For the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, Rockets’ All-Star James Harden must go from elite scorer to elite player. As the series nears closer the question is not “can” the offensive minded guard make this metamorphosis, but rather “will” he?
Prior to the 2009 NBA draft most pundits ranked the 6’5 guard as a top five prospect, and when Oklahoma City selected Harden the consensus was the All-American would translate well into the NBA. It is safe to say the five time All-Star has done more than just translate well, he has exceeded all expectations. With that being said it is time to up the ante. If we as fans are to believe the scorer can be anything other than a numbers harlot now is the time for the Houston star to do so. The Spurs and specifically forward Kawhi Leonard are on the horizon, and the game done changed for young Mr. Harden.
This is a career defining series for the Southern California native, and how the Rockets perform will be the key defining factor. Scoring 30 plus points and distributing 10 or more dimes won’t cut it this round. Houston must win this series for James to be considered more than just another George Gervin, Dominque Wilkins, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. All were or are phenomenal scorers who never were capable of getting their squad over the hump.
Yes the challenge is daunting, as most with extreme consequences are. Nevertheless, the time has come to see if the former Sun Devil is ready to eat at the big boy table. The NBA has always provided a divisive line between superior and inferior, clearly defining who resided where. We remember and salute the leaders from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Bird to LeBron James, only to recall Steve Nash, Bernard King, Rolando Blackman, and Charles Barkley to name a few. This is where Harden is teetering.
In his seventh season “the Beard” has been nothing short of spectacular, posting a career high in points per (29.1), rebounds per (8.1), and assists per (11.1). The individual numbers do not tail off when going against the likes of Boston (33.5 ppg/7.0 rpg/9.5 apg), Cleveland (39.5 ppg/8.5 rpg/13.0 apg), Golden State (21.8 ppg/11.0 rpg/11.3 apg), or San Antonio (29.8 ppg/9.0 rpg/11.8 apg). However, a record of 4 – 8 is where things get questionable and the gumbo really gets thick when you focus solely on the Spurs and Warriors results. The Houston Rocket is 2 – 6 versus the one and two seeds in the western conference, shooting a gut wrenching 40 percent.
This is why it is imperative the former Arizona State All-American win this series, at this time and versus this team. If he ever desires to reside in the upper echelon of top players in the league nothing short of victory is acceptable. Harden is not hampered by an inferior team like say a Russell Westbrook. No, the Rocket guard is armed with a top shooter in guard Eric Gordon, a playoff tested Nene who has been a fixture of multiple 50 win clubs, guard Lou Williams a top reserve in the league, and a champion in Trevor Arizia. So there can be no excuses disguised as reasons if the playoff journey ends here for the MVP candidate.
In fact, the guard’s biggest impediment may come from his very own coach. Mike D’Antoni is 0 – 4 versus the Spurs in the playoffs and before defeating the Thunder had a combined playoff record of 26 – 33. To say the coach does not have the same zest for defense would be stating the obvious. But it is D’Antoni’s inability to make in-game adjustments that also play a role in his playoff demise. It will be incumbent upon the scorer to captain the offense AND the defense for Houston to win. Those impeccable basketball instincts will be necessary to sustain the head coach’s habitual shortcomings.
Then there is the whole Kawhi Leonard playing the best ball of his career problem. More specifically, how Harden handles being matched up against the forward will ultimately be the deciding factor in the series. There is zero doubt the All-Star starter will get his numbers. The question is can he avoid the very same fate he dealt to Westbrook, another numbers maverick. This Spurs group, while still potent, is not the team that had been so formidable in previous years. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge has seen his scoring dip in the playoffs (17.3 to 14.8) while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are entering senior citizen status. So Houston’s most proficient rocket has the opportunity to seize the moment.
This is the series that will show every NBA fan if Mr. Harden is merely another overly celebrated scorer or legitimate championship leader. Scorers have always captivated the league and led us all to believe they would one day be champions. Yet, the one thing Durant’s bolt to Golden State has taught us, is there is a gargantuan difference between leading your team in scoring and leading your team to a title. Or at the very least leading your team to consistently compete for a title.
It will take more than points and passes to win this series, it will take a herculean effort. An effort that is common among the game’s elite. Thus far James has been more scoring enigma than elite player, but now is the time for him to announce where he resides on that pendulum. Harden’s game has evolved (or revolved depending who you ask) around his scoring ability. To date that has been good enough for the Rockets, but it is time for the team and its fans to demand more. Or else everything that has transpired, from the triple-doubles to the magnificent scoring outputs, will only be referenced for what never came from those performances.
By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
The NBA season has ended, which means it is now time for the praising of those who individually experienced success, even if their teams did not. Production, or lack thereof, always carries a certain unforeseen consequence of the extreme. This result is what leads to a Mike Conley Jr. earning $26 million per and Chandler Parsons making $22 million per respectfully. Whereas, a player’s impact is far left tangible therefore it is ignored or even disregarded at times. Look no further than Kawhi Leonard’s salary of $17 million per or Klay Thompson’s check of $16 million a year.
It is easy to question the value of a player based on several factors, but what can never be debated is a historical feat. When history is broached and or overcome all that can be said is “Salute”. With that we are here to give daps to the overachieving and celebrate the greatness of the players around the league. Production and impact will run hand and hand in these selections, even if the production (i.e. win total) is not as high as many would like. These are individual awards for players who no matter what they do will always lose out to the habitual ineptitude of their team and teammates.
Most Improved Player: Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics
Isaiah Thomas will more than likely not win this award, despite being the balling epitome of what it stands for. The generously listed 5’9 guard has taken an already All-Star worthy offensive game to new heights, and the Boston Celtics won the No. 1 seed in the conference because of that growth. The addition of four time All-Star forward Al Horford has opened up space for the guard to penetrate, which Thomas has taken full advantage of. The Celtic All-Star finished the season ranked second in fourth quarter points (9.8 per), second most points in the “clutch”, third in points per game with 28.9, third in free throws made (7.8 per), seventh in made field goals (9.0 per), and seventh in free throw attempts (8.5 per) just to name a few numbers.
