Tag Archives: Chris Paul

With Friends Like James Harden, Who Needs Enemies?

Polarizing is a word that fittingly describes the kind of player James Harden is. Some view his style of play as innovative and unique; a skill set he has honed through practicing tough shots and understanding the rule book. Others would call it a detriment to the game. An abuse of poorly written and unevenly called rules. The amount of discussion coming from either side, though, shows just how high of a profile Harden has.

So with news breaking on Wednesday that the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards had agreed to swap star point guards Russell Westbrook and John Wall. It’s been reported that Harden and Wall have worked out and played in open runs together for some time now. The move has received all sorts of reactions, just like anything else Harden does.

Harden Running Out of Friends to Help Him

Okay, But Why?

Some say this is a move designed to keep Harden interested in staying in Houston after their recent attempts to get over the hump in the postseason have all fallen short. We can go back to the Dwight Howard experiment but let’s instead focus on Chris Paul’s time in H-Town. After much consternation about how they would coexist being as ball-dominant as they are they worked well enough for folks to hypothesize that if Paul doesn’t get hurt the Rockets might make some noise.

Well, Paul got shipped out after two seasons, one of which they lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in seven games. Injuries had always been a part of Paul’s history so an injury possibly derailing a playoff run is plausible. When Harden told reporters after they got bounced in 2018 that he knew what had to be done, the writing was on the wall.

Houston shocked the world again making another trade for what most considered an unmovable contract when they swapped CP3 for Russell Westbrook. After failing to click with the Point God, Harden now had his childhood friend for a running-mate. Unfortunately, Westbrook’s style caused the Rockets to change up their roster, going with a small-ball approach that had the tallest person on the floor for them often standing no taller than 6-foot-7. That ended with a five-game series loss in the second round, again to the eventual champion, this time in the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, even with Daryl Morey no longer in the fold, the Rockets have swapped unmovable contracts in a move that is receiving mixed reviews. Some argue the Rockets won because on top of keeping Harden happy, they get rid of Westbrook whose style isn’t conducive to winning. Others will argue the Wizards won because of the off-the-court issues Wall has had as well as the complicated relationship with (and reaction to the team building around) Bradley Beal. Oh, and Wall, who hasn’t played since the 2018-19 season, is returning from serious injuries including a torn Achilles.

Same Difference

The tale of the tape is quite interesting. Wall is the bigger of the two and has the higher assist average. This is more than a little surprising given Westbrook’s three-year run of averaging a triple-double. But Wall had a three-year stretch where he averaged better than 10 dimes per game. The difference is Wall has never been the kind of shot-seeking scorer that Westbrook is.

Brodie has eight seasons (out of 12) averaging greater than 18 shots per contest. Wall, aptly nicknamed ‘Optimus Dime’, has but one. Westbrook is the more voluminous scorer too, but Wall takes the efficiency advantage everywhere but at the free throw line.

Perhaps ideally, in the mind of Harden and Rockets brass, is that Wall can be a happy medium between Westbrook’s explosiveness (a nice compliment to Harden’s lull-you-to-sleep style) and Paul’s pass-first mentality. That is if he is happy and focused. Going to a competitive situation in Houston after being in the tumultuous one in Washington will help. As will the singing of Demarcus Cousins; a friend of Wall’s going back to their day at the University of Kentucky.

We’re all missing the forest for the trees, though. It doesn’t matter if this will work for the Rockets (it won’t). Nor does it matter who won the trade (the blogosphere). No, what matters here is that Harden has cycled through a fair amount of friends for teammates and hasn’t figured out the right fit yet. At some point the question needs to be asked if building around him is worth it.

The Real Culprit

This isn’t an attack on his playing style, either, outside of his willingness to be complimentary. There aren’t many, if any, situations where Harden would be a second option but he could still benefit from being a better compliment on the floor to his team. Instead of standing in the corner watching the action when off the ball, become a better, more active cutter. Instead of dribbling out the shot clock on every possession, allow yourself to be more of a part of a system that get more guys involved.

