Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

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USA Today

Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

With the Utah Jazz trading for star point guard Mike Conley, the jockeying to take Golden State’s crown in the Western Conference continues.

Days after Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered major leg injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers traded the farm for Anthony Davis. Earlier this week, troubling reports out of Houston point to a feuding power struggle between James Harden and Chris Paul. It’s no coincidence that the 50-win Jazz team decided to swing now for Conley, a top scoring point guard that fills a void on the roster. 

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick to come out of the West next season, I wouldn’t blame you for picking the Jazz. At 18-7 with a plus-9.5 net rating, they were the second-best team in the NBA after the All-Star break before they fell apart against the Rockets in the first round. 

Teams like the Jazz don’t have the Hollywood glamour or the big-city market to draw star free agents so a trade like this makes a ton of sense. Though Conley isn’t near the caliber of Kawhi Leonard, this trade shares the same philosophy as the Raptors moving on from DeMar DeRozan: a 50-win team needs two-way stars to reach that championship-caliber level.

The Jazz clearly needed a second shot creator alongside Donovan Mitchell after the 22-year-old shot 32.1 percent from the floor and 25.6 percent from deep on the playoff stage. Mitchell had a breakout rookie season, but there were worries about how Mitchell would fare after the scouting report came out on him as a No. 1 scorer. He didn’t quell those concerns against Houston.

Conley to the rescue. The Jazz are getting an upgrade over unrestricted free agent Ricky Rubio, who remains a really effective point guard despite his reputation as a one-dimensional playmaker. Rubio’s just not effective in the ways that Conley is at this stage. In Conley’s age-31 season, he had his best scoring campaign of his impressive career. He averaged a personal-best 21.1 points per game with solid efficiency despite being the first, second and third option on the young Memphis team. 

Conley joins a stout defensive team with Rudy Gobert manning the backline. The Jazz are good bets to remain one of the best defensive outfits in the league next season, something that we can’t say about West contenders like Houston and the Lakers. That’s a foundation worth banking on.

Of course, the Jazz didn’t get Conley for free. The Grizzlies received Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen as well as this year’s 23rd pick and a future first-rounder, which figures to be in the late twenties. You might quibble with giving up two first-round picks for Conley, but the team risked losing the Indianapolis product to the Pacers, who are in the same boat as the Jazz -- a good team looking to be great.

Still, I love the deal from the Utah standpoint. With Golden State taking a step back, the Western Conference is as open as ever. It’s why Rockets GM Daryl Morey has fire hoses for arms these days trying to put out the flames of a Harden-Paul feud both internally and publicly. If the Rockets can keep things in order, they have as good a chance as anybody getting to the NBA Finals. 

There is a LeBron James factor in this Utah deal. It’s expected that Korver, a 38-year-old joining a rebuilding roster, will be waived upon his arrival in Memphis. The Lakers desperately need shooters (and bodies) and Korver has already chased a title with James. He struggled to stay on the floor in the playoffs against a physical Rockets team, but James and Davis would make things much easier on him on both ends.

With a newly-minted big three of Conley, Mitchell and Gobert, we safely can label the Jazz as legitimate West contenders. But be sure to use pencil. Thursday’s draft and the upcoming free agency sweepstakes will alter the landscape yet again. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

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Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

If you’re the Houston Rockets, which star would be the ideal fit with James Harden?

First, the star would have to be OK with not having the ball in his hands. In the best-case scenario, said star is a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions at a high-level. On top of that, he’d have young legs to ease Harden’s burden as he enters his thirties.

In other words, it’s probably not Russell Westbrook. 

On Monday, the Rockets reportedly traded for the 2016-17 MVP, pairing him with James Harden to form one of the most intriguing duos in the NBA at a cost of a combined $340 million over the next four seasons (Westbrook and Harden each have player options for nearly $47 million in 2022-23). As part of the deal, the Rockets traded Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. 

For the Rockets, it’s a bold move, but it’s tough to ignore the scent of desperation. Houston general manager Daryl Morey valiantly fought off rumors about Paul’s reported trade demand and publicly guaranteed that Paul and Harden would be back next season.