However, it is Thomas’ performance against Cleveland, Toronto and Washington that has propelled him ahead of his counterparts. As a unit Boston is 4 – 7 against the aforementioned three, with Isaiah on the court, but the losses have been in spite of Thomas’ performance not because of it. At an average of 29.2 points per the former Washington Husky has shown he is up to the challenge of keeping the Celtics above the competition.
Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder – Utah Jazz
As much as Miami Heat general Erik Spolestra is the desired choice, there is no way to justify a head coach from a non-playoff team winning any type of award for achievement. Therefore, Utah Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder gets the nod. Snyder led the Jazz to a 51 – 31 record and the Northwest Division crown.
Utah was a sub .500 team last season (40 – 42), their third losing season in a row. When the year began many believed the Salt Lake City group were on the rise and a possible 50 win club. The Jazz lived up to those expectations bestowed upon them, which is sometimes harder than when a team has unexpected success.
First there is the 11 game improvement, then the coach’s ability to be successful playing fundamental basketball and finally the development of center Rudy Gobert all give credence to this selection. Coach Snyder had the unmitigated gall to teach the game minus gimmicks and without previous any previous M.V.P candidates. Gobert’s defensive resume is on par with some of the game’s juggernauts. The center ended the year with 42 games of three or more blocks, 5th in defensive rebounds, 1st in total blocks, 1st in blocks per game and 1st in Defensive Win Shares all pretty impressive numbers. But putting the big in position to accumulate those numbers should not be overlooked.
The Utah front man created a defense for the center to thrive in and an offense that allowed Gordon Hayward to make his first ever All-Star appearance. That is coaching. The Jazz completed the year ranked third in defensive efficiency and 12th in offensive efficiency, without a roster full of top five picks. Joe Johnson may be the squad’s most recognizable name. Snyder took a novel idea of teaching both ends of the court, along with developing players and turned it into a 51 win season. A head nod also goes to Houston Rockets offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni, who has revitalized guard James Harden.
Rookie of the Year: Dario Saric – Philadelphia 76ers
Dario Saric is NOT the winner by default for this award, in fact the former EuroLeague star earned the trophy through strife and hard work. The 76ers were about as fun as a prostate exam, but Saric made it bearable. His effort and production were visible from start to finish. It was a tale of two seasons for the forward, one as a patient reserve and the second as an assertive starter. In 45 games as a reserve the 76er averaged a modest, but still impressive 11 points, six rebounds and two assists. In his 36 games as a starter 15 points per, seven boards and three dimes. March has been known to be where rookies hit the wall and tend to fall off, this was not the case with Dario. The ides of March proved to be the Croatian’s most prolific month.
In 17 games, all starts, the rookie posted 18.4 ppg/7.0 rpg/ 3.4 apg, including a career high 34 points in Chicago. Saric would also grab 10 rebounds in a rare road win. For the record 53 games of 10 or more points all while playing a role that went from starter-to-reserve-to-starter again is why this rookie went from afterthought to conversation starter. Joel Embiid’s monitored minutes still failed him and should not be considered, just as Milwaukee Bucks’ guard Malcolm Brogdon and Sacramento Kings’ guard Buddy Hield are only mentioned because someone else has to be.
Executive of the Year: Bob Myers – Golden State Warriors
Adding Kevin Durant was spectacular, adding ZaZa Pachulia was more judicious, but the coup was keeping the team’s cap flexibility going forward. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Durant are the only players of consequence under contract next season for the Warriors. Durant can opt out, which is likely, but both Thompson and Green have modest contracts by today’s standards.
This opens the door for Golden State to re-sign Stephen Curry, which is not a given, but also keep the club competitive for years to follow. Myers has kept the Warriors competitive (which has kept the arena full) while remaining financially sensible (which has kept the check writers happy). Houston Rockets czar Daryl Morey and San Antonio Spurs shot caller R. C. Buford are worthy of mention here also. Both have chosen to reload rather than rebuild and have been successful thus far in doing such.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond “Hands” Green – Golden State Warriors
At times it feels like people take turns hating on the Golden State Warrior forward, for reasons that never seem to be basketball related. Draymond Green came from nowhere to become the unquestioned leader of the NBA’s most potent team. Yet, for some how he leads his crew overshadows where he has led them to.
Watch a Golden State Warriors game and it is impossible to not be mesmerized by Draymond’s hustle and activity. The second round pick always has his hands in the passing lanes, he is always denying ball, his hands are always up, he constantly moves his feet, and there is not a possession that goes by where he is quiet.
The former Michigan State Spartan finished the regular season second in total steals (154) and steals per game (2.0) which is fantastic for the numbers never lie crowd. Yet, it is the forward’s on-the-ball defense that separates him from the pack. Green ranks second in deflections per (3.9), second in defensive rating (99.1), second in defensive win shares (5.4), and fifth in contested shots per (13.7). Such a resume is a testament to his determination and defensive wherewithal.
Most Valuable Player: Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder
At some point people are going to have to stop constructing hateful cases against “the Brodie”! Before the exodus of ______ a triple-double was considered a feat of strength, now some pundits treat it like Mondays. When a player overtakes Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James in a single season the M.V.P trophy should be a given. Unless it comes at the expense of the powerful new media, then there are questions about just how potent those numbers are.
Consider this Stephen Curry was the unanimous award winner last year and averaged less points (30.1 vs 31.6), grabbed 434 less rebounds (430 vs. 864), tallied 317 less assists (523 vs. 840), and had the benefit of playing with two other All-Stars. Essentially Curry claim the trophy in such fashion because the Warriors won 73 games and the guard made a whole lot of threes. Now Steph is an amazing offensive player, and the goal is not to diss rather it is to point out the hypocrisy that exist.
