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NBA Daily: Houston Has It All

Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.

Lang Greene

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It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.

So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.

Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.

One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.

Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.

Floor Generalship

Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.

This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.

Small Ball Ready

Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.

At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.

Defense

When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.

Shooting, Versatility and Experience

All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.

Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.

Toughness

Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.

With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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NBA Daily: Admiral Schofield Set On Building His Own Reputation

Admiral Schofield’s mindset carried him throughout his four-year career with the Tennessee Volunteers, and it will continue to take him to new heights in the NBA. Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Admiral Schofield lives for the late-game heroics.

“A lot of people talk about the clutch gene,” the former Tennessee forward told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago with a grin. “ I don’t think it’s a gene. I just think it comes from a mindset, comes from your preparation and how you approach the game.”

On March 9, 2017, Schofield had an opportunity. With the ninth-seeded Volunteers down by two to the third-seeded Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, he hoisted a shot for the victory from the left elbow.

To everyone’s dismay, Schofield’s attempt fell short. Tennessee was eliminated and their season was over. Then a sophomore, he and his teammates were scrambling to find somebody to take it. He admittedly was not ready to be in that spot.

That’s when something clicked in his head.

“I think my mindset changed to ‘I will never be in a position where the last shot is decided for me and I won’t make it,’” Schofield said in a farewell video post on Twitter back in March.

“I just want to contribute to winning,” Schofield said at the Combine. “Whether it’s defending for the last shot being on the defensive end, whether it’s taking that corner three or taking that kick-out three or making a play, I’m that guy. I want to be that guy…”

Ever since then, that mentality has stuck with him.

Do a quick Google search on Schofield. Amidst the highlight-reel flashes of athleticism, it’s guaranteed that you’ll find more than a handful of different moments where the fearless 22-year-old stepped up during crunch time.

On December 8 this past year, Schofield led then-seventh-ranked Tennessee to a win over the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. En route to a career-high 30 points, he caught fire in the second half and knocked down the go-ahead three from the top of the perimeter with 22 seconds left in the game.

The story didn’t change in conference play. A month later with his team up by two on Florida, Schofield went to the right corner and hit a dagger with 41 seconds to play. In a one-point affair vs. Ole Miss later in the season, he took a game-clinching charge.

When the NCAA Tournament came around, Schofield stepped up once again. Tussling in the first round with an upset-minded Colgate squad, he nailed two triples from the same right corner spot with less than two minutes to go. Before getting eliminated in overtime by Purdue in the Sweet 16, he drained a deep three above the break to give the Vols the lead with five minutes left in regulation.

“I mean if you ask guys like Kobe [Bryant], they won’t tell you it’s a clutch gene. It’s just the thousands of shots. It’s another shot that he shot a thousand times,” Schofield said at the Combine.

“It’s the same thing for me. I stay in the gym. I work on my mindset. I work on situational things in the gym and [I’m] always staying ready, staying prepared for the next shot and being prepared for that big shot. And I just feel like in that moment in time, I think I’m the best option.

If you can’t tell by the infectious smile, Schofield is beaming with confidence—and why wouldn’t he be?

When he arrived in Knoxville in 2015, things weren’t great. The coach that recruited him to come to Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall, was fired after his lone underwhelming season for the program. Rick Barnes came in as a replacement and the results were poor in his first couple of seasons, too.

But over the last two years, the Volunteers are 57-15. They’ve appeared in back-to-back March Madness tournaments and won the regular season SEC Championship in 2018. For the first time in school history, they were ranked No. 1 in the country during the month of January. It was the first time they had been the nation’s top team in over a decade.

The turnaround was monumental, and Schofield realizes how big of a piece he was to that puzzle.

“It felt great because, to be honest, I was part of that foundation building that culture,” Schofield said. “And to be on top in the end really is just a testament to the hard work. And everything that we built in those first two years, it really started to pay off in those last few years.

“But to say that I was one of the guys that helped start that is a blessing. We had a great year. We had a great run.”

Transitioning to the next level, Schofield feels as ready as anybody. Under Barnes, he says everything was “pro-structured.” The Vols were constantly pushed. They were always prepared. Perhaps most importantly, everybody was held accountable, which is essential when players are going to be on their own in the pros.

Because of his experiences, Schofield believes in himself. It’s not about him simply sticking around the league. He desires much more than that.

“I think I can contribute to any team or any organization that brings me in, not just with my play,” Schofield said. “But just being a great teammate, being an ambassador for that organization and for that community, really coming in and being a positive influence, having some type of leadership. Not saying I’ll come in and be ‘the guy’ or ‘the leader.’ There’s many ways you can lead.”

In discussing his character, it’s hard not to bring up one of the most selfless moments in his college career. With Tennessee and Iowa knotted up prior to heading into overtime, Schofield—who was one hack away from fouling out—told Barnes to take him out in favor of teammate Kyle Alexander.

Cold from the field and in danger of being disqualified, Schofield made the request knowing Alexander would be a game-changer. It paid off in a victory.

“I’m a winner,” Schofield said after the 83-77 win in extra time. “At the end of the day, if I don’t have to be on the floor to win, that’s fine.”

While there’s plenty of other times he’s put his leadership on display, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect example of Schofield’s team-first outlook. Combine those intangibles with the skill set and you have yourself one hell of a basketball player.

Schofield views himself as a positionless player with the ability to guard two through four or five, switching and slowing down scorers and doing the little things on the defensive end. Within offensive sets, converting on shots from the corner, coming off pin-downs and utilizing dribble hand-offs are his forte. He also has incredible athleticism, whether it’s skying for a huge dunk or swatting an opponent.

NBA teams can clearly see the 40 percent rate from three over the last three years. Still, there’s more than meets the eye to that, according to Schofield.

“[I want to] show ’em that not only can I shoot the ball, I can defend and do multiple things – create a little bit for others and pass the ball well,” Schofield said. “I don’t credit for how well I pass the ball either because I haven’t been in many situations at Tennessee to pass the ball. But I do pass it pretty well.”

Schofield maintains he deserves to be picked in the first round. As one of three draft hopefuls from Tennessee—Grant Williams and Jordan Bone being the others—who hopes to hear his name called Thursday night, that’s what he’s aiming for.

If he gets his wish, Admiral will become the second professional athlete in the Schofield family. His older brother, O’Brien, is an NFL linebacker who was a part of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

“He’s helped me a lot,” Admiral said of his O’Brien. “But more than anything, I’ve just been very observant seeing how he did things, even though it was football. Just got a little taste of that type of spotlight, him being an NFL Champion, playing on the Seahawks.

“Just seeing the process of that, seeing what it takes to win on that level, seeing some of the things that they did—I was able to implement that at the University of Tennessee, but I also I’ll be able to take that with me going forward when I get to the league.”

Individually, there’s always room to get better. You can develop better dribbling, improve your passing or tweak your jumper. But can you make an impact on winning?

Schofield does.

And that’s what will separate him from the rest.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For The Lakers?

With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.

Matt John

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The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.

The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.

Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.

Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.

Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to

Get The Third Star

Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.

Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.

Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.

Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.

Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).

The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.

Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.

That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.

Get Reliable Role Players

The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.

Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.

You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.

Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.

Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer

Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.

The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.

There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.

All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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