AP

James Harden on Russell Westbrook pairing: ‘We’ll figure it out’

Leave a comment

There has been some doubt that James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be able to fit together with the Houston Rockets this season. Both players have matured quite a bit since their time together in Oklahoma City with the Thunder, and now there are real questions about Westbrook’s ability to fit next to just about anyone.

Like Westbrook, Harden is a ball-dominant guard, and we still don’t know the long-term plan for Coach Mike D’Antoni. Houston has real championship hopes, but they could also look much different in a year or two.

Still, Harden and Westbrook have known each other since they were 10 years old. They grew up together in Los Angeles, and are at least very good friends. To that end, Harden says that he believes they will be able to figure it out even if the first year together has bumps along the way.

Via GQ:

It’s like, yo, 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’s all you can ask for.

That’s a pretty reasonable outlook to have at this juncture. The NBA is constantly changing, and it’s possible that these two guys could have such a personal connection that their on-court conflicts end up being negligible.

It’s another new era in Houston as they try to capitalize on the Golden State Warriors’ injury issues.

Rockets owner says championship window will only last a few years

Getty
2 Comments

The Houston Rockets had their chance to head to the NBA Finals a couple of years ago. They were up on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in 2018 before Chris Paul injured his leg. Now Paul is gone, and in his place is Russell Westbrook.

But does that make them any more of a favorite to make it to the Finals?

The Rockets are certainly hoping so, and it appears that owner Tilman Fertitta knows this is a big opportunity. For once it’s the Warriors who are entering the season banged up, and Houston finally has an opening.

Via Yahoo!:

“I think we put ourselves in the position that if we don’t win it in the next three or four years, we probably aren’t going to win one in the next 10 years,” Fertitta told Yahoo Sports in an interview to promote his debut book titled “Shut Up And Listen,” which hits all major bookstores on Tuesday. “This is our window, and we need to seize the opportunity.”

This is completely reasonable. Most teams get a championship window in the 2-to-4 year range, and although Fertitta’s estimation might be a little generous, now is the time for the Rockets to strike while the iron is hot.

It’s not as though James Harden and Westbrook will have any less competition out west. Several teams bolstered their rosters, and of course the Los Angeles Clippers are now the favorites to take over the reins in California.

Fertitta is right, however. If there was a time to count out the Warriors at season’s start, 2019 would be it. They best get to winning some games early.

Nene’s contract gives Rockets valuable trade chip

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

Under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, players’ full salaries counted toward trades. It didn’t matter whether the salary was fully guaranteed, partially guaranteed or unguaranteed. Teams are generally required to match salary in trades, but this offered a workaround.

A team could trade someone with a guaranteed $10 million salary for someone with a $10 million unguaranteed salary then waive the unguaranteed player. The salaries technically matched, but one team added $10 million in payroll while the other team shed $10 million in payroll. That hardly met the intention of matching salaries.

The current CBA closed that loophole. Now, only the guaranteed portion of a player’s salary counts as outgoing for matching purposes while the full salary counts for incoming. That’s why J.R. Smith – who signed under the previous CBA and therefore still fit under the previous rules – looked so valuable.

But the Rockets have found another way to get a similarly helpful player. (Of course, Daryl Morey cooked this up.) Houston’s deal with Nene makes him one of the NBA’s most intriguing trade chips.

Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights:

Nene and Houston signed a two-year contract that will pay him the minimum in each year in base salary and enough likely bonuses to take him to $10 million in total salary each season.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

The bonuses in his contract are broken down into 3 categories; 1) $2.435M for playing at least 10 games and 52+ wins; 2) $2.5M for playing at least 25 games and 52+ wins; 3) $2.5M for playing at least 40 games and 52+ wins.

Incentives are deemed likely or unlikely by whether or not they were met the previous season. Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets. So, these incentives are likely. The only limit on likely incentives is a max salary. (Unlikely incentives are capped at 15% of base salary.)

Nene re-signed through Bird Rights, meaning Houston could give him any salary up to the max. His base salary plus likely incentives count as his cap number.

So, that’s a $10 million trade chip. The key: His team can pay only the guaranteed portion of his salary. These technically likely bonuses are realistically unlikely ever to be triggered. It’s a great way for another team to trim salary.

Nene can be traded Jan. 15. The trade deadline is Feb. 6. That’s the window to watch.

Here’s the big catch: Trading Nene this way would likely push the Rockets into the luxury tax. The main idea is using his contract to acquire a better, more expensive player. Will owner Tilman Fertitta go for that? He has talked big but delivered less.

Only base salary plus met incentives count toward the luxury tax, which isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season. Houston controls his playing time and surely won’t let him trigger too many, or any, bonuses. So, if they don’t trade him for value, the Rockets should easily enough avoid the tax if desired.