Yes, star players are supposed to touch and shoot the ball more. Harden’s 36.3 usage rate in 2019-20 is second only to Michael Jordan’s ‘86-’87 season (38.3) in NBA history. With nowhere close to the hardware as ‘His Airness’, and a history of fading in the postseason, that number could stand to drop even if only a little bit. The last player to win a championship with a usage rate in the 30s was LeBron James in 2012-13 with the Miami Heat. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, two of the most efficient scorers in NBA history, haven’t even done it.

It’s a big deal that the Rockets and Wizards pulled this trade off. We just need to recognize what the real story is here: Harden is the problem, not his teammates. At some point, it is no longer everybody else, it’s you. We are seeing this response to Paul George who is implicated in reports of dysfunction in the Los Angeles Clippers organization and now taking thinly-veiled shots at former coach Doc Rivers.

Harden’s passing of the buck isn’t as blatant as George’s was. But, even with the statements before the CP3 trade, the constant cycling of supporting cast speaks volumes. Talking heads have just overlooked it because the Rockets keep putting together intriguing groups. This time though, with a move that might be best described as lateral, we might be reaching the end of this case study. It’s been theorized that the Wall and Cousins moves are independent of a decision to move Harden, though that seems unlikely.

Rough Being Friends with Harden

We saw Harden slapping Paul’s hand away on the sidelines and read the reports that Harden and Westbrook had bumped heads on occasion. These incidents get viewed through the lens of isolated incidents or as the fault of the other guy. Maybe rightfully so, none of the aforementioned teammates were choirboys. But the common denominator, and dominator of the situation, is James Harden. As a player who has been vocal about his scoring accolades, he needs to be a leader and own up to and adjust his ways.

Unless, of course, he truly doesn’t care about winning

Early Aftermath of a Short (but Sweet) NBA Offseason

It’s been a week since the 2020 NBA Draft. With less than a month until the start of the 2021 season and free agency well underway, this is a good time to take stock of our favorite moves. Five teams, be it their draft decisions, free agency signings or trades, or both if they were really smart.

NBA Aftermath: Who’s Had the Best Offseason?

Honorable Mentions: Golden State Warriors/Miami Heat

You have to hand it to Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob. As trade acquisition Kelly Oubre said, Lacob is willing to spend to keep his team competitive. Oubre was taking a not-so-subtle jab at Phoenix Suns ownership, but the point stands. Lacob is spending upwards of $80 million due to the luxury tax. This even though Klay Thompson is out for the year with a torn ACL. It’s as easy to take Oubre’s words as just lip service as it is to dismiss the Warriors as contenders. But Oubre and James Wiseman is a good haul for a team in their particular situation.

There is a sense of underestimation with what the Miami Heat have done this offseason. The reigning Eastern Conference champs have flown relatively under the radar in a surprisingly active offseason. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been doing well though. Landing Precious Achiuwa with the 20th pick is a steal. In free agency, the Heat lost Jae Crowder, Derrick Jones Jr, and Solomon Hill but retained Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard. They replaced them with a pair of hard-working, two-way players in Maurice Harkless and Avery Bradley.

5. Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks are in a new phase in which they seek to add impact veterans to supplement and aid in the development of their young superstar point guard, Trae Young. That didn’t stop them from taking athletic, shot-blocking forward Onyeka Okongwu out of USC with the sixth pick. They hit free agency hard, going after and landing playoff point god Rajon Rondo and certified bucket Danilo Gallinari. Then, they went with younger vets in landing tough defensive guard Kris Dunn and signing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who shot 37 percent from three last season to an offer-sheet.

4. Phoenix Suns

On one hand, you have to like what the Phonix Suns have done this offseason. Even more so if you include their perfect 8-0 record in the bubble. They took their slide in the draft thanks to the lottery in stride, landing Jalen Smith, a veritable Jonathan Isaac clone, out of Maryland 10th overall. Chris Paul comes with hopes of recreating some of his magic from Oklahoma City. Crowder brings toughness and perimeter shooting along with E’Twuan Moore and Damian Jones is a good backup for Deandre Ayton. It’ll be up to Paul and Devin Booker to prove Oubre wrong.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

David Griffin, you clever so-and-so. Not one to be overshadowed by the Prestis and Moreys of the world, the former Cavs general manager continued his facelift of the New Orleans Pelicans centered around phenom Zion Williamson. Gone are, Moore, Jrue Holiday (via four-team trade), Derrick Favors (FA to Utah), and Jahlil Okafor. Griffin replaced them with Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe (both via the Holiday trade), and guard Kira Lewis Jr. (13th pick). He also extended Brandon Ingram. This will be a tough defensive group at worst.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

