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NBA Trade Watch: The Southeast

Buddy Grizzard outlines prospects for Southeast Division teams as the trade deadline fast approaches.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Southeast Division features the two worst teams in the NBA (the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic), as well as the disappointing Charlotte Hornets and a pair of teams in the thick of the playoff race (the Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards). It’s a down year for a division that’s been pretty tough in the past.

With the NBA’s trade deadline right around the corner, here’s a look at things to keep an eye on for the Southeast.

Atlanta Hawks (11-30)

Losing former All-Stars Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap in the space of two seasons has been more than the Atlanta Hawks could overcome. The result will almost certainly be the first missed playoffs since the season before Atlanta drafted Horford. Atlanta’s 10 consecutive playoff appearances trails only the Spurs (20). And with the Grizzlies and Clippers also in danger of missing the postseason, it could be the Rockets and Warriors sharing second place with six consecutive appearances each if they make it.

And the Hawks might not be done bleeding talent.

Dennis Schroder may not be long for Atlanta. The mercurial point guard is nearly impossible to guard, but he isn’t a leader. It’s hard to believe that a player who frequently dresses down teammates when they make mistakes, then goes out and shoots a two-pointer at the buzzer in a game the Hawks trailed by three, understands accountability. Schroder is known for his after-hours lifestyle, which resulted in a battery arrest in September.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Marco Belinelli — $6,606,060

Ersan Ilyasova — $6,000,000

Dewayne Dedmon — $6,000,000 ($6.3 million player option)

Mike Muscala — $5,000,000 ($5 million player option)

Malcolm Delaney — $2,500,000 ($3,125,000 qualifying offer)

Luke Babbitt — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The name most worth talking about for the Atlanta Hawks is Trae Young. The Hawks are being outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on the court, a net rating that is worse than any other Hawk with at least 600 minutes this season except Marco Belinelli (-9.2). Young could be a generational talent. Schroder is an offensive-minded point guard who doesn’t make his teammates better.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was part of the Warriors front office that drafted Stephen Curry in 2009, then made the momentous decision to trade Monta Ellis and build around Curry in March of 2012. Young gets compared to Curry because of the absurd range on his shot, but he’s leading the nation in both scoring and assists. If his game translates to the NBA level, he’ll be a nightmare to guard in the pick and roll. Getting value for Schroder could be difficult due to the off-court issues.

Another player to keep an eye on is Kent Bazemore, who turns 29 in July. With Atlanta building a young core, Bazemore will likely be in his 30s by the time the Hawks are ready to make a run to the playoffs. One team to watch regarding Bazemore is the New Orleans Pelicans, which signed small forward Solomon Hill to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 only to lose him to a hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Hawks need to get whatever assets it can for players on expiring contracts or player options. Among expiring contracts, Ersan Ilyasova has started nearly 400 games and has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 700 minutes. Belinelli’s name gets thrown around, but as mentioned, he hasn’t been good.

Dewayne Dedmon has also struggled and been slowed by injury. His nearly 44 percent shooting from three on 32 attempts this season after attempting only one three in his first four seasons has been a shock. Dedmon has a player option and could test free agency this summer, which makes it difficult for the Hawks to get value by trading him before the deadline. Luke Babbitt had excellent on/off numbers as a starter for the HEAT last season but hasn’t made much of a dent in Atlanta.

Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto reported Thursday that the Hawks are seeking high second round picks for the expiring veterans. The Raptors and Rockets are contenders currently in position to pick high in the second round, according to NBADraft.net.

Charlotte Hornets (15-24)

Things look grim for the Hornets, which currently sit five games out of the eighth playoff seed in the East. However, the team will play seven of the next eight at home. This gives Charlotte a chance to show improvement ahead of the deadline and help the front office decide if it should be buyers or sellers.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Michael Carter-Williams — $2,700,000

Johnny O’Bryant — $1,524,305

Names Worth Talking About:

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote a speculative piece suggesting that the Hornets should trade Kemba Walker to jump-start a rebuild and help the team avoid future luxury tax penalties. Most of the roster is under contract through next season and Charlotte, as currently constructed, would be a tax team in 2018-19. That will be a tough pill for Michael Jordan to swallow if his team misses the playoffs again this season.

If the Hornets actually make Walker available, half the league would likely register interest. Trading Walker wouldn’t just trigger a rebuild, it would tear the Hornets down to the studs. Charlotte is 13.4 points per 100 possessions worse whenever Walker is out of the game, an impact that is double that of any other player. Kemba Walker is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s hard to imagine the fan backlash if such a move was executed.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Charlotte’s top six players, including Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwight Howard, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb, have been solid all season. All six have posted a positive on-court net rating. But from there, the bench falls off a cliff, ranging from Cody Zeller’s -3.6 to Malik Monk’s -14.6. Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant are the only expiring contracts, but they’ve posted a -7.4 and -9.5 net rating, respectively. The Hornets need any bench help they can get, but will have trouble making moves due to the cap. Backup point guard continues to be the biggest issue, with neither Carter-Williams nor Monk making a positive impact.

