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Report: Rockets Center Clint Capela out 4-6 weeks

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James Harden has been doing a ton for the Rockets, but at least he has a reliable sidekick in Clint Capela.

James Haden will have to do everything for the Rockets.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Capela hasn’t been quite as sharp defensively this season as last, but he’s still Houston’s top defender. He can switch on the perimeter and protect the rim. Capela is also an elite finisher, making him a dangerous pick-and-roll partner for Harden.

Losing him is a blow to the Rockets, who are in the middle of the Western Conference pack and therefore just two games inside playoff position. With Chris Paul already sidelined, Houston’s depth is thinning quick.

Nene is the Rockets backup center, but he hasn’t played even 27 minutes in a game since the 2015-16 season, back when he was with the Wizards. Houston probably won’t want to lean too hard on the 36-year-old.

So, expect Isaiah Hartenstein and/or Marquese Chriss to enter the rotation. The Rockets could also use P.J. Tucker more at center.

Houston will also surely canvass for a trade. The good news: Center is the NBA’s deepest position, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find potential help. But already into the luxury tax, how much will the Rockets pay for additional players?

Three Things to Know: Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off

Associated Press
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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) Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off. Coming off an embarrassing Christmas Day loss on their home court, the Golden State Warriors rolled out Thursday night at Oracle Arena and… played worse. Somehow. Even sloppier. Even more disinterested. It showed in how the Warriors shot 29.5 percent from three all night, but it was most evident in their 6-of-15 from the free throw line (40 percent).

But the Warriors tried to flip the switch like they have done so often the last couple of regular seasons.

Down 10 late the fourth quarter, the Warriors went on a 16-6 run fueled by Kevin Durant, who capped it off with a three to force overtime.

This is what the Warriors have done for a couple of seasons now — lose interest through much of the regular season, then play well enough for a half, a quarter, or just one run to get the win. They have enough talent to coast to a 23-12 record heading into Thursday night, despite all the time Stephen Curry and Draymond Green missed, despite the Durant/Green dust-up, despite the Klay Thompson shooting slump, despite everything.

Damian Lillard, however, is clutch and handed the Warriors their 13th loss. Despite going 2-of-7 from three on the night and almost fumbling away his last chance, Lillard got off a three over Curry in OT that proved to be a game winner.

There’s no big picture takeaway from this sloppy mid-season game. If you’re a Golden State fan looking for positives — “I love the way we competed in the second half,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward — you are really reaching. There was not much to like in this one. If you’re Portland, sitting in the middle of a crowded Western Conference (2.5 games out of first place but just 1.5 from falling out of the playoffs entirely) just take the win, don’t ask questions and move along.

2) Bogdan Bogdanovic hits game-winning three in a punch to the gut of LeBron-less Lakers. If the Lakers were going to face a good team without LeBron James, Sacramento was the best choice (and yes, right now the 19-16, in-the-playoff-hunt Kings are a good team, surprising as that is). Why? The Kings have found their identity in pace and play fast, and with LeBron out up-tempo was how the Lakers were going to thrive.

And they did, with Kyle Kuzma scoring 33 points and Lonzo Ball adding 20 points and 12 assists (outdueling rival De’Aaron Fox for a night). The Lakers led almost the entire second half, but a late push back from the Kings had it close late. After Brandon Ingram (22 points on 19 shots, too much isolation where he was not effective) missed a free throw, Sacramento got the rebound, called timeout, and coach Dave Joerger drew up this for Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Joerger was smart on this play in a couple of ways. First, Buddy Hield is the Kings best shooter, but he was cold Thursday night (2-of-8, 0-of-2 from three) so the coach turned to the hot hand in Bogdanovic, who already had nine fourth quarter points (not ever coach goes away from his star in this spot). Second, he had Bogdanovic come off a Willie Cauley-Stein screen that forced a switch, putting Tyson Chandler on Bogdanovic — Chandler is a 7-footer and an active defender, but he doesn’t like to be in the rarefied air beyond the arc. That got Bogdanovic enough room for the shot.