This has to be People’s Champ for best offseason. The Portland Trail Blazers brought back Carmelo Anthony (yes, there is some bias here) and Rodney Hood. They also brought rebounding savant Enes Kanter and potential-laden Harry Giles to bolster their big rotation along with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. They also signed Derrick Jones Jr, but the piece de resistance is Robert Covington. One of the absolute best 3-and-D players and just what Portland needs behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

The rich get richer. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers are still celebrating their championship while reigning Executive of the year Rob Pelinka is right back at it. Securing Dennis Schroder early was smart. Who knows what Presti could have extracted out of him further along in the process. “Stealing” Montrezl Harrell from the “rival” Los Angeles Clippers is a work of art. Granted, Harrell wasn’t going back to the Clippers after this past season played out how it did. But he will be motivated by what he clearly saw as slight from them. Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews bring good defense and enough outside shooting.

We also have to look at what Pelinka kept and got rid of. Moving Danny Green’s deal while bringing back Markieff Morris shouldn’t go unnoticed. Unsung playoff-hero Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returns as well but, as a Klutch Sports client, duh. Ditto for the best “free agent” available in Davis. And they didn’t have to move Kyle Kuzma or Talen Horton-Tucker to do any of it. Losing Rondo and Howard can be overcome with the moves made. And they get to run it back with an integral piece from their Staples Center sub-lessee. The Lakers didn’t have many teams to be concerned over in the first place. It’s hard to imagine any team did enough to beat this squad fully-healthy.

Chris Paul Changed His Narrative Without Winning a Ring

Just a few short years ago Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of his generation, if not in the history of the NBA, had a decaying reputation.

Paul Changed Narrative Without Championship

Everyone acknowledged his talent. He has a supreme basketball IQ, can score on anyone in any number of ways, and was an absolute floor general always in command of the situation at hand.

Some of those things, however, began to work against him in recent years. So much so that there was actually a debate on whether he or Rajon Rondo was the worse teammate. Rondo said it’s Paul, for what it’s worth.

Now, Paul isn’t exactly innocent of all the charges brought against him in the court of public opinion. He has had moments where his passion has gotten the best of him. Videos like the one below do him no favors.

No one likes to lose, but that is a reaction one wouldn’t even expect to see at a bitty ball game, let alone from a veteran NBA player. Sorry, not just a veteran. A ten-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA and All-Defensive Team selection, six-time steals leader, .four-time assists leader Oh, he was also Rookie of the Year and, obviously, First Team All-Rookie selection.

That’s a helluva resume for someone who does what we see in that video. It wasn’t an isolated thing either. We all remember the story of Paul trying to storm the Los Angeles Clippers locker room with his Rockets teammates.

Or the image of his former teammate on the Rockets James Harden swatting his hand away during a timeout.

It hasn’t just been attitude questions surrounding Paul. There have also been charges of choking and being injury prone. The latter has more credibility but neither is really on target. Interestingly enough, all of the things held against him have always been present in his NBA career.

But he got the benefit of the doubt in New Orleans, be it due to youth, the small market, or the general belief that he didn’t have enough around him to compete.

That changed when he arrived in L.A., but no the before he got one more image booster from the NBA. At the time, the league controlled his team, the Hornets, and David Stern made the infamous decision to nix a deal that would have had Paul joining the Lakers and teaming with Kobe Bryant.

Instead, CP3 wound up with the Clippers and began the era known as Lob City, a high-flying circus of a group that included Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Doc Rivers was the last remaining piece from that era

Unfortunately, injuries continued to be an issue not just for Paul but also for Griffin. The group fell short of expectations, much in the same ways Paul’s Hornets did. This time, though, the spotlight was much brighter.

People began to focus on his injury history. His past playoff performances began to be scrutinized with his statistical output being undercut by those clutch moments where he came up short.

We even reached a point where his style of basketball was being questioned as conducive to winning. Pundits once lauded his ability to control the game and now they condemned him for dribbling the air out of the basketball.

Six seasons in L.A. Six straight playoff appearances. Zero Conference Finals berths.

