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NBA Rookie Extensions: Kawhi Leonard

The Spurs are certain to extend Kawhi Leonard, right? Here’s why that might not be the best idea.

Nate Duncan

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The 2014 rookie-extension class is one of the most interesting in several years due to the high number of quality players entering their fourth seasons. As most readers likely know by now, teams have until October 31 to reach extensions with first-rounders entering their fourth seasons or the players become restricted free agents next summer. This year, many of these players fall into the fascinating middle ground between total busts and obvious max outs, and their negotiations are further complicated by the unknown effect of the league’s recently-announced new TV deal.*

*Teams and agents may also be waiting for additional clarity as the league and union discuss how to avoid too much shock to the system from the new money.

Over the next couple weeks, we will take a look at some of the more interesting cases, beginning with a player whose negotiations are a lot more interesting than they would appear at first blush.

Kawhi Leonard
Age: 23 (June 29, 1991)
Drafted: No. 15
2013-14 PER: 19.43
2013-14 ORPM: 0.89
2013-14 DRPM: 2.13
2015-16 Cap Hold: $7,235,148

Potential storylines abound in the extension talks with the third-youngest Finals MVP in NBA history. Kawhi Leonard has been called the San Antonio Spurs’ future by Gregg Popovich, and he is the only potential young star on the roster. Considering the fact that Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, both inferior players to Leonard, received maximum deals as restricted free agents last offseason, a max extension may seem fait accompli to many.

On the other hand, the Spurs are widely perceived as consistently corralling their stars at below-market “unselfish” deals. Perhaps, some will think, that will result in Leonard doing the same. But those who don’t believe Leonard will seek to get his are ignoring quite a few factors. First, this is Leonard’s first big contract. By the end of his fourth season, he will have only pocketed about $8 million, about half of which was lost to taxes.

Second, Leonard is agent Brian Elfus and Impact Basketball’s biggest basketball client, per DraftExpress. Anything less than the max for Leonard (when it is widely perceived a foregone conclusion) might be seen as a failure, which is certainly a consideration for any agent.*

*This is not meant as a jab, it just acknowledges the reality of the situation for nearly any agent, whose job after all is to get the most money for their clients. For example, Enes Kanter’s agent Max Ergul is in a similar boat. Edit: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mitch Frankel rather than Brian Elfus was Leonard’s primary agent.

Third, the Spurs’ “tradition” of getting players to take less money amounts to essentially only one contract, this latest three-year, $30 million pact with Tim Duncan. If you really look at the market and their performance at the time, previous contracts for Duncan (before 2012), Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were market rate—they just turned into great deals as those players aged much better than expected. Expecting the Spurs to get Leonard to take less based on this “history” has little basis, especially considering those players had already made plenty of money and this is Leonard’s first big deal.

Thus, I think we can count on Leonard and his agent negotiating as hard as possible, as they should. But the Spurs did not get where they are by overpaying for players. Indeed, the fact that the two sides have yet to agree on an extension would indicate that they too are taking the negotiations seriously. In past years, we have seen five-year Designated Player maximum extensions for John Wall, Paul George and Kyrie Irving agreed to well before this point. If the Spurs had offered that, the deal would have been done already.

Despite the fact that Leonard is widely presumed to be worth the max on the open market, the Spurs have a number of reasons not to offer it at this point. Leonard is so good other teams may be loathe to offer him the max in the summer of 2015, tying up their cap space for three critical days knowing the Spurs will undoubtedly match. A matched contract would have lower 4.5 percent annual raises, a potential advantage to San Antonio in the later years of the deal as the cap rises. And if Leonard is not extended an offer sheet by another team, a la Eric Bledsoe this year, that could provide additional leverage for the Spurs to obtain a deal below the max next summer.

Waiting until next summer also allows the Spurs to offer a five-year contract without using up their Designated Player extension (although there are no potential candidates for it right now), or by offering a five-year contract for below the maximum.* A five-year contract locking up Leonard through age 29 at pre-TV increase rates could prove a big value for the Spurs by the end, and could also make Leonard’s deal more tradeable if needed.

*As the Denver Nuggets and Kenneth Faried found out, a five-year rookie extension must be for the max.

Moreover, as with any rookie extension, the Spurs will obtain more information on Leonard’s performance if they wait until the summer. There is little risk that his price tag will go up significantly given he is already projected as a max player. And there is some performance risk, either through injury or a lack of development offensively. It must be noted that, while Leonard has been one of the best complementary pieces in basketball the last two years, he has not shown much indication he can be a primary creator yet. We should not foreclose such a possibility, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. The Spurs of course will not wish for anything to happen that would negatively impact Leonard’s value, but if they wait they are protected in case something does.

On the other hand, Leonard has little leverage if he waits. He would be footing the risk of injury or performance decline by doing so. And even if he gets to restricted free agency, the payoff may be marginal because he could have trouble getting an offer sheet—which would give him smaller raises anyway.

