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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

Alex Kennedy

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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A New Beginning for Malcolm Brogdon

When he signed with the Indiana Pacers, success wasn’t a guarantee for Malcolm Brogdon. But he bet on himself, taking on a larger role than any he saw in Milwaukee. Drew Maresca breaks down how Brogdon has faired in that decision thus far.

Drew Maresca

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Leaving a franchise on the precipice of greatness is slightly unusual. When faced with the opportunity to leave such a team, some players are torn.

But others want more: an extensive role or greater challenge. While the ultimate goal is to win, that desire for more can push certain players out of their comfort zone and into a situation in which they can prove themselves capable.

That’s Malcolm Brogdon in a nutshell.

On the surface, the decision was likely an easy one. Not only has Brogdon stepped into a vital role, but he was paid handsomely to do so, as he earned a hefty four-year, $85 million raise after making a pittance in his first three seasons. And the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks likely couldn’t have come close to that number, given they re-signed Khris Middleton and must maintain flexibility for a Giannis Antetokounmpo mega-deal in the near future, almost certainly made it even easier for Brogdon.

But, in reality, such drastic change is never easy, no matter how well one is paid. It would have been easy to sit back in Milwaukee, to cling to a role he was familiar with and a team that he knew would be one of the best in the NBA. But Brogdon, instead, chose to bet on himself.

“It was a great situation for me in Milwaukee,” Brogdon recently told Basketball Insiders. “This was simply a better opportunity for me.”

Of course, that “better” opportunity is unfamiliar territory to Brogdon: a new city, a new coach, new teammates and a new system aren’t easy to grasp right away. And yet, Brogdon hasn’t missed a beat. On the contrary, rather, Brogdon has flourished in his short time with Indiana.

It may be just 12 games, but Brogdon, thus far, has averaged career-highs in minutes, points, assists and rebounds per game with 33, 19.2, 8.2 and 4.8, respectively. Milwaukee’s fourth leading scorer a season ago, Brogdon has paced Indiana in the scoring department in 2019-20. If it wasn’t obvious, he’s proven that is capable of that larger role he sought out, and may deserve even more responsibility.

While his scoring has been impressive, Brogdon may be at this best when creating for others. Time and time again, Brogdon has broken down opposing defense and set his teammates up for the easy bucket. While everyone has the occasional slip, Brogdon, more often than not, will make the right play, the play that puts his team in the best chance to win every possession.

In fact, while anyone wants to get their own, it was the opportunity to step into a playmaking role, the chance to create for others on a consistent basis, that made the Pacers such an appealing destination to Brogdon.

“[It was] huge, to come here and play point guard, lead guard,” Brogdon said. “I wanted that role.”

His 8.2 assists per game, compared to just 3.2 a season ago, represent a major step in the progression of Brogdon’s game. The 2018-19 Bucks, as many teams have in recent seasons, employed a point guard-by-committee approach; Brogdon, for the majority of the season, started alongside Eric Bledsoe, giving Milwaukee two competent ball handlers. But, with Antetokounmpo as the team’s primary everything, Brogdon was often held back in what he was able to do.

Indiana has since freed Brogdon from that confinement. And he has responded: as of this writing, Brogdon is fourth in the NBA in assists per game and ninth in total assists.

Not bad for the 36th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

The Pacers, as they stand, are still missing a major piece. Their biggest piece, even: Victor Oladipo, a player whose impact could shift not only the team’s makeup, but the Eastern Conference hierarchy as well. What could his return mean for Brogdon and his role, which may have expanded beyond what even he expected in Oladipo’s absence?

To summarize, he isn’t exactly worried. “Our personalities match . . . our styles of play match really well,” Brogdon said. “Vic is an NBA All-Star. He’s going to come back and establish himself and we’ll take it from there.”

While one might worry about Brogdon’s involvement upon Oladipo’s return, there are plenty of teams that similarly employ two talented dynamos: while their rosters differ, the Los Angeles Clippers (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), the Houston Rockets, (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and the Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) have found success with a similar makeup.

And, whatever his role may ultimately become, Brogdon should continue to see a greater usage than he did in Milwaukee. Last season, Brogdon averaged 28.6 minutes per game with just the sixth-highest usage rate on the team (20.7 percent), both a result of the Bucks’ depth and the presence of Antetokounmpo.

In contrast, Brogdon has set his aforementioned career-high in minutes played, 33, and has seen a usage rate of 27 percent through the start of the 2019-20 season.

Indiana bought Brogdon in because they know he can be a special player in this league. If the eventual goal is to win, and it always is, the Pacers know they would be best served using Oladipo (once he’s back up to speed, anyway) and Brogdon in a high-usage tandem, rather than one or the other.

So, until Oladipo’s return, Brogdon should continue to serve as their interim team leader. From there, he’ll be poised to step into a role that, while it may not prove as extensive as it is now, is far larger than any he served in Milwaukee.