This was after three trips to the playoffs in New Orleans with similar results. Again though, that spotlight was so much brighter in La La Land. He was a veteran and nine-time All-Star. At some point, explanations become excuses no matter how legitimate they may be.

That’s how significant the trade to Houston was. It not only showed that Paul was still a desired commodity (something that had been publicly in question), it allowed him to show his game was malleable. If he could play with Harden, who has a “ball hog” rep of his own, then surely the talking heads were wrong about Paul.

But his Houston tenure went just like his previous two stops. Plagued by injuries and disappointment.

Though he did exorcise his demon of not reaching the Conference Finals. When Harden said he knew what had to be done following the Rockets elimination in 2019, many of us knew what was coming. We saw him slap Paul’s hand.

Houston traded CP3 to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook. It was a deal that no one would have predicted months earlier but was made necessary following the surprise request and subsequent trade of Paul George. It was actually an idea bandied about back in 2011 when Paul was still with the Hornets. Of course, the circumstances were different this time around with both players looking to rehab their images.

The talk was OKC was just a pit stop, a temporary situation until he inevitably got dealt to a contender; namely the Miami Heat. The Thunder had gutted their team moving Westbrook and George, the latter of which bought a bevy of draft picks, young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari back in return. This was clearly an organization transitioning to rebuilding mode.

Until they weren’t.

ESPN gave the Thunder a .2 percent chance of making the postseason. Not only did they make it, but they were also the fifth seed and took the Rockets seven games. It was yet another first-round exit but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would attack Paul, who had 19/11/12 in the deciding Game 7.

On the contrary, Paul earned recognition for bringing together the ragtag bunch. He was, at least partially, credited with the development of Gilgeous-Alexander and making the trio of he, SGA, and Dennis Schroder work.

We know about Paul’s mentorship of young players off the court and all he does in the community but this was the first time in a long time that he was in that role and he seemingly crushed it. So much so that there has been talk that new Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan owes the fact that he got another job so quickly to Paul and what the Thunder did on the floor.

Talks now, while the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat battled to and in the NBA Finals, is rife with players requesting their teams trade for Paul and positive speculation of reunions with former coaches.

In stark contrast to just two years ago when the book on his legacy was thought to have already been written. A player so many thought was selfish and played a losing brand of ball is suddenly a sought-after piece for a contender and mentor for teams like the Bulls, who have young point guard (and Paul mentee) Coby White.

Chris Paul legitimately changed the entire narrative around him without winning a ring.

Don’t think that’s been given up on though.

Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s Broken Clock

“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”. That quote from Marie von Ebner sticks out as much of the conversation about returning has centered around Brooklyn Nets mercurial point guard, Kyrie Irving. Some peers have responded, but are they even disagreeing? That’s what you would think if you only saw it through the lens of social media.

Tweets get crafted to maximize the impact (see: likes and retweets) all the time. But in this instance, leaving out an entire part of Irving’s comments has led to a backlash that seems fueled more by his reputation than the actual content.

Kyrie Irving, a Broken Clock in the NBA

First, what exactly did Kyrie say?

“I don’t support going into Orlando,” Irving told the players. “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.” – per Shams Charania

His reported words prompted responses from several other players including Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, who said “Hoopers say what y’all want. If @King James said he hooping. We all hooping. Not personal only BUSINESS.” His reference to LeBron James is fair because he regularly practices his activism while playing. But Irving’s comments weren’t really speaking to the ability to do both.

Former players-turned-analysts Jay Williams and Kendrick Perkins also spoke against Irving, with the latter going so far to say “He’s not a powerful voice; he’s a popular voice” and that “All he’s doing is ruffling the feathers for no reason. The NBA is going to continue.” That’s tough coming from a retired player and still misses Irving’s message.

All of this is in addition to some prominent commentators like Stephen A. Smith. But it has been Houston Rockets guard (and coach’s son) Austin Rivers’ reply via a lengthy Instagram post that has gotten the most publicity. The well-stated rebuttal spoke of being able to both play and affect social change. It also said that for the majority of the players in the league, sitting out isn’t feasible as “99% of the NBA hasn’t made the money” Kyrie has.

Rivers wasn’t wrong in anything that he said.

