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NBA Sunday: Can James Harden Revert?

After moving to point guard, James Harden will have to revert to a version of his former self.

Moke Hamilton

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Just because I ranked Jimmy Butler higher than James Harden on my list of the league’s best shooting guards doesn’t mean that I don’t see Harden’s value. I just happen to think that Butler and Klay Thompson each have game-changing ability on both ends of the floor, making them worthy of higher consideration. Sue me.

Joining Harden in Houston is another individual I have been critical of: Mike D’Antoni. Whether agree with me on Harden or not, one thing we can all agree on is that Harden has the capability of being one of the best point guards in the entire league. Yes, point guard.

If things break right for Harden and D’Antoni, the Rockets could very well find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

* * * * * * * *

When Dwight Howard opted to leave the Southern California sun for Houston, the thought of most NBA onlookers was that he would form an impressive one-two punch with Harden and that the duo would help the Rockets contend for many years to come. In his three years there, Howard helped the Rockets win 54, 56 and 41 games, respectively. However, the truth is, the team was only special because of the offensive talents of Harden. One of the most unstoppable on-ball weapons in the league, Harden rose to prominence and entered the MVP conversation after the world realized that he was an outstanding offensive force cut from the same mold of Allen Iverson. What was especially impressive was the Rockets being able to win 56 games during the 2014-15 season despite only having Howard for 41 of them.

Rightfully so, Harden’s impressive output (27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, seven assists and 1.9 steals averaged in 81 games played) resulted in him finishing second to Stephen Curry in the MVP race. Most of the informed masses who have been critical of Harden have never questioned his talents or the gifts that he brings to the offensive end of the court. The only argument that one could make against him is his woeful defensive output.

In much the same way Iverson did, Harden has become the alpha and the omega of all offensive things that the Rockets have done since they acquired him in October of 2012.

Believe it or not, part of what made Harden the apple of Daryl Morey’s eye was the fact that he was the embodiment of a “team-first” player. In Oklahoma City, there were no indications that Harden resented the fact that he was playing third fiddle behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Harden and his representatives only had one sticking point. They were fine with being third fiddle, so long as Harden was paid like a lead singer. During the time of the impasse, which led to Harden’s being trading, a source in the Oklahoma City front office told Basketball Insiders that the entire conflict was financially driven, and it’s easy to understand why. For a thrifty franchise, paying a bench player a maximum-salaried contract didn’t seem prudent at the time. Today, obviously, we all know differently.

JamesHarden_Inside1It seems what happened when Harden relocated to Houston is similar to what transpired with Patrick Ewing many moons ago when he set out to begin his NBA career after a standout career at Georgetown University. Ewing would go on to become an 11-time NBA All-Star and a pillar for the New York Knicks. In college, he rose to prominence mainly because of his defensive instincts. Somewhere between declaring for the draft and winning the 1986 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, Ewing fell in love with scoring and, specifically, with his midrange jumpshot. After averaging just 12.6 field goal attempts per 40 minutes over the duration of his four-year college career, Ewing shot the ball 16.3 times per game as a rookie in the NBA. Obviously, there are a number of contributing factors. The Knicks were a bad team that didn’t have an alpha-scorer at the NBA level, so Ewing necessarily picked up the slack. Secondly, the college game is played at a much slower pace than the NBA, so there would be less opportunities to score. You can also talk about coaching styles and philosophy, but the major point is this: who a player reveals himself to be as a youngster who is coming into his own isn’t necessarily indicative of who he will grow up to become.

That’s James Harden in a nutshell.

As a member of the Thunder, Harden provided tremendous value to Scott Brooks by being a combo guard off the bench. Harden was able to score, yes, but his bigger and better contribution to the team was serving as a floor general. He shared the floor with Westbrook in many instances and allowed the explosive guard the opportunity to play off the ball and pursue his own scoring opportunities more aggressively. It seems so long ago that many questioned whether or not Westbrook should be a full-time point guard at the NBA level. It’s so long ago that nobody seems to remember that Harden’s proficiency at playing the position made Brooks battle with that very quandary for a short while in Oklahoma City.

