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NBA Daily: Fixing The New York Knicks

Despite adding a number of veterans this past offseason, the New York Knicks have started 2019-20 poorly. Drew Maresca purposes the framework of four trades the Knicks should explore.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are playing better basketball of late. They’re 3-3 under interim head coach Mike Miller and they’ve won three of their last four games. They also recently added former EuroLeague and Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt as a basketball operations consultant. That, naturally, is an improvement on the usual state of affairs, albeit marginally.

But on the whole, the Knicks have been pretty awful this season. They’re 7-21, good for a .250 winning percentage and last season wasn’t much better. In 2018-19, New York won just 17 games and they haven’t fared much better in most of the previous 17 seasons either. Over that span, they’ve made the playoffs only five times, won a grand total of six playoff games and advanced beyond the first round once.

Clearly the organization must embrace wholesale changes before any real progress is made. Despite public support to clean house, the odds are much higher that any front office changes will wait until the offseason. There, the franchise would theoretically conduct a comprehensive search (and go through a complete courtship of Raptors’ Masai Ujiri).

So it looks like there will be at least one more trade deadline for which Knicks fans must make do with team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. If not more, knowing the typical chain of command in Manhattan. Still, the pair could easily operate out of desperation, which should scare fans a little more than usual. But the pressure is fair: After all, they are responsible for many of the current players and they hired (and fired) David Fizdale.

On the bright side: The Knicks signed six veterans this past offseason, many of whom should garner some level of interest from contenders around the league. Simply put, New York should seriously explore moving all of them. As is, the current roster is unable to leverage their skill sets and are nowhere near competing for a playoff berth – let alone a championship. And with the trade deadline and February coming quickly down the road, the Knicks should be proactively reaching out to teams around the league.

But it’s not just Marcus Morris who should interest contenders. There’s also Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock — all of whom are essentially on expiring deals thanks to 2020-21 team options attached to all of their contracts. Bullock might be the most challenging to move of the bunch since he has yet to suit up in 2019-20 due to a back injury. However, even Bullock is nearly set to return and features a very team-friendly contract at $4 million guaranteed in 2019-20 and a team option for next year.

Julius Randle is an even tougher sell since his contract is also guaranteed for 2020-21, with a team option for the following year — but more on that later.

The Knicks mustn’t worry about hanging on to their veterans and winning a few extra games this year — and hopefully the front office operates with the team’s best interest in mind instead of their own. Assuming they do, what might they get in return? Let’s explore four plausible trades that would help the Knicks in the near future.

Marcus Morris to the Los Angeles Clippers for Maurice Harkless, Jerome Robinson and LAC 2020 1st rounder

This is an easy one since the framework of it was named as a jumping-off point by Zach Lowe earlier this week, essentially. Lowe suggested Morris in exchange for the Clippers’ 2020 first-round pick, Harkless and Patrick Patterson. Possibly, the Knicks could do even better.

Knicks fans are torn on the idea of parting with their leading scorer. Here’s why that’s flawed logic: While he’s publicly embraced the idea of playing in New York, who wouldn’t put on a happy face when auditioning for a longer-term deal? Remember, Morris is an unrestricted free agent following this season. He can play nice, build up his credibility around the league and sign with whichever contender has the biggest need and fits best in 2020.

Further, even if Morris were to re-resign, how much would it cost and for how long? Morris is already 30 years old and likely that the Knicks won’t be competitive until at least 2021-22 – when Morris will be 32.

But he fills a need now for the Clippers. Morris is a hard-nosed defender that is averaging 18.8 points per game and is shooting 47.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game.

However, Harkless – who is only 26 and expires after this season – and Robinson – 22 and the No, 13 overall pick in 2018  — combine for only 9.2 points over 36 minutes per game. They possess at least enough upside for the Knicks to make this deal, but Morris would help the Clippers far more than Robinson and Harkless currently do.

And to the Clippers supporters that would they’re giving up too much: Remember that Morris’ services will be highly sought after and Los Angeles’s 2020 first-round pick will be a late first-rounder.

Wayne Ellington to Philadelphia for Zhaire Smith and salary filler

Philadelphia 76ers fans probably won’t be thrilled with this idea, but it’s practical for both teams.

When open, Ellington is a guaranteed bucket. Yes, he’s shooting a career-low 30.4 percent on 3.8 attempts in 14.3 minutes per game — but much of that has to do with the fact that the Knicks rotations have been problematic and unpredictable. He’s shot better than 36.8 percent on at least six three-point attempts per game in each of the last five seasons — plus he’s a career 37 percent three-point shooter. Do you know what the 76ers need more of? You nailed it: Three-point shooting.