But there is a problem: Irving AGREES with him. And any other player that wants to return, for that matter. It’s just that his reputation has preceded him.

The former Cleveland Cavalier and Boston Celtic earlier opined about the freedoms players would have when in the NBA’s “bubble”. Those concerns included spa treatments and were roundly met with virtual side-eyes.

This time was different, though. Yes, Irving said that he would rather focus on social justice reform. But he also said something else that has gone underreported.

“If it’s worth the risk, then let’s go and do it,” Irving said on the call, sources said. “But if you’re not with it, it’s OK, too. We’ve got options for both ways. Let’s just come to a middle ground as a family.” – per Chris Haynes

In Regards to the Money

Irving said, “There’s only 20 guys actually getting paid, and I’m part of that. Let’s not pretend there’s not a tiered system purposely to divide all of us.” Some say Irving has is backward and that the max contract system keeps the disparity in check, but again they are missing the point. Players who have yet to land that contract would logically be less inclined to rock the boat.

See, an important bit of information to remember is that Irving was voted as vice president of the NBPA. That means raising the concerns of the many, no matter how trivial, to the attention of the few most powerful is quite literally his job. So while you may think some of the points were silly, that doesn’t mean they weren’t brought up in private.

That’s the other part that seems be getting swept away. With all the talk of what the stars want (we already know the likes of LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and Anthony Davis want to return), the dissenting voices have already been drowned out.

Lakers big Dwight Howard, well-traveled and mercurial in his own right, has voiced support for Irving. He went even further suggesting the NBA needn’t return until “we get things resolved.” Lakers guard Avery Bradley also spoke up on the call in which Irving aired his grievances.

Other Players Spoke Out Too

Donovan Mitchell spoke about the dangers of returning after a layoff and is pushing for insurance for players. CJ McCollum voted ‘no’ to returning but also warned players of potentially contentious negotiations when the CBA expires should players sit out. Kyle Kuzma is also seeking insurance but flat out said, “Some of us want to hoop and compete don’t get that twisted.” He too seems to have only heard part of Irving’s argument.

That’s what is so telling about the backlash Kyrie has received. It is disproportionate to what he said.

He rightfully expressed issues that, as we see, aren’t necessarily his own. This is especially true with the increase in the number of cases in the host-state of Florida. But even more than that, he left the door wide open to continue the season if that is what the majority want.

But because of his history of being me-first and that whole flat-earth thing, people readily dismissed what he said. The best part is that they are all agreeing with Rivers even though he said the exact reason why Irving was speaking out against returning amid all the civil unrest in the country.

“Not saying that basketball is a cure for that but basketball can maybe provide a distraction.”

Bingo

The distraction is the part Irving (and Howard) are trying to avoid. And it’s already happening as we see the push to return ramp up even amid continuing concern over COVID-19 and protests. But all the other stuff is true too and that’s the issue. We are so busy trying to pick a side, that we forgot we are all on the same side. No person has embodied that more than Kyrie, the NBA’s broken clock

NBA Western Conference Playoff Preview

The calendar has turned to March and the madness is about to begin. Yes, that might have been a reference to college basketball but that still doesn’t change for the NBA. Last week I covered the Eastern Conference.

The playoffs bracket in the West is closer in terms of playoff positioning, but the Los Angeles Lakers sit at the top led by all-time great LeBron James. Can we consider LeBron a legend even though he is still active? We can get to that next week when I’ll be diving into some of the more debatable topics this league provides its fans.

Previewing the Western Conference Playoffs

The Front-Runners

The Lakers have a sturdy 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers who many consider the favorite to come out of the West. The Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all separated by 5.5 games. These last few weeks could help win homecourt advantage for certain teams that thrive in there home arena.

Home-court advantage is going to be critical. If Denver gets home court over the Thunder (which would happen if the playoffs started today). Both teams are significantly better at home than on the road. Think about if Oklahoma City stole home-court advantage and was able to win their first-round series. That could change the outlook on the franchise.

The current seventh-seeded Mavericks actually boast a 21-11 road record, so they could play spoiler in a series. Luka Doncic is built for the playoffs. They might lose their first-round series, but there will be fireworks because of the Mavericks averaging 116 PPG, which ranks third in the NBA.