Bogdanovic has proven to be the best thing the Kings got in that draft night trade with Phoenix that sent Marquese Chriss to the Suns. Actually, he’s just flat-out the best player in the deal. Not something anyone saw coming.

For the Lakers, Bogdanovic’s shot was a punch to the gut.

Los Angeles is going to have to go a couple of weeks (give or take) without LeBron and they need to find a few wins. Not easy to do in a West where there are no gimmies, L.A.’s next three are the Clippers (Friday night on a back-to-back), these Kings again Sunday, then the Thunder.

3) James Harden drops eighth-straight 30-point game and Boston can do nothing to stop him. Two teams that expected to be in title contention this season, but then got off to ugly starts only to apparently right the ships recently, got together Thursday night when Houston hosted Boston.

The big takeaway? James Harden was the best player on the court and Boston had no answers for him. The Beard had 45 points on 26 shot attempts and got to the line 17 times in Houston’s 127-113 win.

Harden has averaged 40.5 points in the past eight games, and that has helped carry the Rockets back into the playoffs. But it’s more than just Harden taking over, the Rockets have hit threes around him (not so much Thursday, 9-of-27 from the supporting players), and with the shots falling you see hustle on defense and guys going after loose balls in ways they did not earlier in the season. More importantly, when the other team makes a run — and Boston made runs — you don’t see the shoulders drop, the body language sag, and a sense of resignation from the Rockets. Now, they are a team that fights back.

That fight shows Houston’s turnaround is legit.

Boston took another tough loss in this one. Not stopping Harden is one thing — there are 28 other teams trying to figure out how to do that and failing — but the Celtics were outworked on the glass and generally out-muscled all game long. Houston was the more physical team and that was the big difference.

On their “how real is the turnaround” stretch of games, the Celtics are 2-2 — losses to the Bucks and Rockets, wins over the Sixers and Hornets. Road games against Memphis (another physical team) and San Antonio await. It’s not panic button time in Boston by any means, but this is not the team Celtics fans thought they were going to be watching this season. Not even close. And there is no one, simple answer to turning it around.

Suns executive James Jones: Focus has shifted to NBA players, not draft

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The Suns are 7-24.

At least they’ll get a prime draft pick to add young talent to grow with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. That’s Phoenix best path toward meaningful success.

Or…

Suns front-office chief James Jones, via Arizona Sports 98.7:

“Yeah, we have to worry about what happens in the draft but our primary focus is on this team currently and what we can do,” he told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo on Wednesday. “We have a bunch of young players in this draft. We’ve been deep in the draft, we’ve drafted a lot of players over the years and our focus has shifted more to development of these players and looking at NBA players that we possibly can add to this team.”

“We shifted focus,” Jones said. “I think in the past our primary focus — a great amount of our time was spent turning over every stone as it relates to players and college players, but college players don’t win NBA games. NBA players do, so that’s where our focus is now.”

I get why the Suns want to be done with the draft. This will be Phoenix’s ninth straight season outside the playoffs. That should have provided enough lottery picks to stock the roster.

But since 2011, the Suns have gotten Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges from the lottery. That’s not good enough.

Phoenix is still multiple steps from winning. Trying to shortcut the process will only push the goal further away. That type of thinking is what led to misguided signings like Trevor Ariza, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley. The Suns should be realistic about where they are in team-building.

And maybe they are. Perhaps, Jones is just saying what he thinks should be said. The Suns are trying to sell tickets and secure taxpayer funding for arena upgrades, after all.

But this also might be Phoenix’s actual approach. Suns owner Robert Sarver is notoriously impatient. After Jones’ comments, the Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards without getting a draft pick (netting only Kelly Oubre).

The best thing the Suns can do is nail their upcoming high first-round pick. That should be their primary focus.

Jones saying otherwise ought to terrify Phoenix fans.

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three pointers

Associated Press
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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) Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three-pointers in Blazers’ victory. When Damian Lillard gets hot —yes, I believe in the hot-hand theory, so sue me — there is no more dangerous player in the NBA.

