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NBA Daily: James Harden’s Complicated Case for MVP

James Harden proclaimed himself to be this season’s MVP. While his numbers have been astronomical since arriving in Brooklyn, his ugly exit from Houston must be factored into the final outcome of the MVP race.

Chad Smith

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Every young basketball player dreams of making it to the NBA one day. After achieving that goal, the great ones then focus on the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hopes of becoming a champion. The greatest individual accolade they can earn is the regular season Most Valuable Player Award. This season, the race for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy has been incredible, with many deserving players vying for the award.

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden made headlines last week when asked if he thought he was in the conversation for the MVP this year. After scoring 44 points against the Detroit Pistons on Friday, Harden’s statement could not have been more clear. “Do I feel like I belong in it? I feel like I am the MVP,” Harden said. “I mean, it’s just that simple.”

There is no denying that Harden is putting up insane numbers for the Nets, who continue to cruise through their schedule. Brooklyn has won 19 of their last 22 games, essentially without Kevin Durant. Harden has already tied the Nets’ single-season record with 12 triple-doubles and it only took him 33 games. He is averaging 26.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game this season.

Harden’s numbers with the Nets are even more impressive when you consider that his usage rate has gone from 36.5 a year ago to 32.1 this season. He currently ranks 19th in the league after trailing only Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo last season. During his MVP-winning season, he led the league with a 35.9 usage rate.

Having Durant and Kyrie Irving has helped bring that number down but Irving has been in and out of the lineup all season and Durant’s last game came before Valentine’s Day. The fact is this Nets team is much deeper and the offensive system is vastly different than everything he had in Houston.

This is where Harden’s case for the MVP gets foggy.

Brooklyn was a championship-caliber team well before Harden arrived. His addition to the team moved them to the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. After adding Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market, the Nets became the first team in league history to acquire three players with five or more All-Star selections during a season.

Last night in a game against his former Houston Rockets team, Harden suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the rest of the game. The Nets trailed by 18 points early in the game, then stormed back to win after Harden’s exit. The win moved Brooklyn to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, a place they haven’t been since April of the 2002-03 season.

The first eight games that Harden played this season were in a Rockets jersey. Though he made his intentions very clear before the season even began, Houston was reluctant to trade their franchise player. It was an uncomfortable time for both sides, but Harden’s behavior was far from professional.

After entering training camp completely out of shape, the three-time scoring champion was critical of his teammates and was clearly frustrated with his situation. Houston had no choice but to move on as they sent him to Brooklyn as part of a four-team trade. In the end, Harden got his wish but it left a scar on his reputation.

The list of accomplishments for Harden is a long one. The nine-time All-Star has led the league in assists and scoring (three times) in addition to being named to the All-NBA team seven times. He won the Sixth Man Award in 2011-12 and of course the regular season MVP during the 2017-18 season. The one glaring omission is a championship, which is one of the main reasons why he wanted to go to Brooklyn.

Often labeled as the greatest offensive player the league has ever seen, Harden was given everything he ever desired in Houston. The franchise crafted their entire team around him. They surrounded him with role players that fit exactly what he wanted. Kevin McHale was fired after he and Harden didn’t see eye-to-eye. The organization went out of its way to defend him against the media, other teams and even filed complaints against the league.

After eight full seasons with the Rockets, Harden thanked them by reducing them to rubble. His actions and lack of professionalism since the end of last season have put that franchise in a dark place. Houston is arguably the worst team in the league and has a first-year head coach trying to lead a group of misfit toys in an unknown direction.

While not all of this is Harden’s fault, the majority of it lies on his shoulders. A significant component of being the MVP is lifting your teammates through adversity. Before his unceremonious exit in Houston, Harden did the exact opposite of that. This should factor into the equation at some point.

Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic currently has the best odds of winning the MVP this season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. He is the only player in the league that ranks inside the top five in points, assists, rebounds and steals. Without Jokic the Nuggets might miss the playoffs. Without Harden, the Nets are still a top-three team in the East.

While Harden ran from adversity, Damian Lillard has embraced it. He has thrived this season as injuries depleted the rest of Portland’s roster. He and Antetokounmpo have been shouldering heavy loads for their respective teams and continue to be two of the most loyal players in the game today.

Donovan Mitchell is having a career year as the Utah Jazz have the best record in the league. Durant, Joel Embiid and LeBron James were all once at the head of the table but have been sidelined with injuries, which has broadened the field even more. Doncic, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard are several other names to monitor going forward.

While the extent of Harden’s injury is yet to be determined, it is likely that he will miss some more time as the season winds down. Then there is the factor of Durant returning to the lineup. The Nets are still his team and he will surely let that be known when he returns to the court.