Can Brogdon and the Pacers push for an NBA title? Or could they even do so before the Bucks? We may never know for certain, but it hasn’t always been about that for Brogdon. Ultimately, Brogdon wanted to prove to everyone that he’s a more-than-capable high-end player. Making the jump from Milwaukee to Indiana, Brogdon bet on himself.

And, so far, it would appear as if his gamble has paid off.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 11/22/2019

Douglas Farmer checks back in on the top second-unit players in the league with another edition of Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Just like any season-long award, health is crucial to remaining in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Even a slight ankle injury can halt a campaign, though Serge Ibaka’s inclusion a couple weeks ago was more nominal than anything. Similarly, missing five of the Detroit Pistons’ last eight games returns Derrick Rose to his usual status of spot contributor.

Unlike other season-long awards, though, success can halt a Sixth Man bid. At some point, that may befall a name below, but as long as a certain Charlotte Hornets guard stays out of the starting lineup more often than not, his breakout season will include a chance at this hardware.

Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

While the Nets have stumbled to a 6-8 start, they are still in the playoff race and figure to improve upon their No. 7 standing as the team coalesces around Kyrie Irving. As Irving’s backup, Dinwiddie’s role may seem minimal, but with Irving currently sidelined by a shoulder injury, that has meant more time for Dinwiddie. He responded with 24, 28 and 20 points in Brooklyn’s last three games, raising his season average to 18.6 points with 5.1 assists per game.

If Irving ends up out longer than expected, and there is no reason to anticipate such, Dinwiddie’s starting role will damage his Sixth Man candidacy. If, however, Irving gets back into action after Dinwiddie has found a rhythm, it should mean more minutes for Dinwiddie the backup, burgeoning these chances.

Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

Yes, you read that correctly. No. 39, Dwight Howard. His numbers may be only middling — 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game — but he has been an undeniable part of the Lakers’ recent success. He has a +6.0 net rating, after all.

Howard’s fit this season will somehow be underrated, partly due to his lack of gross numbers. However, that is evidence of his fit. By accepting a secondary role — and if there was a tier after secondary but before bench, then that would be the role Howard is in — he has allowed the Lakers to hum along, easing Anthony Davis’ load when possible and giving Davis the spotlight when needed. Without Howard, the wear on Davis may simply be too much, especially given his lengthy injury history.

The Sixth Man of the Year is almost always a microwave scorer known for boosting his team’s offense (hey Ben Gordon, Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams), but Howard’s contribution betters the Lakers just as much, if not more.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Lou Williams sees this space’s concerns about his inefficient early-season shooting, and he laughs. Those were his closing minutes that helped power the Clippers to a three-point win against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, finishing 10-of-21 for 27 points. That was his 31-point, 9-assist night at New Orleans that almost carried Los Angeles to a shorthanded victory on Nov. 14. In the next game, he merely went 15-of-15 at the free-throw line to get to 25 points.

Along the way, Williams’ effective field goal percentage rose to 46.5 percent and his shooting percentage climbed to 42.1, right in line with his career figure. It may have taken Williams a few weeks to find his groove, but the three-time winner of this award is now averaging 22.5 points and 5.7 assists per game and should be considered a threat to win his fourth, barring injury.

Devonte’ Graham — Charlotte Hornets

At some point, the Hornets may have to admit they made a $57 million mistake in signing Terry Rozier to helm their offense. His 16.5 points and 4.5 assists per game are not paltry, but they pale in comparison to Graham’s 18.2 and 6.9. When it comes to shooting percentages, the argument skews even further in Graham’s direction.

Admitting that mistake will obviously be difficult; it could lead to three years of regret. Instead of moving Rozier to the second unit, Charlotte benched third-year guard Dwayne Bacon. Plugging Graham in for him has raised Graham’s average to 18.8 points. In the two games before the promotion from the bench, Graham dished out 10 assists in each, doing so again in this second game as a starter.

Graham has now started 5 of 15 games. If he remains a starter for the next five, he will be removed from these considerations. The second-year guard’s breakout may deprive him of hardware.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Harrell is not matching his aforementioned teammate’s scoring, but otherwise the big forward is the clear class of the Clippers’ stellar bench. Harrell averages 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 59.2 percent. Los Angeles could want little more from its high-energy big man in small lineups.

This is a distinct continuation of Harrell’s long-term growth. His points, rebounds and blocks per game numbers have ticked up every year of his five-year career, and his per-36 averages have tracked closely to linear progression. Thus, there should be every presumption Harrell will keep this up all season. Doing so on a title contender should land Harrell the Sixth Man of the Year.

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NBA Daily: Chasing 40

Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.

Drew Mays

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As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.

Yes, 38.4.

He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.

And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.

Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.

Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).

This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.

On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.

It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.

Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.

The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.

Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.

That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.

And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.

Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.

He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.

Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.

Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.

In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).

Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.

Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.

That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.

Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:

Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.

The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.

This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.

The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.

As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.

In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.

The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:

Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:

You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!

Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.

Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.

(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)

The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.

That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.

Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.

Now, he’s back for an encore.

His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.

He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!

His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!

The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.

Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.

Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.

He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.

Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.

Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.

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