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Minnesota Timberwolves 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2016-17 season.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves’ young core is widely regarded as the best in the NBA. Not only do they have a superstar in the making in Karl-Anthony Towns and a potential second star in Andrew Wiggins, they have other up-and-coming talents surrounding their cornerstones such as Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Shabazz Muhammad among others.

As if this core wasn’t scary enough, the Timberwolves managed to land Tom Thibodeau as their president of basketball operations and head coach. Thibodeau was arguably the best head coach on the market and it’ll be very interesting to see what he can do with this squad. It’s worth noting that Thibodeau never missed the playoffs in his five seasons as coach of the Chicago Bulls. In fact, he’s never finished with less than 45 wins in a season (and he has a .647 career winning percentage).

In other words, there’s a lot to be excited about in Minnesota. The team is almost certainly still a year or two away from seriously competing in the Western Conference, but progress is expected this year and the group believes that making the playoffs is a realistic goal.

Basketball Insiders previews the Timberwolves’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Timberwolves will be a trendy pick for many as a sleeper this season, but history has taught us to never count on consistency from a team that relies heavily on its young core. Sure veteran head coach Tom Thibodeau has the pedigree to get the maximum amount of effort from his players. But that isn’t the point. Sure we can see the future All-Star potential just oozing off of guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But that isn’t the point. Learning how to win at the NBA level has humbled many kids on the rise and history hasn’t been kind to young and inexperienced units. While the Timberwolves have a core filled with future high performers, the team is still another 20-24 months away from being a legitimate challenger for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Beware of the Timberwolves! Tom Thibodeau himself could probably squeeze 10 additional wins out of any basketball club, but with Kris Dunn joining up with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Thibodeau has some pieces to work with.

The Northwest Division may be one of the most difficult to predict in the NBA season. With Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland and the Trail Blazers continuing to grow, the only thing that we know for sure about the Northwest is that there will be some stiff competition there. I think I lean toward the Timberwolves as being the third best team in the division, narrowly edging out the Jazz, but I don’t say so with absolute conviction. One thing I can say, though, is that Thibodeau has made a career out of defying odds and getting the most with the least, so if for no other reason than his presence, you should expect the T-Wolves to take a major step forward this season.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

There are several teams that have a nucleus of young, exciting talent to build on. But there is no team that has a core quite as exciting at the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, along with other still relatively young players like Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad. It can be argued that other teams have more young players, but with Towns and Wiggins, the Timberwolves have two of the best young prospects in the NBA. This is especially true with Towns, who put up monster numbers as a rookie and looks like he could be one of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later. If Tom Thibodeau can harness this group of young talent into a cohesive unit on both ends of the court, this team could make a big leap forward this upcoming season.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s tempting to put these guys higher up in the division standings because new head coach Tom Thibodeau certainly has done more with less, but this is one of the tougher divisions in basketball. It’s hard to imagine an upstart Wolves team suddenly upending Portland, Oklahoma City and Utah in the Northwest just because of a flashy new name at the helm. That said, Thibs should make some serious progress with this group, as he tends to milk every drop of success possible out of his rosters and there’s plenty of talent to milk this year. He’s got the last two Rookies of the Year in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but it’s not like that’s the only talent on the roster. Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio should keep the backcourt rotation entertaining, and we’re all hoping to eke one more year out of Kevin Garnett. This should be a fun team to watch this season, and this time next year we could very well be talking about them as a Northwest Division leader, not just a Northwest Division competitor.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

My in-depth thoughts on the Timberwolves can be found below throughout the rest of the preview, but I’ll try to sum them up a bit. Karl-Anthony Towns seems poised for superstardom. Andrew Wiggins continues to showcase his impressive two-way game and shouldn’t be slept on. The supporting cast has promising pieces, particularly in the backcourt with Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Tom Thibodeau is an excellent fit for this squad. Simply put, Minnesota should be very, very good soon (barring unexpected setbacks).