When LeBron James left Cleveland their NBA franchise died. This was not the case in Oklahoma City, or even in Chicago, homes to two of the most recent questionable M.V.P winners. Derrick Rose and Durant both were “given” the most valuable title despite its rightful owner that season being James. Nevertheless, the Bulls are in the playoffs in Rose’s first year gone and Westbrook actually has gotten better since Durant’s departure.
This cannot be the case! OKC and specifically Russell are suppose to crumble. The former UCLA Bruin was certain to be an undisciplined reincarnation of Allen Iverson. Instead the game’s most fierce competitor led the Thunder to a win total, eight games shy of the previous years. No doubt there have been “Iverson-ish” moments, but this is to be expected when Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter are your next best scoring options.
Those player’s previous team’s record with them in tow and who they were traded for should solidify just how implausible a season Russell has had. The Utah Jazz selected Kanter third overall in the 2011 draft and traded him four years later for Tibor Pleiss, Grant Jerrett and Kendrick Perkins. To be clear none of those players are even in the league.
Much has been made, and rightfully so, about Westbrook’s production both good and bad. The internet has been infiltrated with videos and diagrams displaying how the Thunder have helped the mercurial guard amass record setting performances. However, until one person can illustrate how the opposing team stopped competing, such attempts should be futile.
To date only one other person in league history has accomplished what we all witnessed this season. To not pay homage with an award dedicated to rewarding feats alike, would be a bigger travesty than voting unanimously for a player because they made a lot of jumpers.
By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
As the NBA playoffs commence its most frequent participator faces his most difficult journey to date. Each season the obstacles appear to be more insurmountable than the previous years’ for LeBron James. The 2016/2017 season has remained true to that form, however it feels as if this season’s series of events could stifle James’ seventh consecutive NBA Finals appearance and destroy his dreams of a fourth NBA ring.
Or is it possible we will witness an unforeseen conquest of the most recent dream team assemblage? In order for that conquest to come to fruition a series of Eastern Conference mid-season acquisitions and a vicious rash of injuries must also be vanquished by the Cavalier of Cleveland.
Nevertheless the table has been set. Last year’s championship was impressive, leading the Cavs back from a 3-to-1 hole will never be taken away from James. But that was last year, and a new moment is upon us.
After stating Cleveland was “top heavy” and informing management of the team’s need for a playmaker, the All-Star forward placed down his shield and picked up his sword. Playing a league leading 37.8 minutes per, James’ highest in five seasons, all appearances are the King is ready to carry the load. And after a 32 point, 13 assist game one performance there is no reason to believe the 13 time All-Star will fall off.
But endings are not immediate, and while the King’s fighting spirit is admirable, the implementation of that spirit could have catastrophic results. James has managed to avoid the injury bug, yet fatigue is bound to rear its ugly head. This is when the front office’s reluctance, or inability, to make a gauntlet dropping move could be costly.
Cleveland played a significant part of the season without forward Kevin Love (missed 20 games) and guard J.R. Smith (missed 41 games), which directly affected the team finding itself holding the second seed in the playoffs. This could possibly have created a difficult, but not insuperable, road to what feels like LeBron’s 78th trip to the NBA Finals.
After declaring help was needed the three time Finals MVP realized early what us fans realized late, that the likes of Lou Williams and Carmelo Anthony were not going to grace the Q hardwood in a title defense. It was also unlikely that anyone of consequence was going to walk through those arena doors.
While the Eastern Conference failed at gaining ground on the defending champions, the more egregious offense was the defending champion’s failure to slam the door to hope shut. Such actions may have created a season’s load that may prove too heavy to bear. There is little doubt Cleveland will make it to the NBA Finals, but will an exhausted and overexerted James be the price. At this point in the three-time champion’s career it should be about conserving his dominance on a nightly basis instead of forcing him to confirm it. By adding a player, like say a DeMarcus Cousins, one of the game’s more impressive championship runs may have continued. However, now it feels more and more as if once the Cavalier star reaches the Finals, he won’t have anything left to win in the Finals.
The four time league MVP has chased the ghosts of legends passed since his rookie season, and this year’s challenges have set the table for him to unceremoniously pass the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to name a few. Making seven straight NBA Finals will be the headline, but the conquest would be told in the details. The 2016 – 2017 Cavaliers were ravaged by injuries, yet their wounded and exhausted Gladiator led his troops to victory and in the process seized the throne as the game’s greatest champion.
Sounds like a fairytale, or something straight out of the movies. Better yet, it sounds like the end to one of the greatest NBA careers we have ever witnessed. Win or lose after 14 seasons of hunting this prize feels bigger than them all. This season’s crown would squash any forthcoming stale debates about where James’ lies in the hierarchy of icons, basketball greats and champions. Simply because this title would be his greatest acquisition.
Each year since reaching the championship round way back in the 2006 – 2007 season, it has been the talented forward’s title to lose. The current campaign was the first where expectations for a title were replaced by the hope for one. Now a player whose heart, not talent, have consistently been questioned is playing on nothing else. His team is not the most talented, and considering number one seeds have won 7 of the last 10 NBA titles, the lack of championship predictions seem appropriate for this group. But this is the King and he has relished in the unexpected before.
Somewhere the NBA world has forgotten or chose to misremember just what the Akron native has done up to this point. Yes, the front office should have added another piece but that is just another obstacle to overtake. Yes, the Warriors added more firepower but the Chosen One still has the best arsenal and yes San Antonio is led by a basketball genius.
But Cleveland is still home to the game’s only mastermind.
The Indiana Pacers will not beat the Central Division champions, but they will beat them up. The Washington Wizards, who are poised to make a title run, will not beat the number two seed in the east, but they too will lay some vicious blows. All of which would create a legless champion resting on the ropes only to respond with a flurry of pride and grit. All on their way to the most impressive of championships.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers win the title LeBron James’ reign as King will end and his accession to basketball God will be unquestioned.
