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Philadelphia 76ers 2017-18 Season Preview

Few teams have as much anticipation brewing around their 2017-18 season as the Philadelphia 76ers. In this season preview, we take a look at why.

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For the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers are being considered as a legitimate playoff contender.

Years of tanking and “trusting the process” seem to be well on their way to provided fruitful results. Despite all of the excitement, however, there’s still one catch: the Sixers top rookies can never seem to stay healthy for an entire season.

Will this be the year Philadelphia steers clear of any injury concerns? If so, one of the league’s bottom feeders in recent years could ride a bevy of young studs to their first playoff appearance in over half a decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Joel Embiid is everything good about today’s NBA. His Twitter interactions are hilarious and deliberate, his stretchy big man game is incredibly fun to watch, and his place on a young, upstart team shows what good comes when an organization bottoms out in a way that makes basement floors jealous. He (and the Sixers) are just easy to root for, especially with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons officially joining in on the fun this year. Philly should be markedly improved this year and could even make a run at the playoffs for the first time since Andre Iguodala was still with the team. We trusted the process, and now we get to reap the rewards of that trust.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Philadelphia 76ers are on the cusp of taking a huge step forward in their rebuild this season. The franchise traded for the rights to the top overall pick in this year’s draft, Markelle Fultz. Last year’s top overall pick, Ben Simmons, is healthy and ready to make up for lost time. Joel Embiid should be ready to go after missing the majority of last season with a knee injury. The rest of the roster continues to develop and show promise as well. Head coach Brett Brown has been patient and has slowly built his young players up over the years while suffering a huge amount of losses during his tenure in Philadelphia. Now, for the first time, Brown has the young talent and some veteran players, like J.J. Redick, to really compete on a nightly basis. With so much elite young talent, the 76ers will be a League Pass favorite this season and should certainly exceed their 28 game win total from last season.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Sixers have a nice cast of players, but their hopes of changing their fortunes rest squarely on the shoulders (and knees and hips) of Joel Embiid. Enough has been said about the number 31 and why it’s relevant here, so I won’t continue to beat a dead horse.

I am probably in the minority of people who believe that the Nets will be respectable this season, and perhaps even better than the Knicks, though I do suppose that depends on what happens with Carmelo Anthony. In any event, I could see the Sixers finishing as highly as third in the division and, of course, as low as fifth. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that everyone stays healthy, that Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid find a way to coexist, and that both J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson earn their salaries this season.

If all those things happen (and I agree that there are certainly a lot of “ifs”), then the Sixers might actually have a shot to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

It’s certainly possible.

3rd Place — Atlantic Division

— Moke Hamilton

For all of the years the Philadelphia 76ers asked their fans for trust, they finally look poised to show them why this season.

After years of basement dwelling, the Sixers are stacked with fresh, young faces, and sprinkled a few savvy veterans into the mix this summer while they were at it. J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson join Philadelphia’s core of young guns that include back-to-back first overall picks in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid and a playmaking forward in Dario Saric. Mix all of that together with the weakened Eastern Conference, and the Sixers could be headed right for a playoff berth come next spring.

Despite all of the excitement, however, there is still the question of injury concerns in Philly. Embiid has played just 31 games in three years, Simmons missed his rookie year with a broken foot and Fultz rolled his ankle in Summer League, cutting his Las Vegas fun short.

This is the first season since Allen Iverson was rocking cornrows on the court that the Sixers have real excitement. Barring any medical mishaps, Philadelphia is a position to make actual noise around the league.

3rd – Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Process is finally moving along at a quicker speed, and it has folks in Philly talking playoffs for the first time in a while. The addition of J.J. Redick to a starry collection of blue chip young talent promises to make the 76ers one of the most fascinating teams in the league, and an incredibly weak East makes postseason hopes firmly within the realm of realism. It’s no lock whatsoever – remember that rookies and second-year guys are rarely positive contributors in the long run, no matter how high their potential ceilings are, and Philly is still relying heavily on several of those guys. There are also still big health questions, primarily surrounding Joel Embiid. If all the primaries can stay on the court for 70 or more games, this could finally be the year in Philly. But a lot still has to go right. Expect them to be there with the Knicks in competition for the third seed in the Atlantic, though with a much higher ceiling if everything goes well.

3rd Place — Atlantic Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

It’s been well documented that Embiid has played just 31 games over the course of the last three seasons, but oh man, when he was on the court he was downright special. Standing at 7-foot-2, but operating with the fluidity of a wing player, Embiid packages his unique skillset into a force that opposing teams struggle to stop on the court.