Wednesday night, Lillard was hot — 10 three-pointers made on his way to 41 points, sparking a 115-112 win over Orlando. Lillard was 10-of-15 from three on the night.

The previous Portland record had been nine threes in a game, which Lillard co-held with Nicolas Batum. The Blazers also tied a team record with 12 threes in the first half. They ended up needing all of that against a pesky Orlando team that is playing everyone tough right now behind the career-best play of Nikola Vucevic.

2) Kyle Korver will help but isn’t the answer in Utah. The scuffling Utah Jazz got a little better on Wednesday.

For one thing, the Jazz got Donovan Mitchell back from injury, their offense looked less bad (not quite good, but better) as Utah got a win on the road in Brooklyn. That improved the Jazz to 10-12 and moved them up to 13th in the crowded West (still way below expectations, we all thought this was a top-three team in the West before the season).

Utah also got better because they traded for Kyle Korver. The Jazz are sending Alec Burks and two future second-round picks (theirs in 2020 and the Wizards in 2021) to Cleveland for the 37-year-old sharpshooter.

The trade should make Utah a little better, but it isn’t a game changer — they still need a high-quality secondary playmaker to take some of the pressure off Mitchell. However, Korver should help the second unit.

As a team, the Jazz have struggled from three this season, shooting 31.9 percent, third worst in the league. Joe Ingles has carried the team’s shooting load hitting 38.5 percent from three on six attempts per game, but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.7 threes a game and hitting 28.9 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.2 per game and is knocking down 29.2 percent, and even Grayson Allen — drafted out of Duke as a shooter — is at 28.6 percent. Second spectrum tracking data shows the Jazz as a team are generating good looks but not hitting the shot — Utah as a team is shooting 31.1 percent on open threes (defender 4-6 feet away) and 34.5 percent on wide open threes (defender more than six feet away, Utah’s shooting percentage on those is sixth worst in the league).

Korver is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc this season on 3.4 attempts per game. The Jazz need that.

Expect Korver to play with Utah’s second unit — the Jazz have really struggled with their shooting and spacing the second Ingles goes to the bench. Now Korver will come in and provide some of that shooting. Korver is 37 and will be 38 before the playoffs start, he doesn’t move as well as he once did and the Jazz will get torched a few times on defense because of him, but when the Jazz have the ball defenders can’t leave him. The Jazz are a system team, they can run Korver off a series of picks to get him looks and the defenses will have to respect him.

Korver isn’t the answer to all the Jazz problems — their defense has been average this season (and just bad when Rudy Gobert sits) and they need another playmaker — but he helps them in a key area. Korver makes them better.

And the price was not that steep, but was as good a haul as Cleveland could expect. Burks can give them some nightly minutes on the wing this season, and he is in the last year of his contract so he helps free up some cap space for Cleveland. With this deal happening now, it’s also possible the Cavs could flip Burks in another deal at the trade deadline. The two second-round pick is about right — no team was giving up a first for Korver — and that 2021 Washington one has the potential to be a high second rounder with some real value.

3) After thrashing by Dallas 128-108, Houston is now the 14-seed in the West. Going into this season we expected the Rockets to be the second-best team in the West, third best at worst. It felt like they took a step back in the off-season on the wing, but this team still had the MVP James Harden, plus Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

After getting crushed by Dallas 128-108 on Wednesday, the 9-11 Rockets are the 14 seed in the West. (The good news for Houston is it’s the crowded West, so it is just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and, amazingly, five games out of first place.)

The Rockets were without Chris Paul again Wednesday (hamstring) and guys missing time has been one factor in the slow start for the Rockets. But it’s more than that. Carmelo Anthony is gone, Jeff Bzdelik is back on the bench as an assistant coach, and yet the defense is still a disaster — third worst in the NBA for the season, worst in the NBA by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in the last five games.