The other forgotten part about Harden’s contributions in Oklahoma City were that he was actually a capable on-ball defender and could effectively guard both guard positions. He wasn’t necessarily in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, but he wasn’t a turnstile and his defensive effort didn’t come close to the embarrassingly awful level it has been in recent years with the Rockets.

In short, from the outside looking in, it appears that once Harden relocated to Houston, he morphed as a player. Perhaps out of necessity (just like Ewing), he became more shot happy and fell in love with playing on one side of the court. In his very first game for the franchise, Harden gave the world an omen of what was to come, scoring 37 points and dishing out 12 assists in a win over the Detroit Pistons.

It’s safe to say, however, that from that day, he began changing into a different player. In many ways, he has become this generation’s version of Allen Iverson. Iverson was a ball-dominant guard who was largely regarded as a volume scorer. Some of his teammates—mainly those who were content with doing the “dirty work”—enjoyed playing with him. Others didn’t. Iverson was at his best when he was flanked by four other players who could cover up for his shortcomings and find ways to be effective without having plays drawn for them.

Today, because of his wizardry on the basketball, Stephen Curry has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson, as well, but the major difference between the two is that Curry is content with playing off the basketball and is similarly content with blending in on the offensive end. The same can’t be said of Harden.

What’s most interesting in the entire ordeal is that the Rockets achieved the most success when Howard played the least. During the 2014-15 season, with Howard appearing in only 41 games, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith seemed to pick up the majority of minutes available due to Howard’s absence. Harden didn’t have to defer to them or ensure that they got touches in order to remain engaged. This was one of the central conflicts as it related to the deterioration of his relationship with Howard.

Clearly, Harden has become a truly great offensive force since becoming a member of the Rockets. Now, with the arrival Mike D’Antoni, the challenge will be to ask Harden to revert, at least partially, to the team-first ball distributing scoring guard that he once was with the Thunder.

* * * * * * * *

After their first three preseason contests, the Rockets predictably showed the strength of an offensive juggernaut. The team averaged 128 points per game with Harden leading the way. Despite occurring in limited minutes, his 23.3 points per game wasn’t much of a surprise. Being the primary ball distributor, though, Harden managed 12 assists per game.

With D’Antoni having had success installing high-octane offenses and most notably with Steve Nash, we are likely to see Harden morph again. Without question, competing in the Western Conference is no walk in the park. And in many ways, expecting the Rockets to come close to being the team they were during the 2014-15 season (mostly without Howard) may be crazy.

But with Mike D’Antoni and James Harden joining forces and with the lefty being installed as the team’s point guard, we can say that the marriage is so crazy that it just might work.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

Sources: Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard Held Meeting on Tuesday

Basketball Insiders

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San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard met with coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday in San Diego, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The meeting between the two faces of the Spurs’ franchise was done professionally and confidentially, league sources said.

Source: Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports

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NBA Daily: Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft less than 50 hours away, Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler digs into the last from around the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday, things in NBA circles are getting interesting, specifically on the trade front.

The final 2018 Consensus Mock Draft will drop tomorrow, just after the media availabilities in New York, from there we’ll be tracking the minute to minute news, trades and rumors in the 2018 NBA Draft Diary.

So, with that in mind, let’s dig into what we know some 50 hours until the draft gets underway.

Kawhi Watch In Full Swing

With the news last week that San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard may no longer want to be a Spur breaking, there is still a sense in NBA circles that the Spurs are not going to listen to trade offers until the hear from Kawhi directly.

If you know anything about the Spurs organization, you know that we won’t hear the details of this situation in a minute by minute way like we do from some organizations, especially considering the Spurs have never had to deal with a scenario quite like this.

