Five Things To Watch: Houston Rockets

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James Harden

Times flies. And things change. The Houston Rockets are Exhibit A.

One year ago, the Houston Rockets headed into training camp seemingly empty-handed after a summer spent chasing Dwight Howard via a trade with Orlando.

Gone were Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry, Samuel Dalembert, Courtney Lee and countless others, and in were the unproven Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. It was a seemingly disappointing offseason, but just before the season was set to start, GM Daryl Morey changed all of that, trading Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and multiple draft picks for Oklahoma City sixth man James Harden.

Now, Harden has transformed into one of the league’s premier scorers, and the young cast around him has attracted Howard, the mercurial superstar who spurned the Rockets a year earlier.

There is finally a lot of excitement in the air, and it’s perfectly justified. After losing Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to injury just a few years ago, Morey has quickly rebuilt the Rockets into a contender.

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SH Blog: Rodman visits North Korea again; Pierce was the catalyst in Celtics-Nets trade

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Hey everyone, I’m back in action this weekend. And what a story to welcome me back, too. A while back, Dennis Rodman visited Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, and this week, he went back. Once you think about it, this shouldn’t be all that surprising: like his father, Jong-Un is a big fan of the NBA, especially the 90′s Bulls (and also a big fan of looking at things). And the only 90′s Bull weird enough to want to go hang out with North Korea’s Dear Respected Leader would have to be Rodman, obviously. I doubt we’d see Toni Kukoc getting off the plane in Pyongyang, right?

Still, there’s few headlines weirder than Dennis Rodman sending Barack Obama a message from Kim Jong-Un. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

For more strictly basketball-related news, let’s get to all the latest from around the NBA:

