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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Memphis Grizzlies

Spencer Davies resumes Basketball Insiders “Grading The Offseason” series with an overview of the Memphis Grizzlies’ shift in direction to start anew.

Spencer Davies

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With another week gone by, we’ve officially flipped the calendar over to August. Preseason football is starting up, as is Team USA Basketball practice, which signals that fall is right around the corner. It also means NBA Training Camps are somehow only a month or so away. Can you believe it?

So what better way to get you ramped up for the return of the association than by revisiting Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series? We’ve already covered 12 teams to this point, so let’s get back to it with a breakdown of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Overview

Coming into the 2018-19 campaign, questions surrounded the organization: When is Memphis going to finally end the Grit-N-Grind era? Are Mike Conley and Marc Gasol really going to want to stick around for a rebuild?

The chatter was fair. This would be the Grizzlies’ third season in four years with a new head coach. J.B. Bickerstaff officially was named head coach after taking over interim duties the previous year.

The organization could be described as anything but stable. Other than being loyal to the city that took them in, there was reason to believe those two All-Star-caliber franchise cornerstones would desire greater things than another portion of their careers being spent at the bottom of the standings.

When the Grizzlies got blown out in their opener, it looked like the season would be a long and strenuous one. It ironically turned out to be a small blip early, as they had a respectable 13-8 record through November. Gasol commandeered the offensive load while Conley ran the sets and rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. showed why he was the fourth overall pick of his draft class. Garrett Temple proved to be one of the better veteran pickups of the summer. Things were looking up for a brief moment.

It didn’t last, though. Unfortunately, those four made up the majority of the Grizzlies’ attack…literally. They got stops often and did a solid job on the defensive end of the floor by forcing their slower pace on the opposition. The problem was they couldn’t keep up if those teams figured out a way to break that strategy—which tended to happen more often than not.

Going into the New Year, Memphis sat at 18-17, but January derailed whatever glimmer of hope the team had of salvaging a successful turnout. Eventually, then-general manager Chris Wallace moved Gasol in a trade deadline deal with the Toronto Raptors. The same fate awaited JaMychal Green and Temple, who were sent to the Los Angeles Clippers. Shelvin Mack was also dealt to the Atlanta Hawks.

New acquisitions like Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas came in and immediately injected some fresh life into the team. Avery Bradley produced his best numbers since his last stint in Boston. Conley stayed put and played the rest of the way, perhaps putting forth some of the best efforts until he was rested from March 31 to the end of the season.

Originally signed to a 10-day contract, Bruno Caboclo vaulted himself into a multi-year deal. Ivan Rabb received valuable experience as a second-year big man trying to learn the league. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, Joakim Noah had a career resurgence that Grind City won’t soon forget.

While the 33-49 season wasn’t a complete waste, it was, again, one with a head coach who is no longer there and a front office structure that is no longer in place.

Offseason

The Grizzlies had some major turnover right off the bat this summer. Owner Robert Pera reshaped the front office with sweeping changes.

With Wallace demoted to a role in the scouting department, Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman were named president and executive vice president of basketball operations, respectively. Moreover, Memphis brought in two former NBA general managers to assist Wexler and Kleiman—Rich Cho as vice president of basketball strategy and Glen Grunwald as a senior advisor.

The brand new executive combination quickly canned Bickerstaff as head coach and replaced him with a relatively under-the-radar candidate, Taylor Jenkins. He was a top assistant under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee and Atlanta, as well as a former head coach and assistant with the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) before that.

What was the new regime’s first priority on the list? Trading Conley. They struck a deal with the Utah Jazz, with the Grizzlies receiving Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder in return. In addition, they acquired the No. 23 pick in the draft and a protected 2020 first-rounder.

According to David Cobb of The Commercial Appeal, the selection will only convey in ’20 or ’21 if it lands between No. 8 and No. 14 in one of those drafts. He predicts it will convey in ’22 when the pick is top-six protected.

Re-signing Jonas Valanciunas was next on the docket following his opt-out, and a verbal agreement came quickly on three-year, $45 million terms at the end of June.

The NBA Draft followed, and it sure looks like Memphis set its path forward with two impressive young additions.

At No. 2, the organization pegged exciting Murray State sensation Ja Morant as its next “guy” to usher in the new era of Grizzlies basketball. Later in the first round, they traded the Jazz pick and a future-second rounder to the Oklahoma City Thunder and moved up to take Brandon Clarke, a highly-touted prospect who had an impressive single season at Gonzaga following a transfer from San Jose State.

