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Why Aren’t the Houston Rockets Contenders?

Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston was supposed to herald in a new era of championship basketball. Why hasn’t that come to fruition?

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When the Houston Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes over the summer, the Rockets and their fans celebrated like they had just won a championship. Howard was heralded as the resurrected Hakeem Olajuwon, and the city practically began mapping out parade routes for the championships that Howard and fellow superstar James Harden were destined to bring to town.

Now, with the 2013-14 NBA season near its midpoint, there is one inescapable conclusion to be drawn about the Houston Rockets:

They are not contenders.

To start with, Rockets fans are starting to realize what long-time observers of the NBA already knew, that Dwight Howard is no Hakeem Olajuwon. For those too young to remember, Olajuwon was second only in NBA domination to Michael Jordan when they were both in their primes. Houston’s game plan was to bring the ball up the court, feed it to Olajuwon, and allow him to create the offense. He would either create points by eluding double- and triple-teams with his plethora of moves in the post, or he would suck those defenders away from the perimeter and then hand pick which lights-out three-point shooter he wanted to hit with a pass. Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Matt Bullard, Clyde Drexler, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie are just a few of the old school Rockets who owe their ring-bearer status to the brilliance of Olajuwon.

»In Related: Houston Rockets Salary Cap Information

Howard is a completely different player. Rather than creating offense, Howard basically needs to have his offense created for him. He is one of the best finishers in the game, but only if he is put into a situation where finishing is all he has to do. He can rock the rim on a fast break, make the highlight reel with an alley-oop dunk and intimidate even the most confident penetrating guards on the defensive end, but creating his own offense is simply not Howard’s game. And of course, there’s the free throw dilemma. Howard is below his unimpressive career mark of 57.5 percent, shooting just 54.3 percent from the charity stripe. Olajuwon was consistently above 70 percent from the line, and even better in crunch time.

The second glaring issue derailing Houston’s championship aspirations is their lack of assists. On the season they manage just under 20 assists per game, ranking them in the bottom five across the NBA. Part of that has to do with ongoing injuries in the back court, where Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley have missed significant time, but part of it also has to do with the fact that they are allowing their shooting guard to handle the playmaking. Harden does put up impressive assist numbers on occasion, to be sure. The problem is that his assist-to-turnover ratio is among the worst in the league for players who start and handle the ball, and he’s well on his way to a career-worst year in turnovers at just under four per contest. The Rockets can win a lot of games with the shoot-first Harden running the offense, but they can’t win on an elite level.

Next, there’s the defensive end of the floor. Despite the addition of Howard, one of the league’s best shot-blockers and low-post defenders, the Rockets are sitting in the bottom third of the NBA in points allowed, consistently giving up in the neighborhood of 102 points per game. Part of that, too, is due to injury, as Omer Asik would be helping Howard patrol the paint is he weren’t slowed by a swelling knee. But since the Rockets are looking to deal Asik anyway, he’s not the long-term solution. The Rockets need better defense on the wings, and that’s only going to come with a personnel move. There are no great wing defenders on the roster.

Finally, there’s the question of the power forward position. At times Terrence Jones has looked like the answer for Houston, but at others he looks like he really needs to be the backup power forward. He’s shown moments of brilliance, and his leadership at summer league was impressive, but for him to be a championship-caliber player, he’s going to need time and development, two things the win-now Rockets are not in a position to wait for. Of course, if the Rockets had an elite playmaker setting the stage for Jones it might greatly accelerate his growth process, but unless one becomes available and can be had for what Houston’s offering, that’s an unlikely scenario.

On paper, the Houston Rockets look like a team that could compete for the top spot in the Western Conference, and indeed, at times they have held their own with the West’s elite. That said, over the course of the first half of the season we have seen some glaring weaknesses, and if those weaknesses go unaddressed between now and the trade deadline it could be another long offseason for Dwight Howard and his new team.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.

Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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