Last, Not Least

The battle for the eighth spot in the west might be the most interesting. The Memphis Grizzlies are sitting with a 3 game lead over the Sacramento Kings.

Other potential suitors for that eighth and coveted spot are the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans. All of these teams sit no more than four games back. The most compelling story is the upstart Pelicans who are led by rookie sensation Zion Williamson. But we have to respect what Memphis has done here. Their schedule after the all-star break was second in difficulty, and with a little over a month to go, they have a solid three-game lead. The Grizzlies are led by another rookie sensation in Ja Morant.

Look at the top-seeded Lakers. They have two of the top-five players in the league. Some are here to argue that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the league and I have no qualms about it. I would be remiss to say that LeBron is still the number one player in the world given his incredible IQ, distribution, and understanding of the game and what needs to be done to win a title.

Still Up There

At this point, we are tired of LeBron and it skews our view on him in terms of greatness. In any best-of-seven series, the Lakers will have an all-time great as the best player on the floor. But will his supporting cast be able to do enough to get him to the finals?

The number-one threat to the Lakers returning the NBA Finals is the Clippers. After an intense six-game series where the upstart Clippers pushed the Warriors to the brink with inspiring play, free-agency ended with them having acquired the defending Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a two-way superstar who could help the Clipper reach the promised land. The Clippers have the star power and defensive prowess to wear the Lakers down and are 2-0 against their cross-town foe.

But this reporter has seen this before. Who remembers when the 2011 Chicago Bulls went against the Lebron James led heat? Yes I know, we have different levels of stars. And Leonard and George are lengthy defenders who can combat LeBron. But when it comes down to it in a best-of-seven, give me LeBron.

Keep an Eye On

The Nuggets and Rockets are third and fourth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets main question still remains. Do they have the star power to get to the finals? Simple answer. No.

Denver is a good team, don’t me wrong. But right now they would face the Thunder in the first round; no easy out. In the second round, they would face the Clippers. They don’t have the bodies to guard the likes of Leonard and George. The athleticism of the Clippers would be too much.

The Rockets are a gimmicky team trying to beat you by spreading the floor and being unconscious from the three-point line. They have the superstar power to get to the Western Conference Finals but those stars haven’t punched their ticket to finals since 2012. That was when James Harden and Russell Westbrook were with the Thunder.

How It Plays Out

Throughout a seven-game series, the Rockets will be worn down. If they come out of the first round, they’ll be minced meat for either the Lakers or Clippers. The bottom-four teams in the playoffs have young (to a degree), up-and-coming teams that will have their title window soon. Just not quite yet. The Thunder are the surprise of the season.

After trading Westbrook and George, everyone thought the team would tank to hopefully draft their next superstar. That is not the case. Chris Paul and company are having a fantastic season and look to ruffle some feathers in the first round. Utah is a defensive dynamo led by Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, they do not have enough pop to get to the finals. Hopefully, they’ll see Donovan Mitchell pop in the playoffs again. The Jazz are just hoping to advance to the second round.

As for the Mavericks and the Grizzlies, the only thing I want to see is the blossoming of Doncic and Morant. These two young players are on another level, and I hope to see them raise their game in the playoffs. Doncic has been in big moments for nearly a decade and you can tell in his early career he has the makings of being something special. He is currently averaging 28.5 points per game, 8.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds.

One for the Road

Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Trust me I love Zion just as much as the next guy. But Ja has been nothing short of special for this upstart Memphis bunch and a playoff appearance in his rookie season is nothing but a sign of great things to come.

It is March and that can only mean one thing. The basketball world will come into the focus with the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs to follow shortly after. These are all the things I am looking for in this year’s playoffs. If you read last week’s article I chose the Boston Celtics, and for this week. I believe the Lakers will meet them in the NBA Finals, and the winner will be in next week’s article.

If you have anything you want to discuss you can hit me up on twitter @illiniRyan7

The NBA is Getting Set for Second Act

The NBA returns to action Thursday and the second act is set up to be just as thrilling as the first. With that in mind, we can take a brief moment and assess some burning questions. Some are award related while others will be about playoff seeding and advancement. And then some pertain to player movement this offseason.

