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Ranking the Restricted Free Agents

Jesse Blancarte takes a close look at the best restricted free agents who will be on the market this summer.

Jesse Blancarte

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There are now eight teams left standing in the NBA playoffs, which leaves 22 teams to start planning for the upcoming offseason. While this year’s draft class has considerable talent, there is also a list of young, promising free agents that will be available. In particular, there are a number of talented restricted free agents that could be snagged away by teams willing to pay the right amount.

This is generally a risky strategy as teams will often match any offer their player receives. It is also risky because often times restricted free agents are still anywhere from 23 to 26 years old, and it isn’t yet clear how valuable they are as players. Teams that extend an offer sheet to a restricted free agent also tie up their cap space for several days while they wait to find out if that player’s original team will match. Still, each season teams look to pry away these young players, banking on their current skill and future potential.

IN RELATED: The Complete 2014 Free Agent List

Here we rank this season’s most notable restricted free agents, starting at the bottom:

Jordan Crawford (Golden State Warriors)—

Crawford came into the league as primarily a scorer. However, this season rookie head coach Brad Stevens came in and made Crawford a primary ball-handler for the Boston Celtics. The results were both surprising and promising. In 39 games played with the Celtics this season, Crawford averaged 13.7 points, 5.7 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 0.9 steals, but only shot 41.3 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from beyond the arc.

Crawford’s ability to handle the ball and make accurate passes was a welcome addition to his game, and got the attention of the Golden State Warriors, who were in need of depth at the guard position. The Warriors executed a trade for Crawford and brought him in to back up Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. With Golden State, Crawford only played 15.7 minutes per game (down from 30.7 in Boston), but he still scored the ball well, although his assist rate went down.

It is somewhat unclear what to expect long-term from Crawford, or how much he is worth per year. The Warriors would be wise to try and keep him around though, as he can fill in at both guard positions as needed and Golden State currently relies heavily on Curry and Thompson. Crawford is hardly a lockdown defender, but his playmaking ability is valuable, and at age 25 there is still plenty of room for Crawford’s game to improve and mature. Golden State can make Crawford a restricted free agent by extending a $3,206,867 qualifying offer.

P.J. Tucker (Phoenix Suns)—

At age 29, Tucker finally established himself as a solid rotation player in the NBA this year. Tucker averaged 9.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 steals during the 2013-14 season. He spent several years overseas working on his game and now features a mix of toughness, shooting and versatility defensively.

At just 6’5, Tucker is able to guard players as big as LeBron James and players as fast as Klay Thompson. He even took on Blake Griffin when the Suns played the Clippers and was thrown out of a game for throwing an elbow at the star power forward. Tucker isn’t just an energy guy, though. He helped spread the floor for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, hitting 38.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and 41.2 percent on corner three-pointers.

His production was significant and an absolute steal considering he made just $884,293 for the season. Unlike the majority of the other restricted free agents, Tucker is almost 30 and will be looking to get as big of a contract as possible. Phoenix can make Tucker a restricted free agent by extending a $2,875,131 qualifying offer.

Isaiah Thomas (Sacramento Kings)—

Thomas had a breakout season at age 24. He received more minutes and showed that he could be a difference maker at the point guard position.

He averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from beyond the arc. He also got to the free throw line 5.7 times a game and shot 85 percent.

Thomas is lightning quick and is a tough cover for other point guards who do not have the foot speed to stay in front of him. However, the problem for Thomas is that he is severely undersized at 5’9, even at the point guard position. He averages more points, assists and is generally a better shooter than Eric Bledsoe, but Bledsoe has the physical tools to defend the quickest point guards like Tony Parker and the stronger point guards like John Wall. In comparison, Thomas struggles to defend against almost all point guards. As good as Thomas’ statistics are, he gives a lot back on the defensive end, which makes it hard to justify giving him a large, long-term deal.

The Kings have a top-10 pick in this year’s draft and may very well add a point guard with more size, like Marcus Smart or Dante Exum. If this happens, Thomas will likely be joining a new team next season, unless the Kings decide to bring him back as a primary scoring option off the bench. Sacramento can make Thomas a restricted free agent by extending a $2,875,131 qualifying offer.