By: Abacus Reveals
Suspense and unpredictability, it seems, have been reserved for the regular season. Will the scorned Russell Westbrook post triple double averages for the first time in over half a century? Can such a casual defender as James Harden truly be considered an MVP candidate? Has Commissioner Adam Silver’s honeymoon with the whole wide hoops world come to an end as he tries to appease media partners dissatisfied with the “bang” they’re getting for their “buck”?
And then there’s the league’s Southeast Division, which can make up its collective mind about only one thing – the Magic are genuinely lousy. Every other squad has posted the division’s best record for a significant chunk of the season. During the first six weeks, Charlotte (12-9) ruled the roost; for Quarter II it was Atlanta (14-5); and Weeks 13-18 were topped by Miami (17-3). Washington is likely the division’s most playoff-tested team – and they posted the Southeast’s best record (21-6) during Weeks 9-16 (i.e. the middle “third” of the season).
During the NBA’s 1,230-game regular-season march to Cavs-Dubs III, league-wide scoring has been showing a steady and significant increase. Let’s compare some data from the season’s first eight-week segment (Oct. 25 – Dec. 19) and its second (Dec. 20 – Feb. 13). All but six teams increased their per-game scoring in Session II; 22 surrendered more points. The average team performance saw a boost in: FG% (.451 - .462), 3FG% (.354 - .364), FT% (.765 - .780), Points-per-shot (1.219 – 1.253), Points-per-possession (1.073 – 1.101) and Points-per-game (104.2 – 107.0).
Even more eye-popping has been the league’s use of the Three-Ball. It has been nearly 20 years since there has been so great an alteration to the NBA’s usage of the three-point field goal attempt – a full three percent. Through 21 weeks and 70 games, the San Antonio Spurs have taken 1,632 “threes” among their 5,843 total FG attempts – a 3-Point-Attempt rate, or 3Par, of .279 (No. 25 in the league), slightly below the league average (.285) just last season.
Back in ’96-97, the NBA posted a league-wide 3Par of .212, only the second time NBA players had attempted one in five shots from Three Point Land. The following season, that rate would back off to .159 as the league abandoned its three-year experiment with a 22’ arc. It would be eight more years before the 3Par returned to the 20 percent level.
And here we go this season surpassing 30 percent and sure to post the second highest boost ever – the rate rose to .188 from .117 when the distance was shortened in 1994. (Average usage had hit 10 percent -- .104, to be precise – for the very first time during 1992-93 season.)
In terms of the accuracy of this steadily-increasing distance shooting, we’ve seen two decades of pretty phenomenal shooting. Predictably, marksmanship improved from 33 percent to 36 percent using the closer line. But it dropped only half as much (to .346) post-experiment … and the league as a whole has shot treys in the .350’s and .360’s in every season since Y2K. At the 21-week mark of this season, there are two teams whose 3Par is at the 40 percent level. The Houston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Conductor Harden, is performing the Morey-D’Antoni Overture to the tune of .464 – 2,864 three-point tries in 6,176 FG attempts. The Rockets stand No. 15 in accuracy at .362 and own the NBA’s third best record.
The other member of the “Forty Club”?
The injury-plagued defending champions, with 2,370 treys in their 5,932 shots (.400) and the league’s second best rate of accuracy (.388).
Speaking of wellness, the apoplexy that has befallen the teams of the Southeast would seem to have spread to North Texas. During Weeks 16-18, Coach Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks outscored the opposition by over two points per game, yet lost five of nine. The following three weeks, the Mavs were outscored by four a game, yet won six of ten.
And I wonder why I keep getting error messages on my Abacus??
By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
With the NBA season nearing an end, Russell Westbrook should now be the clear favorite to win this year’s M.V.P award. Since August the Oklahoma City Thunder guard has embraced the role vacated by his former running mate. In the process, Westbrook has managed to make the magnificent look mundane.
First the anointment of Westbrook is not an indictment on the skill set of Houston Rocket guard James Harden, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard or the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. Rather this proclamation is a testament to just how amazing the guard has been this season. In the case of the Cavaliers’ forward, it is extremely difficult to overlook what the champion has done this season. Especially when one considers the travesty of the future Hall-of-Famer being passed over for the trophy by Derrick Rose in 2010 – 2011 and Kevin Durant in 2013 – 2014.
But when a player averages a triple-double, which is one of the most sacred bench marks in professional sports, things change. What the former UCLA Bruin has accomplished in his first year of being “the man” is worthy of applauses, but what the All-Star guard has overcome in the process has been nothing short of spectacular. To date the former Bruin has posted career numbers in almost every offensive category.
The defending champion Cavaliers are not the only club ravaged by injuries, OKC has experienced its share of injuries to key players. To date starting guard Victor Oladipo has missed 15 games and key reserve Enes Kanter has missed 10 games. However, overcoming injuries and posting career numbers only tell part of his most valuable player journey. In an offensive system that is completely reliant on Russell’s play making ability, it is the offensive explosion of his teammates that speaks to the guard’s new found unselfishness. Andre Roberson (4.8 ppg vs. 6.7 ppg), Steven Adams (8.0 ppg vs. 11.8 ppg), Oladipo (16.0 ppg vs. 16.3 ppg), and Kanter (12.7 ppg vs. 14.3 ppg) all have reaped the benefits of a sharing Westbrook. This new “sharing is caring” version of the 6’3 guard is a stark contrast to the all he does is shoot mantra that has been uttered about his game throughout the guard’s career.
This abrupt transformation has allowed OKC to contend for a top four playoff seed, while building/rebuilding their roster. The former Bruin has exceeded most team expectations and surpassed all of the individual expectations many had before the start of the season. Such feats are what has put him in the M.V.P conversation, but the offensive dominance Russell has displayed is what propelled him to the front of the conversation.
