Russell Westbrook

Southwest Notes: Covington, Bell, Duncan

Rockets GM Daryl Morey said on Tuesday that Robert Covington has been better than the team anticipated when it acquired him at the trade deadline.

“The biggest reason for the trade was to get Covington and he’s actually been even better than we thought,” Morey said (via Salman Ali of Clutch Points on Twitter). “…Not only how good he is, but how much he helps everyone on the team, but in particular Russell Westbrook. The driving lanes for him are super important.”

Morey added that the trade for Covington, which sent out Clint Capela, gave the Rockets more flexibility to make another move in the future.

Here’s more from the Southeast Division:

  • Jordan Bell, who was waived by the Grizzlies earlier this week, will not be eligible to play in the playoffs should he sign with a playoff team, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks relays (Twitter link). Memphis had to wait until Monday to release Bell to ensure that Anthony Tolliver cleared waivers.
  • Rudy Gay, who re-signed with the Spurs last offseason, has had a disappointing campaign and the veteran forward knows that he can do better. “It’s no secret I haven’t been playing well,” Gay said via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “You just need a good one to get out of it.”
  • Tim Duncan is serving as the head coach of the Spurs tonight, as Gregg Popovich misses the contest because of personal issues, Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today tweets.

Texas Notes: Westbrook, Green, Mavericks, Samanic

Russell Westbrook capped off his best month since joining the Rockets with a 41-point performance Saturday in Boston, writes Tim MacMahon of ESPN. Westbrook averaged 33.7 PPG in February, marking the second-best scoring month of his career. He’s also displaying efficiency that wasn’t part of his game earlier in the season. Westbrook, who took just two of his 27 shots last night from beyond the arc, posted a 54.9% shooting percentage during the month.

“Right now, I think I’m moving in the right direction,” he said. “I’ve just got to stay locked in with what I’m doing, with my craft and what I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the league.”

The improvement in Westbrook’s game has accompanied Houston’s decision to fully commit to a small-ball approach. The decision to trade starting center Clint Capela has spaced the floor and made it easier for Westbrook to get to the basket.

“One thing he can do and one thing he’s great at is driving to the rim,” teammate Jeff Green said. “When you’re spacing the floor and you’re taking (defenders) out the middle, you’re allowing him to access the lane whenever you want. You’re playing right into his hands.”

There’s more NBA news from Texas:

  • Now that Green has signed with the Rockets for the rest of the season, he would like to make Houston his long-term home, relays Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. After playing for nine teams in his 13-year career, Green likes his new surroundings. “It’s a great city, great culture,” he said. “My wife loves it. That’s the biggest say-so now in the household. As long as my wife loves it, I love playing basketball. Houston being a great city, I’d love to stay there.”
  • The Mavericks may not replay the final eight seconds of last Saturday’s loss in Atlanta even if they win their protest, tweets Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News. Owner Mark Cuban doesn’t believe it would be worth finishing the game unless it affects the team’s seeding for the playoffs. Townsend adds that the Mavs likely won’t file their evidence report in the case until shortly before the deadline of midnight tomorrow (Twitter link).
  • Luka Samanic understands that spending time in the G League is the Spurs‘ way of developing players, writes Tom Orsborn of The San Antonio Express News. The 19th pick in the 2019 draft, Samanic is putting up big numbers in Austin, but hasn’t seen any playing time in the NBA. “You have to be patient and just trust what they say, and look at what everybody did before,” Samanic said.Lonnie (Walker), Dejounte (Murray) and Derrick (White). So why not me?”

Rockets Owner Talks Playoffs, Westbrook, Small-Ball

After averaging nearly 58 wins over the past three seasons, Houston is on a slightly more modest 53-win pace in 2019/20. However, after winning eight of their last 10 games, the Rockets are once again in position to claim home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason, having moved up to No. 4 in the Western Conference.

That recent strong play – along with the success of a new-look lineup that leans heavier than ever on small-ball – has Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta expressing confidence about the club’s outlook going forward. Speaking to Kirk Bohls of The Austin American-Statesman, Fertitta said he thinks the Rockets could be the No. 2 seed if not for a handful of hard-luck losses, adding that he’s “not worried about anybody in the West.”

As Fertitta explained, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s counting on the Rockets to make it to the NBA Finals, but he’s confident that the team is capable of beating any Western club in a seven-game series.

“I think Milwaukee is head over heels above everybody else,” Fertitta said. “We just need to get home court for the first and second rounds and see what happens.”

Here are a few more of Fertitta’s thoughts on how the Rockets stack up in the West, the blockbuster trade the team made last summer, and the extreme small-ball look:

On the Western Conference playoff picture:

“None of us fear L.A. (the Lakers) or the Clippers or Denver like we feared Golden State. It’s not like how we were scared of them. We could easily win the West this year or get knocked out in the first round. Both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, we’re all excellent teams. Just comes down to somebody gets hot and makes a shot. Our chances are as good as they’ve ever been.”

