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NBA players most likely to be traded this season

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This story is part of our 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.

NBA teams had historically high roster churn this summer. With so many newcomers around the league, there are fewer than usual obvious in-season trade candidates entering the year. But a few still stand out:

Nene (Rockets)

The NBA nixed the Rockets’ plan to have Nene as a $10 million trade chip. But that might have made it even more likely they trade him.

The upside Nene’s contract provided would’ve been to add salary, which would’ve almost certainly pushed Houston into the luxury tax. Obviously, that was at least a consideration. Otherwise, why sign Nene to that deal? But it’s unclear just how good of a return Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta – notorious for dodging the tax – would’ve required to greenlight a trade.

Fertitta won’t have to worry about that now. With the NBA’s ruling, Nene counts $2,564,753 against the cap. His salary would nearly double if he plays 10 games, which therefore almost certainly won’t happen. He has become too-expensive dead weight on a team flirting with the luxury-tax line.

The Rockets attaching a sweetener to dump Nene is most likely. He could also be dealt as an expiring contract to facilitate something else. But one way or another, expect Houston to trade Nene before the luxury tax is assessed the final day of the regular season – which of course means trading Nene before the trade deadline.

Several other deep reserves (Rockets)

Of the five minimum-salary players who began last year with Houston and didn’t hold an implicit no-trade clause, three got traded during the season.

The Rockets have figured they can move players on full-season minimum salaries and replace them with players on the pro-rated minimum. It’s a clever way to meet the roster minimum all season and still get more breathing room under the luxury tax.

So, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, Ryan Anderson, Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein all look like prime candidates to get traded this year. If any of Ben McLemore, Anthony Bennett, Jaron Blossomgame, Michael Frazier, Shamorie Ponds or Chris Clemons make the regular-season roster, add them to the list.

Jae Crowder (Grizzlies)

Andre Iguodala isn’t Memphis’ only veteran forward on an expiring contract who’d help a winner more than this rebuilding outfit. Crowder also fits the bill, and he’s more likely to get traded for a couple reasons:

1. Crower’s salary ($7,815,533) is far lower than Iguodala’s ($17,185,185). Interested teams will have a more difficult time matching salary for Iguodala. Acquiring Crowder is much more manageable.

2. Iguodala is a 15-year pro with supporters all around the league, First Vice President of the players’ union and former NBA Finals MVP. Crowder lacks those credentials. Iguodala has far more cache to command a buyout.

Iguodala is more likely to change teams this season, but it could be by trade or buyout. Crowder is more likely to change teams via trade.

Josh Jackson (Grizzlies)

Iguodala isn’t even the second-most-likely Grizzly to be traded. That’s Jackson, who’s so far from Memphis’ plans, he didn’t even report to training camp.

With his fourth-year option sure to be declined, Jackson will become a $7,059,480 expiring contract. That makes him useful in so many possible trade constructions. He could allow Memphis to acquire an undesirable long-term contract plus an asset. He could grease the wheels of a larger trade. Maybe another team even wants to take a flier on the 2017 No. 4 pick.

Between all the possibilities, it seems like a decent bet one comes to fruition.

Danilo Gallinari (Thunder)

Chris Paul has generated all the headlines, but in its star trades, Oklahoma City acquired two quality veterans to match salary. Gallinari, 31, is younger and maybe even better at this stage. His contract (one year, $22,615,559 remaining) is definitely more favorable than Paul’s (three years, $124,076,442 remaining)

Plenty of contending teams could use another talented forward like Gallinari – if he’s healthy. That’s the big catch. Gallinari thrived with the Clippers last year, but that was his healthiest season in years.

Paul, Dennis Schroder (two years, $31 million remaining) and Steven Adams (two years, $53,370,785 remaining) are also candidates to get moved. But there will probably be more urgency from the Thunder to get assets for Gallinari and more of a market for him.

