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NBA Saturday: Rockets Silencing Doubters

The Rockets are one of the hottest teams in the NBA and proving that they’re legitimate contenders … Why the Magic bought out Glen Davis

Alex Kennedy

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In recent weeks, the Houston Rockets have been one of the hottest teams in the league. Since Jan. 1, Houston has won 16 of 21 games to put their record at 37-18. The Rockets have solidified themselves as legitimate contenders, and they currently sit in third place in the competitive Western Conference.

Houston has been playing their best basketball in recent weeks, led by their All-Stars. Both James Harden and Dwight Howard have been filling the stat sheet in February, putting up their best numbers of the season by far.

Harden has averaged 27.9 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range. Howard has averaged 22.9 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks while shooting 60.8 percent from the field. The team has also received strong contributions from role players Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. It took the Rockets some time to jell, but they’re finally playing to their full potential.

“We’re getting a lot better,” Howard said. “At the start of the season, we were all trying to understand each other and figure out how to play together, but we’re a lot better at it now. We’re going to keep getting better too. We’re playing great basketball right now and I’m very happy with our progress, but we’re not satisfied. We’re happy that we’ve come a long way, but we’re going to continue to work and get better.”

“We’re building something special in Houston,” Harden said. “It’s going to take some time, but people are starting to recognize now.”

Howard’s improvement has really allowed the Rockets to climb the standings. When Howard is playing as well as he has recently, Houston is almost unstoppable because he can dominate opposing centers, which then creates opportunities for the team’s perimeter scorers. Their inside-outside attack is capable of driving defenses crazy and it’s very difficult to game plan around.

“He is making it hard for them to contain him one-on-one down low and it’s opening up a lot of open shots on the perimeter,” Parsons said of Howard. “There is no way those guys can guard him one-on-one. They’re going to have to start bringing two and that’s when our offense will be unguardable.”

“I’ve just been patient and letting my teammates find me in the right spot,” Howard said. “I’m not rushing my shots. We just have to get some points in transition, work the pick-and-roll, and also post up. Once we get all three things figured out on the offensive end, and on the defensive end get stops, then we will become a better team.”

“He’s playing very well,” Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown said of Howard after a recent loss to Houston. “He’s obviously an All-Star and he might be one of the all-time greatest to play the game. When you have a guy like that, that you can just throw the ball into the post and command a double-team or know you’re going to get a decent look, that is a big time luxury.”

As the Rockets have developed chemistry, their ball movement has improved as well.

“It just opens everything up; the ball is zipping around and it is fun to watch when we see ourselves getting stops and moving the ball,” Lin said. “Dwight might score on a post-up. James might get a pick-and-roll or transition, Chandler hits a three. [The ball] is moving around and when you are attacking on all cylinders, it is really tough to stop.”

“Our ball movement has been a lot better,” Parsons said. “We’ve been throwing the ball ahead and we’ve been playing more unselfish. It’s so much easier for us when we do that and it just opens up so much more space to operate, little things that coach always talks about, throwing the ball ahead instead of dribbling it. When you dribble it, it gives the defense time to set up and they can lock in defensively.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Rockets’ season has been Jones, who has emerged as the team’s starting power forward. Jones barely played for the Rockets last season, appearing in just 19 games and spending most of his time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League. But in his second NBA season, the 22-year-old has averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 52.2 percent from the field in 45 games as a starter.

“I think Terrence has had a really good year,” head coach Kevin McHale said. “He’s really come on, he’s playing really well. He just turned 22, he’s got a really bright future. He’s just got to keep playing and improving, which he will. … I think Terrence is getting a little more comfortable with starting and getting more consistent with his play and effort all the time. I said this all year, he had been coming on and playing really well. I think ever since he’s moved into the starting lineup, he’s been blossoming and growing. He’s still got a long way to go because he’s a young kid, but he’s been playing very well for us.”

Throughout the season, the Rockets have had some tough stretches as the team tried to get everyone on the same page. It took awhile for the other players to adjust to playing with Howard and vice versa, but they have worked through those issues on offensive end. With that said, the team could stand to improve defensively. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, and Beverley have led the team on defense, but they can’t be the only ones committing on that end of the court.

“We have a lot of young guys who haven’t been in the league for many years, so they’re still trying to learn how to play the game of basketball,” Howard said. “For me, I’m trying to do whatever I can do to lead this team. On the defensive end, I’m teaching guys how to play team defense.”

Howard’s presence has been good for the young Rockets. The 28-year-old, as one of the oldest players in the locker room, has been a key leader for the Rockets. He has helped the team on and off the hardwood. On the court, Howard has experienced just about everything in his 10 NBA seasons. Off the court, Howard has tried his best to guide his young teammates. For instance, Harden has been dealing with criticism more than ever this season and Howard has tried to help him block it out.

“When you’re great, people are always going to try to find flaws in your game and they’re going to criticize you, but you can’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” Howard said. “Whatever we hear, we take it and use it as motivation. We have our own goal, which is to win a championship, so we can’t spend our time focusing on all of the negative things that are being said about us. If [we] weren’t good, they wouldn’t be talking about us. We’ve just taken on that mentality.”

“I’ve learned from him,” Harden said. “He doesn’t really talk about it, but I’ve seen the way he approaches it and he doesn’t really care about what people say. People are going to talk regardless, and that’s a good thing when they’re talking. I just go out there and do what I have to do. There’s always going to be some flaws in everybody, no matter what it is. I just don’t pay it any attention and I try to go out there and have fun. I hear it, take it for what it is, and use it as motivation.”

On Thursday, the Rockets sent Aaron Brooks to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jordan Hamilton prior to the trade deadline. It was the seventh straight deadline that Rockets GM Daryl Morey had pulled the trigger on a deal, but this was a relatively minor move.

At this point, the major moves have been completed by Morey. The core pieces have been assembled. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing how far this team can advance in the postseason.

Rob Hennigan Explains Glen Davis Buyout

On Friday, the Orlando Magic and Glen Davis officially agreed to a buyout. Once Davis clears waivers on Monday, he will become an unrestricted free agent. The 28-year-old was averaging 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds this season with the Magic prior to the buyout.

Once the move was finalized, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan spoke with reporters and explained the decision.

“After the deadline passed, we just felt like this change was necessary and a good thing for our team and also for Glen,” Hennigan said, according to OrlandoMagic.com. “It mutually benefitted both sides. … It opens up opportunities for players on our team to get some minutes. Those minutes, with (head coach) Jacque (Vaughn), they will be based on merit and have to be earned. With Glen leaving, it certainly opens up some minutes for our younger guys.”

Davis posted a statement on Twitter: “I want to first thank the Orlando Magic for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this Organization over the last 3 years,” Davis wrote. “Secondly, I want to thank the Magic fans and the Orlando community for welcoming me and my family into your family and for your support. Although I will no longer be a Magic player, I will continue to make Orlando my home. It’s great place to live and to raise my family. Thanks again for all of your support. I am eternally grateful. All my best!!!!”

While Davis was bought out, Hennigan made it clear that there’s still a place on the roster for other veterans such as Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell.

“We value all of the veterans that we have on our team and they have an important role on our team,” Hennigan said. “Yes, we have a very young team, but you have to be careful about becoming too young and having too much youth. Finding that balance between young, old and everything in the middle is important.”

The Clippers, Nets, HEAT, Spurs and Warriors are among the teams reportedly pursuing Davis.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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