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Toronto Raptors 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Toronto Raptors.

Basketball Insiders

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In each of the past three seasons, the Toronto Raptors have set a franchise record for most wins in a season – from 48 victories, to 49 to 56. Led by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, general manager Masai Ujiri has slowly built a contender North of the Border.

Last season, the Raptors took the team that would eventually go on to win the NBA championship—the Cleveland Cavaliers—to six games before succumbing to LeBron James and company. Now, for the Raptors, anything less than returning to that point would probably be considered a disappointment. Coach Casey received a three-year extension while DeRozan, the franchise’s cornerstone, was re-signed on a five-year maximum contract worth $137.5 million.

Without question, we are currently witnessing the Golden Age of Canadian basketball. The only question is whether the Raptors have enough to truly contend with the Cavaliers or if they will be stuck being a bridesmaid yet again.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors.

FIVE GUYS THINK

With the moves made by the New York Knicks and Al Horford finding his way to the Boston Celtics, the Raptors won’t be able to sleepwalk to the division title this season, but I see no reason to pick against them. I am a big fan of continuity and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dwane Casey. More than anything else, the Raptors will need DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to each prove that they are franchise cornerstones and they will have to prove that in the playoffs. Getting to the postseason, though, is a foregone conclusion. I see no reason why the Raptors won’t reign atop the Atlantic once again. My main concerns are around their ability to remain healthy for a full season and with how they will respond to losing the defensive edge that Bismack Biyombo provided. Truth is, I could see the Knicks or Celtics winning the Atlantic this season, but at this point, I’m not willing to bet against the Raptors.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The biggest move for the Raptors this offseason was re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. Keeping DeRozan means the Raptors can continue to work off of their dynamic duo in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors also have pretty good talent at just about every other position, but they’ll need a breakout year from someone like Jonas Valanciunas to have top-end talent on par with the elite teams in the league. Getting a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll could definitely help with that as well. Also, look for Norman Powell to build off of his solid rookie campaign and to be a significant part of the Raptors’ success. After years of having the same general core in place, the Raptors’ greatest strength may be their chemistry. However, it’s still not clear that this team can get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Raptors had a breakthrough last season by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals after two consecutive disappointing first-round exits where they entered the playoffs as favorites. The talent is there to make another run, but the team’s move this summer didn’t do much to inspire a belief that the team can take the throne away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry spent the summer winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and there should be some lift with forward DeMarre Carroll fully healthy. But there are new challengers emerging in the East, namely their division rival Boston Celtics, so the Raptors need to capitalize on their window of opportunity.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

It’s probably fair to say that there’s a consensus that Toronto is the preseason No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, mostly because they lost exactly zero players of import after back-to-back monster seasons that finally saw them make some headway in the 2016 playoffs. Jared Sullinger was a sneaky-good acquisition, but for the most part fans should just expect business as usual for the Northerners this year. They’ll be right in the mix for another deep playoff run.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

I will have to disagree with Joel, and Toronto fans won’t like it. I’m a big believer in the Boston Celtics – as I stated in their 2016-17 season preview – and I have them winning the Atlantic Division. With that said, I do think it’ll be very close and I think both squads are top three teams in the Eastern Conference. The big problem for Boston, Toronto and every other East team is that I still see a very large gap between the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else in the conference. I like this Raptors squad and expect them to win a ton of games in the regular season once again. But are they a legitimate contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the 2016-17 campaign? I don’t see it. I just can’t put them on the same tier as the true contenders around the league like the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. With that said, Toronto is beautiful and Drake is my favorite musician! Please go easy on my mentions, Raptors fans!

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan

Since entering the league in 2009, DeMar DeRozan has slowly but surely improved his overall game. However, his most drastic improvements have come on the offensive end. DeRozan is coming off of a season in which he turned in a career-high scoring average of 23.5 points per game. He managed to increase his scoring average from the previous season by 3.4 points and did so while also raising his shooting percentage more than three points. Today, he boasts a very effective midrange game that has been augmented by a respectable three-point touch. Upon entering the league, DeRozan wouldn’t even consider taking three-point shots; now, after connecting on 34 percent of his looks downtown last year, he is able to stretch defenses and keep the opposition honest.

Despite the newly developed shooting prowess, DeRozan remains most effective at finishing around the basket. An explosive and dynamic finisher, he has no shortage of highlight-reel plays and creates the same sort of anticipation that Vince Carter once did when he breaks away for an uncontested finish.

Anyone who knows Dwane Casey knows how important it is to him that his players take care of the basketball, and the coach himself would tell you that this is a very underrated part of being a “good” offensive player. Even for someone who is as demanding as Casey, DeRozan’s 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes leaves little room for more to be demanded, especially when one considers the amount of offensive repetitions and bailout plays DeRozan receives.

Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll

General manager Masai Ujiri made quite a splash during the 2015 free agency period when he showed up to a meeting with DeMarre Carroll armed with a four-year, $60 million contract. Carroll signed with the Raptors and was thought to be a major piece for them, but injuries limited him to just 26 games in his first season with Toronto. What made Carroll a coveted free agent in July 2015, though, was his rare combination of size, foot speed, strength and agility. Standing at 6’8, Carroll has the height required of a small forward in the league, but his on-ball instincts and ability to read passing lanes make him effective at guarding opposing point guards and shooting guards. In today’s NBA, where pick-and-roll and motion offenses dominate most offensive schemes, having versatile players who can switch and effectively cross-match is a necessity for any contender. So long as Carroll can stay on the court, he will be a net-positive for the Raptors on both ends of the court, but particularly on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, Kyle Lowry has truly come of age. It took Lowry nine years and four teams to eventually become an All-Star, but he has proven that he is among the league’s top point guards. Lowry was once regarded as a score-first point guard, but since arriving in Toronto, he has managed to change the perception of his game. He is two years removed from averaging a career-high 7.4 assists per game, but Lowry has become a floor general, and last season’s 6.4 assists per game is still respectable. He has greatly improved his ability to read defenses, especially while playing pick-and-roll as the ball handler.

Last season, Casey installed a fair amount of off-ball and backdoor action in his offense and Lowry found his teammates and created opportunities for others. In terms of athleticism, Lowry isn’t the most light-footed point guard. His first step isn’t exceptionally quick and he is more likely to create space for himself on a step-back than his is by blowing past his defender. Still, he is quite effective at orchestrating an offense and has excelled as the lead guard for a team that is a rising and improving contender in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Over the years, there have been more than a few instances where DeMar DeRozan has come up big for his teammates. A buzzer-beating that sunk the Orlando Magic a few years ago immediately comes to mind, while last season, the Washington Wizards walked away from the Air Canada Center with a loss thanks to the heroics of DeRozan. There is a dearth of statistical evidence to support the notion that one player happens to be more “clutch” than another, but if and when the game has been on the line, Dwane Casey has been consistent in affording DeRozan the opportunity to determine his team’s fate. For the most part, DeRozan has made the right play and the correct decision.

What makes DeRozan especially valuable in late-game situations is his offensive versatility. He has proven capable of hitting a big midrange shot as well as getting to the basket. Best of all, he is a reliable free-throw shooter, evidenced by his career shooting percentage of 82.5 percent. Best of all, he is a willing passer in late-game situations. He rarely makes poor decisions with the basketball and is certainly the best option that Casey has when the game is hanging in the balance.

The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph

After seeing Anthony Bennett’s time with the Raptors come and go, solace can be found in the fact that Cory Joseph’s homecoming has been much more productive. After spending four years as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Joseph had a front row seat to Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the gold standard of NBA franchises. He experienced the gut-wrenching defeat the Spurs suffered at the hands of the 2013 Miami HEAT and the bliss of avenging that defeat in 2014. Having only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, the Toronto native has brought great experience with him back home, and it was something that was apparent at different points of last season. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, Joseph has slowly but surely become a solid rotation guard in the NBA and should only continue to improve as the years progress. A member of the Canadian national basketball team, the young point guard continues to ply his trade and should continue to serve as an efficient, consistent, careful point guard whose best days are still ahead.

Jonas Valanciunas deserves a mention here as well. Though not widely regarded as one of the more talented big men in the league, Valanciunas’ footwork and ability to see the court from the post are overlooked. If he can remain healthy, he can help the Raptors get to the next level.

Best New Addition: Jakob Poeltl

The Austrian Jakob Poeltl is easily the best addition to the Raptors this season. Despite winning 56 games this past season, the Raptors had the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. That’s because of the 2013 trade that saw Andrea Bargnani dealt to the New York Knicks. Toronto exercised New York’s pick and selected Poeltl ninth overall.

Poeltl has an impressive collegiate and international basketball resume, and he will likely receive playing time from day one. Like most big men entering the league, Poeltl will need to add some size and strength in order to be able to compete everyday against the bigger and stronger veterans patrolling the interior. Already with solid footwork and good rebounding instincts, Poeltl brings a wealth of basketball experience with him to the NBA, and it’s likely to pay immediate dividends. It’s not every day that a successful team like the Raptors adds a talent like Poeltl, so he is easily their best new addition.

– Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Jonas Valanciunas

I’ve been on the Valanciunas bandwagon for a long time. Although still trying to improve his consistency, Valanciunas has a very smooth, fluid back-to-the-basket game and he can see the floor exceptionally well for a man his size. He is a hard worker, who puts a lot of time and effort into improving his craft. Coach Casey has compared Valanciunas to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. However, Valanciunas’ footwork, athleticism and mobility are far superior, and the 24-year-old’s ceiling remains incredibly high.

  1. Terrence Ross

Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft, Terrence Ross has slowly but surely carved out a place for himself in Toronto. A fairly versatile player, Ross connected on a career-high 48 percent of his shots last season, including 39 percent from three-point range. His growth epitomizes two of the things we like best in Toronto: growth and continuity.