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

Andrew Wiggins actually led the Wolves in scoring last season with 20.7 points per game to Towns’ 18.3. However, Towns was far more efficient, shooting better than Wiggins from the field (54.2 percent to 45.9 percent), three-point range (34.1 percent to 30 percent) and the free throw line (81.1 percent to 76.1 percent). Towns also had the higher PER (22.5 to 16.5), offensive rating (112 to 106) and offensive win shares (5.4 to 3.4). The big man can score inside and out, and he should only continue to get better as he continues to gain experience and work with Kevin Garnett (assuming he’s back; more on that in a bit).

Top Defensive Player: Ricky Rubio

You could make the case for Towns here as well and it would be excellent for the Wolves if Wiggins develops into the team’s top defensive player under Thibodeau. Kris Dunn may eventually fight for this distinction too. However, let’s show some love to Ricky Rubio’s defense. He has developed into a shutdown defender, which isn’t easy for a point guard in today’s NBA since he faces a star opponent on more nights than not. Last season, Rubio led the NBA in steals per game (2.1), steals per 48 minutes (3.35) and steal percentage (3.5 percent). And as my colleague Jesse Blancarte pointed out in a recent article about Rubio’s defense, these steals come as a result of his excellent positioning, awareness and length rather than reckless gambling. Another reason why Rubio’s defense is so important is that his great plays on that end typically lead to easy points for Minnesota since he is excellent in transition and has Towns, Wiggins and LaVine among others running alongside him. Which leads us to our next category…

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

In addition to playing very good defense, Rubio ranked fifth in the NBA in assists per game (8.7) and assist percentage (41.4 percent) last season behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and John Wall. Rubio is the kind of passer who creates easy buckets for his teammates and he can make some jaw-dropping plays with the ball in his hands. Rubio’s shooting remains an issue (37.4 percent from the field last year) and some have questioned what the future holds for him with younger floor generals like Dunn and LaVine on the Wolves’ roster, but the soon-to-be 26-year-old deserves credit in these two categories.

Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

Because Towns is so efficient and effective all over the court, it’s safe to assume that the ball will be in his hands if Minnesota is in need of a clutch bucket. Last April, Towns hit a game-winning turnaround hook shot to beat the Portland Trail Blazers. After the game, he thanked his teammates and coaches for trusting him in that position and said he knew the shot was good the moment it left his hand. He has the confidence that’s necessary to be a clutch threat, and he’s poised beyond his years. Expect to see more of Towns in the clutch going forward since the Wolves should have more close games and all signs point to Towns continuing to get better and consistently having the rock in late-game situations.

The Unheralded Player: Gorgui Dieng

Last season, Dieng averaged 10.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals in 27.1 minutes per game. He made the most of his minutes and remains one of the more underrated big men in the league entering his fourth NBA season. Dieng was an important piece for Minnesota last year, ranking second on the Wolves in offensive rating (113), defensive rating (106), win shares (5.9) and value over replacement player (2.5). Also, he finished first on the team in true shooting percentage (60.1 percent). At 26 years old, Dieng is a bit older than other members of Minnesota’s core and doesn’t have the same upside. However, he is a key part of their supporting cast who has done well on both ends of the court when given meaningful playing time.

Top New Addition: Kris Dunn

One could make the argument that Tom Thibodeau is actually the Wolves’ best new addition since he’ll have a huge impact on the franchise moving forward. However, if we’re focusing solely on players, Kris Dunn is clearly the team’s top offseason acquisition. Dunn was the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft and he’s one of the most NBA-ready players in this draft class. The 22-year-old guard is a terrific defender who should thrive under Thibodeau and, as previously mentioned, his arrival has some wondering about Rubio’s future in Minnesota. Last year, Dunn averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.5 steals while leading Providence to 24 wins. He shot 44.8 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three-point range. Among all college players, he ranked third in assist percentage (41.8 percent), sixth in steal percentage (4.3 percent) and 16th in Box Plus-Minus (11.3). In other words, Minnesota has added another extremely talented young player to their already scary core.