Avery Bradley (Boston Celtics)—

Avery Bradley is a little difficult to gauge as a player. He has missed significant time throughout his four-year career, but has proven to be a tenacious on-ball defender when healthy. This season, Bradley averaged over 30 minutes per game for the first time, and put up 14.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals, and shot 43.8 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from beyond the arc.

There are very good numbers for a young guard, especially one whose previous career-high in points per game was 9.2. The problem is that Bradley is not really a true point guard and is undersized at shooting guard, which diminishes his overall value. Bradley has stated previously that he is looking for a deal in the range of $8 million per year, but this is a high number for someone who is primarily a defender. For example, Tony Allen, who is the gold standard in the league as a wing defender, made $4,494,382 this season in Memphis. Bradley has more skill as an offensive player, and more upside, but Allen can guard small forwards like Kevin Durant, whereas Bradley is limited to point guards and shooting guards.

If Bradley can develop his point guard skills further, similar to Eric Bledsoe and Jordan Crawford, he would be more than worth $8 million a year. However, as of now, Boston will have a difficult choice to make, and Bradley may be on the move if he asks for more than the Celtics are willing to pay. Boston can make Bradley a restricted free agent by extending a $3,581,302 qualifying offer.

Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz)—

It is somewhat difficult to figure out just how good Hayward is, and how much would be a reasonable contract to offer him. As his minutes have increased throughout his four-year career, his efficiency has decreased. In particular, Hayward’s shooting percentages have dipped significantly. This is a result of defenses honing in on him more as he has become more of the focal point on offense for the Utah Jazz, but it is still disconcerting.

This season, Hayward averaged 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.4 steals, but shot only 41.3 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from beyond the arc. These are solid per game numbers, but again the shooting percentages aren’t where they need to be. However, a team looking to add a versatile, well-rounded small forward may be convinced that Hayward would make an excellent complementary piece. For example, the Phoenix Suns have been rumored to be interested in unrestricted free agent Luol Deng, but Hayward’s stats are nearly identical to Deng’s. In fact. Hayward is a much better playmaker, averaging 5.2 assists to just 2.9 for Deng. While the Suns may be interested in Deng more for his veteran experience than anything else, it may be worth taking a serious look at Hayward, who at age 23 has significant room to grow, whereas Deng is 29 and has dealt with injuries throughout his career.

However, Hayward may not be available, as the Jazz have made it clear they want to keep him in Utah as long as possible. However, if a team does manage to pry Hayward away, he would add a lot of versatility and upside to his new team. Utah can make Hayward a restricted free agent by extending a $4,677,708 qualifying offer.

Chandler Parsons (Houston Rockets)—

For several seasons now, Parsons has been the best value in the NBA. The Houston Rockets chose Parsons with the 38th pick in the 2011 draft and have benefited from his defensive ability and three-point shooting ever since. This season, Parsons averaged 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.2 steals, and shot 47.2 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range. Those are very good numbers for a third-year small forward at just 25 years old. But Parsons only made $926,500 this season, which is an absurdly low number for a player this productive. Credit Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for picking Parsons when so many other teams overlooked him. Consider this: The Los Angeles Clippers had the 37th pick in the 2011 draft and took Trey Thompkins, who is currently out of the league. If they had taken Parsons, he would be starting at small forward for them alongside Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

The Rockets currently have a team option on Parsons for next season, but may let him test the free agency market as a restricted free agent rather than exercising their option. This way, if a team offers Parsons a large contract, the Rockets will at least have the option of matching it, and keeping him in Houston long-term. If the team picks up his option for next season, Parsons will become an unrestricted free agent after this contract expires and Houston would risk losing him to another team since they wouldn’t have the option to match.

Though Parsons will likely get a big offer sheet, the Rockets know how valuable he is and will almost certainly bring him back.

Greg Monroe (Detroit Pistons)—

At age 24, Greg Monroe is one of the best young big men in the NBA. This season, Monroe averaged 14 points, nine rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.2 steals, and shot 50.8 percent from the field. It was actually a down year for Monroe in comparison to 2012-13, when he averaged more points, assists, rebounds and steals. This is in part explained by the arrival of forward Josh Smith, who was unable to stretch the floor from the small forward position and is more suited to play power forward, like Monroe.