Whatever money Nene earns this season will be a nice windfall for a player who seemingly planned to retired. Remember, an important aspect of this scheme is him not playing much. That could explain why he didn’t retire. Will the Rockets even make him show up?

This type of contract isn’t completely unprecedented. The Laker structured Yi Jianlian’s contract similarly in 2016. But that was under the previous CBA, when a simpler unguaranteed deal would’ve brought the same trade upside. Los Angeles waived Yi before the season.

This too could amount to nothing. But this opens the door for big spending to improve the team. We’ll see whether Houston steps through it.

Nene to re-sign with Rockets for next season

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

After last season, Nene turned down a $3.8 million player option with Houston, choosing to test the free agent market.

He’s about to re-sign with the Rockets for about $1.2 million less than he would have made, in a move that helps the Rockets out financially.

Nene is about to return to the NBA for an 18th season, a story Kelly Iko of The Athletic broke and others have confirmed now.

As for the money, the Rockets would have been in the tax with Nene’s old contract, but now are still just under the line (because not all of his minimum salary actually counts against the cap, as with all veteran minimum contracts).

The Rockets are deep at center now, with Clint Capela starting and playing the bulk of the minutes and having signed Tyson Chandler this summer. Chandler and Nene will soak up the minutes at the five Capela does not play, but the young Swiss center will get the bulk of the run.

Nene played a limited role for the Rockets last season, getting in 42 games (health was part of the problem) and averaging 3.6 points an 2.9 rebounds a game when he did get in. His efficiency slipped last season but he still can give a team solid minutes in a limited role. The Rockets will count on that.

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 25-1

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
4 Comments

This summer, the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

We put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players in the top 25, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. Here is a link to the summary of players 50-26, and if you want more detail here are the links to players 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, 10-6, and the top five.

25. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Age in 2024: 26)
How Gilgeous-Alexander will develop from here on out will be interesting to watch. His role is changing, and the playing environment and coaching style is changing. He’s not going to be Russell Westbrook — nobody is, plus they have very different games. Gilgeous-Alexander is more traditional point guard, more game manager, not an explosive isolation specialist who gets buckets.(Kurt Helin)

24. John Collins (Age in 2024: 26)
I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Trae Young could be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.. (Tom Haberstroh)

23. Kyrie Irving (Age in 2024: 32)
Brooklyn will help shape Irving’s legacy — he goes to a playoff team with a strong established culture through coach Kenny Atkinson, an organization with good young players already seen on this list in Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. In a year, once healthy, Kevin Durant will join them and form a squad that should be a title contender in the East. The questions abound: How does Irving fit in? How does his game evolve? His leadership skills? (Kurt Helin)

22. Ja Morant (Age in 2024: 25)
The best comparison in that sense is probably De'Aaron Fox, another spindly guard with sprinter’s speed and a jump shot that needs fine-tuning… The difference between Morant and Fox is passing ability. Morant has yet to play an NBA game, but I firmly believe he is going to be among the ten best players in the entire NBA when it comes to court vision, passing and the ability to make plays and create shots for teammates out of ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

21. Deandre Ayton (Age in 2024: 26)
Ayton is going to be an offensive force in five years, at age 26, especially if he adds some range to his shot and the Suns let him explore other aspects of his game. However, how high he ultimately should be on this list will depend on a couple of other things. The big one is his defense — he struggled on this end as a rookie, with his recognition and as a rim protector. Ayton needs to become a defensive anchor for the Suns. The way the NBA is evolving, an offense-only big man who is not a good rim protector has a limited role. (Kurt Helin)

20. Pascal Siakam (Age in 2024: 30)
Siakam will be in his prime the next five years, and the question now becomes just where is his ceiling? He’s a 6’9” elite athlete who is a strong perimeter defender on one end and can create his own shot on the other. There are not a lot of those around. Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse said that Siakam now has “gotta be the man” for the Raptors, can he be that No. 1 option… Siakam got a lot of wide-open looks at threes last season, with defenses often focused on Kawhi Leonard, but how will he adapt when he is the guy at the top of the opponent’s scouting report? (Kurt Helin)

19. Kristaps Porzingis (Age in 2024: 29)
When healthy Porzingis is a 7’3″ unicorn of a big man who can defend inside, run the floor, and knockdown threes. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game over his career with the Knicks, all while shooting 36.1 percent from three. There are no other big men who bring his skill set to the game. But will we get the same Porzingis going forward? How well will he move coming back from that ACL, and can he stay healthy?(Kurt Helin)