The interesting part of this story is how split the “sourcing” is on what’s real. There have been reports from several different reporters suggesting that the situation isn’t as dire as initially reported and that the Spurs and Leonard have had dialogue, but not the face-to-face meeting the Spurs covet.

It’s unclear why there hasn’t been a meeting, and that is what has some in NBA circles believing the Spurs will open up the phones on Wednesday and see what they can extract for Leonard if only to do their due diligence.

One league source commented that it might be tough for the Spurs to get value out of Leonard mainly because of his injury situation and the idea that he’d only re-sign with the Lakers. The same source doubted that Leonard’s camp would fence themselves inmto just the Lakers because that would make getting him traded extremely difficult, especially if the Lakers wouldn’t offer value to San Antonio.

The sense today is the Spurs are standing their ground. The thing to know is that this situation still seems very fluid, and that face-to-face conversation (or lack of one) could swing this thing in either direction. It is clear several teams would have interest if the Spurs decide to listen to offers, even if it just a rental for the upcoming season.

Trades At The Top Still Viable

It a typical NBA draft there is chatter about top tier picks being traded, but usually, it dies off the week for the draft as teams look in on who they ultimately want to draft.

This year, and unlike previous years there is a sense that several of the picks at the top of the board could be had, especially if it returns draft picks later in the draft and solid veterans.

The Sacramento Kings seem to be leaning towards keeping their pick at number two, and it’s looking more and more likely that Marvin Bagley III is their guy. The Kings took a very long look at Michael Porter Jr, and as of this weekend there was a sense they were OK with where Porter Jr is at medically, but he may lose out to the less risky Bagley. League sources continue to doubt the Kings grab Euro sensation Luke Dončić, so we’ll see if that holds true as we get to draft day.

The Atlanta Hawks have had the third overall pick on the market from almost the moment they landed it. The Hawks seem ready to use the pick but are said to still be exploring their options. The prevailing thought this week is it’s down to Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young for the Hawks, with more and more league sources believing the Hawks will draft Young at three. While the notion of grabbing Young at three may seem high, the Hawks have had eyes on Young from the start of the process, and not much seems to have changed. The Hawks have made it clear they would take on contract money in exchange for additional draft assets, so it seems likely the Hawks will be active, even if it’s not moving the third pick.

Things start to get interesting with Memphis at number four. There have been numerous reports that the Grizzlies have dangled the fourth pick in an attempt to shed the contract of Chandler Parsons. Sources close to the situation say the Grizzlies have had some offers, and most of them involve the Grizz picking up expiring contracts and additional draft assets lower in the draft. It’s unclear if the Grizzlies will pull the trigger, but they seem to have deals if they want one.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is the Grizzlies are the first real landing spot for Dončić. There is also talk of Wendell Carter Jr., and Mo Bamba landing at four.

The Dallas Mavericks at five seem open to taking on contract dollars and could be the landing spot for the fourth pick and Chandler Parsons, but league sources say the Mavericks would not give up the fifth pick unless it returned an All-Star or would-be All-Star.

There are a few other situations to watch as several teams have expressed interest in moving up. The Clippers hold two pretty solid selections and 12 and 13 and seem willing to combine them to move into the top 5. The Denver Nuggets have also expressed some interest in moving to the top five.

The Lakers and Celtics have expressed similar interest at points in the process, but both seem reluctant at this point to part with future assets to pay the price to jump to the top of the draft.

Porter Still A Possibility

The Michael Porter Jr. situation is murky. After two visits from NBA teams, the word on Porter is mixed. NBA teams have seen his MRIs and his medical, and select teams were allowed to bring their doctors and trainers to his most recent “workout.”

The worst case from one team that’s not considering him is that he may require an additional surgery down the line. This same team said their doctors didn’t think anything going on with Porter would jeopardize his career, but they felt like he’d have to be on a program and has a ways to go before they’d deem him a 100 percent.

