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Rockets couldn’t afford to keep up with Warriors

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NBCSports.com’s 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.

Who would you rather have?

  • Player A: Production worth $8 million, earns $15 million
  • Player B: Production worth $5 million, earns $1,621,415

That’s a version of a thought exercise I’ve long considered worth pondering for NBA team-building. The short answer is it depends. What’s the opportunity cost of picking the superior player, Player A? Player B provides more value per dollar and could allow the team to upgrade elsewhere.

For the Houston Rockets, the answer is clear: Player A is preferable to Player B. The Rockets wouldn’t open cap space anyway, and their title-contention window is open now. The better player should be the priority.

At least if winning is the only concern.

But real money matters, too. That’s why Houston lost its version of Player A (Trevor Ariza) and replaced him with a Player B (James Ennis) and, with other similar moves, lost ground to the Warriors.

The Rockets took care of their major business this summer, re-signing Chris Paul (four-year max contract that was probably fait accompli from the moment they acquired him last year) and Clint Capela (five years, $80 million-$90 million).

Capela’s deal was excellent for Houston. The threat of a max offer sheet with a player option after three years loomed. But the Rockets got him back for considerably less money and locked up the 24-year-old for five years.

Paul’s contract could age terribly. He probably won’t be worth $44,211,146 at age 36. But Houston knows that. The present value of keeping open their title window is well worth it to the Rockets. And they did well to avoid a fifth year.

However, Houston’s spending was limited after those two stars.

The Rockets lost Ariza (one year, $15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute (one year, $4,320,500 from Clippers) and ostensibly replaced those forwards with Ennis and Carmelo Anthony. Houston’s late trade – Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss – was another cost saver.

It’s easier to sell those moves when considering Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta’s bottom line. Ennis is a bargain compared to Ariza. Anthony could once again flourish in the right environment, and Mbah a Moute ended last season hurt. The No. 46 pick (Melton) is such a low cost for dropping from Anderson’s burdensome salary to Knight’s burdensome salary – a difference of $11,411,181 over the next two years.

But the bottom line: Houston downgraded on the court.

Though Ennis should fit well into the Rockets’ switching defense, he’s not as big of a 3-point-shooting threat as Ariza. Don’t discount Ariza’s ability to handle so many minutes, either – something Ennis has never done.

Anthony, 34, looked washed with the Thunder. Though I expect him to bounce back at least somewhat in Houston, I don’t see how he can survive defensively against Golden State. Mbah a Moute was a valuable defender who hit open 3s. If he gets healthy, admittedly a question, he’ll be a big loss.

Knight hasn’t played well in years. Chriss has been in over his head his entire NBA career so far. It’s a long way until either can be relied upon deep in the playoffs. At least Anderson – himself too much of a liability against top opponents – would have done more in the regular season to help the Rockets earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Besides, the Ariza and Mbah a Moute vs. Ennis and Anthony argument was always flawed. Houston didn’t have to choose between them. The Rockets could have signed all four instead of filling the end of the roster with players like Michael Carter-Williams, another minimum addition this offseason. That would have gotten quite expensive, but it also would have maximized Houston’s chances of beating the Warriors.

This isn’t to suggest Ferttita completely cheaped out or that the Rockets are doomed. They still have a top-five payroll and are in line to pay a sizable luxury-tax bill, and they could win the championship this season.

But Golden State is an all-time great team that leaves such little margin for error. Houston probably wasn’t going to beat the Warriors anyway, but there’s even less of a chance now. When the stakes are so high, that makes these otherwise-moderate downgrades so significant.

The Rockets might have the best team Fertitta would pay for. Unfortunately, that meant taking a step back at this critical juncture.

Offseason grade: D

5 Up, 5 Down: NBA is as good as it’s ever been and arguing otherwise is futile

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5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

The malaise of summer in the NBA is upon us. How has your vacation been? Mine was delightful. I got a lot done; I went to the coast; I generally tried to unplug. Is Kawhi Leonard still with the San Antonio Spurs? I hope they can figure that mess out, I love those guys together.

It’s a slow news cycle in the NBA these days, although it will pick up soon. That doesn’t mean that narratives aren’t abound, even if they aren’t necessarily ones having to do with actual basketball. Even the Los Angeles Lakers News Machine has downshifted a little bit, although that isn’t to say they aren’t still running through the gears.

Real basketball will start soon, and along with it real stories. In the meantime, there has been some fun stuff happening this summer that acts as a nice transition into the coming 2018-19 NBA season.

Let’s get to it.

5 Up

Lance Stephenson and LeBron James are friends now

LeBron James has been Lance Stephenson’s foil for nearly his entire career. When the two were battling out in the Eastern Conference playoffs year after year with Stephenson in Indiana, there was a clear rivalry between two. That rivalry always favored LeBron, which was great because Lance is an extremely wack dude.

Now they are both on the Los Angeles Lakers together and it appears that Stephenson is ready to take a supporting role in whatever way he can to appease James. Speaking to the Indianapolis Star last week, Stephenson said that he thinks LeBron is going to “sic” him on opposing offensive players. OK, then.