– Alex Kennedy

WHO WE LIKE

1. Andrew Wiggins

Towns is now viewed as the Timberwolves’ franchise player because his game is a perfect fit for today’s NBA and he was fantastic as a rookie, but Minnesota is also relying heavily on Wiggins going forward. He’s a cornerstone of this team too and he may even be flying under the radar a bit due to Towns overshadowing him. It’s worth noting that Wiggins played very well during his sophomore campaign, averaging 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal per game. He needs to become more efficient and consistent (especially with his shot and defense), but keep in mind that he’s still just 21 years old. He’s younger than incoming rookie Kris Dunn. Also, Thibodeau’s arrival should be great for Wiggins, who could become a two-way star in the same way that Jimmy Butler did under Thibs’ guidance. Towns’ ascent to stardom may have taken some attention off of Wiggins, but he also removes some of the pressure off him and makes the forward’s life easier by giving Minnesota a great player in the paint. Wiggins still has a ridiculously high ceiling and watching him develop should be fun.

2. Zach LaVine

LaVine’s athleticism is obviously off the charts, but his overall game has significantly improved since he entered the league. Last year, he averaged 14 points on 45.2 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three-point range. As my colleague Tommy Beer pointed out recently, LaVine was the only Minnesota player to hit more than 65 threes last year and he shot a very impressive 43.3 percent from behind the arc (87-202) over the final 50 games of the season. Also, LaVine cut back his turnovers (from 2.5 per game as a rookie to 1.9 last year) even though he was playing more minutes and was more involved offensively. That’s exactly what the Wolves want to see from him, and it’s worth noting that he is still just 21 years old.

3. Kevin Garnett

Garnett hasn’t indicated whether he’ll return to the court next season. Like he has done in recent summers, the veteran big man is contemplating retirement. However, he is under contract for the 2016-17 season with a $8,000,000 salary so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back. Either way, he has indicated that he’d like to be involved with the organization in some capacity moving forward and that’s great for all of the young players in Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns, in particular, has really enjoyed learning from Garnett and is soaking up the future Hall of Famer’s advice like a sponge. At this stage in his career, the 40-year-old doesn’t make much of a difference on the court (he averaged just 3.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game last year and appeared in just 38 contests). But that’s not really important. Think of him more like a very well paid assistant coach who has the respect of every single person in the organization. Having him around can only help the young squad, especially as they look to take their defense to the next level under Thibodeau (who was an assistant coach in Boston when Garnett won his lone championship in 2008).

4. Tom Thibodeau

As stated earlier, he was a terrific addition for the Wolves this summer. During his time in Chicago, Thibodeau was consistently named one of the top coaches in the NBA by general managers in their annual survey and his teams produced on the court. Defense is obviously his specialty and he has the personnel to make the Wolves very good on that end of the floor (although it may take some time). Even if the Wolves need one more year of development before seriously competing, it’s hard not to like this hire for Minnesota. Thibodeau has been criticized for playing his guys big minutes (which may have contributed to injuries and declined production), but it’s possible that he learned from his experiences in Chicago and could alter his approach.

– Alex Kennedy

SALARY CAP 101

With 15 guaranteed players, the Timberwolves will need to open roster space if they want to keep invites Toure’ Murry and/or John Lucas. Minnesota can get to $13.4 million NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. Given teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season, the Wolves are likely to start the seasons at $3.9 million under that mark. Any shortfall will be paid out to the team’s rostered players at the end of the year.

It’s not entirely clear yet if Kevin Garnett will play through his 22nd season. He’s in the final year of his contract at $8 million. The Wolves also need to decide on rookie-scale options for Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne and Tyus Jones before November – all likely to be picked up. The team also has until the end of October to give extensions to Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Looking ahead to next summer, Minnesota could have roughly $31 million in spending power.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Towns’ potential is off the charts, but he’s far from a project. In fact, one could make the case that he’s already one of the better big men in the league. Few teams have a seven-footer who’s quite so well-rounded and efficient; he averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 54.2 percent from the field last year as a 20-year-old. He certainly gives the Wolves an advantage in the paint and causes match-up problems. The team’s athleticism is also a big strength. But perhaps the best thing that the Wolves have going for them is Thibodeau, who should win the coaching battle most nights.