A couple notes on prominent players not yet mentioned:

I predicted Bradley Beal will tire of the Wizards’ losing and leave Washington. It doesn’t have to happen this season. Though I wouldn’t rule out a trade before the deadline, Beal will like ride out the year in hopes of making an All-NBA team and gaining super-max eligibility. That might be his best ticket to staying, though paying Beal and John Wall the super-max would sure limit the Wizards.

The Warriors insist they didn’t acquire D'Angelo Russell just to trade him. I believe them. I also believe he’s a difficult fit with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, especially defensively. A Russell trade remains very much on the table. But if Golden State plans to give it an honest shot with Russell – and with Thompson sidelined most of the season – a Russell trade won’t necessarily happen before the deadline.

Ryan Anderson reportedly returning to Houston on non-guaranteed contract

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From 2016-18, Ryan Anderson was a solid stretch big in Houston, hitting 335 three-pointers in that time. Last season he left but struggled in Phoenix and Miami (the Heat waived and stretched him in July).

Now he’s going back to Houston, a team with some available roster spots and minutes. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

The Rockets signed Anderson to four-year, $80 million contract in 2016 but moved him in a salary dump before last season to Phoenix. The Suns traded Anderson to the Heat, who this summer waived and stretched him — and that contract is still paying Anderson more than the veteran minimum the Rockets deal will.

If Anderson can regain his form — he shot just 30 percent overall and 22.5 percent from three last season — there is a natural fit with the Rockets. P.J. Tucker will start at the four, and behind him it’s Gary Clark. It’s possible to see Anderson coming off the bench for 15 or so minutes a night as a good drive-and-kick option for both James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Anderson also played about a quarter of his minutes as a backup center in small-ball lineups last time he was in Houston, giving the team versatility. Not much defense, but offensive versatility.

For you salary cap nerds out there, if Anderson sticks with the Rockets the Heat save a little money on the stretch provision.

The Rockets will actually have to cut another non-guaranteed contract before signing Anderson (they already had the training camp maximum of 20). Houston has an interesting camp with actual position battles, they have just nine guaranteed contracts and the other 11 players in camp — of which five or six will make the opening day roster — are on non-guaranteed deals.

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.

Watch James Harden score 58 points, rally Rockets past Heat 121-118

Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden had 58 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds and the Houston Rockets overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Miami Heat 121-118 on Thursday night.

Harden made 8 of 18 3-pointers and was 16 of 32 overall from the field and 18 of 18 on free throws. He fell three points short of his career high set at New York on Jan. 23, and had the most point ever against the Heat – breaking Willie Burton’s mark of 53 for Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 1994.

Austin Rivers scored 17 points, and Chris Paul and Gary Clark each had 14 to help Houston win its fourth straight game. The Rockets shot 49 percent, including 19 of 46 on 3-pointers.

Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic each had 21 points for Miami, Justise Winslow added 19 points and eight assists, and Josh Richardson had 18 points. The Heat shot 52 percent, making 15 of 28 3-pointers.

Miami was coming off a home victory over Golden State on Wednesday night on Dwyane Wade‘s banked 3-pointer at the buzzer. Houston played at Charlotte on Wednesday night.

With Houston down 113-103 after Dragic’s 3-pointer with 6:18 remaining, Harden scored 10 points on a 14-0 run that made it 117-113.

Miami had a chance to regain the lead after Paul missed a 3-pointer, but Wade missed a jumper, and Richardson missed a 3-pointer. Paul hit a jumper with 46 seconds left to give finish the scoring.

 

Rockets break single-game 3-pointers record (video)

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The Rockets were hot from beyond the arc.

How hot were they?

Michael Carter-Williams made a 3-pointer.

His triple with 31 seconds left in a win over the Wizards tonight gave Houston the record for 3-pointers in a game (26). That broke the previous market (25), set by the Cavaliers in 2017.

The all-time leaderboard:

image

Several Rockets contributed to the record:

This is the type of record that could get broken again soon, maybe by the Rockets. Teams shoot so many 3s now, and nobody attempts more per game than Houston.