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.

Astros Red Sox rematch, Verlander on a roll and more

Harden is first team All-NBA, but is there a problem with Paul?

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

James Harden was named first team All-NBA Thursday. The vote for him was unanimous as it was for Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely wrest the NBA MVP Award from Harden. It's Harden's fifth first team selection. Hakeem Olajuwon was named first team six times. LeBron James is the all-time leader with 12 first team selections, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant each made it 11.

Sounds as though Chris Paul may not have sent Harden congratulatory flowers or candy. It seemed weak of the Rockets to not hold customary exit interviews and media availability soon after their season ended. Some light may have been shed on that if the report is accurate that Paul had done some chafing over the extent of Harden's ball dominance (maybe more so after Harden's four fourth quarter turnovers in the game six capitulation vs. the Warriors?) and stand around nature of Harden iso-ball. That style coupled with the relentless heaving of three point shots generally served the Rockets well, but has its flaws. For years Paul was a brilliant and low turnover orchestrator of offense so some frustration for him is understandable. But with that, Paul needs to understand that he's not the player he used to be. It's the Rockets' problem that over the next three seasons they'll be paying Paul as if he's better than ever.

On the Astros

The Astros are a loaded team but certainly not perfect. General Manager Jeff Luhnow has no need to act now but things may be moving in the direction of him looking hard for a starting pitcher addition between now and July 31. Collin McHugh failed and is now injured. Josh James has been wild and shaky, Corbin Martin the same two starts in a row. Framber Valdez isn't very highly regarded, and Forrest Whitley has been awful in four straight starts at AAA. Any one of those guys could wind up stabilizing the fifth spot in the rotation. Or maybe it's an acquisition like the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman.

After a disappointing series split with the White Sox the Astros spend a second consecutive weekend with the Boston Red Sox. Last weekend they took two of three at Fenway Park, without Justin Verlander pitching. If Tal's Hill still existed at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday night against the White Sox Verlander might have pitched his third career no-hitter. Verlander goes Sunday in pursuit of his ninth win already this season. He's 8-1 with a sparkling 2.24 earned run average. Verlander's career season to date is 2011 when as a Detroit Tiger he won 24 games (with just five losses) and posted a 2.40 ERA enroute to winning both the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. The Yankees Domingo German has come out of nowhere to be 9-1 with a sub-three ERA, but Verlander is well out front to win his second "Cy." That would go with his three second place finishes and one third place finish.

Verlander is now basically a surefire Hall of Famer on top of his game at age 36. Among the seven pitchers to win a "Cy" after turning 36, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is the "Wait. What is he is doing with these other names?" guy. The others are all 300 game winners, and except for Roger Clemens, all Hall of Famers. The Rocket won three Cy Young awards after turning 36, the last as an Astro when he was 43. Randy Johnson won four in a row STARTing when he was 36. The other golden relative oldies: Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, and Early Wynn.

Home run derby

The juiced baseballs are flying out of big league ballparks at a record rate this season. The Astros have certainly done their part, hitting 90 home runs in their 51 games. Their season homer pace is at 285. The 2017 World Series winning offensive juggernaut hit 238. The Yankees set the team season record last year with 267. The surprising Minnesota Twins belted eight homers Thursday in improving the best record in MLB to 33-16. The Twins have 98 dingers in 49 games. That's exactly two per game on average, meaning a season pace toward 324. The record for most homers allowed in a season is 258, by the Reds three years ago.The Orioles' atrocious pitching staff has already given up 107 home runs. That's on pace to give up 339. 339!

Boston common

The Stanley Cup Final starts Monday night with Boston against St. Louis. The Red Sox won the most recent World Series. The Patriots won the most recent Super Bowl. Go Blues! Um, that's St. Louis. Thank goodness the Celtics flamed out in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Buzzer beaters

1. Only a boob wouldn't have voted Harden first team All-NBA. 2.The two who voted Harden first All-Defensive team are no Rocket scientists. 3. Greatest scientists not named Einstein: Bronze-Pasteur Silver-Galileo Gold-Newton

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