Last season, despite never truly developing a rhythm due to sitting out back-to-backs and a minute restriction, Embiid still managed to average 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game… all while playing just 25 minutes a night. And on top of that, the big man shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. Embiid managed to bully defenses while on a time crunch, all after sitting out of competitive basketball for two full years. Think about that for a second.

Barring another injury (which at this point is more of a blind wish than anything), Embiid will easily be Philadelphia’s most talented offensive player. Plus, with the additions of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, and J.J. Redick, opposing teams will have a harder time trying to key in on the center than they did last year. If he’s on the court, Embiid will be special, period.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

While Embiid makes a strong case for the Sixers’ top defensive player as well, with the NBA shifting towards a reliance on high-level wing players, Covington answers the call as the team’s most important and versatile defender.

During his time in Philadelphia, Covington has grown into one of the more important players on the roster, and is shaping up to be the team’s X-factor for next season. On defensive side of the ball, Covington possesses the length and athleticism to hound the opponent’s top offensive player, whether it be Andrew Wiggins or John Wall.

After leading the league in deflections last season — along with being the only guy in the entire NBA not named Kawhi Leonard to average 2.5 steals, one block, and shot over 35 percent from deep per 100 possessions since 2013-14 — the Sixers’ swingman is their best defensive weapon heading into this season.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

The Sixers are in a rare position this season, with two straight No. 1 overall picks hit the court for the first time at the same time. After losing his freshman year in the league to injury, Simmons will hit the ground running this year, and immediately become the team’s top playmaker.

Lauded as one of the most gifted passers coming out of college in recent memory, Simmons operates as a 6-foot-10 point guard with Magic-esque qualities. Inserting him into a lineup that features like the likes of Embiid, Fultz, Redick, and Covington, Simmons should have no shortage of opportunities for easy assists. But where his true value as the team’s top playmaker will come into play are with the hard assists Simmons creates with his ability to thread the needle with pinpoint passes, or by gripping a defensive rebound and going coast-to-coast for a bucket.

After depending on T.J. McConnell for much of last season to run the team’s offense, Simmons will be a pleasant, and major, upgrade as the team’s floor general.

Top Clutch Player: Markelle Fultz

Attaching the title of “most clutch” to a 19-year-old point guard who will likely spend most of his time playing off of the ball is a hard sell, but with the game on the line throughout the season, Fultz’s array of offensive moves and cool demeanor will become a go-to for Brett Brown.

During Fultz’s freshman year at Washington, he was the sole proprietor of the team’s offense. Granted, the Huskies absolutely stunk, but Fultz is accustomed to shouldering the load and having the ball in his hands with the entire defense focused on stopping him. In Philly, however, defenses will be kept honest by the threat of Embiid and others, so most likely Fultz would get the ball in a one-on-one scenario where he is more than capable of putting his man in a blender.

Of course Embiid, Simmons, and even Redick with his dead-eye shooting are all capable of making late-game plays, but as the season goes on Fultz will consistently become the end-of-game killer for the Sixers.

The Unheralded Player: T.J. McConnell

McConnell isn’t very fast, he’s not that big, he doesn’t shoot particularly well and sometimes he dribbles around with the ball too much. But, despite all of that, McConnell can go out on the floor each night and compete.

On a team with high draft picks and big contracts stealing the headlines, McConnell easily gets lost in the shuffle. Last year, McConnell led the Sixers with 6.6 assists a night. He even hit a game-winning jumper over Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, thrusting himself into the center of Process Trusters’ hearts.

McConnell won’t beat many opponents based off of sheer talent, but he’s a prototypical “gritty” player. He’ll hit the deck without a second thought, fight for loose balls and be a superb teammate. While the media is swooning over the Sixers’ brand name players, McConnell will be behind the scenes, making plays when called upon.

Best New Addition: Markelle Fultz

There a few candidates for this honor, but considering Simmons has been in the gy, training with the team for an entire year and Redick won’t have the same overall impact, Fultz gets the nod as the team’s best newcomer.

As the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz represented a unique combination as best player available as well as best player fit for Philadelphia considering his strengths on the court. For similar reasons listed above about Fultz, his offensive prowess helps improve the Sixers’ attack, even at such a young age.

Fultz displays a superb ability to shoot and score from all levels of the court, and provides the perfect complement to the pass-first Simmons. Last season, the Sixers struggled mainly due to not having a go-to scorer for most of the year. With Fultz on board for this year, that issue is immediately solved, making him the most valuable newcomer.

– Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Dario Saric

Almost forgotten in the hype of Simmons, Embiid, and Fultz is the other Sixers young gun, Saric. A finalist, along with Embiid, for last season’s Rookie of the Year award, Saric displayed an impressive amount of growth during his inaugural season in the NBA.