On the Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook trade, and why Westbrook is a better match for James Harden:

“Everything worked out. I think Chris is having a great year at Oklahoma City. It worked out for both (teams). James and Russell came in the league at the same time, and they can talk to each other differently. One can say, ‘Screw you,’ and it’s no big deal. Chris was four years older. Four years in basketball is like a normal 10 to 15 years in business life.”

On the Rockets going all-in on small-ball:

“We basically changed out a guy who’s 6’10” to a guy who’s 6’7″, 6’8″. Are you really that much smaller? It makes the big guy for the other team go out on the perimeter. Did you see Rudy Gobert trying to keep up with Russell? Russell was running him around like crazy. It’s working.”

USA Basketball Announces 44 Finalists For 2020 Olympic Roster

USA Basketball has formally announced a preliminary group of 44 players who are candidates to be part of the program’s roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The final roster will only consist of 12 players, so most of these finalists won’t actually play for Team USA at the Olympics. Some will likely withdraw from consideration, while others simply won’t make the final cut. However, these players have all expressed interest in being involved in the process.

“This is the first step in USA Basketball identifying the 12 players who will represent the United States as members of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team in Tokyo,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo.

“… Over the course of the remainder of the NBA season we’ll continue to monitor all of the athletes. Selecting the 12-man USA roster will obviously be an extremely challenging and difficult process, and we will again attempt to select the very best team possible to represent our country and who we hope will be successful in our difficult mission of repeating as Olympic champions for a fourth consecutive Olympics.”

Although the U.S. men’s team has won three consecutive Olympic gold medals, the program had a disappointing showing at last year’s World Cup, finishing in seventh place. Team USA will be looking for a bounce-back performance in Tokyo this summer, with many players from that World Cup squad among the 44 finalists announced today.

Here’s the full list of players who are candidates to play for Team USA at the 2020 Olympics:

  1. Bam Adebayo (Heat)
  2. LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs)
  3. Harrison Barnes (Kings)
  4. Bradley Beal (Wizards)
  5. Devin Booker (Suns)
  6. Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers)
  7. Jaylen Brown (Celtics)
  8. Jimmy Butler (Heat)
  9. Mike Conley (Jazz)
  10. Stephen Curry (Warriors)
  11. Anthony Davis (Lakers)
  12. DeMar DeRozan (Spurs)
  13. Andre Drummond (Cavaliers)
  14. Kevin Durant (Nets)
  15. Paul George (Clippers)
  16. Draymond Green (Warriors)
  17. James Harden (Rockets)
  18. Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)
  19. Joe Harris (Nets)
  20. Tobias Harris (76ers)
  21. Gordon Hayward (Celtics)
  22. Dwight Howard (Lakers)
  23. Brandon Ingram (Pelicans)
  24. Kyrie Irving (Nets)
  25. LeBron James (Lakers)
  26. Kyle Kuzma (Lakers)
  27. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
  28. Damian Lillard (Blazers)
  29. Brook Lopez (Bucks)
  30. Kevin Love (Cavaliers)
  31. Kyle Lowry (Raptors)
  32. JaVale McGee (Lakers)
  33. Khris Middleton (Bucks)
  34. Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)
  35. Victor Oladipo (Pacers)
  36. Chris Paul (Thunder)
  37. Mason Plumlee (Nuggets)
  38. Marcus Smart (Celtics)
  39. Jayson Tatum (Celtics)
  40. Klay Thompson (Warriors)
  41. Myles Turner (Pacers)
  42. Kemba Walker (Celtics)
  43. Russell Westbrook (Rockets)
  44. Derrick White (Spurs)

Charania’s Latest: Rockets, Mavs, Drummond, Pelicans

Although James Harden is in his eighth year with the Rockets, it has been newcomer Russell Westbrook who has “taken the initiative within the locker room” as of late, writes Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Sources tell Charania that Westbrook has delivered “several passionate messages” to the team and has emerged as a leader. There’s no indication that’s been a problem for Harden, with Charania suggesting there’s a “renewed closeness” between the Rockets’ two star guards.

“Russell’s a good leader, and we’ve needed the motivation,” a Rockets source told The Athletic, referring to the team’s up-and-down recent play.

With the trade deadline approaching, the Rockets continue to explore the trade market in search of upgrades. Sources tell Charania that Houston is specifically looking for a wing and continues to make future draft picks available in discussions.