Consider this, prior to the season there were two individual records many thought would never fall. One was the unofficial 100 point scoring mark held by Wilt Chamberlain and the second was averaging a triple-double for an entire season. The nonchalant attitude by some regarding the eventual accomplishment of averaging a triple-double is intriguing. If this were say Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis the basketball world would fall off its axis to worship them. Yet, because the player approaching that record is not a media darling there has been some belittling of the inevitable achievement. There is a certain amount of “yeah, but” when discussing the history being made before our eyes, which is beyond baffling.
Mark Cuban even went as far as to inadvertently take a shot at his own M.V.P, in an effort to omit Westbrook from consideration. The Dallas Mavericks owner was quoted as saying “You got to win 50 games and a playoff series” as the requisite criteria to win the award. If this were the case Dirk Nowitzki would never have won his lone Maurice Podoloff trophy. Nowitzki won the award in the 2006 – 2007 season, this was the very same year the Mavericks lost to the 8th seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Cuban’s contempt for the OKC guard was obviously clouding his judgment.
Cuban is not the only front office member to alter their narrative in hopes of arriving to a different conclusion. In a survey conducted by USA Today Sports, 12 of the 32 league executives polled selected James Harden over “the Brodie”. The Thunder guard was second with eight votes, while Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (who plays for the team with the best record of the three) was third with seven votes.
Harden is certainly a viable candidate, his penchant for scoring and Houston’s freewheeling offense is much more fun to watch then Oklahoma City’s offense. Also, the Rockets’ guard currently ranks third in points per (29.1) and first in assist per (11.2) which is commendable and should be celebrated. Yet, when you compare Harden’s post All-Star assists per (10.3) to Westbrook’s post All-Star assists per (10.2) they are virtually identical. This is difficult to fathom considering the stark contrast in each team’s style of play, and even tougher to explain for those choosing to vote for the Rockets lead guard solely off his ball distribution.
Harden’s record against the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs is 2 – 4, with the guard averaging 26.4 points, 9.8 boards and 11.9 dimes. Conversely, Russell’s record sits at 1 – 4, with 28.1 points, 10.1 boards and 11.9 dimes. Oddly enough the Rockets have not fared much better against the two top teams in the west, and once again those assists are a lot closer than many would have believed. The measurable difference is Houston’s one more win against the top clubs and their winning of the season series against the Thunder.
The Rockets have an NBA champion (Trevor Arizia) and a playoff tested roster, the Spurs have arguably the greatest coach ever in Gregg Popovich along with a former NBA Finals M.V.P in Tony Parker. Finally, LeBron has a top five scorer in Kyrie Irving and statistically one of the best power forwards in the game in Kevin Love. Meanwhile the Thunder have, with all due respect, Victor Oladipo. Now the former Magic guard has gotten better, so those are not shots fired, but no one can sincerely say this Thunder squad has not overachieved this season. This success is solely attributed to Westbrook and his historical play.
Polly on this for one moment in the upcoming draft there may be, for the first team in league history, a player selected first overall whose team failed to win 10 collegiate games. The argument being “his team was not any good”. The responsibility of the most talented player on any team is not contingent upon how talented their current roster is. In sports the best player is expected to elevate those around him. That elevation does not always reach the level of a championship, but it does habitually reach the level of unforeseen heights.
Instead of condemning the OKC guard for not reaching similar heights of rosters whose cores have been together for years, we should be in awe. Oklahoma City did not just lose you know who, they also lost Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters. People have forgotten that those three were the team leaders in total minutes played from the previous season. To go from grizzled veterans to the naivety of youth and find a way to not only compete, but in some instances thrive is remarkable.
There is little doubt that Russell’s contemporaries have all put together admirable seasons, yet none of their performances have been historical. The unlikeliness of how the season began and the uniqueness of how it has taken shape is why most valuable awards are given. OKC is only a few games away from last season’s win total, and Westbrook has been the most invaluable reason why.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
When the 2016 – 2017 NBA season commenced it appeared to be a mere formality to yet another Cavaliers v. Warriors NBA Finals contest, their third straight. The most recent flurry of trade and buyout movement confirms that opposing General Managers not only agree, but appear to have willingly accepted such declarations.
Does anyone believe that by simply inquiring about the availability of an All-Star or by trading for non-All-Stars, the goal of stifling Golden State or Cleveland was successful? In a word, NO!!!! Whether opposing GMs were incapable or are incompetent, the lack of significant movement was startling.
In the Eastern Conference the Cleveland Cavaliers rest atop the playoff standings and a possible first round series against the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat or Detroit Pistons should not strike fear in the hearts of Cleveland fans. Indiana has Paul George and Myles Turner, Jr, Miami has Hassan Whiteside and Detroit brings Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to battle, but those individuals are not good enough to defeat the best team in the East. Their decision to stand pat, makes sense because those three are not yet ready to compete for a title.
The Boston Celtics are the second seed, and elected not to make a final push to add Paul George or the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler. The Celtics current roster is in desperate need of a second scorer, and General Manager Danny Ainge’s decision to stand pat rather than be “given” yet another All-Star should upset Celtic fans. Ainge was armed with draft picks and players, but without Kevin McHale on the other end the former shooter became gun shy and refused to pull the trigger. That hesitation may end up being the main reason Boston never even makes it to face the Cavs.
However, the Washington Wizards adding forward Bojan Bogdanovic will undoubtedly help bolster their group to the Eastern Conference Finals. But that acquisition did not springboard Washington over Cleveland. The major shakeup came courtesy of the Toronto Raptors bringing in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. To some these were significant moves, but Ibaka is more name these days then game. In his one game against the Cavs, Ibaka dropped 19, but failed to register a block and his defense is why he was brought to Toronto. The forward will be asked to provide shot-blocking and overall defensive punch to a Raptors club looking to knock off the defending champs. With the injury to starting point guard Kyle Lowry, the addition of Tucker should keep “the North” afloat. P.J. is solid all around but is of little consequence against the likes of Kyrie Irving and that will be an issue.