Following Embiid’s final game on Jan. 27, Saric assumed most of the offensive burden as the team’s de facto playmaker and go-to scorer. Over that same span over 36 games, Saric averaged 16.7 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game. Even more impressive, in a weird addition-by-subtraction twist, Saric managed those numbers despite a terrible shooting slump that saw him connect on just 28 percent of his shots from long distance.

With a full season under his belt and some shiny new weapons surrounding him, Saric looks poised to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Sixers moving forward.

2. Brett Brown

When you take a quick glance at Brown’s head coaching record, you may wonder how the man still has a job. Of course, that notion would have to come from a very oblivious NBA fan, but nevertheless, the 75-253 mark isn’t pretty.

This season, however, Brown finally has a roster that resembles that of an NBA competitor. From talented youngsters to useful veterans, Brown will finally have the opportunity to show the city what he’s worth for an entire season. During the magical month of January last season, when Embiid was on the court for nine games and really coming into his own, Brown captained the Sixers to a 10-5 record for the month. That singular month gave Sixers fans an insight on how effective Brown can be as a coach with some talent on the court.

With more than one playmaker on the roster for this season, Brown should have the Sixers in playoff contention should everyone stay healthy.

3. J.J. Redick

Philadelphia gave Redick 23 million reasons to move east and join the Sixers for this season. Despite the high price tag, Redick is a match made in heaven for this team.

A career 41.5 percent shoot from downtown, Redick is just two years removed from a season in which he hit 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts. On a squad with a body down low that commands attention like Embiid, and a playmaker to the caliber of Simmons, Redick should be getting open-looks galore next season in South Philly. It wouldn’t be outrageous to assume Redick could attempt upwards of eight or nine three-pointers a game this season.

Along with his knockdown ability from range, Redick also brings veteran and playoff experience to a team that is going to feature a bunch of first and second-year players at their core. That quality, maybe even more than the shooting, is what makes Redick so valuable to the Sixers.

4. Joel Embiid

Not much more can be said about Embiid that hasn’t already been said. But that doesn’t mean the love for him has to stop.

With his rare combination of size and skill, Embiid represents a threat to the league’s transition towards “small ball.” When a 7-foot-2 guy has the ability to switch seamlessly on the defensive end and come up on offense to drain a three-pointer, the opposing team will most likely be short for answers on how to stop him.

Health has been Embiid’s one true question mark, and will be until further notice. If he’s healthy, the Sixers are a legitimate playoff team and a matchup nightmare for some of the league’s powerhouse teams.

– Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

Despite paying J.J. Redick $23 million for the upcoming season, the Philadelphia 76ers are still under the salary cap by $15.1 million. That space, and the team’s $4.3 million Room Exception, will likely go unused heading into the season, given the team seems locked in to the 15 players already on the roster (including the non-guaranteed salaries of T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes and Robert Covington). Invite James Blackmon Jr. has long odds to make the team.

The Sixers have long shopped Jahlil Okafor in a trade, but the team may wait to see what the roster looks like on the floor before making any major changes. Joel Embiid is eligible for an extension before the start of the season but the team may choose to wait until next summer, when Embiid’s cap hold takes up $18.3 million in space. If they wait, the 76ers can near $40 million in cap room next July. That assumes that Philadelphia takes the team options on Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu and Okafor before November (plus McConnell and Holmes before July). Nik Stauskas is also extension eligible.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Along with their offensive improvements, a team that ranked 17th in defensive rating only looks to improve with more athletes on the court, as well as a healthy Embiid. Should the team stay intact from a health perspective, they look to be one of the better defensive units in the NBA, as well.

Much like last season, the Sixers will look to push the pace against opponents. A coast-to-coast aficionado like Simmons and another athletic playmaker in Fultz only increase the possibilities of Philadelphia running the fastbreak attack against teams.

– Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

The weaknesses for the Sixers this season are pretty cut and dry: Health, chemistry and inexperience.

Every important piece for the Sixers seems to have a knack for getting sidelined. Whether that string of bad luck is coming to an end or not for Philadelphia essentially will determine their playoff hopes for next season.

However, even if everyone is healthy, there is still the problem that four of the team’s most important players are 23 or under. Two of them have never played a single NBA game, and a third has only managed to hit the court 31 times. That kind of inexperience can become a major problem once the effects of a rigorous NBA schedule sets in during the long months of the season.