Giving up on the lottery-selected Zaire Smith so early in his career is definitely a gamble, but he hasn’t even appeared in an NBA game yet this season. He has appeared in eight of the Delaware Bluecoat’s 14 games (the 76ers’ G-League affiliate) in 2019-20, where he is averaging 12.4 points on an eFG% of 54.9. He’s also grabbing 4.1 rebounds and dishing 2.0 assists over 27.6 minutes per game — not bad stats, but not what you hope for from a lottery pick, and certainly not in the G League.

This one is made additionally complicated due to the fact that the 76ers are incredibly cash strapped but that works in the Knicks’ favor. Since Philadelphia will struggle with the idea of reworking their cap to offer a rookie extension to someone that hasn’t been able to crack the rotation, the Knicks can help. The 76ers are projected over the cap and the luxury tax line through at least 2022 and they must pick-up Smith’s $4.9 million team option by October 2020 for 2021-2022.

What’s more, rookie Matisse Thybulle has succeeded in the minutes that were previously thought to be Smith’s — so, everybody wins.

The 76ers’ championship window is currently open, and they should look to add players who will help them secure a championship. And unless they think they can re-add JJ Redick, Ellington fills a void for Philadelphia.

The Knicks would have to take on additional salary, but the framework of this trade is more important than a few extra bucks here or there.

Elfrid Payton and the Knicks’ 2023 second-round pick to Miami for Dion Waiters and the HEAT’s 2023 first-round pick

This one is mostly about the HEAT’s desire to get out from under Dion Waiters’ withering contract. Waiters has been suspended this season for ingesting marijuana-infused gummies and then calling out sick before posting a photo on Instagram depicting him on a boat — plus some detrimental conduct for good measure. Rumors have buzzed about Miami wanting him gone before he does any damage to a roster that has gelled more than anyone anticipated.

Yes, an unprotected first-rounder is a hefty price to pay – especially so far in the future, by which time anything could happen to the HEAT’s roster — but that’s the price they’ll probably have to pay. Teams know the HEAT are desperate. And waiving him would carry a big cost since he’s fully guaranteed this season ($12.1 million) and next season ($12.65 million). Instead, the HEAT and Knicks should swap Waiters for Miami’s 2020 first-rounder and Elfird Payton.

Somehow, Payton could actually help the HEAT. The Knicks backcourt is jam-packed with Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Payton, which has prohibited the latter from getting more minutes. But don’t be fooled, Payton still has some upside. He’s still only 25 and — despite suffering a hamstring injury earlier this season — has posted a 16.6 PER, 8.4 points, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals over 22.3 minutes per game. Further, he’s secured 20 assists and zero turnovers in his last two games combined. He might not be a full-time starter, but he’s more than capable of contributing to a championship-caliber team.

And the Knicks can afford to waive Waiters – or maybe give him another chance at rehabilitating his image – because they aren’t going to contend before his contract expires anyway.

Julius Randle to Indiana for Myles Turner

While this could be a tough sell for Indiana, Turner has not blossomed the way many had hoped he would. He’s averaged 12.8 points per game for his career — but only 11.3 in 30 minutes per game this season. Turner, too, has also underwhelmed on the glass (5.8 rebounds per game) and in the mid-range (shooting only 46.2 percent from three to ten feet and only 14.3 from 16 feet to the three-point line) this year.

And while Randle has disappointed this season, he’s given fans hope of late. Last season, Randle set career highs in points (21.4) and three-point shooting (34.4 percent). Over the last four games, he’s recaptured his 2018-19 mojo, posting 21.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game on shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range.

Indiana benefits because they could finally unleash Domantas Sabonis at center while adding a versatile low-post scoring threat to help buoy the Pacers as Victor Oladipo continues rehabbing his quad. Ridding themselves of an extra two years of salary — Randle’s deal has a team option following 2020-21, whereas Turner’s doesn’t expire until 2023 — is a plus too.

And for the Knicks, they return a still-highly regarded prospect who could fit nicely alongside their current center, Mitchell Robinson.

The bottom line is this: The Knicks shouldn’t worry about fit yet. As of now, New York should focus on amassing as much talent as possible. If there are overlaps at certain positions, so be it. That was the attitude toward the point guard position last February when they brought in Smith Jr — and it forces the best player to earn his spot.

The Knicks could also decide to appease ticket holders and build a makeshift “winner.” Naturally, they could mortgage their future for some combination of Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday and Kevin Love. They might even make a run at a playoff push — and they might be fairly competitive next year. But it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t answer any long-term problems.

Ultimately, with no front office moves on the horizon, the Knicks must be prudent and deliberate in every decision they make — even then, they need to make moves now before teams begin looking elsewhere.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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