He only has two options at his disposal to create some leverage. One is potentially taking the qualifying offer, as Greg Monroe did this year. But Monroe seems very unhappy in Detroit; it seems unlikely Leonard would take such a risk to get out of San Antonio. The scarier option for the Spurs would be the specter of a Chandler Parsons-style offer sheet, three years for the maximum with a player option for the third year. The Spurs are no doubt hoping to lock up Leonard for the maximum number of years to get value on the back end as the cap rises—being forced to match the Parsons three-year offer (which they almost certainly would) allows Leonard to either leave or force a re-signing at cap-inflated market rate after two years in 2017. Unfortunately for Leonard though, getting another team to make such an inevitably-matched offer could be easier said than done. The Spurs also may be hesitant to upset him through perceived low-balling, but that is probably less a concern than on other teams with worse cultures.

Now consider the Spurs’ greatest reason to wait: Leonard’s free agent cap hold will be only $7.2 million this summer, less than half the $16 million or so he would occupy if he receives a max extension now. That extra cash could be critical if Duncan and Ginobili retire after the season. The Spurs may have a better internal idea of their plans than we do, but their age, health and the Spurs’ performance this year all render those future plans at least somewhat uncertain.

If Duncan and Ginobili play another year, the Spurs will not have a realistic path to cap space even if they do not extend Leonard. Even if those stars are immediately re-signed to an amount similar to their previous salaries, that would not create much cap room for the Spurs. And even that would likely be extinguished if Danny Green is re-signed.

AllCapHoldsSpurs
Let’s assume several things: The cap will be $69 million next summer, and $80 million in the summer of 2016. Those are obviously very rough and conservative estimates, but they track with some of the reporting by Larry Coon in this article, which indicates that the increase in the cap due to the TV deal may be smoothed into effect over a four-year period, resulting in approximately a $4 million per year increase on top of the “normal” cap increases. That will probably end up around $9 million per season starting in 2016-17. I included only the Spurs’ main players for this scenario in which the Spurs may try to lure free agents. Guys like Aron Baynes or Cory Joseph were left out because those players probably are not important enough to be retained at the expense of bigger fish. The 4-7 year maximum is computed based on a “cap” based on 42.14 percent of BRI rather than 44.74 percent. That’s why Leonard’s “25 percent max” is actually 24 percent of the actual cap to start.

Now, suppose Leonard is extended for the max, but Duncan and Ginobili announce their retirement. The Spurs still have little in the way of cap space. If Green and Marco Belinelli were renounced they might be able to squirm their way into fitting one maximum slot, but those are two valuable players the Spurs would be loath to renounce.

NoDuncanManuLeonardMax

But let’s say the Spurs wait to sign Leonard, allowing him to become a restricted free agent. Now they have an additional $9 million or so in cap space, almost enough for a maximum salary to a player with 4-7 years of experience.  Under this scenario, the Spurs would sign free agents up to the cap, then re-sign Leonard using his Bird rights, which would enable them to exceed it.

NoDuncanManu

Renouncing Belinelli gets them there, and Patty Mills could be traded to get up to about $20 million, close to max territory for more experienced players. With Parker, Green, Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and possibly Mills, the Spurs might be a very attractive destination for members of the 2015 free agent class, which could include LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, Luol Deng, any other 2011 draftees who do not sign extensions and others. The Spurs could also add a few lesser free agents to build their depth and remain competitive while trying for a bigger splash when the cap goes up much further in 2016. Replacing Duncan and Ginobili with players of that caliber could enable the Spurs to remain right in the championship mix.

The Spurs have a lot of leverage and some very good reasons for waiting on a deal. On the other hand, Leonard is, in the marketplace, a max player. Is there a middle ground? If the Spurs know Duncan and Ginobili plan to play next year, then that could be the impetus to get a deal done. But if not, Leonard would have to give up a lot of money in an extension to equal the potential lost opportunity in the summer of 2015 if the legends retire. Maybe the Spurs could offer a deal starting at the max but remaining flat or declining in salary rather than featuring the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises. But that would only save a few million per season at most on the back end of the deal, not the front, so it would not help in 2015. It seems unlikely Leonard would be willing to start much lower than the max, so there may not be a deal to be had here.

Perhaps the solution will be a wink-wink agreement on the structure of a deal once he becomes a free agent in 2015. Whether there is a preexisting arrangement or not, I think the best outcome here is Leonard re-signing in the summer of 2015, shortly after the Spurs have conducted their other free agent business, to a deal very close to – if not right at – the max. But unless he is willing to take a more significant discount than anticipated, it may not behoove the Spurs to extend him now.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role

Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.

Ben Nadeau

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After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.

And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting

Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.

Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.

For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.

De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting

After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.

On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.

Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.

Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three

Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.

While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2017-18: N/A

Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.

For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.

On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.

Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.

Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three

Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.

The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.

Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.

With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?

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NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs

Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.

Spencer Davies

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One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.

The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.

Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.

Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.

While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”

But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.

“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”

From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.

“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”

As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.

“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.

“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”

Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.

In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.

Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.

Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.

“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.

“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”

Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.

“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”

Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.

“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”

In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.

DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.

It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.

Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”

Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.

He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.

“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”

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NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?

Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.

Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?

It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.

From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.

Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.

The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.

The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.

While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.

The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.

So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.

Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.

For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.

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