Going hand-in-hand with the lack of experience, most of the current players on the roster don’t have any rapport with each other. Chemistry is a big piece to winning games consistently throughout the season, and at the current moment, the Sixers don’t have much — if any — of that.

– Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

If healthy, what is the realistic ceiling for the Sixers next season?

It almost is nauseating how often a Sixers prediction needs to be premised with “if healthy,” but unfortunately that is the team’s reality. Regardless, health truly seems to be the biggest hurdle standing between Philadelphia and their first playoff berth in six years.

Assuming the injury bug gets exterminated from the Wells Fargo Center this season, the Sixers have a legitimate chance to take advantage of a weakened bottom-half of the Eastern Conference, and a 7th-seed doesn’t seem so crazy.

Granted, with all of the youth mentioned above, anything beyond just making it to the playoffs would be a “cherry on top” season. But given matchups and personnel, how far-fetched would it seem for the Sixers to maybe steal a game from the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series?

Time will tell what happens with Philadelphia from a health perspective, but if everything checks out medically, the Sixers are no longer a gimmie W for opponents.

– Dennis Chambers

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NBA

San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 Season Preview

The Spurs brought their band back and added Rudy Gay. Will it be enough to win the Southwest again?

Basketball Insiders

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After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?

Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.

Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.

If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.

I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.

It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.

Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.

He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard aslo ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.

Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.

Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.

Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.

It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.

He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.

Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.

He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.

The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.

Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.

He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.

The Unheralded Player:  Danny Green

Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.

One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.

But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.

He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.

Best New Addition: Rudy Gay

Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.

Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.

He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.

Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.

The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge

As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.

While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.

The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.

3. Dejounte Murray

As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.

With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.

If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.

Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.

4. Manu Ginobili

We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.

While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.

Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.

Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?

It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.

— Cody Taylor

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NBA Saturday: Early Season Storylines To Keep An Eye On

This summer produced several NBA storylines heading into this season. Here are a few that will dominate the early news cycle.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s that time of year again, folks. The NBA season is back.

On Monday, most teams around the league will hold their media day availability, and the teams that don’t will be opening their doors to reporters in the days that follow. After what seemed like an incredibly short offseason due to all of the madness that took place throughout the Association this summer, the league as a whole is ready to get back into the swing of things.

With the aforementioned crazy summer, the NBA experienced a fresh new set of storylines heading into this season. Some are set in stone, some are still developing, but all look to be a whole new level of interesting for a league that people generally complain about the regular season being too boring.

As basketball season gets set to tip off, let’s take a look at some of the stories that are going to be dominating the news cycle for this year.

Golden State Dominance

Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors won 73 games. You know how that team’s story ends. So, in light of their shortcomings, the 73-win Warriors added Kevin Durant. You know how that team’s story ends, too.

Well, here we are. Year two of the Durant Warriors, fresh off of a world championship with no clear signs of slowing down. Durant actually took less money than what he could’ve signed for just so Golden State could keep the core guys like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston around in the Bay Area. When your best player is taking less money to keep key bench guys on the squad, chances are you’re going to be in the running for a title that next season.

Now, just because the Warriors were so dominant last season doesn’t mean the rest of the league is laying down. The Houston Rockets made a move to pair Chris Paul with James Harden, Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George (and as of today, Carmelo Anthony) joined Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward moved to Boston. Elite players seemed to swap jerseys this summer at an eye-opening rate, in theory, to position themselves for the opportunity to one day take down the empire out in California.

What makes this unfolding story so interesting is, will it be enough? Will all of these new-look teams with new star players be able to make Golden State sweat, or will they just steamroll everyone like they did last year?

Only time will tell for certain, but the smart money is still on the Warriors.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

Raise your hand if you guessed Kyrie Irving would be the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics on opening night this season. If you raised your hand, you’re a liar.

Shortly following Irving and LeBron James’ third season, and their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, the point guard dropped a bombshell on just about every person in the basketball community when news broke that he was demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three years of living in King James’ shadow proved to be too much for Irving, and he spoke publicly about wanting to have his own team, to be able to do his own thing. Not many players, if any at all, had so publicly looked for a divorce from arguably the greatest player of this generation. Boiled down to its core, the move by Irving was a statement that sometimes regardless of how great a player he is, James just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

To make things even more interesting, the Cavaliers shipped Irving right to the team they had just beaten in the Eastern Conference Finals. Irving in Beantown to start the 2017-18 NBA season, what a time.

And because the NBA is a perfect blend of consistent chaos, the Cavs and Celtics will have to wait a whopping zero days before facing off against each other in their newest forms.

