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Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

With Chris Paul joining James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, how high can the Rockets soar? Basketball Insiders takes a look.

Basketball Insiders

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After overachieving last season, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the more surprising moves of the summer. With Chris Paul now joining James Harden, the Rockets have one of the league’s best backcourts. The question now, however, is whether or not they have enough to help them become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

With a roster that isn’t as deep as it was last season, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be counting on their supremely gifted backcourt to help them surpass last season’s 55 wins.

Whether or not they can may ultimately depend on how general manager Daryl Money fleshes out his roster around his two superstars—and also whether the team is able to eventually pull off a long-discussed trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2017-18 Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

For the first time during his Houston Rockets tenure, James Harden has a true superstar companion (no, I’m not counting Dwight Howard in that category).

Chris Paul joins Harden in H-Town after a season that saw Harden switch to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and lead the league in assists per game. While that may seem odd at first glance, Paul’s ability to command the floor, shoot and score effectively, and play elite defense gives Houston a backcourt that can rival any in the league — even those dudes in the Bay Area.

With role players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza on board, Harden and Paul should have enough artillery to overtake their division and actually give Golden State a run for their money.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Oh, there will be three-pointers. So many three-pointers. A year ago, the Houston Rockets broke the single-season record for most deep attempts in a season, having shot over 40 of them per game, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different, especially with Chris Paul helping to break down defenses and create potentially even more open looks for those Houston shooters. Nabbing Paul was a huge boon, and somehow finagling Carmelo Anthony would only add to the haul basketball gods willing. Even without Anthony, though, Paul and last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden is enough to make this team a powerhouse. The role guys here fit Mike D’Antoni’s system beautifully, and the star power obviously is there. Pencil the Rockets in for a very deep playoff run this summer. Nobody is going to give Golden State more trouble than these guys, health pending.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Houston is hoping that the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul can bridge the gap between the Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are still the favorites, but Houston now has arguably the league’s best backcourt, versatile wing defenders that theoretically match up well with Golden State and enough overall talent to have a chance to upset the Warriors on any given night. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute help to bolster the team’s defensive versatility, while Paul is still one of the league’s best defensive point guards. However, the loss of players like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could sting a bit more than most predict. The wildcard right now is the stalemate regarding Carmelo Anthony. If Anthony ends up in Houston, the Rockets would have a very impressive arsenal of offensive talent. Whether the skill sets of Paul, Harden and Anthony could effectively mesh together is unclear, but it sure would be fun to see what they could achieve together.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

What an offseason for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who should easily be in pole position for Executive of the Year at this point. The Chris Paul trade is the obvious feather in the cap, but Morey also got fantastic deals on guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute – both exactly the kind of wing stoppers this team has been in dire need of for some time. The Rockets now have more of the kind of switchable bodies needed to throw at a behemoth like Golden State, plus two of the league’s best ball-handlers in Paul and James Harden. They’re all-in on making a charge at the champs this year; we’ll see if they have enough to do it.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Rockets enter the season very similarly to the Celtics.

Each team surpassed expectations last season, but ended up trading away a few rotation pieces to consolidate and bring in a superstar. I think the partnership between Paul and James Harden will work so long as Harden continues to play with his head up. The propensity for many people in Harden’s shoes would be to revert to being a shoot-first guard, but I think the Rockets will only maximize their potential if both Paul and Harden make it their duty to make their teammates better.

Although these guys may struggle to get defensive stops at times, they are just one more piece away from potentially winning the Western Conference. The Rockets would be best-served by encouraging Carmelo Anthony to work out a contract buyout with the Knicks and join them after potentially clearing waivers. Until they find a way to add him (or a player with similar caliber), they will still be looking up at the Spurs in the Southwest and at at least two other teams in the conference.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Although Chris Paul is a supremely gifted offensive player, James Harden is absolutely extraordinary. Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple doubles overshadowed the fact that Harden himself turned in an amazing 22 over the course of the season. Always having been a dynamic scorer, Harden took his game to the next level last season after being installed as the primary point guard for Mike D’Antoni and his club. Harden reverted to his prior days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proved that he still had the ability to create plays for his teammates and be an effective “finder” in pick-and-roll situations.

Last season, the Rockets finished second in points per game and second in offensive efficiency, and they did so because of Harden. The bearded point guard averaged career-highs across the board with 29.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 11.2 assists per game.

He’s not only the top offensive player on the Rockets; it could be argued that he’s the top offensive player in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Again, Chris Paul gets snubbed, but barely. The same can be said for the newly signed Luc Mbah a Moute, who is entering his 10th NBA season. Both Mbah a Moute and Paul were members of the most effective defensive lineups deployed by Doc Rivers last season, but Clint Capela is a true game-changer on the defensive end of the floor.

Although he had the benefit of being protected on the perimeter by Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, Capela is a prototype of what today’s defensive NBA should be. He is wiry and rangy—his long arms make him a good shot blocker and pass lane defender, while his athleticism and light-footedness make him nimble enough to defend opposing perimeter players after being switched out on pick-and-roll plays. The numbers might not necessarily back up the claim (Capela averaged just 1.2 blocks and 0.5 steals per game during the regular season), but he was the anchor and final line of defense for a team that finished a respectable 18th in defensive efficiency last season. Most importantly, though, was Capela’s defense during the playoffs. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game and helped the Rockets hold their playoff opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the playoffs.