It took less than a month for Morey to reverse course and trade Paul to a Western Conference rival so he could reunite Harden and Westbrook for a championship push. It can’t be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. Westbrook’s career 30.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the worst in NBA history among the 110 players with at least 2,750 3-point attempts, per Basketball Reference.com.

One rival general manager called it a “panic move” by Houston, calling the pick-sweetened package “too rich” to send OKC’s way.

Westbrook seems heretical to Morey’s gospel of efficiency. Over the last decade, there’s only been one player who used at least 30 percent of their team’s offenses possessions with worse shot efficiency than Westbrook last season. That was Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour two seasons after a torn Achilles.

Morey doesn’t have his head in the sand when it comes to Westbrook’s inefficiency. Quite the opposite. In April 2017, I interviewed Morey on an ESPN podcast while his player, Harden, was up for the MVP award. Harden had lost steam in the public eye compared to Westbrook, who was averaging a triple-double on the season.

Of course, at the time, Morey was stumping for his guy, Harden, and attempting to delicately discredit the other candidates without formally naming them (Westbrook eventually won the award). Without saying the word “triple-double” Morey made it clear that that was an overly simplistic MVP criteria.

“For me, the argument is pretty straightforward and simple,” said Morey. “Don’t get distracted by the easy catchphrases.”

Morey continued, citing Houston’s No. 3 seed in the West.

“Call me crazy, but historically people who watch the NBA know that (players) can put up numbers on average to below-average teams and that’s why they don’t vote for those candidates. Call me crazy, but if you’re a dominant player and primarily dominant on offense and you’re not even an above-average offense in the NBA, it seems hard to say you’re making an impact.”

“On top of that, the other guy (Harden) who is putting up basically the same dominant numbers is leading the top-10 offense ever, not below average in the NBA this season.”

When Morey was asked more pointedly about Westbrook’s candidacy, the Houston GM again harped on Westbrook’s box-score numbers not translating to team success.

“(Westbrook)’s having one of the greatest seasons ever. He just happens to be doing it with James Harden also having one of the greatest seasons ever -- and on a team that’s winning. There’s really no precedent when two people are having absolutely historic seasons that they give it to the guy who is generating his value on the side of the ball where his team isn’t even above average.”

That was in 2017, but it might as well be right now. 

Last season, Westbrook again averaged a triple-double while his team finished 16th in offensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. And that was while Westbrook’s teammate, Paul George, had an MVP-caliber season. What’s more, the Thunder still couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.

So, what makes the Rockets think they can do better with Westbrook and Harden? 

This appears to be a situation where Houston’s new owner Tilman Fertitta may have gotten impatient after a Western Conference semifinals loss to the Golden State Warriors and then went on a rant saying the Rockets should have, uh, cut the Warriors’ throats.

"I can promise you, we're gonna win some championships with James Harden because we're not going to sit here," Fertitta said. "We're going to battle every year. We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're gonna do whatever it takes to be a better team. We're not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that."

"I'm a fighter. That's my culture," Fertitta said. "The longer I own this team, they're gonna pick up more of my culture. We had 'em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It's step on their throats, and let's take it back to Houston and end it in six."

For what it’s worth, Westbrook certainly fits into that fighter culture. A one-of-a-kind athlete, he’s also three and a half years younger than Paul, and lines up closer with Harden’s career trajectory. Harden turns 30 years old in August and 33 at the end of his deal, while Westbrook turns 31 in November and will be 34 in 2022-23. But there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about Westbrook as he enters the back half of his career.

It starts with his injury history. Beginning with the collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook has undergone five procedures on his troublesome right knee, most recently a clean-up in May and arthroscopic surgery last September that wiped out his preseason. For someone who relies on his wheels so much, that has to be a concern.

Most alarming, there are signs his physical decline has already started. In his age-30 season, coming off that September surgery, Westbrook finished with just 33 dunks, 24 fewer than in 2017-18. Just 2.9 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks, tying a career low, per Basketball Reference. He notably had zero dunks in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Blazers.

