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NBA Sunday: The Kyrie Irving Quandary

Will Kyrie Irving be able to fulfill his promise playing as the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman?

Moke Hamilton

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When Kobe Bryant began playing basketball at the ripe young age of three, what do you think he dreamed of?

When, at the age of 10 years old, he began dissecting film of some of his predecessors, what do you think he imagined for himself?

Do you think Bryant hoped to merely be renowned as the Robin to Shaquille O’Neal, one of the most dominant centers the league has even seen?

Or, do you think Bryant dreamed of one day being known as the greatest player that has ever lived?

What do you think Kyrie Irving dreams of?

Do you think, as a fourth grader living in New Jersey after Irving had fallen in love with the game, that his central aspiration was to one day serve as the sidekick to arguably the greatest player to ever play the game?

Or, do you think he himself dreamed of one day being the greatest player to ever play the game?

A better question may be whether Irving will ever get the respect that he hopes to earn and leave the legacy he wants to leave by being the Tony Parker to LeBron James’ Tim Duncan.

This is the Kyrie quandary, and this edition of the NBA Sunday is merely examining his potential and promise through the lens of the two aforementioned superstars who have lived similar situations already, though they have taken diverging routes.

——

Back in the summer of 1996, with the Los Angeles Lakers wallowing in mediocrity, then general manager Jerry West effectively struck the basketball lottery jackpot. Amazingly, one year removed from a run to the 1995 NBA Finals, West convinced the already-established Shaquille O’Neal to accept a seven-year, $120 million contract to spurn the Orlando Magic and take his talents to Los Angeles.

This came on the heels of the Lakers acquiring an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets.

Despite entering the league as the number one high school player in the nation, Bryant’s true potential on the NBA level was difficult to ascertain. He played all five positions during his high school years and was mostly regarded as a high-flying athletic wing upon his entry into the NBA.

It took Bryant two full years to become the team’s starting shooting guard, but after turning in some powerful performances and impressing the likes of West and coach Del Harris with his work ethic and confidence, Bryant would eventually supplant Eddie Jones.

Despite having copious amounts of talent, the Lakers were never seriously able to contend for an NBA championship until the arrival of Phil Jackson in July 1999.

With the implementation of the triangle offense, Jackson featured O’Neal as the primary offensive option with Bryant as his secondary. Operating out of the pinch-post and low box, O’Neal created looks and opportunities for his teammates, including Bryant. The formula was an obvious success, as the Lakers managed to win three straight NBA championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

That O’Neal would be named the NBA Finals MVP in all three series was not only unsurprising, it was both predictable and proper. O’Neal, the centi-millionaire, was West’s prized acquisition, the center of Jackson’s offense and the primary option.

He was, in a word, Batman. Kobe was Robin.

As the years progressed, egos clashed. For O’Neal, complacency set in. His work ethic deteriorated as his weight escalated. Bryant, who was probably a bit envious of the accolades and credit that O’Neal had gotten for his role as the centerpiece, quietly fumed.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and that fire ultimately led to Bryant making a decision that would completely alter the course of his career and his legacy.

In essence, in the summer of 2004, after O’Neal and Bryant played in their fourth NBA Finals in five years, Bryant chose the uncertainty of pursuing his own destiny over continuing to thrive as the Robin to O’Neal’s Batman.

Shaq had fallen out of favor with the Lakers’ front office and, wielding an immense amount of power by virtue of being a free agent, Bryant could have helped smooth things over between the Lakers and O’Neal. Instead, he sat by idly as O’Neal was traded to the Miami HEAT for Brian Grant, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. He did so partially out of the want to be a good company man, but also because he believed that he was better than being second fiddle to anybody and he wanted to prove that he could win without O’Neal.

Bryant was correct, and his stubborn belief in himself has made all the difference in the world.

Now, two championships later, Bryant is regarded by most people as, at the very least, the second-best shooting guard to ever play the game. He is considered by many to be the best Laker of all-time and by some, one of the top 10 players in history.

There is no way Bryant would have ever been regarded in that light by us if he could not win without O’Neal. Whether to take the opportunity to do so was a quandary of his own, but it is a quandary that Kyrie Irving may one day face.

Ten years from now, even if Irving accomplishes great things alongside LeBron James as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, how do you think history will remember him?

For that answer, look no further than Tony Parker.

——

It seems that since July 2003, Tony Parker has been searching for the respect he deserves, and 11 years later, his search still persists.

Even after admirably steering the San Antonio Spurs to the 2003 NBA championship, the Spurs, armed with cap space, attempted to sign Jason Kidd away from his New Jersey Nets. At the time, the decision to go after Kidd was questionable, to say the least.

In Parker, the Spurs seemed to have a neophyte who, at the young age of 21 years old, was already a championship contributor thanks to a decorated international career that began at the age of 16 for Paris Basket Racing.