– Alex Kennedy

WEAKNESSES

With any up-and-coming team, the group’s inexperience will lead to common mistakes. The hope is that Thibodeau can clean up the team’s play, especially defensively, but that may take time. Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories in recent years. Shooting and defense are two areas where they need to make big strides if they want to compete at a high level, especially with the direction the league is moving.

– Alex Kennedy

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Timberwolves make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season?

Earlier this week, Karl-Anthony Towns made headlines when he said that he expects Minnesota to crack the Western Conference’s top eight this upcoming season.

“We’ve got to make the playoffs,” Towns said in an interview with Jared Zwerling of NBPA.com. “We’ve got to do something special, and it’s up to us to continue to work and to make that happen.”

This would be quite the jump in the standings, considering the team won just 29 games last year. However, with internal development, a terrific new coach in Tom Thibodeau and some new immediate-impact players like Kris Dunn, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill among others, it’s reasonable to expect the Wolves to be better.

Also, it is true that the conference is coming off of a down year in which the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets won just 41 games (as opposed to the 45 or more wins it typically takes to make the postseason in the West).

Still, Minnesota must fight off last year’s playoff teams plus fellow up-and-coming squads like the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans (who were depleted by injuries last year), Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns among others. It remains to be seen if they can make the leap this season and keep Thibodeau’s postseason streak intact.

Alex Kennedy

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NBA

San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 Season Preview

The Spurs brought their band back and added Rudy Gay. Will it be enough to win the Southwest again?

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After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?

Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.

Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.

If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.

I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.

It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.

Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.

He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard aslo ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.

Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.

Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.

Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.

It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.

He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.

Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.

He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.

The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.

Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.

He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.

The Unheralded Player:  Danny Green

Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.

One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.

But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.

He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.

Best New Addition: Rudy Gay

Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.

Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.

He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.

Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.

The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge

As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.

While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.

The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.

3. Dejounte Murray

As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.

With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.

If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.

Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.

4. Manu Ginobili

We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.

While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.

Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.

Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?

It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.

— Cody Taylor

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NBA Saturday: Early Season Storylines To Keep An Eye On

This summer produced several NBA storylines heading into this season. Here are a few that will dominate the early news cycle.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s that time of year again, folks. The NBA season is back.

On Monday, most teams around the league will hold their media day availability, and the teams that don’t will be opening their doors to reporters in the days that follow. After what seemed like an incredibly short offseason due to all of the madness that took place throughout the Association this summer, the league as a whole is ready to get back into the swing of things.

With the aforementioned crazy summer, the NBA experienced a fresh new set of storylines heading into this season. Some are set in stone, some are still developing, but all look to be a whole new level of interesting for a league that people generally complain about the regular season being too boring.

As basketball season gets set to tip off, let’s take a look at some of the stories that are going to be dominating the news cycle for this year.

Golden State Dominance

Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors won 73 games. You know how that team’s story ends. So, in light of their shortcomings, the 73-win Warriors added Kevin Durant. You know how that team’s story ends, too.

Well, here we are. Year two of the Durant Warriors, fresh off of a world championship with no clear signs of slowing down. Durant actually took less money than what he could’ve signed for just so Golden State could keep the core guys like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston around in the Bay Area. When your best player is taking less money to keep key bench guys on the squad, chances are you’re going to be in the running for a title that next season.

Now, just because the Warriors were so dominant last season doesn’t mean the rest of the league is laying down. The Houston Rockets made a move to pair Chris Paul with James Harden, Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George (and as of today, Carmelo Anthony) joined Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward moved to Boston. Elite players seemed to swap jerseys this summer at an eye-opening rate, in theory, to position themselves for the opportunity to one day take down the empire out in California.

What makes this unfolding story so interesting is, will it be enough? Will all of these new-look teams with new star players be able to make Golden State sweat, or will they just steamroll everyone like they did last year?

Only time will tell for certain, but the smart money is still on the Warriors.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

Raise your hand if you guessed Kyrie Irving would be the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics on opening night this season. If you raised your hand, you’re a liar.