The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls were rumored to be buyers at the trade deadline, but in the end nothing came to fruition. The Bulls tried to add Patrick Beverley and Marcus Smart, while the Hawks also tried to pry Paul George loose. In the end, the addition of Ersan Ilyasova in Atlanta and another point guard (Cameron Payne) in Chicago will not provide the necessary jolt to shake-up the Cavaliers.
The Western Conference saw much bigger names get moved, none bigger than former Sacramento King and current New Orleans Pelican DeMarcus Cousins. New Orleans gave up rookie Buddy Hield and former King turned current King Tyreke Evans all for the services of Cousins. Oddly enough, if Cousins lands on any team in the Eastern Conference he would have been a game-changer, but in the Western Conference the acquisition barely moves the needle.
The Pelicans are making a playoff push and adding Cousins should help……………….next year. This year New Orleans is currently three games out of the eighth and final spot. So the Pelicans would have to jump over four teams to grab the eighth seed. That is difficult enough without implementing one of the league’s premier talents and ball-hoggers. It is more likely the Denver Nuggets, or even the Sacramento Kings (who are just one game behind the eighth seeded Nuggets) make the playoffs in that final spot. The Nuggets adding center Roy Hibbert notwithstanding, the Golden State Warriors should make short order of any of these three regardless who “wins” the final playoff spot.
Golden State received the gift of complacency from the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. These teams decided their combined record of 3 – 7 against the Warriors was sufficient enough heading to the playoffs. The Clippers (0 – 4) and Jazz (0 – 2) have not beaten Golden State all season, so their lack of aggression is very peculiar.
The same thing cannot be said for the Houston Rockets or the Oklahoma City Thunder. Houston refused to part with the aforementioned Beverley, but did come away with another bona fide scorer in Lou Williams. In three games against the Warriors the guard is averaging 16.3 points, which is two full points below his season average of 18.7. The Rockets addition of Williams to a second unit that already features Eric Gordon will be fun to watch. The question is will it be enough to unseat the Dubs, and the answer is a resounding “nah”. Golden State will muster up enough defense to stop a blistering Houston offense.
Meanwhile, the Thunder looked poised for an eventual first round exit before the trade deadline. Now with forwards Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson in house anything short of the second round would be an epic failure. Nevertheless, with the goal being to overtake the Warriors can anyone suggest that Williams or the combination of McDermott/Gibson is enough to accomplish that goal.
In fact, this month’s trade activity did nothing more than illustrate just how far behind the teams in each conference were from superseding the Cavs and Warriors. Yes, the moves provided entertainment but as for creating a viable option to Golden State v. Cleveland part three no squad believed in themselves or their components enough to pursue such a feat.
Before anyone can blame another player or agent for constructing yet again a “super team” they must first blame the assortment of league GMs who have somehow habitually mistake activity for achievement. In the end, we will be watching the third installment of a match-up against two teams who were talented enough to make it to the Finals, but more importantly fearless enough to pursue it.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
Russell Westbrook has used anger as the driving force to becoming one of the NBA’s elite, and now that force is driving his championship dreams away. Basketball’s history is rich with players who have dazzled one year only to fizzle the next. Therefore when a player who is already considered elite takes their game to even higher heights it is that much more electrifying.
What Westbrook has accomplished this season is nothing short of amazing. However, the guard’s talent should not be limited to statistical supremacy. The Thunder leader has allowed emotion to be the center piece in a prolific career thus far, but more is required if a championship is the goal.
Can the Thunder franchise player make the calculated and rational acknowledgement that he, and anger, are not potent enough to win a chip? Is Russell capable of pushing the furious pride that fuels him on a nightly basis aside and articulate that he needs more in order to win? For most players this is not a difficult task. However, most players are not powered by slights and a desire to prove they belong.
In requesting help the guard would be breaking from a norm that has been a staple throughout his basketball career. The former UCLA Bruin choose to remain with Oklahoma City after the organization was spurned by former running mate Kevin Durant. That decision, while admirable, may have been rooted in emotion and not logic. Either way it could very well cost Westbrook a chance to play for another NBA title.
It is hard to imagine a player balling any better than Russell has this season, yet the Thunder sit seventh in the western conference playoff standings. Barring some unforeseen miracle OKC will not make it out of the second round of the playoffs.
Nevertheless, his play and the team’s subsequent playoff run could be viewed as a success. Some might even suggest the organization rebounded well after losing Durant. Those same voices might echo that the Southern California native is a hero for being loyal to the team that drafted him. This thought process for a player driven by emotions might be viewed as vindicating. This is where intelligent and fearless Russell must breakaway from angry and passionate Russell.
While it is commendable to be loyal to a fault, it is wiser to be loyal to a point. Therefore this perceived vindication cannot be sufficient for the guard. The Thunder player must not allow that competitive fire on the court to be a scapegoat for the lack of an NBA title or the absence of even competing for one.
Cleveland Cavalier forward LeBron James used logic and reason for his pursuit. James felt the Cavaliers were not good enough or committed enough to win a championship. So the forward bolted for Miami. Former Los Angeles Laker icon Kobe Bryant went a different route, choosing to publicly call out management after multiple playoff early exits. The Lakers’ guard felt enough time had elapsed and it was necessary for the front office to be held accountable for its lack of success in amassing championship quality talent.
Two different approaches but both landed the same championship results. The proverbial ball is now in Westbrook’s court. We as basketball fans have witnessed something transcendent. One of the league’s best has gotten remarkably better in virtually every statistical category.
Which is wonderful…………………………. for the moment. But will this be good enough for Westbrook? Has playing every game “as if it’s his last” manifested itself into playing every game “as if I have something to prove”? There is something to be said for playing to prove a point rather than playing for a purpose.
If proving he is among one of the league’s elite was the point the fury displayed thus far has been more than adequate. However, if the purpose is to win a title than that fury, or chip on the shoulder, must subside itself for diligent logic.
For better or worse, heavy lies the head that wears the crown.
Emotion has carried the Thunder guard this far, now calculation is required for the rest of this journey. The former Bruin has too put Oklahoma’s front office on notice that what is currently in place is simply not good enough.
