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Rockets to officially protest loss to Spurs due to disallowed James Harden dunk

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After 48 hours of bluster, the Houston Rockets are going to follow through with actions.

The Rockets are going to officially protest Tuesday night’s loss to the Spurs on the grounds of James Harden‘s missed call, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. A protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibits a team’s chance to win a game, the Rockets believe they have that and the league should allow the teams to replay the final 7:50 of the game (with the Rockets conveniently up by 15 at that point).

The Rockets prepared to file a protest of Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs, a person with knowledge of the team’s plans said, with an argument that will cite the James Harden dunk that did not count as an example of a “misapplication of rules.”

It will also cite subsequent errors in officials’ failing to grant a coaches’ challenge, though the primary argument is with points not being awarded following a made basket.

What’s not in question is that the referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk — it should have counted. After the game the officials, after reviewing the video, admitted as much.

In addition to the missed dunk, the Rockets also are arguing that coach Mike D’Antoni should have been allowed to challenge the play (another misapplication of a rule). The officials talked to D’Antoni for a handful of seconds, then moved away to debate the call itself — was it basket interference or something else — before settling on it being a missed shot with the ball out of bounds off Harden. D’Antoni said he was never given the chance to protest the call by the referees, after the game crew chief James Capers said D’Antoni did not protest the game within the required 30 seconds. Privately, some around the league question if D’Antoni actually told the officials he wanted to protest — he says he did, not everyone believes him.

Protests around the NBA are rarely upheld because the bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited a team’s chance to win a game. The Rockets argue that not giving Harden two points for a made basket qualifies as a misapplication of the rules, but others could argue it was just a missed call. There are a lot of those in every game (Russell Westbrook had a backcourt violation that was not called and became a Tyson Chandler dunk). 

This one play is not why the Rockets lost the game. Houston was up by 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. Harden and Westbrook combined to shoot 17-of-68 on the night.

Because of that, and because there is 7:50 left in the game, it’s hard to imagine the league ruling to replay the end of the game. The Rockets likely will miss out on this.

But Houston — a team known in the league office for the deluge of referee complaints they file — is going to takes its best shot.

Watch Hassan Whiteside’s franchise record 10 blocks for Trail Blazers in win

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Carmelo Anthony can’t recall another a 10-block game like Trail Blazers teammate Hassan Whiteside had against the Bulls.

Anthony had 23 points and 11 rebounds and the Blazers downed Chicago 107-103 on Friday night for their second victory over the Bulls this week. But Whiteside stole the show with eight points, 15 rebounds and a franchise-record 10 blocks for Portland. It was most in the NBA this season.

“Never seen that before, and I’ve played with some great shot blockers,” Anthony said. “Tyson Chandler was a great shot blocker, Marcus Camby was a great shot blocker. I’ve never seen a guy with 10 blocks in a game.”

“I told the guys, I’m insurance now. When they go up for a layup, I’m going to be there. I might not get them all, I know a lot of people want me to get every single one, but I’m going to do my best job to get a lot of them,” Whiteside said about his blocks.

Damian Lillard added 28 points, including 10 in the final quarter, for the Blazers, who have won three straight after four consecutive losses.

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.

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.

Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

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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.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-