Some of that drop may be attributed to an early-season injury to his plant leg, an ankle sprain, that caused him to miss six games in November. But it’s also noteworthy that Westbrook experienced a bizarre drop in his ability to draw fouls during the regular season, taking only 6.2 free throws per game and making just 65.6 percent of them (down from 10.4 attempts and 84.6 percent in his MVP season).

When he is healthy, Westbrook plays like he’s shot out of a cannon, but it backfires far too often. Playing next to George was supposed to free up open shots and help Westbrook become more efficient. Instead, Westbrook became the worst version of himself, hijacking the offense with premature jumpers and getting careless in transition.  Westbrook ranked dead-last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Only 22-year-old Ben Simmons coughed up the ball more times in these open-court situations, fueling the critique that Westbrook plays with a low basketball IQ even at this stage of his career.

Fastbreak opportunities are normally an integral part of a healthy NBA offense. But in the case of Westbrook, his tendencies have become so hurtful last season that him finishing a transition play was less efficient than OKC’s halfcourt offense (0.87 points per play versus 0.93 points per play). 

As the architect of the Seven Seconds Or Less Offense in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni may be able to wean some of the headaches out of Westbrook’s game, but expecting him to make a wholesale change at this point in his career isn’t a smart bet. 

Perhaps D’Antoni tinkers with the iso-heavy offense that defined the Harden-Paul era and tries to step on the gas. Last season, the Rockets were the NBA’s fourth-slowest team in pace factor, a measure of possessions every 48 minutes. And it worked, with the Rockets ranking second in offensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Harden’s one-on-one dominance. 

Last season, Harden finished with 1,280 isolations and was the NBA’s most efficient player in those situations, scoring 1.11 points per isolation, according to Synergy tracking. The player that ranked last in isolation efficiency last season? Yup, Westbrook, at just 0.75 points per play. 

So, Westbrook is inefficient playing fast and playing slow. D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him. 

Westbrook should find some easier pathways to the rim with Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker flanking him, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Harden and Westbrook ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in turnovers last season. Meanwhile, Paul finished with half as many turnovers as Westbrook (152 to 325) and remains one of the most efficient point guards ever.

From a schematic point of view, Westbrook makes little sense next to Harden. With Harden pounding the rock in isolations and pick-and-roll attacks, why guard Westbrook off the ball? Paul shot over 43 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Westbrook made just 53-of-166 (31.9 percent).

Maybe that’s the idea, to just have Westbrook not shoot 3-pointers. But at least defenders had to respect Paul as a shooter. With Westbrook off ball, Harden will see more defenders in his way to the rim.

There’s also this: point guards who rely on speed and athleticism don’t age particularly well. Consider that his top comp in FiveThirtyEight’s similarity model, Isiah Thomas, played his last game at the age of 32 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 1994. Though that injury was a career-ender, Thomas had already planned to retire that season because too many nagging injuries had sapped his effectiveness. In his last two playoff runs, following the 82-game grind, Thomas labored his way to just 13.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the floor.

The Rockets could look at Westbrook and see Jason Kidd, who is the third-closest comp on the FiveThirtyEight list. The triple-double maestro from Cal famously added a full-throttle 3-point shot in his mid-30s and enjoyed a career renaissance in Dallas that culminated in a championship in 2011. That’s the best-case scenario for Westbrook if everything falls into place, but Kidd was a significantly better shooter even at this stage of his career. 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City continues one of the quickest, and most impressive, teardowns in NBA history. The Thunder were eyeing one of the biggest payrolls the league had ever seen before George reportedly went to GM Sam Presti with a trade request last week. The Thunder could have hung on and tried to tread water, but a Westbrook-centric team weighed down by the four years and $171 million remaining on his supermax extension wasn’t the most prudent decision for a small-market team. Though Paul has three years of max money left, it’s one year shorter than Westbrook’s (if Westbrook picks up his player option in 2022-23).