That’s right. Opening night, Oct. 17, at Quicken Loans Arena. In a perfect world, James will switch onto Irving in a defensive matchup and the place will go wild. With how perfect the NBA’s insanity has been over the past few months, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 

Lonzo Ball

It’s almost unbelievable how much impact a rookie point guard who hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA floor for a meaningful minute can dominate the news headlines.

I’d be willing to wager, however, that most rookie point guards don’t have a dad like Lonzo Ball does.

When you mix up the Big Baller Brand, Lonzo’s incredible passing skills, LaVar’s big mouth, and the Los Angeles market you get a whole bunch of interest. Everyone and their mother will be monitoring each step of Lonzo’s rookie season. Some will be wishing him success, others will be hoping he fails, but everyone will be watching. In fact, Lonzo is expected to generate so much coverage through the media that USA Today launched a wire service site strictly dedicated to the coverage of the Lakers rookie point guard, dubbed “LonzoWire.”

Say what you will about LaVar, but man can that guy market his son.

The Lakers, now run by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, have made some moves to better the franchise for this season. Trading for Brook Lopez and signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to pair with young core members Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle makes for an interesting team heading into this season.

While playoff basketball won’t likely be in the cards for Los Angeles this season, the conversation around the team will have you thinking Kobe Bryant came out of retirement and suited up.

Philadelphia 76ers Health Concerns

If you’ve grown accustomed to trusting The Process, there’s a good chance you’ve had to explain the severity of certain injuries to a fellow basketball fan.

After multiple injuries to heralded prospects, the stars seem to be aligning in Philadelphia for the 76ers and their crop of young talent. Ben Simmons is at what appears to be full strength after head coach Brett Brown told media Wednesday he’s been participating in 5-on-5 drills and has been “dominating the gym.” Markelle Fultz seems to be recovered from rolling his ankle in Summer League play.

But the question about franchise center Joel Embiid’s health — who showed more than a few flashes of brilliance during his 31 games last season –is still very much alive. After suffering a meniscus injury that ended his season last winter, Embiid is still yet to be cleared for 5-on-5 play.

As Embiid goes, the Sixers will go. Simmons and Fultz could potentially turn into game-changers one day, but as far as the basketball world knows, Embiid is already at that level when healthy. For a team with playoff aspirations in a weakened Eastern Conference, they’ll need at the very least 55 games from their franchise big man to pull themselves out of the lottery for the first time in six years.

With the captivating personality Embiid possesses, he’s the picture perfect media darling. Every tweet Embiid sends out goes viral in minutes, and his post game dancing antics never fail to make for a hilarious video.

For every bit of promise the Sixers ooze heading into this season, there will be a dark cloud of skepticism that hovers over them until proven otherwise. That intrigue in itself, not even counting how fun a Simmons-Fultz-Embiid trio could be, will be enough to have people following along closely.

Granted, these aren’t all of the storylines that will dominate the NBA this season. That’s the best part. New drama will almost assuredly pop up on a regular basis as the season begins to get itself into mid-season form, and there were be a whole new bag of goodies for the fans to digest.

If this past summer is any indication for how this NBA season will go, not many people will be calling the regular season boring this time around.

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Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

With Chris Paul joining James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, how high can the Rockets soar? Basketball Insiders takes a look.

Basketball Insiders

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After overachieving last season, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the more surprising moves of the summer. With Chris Paul now joining James Harden, the Rockets have one of the league’s best backcourts. The question now, however, is whether or not they have enough to help them become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

With a roster that isn’t as deep as it was last season, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be counting on their supremely gifted backcourt to help them surpass last season’s 55 wins.

Whether or not they can may ultimately depend on how general manager Daryl Money fleshes out his roster around his two superstars—and also whether the team is able to eventually pull off a long-discussed trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2017-18 Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

For the first time during his Houston Rockets tenure, James Harden has a true superstar companion (no, I’m not counting Dwight Howard in that category).

Chris Paul joins Harden in H-Town after a season that saw Harden switch to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and lead the league in assists per game. While that may seem odd at first glance, Paul’s ability to command the floor, shoot and score effectively, and play elite defense gives Houston a backcourt that can rival any in the league — even those dudes in the Bay Area.

