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The Agony of an NBA Mistake

Dr. Travis Heath explains why James Harden’s success for the Houston Rockets keeps him up at night, mumbling at the television.

Travis Heath

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“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” – John Wooden

There is a certain exhilaration that goes with being right about a player you have scouted. I got that feeling when I wrote about Damian Lillard after I had scouted him in person a couple of times and said that he should be a top-two pick in the draft and would one day be an NBA All-Star. Longtime NBA folks I worked with scoffed at this notion and insisted that it was silly to make such an assessment given the level of his competition in the Big Sky Conference.

I was right.

Long before I worked in the league, I wrote that I would take Kevin Durant over Greg Oden. Granted, this was a different situation since I wasn’t submitting an official report to a team, but the position still wasn’t a popular one among NBA people I knew. One GM I had a good relationship with at the time chuckled after he read my analysis and sort of patted me on the head like I was some kind of overzealous child while informing me that one should always bet on size. My response was simple: Sam Bowie.

I was right.

If only my record were made up of these prognostications. Unfortunately, I have been wrong my share of times, too.

In my role as a professor of clinical psychology, I find that too often students are only exposed to clinical situations that go perfectly according to form. Recently I realized that this probably doesn’t serve them well in the long run as it creates a culture where young clinicians believe they cannot and perhaps more importantly, should not, make mistakes. I have toyed with the idea of writing a book in which I was to gather nightmare stories from a group of experienced clinicians with the philosophy that there is more to be learned from our mistakes than from our successes.

The general idea of learning from mistakes has been captured in platitudes aplenty for centuries. However, most of us who exist in the public eye or have some kind of public platform rarely acknowledge our mistakes. There are likely numerous reasons for this. In the NBA, I noticed how quickly people would distance themselves from personnel moves that went awry and how equally quickly they would position themselves to take some kind of credit when the moves worked out. This can likely be chalked up to simple self-preservation. There are very few jobs in the NBA and many people who want them. Admitting mistakes in our culture is seen as a sign of weakness even despite all of the clichés to the contrary.

My mistakes are fascinating to me. I have scouted players long enough to see them progress through college and on to the NBA and have a bevy of reports saved on my computer. I often flip to games on League Pass where I know a player that I was wrong about is playing. I watch and try to analyze, almost obsessively, what exactly it was that I missed. Of course, the ultimate hope is to avoid making a similar mistake in the future.

One particular player that has been torturing me of late is James Harden of the Houston Rockets. The last team that I worked for did NBA scouting reports by division. I was in charge of submitting a monthly report for every team, and every player on every team in the Northwest division. I was tasked with doing this as the Oklahoma City Thunder really started its ascension to the ranks of the elite.

Brevity was valued in these reports. General managers do not generally have time to read 1,000 words on a player. These are busy people who want a paragraph that gets to the most pertinent information quickly. What follows is a report I wrote on Harden during the 2011-12 season. Just a quick note: BS is a common abbreviation for ball skills.

James Harden, 6-5 SG/PG : Sneaky good athlete. Combo guard with no true position. Has good size, good BS, and a nice looking shot. Was the most aggressive I’ve seen him in the NBA this month really attacking offensively. All his offensive metrics are up. Great at drawing contact. Generally plays under control and will defend. Good, not great player.

That last line in particular haunts me every time I watch Harden play, and just reading it again gives me that sinking feeling in my stomach. To the best of my knowledge the team I was working for never entertained the notion of acquiring Harden. Had they, though, my report would have let them down.

In the final line of each report I always try and make a definitive judgment. The way I have always looked at it is that the team has hired me to give an opinion and riding a fence due to a fear of being wrong isn’t fully doing my job. For example, the final line I wrote in my last scouting report of Lillard in February of 2012 read: I believe he will be a superstar in the NBA and should be a top two pick in the draft.

To be clear, I don’t make big claims just to make them, but when I feel I have enough information about a player I state in no uncertain terms what I think. What I would write about Harden in that last line now with the benefit of hindsight is that he will blossom into a great player if given the chance and the responsibility.

