NBA Draft

Rockets' window may be closing faster after Tuesday's lottery

Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Divisions in basketball are seemingly pointless.

Just three years ago, winning your division would lock you into an automatic top four seed in the playoffs. Now there's an argument to be made about a concept like this being developed in times where near instantaneous cross country travel wasn't accessible or financially practical. I get it.

Those days are long gone, however, and so too is the necessity of divisions in basketball. Now the playoffs are rightfully seeded simply by record and conference, and the purpose of divisions seems only to benefit lazy schedulers.

That's right. The only aspect of a division in basketball these days that contains any shred of relevancy is the fact that divisional teams are guaranteed to face each other four times a season.

The southwest division consists of the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and the New Orleans Pelicans. Outside of San Antonio, the divisional alignment has been a boon for the Rockets' recent championship ambitions. Since 2016-2017 Houston is 32-16 against the southwest division, due largely in part to their counterparts tanking (Dallas), rebuilding (Memphis), or simply mismanaging (New Orleans). The advantage Houston holds at the moment looks like it may become a significant roadblock in the not too distant future, however.

Tuesday night, the NBA conducted it's annual lottery designed to somewhat randomly assign picks for the upcoming NBA draft. Just one year removed from receiving the fourth overall pick, Memphis walked into their front office with task of deciding on the second overall pick. And as for the number one pick? New Orleans came away with the rights of first refusal in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

Zion Williamson. One of the most highly touted NBA prospects in the past decade is almost certainly headed to The Big Easy. He's a 6' 7", 275 pound defensive end of a forward that can jump out of the building. He's an 18 year old kid so highly anticipated that he affected Nike's stock price when one of their shoes blew out underneath him. He's the one singular player I've gone out of my way to tune into a non-tournament related college basketball game to watch in probably 9 years. That Zion Williamson. Assuming New Orleans doesn't Sam Bowie this pick, the Rockets will have maybe two years before this kid--along with whatever haul the Pelicans receive for Anthony Davis' all but imminent departure--becomes a real pain in their neck.

Meanwhile Memphis will wait and most likely select Mike Conley's heir apparent, Ja Morant. Capable of driving to the hoop and finding the open teammate, Morant had established himself a consensus top five pick before the perfect situation landed in front of him. Morant should slot in perfectly next to last year's home run of a pick in forward Jaren Jackson Jr. It didn't take long for the aging Conley and Marc Gasol tandem to be replaced with what could soon be an even more potent duo.

And while Memphis and New Orleans were the big winners Tuesday night, it was Dallas around this time a year ago that began to set a course for their own resurgence. In a draft day pick flip with Atlanta, the Mavericks cashed in all of their tanking chips and acquired Luka Doncic, a 6' 7" European forward that morphed into what should soon be a unanimously declared Rookie of the Year winner within the next few weeks. Doncic is already a star after a year in the league, and halfway through the season Dallas found him a running mate by trading for the 23 year old phenom Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has yet to take the court with Doncic yet due to injury, but if the 7' 3" sharp shooting Latvian nicknamed "The Unicorn" can return and stay healthy, the Mavericks could cause a lot of teams problems as early as next year.

Houston, despite their recent playoff failings, remains the team to beat in the Southwest division. If you're wondering when the Rockets are picking in the draft, I'll save you some time. They aren't. Houston shipped their 2019 picks off with bad contracts to avoid the luxury tax and maintain an elite team. Houston isn't in "develop talent" mode. They're in "all-in championship," with an window of at best two more years as the team is currently constructed.

After that all bets are off. By then Houston's starting five outside of Harden and Capela will have aged into irrelevancy, as they stare down three young, talented-loaded rosters alongside the ever-unrelenting Spurs. Suddenly those obligatory 16 cakewalk divisional matchups no longer seem so surefire. This will be the upcoming landscape the Rockets will have to navigate, and it doesn't look easy.

The Houston Rockets are in win now mode for plenty of reasons, and Tuesday night gave them one more. Win now, because winning later could be much harder.

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NBA wheeling and dealing dominated the first half of July, now it's baseball's turn with the one and now only trade deadline looming the 31st.

I've steadfastly been saying the Astros are extreeeemely likely to win the American League West and that their real race is for homefield advantage in the playoffs, with the Twins and Yankees in the American League and maybe the Dodgers for World Series homefield edge. Catching the Dodgers looks unlikely. The Astros have a better team than the Twins, and an easier remaining schedule in trying to catch the Yankees.