With role players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza on board, Harden and Paul should have enough artillery to overtake their division and actually give Golden State a run for their money.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Oh, there will be three-pointers. So many three-pointers. A year ago, the Houston Rockets broke the single-season record for most deep attempts in a season, having shot over 40 of them per game, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different, especially with Chris Paul helping to break down defenses and create potentially even more open looks for those Houston shooters. Nabbing Paul was a huge boon, and somehow finagling Carmelo Anthony would only add to the haul basketball gods willing. Even without Anthony, though, Paul and last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden is enough to make this team a powerhouse. The role guys here fit Mike D’Antoni’s system beautifully, and the star power obviously is there. Pencil the Rockets in for a very deep playoff run this summer. Nobody is going to give Golden State more trouble than these guys, health pending.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Houston is hoping that the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul can bridge the gap between the Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are still the favorites, but Houston now has arguably the league’s best backcourt, versatile wing defenders that theoretically match up well with Golden State and enough overall talent to have a chance to upset the Warriors on any given night. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute help to bolster the team’s defensive versatility, while Paul is still one of the league’s best defensive point guards. However, the loss of players like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could sting a bit more than most predict. The wildcard right now is the stalemate regarding Carmelo Anthony. If Anthony ends up in Houston, the Rockets would have a very impressive arsenal of offensive talent. Whether the skill sets of Paul, Harden and Anthony could effectively mesh together is unclear, but it sure would be fun to see what they could achieve together.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

What an offseason for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who should easily be in pole position for Executive of the Year at this point. The Chris Paul trade is the obvious feather in the cap, but Morey also got fantastic deals on guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute – both exactly the kind of wing stoppers this team has been in dire need of for some time. The Rockets now have more of the kind of switchable bodies needed to throw at a behemoth like Golden State, plus two of the league’s best ball-handlers in Paul and James Harden. They’re all-in on making a charge at the champs this year; we’ll see if they have enough to do it.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Rockets enter the season very similarly to the Celtics.

Each team surpassed expectations last season, but ended up trading away a few rotation pieces to consolidate and bring in a superstar. I think the partnership between Paul and James Harden will work so long as Harden continues to play with his head up. The propensity for many people in Harden’s shoes would be to revert to being a shoot-first guard, but I think the Rockets will only maximize their potential if both Paul and Harden make it their duty to make their teammates better.

Although these guys may struggle to get defensive stops at times, they are just one more piece away from potentially winning the Western Conference. The Rockets would be best-served by encouraging Carmelo Anthony to work out a contract buyout with the Knicks and join them after potentially clearing waivers. Until they find a way to add him (or a player with similar caliber), they will still be looking up at the Spurs in the Southwest and at at least two other teams in the conference.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Although Chris Paul is a supremely gifted offensive player, James Harden is absolutely extraordinary. Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple doubles overshadowed the fact that Harden himself turned in an amazing 22 over the course of the season. Always having been a dynamic scorer, Harden took his game to the next level last season after being installed as the primary point guard for Mike D’Antoni and his club. Harden reverted to his prior days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proved that he still had the ability to create plays for his teammates and be an effective “finder” in pick-and-roll situations.

Last season, the Rockets finished second in points per game and second in offensive efficiency, and they did so because of Harden. The bearded point guard averaged career-highs across the board with 29.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 11.2 assists per game.

He’s not only the top offensive player on the Rockets; it could be argued that he’s the top offensive player in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Again, Chris Paul gets snubbed, but barely. The same can be said for the newly signed Luc Mbah a Moute, who is entering his 10th NBA season. Both Mbah a Moute and Paul were members of the most effective defensive lineups deployed by Doc Rivers last season, but Clint Capela is a true game-changer on the defensive end of the floor.

Although he had the benefit of being protected on the perimeter by Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, Capela is a prototype of what today’s defensive NBA should be. He is wiry and rangy—his long arms make him a good shot blocker and pass lane defender, while his athleticism and light-footedness make him nimble enough to defend opposing perimeter players after being switched out on pick-and-roll plays. The numbers might not necessarily back up the claim (Capela averaged just 1.2 blocks and 0.5 steals per game during the regular season), but he was the anchor and final line of defense for a team that finished a respectable 18th in defensive efficiency last season. Most importantly, though, was Capela’s defense during the playoffs. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game and helped the Rockets hold their playoff opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the playoffs.

As it relates to defensive presence, the Swiss-born center is special.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

James Harden may have led the league in assists per game last season, but Chris Paul is the best playmaker on the roster. Whether or not he can be more effective with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—the three of whom all shared the floor with Harden last year—remains to be seen, though.

Still, Paul has averaged at least nine assists per game for each of the past 10 seasons and has never drawn criticism for a lack of creating opportunities for his teammates. In fact, it will be especially interesting to see how effective Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be on the offensive side of the basketball without him.

As it currently stands, Paul enters his 13th season averaging 9.89 assists per game—the third-highest per-game average in NBA history. Magic Johnson (11.19) and John Stockton (10.51) are the only ones who have averaged more per game. Paul is also just one of two active players to rank in the Top 10 for total career assists. Andre Miller, who has recorded 8,524 career assists, ranks ninth. That leaves him just 273 assists ahead of Paul’s 8,251.