There is a considerable chance that things go south in Los Angeles for Stephenson. I just want to mark this moment in time when it appeared that both were ready to be friendly with each other. You know, just for hindsight.

Houston finally swapped Ryan Anderson

Yes, the Rockets were finally able to trade Ryan Anderson and his behemoth contract away from Houston. To what end, nobody is yet sure.

Anderson was sent to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for a package centered on Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight. How that benefits either team isn’t really clear, although Anderson is still a useful shooter from 3-point range. Mostly it seems like this is a source of relief not only for the Rockets, but for those of us who were wondering when Daryl Morey would clear those numbers from his books.

Phoenix won’t be ready to compete anytime soon and they did have some cap space to be able to absorb Anderson’s contract over the remaining length of his deal. The Suns were able to get out from Chriss and Knight, both of whom have not developed as anticipated. What this could mean to the larger NBA public is that teams are more willing to make deals with potential lateral benefit on paper as a means to get out of bad contracts signed a few years ago. I can hear Portland fans licking their chops from here already.

Joel Embiid learned how to shoot from YouTube

You can learn just about anything on YouTube. How to speak another language. How to become a photographer. How to use video editing software. Bushcraft, whatever the hell that is. It’s endless.

Joel Embiid apparently learned to be an NBA player thanks to YouTube. Fancy that.

According to the Philadelphia 76ers big man, decided to look up proper shooting form by Googling for videos of people shooting a basketball when he was living in Florida as a high schooler. Specifically, Embiid looked up how white dudes shot the ball.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Googling is a skill. Don’t @ me.

Ray Allen was told not to shoot 3-pointers

This story about coaches telling Ray Allen not to settle for 3-pointers when he entered the league is sort of the exact example you need to know that the NBA has never been as good as it is now.

My whole problem with the argument about comparing generations of the league — outside of the pure futility and boredom of it — is that the answer is so clearly obvious that today’s athletes would beat athletes from any other generation. They are bigger, faster, stronger, more nutritionally conscious, and trained with the latest advances in medical science and sports data.

Yes, it’s possible that given the chance, players from older generations would be able to adapt and play at a high level with this same benefit. But that’s not really what we are looking at is it? The conversation can’t devolve into some insane genetic experiment. Arguing over whether Bob Cousy could toast Kyrie Irving if only he wasn’t eating canned green beans his whole life is patently crazy.

As they stand, the only adaptations that modern players would need to adjust to in order to go play in prior decades is to the awful sneaker technology and the fact that you could foul guys harder and more often in decades past. You don’t think LeBron could handcheck a dude? You think James Harden, whose whole game is about bringing the ball low and gripping it as tight as he can as NBA players bat at it, couldn’t use his extreme deltoid strength to his advantage in the 1990s?

Then again, the whole “today’s athletes are bigger and stronger” sort of lends to the idea they’d be able to adjust to hard fouls and rule changes thanks to superior bodies and knowledge of the game.

The idea that Allen wasn’t supposed to settle for 3-pointers just 22 years ago it is outright hilarious, and exemplifies how far we have come not just as individuals watching the game but in terms of team strategy.

The rate of acceleration is exponential at this point. I can’t wait for the basketball singularity.

Klay Thompson’s whole summertime steez

Looking good, bro.

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Future @thebig3 champs

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5 Down

The Timberwolves have interest in Luol Deng, Joakim Noah

Watching the Minnesota Timberwolves is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. There is perhaps no way that things end up well for this team, and that’s not just because Tom Thibodeau seems hell-bent on the idea of bringing back old Chicago Bulls players that couldn’t even beat the competition in the Eastern Conference half a decade ago.

There is also some significant distance between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and adding Deng and Noah is really the icing on the cake for a team that is reported to have locker room troubles. Honestly, the Timberwolves are typically a fun League Pass team and this year seems to be shaping up to be no different.

Sign Keith Bogans. Sign Kirk Hinrich. Sign CJ Watson. Sign Mike James. Sign ‘em all, I say.

Manu Ginobili is no longer a Spur

Manu Ginobili deserves to go out on his own terms. The sun appears to be setting on the days in which the Spurs are perennially atop the Western Conference with seemingly little effort. Ginobili has put in his time, and is a future hall-of-famer. Now, it’s just a little sad to think of how many pillars in San Antonio are no longer there.

As a tribute, let’s watch my favorite Ginobili highlight.

Shaq once choked a teammate

Shaq has done an excellent job of rehabilitating his image, especially for someone who went through his entire career as someone who was seen as both captivating and a completely self-absorbed jerk. The fact that O’Neal has become a successful broadcaster during his post playing career, and the fact that he entered the league more than two decades ago has faded some of the opinions about Shaq that developed over the course of his career on the court.

That is, that Shaq was dominant but lazy, self-important to a fault, and unable to see his own value when paired against another all-time great. Again, much of that has been washed away through the sands of time, but the idea that he once choked a teammate as a member of the Phoenix Suns is a little disheartening.

The reality is that Shaq has been pretty wack ever since the Lakers rightly decided to stick with Kobe over him in 2004. This story isn’t endearing, it’s just disappointing. Watch us never talk about it again.