Perhaps what tortures me most is knowing how much of a difference Harden would have made on the last team I worked for. Knowing what I know now I would have given up anyone on the roster to acquire him, but at the time I would not have told the GM to go after him with a sufficient amount of vigor. These are the kind of mistakes that prevent a good team from making the jump to a great one, which I would argue is the most difficult step to take in the NBA.

I watched from start to finish on March 22nd as Harden dropped 37 points and 10 dimes on the Cleveland Cavaliers all while turning the ball over just once and making all 14 of his free throws. My wife asked why I was chuckling out loud at the television, shaking my head and talking to myself as I watched this transpire. I explained to her the reason to which she replied: “Why do you do this to yourself?”

I do this to myself because I want to be better. I do this to myself because perhaps watching Harden now will help me notice one little cue or behavior I missed that will help prevent me from making a similar mistake in the future. I do this because sitting with my mistakes, as uncomfortable an exercise as it is, is the only way I truly know how to grow.

Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and a former team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio on Tuesday evenings from 6-7 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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NBA Daily: Wizards Put Wild In “Wild Card”

The Wizards’ reputation as an enigma, combined with their most recent moves could make their team a contender just as much as it could make them a trainwreck.

Matt John

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The Wizards were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last year.

Being hamstrung by injuries, most notably by John Wall who missed half the season, Washington took an egregious step back in 2018. The team still made the playoffs, and they even gave Toronto a competitive series in the first round. Alas, the headline of their story surrounding them was their inner dysfunction.

To be clear, there had already been reports of contention, specifically between Wall and Bradley Beal, prior to this season, but more and more reports of hostility in the locker room leaked out as the season progressed.

With Wall nursing an injury mid-season,  Marcin Gortat praised the team for how they won without its star point guard.

Wall did not take too kindly to Gortat’s words, as he said Gortat was “spoon-fed buckets.” The two made up, but that wasn’t the only instance. Following a fight he had with Wall, Dallas Mavericks guard Jose Juan Barea went on record stating that he thought fellow Wizards didn’t like their franchise player.

These were the most prevalent of several incidents that indicated that things weren’t running smoothly with D.C.’s basketball team. Once Wall stated that the team needed upgrades following their playoff elimintation, it was clear some changes were in order.

Since the off-season has commenced, the Wizards have made said changes. The real question is, will these changes cease the flames or merely fan them?

First, they traded Gortat for Austin Rivers. The motive was obvious for this deal. If they hadn’t done so already, Gortat and Wall were one more squabble from going at each other’s throats, so it was one or the other between the two of them. With Gortat on the downside of his career and Wall being one of the league’s top point guards in the prime of his career, it was clear that Gortat was the odd man out.

Then there’s who the return that the Wiz received for Gortat. For years, Washington has searched for years to find that third guard to spell their elite backcourt. From Martell Webster to Garrett Temple to Brandon Jennings to Tim Frazier, the Wizards have auditioned various players to fill in the role as their first guard off the bench to no avail.

Now, they may have very well found the perfect man for the job in Austin Rivers.

Laugh all you want. Adding Rivers could pay huge dividends for the Wizards. It is true that Rivers has developed a bad reputation since joining. He’s a punk. He’s a bust. He’s a daddy’s boyRivers deserves most of the labels he’s been given, but the one label he doesn’t deserve is scrub.

Rivers’ improvement since joining his father in Hollywood has fallen under the radar because he has become, as I like to call it, one of the most “over-hated” players in the league. Since joining the Clippers in 2015, Rivers has gradually seen both his scoring and assist average double, as he posted career-highs in both categories this season – 15.1 points a game and 4.0 assists a game – while also shooting a career-high 37.8 percent from three. Those numbers should make Wizards fans excited that he’s going be the team’s third guard.

The concerns with Rivers are very real, but his skill set makes him the guy the Wizards have been looking for. On paper at least.