Memphis continued the transformation of its roster soon thereafter.

C.J. Miles was traded to the Washington Wizards for Dwight Howard. Prior to his contract guarantee date, Avery Bradley was waived in correspondence.

The Grizzlies decided to make another change, too. Despite their high hopes for Delon Wright, they elected to sign-and-trade the 27-year-old guard to the Dallas Mavericks for a pair of future second-rounders and the rights to Satnam Singh. Instead of Wright, the front office inked restricted free agent Tyus Jones to a three-year, $28 million offer sheet, which the Minnesota Timberwolves declined to match.

There was also a trio of trades that occurred in July.

Maybe one of the more overlooked deals this summer, Memphis acquired Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and two more future second-round picks in exchange for Korver and Jevon Carter.

The franchise finally found a taker for Chandler Parsons and his albatross contract in the Atlanta Hawks, who sent back Solomon Hill after absorbing his hefty deal from a previous trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. Miles Plumlee was also included in the return.

Perhaps the best get, however, was Andre Iguodala. The Golden State Warriors had to pick someone to move in order to create enough flexibility salary-wise and make a D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade – in addition to other moves in the offseason – work for them. The Grizzlies stepped up as the ones to take on Iguodala, plus a top-four protected 2024 first-round pick. All they had to do was send Julian Washburn to the Bay Area.

To fill a two-way contract slot, Memphis agreed with John Konchar during NBA Summer League. Last week, the team signed international guard Marko Guduric.

Monday morning, Jenkins announced his coaching staff. There are a number of notable hires – Niele Ivey, who spent 12 seasons as one of Muffet McGraw’s top associates at Notre Dame and as a former player, will join the Grizzlies as an assistant coach. Ohio State director of player development Scoonie Penn will come aboard, too. Vitaly Potapenko returns to help in development with a specific focus on his old playing position at center.

Furthermore, the organization named Jason March as the head coach of the Memphis Hustle, the team’s G League affiliate.

As you can plainly see, there is a tide turning from the top down on Beale Street.

PLAYERS IN: Jonas Valanciunas (re-signed), Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Solomon Hill, Miles Plumlee, Marko Guduric, Satnam Singh (draft rights) John Konchar (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Mike Conley, Justin Holiday, Avery Bradley, Chandler Parsons, Delon Wright, Tyler Dorsey, C.J. Miles, Julian Washburn, Jevon Carter

What’s Next

A brand new direction. Consider it intriguing that we’re going to see the first iteration of Gasol/Conley-less Grizzlies basketball for the first time in over a decade. Yes, it’s really been that long.

They’ve got the a couple of veterans to pave the way. Iguodala will prove to be incredible in the locker room and, in spurts, on the floor. If he’s kept around, Howard has been around the block enough to be a guiding voice. You can certainly say Valanciunas, Crowder and Hill are well-seasoned having been in the league for six to seven years.

Those guys can set the table, but it will be the “kids” turn to take over now. We only got a taste of what JJJ is capable of last season. With a core of fresh faces to grow next to, the best is most definitely yet to come for the soon-to-be 19-year-old forward.

Morant’s resume spoke for itself in college. He is capable of the flash and the fundamental, a deadly combination to have as an IQ with so much more to learn as it is. Clarke wowed those in attendance in Las Vegas at summer league with his tenacity on the glass and finishing at the rim.

Think about the players aching for a fair opportunity, too. Jones had dealt with inconsistent playing time for all but his fourth year with the Wolves. Allen, albeit controversial on the floor with his questionable temper, hasn’t really gotten real experience at the pro level. Melton displayed moments of promise when the Suns were looking for production out of their backcourt. One could also argue that Jackson – also coming from Phoenix – has an opportunity to soar in his third year with a concrete role. Granted, he needs to figure things out off the court, first and foremost.

Despite being an all-around jack-of-all-trades player, Kyle Anderson will need to bring a more consistent offensive effort if he wants to get the playing time he desires. There will be a flat-out competition internally with the abundance of forwards this team has.

Jenkins will have his work cut out for him in year one as head coach. The roster is filled with youth and guys who mostly haven’t been a part of this organization. At the same time, it’s exciting to think about doing things basically from scratch.

Grit-N-Grind is officially in the past. It takes a village to start anew.

Let’s see what Jenkins and these players can do with the opportunity.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B-

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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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