Shortly following Irving and LeBron James’ third season, and their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, the point guard dropped a bombshell on just about every person in the basketball community when news broke that he was demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three years of living in King James’ shadow proved to be too much for Irving, and he spoke publicly about wanting to have his own team, to be able to do his own thing. Not many players, if any at all, had so publicly looked for a divorce from arguably the greatest player of this generation. Boiled down to its core, the move by Irving was a statement that sometimes regardless of how great a player he is, James just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

To make things even more interesting, the Cavaliers shipped Irving right to the team they had just beaten in the Eastern Conference Finals. Irving in Beantown to start the 2017-18 NBA season, what a time.

And because the NBA is a perfect blend of consistent chaos, the Cavs and Celtics will have to wait a whopping zero days before facing off against each other in their newest forms.

That’s right. Opening night, Oct. 17, at Quicken Loans Arena. In a perfect world, James will switch onto Irving in a defensive matchup and the place will go wild. With how perfect the NBA’s insanity has been over the past few months, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 

Lonzo Ball

It’s almost unbelievable how much impact a rookie point guard who hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA floor for a meaningful minute can dominate the news headlines.

I’d be willing to wager, however, that most rookie point guards don’t have a dad like Lonzo Ball does.

When you mix up the Big Baller Brand, Lonzo’s incredible passing skills, LaVar’s big mouth, and the Los Angeles market you get a whole bunch of interest. Everyone and their mother will be monitoring each step of Lonzo’s rookie season. Some will be wishing him success, others will be hoping he fails, but everyone will be watching. In fact, Lonzo is expected to generate so much coverage through the media that USA Today launched a wire service site strictly dedicated to the coverage of the Lakers rookie point guard, dubbed “LonzoWire.”

Say what you will about LaVar, but man can that guy market his son.

The Lakers, now run by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, have made some moves to better the franchise for this season. Trading for Brook Lopez and signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to pair with young core members Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle makes for an interesting team heading into this season.

While playoff basketball won’t likely be in the cards for Los Angeles this season, the conversation around the team will have you thinking Kobe Bryant came out of retirement and suited up.

Philadelphia 76ers Health Concerns

If you’ve grown accustomed to trusting The Process, there’s a good chance you’ve had to explain the severity of certain injuries to a fellow basketball fan.

After multiple injuries to heralded prospects, the stars seem to be aligning in Philadelphia for the 76ers and their crop of young talent. Ben Simmons is at what appears to be full strength after head coach Brett Brown told media Wednesday he’s been participating in 5-on-5 drills and has been “dominating the gym.” Markelle Fultz seems to be recovered from rolling his ankle in Summer League play.

But the question about franchise center Joel Embiid’s health — who showed more than a few flashes of brilliance during his 31 games last season –is still very much alive. After suffering a meniscus injury that ended his season last winter, Embiid is still yet to be cleared for 5-on-5 play.

As Embiid goes, the Sixers will go. Simmons and Fultz could potentially turn into game-changers one day, but as far as the basketball world knows, Embiid is already at that level when healthy. For a team with playoff aspirations in a weakened Eastern Conference, they’ll need at the very least 55 games from their franchise big man to pull themselves out of the lottery for the first time in six years.

With the captivating personality Embiid possesses, he’s the picture perfect media darling. Every tweet Embiid sends out goes viral in minutes, and his post game dancing antics never fail to make for a hilarious video.

For every bit of promise the Sixers ooze heading into this season, there will be a dark cloud of skepticism that hovers over them until proven otherwise. That intrigue in itself, not even counting how fun a Simmons-Fultz-Embiid trio could be, will be enough to have people following along closely.

Granted, these aren’t all of the storylines that will dominate the NBA this season. That’s the best part. New drama will almost assuredly pop up on a regular basis as the season begins to get itself into mid-season form, and there were be a whole new bag of goodies for the fans to digest.

If this past summer is any indication for how this NBA season will go, not many people will be calling the regular season boring this time around.

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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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