Then, there’s Jeff Green.

You know how they say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again?” Well with Jeff Green, it’s, “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards.”

For years, Jeff Green has managed to consistently disappoint no matter how low the expectations go for him despite his obvious talent. The bar for Green was at the absolute lowest this season as the Cavs wanted him as a backup wing and nothing else, to which Jeff passed with flying colors, if not more so.

Much to the chagrin of any Celtics, Grizzlies, or Clippers fan who rooted for the guy, Jeff came through for the Cavs when they needed him to. With Cleveland down 3-2 to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and Kevin Love out with a concussion, Jeff stepped it up. Averaging 16.5 points on 46 percent shooting and averaging 5.5 rebounds, Jeff played a huge hand in dealing the final blow to his former team’s season.

The lesson to take from all this is that Jeff Green can succeed when little is expected of him. The lower the bar, the happier you’ll be with him. Coming to Washington, Green’s not expected to be any more than Mike Scott’s replacement, so Washington should get its money’s worth. On paper at least.

Finally, of course, there’s Dwight Howard.

I’ve already written about Howard’s career tailspin in the last half-decade, so there’s no need to bring that up again. Instead, let’s focus on who Dwight is as a player currently.

By all means, Dwight should give Washington quite the boost. Regardless of how far he’s fallen, Dwight is still an impactful player, and the numbers speak for themselves. While other parts of his game have fallen, Howard’s presence on the boards is still as strong as ever.

Before acquiring Dwight, Charlotte ranked 16th in the NBA in total rebound averages with 43.6 a game in 2017, but after bringing him in, the Hornets rose all the way to third this season with 45.5. Atlanta, who had previously employed Dwight in 2017, ranked ninth in the league with 44.3 rebounds a game but dropped all the way to 25th this season with 41.9 after trading him.

The Wiz have had severe struggles punding the glass over the last three years, as detailed below.

2017-2018: 43.1 rebounds a game (ranked no. 21)
2016-2017: 42.9 rebounds a game (ranked no. 22)
2015-2016: 41.8 rebounds a game (ranked no. 26)

So they should be thrilled to have Howard aboard.

Howard is also still a quality athlete even if he’s not the basketball goliath he once was. In Charlotte, he had his best statistical season since his first year in Houston, so there’s plenty of good basketball left in him. Given that he signed for just the mid-level exception, he should be a smart investment.

On paper at least.

Howard should be a fantastic fit in Washington should he fall in line, but history shows that he’s incapable of doing that. Howard’s skills still fit in well with the NBA, but he’s shown that he only plays by his rules, which has led to him being thrown out of every situation he’s been in. For both him and Washington, this is probably their last chance.

Talent-wise, the Wizards have what it takes to compete with the best in the east with their new additions. They added a more-than-qualified third guard that they’ve desperately needed, they added a solid backup wing, and they upgraded at center. However, their perplexing history since their surprise playoff run in 2014 makes it hard to know what their ceiling truly is. See for yourself.

2015: An injured John Wall and an Al Horford buzzer beater stopped them from making the conference finals
2016: Missed the playoffs
2017: A Kelly Olynyk performance of a lifetime stopped them from making the conference finals
2018: They got ousted in the first round as an eighth seed in a throw-away season

There aren’t that many teams who have been as enigmatic over the last four years as Washington has. They are as talented as they are egotistical. They’ve shown that they can play some beautiful basketball together and they’ve shown that they can tear each other apart. Adding Rivers, Green, and Howard, three serviceable players (at the very least), is sensible since depth has also been one of their biggest holes.

But there’s a reason why Austin Rivers isn’t very well-liked around the league. There’s a reason why Jeff Green has bounced around like a hot potato in the last three and a half years. There’s a reason why every team that’s employed Dwight Howard has happily waved bye-bye when they shipped him out of town.

The Wizards are not a lock to make a run after the moves they’ve made. But, given the state that they were in coming into this summer, they’ve done about as well as they could have reasonably expected.

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

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