Here’s more from Charania’s most recent article:

  • Rival teams believe the Mavericks are looking to open up a spot on their 15-man roster for added flexibility, according to Charania, who reiterates that Dallas is in the market for a wing and/or a big man. The Mavs could go the free agent route to acquire a big, Charania adds.
  • The Pistons don’t appear to have any momentum toward an Andre Drummond trade. We previously heard that the Hawks and Knicks have pulled out of the Drummond sweepstakes, and Charania suggests that’s the case for the Celtics too. Sources tell The Athletic that no teams have made the Pistons a quality offer that meets their asking price of a first-round pick or a good young player.
  • The Pelicans are telling teams they want to evaluate their current core for a longer period of time now that everyone is healthy, per Charania. It’s unclear if New Orleans will reconsider that stance at all before the February 6 trade deadline.

Northwest Notes: Collins, Nuggets, Millsap, Westbrook

Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins remains on track to return in March after undergoing shoulder surgery, Jason Quick of The Athletic relays.  Collins suffered a left shoulder dislocation and had the surgery performed in early November. “That’s definitely my goal,” Collins said of returning in March. “We will be in the playoff race and I’ll be able to come back and make a really good push. And hopefully Nurk (Jusuf Nurkic) comes back around that time and we can all just really come together at the right time for the playoffs.”

We have more from the Northwest Division:

  • Nuggets coach Michael Malone hopes the current roster remains in place through the trade deadline, Mike Singer of the Denver Post tweets. However, he also knows that some reserves would have better opportunities elsewhere. Among those players are guard Malik Beasley and forward Juancho Hernangomez. “I hope we can keep this team because I know what this team is capable of… I also know it’s a business, I also know these guys all want to play,” Malone said.
  • Nuggets forward Paul Millsap wishes he would have played it safer regarding the left knee contusion he suffered in a collision with Jamal Murray on December 20, Singer reports. Millsap has missed three games and hasn’t played up to his usual standards when he has suited up. “Probably should’ve got it taken care of and sat down and make sure it was good at that time,” Millsap said. “It’s a little lingering effect to it, and a few other things going on because of it. But, best-case scenario is just sit down and make sure I’m fully healthy.” Millsap, who insists the injury isn’t serious, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
  • Rockets point guard Russell Westbrook returned to Oklahoma City on Thursday night and indicated he had no regrets about his tenure with the Thunder, Mark Medina of USA Today writes. “I have no bad blood or nothing here in this city with no fans or nobody in the organization,” Westbrook said. “They gave me all they had, and I gave them all I had.” Westbrook, who was traded in July, scored 34 points against his former team but OKC rolled to an easy victory.

And-Ones: Messina, All-Surprise Team, 2020 Draft

Olimpia Milano head coach and president of basketball operations Ettore Messina has coached some of Europe’s top teams, including CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid, and spent several years on the Spurs‘ bench as a top assistant to Gregg Popovich. However, an NBA head coaching job has eluded him. Speaking to Jeff Greer of The Athletic, the veteran coach – now 60 years old – suggested he hasn’t given up on the idea of coaching an NBA team.

“Maybe it will happen; maybe no,” Messina said. “Maybe I will be an assistant again. I do enjoy my time here (in Italy). It’s a good experience because you learn a lot about how the overall club and team function and how the club and team interact with each other. I try to do a poor man’s Pop.”

While Messina may view himself as a “poor man’s Pop,” the actual Pop is among those who believes that his longtime assistant deserves a shot to be the head coach of an NBA franchise.

“If somebody was smart enough, they would’ve hired him as a head coach here in America,” Popovich said, per Greer. “To date, that hasn’t happened, but he is one of the all-time greats. I don’t know what else has to be said.”

Here are more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • John Hollinger of The Athletic makes his picks for his “All-Surprise Team” of the first third of the 2019/20 NBA season. In addition to much-discussed breakout or comeback players like Wizards forward Davis Bertans and Lakers center Dwight Howard, Hollinger singles out some contributors that have flown more under the radar, including Bucks guard George Hill and Nuggets wing Will Barton.
  • The Utah fan who was banned from the Vivint Smart Home Arena last season for allegedly directing racist and derogatory remarks toward Russell Westbrook has sued the Jazz and Westbrook and is seeking $100MM in damages, according to Benjamin Wood and Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune. The fan, Shane Keisel, claimed that his heckling “was of the same kind and caliber as that of the other audience members in the section.”
  • The 2020 NBA draft should feature a deep class of international prospects, according to ESPN’s Mike Schmitz (Insider link), who shares insights on a handful of promising youngsters currently playing in Europe.

“No Belief” Thunder Will Trade Chris Paul This Season

It has now been exactly five months since Chris Paul was sent from Houston to Oklahoma City in the blockbuster trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Rockets. From the moment that deal happened, Paul has been considered the NBA’s most obvious candidate to be moved in another trade, but it appears as if the Thunder and the veteran point guard are preparing for the possibility that no deal is coming.

“There is no belief in Oklahoma City or even in the CP3 camp that there’s going to be a trade for him,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on Sunday night on the network’s trade deadline special (video link). “… I think they’re resigned that he’ll be there.”