  • Danny Ainge explained how the big Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade went down to Bill Simmons of ESPN and Grantland. Here’s a summary from Nets Daily: “In a conversation with Bill Simmons, Danny Ainge talks about the trade that sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets, saying that a number of factors helped get the deal done, not the least of which was the “connection” Pierce has with Deron Williams and Jason Kidd: they share Jeff Schwartz as an agent. Ainge thinks the Schwartz connection was a big motivator for Pierce who in turn helped KG decide to give up his no-trade clause and join him in Brooklyn (although Ainge, from habit, referred to New Jersey as the Nets home.) “I also think that Paul has a connection with having the same agent as Deron Williams and Jason Kidd,” said the Celtics GM. “I think probably there was some discussion going on there. I don’t know that for sure, but my guess is that they had some conversation about it, that Paul was the one that talked KG into wanting to do the deal or letting go of his  no-trade clause to make the deal happen and that took some convincing.” “
  • rodmanDennis Rodman is still best buds with Kim Jong-Un, but this visit has even more bizarre undertones. Let’s go to Michael Martina of Reuters for the story: “Former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman returned on Saturday from his second visit to North Korea this year where he again met the reclusive country’s leader Kim Jong-un, but did not come back with jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae. The flamboyant former NBA star’s visit came after North Korea abruptly withdrew its invitation to Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, who was expected to head to Pyongyang in a bid to secure Bae’s release. Bae, 45, was sentenced to hard labour for 15 years in May for crimes against the state. He had been arrested in November after entering the North with a tour group and his health has been deteriorating since he was imprisoned. Though there had been speculations that during Rodman’s visit the detained American would be released, he said ahead of his visit he was going for “another basketball diplomacy tour”.”
  • DeAndre Liggins has been released from the Thunder after being charged on seven counts in a domestic abuse case, reports Matt Dinger of the Oklahoman. Details are inside the link, and they’re not pleasant. Here’s a quick summary of what’s going on: “Oklahoma City Thunder player DeAndre Liggins was charged with seven counts Friday, including counts of domestic abuse, kidnapping and domestic assault and battery, in connection with an incident at his home last month. Liggins was also released by the Thunder, general manager Sam Presti announced in a team-released statement.”
  • 220px-Kostas_Papanikolaou2011The Rockets have several players in the ongoing EuroBasket tournament, and Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle rounds up their performances: “Motiejunas might be the most interesting of the Rockets’ international players to watch. Motiejunas is expected to compete for a starting spot next to Howard, but still has not quite cracking the Lithuania starting lineup. Lithuania has relied heavily on Linas Kleiza and still does. Kleiza so far has played pretty much as he always had in the NBA, looking like a better player than he actually is (he is 6 of 21 through the first three games.) Playing sparingly off the bench, Motiejunas has shot pretty well, going 8 of 15, while playing an average of 13 minutes per game. He does look thicker from all the weight work he put in since last season, though not as much as teammate Jonas Valuncinas of the Raptors. Casspi and Israel have generally struggled in the tournament, though Casspi did come on a bit in the second half of Friday’s blowout loss to France, one of the tournament favorites, finishing with 14 points on 3 of 8 shooting. In his three games, Casspi has made just 7 of 30 shots, though that includes his dreadful opener when he went 1 of 10 inside the arc against Great Britain. He won’t be taking 10 shots inside the 3-point line with the Rockets too often. He’s 4 of 14 on 3s so far. The Rockets might be watching the play of Spain’s Sergio Llull and Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou, players not of the roster whose rights they hold, even more closely. Papanikolao, whose rights the Rockets acquired in the trade that sent Thomas Robinson to Portland, did not do much in the tournament opener, but had 10 points in 21 minutes against the strong Russian frontcourt. Llull has already established himself as a solid prospect and has played well in Fiba events, but has gotten off to a slow start this week. He made 1 of 4 shots in the blowout of Croatia and went just 1 of 3 in the upset loss to Goran Dragic and Slovenia. A 6-4 guard, Llull’s strong play for Real Madrid has earned the sort of contract that the Rockets were not ready to offer until he is ready for a significant role, but he should make the jump in a year or two making him someone worth watching.”
  • Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports’ ProBasketballTalk tells us which player Hakeem Olajuwon thinks he could do a lot with: “With so many players having come to him for advice, Olajuwon was asked if there’s a particular player he’d like to work with. While he mentioned Kevin Durant, it was Blake Griffin whom Olajuwon seemed to think could benefit the most from his teachings. From George Kiel III of Nice Kicks: “I don’t know that I would like to, but a player that needs [my help] is Blake Griffin. If you look at Blake, he’s very explosive, but he needs the moves that can get him in that position where he can finish. [...] So he would be an ideal guy to where, when I watch him play and I see how explosive he is, I’d give him all of these moves to take him to a whole different level.” Griffin’s game has improved since he came into the NBA, but he often relies on his physicality more than anything else when trying to score from the low block inside. He has shown an ability to have a nice shooting touch, and you could see how using Olajuwon’s help in getting the footwork down on that Dream Shake would be devastating for his defenders to deal with.”
  • Michael BeasleyWord came out earlier today that the Heat were considering signing Michael Beasley, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: “The two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat are considering the possibility of bringing back troubled free-agent forward Michael Beasley, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Several of the Heat’s key veteran players are supportive of the signing of Beasley, and he has a strong interest in returning to the franchise responsible for taking him with the second overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, sources told Yahoo. No offer has been made and no deal is considered imminent, sources said.”
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Dan Malone is in his fourth year as a journalism student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and spent this summer as a features intern at the Cape Cod Times. He blogs, edits and learns things on the fly for Sheridan Hoops. Follow him on Twitter.

Sheridan Hoops Rookie Rankings: Week 22

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Damian Lillard This week, Damian Lillard set an NBA rookie record for 3-pointers, passing Stephen Curry’s mark set three years ago. But that is not his most impressive number.

For virtually the entire season, Lillard has led all rookies in scoring, assists and free throws. But those are not his most impressive numbers, either.

As this version of our Rookie Rankings is published, Lillard leads in minutes played.

Not all rookies. All players.

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Five Biggest Impact Players in West Playoff Race

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There are less than a dozen games left in the NBA regular season, and the most dramatic race still going on is a five-team scrum in the Western Conference for three playoff spots. Those five clubs – the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers, Jazz and Mavericks – are separated by five games in the standings.

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Sheridan Hoops Rookie Rankings: Week 21

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MagicEarly next week, Rookies of the Month for March will be handed out. It is possible that Anthony Davis could end Damian Lillard’s stranglehold on the Western Conference honor, while the East will be a toss-up between Moe Harkless and Jonas Valanciunas.

Davis, Harkless and Valanciunas have yet to win the award. But as we approach the season’s final month, it is the time where many previously unheralded rookies make a name for themselves.

Last year, Atlanta’s Ivan Johnson broke through in the East as Kyrie Irving spent most of April on the sidelines. Ditto Denver’s Kenneth Faried after Ricky Rubio and Isaiah Thomas shared the first three West awards.

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