In all likelihood, Paul, one of the top playmakers in the history of the league, will become ninth this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

While Chris Paul has certainly made his fair share of big shots, James Harden gets the nod. Truth be told, however, an inspection of the numbers yields the conclusion that both Paul and Harden leave a bit to be desired in clutch moments of games. Last season, in the final five minutes of a game that was within five points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Harden shot 33-for-93. Converting on just 35.5 percent of shots in those situations is a mediocre showing, but it is better than the 13-for-41 shot by Paul in those moments. Paul’s 31.7 percent shooting in those situations is not as good as we would expect it to be, but he should also point out that his lack of attempts in those situations is probably due to the fact that he has more of a propensity to pass the basketball in the first place.

Still, Harden gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

In an interesting twist, in December 2011, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package of players that most prominently featured Eric Gordon. The two will now share the floor as members of the Houston Rockets.

After averaging 22.3 points per game in his third season, Gordon seemed destined for greatness as the NBA level. The Hornets thought they were getting an All-Star caliber player in exchange for Paul, but Gordon’s very first season in New Orleans was an indicator of what would become of his career. Gordon was limited to just nine games in 2011-12 and would play just 42, 64, 61 and 45 games over the following four years, respectively.

Last season, though, things turned. After being relegated to the bench, Gordon appeared in 75 games and scored 16.2 points per game off the bench. As a result, Gordon managed to edge out Andre Iguodala for the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Award and play an integral role in the Rockets and their overachieving last season. He hasn’t necessarily gotten his due from the masses, though, which is why he deserves some love here.

Best New Addition: Chris Paul

Obviously, when you add a player like Chris Paul to a team with the firepower of the Rockets, he is the best new addition. At 32 years old, Paul is probably past his physical prime, but his game has never been about athleticism. If there is a concern, it would be that he managed to appear in just 61 games last season, but in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, he suited up for 82 and 74 games, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni managed Paul’s minutes, and the extent to which he has James Harden and Paul share the floor for long spurts or whether he uses them to spell one another. However, if Paul can remain relatively healthy, the Rockets may be one or two more pieces away from winning the Western Conference, and that’s the case because they managed to add Paul.

Luc Mbah a Moute gets an honorable mention here, as well.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni, but the Rockets were a respectable defensive team last season. At the very least, that shows that when D’Antoni has the personnel, he can pull some good defense out of his club.

What D’Antoni deserves respect for, however, is demanding greatness of his team and remaining true to his principles. Since his departure from the Phoenix Suns, he has failed to find the type of success that many expected after leading the Suns to contention. The winner of the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year Award, D’Antoni joins Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Gene Shue, Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons as the only coaches in history to win the award multiple times.

As great as James Harden has been, it could certainly be argued that he wouldn’t have been able to unleash his offensive potential without having a system that could take advantage of his gifts and a coach that could reach him.

It’s easy to argue that the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets represents the finest coaching job in D’Antoni’s career.

2. Daryl Morey

One of the leaders of the contemporary NBA’s love affair with advanced statistics and analytics, Morey is one of the more renowned general managers in the NBA. Whether it was making an aggressive run at Chris Bosh or signing Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard, Morey has traditionally been a general manager who often looks for and usually finds ways to improve his team. An autopsy of the moves that he has made would show a few failures and a few contracts that were richer than they should have been, but the same can be said of most executives across the NBA. Long ago, Morey earned the monicker of “the Wizard” for seemingly being able to come away from trades with more than he gave up. The test of the monicker will be this season, though. With Chris Paul’s advancing age, Morey will have limited time to build a contender around he and James Harden. However, over the course of his 10 years in Houston, we admire his zeal and give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Trevor Ariza

Though lacking the hardware, one could make the case that Trevor Ariza is a lite version of the modern day Bruce Bowen. Since being drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Ariza has been a plus contributor for each one of his 13 years in the NBA. He has earned a reputation for being a true professional, an excellent teammate and a hard worker.

Defensively, although Ariza has lost a step or two, he is still pesky on the perimeter. He shot 34.4 percent from the three-point line last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from deep. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily put him among the league leaders, it allows him to blend in nicely with Chris Paul and James Harden. He will contribute positively on the defensive end while helping to keep the floor spaced and the game open.

4. Nene

Having just turned 35 years old, there was some doubt that Nene would return for his 16th NBA season after his 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely. Nene tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ playoff battle against the San Antonio Spurs, and any chance that the team had of competing with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard went up in smoke.