The Rockets’ roster is top-heavy, but that’s how it is with contenders (the Warriors have the same situation). The problem in Houston is Daryl Morey’s off-season bets on role players have not worked out at all — it’s not just that Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson are gone, it’s that their replacements (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss) have not worked out. At all. Then you throw in the injuries, not just to CP3 but to Gerald Green and Nene, and you have a team that just lacks depth and continuity. The nights Harden can’t bail them out, they lose (and sometimes, even when he drops 54, they lose).

When the Rockets get healthy they will be good enough to make the playoffs (the team is 8-4 when both Paul and Harden play), but they are not the team we thought they could be. Morey is actively looking for trades that will help fill in the wing depth, but that may be too little, too late at this point.

• BONUS THING TO KNOW: Watch Khris Middleton‘s game-winner for Milwaukee. Kids, this is why your coaches preach rebounding.

Milwaukee grabbed three offensive rebounds in the final 10 seconds, eventually kicking the ball out to Middleton who drained a three and gave the Bucks a 116-113 win over the Bulls Wednesday.

Rockets’ Marquese Chriss, 76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz, Nuggets’ Tyler Lydon, Thunder’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also have options declined

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The Rockets tried to sell that their trade with the Suns wasn’t just about financial relief, that they truly believe Marquese Chriss would thrive in their system.

But forced to put their money where their mouth is, the Rockets buckled.

Houston declined Chriss’ $4,078,236 team option for next season.

That was the right call. Chriss is too far from being a productive NBA player to guarantee him that much. He’s just 21 and still possesses the raw tools that got him drafted No. 8 just two years ago, but NBA play is too complex for him right now. This is just more evidence the Rockets’ offseason was primarily driven by limiting costs.

We already knew of four other declined rookie-scale team options – Suns’ Dragan Bender, Timberwolves’ Justin Patton, Pistons’ Henry Ellenson and Raptors’ Malachi Richardson. (How rookie-scale contracts work.) But in addition to Chriss, three other players had their declined options revealed shortly before last night’s deadline. Those three with option salaries:

76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz ($2,033,160)

The 76ers badly want another star, and next summer might be their last good chance to sign one in free agency. It’ll be the last offseason Ben Simmons is still on his relatively cheap rookie-scale contract before he joins Joel Embiid on a max deal. So, I can see why Philadelphia maximized its flexibility by declining Korkmaz’s option.

But I would have exercised it. Korkmaz is athletic and skilled, and though he must get stronger, that isn’t disqualifying for a 21-year-old. Though Korkmaz was drafted No. 26 in 2016, this is actually his third-year option, because he waited a year to sign. So, exercising this option would have come with the chance to keep Korkmaz yet another year at a potentially cheap price if he develops.

The clearer failure probably was not trading Korkmaz to a team that would have exercised his option. Maybe that’s what happens when you go through the offseason without a general manager.

Now, it’ll be tougher to find suitors, because any team that trades for him and ends the season with him will be limited to paying him a starting salary of $2,033,160 in free agency. If he breaks out, that wouldn’t be enough.

Nuggets’ Tyler Lydon ($2,190,720)

The Nuggets have gotten plenty of grief for trading down from the No. 13 pick – which the Jazz used on rising star Donovan Mitchell – in last year’s draft.

This won’t help.

In the deal with Utah, Denver received Trey Lyles (nice) and No. 24 pick Tyler Lydon (not so nice). Lydon just hasn’t looked on track to stick in the NBA, in part due to injury. He was good enough in the NBA’s minor league that I probably would have exercised this third-year option, but the Nuggets could face a luxury-tax crunch next season. It’s a close call.

That said, the Nuggets did this knowing this would make their already-panned draft-day trade look even worse. That says something.

Thunder’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ($2,529,684)

The Thunder love to take fliers on athletic wings – including Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was acquired from the 76ers in the Carmelo AnthonyDennis Schroder trade. But Luwawu-Cabarrot hasn’t developed even a niche, so declining his fourth-year option makes sense. Especially considering Oklahoma City faces repeater-rate tax concerns for next season.