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NBA Daily: Areas of Concern: Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s early November, which means it’s time to make some rash overreactions — right? Well, maybe it’s a bit early to hit those panic buttons, but there are certainly some areas of concern for every NBA franchise. This week at Basketball Insiders, the team has tackled those big (and small) in-the-room elephants to get a better understanding of each squad. If you’re behind — listen, it was a busy week, we get it — then here’s your rapid-fire recap.

Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division on Monday; David Yapkowitz hit up the Northeast on Wednesday; Drew Maresca handled the pesky Atlantic; while Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southwest to finish up the work week. Which brings our coast-to-coast tour bus to the Southeast Division for the next entry in the series. Analyzing the division is no easy task as all of them seem headed in different directions at this time — but whether they’re tanking, experimenting or combusting, every franchise could do with a tweak here and there. With that in mind, let’s check out the current statuses of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.

Atlanta Hawks: Smooth Sailing To A Top Draft Pick

This feels like slightly cheating, to kick off these mini-capsules by saying there are no true areas of concern for Atlanta because they’re exactly where they should be: losing. In reality, the Hawks are in the midst of an important rebuild and even an unlikely postseason berth is not worth missing out on another top draft pick. Adding Zion Williamson or Cam Reddish to a core that already includes the talented Trae Young, plus John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince and Omari Spellman, should be a salivating prospect for the Hawks’ front office.

However, since it’s just the early stages of a long, long campaign, let’s assume that Atlanta wants to win a couple more games along the way. In that case, what should they do? On one hand, they could do worse than playing veteran Jeremy Lin more than 17 minutes per game, that’s for sure. Lin’s signing in Brooklyn was unfortunately marred by two gnarly injuries, but he’s proven to be adaptable and reliable at every other stop along the way. Even better, Lin’s minutes don’t need to come at the expense of Young either, as the former has experience playing alongside Kemba Walker in years past.

Still, the Hawks benefit most from racking up those losses while developing the younger portion of their roster — so don’t look for a major tune-up in strategy anytime soon.

Charlotte Hornets: Where Are The Kids?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Charlotte Hornets, an in-between team with a new coach and a mostly re-run roster that’s done well to get off on their 6-6 start. As of today, the Hornets have the fourth-best offensive rating (114.3) in the NBA and a nearly top-ten defensive unit (107.4) to make the early returns even more impressive. The aforementioned Walker is still red-hot, but Nicolas Batum is playing the second-most minutes per game on the roster right now and 32-year-old Marvin Williams comes in at fourth — but at what long-term cost? The Hornets are shooting like an elite franchise currently — 12.8 three-pointers on 36.8 percent — but in 2017-18, this roster converted just 10 of them per game, a mark on the basement end of proceedings. That high tally also heavily relies on Walker staying at his scorching 4.1 three-pointers per game average as well. If they want to compete with the likes of the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors down the line, they’ll need everybody to continue contributing at this rate, if not even more.

That, naturally, is where Malik Monk comes in.

It’s a well-trodden subject at this point, but it was a frustrating rookie campaign for Monk last season. This year, the 6-foot-3 guard looks like a different animal altogether. Monk is averaging 13.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting in just 23.3 minutes per game — so it stands to reason that once the Hornets truly let Monk loose, they should benefit immensely. To the Hornets’ credit, they’re at not trying to fix something that isn’t broken, for now, which is the second-best scoring bench unit league-wide. Presumably, Monk will move into Jeremy Lamb’s starting spot and newcomer Miles Bridges will receive a deserved boost in minutes before too long. Ultimately, the conference’s top dogs run deep rotations and the quicker Charlotte gets their interesting collection of prospects — Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez included — going, the better they’ll be by springtime.

Miami HEAT: Just A Star Addition Away?

Originally, this blurb was about Miami’s need to specifically trade for Jimmy Butler. As of Saturday morning, that ship has officially sailed with the Butler move to Philadelphia. Superstars win championships in this modern day landscape and the HEAT happen to be one of the only strong postseason candidates without a bonafide juggernaut. Hassan Whiteside is a still a double-double machine, but he’s not a top-drawer, go-to guarantee at the end of games either. Surprisingly, Miami has imparted most of their scoring burden upon Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old that offers great two-way promise, but he can’t measure up against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard just yet.

That’s no slight against Richardson — 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game — of course, but it’s hard to believe Miami can keep pace without the acquisition of a star. It’s no shock that the HEAT were interested in Butler as his hard-nosed, defensive-minded prowess would have been the perfect linchpin for a roster that’s chock-full of second options. It’s safe to assume that the HEAT are as close as to a postseason lock as possible, but it’s tough to pit them against the upper echelon without further reinforcements. Through 11 games, Miami has shot and defended admirably — but they also haven’t beaten any game-changing competition either.

