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NBA Sunday: James Harden, Improbable MVP

Behind James Harden’s brilliance, the Mike D’Antoni-led Rockets have improbably become an NBA superpower.

Moke Hamilton

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His team entered the All-Star break one game under the .500 mark. He couldn’t avoid the questions about his recently fired head coach, his fractured relationship with his running mate and what the future would hold for him personally.

It seemed that the Houston Rockets, instead of soaring with the NBA’s celestial bodies, not only failed to take flight. They didn’t even have a successful countdown.

A lot can change in a year.

Just ask James Harden.

“It’s been so much fun,” Harden told the assembled media during the NBA’s 2017 All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

“Not only just winning, but just the vibe of the guys in the locker room,” he said, taking a not-so-subtle shot at the since-departed Dwight Howard.

“They’re just happy to work extremely hard with the coaching staff. That all translates to winning. If you get that in one group, then you can have the third-best record in the league,” Harden said.

Surprisingly, his Rockets have managed to blast off. Arriving at the All-Star break, the team has compiled a 40-18 record. It’s the fourth best record in the entire league and third-best record in the Western Conference.

When one discusses the biggest surprises in the league this season, the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers would warrant mention, but it’s fair to say that even fewer foresaw the Rockets returning to prominence.

With Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Nene joining him in Houston, Harden has bought into the ball-sharing philosophy of newly installed head coach Mike D’Antoni. Most surprising, however, is the team ranking in the top-half of the league in defensive efficiency. As a unit, they yield just 108 points per 100 possessions.

In the end, as Harden mentioned, the product is the league’s third-best record. The improbable turnaround is something that the entire league has noticed, and with Harden’s astronomical per-game averages of 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists, under normal circumstances, he would be the runaway winner of the Most Valuable Player Award. Russell Westbrook’s quest to become the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson (to which Westbrook has a legitimate chance, mind you), is the only threat to Harden.

A man who was ranked in this very space as being the third-best shooting guard in the league behind Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler has effectively made those who agreed with the premise eat their words.

To put it simply, you can’t mention the league MVP without Harden.

“It feels good,” Harden said about being one of the frontrunners. “To be mentioned in the MVP race, it means you’re doing something really good,” he said.

“You just gotta continue to do it, continue to focus and win games. Being the leader that I am and that I’m still learning how to be—that’s all I can do.”

Indeed, it would be unfair to ask him to do more.

* * * * * *

It was a fairly routine June day. With the Golden State Warriors carrying a 2-1 lead into that night’s Game 4 battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers, another one bit the dust.

In a prepared statement released by the Houston Rockets, James Harden announced that he was joining Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and scores of other superstars who were removing themselves from national team consideration. The concerns over whether the Americans would have enough firepower to emerge from Rio with a gold medal grew louder.

“I have been extremely blessed to wear the ‘red, white, and blue’ and to compete at the highest international level with the greatest players representing the greatest country in the world,” Harden was quoted as saying in the statement.

“I sincerely hope I’ll earn an opportunity to represent Team USA again in the future.”

At the time, Harden’s Rockets were fresh off of a rather disappointing season. Dwight Howard was certain to have played his last game for Houston and Mike D’Antoni had surprisingly been hired just a few weeks prior. The Rockets were in a transition period and, according to Harden, it was the primary reason for his opting to sit out.

“It was extremely difficult, cuz who wants to pass up an opportunity to compete for a gold medal?” Harden asked rhetorically.

“But who’s to say that if I went to compete for that gold medal and things were how they were last year, I would have been just as frustrated,” he said.  “So I made a conscious effort to stay here and make sure we got some kind of help and I feel like we have been. It paid off.”

And then some.

The Rockets have re-emerged as an NBA power. And James Harden, without question, is the primary reason why.

* * * * * *

For the Rockets, only 24 games remain in the regular season. The Rockets currently hold a four-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed in the Western Conference and will have an opportunity to make up some ground on the San Antonio Spurs for the second seed. Of their remaining games, for the Rockets, only 10 will be played on the road. Of those remaining road contests, only four of them will be contested against teams that currently have winning records. Of the 24 games remaining, the Rockets will only play nine against winning teams.

In short, if they simply continue being the team they have been over the first two-thirds of the season, they will have a real opportunity to finish in the top three out West.

Coming into the season, that didn’t seem possible. But behind Harden, the Rockets have improbably reemerged.

As he looked around in New Orleans, without a doubt, the scene was familiar. The media, the questions, the flashing lights and silly questions—they were eerily similar to last season.

Yet the most important characteristic had changed. The beard and his team were being spoken about for all the right reasons.

Soaring with the celestials, the Rockets are mid-flight—to infinity, and perhaps beyond.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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