Nene is still an effective defender and still has magnificent footwork. He’s nimble and should still be able to give the Rockets an effective 15 minutes per game. It’s also reasonable to expect him to be the team’s best post option and, in a best case scenario, someone who can help some of the younger big men on the Rockets develop their own skills.

5. Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson’s name has been mentioned a lot this past summer, but mostly because the New York Knicks have let it be known that they refuse to take him back in any would-be trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Truth is, when it was learned that the Rockets would sign Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, most people questioned the wisdom behind the deal. Certainly a hefty commitment, Anderson could be argued as being overpaid, but his effectiveness with last season’s Rockets can’t be questioned.

In 29.4 minutes per game last season, Anderson scored 13.6 points per game. More importantly, though, he led the team in three-point percentage, connecting on 40.3 percent of his looks from long distance.

What made Anderson’s proficiency and durability especially noteworthy last season was the fact that he missed 97 total games over the precious three seasons. He appeared in 72 total contests last season, and appears to be trending in the right direction. Although he owns a rich contract that the Knicks rightfully want no part of, he fits nicely with the Rockets, who they are and what they do.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets had an interesting summer, dipping below the salary cap in June to acquire multiple contracts to immediately turn around in trade for Chris Paul. The team has been over the cap since the start of July, using almost their Mid-Level Exception on P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Houston also spent its Bi-Annual Exception on Tarik Black. With $114.7 million in guaranteed salary, the Rockets have some wiggle room under their hard cap of $125.3 million – potentially staying completely under the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold.

Next summer, the team could get to almost $20 million in cap room but only if Paul leaves as an unrestricted free agent. Houston is far more likely to stay over next year’s projected $102 million cap, locking down Paul on a new, long-term deal. Before the start of the coming season, Houston can work an extension with Clint Capela, otherwise he’ll hit restricted free agency in July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Backcourt and the Coach

Chris Paul and James Harden, in terms of talent, can argue for mention as the top backcourt in the league. At the very least, they are on the same plane as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Whatever the Rockets hope to be this season will begin and end with how Paul and Harden galvanize their troops. For the most part, though, the two have each proven themselves to be effective leaders and winners. Paul has always maximized the talent around him, and last season Harden proved that he is just as capable of doing the same. If the Rockets can collectively take the next step and keep the ball moving as opposed to standing by idly and waiting for Paul and Harden to create, they’ll be in business.

As it relates to Mike D’Antoni, he will only be effective if his players are buying into what he is preaching. With Paul and Harden, D’Antoni will have the most gifted tandem he’s ever coached, and it should be interesting to see what kind of return he is able to get. If there is one coach that should be entrusted with finding a way to make Paul and Harden work together, it’s D’Antoni.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Chemistry

Jumping on the opportunity to acquire a player like Chris Paul was the right move, but the Rockets don’t have the depth required of a championship contender. Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have 10 players who can be counted on to have an impact on any given night. The same probably can’t be said of the Rockets. At best, the Rockets have eight players who have proven that they are everyday NBA contributors, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are only threats on offense, while Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are most effective on the defensive side of the ball. Nene probably can’t play much more than 15 minutes per game and at least one of Demetrius Jackson, Tim Quarterman or Isaiah Taylor will be depended upon to play impactful minutes at the lead guard position, especially if either Paul or Harden goes down.

Aside from that, the Rockets have a lot of new faces. For a team that won 55 games last season and found success with what it was running, incorporating so many new faces will pose a challenge.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Daryl Morey find a way to land Carmelo Anthony?

Acquiring Chris Paul came at a great cost. In exchange for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Rockets traded away some key members of last seasons team in Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, as well as a few youngsters in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. The Rockets also sent a top-three protected 2018 first round pick to the Clippers. The club also sent cash to the Clippers.

The only problem for the Rockets now, though, is depth. While they still have some very good contributors, the team has consolidated a few of its important pieces (including a top-flight defender in Beverly) for the right to acquire Paul. It makes perfect sense that the team is interested in Carmelo Anthony, but the cupboard seems fairly bare. What remains to be seen with the Rockets now is whether and how they will find creative ways to add two or three more rotation-ready pieces to their roster. If Anthony holds out until December, the trade winds will begin swirling, as players who signed contracts this past summer will become trade-eligible. In other instances, players who seek buyouts (such as Dwyane Wade) may eventually wiggle free and may circle Houston as a preferred destination.

The question at the end of the day thus becomes whether Morey can continue to be the Wizard we have come to know and put some more meaningful pieces around his dynamic backcourt—whether it be Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

— Moke Hamilton

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