So much will happen between now and February’s deadline, but the HEAT could become serious conference contenders if the right deal eventually comes their way.

Orlando Magic: A Slow Start For Isaac, Bamba

Over the offseason, the hype for the towering Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba duo took on a life of its own — and who could blame those onlookers? The talented Isaac spent most his rookie year injured, but the 6-foot-10 forward showed flashes of absolute brilliance at times. Joined by Bamba (and the recently retained Aaron Gordon), it was difficult not to get excited about that trio’s innate potential, particularly so if these two promising prospects pulled through in fast succession. In retrospect, Bamba was never going to immediately take over for veteran and franchise stalwart Nikola Vucevic at center, especially under new head coach Steve Clifford, but it’s been a slower start than anticipated for sure.

In his limited minutes, Bamba has certainly impressed though: Every time the rookie has logged 20-plus minutes, he’s also grabbed six or more rebounds. Then Bamba notched his first-ever double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in just under 16 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs last week — hell, he’s already had a five-block game to boot.

As for Isaac, things have become a bit trickier once more. We’re yet to see the dominant Isaac that was on full display during the Las Vegas Summer League, with the second-year professional really only showing out in two contests in 2018-19 thus far. In October’s win on the road at Boston, Isaac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds on 66.7 percent from the field; three days later he went for 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a loss against Portland. But other than that, his game log has been sprinkled with 3-for-8 or 0-for-6 shooting performances — and the worst of it? Isaac is now dealing with another ankle sprain, the same ailment that shelved him for much of his first foray into professional basketball.

With the Magic involved in the convoluted Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being, the overall outlook here may not change until closer to the trade deadline — and that’s OK too. Issac and Bamba are just 21 and 20 years old, respectively, so there are plenty of opportunities left here to peak together. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Magic will be once this fearsome pair is healthy and fully unleashed.

Washington Wizards: Burn It All Down

Man, what a bummer this has been for the Wizards, huh?

After Friday’s disappointing loss to Orlando, Washington finds themselves in 14th place, ahead of just the 1-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, and tied for the second-worst record in the entire league. For a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and plenty of other valuable contributors, that’s simply inexcusable. Even owner Ted Leonsis couldn’t resist piling on when NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the rise in scoring this season, adding bluntly: “They just have to play us.”

And, truthfully, it’s a whole lot worse than that. Their defensive rating is second-worst (114.6), while their offensive rating is not much better (104.5, 26th) and their assist ratio (16.2, 21st) remains toward the cellar as well. Words are getting passive-aggressive already and, when you zoom out the camera, this melodrama has been driving headlong into oncoming traffic for years now. Washington even added Austin Rivers and Howard to this ill-fitting puzzle with no corner pieces and genuinely thought it would work out — this very writer bought in, to be fair — but it’s not even a month into the season and here they stand: fraught and frayed as ever.

So, the Wizards’ areas of concern are, frankly, everywhere. Questions that must be asked, again: Can they overcome these chemistry issues? Are Wall and Beal still the backcourt pairing of the future? And where does the maxed out Otto Porter Jr. fit in at this point? (As of now, the answer is not well.) Once more, these are not new things to address — these are outstanding, important issues that the Wizards have pushed aside time and time repeated.

There’s obviously an insane amount of talent on this roster and November is far too soon to pull the plug — that should go without saying. In the East alone, the Wizards could play .500-or-so basketball for months and remain right in the postseason hunt, so there should be no immediate rush. But after multiple seasons of this head-scratching frustration, the mind can’t help but wonder when the front office will finally push that self-destruct button and start anew.

In the end, it’s still early, but for most of these teams — you’re excused, Atlanta — they’re still trying to figure out where they stand in the conference hierarchy. Three of the franchises boast new head coaches and those rotations won’t just magically reveal themselves, those fleshed-out nuances take time. In any case, seeing more Monk and Bamba, for example, would be an inarguable boon for their playoff-hopeful clubs. Miami has played up to their deep roster, but an injection of star power could make them a darkhorse contender overnight; while the Wizards need an injection — or an ejection, based on your viewpoint — of just about everything.

Either way, it’ll be intriguing to check back on these capsules closer to the trade deadline: potential overreactions, young stud breakouts and blockbuster transactions — it’s all bubbling there, right under the surface, for better or for worse.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players

Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.

Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.

These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.

Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.

1. Willie Reed

The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.

The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.

2. John Jenkins

Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.

He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.

Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.

3. Anthony Bennett

Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.

Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.

This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.

4. Bruno Caboclo

Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”

Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.

Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.

Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston

Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.

Spencer Davies

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James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.

The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.

But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.

Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.

Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.

At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.

According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.

With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.

Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.

Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.

Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.

If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.

Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.

We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.

This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?

Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.

Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.

There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.

Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.

Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.

Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.

Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.

With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.

This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.

Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.

The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?

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