No player has ever won the MVP in the same year that they were traded. If the NBA media votes correctly, that will remain true after this season. If Harden were to perform at this same level next season, there is no doubt that he would be deserving of winning the award. But to completely ignore the first month of the season as though it didn’t exist would be rather ignorant.

By the time the media votes for the MVP, 15-20 percent of Harden’s 2020-21 season will have come in a Rockets jersey. After losing to the Lakers in which he scored 16 points on 5 of 16 shooting, Harden said the rest of the team was not good enough. He quit on the teammates and organization that had put him on a pedestal for nearly a decade.

The discontent, the strip clubs, the press conference, the angry exit from Houston cannot simply be erased with a neuralyzer from the Men In Black movies. Harden has certainly been playing like the MVP in Brooklyn but the reason why he is there may actually prevent him from getting it.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – April 16

With under 20 games to go in the regular season, the Rookie of the Year race is becoming clearer. Tristan Tucker breaks down the ladder’s changes over the past two weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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With under 20 games to go in the NBA season, each award’s frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. A two-man race is forming at the top of the rookie ladder, with Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton leading the charge. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the rookie race is shaking out mid-way through April.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 2)

Edwards is scorching hot and he’s bumped his scoring up to 18.1 points per game on the season. Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Edwards eliminated all concerns of a jump shot, something that’s coming more consistently to him.

In that period of time, Edwards is averaging 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. The talented wing out of Georgia is shooting 36.2 percent from three and 44.4 percent overall, much improved from earlier in the season.

There are still some concerns, but Edwards has clearly made the Timberwolves a more competitive team as of late. With D’Angelo Russell back from injury, the Wolves will finally get a chance to see their young corps in action.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 1)

After Sacramento won seven of eight games, the team has dropped eight in a row and Haliburton moved back to the bench. During this stretch, Haliburton’s ultimately struggled with accuracy, though it hasn’t impacted his season averages.

For Haliburton, team success and overall impact on the floor is his strongest case for the Rookie of the Year award. However, now that the Wolves are much more competitive and the Kings are on the decline, Edwards is the frontrunner.

3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 5)

With Ball and James Wiseman sidelined, Bey seems like a good bet to be the third in line for consideration for Rookie of the Year. Bey is rising up the historical ranks for rookie three-point shooters. Bey’s 38.6 percent clip from deep on over six attempts per game would rank as the best for a rookie ever.

In the last two weeks, Bey’s averages have jumped to 15.6 points, 3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Meanwhile, his shooting is up to 47.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep on even more attempts.

4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 3)

In a season without many consistencies, Tate’s been a diamond in the rough. Tate can do a little bit of everything, boasting good hands, high efficiency, somewhat of a deep shot and a passing vision. In the last two weeks, Tate is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game while playing huge minutes.

If Houston holds onto its first-round pick this year, it’ll have an exciting young group to look forward to. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have also shined this year, while fellow rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a steady professional already.

5. Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Okeke makes his debut on the rookie ladder, cracking the top five. Originally drafted in the 2019 draft, Okeke sat out for the year and didn’t sign his rookie contract until the 2020 offseason. Following Orlando’s firesale at the trade deadline, Okeke became a full-time starter and has shined.

As a full-time starter, Okeke is averaging 12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1 block per game. While the Magic is spiraling, Okeke’s been a bright spot for a team looking for franchise cornerstones.

6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous: NR)

Bane’s been a long-range sniper all season long but he’s upped the ante in recent weeks. Since the last ladder, Bane is shooting a whopping 45.9 percent from deep on just under five tries per game.

Bane fell all the way to the last pick of the first round in the 2020 NBA Draft, giving the Grizzlies an extremely experienced rookie for the second year in a row, joining Brandon Clarke in that regard. On the year, Bane is averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.

Honorable Mention: Malachi Flynn (Previous: NR)

In the last few weeks, while Kyle Lowry heals, Flynn has stepped in nicely. During the last two weeks, Flynn is averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is shooting 45.2 percent from deep on six attempts per game in that span.

Flynn’s development is extremely underrated, especially if Lowry departs in the offseason. If Flynn’s per-game numbers can be consistent, the league will be on notice.

LaMelo Ball’s injury is unfortunate for several reasons, but one of them is the fact that fans won’t get to see the fiery Rookie of the Year race near the top that could’ve been. However, fans can rest assured knowing that the NBA is in good hands. It’s especially reassuring to see so many great rookies emerge in a class that many presumed to be weaker than most.

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to see how the race pans out and to see who is eventually crowned the rookie champ.

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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