  1. Dwane Casey

My feelings about Dwane Casey and the job he’s done are well documented. After a brief and uneventful tenure as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Casey eventually found his way to the bench of the Dallas Mavericks and was one of the of the ringleaders of the 2011 championship squad. With him on the bench, Casey helped the Mavericks pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history and, since then, he has worked tirelessly to deliver similar success in Toronto. Although the Raptors are still a few steps away from being a true championship contender, Casey has been there and done that and is working to deliver even better results to the fans of Toronto.

  1. Masai Ujiri

Masai Ujiri made a name for himself as the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets and famously orchestrated the trade of Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. In 2013, Ujiri became the first non-American to win the Executive of the Year Award and, shortly after, agreed to take over in Toronto. Since then, it is impossible to argue with the results. If Ujiri’s track record is any indication, the Raptors will continue to be in good hands.

  1. The fans of Toronto

We can say with certainty that the game of basketball has become the passion of Ontario. Vince Carter helped to birth an entire generation of great Canadian basketball players and the passion is evident. Good fans are an asset, especially in late-game situations and big moments. Players routinely feed off of the energy given off by their fans, and Toronto basketball fans are among the best.

– Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Raptors are one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap.  Instead, Toronto used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Jared Sullinger, and re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million contract via his Bird Rights.  The team still has the $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception, but the roster has 14 guaranteed players with five vying for the one remaining spot (E.J. Singler, Fred VanVleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Yanick Moreira and Drew Crawford).

Next summer, the Raptors may have up to $13 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright before November.  It also presumes that Kyle Lowry opts out of his final year at $12 million.  The Raptors are also likely to get the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2017 first-round pick, provided L.A. makes the playoffs.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Continuity and Chemistry: The Golden State Warriors will be an interesting team to watch this coming season. Kevin Durant has effectively replaced Harrison Barnes in the team’s rotation, and that disruption—and how Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson adjust—will be interesting to observe. Indeed, chemistry and continuity are among the most important things an NBA team can have on its side, and the Raptors certainly do have that. DeMar DeRozan is entering his eighth season and has spent the duration of his career in Toronto, while Dwane Casey is entering his fifth season on the job. Long ago, Casey was thought to be a lame duck coach after he was inherited by Masai Ujiri in 2013, but since then, Casey has become the franchise’s sideline general. Casey has earned a reputation as being a defensive taskmaster who impresses his players with an encouraging but firm demeanor. Those who have played under Casey in the past have praised his remarkable people skills and his “open door, open question” policy as it relates to his players. Since taking over in Toronto, Casey has been instrumental in helping the franchise find consistency and strength and it has been reflected in the team’s success over recent years.

Jonas Valanciunas, Terrance Ross and, of course, Kyle Lowry have also found consistent productivity in Toronto. If Casey and Lowry can succeed in incorporating some of the newer faces into the culture and playing style that has become synonymous with Toronto basketball over the past few years, then the forecast in Toronto will continue to be bright.

– Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Toughness: The 2004 Detroit Pistons will likely be the gold standard for teams that depart from the typical construction of being built around one or two superstar players. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have each experienced their fair share of playoff disappointments, and despite achieving success last season, each has been outplayed by the likes of other players who are clearly a tier above them. Dwyane Wade and Paul George each immediately come to mind.

For the Raptors, true success will be judged by how they perform in the playoffs, and as it currently stands, the team appears to be built around too many “what if” performers. Lowry performed miserably in the playoffs last season and both DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas need to prove that they can remain healthy enough to make a difference when the games truly matter. In that regard, the team appears to lack depth, especially if and when an opposing coach successfully implements a strategy to take either DeRozan or Lowry out of the game. Can Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson deliver when it counts most? Perhaps they could, but that’s not something that a wise bettor would gamble on.

In the final two minutes of an important playoff game, Casey and the fans of the Raptors need big-time players that can be depended on to lead the troops to victory. Based on each of their performances last season, and especially in the case of Lowry, there is room for concern.

Overall, the favorites in the Atlantic Division have a solid team capable of performing well, but if there is one concern in Toronto, it would be their lack of depth, especially considering the departure of Bismack Biyombo.

– Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

What are the Raptors missing?

Call it the curse of success. The Raptors are coming off of a 56-win season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and took the eventual NBA champion to six games. From this point forth, accomplishing anything less would be viewed as regression, so the most pertinent question in Toronto now seems to revolve around what it will take to truly put the team in the class of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The short answer there would appear to be a dominant frontcourt player. It was hoped that Valanciunas could have become that type of player, and though he still may, it is not often that we see players take monumental leaps in their productivity after their fourth season. If the Raptors managed to walk away from this summer with a marquee post addition like Al Horford, Paul Millsap or Kevin Love, they would’ve had a legitimate shot at knocking LeBron James off of the top of the conference. Until then, they are still probably a step below.

Of course, it would help if DeRozan or Lowry were able to contribute at a consistently high level during the playoffs, but unless a team has superstar production from other positions – like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook previously in Oklahoma City or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade previously in Miami – being successful at the highest level requires dominant and efficient frontcourt play. The Raptors still seem to have a void in that regard.

– Moke Hamilton

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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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