And adding Carmelo Anthony is not the answer either, for that matter.
When Durant walked away from Oklahoma City this off-season many believed Westbrook would follow, but he did not.Why? Was establishing his own legacy and proving to the world he was better than the current Golden State Warrior forward more important than the immortality that comes with a title?
Time will provide the answer to that question, just as time has proven the guard was not a hindrance to Durant’s title hopes. "I always play with a chip on my shoulder. There is always something to prove.” Westbrook once stated in an interview with Graham Beslinger. The beauty of competitive fire is that it is controllable, unlike competitive rage.
Competitive fire will allow him to go public if management does not make the proper moves. Conversely, competitive rage will allow the Oklahoma City franchise player to believe 24 triple-doubles and seven games of 40 or more points is all that is required.
When NBA fans elected two-time MVP Stephen Curry to start in the All-Star game, over the OKC guard, a message was sent. The message was Westbrook still had another level to reach. It is difficult to recall when a jump shooter overtook a rim rocking finisher in fan appreciation. Then when one watches the ease and comfort Curry plays with it and it becomes understandable.
Such ease and comfort is foreign to “The Brodie”.
However, no one would suggest the Warriors’ guard is any less competitive then Westbrook, it just feels as if Curry has chosen joy over anger.
Can Westbrook duplicate such a transition? Is the guard capable of transitioning from angry player to motivated champion? Will he push the necessary buttons to get the only results that matter in team sports?
It is easy to play angry and put up numbers. That is within the OKC guard’s control, the difficult part is holding those around him to his high standards. Finding, or better yet forcing individuals to do what he believes is required to win it all. Even if those moves or decisions do not yield the desired results.
But will he? It feels like the Thunder guard is content with the stubbornness that has gotten him this far.
In nine years the league has witnessed a tremendous talent develop into an unstoppable force, motivated by anger. However, the Thunder guard needs to realize that anger has taken him as far as it can. Now it is time for the games most emotional player to make some unemotional decisions.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento is a wildcard for a fringe playoff team, but in Cleveland the center could be the trump card to another championship run. As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to have front row seats in watching their championship dreams disappear, adding a numbers harlot such as Cousins could be a necessary jolt to the stagnate squad.
Or it could be death to the close knit group. Regardless, the reward far outweighs the risk. The Cavaliers are in a problematic position, but tremendous aspiration always comes with tremendous strife. In this regard, aspirations for a second straight NBA title and third straight NBA Finals appearance have brought about the need for change. Cavs forward LeBron James has gone on record demanding Cleveland add depth to what he termed as a “top heavy” roster. As pundits debate how the King made his request, it does not eliminate or address the merits of the request.
Only social icon and NBA legend Bill Russell can speak to the obstacles of going to six straight NBA Finals and what is required to reach seven. Even the media anointed pillar of mental toughness Michael Jordan retired twice after three straight trips. Such company should award the man some clemency from the novices who have criticized him.
James has never shied away from making the unpopular move (see South Beach) or the audacious move (see exit from South Beach) in pursuit of a title. The forward’s recent cry for more weaponry, quite frankly, is par for the course for a player hell bent on winning.
Above all else, when has Lebron been wrong? If his-story is correct Cavs ownership should be responding to James’ request with “how high”. Management’s response may be more rooted in the frustration of having little to offer, outside of Kevin Love and perhaps an Iman Shupert. Which has solicited the “pardon my back” response from some teams. But the Cavs need to set their sights to the “Land of Kings”, to appease their King.
In six seasons Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has resembled the Minnesota Timberwolves version of Kevin Love. Meaning the center has put up eye-opening numbers too little or no team success, the difference being Cousins has been a lightning rod for attention.
Before Sac-town invests another five years and upwards of $207 million into the center, Cleveland needs to bring to the organization’s attention a few glaring things. Beginning with their record with the mercurial big man (147 – 293), mixing in the teams abysmal attendance (finished 19th or worse every season since “Boogies” arrival) and culminating with the advantage of stability in Love and Shumpert’s contract (both players are signed through the 2018 – 19 season).
Lastly, the addition of Love allows Kings’ management to not just save money, but it will also put an abrupt end to one of the more tumultuous media player relationships in league history. A chance to rid themselves of a player who has irritated, if not alienated, the local media.
In Love Sacramento would receive an All-Star who requires little maintenance and rarely makes waves. Shumpert, recent drug arrest aside, brings defense and toughness without requiring/demanding shots on offense.
A Kings’ roster featuring veterans such as Love, Shumpert and guard Darren Collison would allow first round picks Malachi Richardson and Willie Cauley-Stein more time and opportunities to develop. As much as ownership loves Cousins, a chance at team success along with a community presence should be enticing.
The risk is much greater on Cleveland’s side. In Cousins the Cavs are acquiring one of the game’s biggest talents and one of the game’s biggest enigmas. On the court the center is a beast in isolation plays and is capable of offensive explosions as he currently has 18 games of 30 or more points.
The King would add a different dimension to an already potent Cavaliers club. Cousins’ ability to put the ball on the floor, as well as, score through the flow of an offense would be a match-up nightmare for opposing teams. The big man, unlike Love, can finish over and through the competition. The mercurial center is the current league leader in “and-ones” (48) and three point plays (37). The former Kentucky Wildcat would thrive in the space created by a penetrating Kyrie Irving or a tilted defense preoccupied with James.
Off the court is where the issues begin. However, it is plausible to think the attention of playing with James and consistently having the national spotlight could change the tiger’s stripes.
Lawson would remove those second tier point guard and play-making issues. The guard has been bounced around recently, but was once an established scorer in the NBA (14.2 points per during his team with the Denver Nuggets). Nevertheless, a deal centered on Cousins and the addition of guard Ty Lawson would eliminate most, if not all, of Cleveland’s issues. While possibly creating new ones. Only time and results will tell.
