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NBA Sunday: Can James Harden Revert?

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

Moke Hamilton

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

That’s James Harden in a nutshell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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