If the Thunder choose to keep Paul, he could mentor 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and run point alongside Dennis Schroder with Terrence Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams anchoring the frontcourt alongside Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who’s returning from knee surgery. That could be a playoff contender, but it’s more likely that OKC spins Paul to a team with true championship aspirations.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder are already working with Paul’s agents to move him to a new team. If Denver sputters to start next season, would it trade Paul Millsap for Paul and accelerate their title contention now that they have former OKC stretch four Jerami Grant? That’s one possibility. According to ESPN, the Miami Heat discussed a possible Westbrook trade with the Thunder and are prominently involved in Paul trade discussions as they try to land a co-pilot for Jimmy Butler.

But OKC is loaded with assets now and can take their time with Paul and with their future. Usually teams have to lure other teams with a first-round pick sweetener to take on money like Westbrook and George, but it’s a testament to Presti’s roster that he was able to turn the tables. Teams gave the Thunder picks to take on their money. Presti brokered a record-setting deal to acquire five first-round picks and two picks swaps with the Los Angeles Clippers for George and his three-year contract (player option on the third season). They received another protected pick from Denver for Grant, giving the Thunder potentially 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts.

In exchange for those picks and a bright future, Presti ended the OKC Thunder as we know them. I’ll never forget seeing James Harden drape his arms around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Miami after the Heat had sealed the 2012 NBA Finals. Despite the five-game loss, OKC looked destined to assemble its own dynasty one day. Seven years later, all three are gone and the Thunder never got back to the Finals. 

Now, the Rockets are banking on Harden and Westbrook to rediscover their old magic in Houston. Maybe it works. With Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the West is as wide open as it’s been in years. Maybe Westbrook’s reckless, driving style pairs perfectly next to the shooting of Harden, Gordon and Tucker. Maybe the old OKC Thunder duo return to their glory together and finally get the Rockets over the postseason hump that’s stalled them for the past three seasons. Vegas sportsbooks actually view this deal as improving the Rockets title odds.

But I don’t see it. Between Westbrook’s injuries, declining play and the bizarre on-court fit, this feels like a reunion that’s doomed to fail.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Hope can be found all across wide-open NBA

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Hope can be found all across wide-open NBA

It’s the dawn of a new day in the NBA. The superteam Golden State Warriors have been dismantled. The champion Toronto Raptors lost their Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. 

For the first time in a long time, there is no clear favorite, no star-studded trio or villainous superteam to fear.

With the chaotic free agency finally coming to a rest, the NBA world sets its eyes on a refreshing, wide-open 2019-20 season. 

Uncertainty is the seed of hope, and the vibe around the league is bathing in that uncertainty with unbridled optimism. As NBA summer league takes place in Las Vegas, let’s zoom through what portends to be the most tantalizing season in recent history.

(If you missed it, here are my free agency columns on the new-look Clippers, the D’Angelo Russell trade, the Kemba era in Boston, Klay Thompson’s risky yet worthy max, Brooklyn’s big summer, Philly’s big pivot and the rest of the free agency moves.)

Hope at the top

Sin City’s bookmakers are already gearing up for an unpredictable race for the title. With no heavy favorite, betting market research suggests that the championship contender list is longer than its been in over 15 years. 

Teams generally employ the five percent rule, which stipulates that if you have even a five percent chance at winning the title, you better push all your chips to the middle. According to Westgate SuperBook’s latest odds, a whopping eight teams will be in that elite circle. The Clippers, Bucks, Lakers, Sixers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets each have better than 20-1 (roughly five percent) odds to win the title, with the Celtics and Blazers just on the outside looking in.

“It is as open as we’ve seen in years,” said Jeff Sherman, Westgate SuperBook’s oddsmaker. “With the current landscape, we are receiving interest throughout the league.”

That wasn’t the case in recent years. During the Warriors’ reign, Sherman says their sportsbook received “minimal interest” in the next tier of teams. Not anymore. So far, the most money coming in has been on, duh, the Lakers and Clippers, with the Lakers ranking No. 1 in ticket count and total money wagered, according to Sherman. But the oddsmaker says they’re seeing solid support for about a half-dozen other teams, a rarity in the superteam era.

Don’t be surprised if a juggernaut emerges from the fog; it happened the last time a superteam split at the seams. Heading into the 2014-15 season, there was a similar cloudiness in the NBA pecking order. The Miami Heat had just broken up after their 2014 Finals defeat, and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland effectively pancaked the title race. The Cavs were the favorite to win the championship but the market was relatively cool, listed at plus-300 on the money line.