As it relates to defensive presence, the Swiss-born center is special.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

James Harden may have led the league in assists per game last season, but Chris Paul is the best playmaker on the roster. Whether or not he can be more effective with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—the three of whom all shared the floor with Harden last year—remains to be seen, though.

Still, Paul has averaged at least nine assists per game for each of the past 10 seasons and has never drawn criticism for a lack of creating opportunities for his teammates. In fact, it will be especially interesting to see how effective Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be on the offensive side of the basketball without him.

As it currently stands, Paul enters his 13th season averaging 9.89 assists per game—the third-highest per-game average in NBA history. Magic Johnson (11.19) and John Stockton (10.51) are the only ones who have averaged more per game. Paul is also just one of two active players to rank in the Top 10 for total career assists. Andre Miller, who has recorded 8,524 career assists, ranks ninth. That leaves him just 273 assists ahead of Paul’s 8,251.

In all likelihood, Paul, one of the top playmakers in the history of the league, will become ninth this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

While Chris Paul has certainly made his fair share of big shots, James Harden gets the nod. Truth be told, however, an inspection of the numbers yields the conclusion that both Paul and Harden leave a bit to be desired in clutch moments of games. Last season, in the final five minutes of a game that was within five points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Harden shot 33-for-93. Converting on just 35.5 percent of shots in those situations is a mediocre showing, but it is better than the 13-for-41 shot by Paul in those moments. Paul’s 31.7 percent shooting in those situations is not as good as we would expect it to be, but he should also point out that his lack of attempts in those situations is probably due to the fact that he has more of a propensity to pass the basketball in the first place.

Still, Harden gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

In an interesting twist, in December 2011, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package of players that most prominently featured Eric Gordon. The two will now share the floor as members of the Houston Rockets.

After averaging 22.3 points per game in his third season, Gordon seemed destined for greatness as the NBA level. The Hornets thought they were getting an All-Star caliber player in exchange for Paul, but Gordon’s very first season in New Orleans was an indicator of what would become of his career. Gordon was limited to just nine games in 2011-12 and would play just 42, 64, 61 and 45 games over the following four years, respectively.

Last season, though, things turned. After being relegated to the bench, Gordon appeared in 75 games and scored 16.2 points per game off the bench. As a result, Gordon managed to edge out Andre Iguodala for the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Award and play an integral role in the Rockets and their overachieving last season. He hasn’t necessarily gotten his due from the masses, though, which is why he deserves some love here.

Best New Addition: Chris Paul

Obviously, when you add a player like Chris Paul to a team with the firepower of the Rockets, he is the best new addition. At 32 years old, Paul is probably past his physical prime, but his game has never been about athleticism. If there is a concern, it would be that he managed to appear in just 61 games last season, but in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, he suited up for 82 and 74 games, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni managed Paul’s minutes, and the extent to which he has James Harden and Paul share the floor for long spurts or whether he uses them to spell one another. However, if Paul can remain relatively healthy, the Rockets may be one or two more pieces away from winning the Western Conference, and that’s the case because they managed to add Paul.

Luc Mbah a Moute gets an honorable mention here, as well.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni, but the Rockets were a respectable defensive team last season. At the very least, that shows that when D’Antoni has the personnel, he can pull some good defense out of his club.

What D’Antoni deserves respect for, however, is demanding greatness of his team and remaining true to his principles. Since his departure from the Phoenix Suns, he has failed to find the type of success that many expected after leading the Suns to contention. The winner of the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year Award, D’Antoni joins Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Gene Shue, Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons as the only coaches in history to win the award multiple times.

As great as James Harden has been, it could certainly be argued that he wouldn’t have been able to unleash his offensive potential without having a system that could take advantage of his gifts and a coach that could reach him.

It’s easy to argue that the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets represents the finest coaching job in D’Antoni’s career.

2. Daryl Morey

One of the leaders of the contemporary NBA’s love affair with advanced statistics and analytics, Morey is one of the more renowned general managers in the NBA. Whether it was making an aggressive run at Chris Bosh or signing Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard, Morey has traditionally been a general manager who often looks for and usually finds ways to improve his team. An autopsy of the moves that he has made would show a few failures and a few contracts that were richer than they should have been, but the same can be said of most executives across the NBA. Long ago, Morey earned the monicker of “the Wizard” for seemingly being able to come away from trades with more than he gave up. The test of the monicker will be this season, though. With Chris Paul’s advancing age, Morey will have limited time to build a contender around he and James Harden. However, over the course of his 10 years in Houston, we admire his zeal and give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Trevor Ariza

Though lacking the hardware, one could make the case that Trevor Ariza is a lite version of the modern day Bruce Bowen. Since being drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Ariza has been a plus contributor for each one of his 13 years in the NBA. He has earned a reputation for being a true professional, an excellent teammate and a hard worker.