For at least a few days though take the Oakland A's seriously. If a team scores about as many runs as yours does, and allows about as many as yours does, that team is basically about as good as yours is. Looking at the rosters I'm not sure how it's the case but that basically is Oakland this season. Since a 19-25 start, the A's have ripped off a 36-17 stretch to enter the weekend within five and a half games of the Astros. They've kept rolling since a month ago losing their best starting pitcher (Frankie Montas) to an 80 game performance enhancing drug suspension. The Astros and A's have 11 head-to-head games left, the first three coming at Minute Maid Park Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The Astros can win the World Series with the club they have now, especially once Carlos Correa rejoins the lineup. They could also get bounced in the Division Series. The addition of a starting pitcher has clearly grown in need. Who is selling and what prices are the questions. The Jays' Marcus Stroman? The Tigers' Matthew Boyd? The Marlins' Caleb Smith? The Mets are on the fringe of the Wild Card picture, would they auction Noah Syndergaard? The Giants have surged into the mass of mediocrity that is the NL Wild Card pic, that would seem to make them trading Madison Bumgarner less likely. It's not as if the Astros would be the lone bidder on any of these guys.

A big move

I was off last week when news surfaced of the Russell Westbrook to the Rockets/Chris Paul and draft picks to the Thunder blockbuster trade. With it becoming official this week, some thoughts. Of course the Rockets wanted to move the three years, 124 million dollars left on Paul's contract. Of course there was concern over lingering problems between Harden and Paul. Maybe they'd have worked through it, maybe not. Of course taking on an additional year and 47 million more guaranteed dollars entails risk. But right now Westbrook is clearly the better and more durable player. It will be fascinating to see how well (or not well) Westbrook and James Harden mesh. What they did together seven years ago (with Kevin Durant too!) when Harden was a 22 year old sixth man isn't particularly relevant now. As he did with Harden and Paul, Mike D'Antoni will stagger their minutes to have at least one on the floor at nearly all times. Yeah, well, how are things handled down the stretch of close games? Harden is the man, Westbrook is a lousy spot up shooter. So is the ball in Westbrook's hands with Harden spotting up? Hard to see a steady diet of that. When off the ball both guys generally play as statues. That needs to change.

Westbrook may be the most explosive inch for inch player we've ever seen. Absolutely Jordanesque-not as a player, but for sheer stunning athleticism Westbrook has been amazing to watch. He brings a one man transition game ability the Rockets haven't had in ages. The consistent force with which he plays is captivating, even when he lapses into out of control Russell mode. There has to be concern that slippage in his game began last season during which Westbrook turned 30. However it was a season in which he was still third team All-NBA.

While averaging a triple-double for a third consecutive season, Westbrook's shooting numbers were poor. His free throw shooting tumbled to an awful 66 percent. His mid-range make percentage was not good. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three point shooters in the 40 season NBA history of the shot. His 30.8% career number is woeful, and in four of the last five seasons Westbrook hasn't hit 30%. The only player to take within a 1000 3s of the 2995 Westbrook has jacked up, and make a feebler percentage of them: Charles Barkley. Westbrook has played 11 NBA seasons and not hit the league average percentage from three in any of them. The notion that he's suddenly going to become a marksman for the Rockets is silly. The idea that Westbrook will get better look threes? Come on. Defenses have loved Westbrook shooting threes for years.

In the end, I like the trade for the NOW of it. The Rockets have a title contending upside, and an it could crater downside. They could wind up forfeiting lottery picks (top four protected) in 2024 when Harden is ready to turn 34 and Westbrook approaching 36, and again in 2026. While Daryl Morey has probably gotten too loose with discarding first round picks (they haven't made one since 2015), are you really going to be hung up on the risks of five and seven years from now?

Buzzer beaters

1. Kyle Tucker should not be untouchable for a pitcher the Astros would control beyond this season. 2. By the advanced WAR (win above replacement) metric the Rangers have the two best AL pitchers this season. The Astros face Mike Minor Friday night and Lance Lynn Sunday. Justin Verlander ranks third as he starts opposite Minor 3. Best sports Halls of Fame to visit: Bronze-hockey, Toronto Silver-pro football, Canton Gold-baseball, Cooperstown


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