Now, as the Spurs have accomplished some dynastic feats, Parker’s four championship rings are more than Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Damian Lillard combined.

Yet still, many, if not all of the aforementioned point guards would be mentioned among the game’s greatest before Parker.

Why is that? Is it because it’s true? Or is it because Parker’s greatness is hidden alongside the greatness of Tim Duncan?

Certainly, without Duncan, Parker would probably not have those four championship rings, but how many of the four that the duo won together would have been won if not for the Frenchman?

Parker is the quintessential inlier. One of this generation’s best point guards goes largely overlooked and unnoticed as he continues on about his business, secretly being one of the most consistent forces behind one of the league’s most consistent winners.

I have had multiple conversations with Parker about this very thing, the most recent being during the 2014 NBA Finals. In short, Parker is unconcerned with how history remembers him or the legacy that he leaves on the game. When it is all said and done, he will be considered, with Dirk Nowitzki, as one of the top European basketball players in history, but not one of the greatest point guards in history.

Parker is okay with that, though, because the fire that burned inside of Bryant to walk away and leave a legacy on the game, at large, simply isn’t there for Parker, and that is not a bad thing.

It’s just a fact.

But, deep down inside, if there is a raging inferno in the gut of a young superstar, that’s something that should be respected. All too often, though, as a collective culture, we view it as “selfish”—the worst thing you can call a basketball player.

What’s wrong with wanting to both win big and be the primary reason why your team does so? Why not strive to have your cake and eat it, too?

Kyrie’s quandary, and one that the Cavaliers will deal with at some point, is whether he, like Bryant, believes or will believe that he is better than being anyone’s Robin, or if he, like Parker, is willing to forgo an attempt at an independent legacy in pursuit of collecting rings.

——

In today’s NBA, winning is quite difficult. It takes three to tango, at the very least, and the recent examples of the “No I in Team” 2008 Boston Celtics and the recently disbanded Miami HEAT attest to this.

The assembling of those 2008 Celtics was just the beginning of the modern NBA talent arms race and led to the culmination of it—James and Chris Bosh joining the HEAT.

Sacrifice is a thing that is so often discussed as it relates to winning, whether it be money, touches, shots or ego. All six of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, James, Wade and Bosh had to sacrifice for their teams to win, so they are shining examples.

But each of those examples were at different places in their career than Irving is now.

Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Bosh had never come close to winning a championship, despite multiple All-Star appearances and being renowned as top-notch players. But by the time those unions were formed, all six players had already tirelessly toiled in pursuit of a championship that hadn’t come, and pulling the plug on their own individual legacies and willingly joining forces was a last straw that made sense after countless fruitless pursuits.

That, at this point, is not Irving’s situation.

Irving, at just 22 years old, is one of the more impressive point guard prospects to enter the league in recent memory. Despite just having 11 games of college experience at Duke University, Irving has impressed everyone with his poise and skill set. That was never more apparent than this past summer when he helped the Americans win the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in Spain and was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

There are still some appreciable holes in his game, but before joining with James, it was far too early to know with any certainty that Irving was more Gilbert Arenas than he was Isiah Thomas.

Now, depending on how things play out, he may never get the opportunity to provide the answer.

Back in the summer of 2012, though, Irving certainly let everyone know how highly he thought of himself.

Back then, Irving had just completed his rookie year and was invited to Las Vegas by the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team. Irving was invited as a member of the Select Team—the junior varsity practice squad that was assembled in furtherance of creating a funnel for players to adapt and become integrated with the international basketball scene.

Famously, there, Irving was caught on camera, arrogantly challenging none other than Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one.

“This is not a high school kid coming up to you and saying ‘Oh my God, Kobe, Kobe,’ this is me, coming up to you, one-on-one,” Irving said as Bryant chuckled and Irving suggested the two wager $50,000 on the competition.

“You have to guard,” Irving said to Bryant after Kobe told the rookie that there was no way he could stop Bryant from scoring.

Irving’s response?

“You’re not gonna lock me up.”

And when Kobe reminded Irving that he was not far removed from being “a high school kid,” Irving responded by telling Bryant that some players need 30 games in college to get ready for the NBA.

But Irving? According to him, he only needed 11.

So back in 2012, when LeBron was coming off of his first championship as a member of the HEAT, Irving knew he was ready for a life of superstardom in the NBA and probably dreamed of one day knocking James off as the “it kid” of the league.

I wonder if, back then, he envisioned himself ever being subjugated to a role of second-fiddle to LeBron.

Now, two years later, we are wondering who Irving is.

Will he be a player who is ultimately okay with being the Robin to LeBron’s Batman? The journey of self-discovery, for Kyrie Irving, whether he recognizes it not, has already begun.

And the answer to that question, finding it and determining what do about it, with all of his potential and dreams—that is Kyrie’s quandary.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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