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Stockpile of picks, young core will keep Houston Rockets from having to go ‘wholesale tank’ mode

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Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone expressed confidence that the franchise would not need to employ a “wholesale tank strategy” to rebuild, citing the haul of first-round picks received in the James Harden trade as a reason.

“I would for sure, 100 percent, do that deal again,” Stone said in a virtual media availability Monday. “Again, you guys don’t have the advantages of knowing everything I know, but literally no part of me regrets doing that deal. I have not second-guessed it for a moment.

“A lot of what I said about being in a position maybe to not have to be bad [to rebuild], there’s some other things that we’ve done, too, but it’s primarily that deal that’s allowed us to say, ‘Hey, we want to compete on a slightly quicker time frame.’ We’re not going to go down this path of intentionally trying to lose games for years on end.”

Houston traded Victor Oladipo, the only prominent player the Rockets received in the four-team Harden deal, to the Miami Heat minutes before Thursday’s deadline in return for guard Avery Bradley, forward/center Kelly Olynyk and 2022 first-round swap rights that include the Brooklyn Nets‘ pick that Houston owns.

Stone said the Rockets made the deal after determining that the fit with Oladipo, who will be a free agent this offseason, “wasn’t a good one” and mentioned opening up more minutes for 20-year-old guard Kevin Porter Jr. as a benefit of the trade.

The Rockets opted to trade Harden to Brooklyn based on the potential value of the future picks. As a result of that deal, Houston owns the Nets’ first-rounders in 2022, ’24 and ’26, the Milwaukee Bucks‘ 2023 first-rounder, plus first-round swap rights with Brooklyn in 2021, ’23, ’25 and ’27.

“One of your colleagues texted me the day after the trade and they said they would evaluate me in 2027,” Stone said when ESPN asked how he feels about the return for Harden after trading Oladipo. “And I told them that that was too early; they should do it in 2030.

“I think we felt at the time that we did the best deal for the franchise possible. Obviously, that’s my job, so I did it. Particularly given the types of things we got back, yeah, it feels like you can’t possibly know how you did for multiple years — like three, five, something like that. But I feel good about it. I do feel good about it.”

The Rockets have the NBA’s third-worst record this season at 13-32 entering Monday’s home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Houston recently set the franchise record with a 20-game losing streak.

Stone attributed Houston’s struggles this season to the roster being ravaged by injuries and the fallout from going all-in to compete for championships in recent seasons without regards to the future.

“I’m completely unapologetic about that,” Stone said. “Organizationally, for the last five or six years or even longer, we’ve been all-in every year. Given the players we’ve had, the place that our roster has been, the team construct we’ve had, I think we did the right thing. That’s how we find ourselves in the position that we’re in today.”

Stone has made creating a stockpile of first-round picks a priority since being promoted to general manager after Daryl Morey’s offseason departure. Stone took over the team at a time when superstars Harden and Russell Westbrook were both unhappy and on the verge of requesting trades — one season after the Rockets sent the Oklahoma City Thunder two first-round picks and two first-round swap rights along with Chris Paul in exchange for Westbrook. The swap rights this year are top-four protected, putting extremely high stakes on the lottery for Houston.

Stone has traded for several first-round picks in addition to the picks acquired in the Harden deal, including 2021 selections from the Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers and picks with escalating protections from the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.

“I definitely think of them as trade assets, too,” Stone said. “They are the one thing that are commoditized in the NBA. Everybody values first-round picks, and the better the picks are, the higher the value.”

Stone will use those picks to build around “a young core that we really like” that consists of 25-year-old Christian Wood, Porter and rookie forwards Jae’Sean Tate and KJ Martin.

“In terms of how we go from here, I feel pretty comfortable that we like where we are in the beginning stages,” Stone said. “We’re going to take constant bets. Everybody does that; it’s just the level you do it at. We’re going to do it — not all of them are going to work out. … I don’t think that we need to do like a wholesale tank strategy like some other teams have done in the past or maybe are doing now.”

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USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas

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For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.

The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.

USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.

The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.

It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.

“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”

The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.

Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony DavisLos Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.

All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”

Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.

“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”

The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.

GAME SCHEDULE

July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia

July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria

July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain

PREQUELS

The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.

The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.

The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.

FIBA RANKINGS

Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.

The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.

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Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets

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It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.

“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.

“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”

In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.

The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.

“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.

When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”

The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.

“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”

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NBA playoffs 2021 – Chris Paul couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for the Phoenix Suns

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Chris Paul plans.

He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions in extra salary.

Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 125-98 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets to take a 2-0 series lead, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.

But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.

The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His long-time adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs, his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started, seems to be healed.

The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.

People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at a Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Houston Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.

But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.

“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”

Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help. “I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago after a 21-61 season. “I’m serious.”

After going a perfect 8-0 in Orlando to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fanbase and organization may have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he’s found himself in.

Booker has been the star he believed in, his 47-point closeout game to knock out the champion Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.

Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, says he’s never seen anything like it.

“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody [on our team] are knock down shooters.”

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Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.

During the five-game winning streak Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the last round — he’s made 14-of-24 shots and 4-of-5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.

“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted, it’s not something our team takes for granted.”

It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue, Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.

Outwardly Paul will not allow it, he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.

“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”

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