two guys, that are able to put pressure on the rim. Teams are going to come and help and then our shooters have open shots,” Harden said.

The Rockets made their move in the third quarter when they outscored the Jazz 38-19.

“When we don’t make shots, it really impacts our defense. That said, I thought in the third quarter, we didn’t have the same energy we needed on the defensive end. We didn’t get our hands on balls, we didn’t get deflections, and we fouled just once which tells you a little about our aggressiveness,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

Westbrook capped a 14-2 run with a jumper and Houston led 100-85 entering the final period.

“It’s cash money when they guard like that,” Westbrook said.

The Rockets made eight of their first nine 3-point attempts to take an early eight-point lead.

Taking advantage of Houston’s lack of rim protection, Clarkson scored 20 points in the first half to help the Jazz recover and move in front.

The Jazz played zone defense at times along with some non-traditional defensive matchups against the small-ball Rockets.

“Every game has been different so we just need to figure out how they are going to guard us and attack it. If they trap me, we are going to get open 3s. If they play us regular, we’ll run our offense and still get it,” Harden said.

If Harden and Westbrook are rolling, unique strategies don’t seem to matter.

“We got two of the best 1-on-1 players in the world. What are you going to do?” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

The Jazz lost to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night and could hardly afford another slip-up on the second half of their back-to-back as they jockey with the Rockets for playoff position in the last third of the season.

Houston and Utah now both have records of 36-20 but the Rockets claimed the season series, 2-1.

James Harden’s 40 points too much for Zion Williamson, Pelicans to overcome

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HOUSTON — James Harden had 40 points and came an assist shy of a triple-double to lead the Houston Rockets to a 117-109 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.

Rookie sensation Zion Williamson had 21 points and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, whose three-game winning streak was snapped.

Harden, who added 10 rebounds and nine assists, poured in 26 points in the first half and cooled down in the second half. But he still had his second straight game with 30 or more points after failing to score 30 in his previous four games as he worked through a shooting slump.

Jrue Holiday had three points before Josh Hart made one of two free throws to allow New Orleans to cut the lead to 110-107 with about two minutes to go.

Eric Gordon added a basket seconds after that and Danuel House hit a 3-pointer to make it 115-107 with less than a minute left to seal the victory.

Brandon Ingram had 28 points and 12 rebounds for New Orleans.

Houston went with its small lineup again as center Clint Capela missed his second straight game and the third in four games with a bruised right heel. Russell Westbrook added 22 points for the Rockets and Ben McLemore had 22 off the bench.

The Pelicans led by one to start the fourth and scored the first four points of the quarter to make it 97-92. But Harden made a 3-pointer before finding Westbrook for a layup to tie it up with about 10 minutes left.

The Pelicans were up by two points later in the fourth when House made a 3-pointer to put Houston up 102-101. Both teams missed numerous shots after that and Houston finally got back on the board with a layup by House with about seven minutes to go. Harden made a layup after that to push Houston’s lead to 106-101.

Hart made the first field goal for New Orleans in more four minutes after that to cut the lead to 106-103 midway through the fourth.

The teams combined to miss nine shots over the next 2 ½ minutes before Harden added two points on free throws that pushed Houston’s run to 9-2 and made it 108-103 with 3 ½ minutes to go.

This game was close throughout and Houston cut the lead to 93-92 entering the fourth quarter after McLemore made two of three free throws after he was fouled on a 3-pointer.

Damian Lillard gets first career triple-double, Blazers knock off Rockets 125-112

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Damian Lillard had 36 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for his first career triple-double, and the Portland Trail Blazers spoiled James Harden‘s return after a two-game absence, beating the Houston Rockets 125-112 on Wednesday night.

Lillard scored 30-plus points for his sixth straight game, a franchise record.

CJ McCollum had 22 points and Trevor Ariza, playing in just his third game as a Blazer after a trade with Sacramento, matched his season high with 21. Portland led by as many as 20 points in the second half.

The crowd roared at the Moda Center and gave Lillard a standing ovation when he got his final rebound with just under a minute left.

Russell Westbrook led the Rockets with 39 points, extending his streak of games with 20-plus points to 21, and 10 rebounds. Harden, who was leading the league with 36.1 points a game this season, had 18.

Harden was questionable for the game but started after missing two games with a thigh contusion. Clint Capela missed Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz because of a right heel contusion, as did Westbrook, who was rested. With three starters missing, Eric Gordon took over and scored 50 points in the 126-117 win in Utah.

Earlier this month, the Rockets fell at home to the Blazers 117-107. Lillard had 25 points in the victory.