The upside case, from a team with Porter squarely on their board, is that there wasn’t anything going on they didn’t expect and that their staff felt fairly positive they could not only manage his situation, but they felt they could get him right fairly quickly.

Amusingly, the narrative around Porter is that he could be the next Kevin Durant-type scorer in the NBA (Porter clearly isn’t as long and lanky as Durant) – but he does possess the ability to get his offense against almost anyone.

As one executive whose team wasn’t considering Porter joked, you could get Durant or you could get Greg Oden, hinting at the injury-riddled career of the former top pick back in 2007.

Where Does Luka Go?

There isn’t a more polarizing NBA Draft prospect than Real Madrid’s Luke Dončić. You would be hard-pressed to find an NBA executive who didn’t think Dončić could be special in the NBA. But you might also be hard-pressed to find one willing to bet their job on it.

Throughout this process, more than a couple of executives have expressed they are hopeful Dončić goes high, mainly because it would give them cover in future drafts to do the same thing, which is draft what appears to be the most NBA ready player in the class, despite his flaws.

The problem is if Dončić isn’t special or struggles like some have concerns he might, not only would a team leave a potential franchise cornerstone on the board to in passing on uber-talented collegiate prospects, it might cost the lead executive their jobs.

While that seems somewhat short-sighted, think about the executives drafting in the top six. How many are not under pressure to turn their franchises around? And would a huge draft miss seal their fate?

Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk at three seems pretty secure. Dallas’ Donnie Nelson at five seems pretty secure. Orlando’s Jeff Weltman and John Hammond at six seem fairly secure, but it gets dicey elsewhere in the top 10.

As we’ve seen in previous drafts, NBA executives can and often do outthink themselves, which why every draft has quality impact guys falling later in the process.

There is little doubt Dončić is going in the top 10; it would be pretty surprising if he got past Dallas at five.

Sexton Over Young?

The Orlando Magic seems to be dialing in on what’s there for them at six, assuming they don’t trade up, which they have explored with both Atlanta and Memphis. The prevailing thought among fans is that if Trae Young is there at six, the Magic will pounce.

Early on in the process, though, the Magic seemed to be seriously interested in Collin Sexton, and word is that be might the Magic’s guy at six. The Magic ultimately will catch what falls to them, and if Dončić, Bagley or Jackson are there, things get interesting. However, if the draft goes as scripted, Orlando seems more likely to go, Sexton, Bamba, Carter or Knox than Young – at least at this point.

The draft is a fluid domino effect process, so at six the Magic have to cover a lot of bases, and it seems they have with their individual workouts.

The Magic desperately covet an impact player, so don’t be surprised if the Magic pull the trigger on a move-up deal, especially as we get closer and closer to the moment of truth.

Bamba Could Slide

You won’t find many NBA executives who don’t find Texas big man Mo Bamba intriguing. The problem for Bamba if there are some many super talented bigs in the 2018 NBA draft he is caught in a numbers game.

League sources said recently that Bamba is in the mix at two to the Kings, four to Grizzlies, five to Mavericks, six to the Magic and seven to the Bulls. The problem is he doesn’t seem to be the first or second option to any of those teams at this point.

According to league sources there continues to be questions about how his offensive game fits into the modern NBA, and with more versatile guys sitting at the top of the draft, Bamba is looking more like the consolation prize later in the draft. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think Bamba will be a monster defensively in the NBA, but the question remains which team is drafting defense at the top of the board?

If there is a player outside of the top five that could tumble a little, it might be Bamba, especially if the Mavericks pass at five.

Over the next few days, we’ll be posting all of the draft-related news, notes, rumors and trades in the 2018 NBA Draft Day Diary, so if you want a one-stop shop for all things NBA Draft, bookmark it.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.

Spencer Davies

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If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.

Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”

After three years at Xavier University, the 22-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.

Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures took a dip. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.

There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.

It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.

“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.

“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”

Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.

“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.

“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”

So what does that exactly entail?

“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”

Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.

“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.

“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”

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