[RELATED: More trade rumors from Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe]

According to Wojnarowski, an offseason trade involving Paul remains a possibility, but his massive contract makes him an especially tricky player to move during the season, even though he has played well so far in Oklahoma City.

A player like Danilo Gallinari, who has a $22.6MM expiring contract, is a stronger candidate to be dealt before the deadline. However, the Thunder won’t just be prepared to accept the best offer for the veteran forward. Wojnarowski points out that – due to the lack of teams projected to have cap room during the 2020 offseason – OKC could realistically keep Gallinari through the season, then work with him on a sign-and-trade in the summer to get something back for him at that point.

Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams are among the other veteran trade candidates on the Thunder’s roster, and there should be interest in both, per Woj. But all four players have significant cap hits and Gallinari is the only one on an expiring deal, so there’s no guarantee the club will be extremely active at the deadline.

Rockets Notes: Protest, McLemore, Westbrook, Clark

The Rockets have a challenging case to prove now that their protest of Tuesday’s game is official, tweets Marc Stein of The New York Times. Houston must provide “clear evidence” that the outcome in San Antonio was affected by a James Harden dunk that was disallowed. Stein calls it a “high bar” to convince the league that a single basket with 7:50 left to play would have made the difference between winning and losing (Twitter link).

Harden scored on a breakaway that would have given Houston a 104-89 lead, but he dunked the ball so hard that it popped in front of the rim after going through the hoop, leading to confusion over whether it was a made shot. Officials disallowed the basket and refused to let Mike D’Antoni use a coach’s challenge because a 30-second time limit had expired. The Rockets lost in double overtime.

The team has five days to submit evidence after filing the protest, then commissioner Adam Silver has five days to issue a ruling, according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press (Twitter link). The Rockets also had to pay a $10K protest fee that will be refunded if they are successful, notes Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.

There’s more from Houston:

  • Ben McLemore has been effective as a starter, but he appears headed back to the bench now that Danuel House is healthier, writes Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. McLemore has performed far better in the starting lineup, including a season-high 28 points Thursday night in Toronto, but D’Antoni prefers the defense and versatility that House brings. “He plays hard and he’s coachable,” D’Antoni said of McLemore, who is in his first season with the team. “He does have a nice shot. He needs confidence. He needs to play. He needs to feel wanted. Hopefully, he will continue to get better.”
  • Management isn’t concerned over Russell Westbrook‘s inconsistent play so far, states Kelly Iko of The Athletic. Westbrook’s shot has been misfiring and his win shares are at a career-low 0.7, but he has multiple dislocated fingers and is still being managed for knee pain. The team isn’t expecting Westbrook to fully be himself until after the All-Star break.
  • Gary Clark‘s surprising contributions at the start of last season were part of the reason the club moved on from Carmelo Anthony, but the second-year forward hasn’t been able to carve out a regular role, Iko adds in the same piece. Between Clark’s poor shooting and the Rockets’ deep rotation, it appears he’ll have to wait his turn for regular minutes, even though D’Antoni likes what he brings to the team.

Rockets Notes: Capela, Conditioning, Harden, Gordon, McLemore

Rockets center Clint Capela is off to a slow start compared to last season and a sore right shoulder is partially to blame, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon tweets. Capela injured the shoulder playing for the Swiss national team this summer and has been working to strengthen it. It has especially affected him when trying to dunk with one hand and reaching for rebounds, MacMahon adds. Capela is averaging 13.5 PPG and 7.1 RPG through the first eight games after averaging 16.6 PPG and 12.7 RPG last season.

We have more on the Rockets:

  • Coach Mike D’Antoni is second-guessing himself for taking it too easy on his players during camp, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle tweets. Houston split its first six games before winning its last two outings. “I’m also kind of responsible. I was saving their legs in the preseason so that near the end of the year we’ll be fresher,” D’Antoni said. “I can’t also be crazy because they’re not quite in shape. We’re working on it.”
  • TV analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy believes James Harden should get more credit for resisting the load management strategy that many other teams are using for their stars, Feigen writes. “Everybody is so hypercritical of everything Harden does. He should be absolutely lauded [for wanting to play 82 games],” Van Gundy said. ” It’s like the Rolling Stones came through here and don’t bring Mick (Jagger.) It would be the same thing if Harden doesn’t show up.”
  • The team should be much more worried about Eric Gordon’s shooting woes rather than Harden’s early slump, John Hollinger of The Athletic opines. Gordon is having a harder time getting to and finishing at the rim and that raises concerns, However, the team’s biggest long-term issues are their lack of overall interior size on defense and the fact that Russell Westbrook is a downgrade from Chris Paul at that end, Hollinger adds.
  • Ben McLemore, who has taken all but three of his 38 shots this season from beyond the arc, has solidified his rotation spot, Feigen writes a separate story.