18. James Harden (Age in 2024: 34)
The questions for evaluators in this series were, “How good will Harden be at age 34 heading into his age 35 season? How will his game age?” Probably pretty well, which is why he is still so high on this list. Harden’s game is all about craft, it’s not built on his explosive athleticism or his freakish skills for someone so tall. Harden’s unconventional, hesitation-filled game is more about throwing his defenders off-balance — he has a lot of old-man-at-the-Y in his game. That will still work well as he ages.(Kurt Helin)

17. Bradley Beal (Age in 2024: 31)
Beal is going to be one of the top shooting guards in the game the next five years as he is just entering his prime. Beal has made more threes in his career than any other player through their age 25 season (Beal has 1,071, Klay Thompson is second at 1,060, then Stephen Curry is third with 905). Beal can shoot the three (35.1 percent last season), put the ball on the floor and drive, moves well off the ball (he ran more total miles last season during games — 222.7 total, or 2.75 per game — than any player in the league), and is an active and willing defender. (Kurt Helin)

16. Jaren Jackson Jr. (Age in 2024: 24)
This kid has Chris Bosh written all over him — and he can be even better. It feels odd to call him “kid” when his game screams wily veteran. Jackson Jr. is still just 19 years old, but he already can stretch the floor and block shots like a seasoned big… Jackson’s game is tailor made for the pace-and-space era. He made 51 triples last season and converted 35.9 percent of his tries beyond the arc, making him one of the sweetest shooting bigs in the league already. He has a guard-like handle and moves fluidly on the block. (Tom Haberstroh)

15. Jamal Murray (Age in 2024: 27)
Murray averaged 18.2 points a game while shooting 36.7 percent from three last season, plus he added 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per night… The key for Denver wasn’t just the scoring threat, although that mattered, but also Murray kept the ball moving and made teams pay for focusing too much defensive attention on Jokic. In the playoffs, Murray upped his game and became the offensive bellwether for the team — when Murray struggled on offense (settling for too many contested mid-range jumpers) the Denver offense stalled out, but when he was confidently draining threes and moving the ball they were hard to stop. (Kurt Helin)

14. De’Aaron Fox (Age in 2024: 26)
“I’m always looking toward the future, individually and I think everybody has to be a little selfish in that aspect,” Fox told NBC Sports. “To continue to grow, to continue to be the kind of player I can be, to put the league on notice that I’m here, I’m established, and just continue to grow as a man.”

Fox has personal goals — becoming an All-Star, to start — plus the team goal of getting the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. To get there will take more than just speed, the craft of Fox’s game needs to catch up with that pace. (Kurt Helin)

13. Devin Booker (Age in 2024: 27)
Booker is an exceptional scorer for his age. Last season, he made real strides rounding out his offensive game – converting from all areas inside the arc, drawing fouls and distributing. He’s ready to be a go-to scorer. His knockdown 3-point shooting also gives him a chance to play a secondary role on a better team if he ever joins one. Defense remains a huge shortcoming, though. That fits into larger questions about the habits Booker is developing. (Dan Feldman)

12. Jayson Tatum (Age in 2024: 26)
Boston needs Tatum to return to his trajectory as an elite player next season. Tatum had an impressive rookie season that had him looking like a franchise cornerstone (especially in the playoffs when he averaged 18.5 points a game and was a quality shot creator). However, he plateaued in his second season, likely in part due to the failed chemistry experiment the Celtics became. Tatum got hung up in that, not moving the ball and his shot selection getting worse. The USA Basketball experience and time with Gregg Popovich will help Tatum move on from last season, there’s a lot of basketball knowledge to soak up. (Kurt Helin)

11. Joel Embiid (Age in 2024: 30)
Embiid’s winding road, fairly or unfairly, makes projecting him difficult. No matter how many 30-15-5 nights Embiid puts up, it’s hard to put aside the injury variable that delayed his NBA career two years. With two surgeries on his navicular bone and nagging knee issues on that enormous frame, there’s no doubt that Embiid’s health record keeps him outside of the top-10.

Because if we look at Embiid’s age, talent and production, he should be much closer to the top, if not right at the top. At 25 years old, he’s at the front edge of his prime. He just averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists while making over 100 jumpers outside 16 feet. There’s almost nothing he can’t do on the basketball court. (Tom Haberstroh)

10. Trae Young (Age in 2024: 25)
Young can shoot with range, is a gifted passer, and is working on taking the next steps in his development. He has to get stronger (he reportedly added 10 pounds this summer), has to become a better defender, has to learn to finish better on drives (he needs a floater and to be able to score through or around contact better at the rim, ala Stephen Curry). Most of all, the Hawks need him to be a leader, to be the guy that pulls this franchise back to the postseason, and eventually all the way to heights not seen in decades in Atlanta. (Kurt Helin)

9. Ben Simmons (Age in 2024: 28)
Simmons, 23, is a special all-around talent. The 6-foot-10 point guard thrives in the open court. He quickly turns his defensive rebounds into fastbreaks the other way, attacks the basket and zips passes all over the court. His defense is stellar due both to his versatility and lockdown ability. No wonder the 76ers gave him a max contract extension so quickly. But he has a huge flaw: Jump shots… While Simmons is one of the safest bets to be a star in five years, it’s difficult to envision him becoming a superstar. There’s a ceiling on guards who can’t shoot from outside. (Dan Feldman)

8. Donovan Mitchell (Age in 2024: 27)
“Last summer was different,” Mitchell said when Team USA stopped in Los Angeles for training camp. “I’m healthy. I’ve been able to travel a little bit, but I’ve been able to put in work. And this is just another step to get better.”