JR Smith is already unraveling

JR Smith was at one time a favorite of LeBron James. Who knows if that’s still the case, but James is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Smith is still stuck in Northeast Ohio. Meanwhile, it appears that Smith isn’t handling it well. The Cleveland Cavaliers guard allegedly chucked a fan’s phone as the fan was trying to record him for social media.

This is was not out of the ordinary for an NBA player — the filming, I mean, not the phone breaking — and the fact that Smith decided to huck this dude’s phone doesn’t bode well for what to expect from him in the coming season. We haven’t even started the preseason yet and already Smith is doing extremely Knicks-y JR Smith stuff.

Nevermind. I actually can’t wait.

These ugly gold-and-diamond LeBrons

Did Donald Trump design these? Good god.

Rockets finally find taker for Ryan Anderson, trade him, De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix

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For 18 months, the Houston Rockets have been trying to unload the bloated contract of trade Ryan Anderson — who has two years, $41.7 million left on his deal — but could find no takers. Teams wanted multiple first-round picks and other sweeteners that were just too steep a price for Houston.

The Rockets finally found a trade partner in the Phoenix Suns, but it came at a steep price — promising rookie De'Anthony Melton. Of course, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN never sleeps and broke the story.

For Houston, they unload a salary they desperately wanted out from under in Anderson, a player who can hit threes but was basically unplayable in the postseason because of his defense. This is part of Houston’s money-saving summer (letting Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah-a-Moute go), the Rockets were $20.4 million over the tax line before this trade and will save about $11.4 million in salary/tax because of it. In return, they get a potential backup point guard in Brandon Knight who — if back to form after a torn ACL, something still up for debate — can give them solid minutes behind Chris Paul, or at least better ones than Michael Carter-Williams. Marquese Chriss is long and athletic and could fit in an uptempo style, it’s just hard to imagine him getting many opportunities on the deep Rockets roster.

For taking on an additional $5.6 million a year in salary, Phoenix gets a guy who will start at the four for them (splitting time with Josh Jackson) and a promising rookie in Melton, a player who sat out this college season because he was in the middle of the NCAA/FBI recruiting scandal. With that, Melton fell to 46th in the draft but at Summer League stood out as one of the rookies with real potential, averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, he played good defense and showed potential as a three-point shooter. It’s just Summer League, and Melton has a lot of development to do, he could well spend time in the G-League this season, but it’s a good roll of the dice by the Suns (plus they get off two contracts/players they wanted away from). One can envision the 6’4″ Melton and Suns star Devin Booker as a quality backcourt someday.

However, it means the Suns are going all in on Booker as the team’s primary playmaker and ball handler if they cannot find another point guard. That has had mixed results (at best) in the past, he’s really a two guard who can handle the ball at times, but we’ll see if the Rockets can find their point guard.

Suns select Deandre Ayton with No. 1 overall pick in 2018 draft

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First in alphabetical introductions, DeAndre Ayton took center stage at a new pre-NBA draft ceremony with his parents. As he walked right down the middle of two rows of adoring children, Ayton extended his 7-foot-5 wingspan to high-five them on both sides. Then, he took his mother’s hand and helped her down the stairs.

Length and touch.

That – plus strength, shooting touch and hops – is why the Suns made him their first No. 1 overall pick in their 51-year history a few minutes later.

Ayton is the right pick, but hardly a surefire star. With his physical package and shooting ability, it’d be hard for him to fail completely in the NBA. But he is terrifyingly unprepared as a rim protector – a nearly essential skill for centers.

He’ll join a Phoenix team trying to end a franchise-high eight-year playoff drought, though Ayton won’t be starting from scratch. Devin Booker, implicitly and explicitly, screamed out for help. Ayton delivers it in a big way.

The Suns also have Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. It’d be nice if any of them pan out. But Phoenix also has all its own future first-round picks plus two extra first-rounders from the Heat.

This is a team on the rise, and the Suns will have other chances to add to their young talent base.

But they’ll probably never have a better opportunity than this.

Report: Suns hiring Igor Kokoskov as coach

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Igor Kokoskov has paid his dues.

He was the head coach of the Georgia and Slovenia national teams. He was an assistant coach for the Clippers, Pistons, Suns, Cavaliers, Magic and Jazz.

Now, he’ll get his chance as NBA head coach.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Kokoskov is the NBA’s first European non-interim coach. Kiki VanDeWeghe, a Nets interim coach in 2010, was born in West Germany – but grew up in California. After growing up in Europe and having to convince NBA teams he was more than just a mentor for foreign players, Kokoskov is a trailblazer.

In Phoenix, he’ll try to develop a young core led by Devin Booker. Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are far more raw. Kokoskov will also need time to learn his new role.

This is a hire that suggests patience. Let Kokoskov focus on what he does best – teaching – while he learns other aspects of being an NBA head coach. In that time, the Suns young prospects can also find their way.

But the Suns haven’t sounded patient, general Ryan McDonough talking of diving into free agency this summer. Big spending on veterans would create big immediate expectations for Kokoskov.

Is this a tweak to the plan? An incohesive strategy?

Navigating these types of questions is the duty of an NBA head coach. It’s Kokoskov’s job now.