Defensively, although Ariza has lost a step or two, he is still pesky on the perimeter. He shot 34.4 percent from the three-point line last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from deep. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily put him among the league leaders, it allows him to blend in nicely with Chris Paul and James Harden. He will contribute positively on the defensive end while helping to keep the floor spaced and the game open.

4. Nene

Having just turned 35 years old, there was some doubt that Nene would return for his 16th NBA season after his 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely. Nene tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ playoff battle against the San Antonio Spurs, and any chance that the team had of competing with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard went up in smoke.

Nene is still an effective defender and still has magnificent footwork. He’s nimble and should still be able to give the Rockets an effective 15 minutes per game. It’s also reasonable to expect him to be the team’s best post option and, in a best case scenario, someone who can help some of the younger big men on the Rockets develop their own skills.

5. Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson’s name has been mentioned a lot this past summer, but mostly because the New York Knicks have let it be known that they refuse to take him back in any would-be trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Truth is, when it was learned that the Rockets would sign Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, most people questioned the wisdom behind the deal. Certainly a hefty commitment, Anderson could be argued as being overpaid, but his effectiveness with last season’s Rockets can’t be questioned.

In 29.4 minutes per game last season, Anderson scored 13.6 points per game. More importantly, though, he led the team in three-point percentage, connecting on 40.3 percent of his looks from long distance.

What made Anderson’s proficiency and durability especially noteworthy last season was the fact that he missed 97 total games over the precious three seasons. He appeared in 72 total contests last season, and appears to be trending in the right direction. Although he owns a rich contract that the Knicks rightfully want no part of, he fits nicely with the Rockets, who they are and what they do.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets had an interesting summer, dipping below the salary cap in June to acquire multiple contracts to immediately turn around in trade for Chris Paul. The team has been over the cap since the start of July, using almost their Mid-Level Exception on P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Houston also spent its Bi-Annual Exception on Tarik Black. With $114.7 million in guaranteed salary, the Rockets have some wiggle room under their hard cap of $125.3 million – potentially staying completely under the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold.

Next summer, the team could get to almost $20 million in cap room but only if Paul leaves as an unrestricted free agent. Houston is far more likely to stay over next year’s projected $102 million cap, locking down Paul on a new, long-term deal. Before the start of the coming season, Houston can work an extension with Clint Capela, otherwise he’ll hit restricted free agency in July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Backcourt and the Coach

Chris Paul and James Harden, in terms of talent, can argue for mention as the top backcourt in the league. At the very least, they are on the same plane as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Whatever the Rockets hope to be this season will begin and end with how Paul and Harden galvanize their troops. For the most part, though, the two have each proven themselves to be effective leaders and winners. Paul has always maximized the talent around him, and last season Harden proved that he is just as capable of doing the same. If the Rockets can collectively take the next step and keep the ball moving as opposed to standing by idly and waiting for Paul and Harden to create, they’ll be in business.

As it relates to Mike D’Antoni, he will only be effective if his players are buying into what he is preaching. With Paul and Harden, D’Antoni will have the most gifted tandem he’s ever coached, and it should be interesting to see what kind of return he is able to get. If there is one coach that should be entrusted with finding a way to make Paul and Harden work together, it’s D’Antoni.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Chemistry

Jumping on the opportunity to acquire a player like Chris Paul was the right move, but the Rockets don’t have the depth required of a championship contender. Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have 10 players who can be counted on to have an impact on any given night. The same probably can’t be said of the Rockets. At best, the Rockets have eight players who have proven that they are everyday NBA contributors, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are only threats on offense, while Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are most effective on the defensive side of the ball. Nene probably can’t play much more than 15 minutes per game and at least one of Demetrius Jackson, Tim Quarterman or Isaiah Taylor will be depended upon to play impactful minutes at the lead guard position, especially if either Paul or Harden goes down.

Aside from that, the Rockets have a lot of new faces. For a team that won 55 games last season and found success with what it was running, incorporating so many new faces will pose a challenge.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Daryl Morey find a way to land Carmelo Anthony?

Acquiring Chris Paul came at a great cost. In exchange for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Rockets traded away some key members of last seasons team in Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, as well as a few youngsters in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. The Rockets also sent a top-three protected 2018 first round pick to the Clippers. The club also sent cash to the Clippers.

The only problem for the Rockets now, though, is depth. While they still have some very good contributors, the team has consolidated a few of its important pieces (including a top-flight defender in Beverly) for the right to acquire Paul. It makes perfect sense that the team is interested in Carmelo Anthony, but the cupboard seems fairly bare. What remains to be seen with the Rockets now is whether and how they will find creative ways to add two or three more rotation-ready pieces to their roster. If Anthony holds out until December, the trade winds will begin swirling, as players who signed contracts this past summer will become trade-eligible. In other instances, players who seek buyouts (such as Dwyane Wade) may eventually wiggle free and may circle Houston as a preferred destination.

The question at the end of the day thus becomes whether Morey can continue to be the Wizard we have come to know and put some more meaningful pieces around his dynamic backcourt—whether it be Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

— Moke Hamilton

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NBA

NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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NBA

Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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