Lillard was the reigning Western Conference Player of Week after averaging 52.7 points and 9.3 assists last week. He set a franchise record for points when he scored 61 against Golden State.

Danuel House Jr., had a 3-pointer that gave the Rockets an early 16-8 lead, but Portland’s 8-0 run, capped by Lillard’s layup and free throw, closed the gap.

Already beset by injuries this season, Portland got a scare in the opening quarter when center Hassan Whiteside was kneed and went to the locker room. He returned to the game.

Westbrook’s pull-up jumper and driving layup gave Houston a 46-38 lead. Portland used a 12-2 run, capped by a dunk by Ariza, to take a 61-50 lead.

Portland closed the half with dunks by Ariza and Whiteside to take a 71-60 lead into the break. Lillard led all scorers with 25 points, while Westbrook had 19.

McCollum’s wide-open 3-pointer midway through the third quarter gave the Trail Blazers an 83-67 advantage. Lillard’s 3-pointer from just inside the pinwheel logo at midcourt made the lead 97-82.

Three Things to Know: Tributes for Kobe Bryant keep pouring in

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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) The tributes for to Kobe Bryant continue to pour in from every corner of the NBA — and globe. The Shock of Kobe Bryant’s unexpected death on Sunday — in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven others — is wearing off and sadness fills its place. Tributes to the future Hall of Famer kept on pouring in on Monday.

Every NBA game on Monday started with a 24-second violation by one team and an 8-second backcourt violation by the other — 24 and 8 celebrating Kobe’s numbers.

In Los Angeles, where Kobe played for 20 years and became part of the image and fabric of the city — the man even won an Oscar — the grief from the loss has been particularly acute. Monday night you could feel the city’s love when an impromptu crowd filled the area around Staples Center — where a memorial has sprung up — as well as the L.A. Live plaza across the street to watch an outdoor, big-screen replay of Kobe’s finale (shown outside the West Coast ESPN offices) — a 60-point game that was the perfect ending to his career. Laker fans showed up and chanted his name.

There will not be a Lakers’ game in Los Angeles for a few days, however. The Clippers/Lakers game for Tuesday was postponed (likely until April). The Lakers’ first game back will be home Friday against the Trail Blazers.

The tributes were not limited to Los Angeles. There was Madison Square Garden, home to some of Kobe’s biggest nights.

And there were arenas in Utah and Portland — two franchises Kobe particularly tortured on the court — where tributes were paid because of the respect the man had earned.

Kobe tributes poured in from around the globe, including in the Philippines.

Back in the NBA, Gregg Popovich summed up how Kobe seemed to impact everyone.

No player seemed hit harder by the tragedy than the man who took over the Lakers’ mantle, LeBron James.

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I’m Not Ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn’t think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have. WTF!! I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! 😢😢😢😢💔. Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here! There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!! #Mamba4Life❤️🙏🏾 #Gigi4Life❤️🙏🏾

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2) No James Harden. No Russell Westbrook. So Eric Gordon drops 50 on the Jazz. This was your upset of the night. Or, conversely, this is why you don’t want to bet NBA games.

The Jazz entered the night the hottest team in the NBA having won 14-of-15. The Rockets came in sitting guys who account for 62.1 points per game in Harden (thigh bruise) and Westbrook (rest), or 51.6 percent of their points.

So Eric Gordon — who has battled injury much of the season himself — just took over and dominated, dropping 50.

Houston won 126-117. Danuel House Jr. scored 21 with 11 rebounds, while Austin Rivers also had 21 points. Utah lost at home for the first time since Dec. 9.

3) Kings come from 27 down — 17 in the final three minutes — to beat the Timberwolves in overtime. Welcome to “the comeback of the year” or the “most painful of our 10 straight losses,” depending on how you want to look at this one.

Minnesota had this one. They were about to snap a nine-game losing streak, Andrew Wiggins had just nailed a three with 2:49 left to put the Timberwolves up 17. It’s empty the bench and ice the knees time… except the Kings close the game on a wild 21-4 run that is capped off by De’Aaron Fox, down 2 with 4.7 seconds left, intentionally missing a free throw off the front of the rim, getting his own rebound and tying the game.

Boxing out people. It’s not just a 1950s skill. (It will be interesting to see if the Last Two Minute Report says that should have been a lane violation on Fox; still you got to seal him off there.)

That sent the game to overtime and the Kings got the win.

Buddy Hield, who grew up idolizing Kobe (as many of his generation did), came off the bench to drop 42 — he has found a spark as a sixth man for the Kings.

Here is your Hield/Kobe stat of the night to tie everything together.