Miami HEAT (24-17)

After an 11-13 start, during which the HEAT barely resembled a team ready to build on last season’s near playoff run, Miami has gone 13-4 and rocketed to fourth in the East. That’s a lot more like last season’s team, which closed the season 30-11, only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreak. The problem is that, unlike the HEAT of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, these HEAT are decidedly lacking in star power. Miami has taken the intriguing route of spending over the cap on a group of overachievers in a way that could limit the team’s ceiling.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Wayne Ellington

Names Worth Talking About:

People are talking about HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. A lot. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote Wednesday that he spoke to two NBA scouts who speculate the HEAT could get a late lottery pick for Whiteside. That strains credulity. What team in possession of a lottery pick is so desperate for a center that it would trade for one who has been made virtually obsolete by Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk?

As the HEAT have surged, Whiteside’s impact has been marginal. He’s playing just 25.8 minutes per game, his fewest since the 2014-15 season. And in a league where the traditional center is fast becoming fossilized, ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes that Whiteside is shooting just 42 percent on post-ups, which ranked 43rd out of 52 players with at least 50 attempts.

The real name worth talking about is Wayne Ellington, who is shooting 41 percent on over seven three-point attempts per game. He’s the only notable Miami player on an expiring contract, and that status puts the HEAT in a tough position. Miami has most of its roster under contract through next season, which places it in luxury tax territory. The HEAT outscore opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on court, a team-best net rating by more than two full points. The team may have to dangle Ellington in trade talks in hopes of getting an asset back since it will be extremely difficult to retain him past this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Aside from getting something significant in return for Ellington, the best result for Miami would be to move off one of its larger contracts to subdue the salary cap issues and add flexibility. Moving Whiteside would accomplish this, assuming the HEAT took significantly less salary back, but it would leave the team without a proven rim protector. Such an outcome seems unlikely, as does getting a significant return for Justise Winslow, whom the Celtics reportedly pursued with a chest of draft picks during the 2015 draft but has yet to develop into an impact player.

Orlando Magic (12-30)

Victor Oladipo’s emergence with the Pacers has left the Magic organization with egg all over its face. The team drafted a young core, panicked, tried to leapfrog into the playoffs with veterans, and now sits a half game ahead of the league-worst Atlanta Hawks. There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Magic are years away from putting a competitive product on the floor and will have to go back to building through the draft.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Shelvin Mack — $6,000,000 ($6 million non-guaranteed in 2018-19)

Mario Hezonja — $4,078,320

Arron Afflalo — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

Things might have been different if Elfrid Payton had popped early. With Aaron Gordon emerging as one of the league’s exciting young players and center Nikola Vucevic — out of nowhere — shooting over 34 percent on 140 three-point attempts, Orlando might have had something with a stud point guard and a do-over on the Oladipo trade. As it stands, despite Payton shooting a career-best 37.5 percent from three, the Magic are being outscored by nine points per 100 with him on the floor.

Vucevic has the best net rating among Magic with at least 500 minutes, and one of the league’s more team-friendly contracts with just over $12 million on the books this season and just under $13 million next. But it may be too late to get anything significant for him. Meanwhile, Evan Fournier’s flat $17 million guaranteed for three seasons starting this season with a player option in the fourth is prohibitive for a player not known for his defense. And let’s not even talk about Bismack Biyombo, who sports a team-worst -15.4 net rating and is guaranteed $17 million this season and next with a player option after.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Where to begin? The Magic need everything. There’s a decided lack of defensive identity after Orlando traded Oladipo, a two-way wing (among the league’s most precious commodities). Jonathon Simmons has played the most minutes on the team but his -9.4 net rating is worse than anyone but Biyombo. The team declined its option on Mario Hezonja so it likely can’t get anything for him. He’ll probably emerge as a rotation player for a less dysfunctional franchise after he hits free agency this summer.

Washington Wizards (23-18)

The Wizards are spent into the luxury tax and in full win-now mode. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Ian Mahinmi are all locked up through at least the 2019-20 season. Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre are fully guaranteed through next season. Injuries and inconsistency have been a factor, and fifth in the East just doesn’t feel good enough for a team that aspires to contend.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Jason Smith — $5,225,000 ($5.45 million player option)

Jodie Meeks — $3,290,000 ($3.45 million player option)

Tim Frazier — $2,000,000

Names Worth Talking About:

Mahinmi has played only 571 minutes, but his +4.6 net rating is fourth on the team and some small comfort after the team invested major dollars in him. There’s almost no chance another team would take his contract, but at least the Wizards are performing well when he’s available. Marcin Gortat likewise appears to be a player few if any teams would be interested in.

Mike Scott has been a pleasant surprise with 9.4 points per game, which is good for sixth on the team. Washington only signed him to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, so he can test free agency after the season with the Wizards facing a cap crunch.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Backup point guard Tim Frazier’s -6.7 net rating is a team worst and Jodie Meeks is next at -3.8. Jason Smith has played only 160 minutes. None has trade value. The Wizards’ biggest need is depth and an upgrade at backup point guard. But with the team’s cap situation and lack of assets, it’s going to be very tricky to get anything done.

With the Southeast Division’s competitive teams lacking cap space and lesser teams short on attractive trade assets, this could be a ho-hum deadline in Dixie. That is unless the Hornets go crazy and make Walker available, or another unexpected piece suddenly comes on the market. The league is still coming to terms with the hangover from the cap explosion of recent seasons. And with cap levels set to remain relatively flat in coming seasons, deadline deals will be harder to execute than in recent years.

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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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