Monroe is a very versatile player. He is a good shooter, underrated passer and has nice touch around the rim. He is not a great shot blocker, but that isn’t a huge problem next to a true center like Andre Drummond.

At just 24 years old, Monroe still has a lot of room to improve. His shooting percentages outside of the painted area need to increase, but Monroe has the ability to add more range to his shot. Teams know this and he should have plenty of potential suitors this summer. Ultimately, the Pistons will have to determine how much they are willing to pay Monroe to keep him around. If the new general manager (not yet named) feels that Monroe is not worth the money, he could theoretically be included in a sign-and-trade. However, this should only be a secondary option, as Monroe is truly a top young big man in the league and should not be let go of lightly. Detroit can make Monroe a restricted free agent by extending a $5,479,935 qualifying offer.

Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix Suns)—

Bledsoe is one of the most tenacious on ball defenders in the league. He is super-athletic and strong, allowing him to check the quickest point guards and some of the bigger shooting guards in the league. In fact, many other players around the league refer to Bledsoe as “Mini LeBron.”

The Phoenix Suns made a great trade last offseason to acquire Bledsoe, sending Jared Dudley to the Los Angeles Clippers and a second-round pick to the Milwaukee Bucks. Bledsoe was only available because he was positioned behind the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul.  Clippers fans were sad to see Bledsoe move on, as many believed his unique skill-set and physical abilities would make him a good fit to play alongside Paul in an unorthodox backcourt. Unfortunately, Bledsoe would have been too expensive to keep long-term.

In Phoenix, rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek put Bledsoe alongside Goran Dragic, another point guard, in the starting lineup. The pairing was an instant hit. Bledsoe’s minutes went up from 20.4 minutes per game in 2012-13, to 32.9 this season. With more minutes and a main role at point guard, Bledsoe posted career numbers of 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals on 47.4 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, Bledsoe suffered a torn meniscus and missed significant time early in the season. However, upon his return he showed that he was still as explosive as ever.

Bledsoe will get a lot of attention from teams looking for a long-term solution at point guard. Some team may find him worthy of a max contract offer, which will put pressure on the Suns to determine whether he is worth holding onto for that steep of a price. The Suns have indicated that they will hold onto Bledsoe no matter what, showing how valuable they believe him to be. He may not be as good of a shooter as Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving, but he is the best on ball defender at point guard in the league, and has a developing offensive game. Wherever Bledsoe ends up next season, he will make a significant impact on both ends of the court. Phoenix can make Bledsoe a restricted offer by extending a $3,726,967 qualifying offer.

Honorable Mentions:

Greivis Vasquez (Toronto Raptors)—

In 61 games this season with the Toronto Raptors, Vasquez averaged 9.5 points, 3.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds, and shot 41.7 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc. While these numbers don’t jump off the page, he managed them in just 21.5 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, Vasquez put up 15.9 points, 6.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds.

Beyond these numbers, Vasquez tallied the most assists in the entire league in 2012-13 with 704 total. Vasquez is an underrated playmaker and a very good shooter from three-point range. He is not the quickest player, but he uses his size effectively, allowing him to play both point guard and shooting guard as needed. Toronto can make Vasquez a restricted free agent by extending a $3,203,780 qualifying offer.

Evan Turner (Indiana Pacers)—

Turner is an interesting player. He has a diverse skill-set, good size at shooting guard and small forward, and is able to handle the ball as needed. His numbers, particularly scoring, have increased each season, but his shooting is still shaky at best. Turner has never shot over 45 percent from the field and is a career 32.6 percent three point shooter.

Expectations were high for Turner as he was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. However, he is yet to have put his entire game together into one effective package. A team may take a chance on him and offer him a significant contract this offseason, but that team would do so hoping for continued development in Turner’s game. Indiana can make Turner a restricted free agent by extending a $8,717,226 qualifying offer.

Let us know how you rank this year’s restricted free agents in the comment section below!

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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