There is a benefit of staying the course and truly getting a gauge of if this team can win a second title as constructed. After all the Cavs have made back-to-back NBA Finals. However, there must be credence placed on James’ demands of adding a play-maker on offense. Previous champions have made drastic roster changes, albeit in the offseason, but none have ventured into the waters the King is currently swimming in.
A deal for Cousins would be difficult to complete, due largely in part to the owner’s infatuation with keeping the player. Then there is the possible chance a move of this magnitude could be catastrophic. Or a move could provide the back-to-back title the King is envisioning and quite possibly allow Cleveland to widen their championship window.
The NBA is ripe with teams who have made disastrous moves to acquire cantankerous players. The Cavs were once one of those teams, filled with those players (Ricky Davis, Delonte West and Darius Miles should come to mind). Now Cleveland is a perennial championship contender in the mist of defending their title.
Management, the fans and the media can debate and analyze the methods James has used to bring about that championship madness. What they cannot and should not debate is its effectiveness. Cleveland’s King has requested more knights there should be no question as to why.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
The Los Angeles Clippers are stuck in a matrix of denial and misconception, and the only way to change direction is to move on from point guard Chris Paul.
When the Clippers acquired/stole Paul from the New Orleans Hornets, dreams of lobs and highlight plays danced in everyone’s head. Five years later, a reality of disappointment has dampened that dream.
There is a point in every player’s career when his true identity becomes firmly established. The 2015 NBA playoffs was that moment of clarity for the point guard. What has been apparent from the start is that “CP3” is a good point guard who often teeters on the verge of greatness. Alas, a player who can only get a squad but so far.
For an organization that has never played in the conference finals, yet alone the NBA Finals, such thoughts are likely to be dismissed. After all L.A. amassed a franchise record 57 wins in the 2013 – 2014 season and have made five consecutive playoff appearances, also a franchise record.
Life has been good for Clipper fans. That losing feeling that has engulfed them is now gone, and replaced by a confident arrogance.
The question now is how can/will this once doormat franchise surpass this point (pun intended)?
It felt as if the 2014 – 2015 playoffs were going to be that moment of jubilation for the Clipper Nation. Coming off three consecutive years of 50 or more wins and four straight playoff appearances, the Paul led bunch looked poised for, at the very least, a Western Conference Finals appearance. Their record of 56 – 26 (tied with the Houston Rockets) was good enough for second in the conference.
The Clips fought off an aging San Antonio Spurs squad, and avoided elimination in games six and seven. The comeback series win did little to stifle the lofty season expectations.
A second round match-up against the Houston Rockets appeared to be a mere stepping stone as Los Angeles would take a 3 to 1 series lead.
Then the things went the way of every other Chris Paul led group. But before we go forward, let us first go back a bit.
As a senior at West Forsyth High School in North Carolina, Paul led the Titans to a 27 – 3 record. Only to come up empty by losing to Zebulon Vance High School, from Charlotte. That was West Forsyth’s only loss to a North Carolina school during that 2002 – 2003 season. The defeat meant Chris would end his high school career without a championship. While minute at the time, it would be a recurring theme throughout his career.
Next was the 2005 NCAA tournament loss. The guard’s second seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons were eliminated by the seventh seeded West Virginia Mountaineers 111 – 105. The Demon Deacons had maintained a top five ranking for most of the college season, and were heavily favored in the second round contest.
A trend was developing.
Finally, very few recall or recant the 2007 – 2008 season. The North Carolina native’s Hornets had finally removed themselves of the Oklahoma City/New Orleans tag and were officially New Orleans’ property.
With a record of 56 – 26 (sounding familiar) the Hornets were the second seed in the Western Conference and a quick dismantling of the Dallas Mavericks (4 – 1) meant the defending champion San Antonio Spurs were next.
New Orleans would take a 2 – 0 series lead winning game one by 19 points and game two by 18 points. The Spurs would respond, as champions do, and tie the series up 2 – 2. However, a 22 point game five win despite Paul shooting a paltry 6 for 18 served as a spring board into the Western Conference Finals.
The Hornets had three blowout wins under their belt, a game six win was a mere formality. Or so we thought. The Spurs would win the next two games, and the series 4 – 3. With the world watching and waiting expectantly, “CP3” again came up short. The aforementioned pattern had progressed from “developing” to “cemented. “ But there was still hope. This was only the guard’s third NBA season, after all.
Now back to the future, or better yet back to the 2015 playoffs. The Clippers had just taken a resounding 3 – 1 series lead with a 33 point win against the Houston Rockets. The Western Conference Finals and possibly a trip to the NBA Finals seemed imminent, or maybe not.
Despite a 22 point, 10 assist effort, Los Angeles would lose game five……..by 21 points. Game six at home would be another loss, this time by 12 points 119 – 107. The box score would read 31 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the point guard. Game seven was another reminder that the former Demon Deacon is nothing if he is not consistent, Rockets 113 Clippers 100.
Another series and another unprecedented early exit.
You see for all the things Paul is, champion is not one of them. The future Hall-of-Famer has been tremendous at times, but unfortunately not at the right time. Now his defenders will attempt to excuse the results with an abundance of reasons, before ultimately uttering “it is a team sport”. Yet this mindset is often absent when success is reached.
Injuries ended the 2015 – 2016 campaign earlier than expected, and we can all pretend there is a possibility that the results that have been so prevalent going back to that lone loss to Vance High School in the state finals will not materialize.
We can even provide reasons to excuse the lack of championship appearances. Or we can embrace the facts, even if they are accompanied with unintentional cruelness. Paul, for all his individual accolades and momentary supremacy, is not capable of pointing a team in a championship direction. His play and the, shall we say, plethora of reasons to excuse the lack of hardware confirm it.
The Clippers must make the difficult decision to trade the guard for a younger more dynamic player who Head Coach Doc Rivers can develop into a champion. Time has shown us at what point the season will end with Paul. Will a changing of the guard be what it takes to navigate this Clipper ship into some unchartered waters?