Just how good can Mitchell be in five years? He will be 27, in his prime, and Utah believes he will lead the franchise back to the biggest stages, the ones they have not been on since the Stockton/Malone era… Mitchell wants the pressure — he hasn’t shied away from the responsibility of leading Team USA. He is not shy about talking about his goals for the Jazz, which go beyond just making the playoffs again next season. (Kurt Helin)

7. Karl-Anthony Towns (Age in 2024: 28)
Towns has all the tools. He’s big, mobile and skilled. The list of 7-footers who’ve shot 3-pointers and scored like him might end at Dirk Nowitzki. But for all his talent, Towns hasn’t brought the necessary intensity. He has too often failed to assert himself offensively. His defensive effort and execution are consistently lacking. There just isn’t enough force in his game. Towns started to come around late last season… Towns is just 23. There’s so much time for him to figure this out. He’s already a star with this approach. If he develops a mindset to dominate, he could become the NBA’s very best player. (Dan Feldman)

6. Kawhi Leonard (Age in 2024: 33)
This ranking is a big bet on health. The question is not, “can Kawhi Leonard be a great player in five years at age 33?” He is an elite NBA talent now in his prime, one that just led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA title averaging 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds a game in the playoffs. He is as good a perimeter defender as there is in the game right now, something that will not change much as he ages. Offensively he can get his own shot, create for others, he shot 37.1 percent from three last season, but what is most impressive is his footwork and ability to get to his spots on the floor. His mechanical, physical style will age well. If he’s healthy. That remains the cloud over Leonard. (Kurt Helin)

5. Zion Williamson (Age in 2024: 24)
I’ll put it bluntly — I think Zion is the kind of talent that can redefine the way basketball has to be played in the NBA the same way that Steph Curry did, that LeBron James did, that Shaquille O’Neal did. His physical tools, his skill-set, and his basketball IQ are all that high… The big question for me is going to be how well his health holds up. He’s 270-something pounds with a vertical leap that gets damn near four feet. (Rob Dauster)

4. Nikola Jokic (Age in 2024: 29)
Jokic is a reigning All-NBA first-team player. He’s the best-passing center in NBA history. And he’s just 24… Jokic is the only second-round pick in these rankings. He’s not a great athlete. But he quickly impressed with his great feel for the game. It shows in his passing. It shows in his nose for the ball on rebounds. It even shows on his defense. That’s the area Jokic can most improve. Though his basketball intelligence translates to defense, Jokic’s athletic limitations also factor prominently. (Dan Feldman)

3. Luka Doncic (Age in 2024: 25)
Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6 assists a game in a historic rookie season that had him as the Rookie of the Year. He already makes decisions and plays like a 10-year veteran when coming off the pick-and-roll, his feel for the game is amazing. His court vision and passing were everything that were advertised, but it comes in a physically strong 6’7” package that allows him to see the court, pass over smaller players, and he showed he could handle contact… There are a few things that need to follow to reach that potential. His defense needs to improve. He needs to cut down on turnovers… The biggest issue is conditioning. (Kurt Helin)

2. Anthony Davis (Age in 2024: 31)
If we’re going to nitpick, he’s more of a finisher than a creator. That should work just fine playing with LeBron James on the Lakers. But in the long run, the NBA’s second-best player is usually more capable of manufacturing a bucket when his team needs one. Maybe Davis is just so good at everything else, he’ll still deserve this lofty ranking without improved individual-scoring ability. I’d bet on him developing that skill, though… Last season was the first time Davis shined as a passer. He’s clearly still adding to his game. That ought to terrify the rest of the league. (Dan Feldman)

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Age in 2024: 29)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (age 24) just won Most Valuable Player over James Harden (age 30) and Paul George (age 29). Just two other MVPs in NBA history have been so much younger than the second- and third-place finishers.

In 1958, Bill Russell won MVP then won 10 more championships and four more MVPs in his career. In 1972, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won MVP than won five more championships and four more MVPs in his career.

Antetokounmpo is poised to take over the NBA for a long time. (Dan Feldman)