And then, bam, a superteam separated themselves from the pack. Actually, Stephen Curry’s Warriors really weren’t in the pack. Entering the regular season, the Warriors were just 28-1 odds to win the title, the eighth-most likely team with just 3.4 percent implied probability of winning it all. Under newly-minted head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors shocked the NBA world en route to a 67-16 record and their first of three championships in four years.

The Warriors’ 2014 emergence, coupled with the Raptors’ improbable title run, has a huge chunk of the NBA feeling hopeful. Yes, the L.A. duos are exciting, and not just for sports bettors, but both star tandems face considerable injury risk to their stars. If health issues arise in Hollywood, that opens the door for teams like Portland and Boston to jump into the fray. 

Portland has its star duo, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, returning and added Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. The Western Conference finalists still have Zach Collins, 20-year-old Anfernee Simons (who is lighting up summer league) and each one of their future first-round picks to dangle in a blockbuster trade, if they so choose that route. (Hello, Kevin Love?)

Boston is harder to peg. They could miss Al Horford’s presence more than expected, but they could also swing the other way with a culture reset around Kemba Walker. If Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward bounce back and Boston finally cashes in on its draft assets for a star player, this team could vault right back into championship contention. That 2020 Memphis top-six protected first-round pick, and then unprotected in 2021, is still as juicy as any traded pick out there. 

Hope in the middle

Looking at teams outside the championship contender pile, there’s still a lot to be excited about, starting with the team that traded away maybe the best big man in the NBA. New Orleans may be League Pass juggernauts with Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and a host of sneaky-good veterans around them led by the perennially underrated Jrue Holiday.

A fancy new analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that Derrick Favors, the team’s new starting center, was the best defender in the NBA when it came to contesting and altering shots. Then you throw in JJ Redick’s shooting and you have a sleeper out West. Amazingly, after trading Anthony Davis to the Lakers, the Pelicans rank above the Lakers by at least one prominent projection system.

Another surprise team in that early stats-based look? The Chicago Bulls, who are projected to be the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Bolstered by free agency pickups Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls have quietly had a strong offseason. Toss in Coby White’s promise at point guard, and this team’s core with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. could be playoff-bound.

And then there’s Dallas, which flaunts the two best young stars in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. If Rick Carlisle can fast-track their development into MVP candidates like many have projected at one time or another, Dallas could crash the West’s loaded playoff party.

Hope at the bottom

Even for teams pegged to be cellar dwellers, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Memphis has Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke to keep fans hopeful along with whatever they net for Andre Iguodala in trade talks. With Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Jae Crowder joining the team, I think they’ll surprise folks next season with both their watchability and performance.

Hey, even the Wizards should be interesting beyond Bradley Beal. They quietly added one of the league’s best snipers in stretch-four Davis Bertans, who made a blistering 58 percent of his corner 3-pointers last season. He’ll share minutes with rookie Rui Hachimuira and 19-year-old sophomore Troy Brown Jr., who had 18 points and 15 rebounds on Saturday in Vegas. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Bryant is good and should only get better. Notably, without John Wall, the Wizards posted a positive net rating last season with Beal, Brown and Bryant on the floor, per PBP Stats. Getting Bryant on a three-year, $17 million deal was a shrewd move by Tommy Sheppard.

I love what Atlanta’s doing with their youngsters. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and John Collins (still 21!) make up one of the strongest young fives in the league, if not the best. Like, they might actually take the floor together. I don’t know if they can win games, but that’s a brilliant rebuild in the post-Mike Budenholzer era by Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk. 

Look, this offseason wasn’t ideal for the Knickerbockers. Far from it. But New York can grieve the L’s in free agency by watching Elfrid Payton and R.J. Barrett toss lobs to Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. (Is it possible for the league’s best-kept secret to play in Madison Square Garden? That’s Robinson). Free agency was a big swing and miss, but hey, there’s always next summer. Hope springs eternal, even in the Mecca of basketball.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.