NBA Second Act Sure to Deliver

The Bearded Freak

This year’s MVP is seemingly down to two people in most eyes, with the Houston Rockets James Harden defending his mantle against the Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo. It is not an easy choice, Harden leads the NBA in numerous categories (scoring, minutes per game, box plus/minus, and PER to name a few) and mostly increased his counting stats over last year’s MVP-winning effort. Likewise, Giannis has increased his numbers while leading the NBA in defensive rating, defensive win shares, and total win shares. His team also sits atop the East at the moment.

Harden leads the NBA in turnovers and some even consider his high free throw totals a knock. He leads in usage rate due to the rash of injuries the Rockets have sustained. Harden carried the team through stretches this season but even he conceded the team would not keep winning playing exclusively through him. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon are healthy and Clint Capela is set to join them, so it remains to be seen if Harden’s numbers take a hit. The biggest thing working against him, specifically in this conversation, is the Rockets record. If they finish top-three and his numbers stay close, he could repeat.

The Greek Freak

Antetokounmpo — the Bucks Swi…Greek-army knife – is also seeing a jump in his stats, albeit to a lesser extent. He leads the team in points, assists, and rebounds. He is shooting a lower percentage from three and the stripe this year, but he raised his attempts per game on such shots. His biggest positives, at least for purists are his team’s record and his effort on the defensive end. If they win the East it will be hard not to give the award to the best player on the best team in a conference; a feat the Rockets are unlikely to achieve.

Stats will favor Harden and even Giannis’ lead in win shares is only .1 with the former’s offense nearly countering the defensive edge of the latter. Harden’s detractors will say he has been stat-chasing this year. It is not unfair to keep bringing up the injuries to Houston but Milwaukee just seems to be put together better and, most importantly, around the Greek Freak. That might hurt him in the eyes of some, but again, the best player on the team with (potentially) the best record may be enough to override that.

Playoff Hokey Pokey

The Los Angeles Lakers are in year one of the LeBron show in Hollywood and have dealt with numerous injuries including a groin injury to LBJ. The first has typically been a transitional year when Bron has changed teams in the past, but he does not have many of those left. They have the horses to make the playoffs but will need to get things together because their remaining schedule is the ninth-toughest with games against the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, and two against the Bucks. If they make it and catch the Dubs early in the postseason things could get interesting.

Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad at the end of January but the team had won six straight before losing to the Bucks before the break. Their remaining schedule is the eighth-toughest and has two more road games than home games; notable given their 16-12 record away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They are not a team built around a single player, per se. But he was their best player and that matters down the stretch and in the playoffs. Their remaining slate features the Bucks, Warriors, and two apiece against the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder. All of those could very well be losses.

West Coast Royalty

The Sacramento Kings currently reside in the ninth spot in the West. They made the surprise acquisition of Harrison Barnes and went 6-4 in before the break. They will also face one of the easier schedules the rest of the way. The Los Angeles Clippers (the team currently occupying the eighth-seed) have a slightly easier schedule but the Kings are the more talented group. It has been a long time (13 years) since they have even sniffed the playoffs but this year is a fun story to watch that may get an extended run.

Back East, the Brooklyn Nets are very similar to the Kings. They have been toiling in the doldrums of the league as they recovered from their failed attempt at a super team. They made some shrewd moves and drafted well and now sit sixth in the East. D’Angelo Russell has blossomed and even made his first All-Star appearance as an injury replacement. They are a young team though and that could hurt them down the stretch. They face the third-toughest schedule in the NBA.

Send Me Your Location

Before the break, we had the drama of Anthony Davis trying to fly the coup after the New Orleans Pelicans rebuffed the Lakers offers. The belief was that New Orleans wanted to wait for more potential bidders this summer, namely the Boston Celtics. That decision cost GM Dell Demps his job. While it is understandable after trading for and then losing Boogie Cousins, who was brought in to aid in retaining Davis, how does this help with getting close to fair trade value?

A video surfaced from All-Star weekend of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spending a lot of time together. The two are friends and Irving even bristled at the notion that a particular clip constituted any basis for hints at the pair teaming up on the New York Knicks. Irving may not want to entertain the potential team-up, but it will not stop the rumor mill from swirling. Some of it is certainly noise, but both stars have given somewhat vague answers regarding their futures. Again, that is their prerogative. Irving’s response was even Durant-like in its defiance.

Dame’s Lane

Damian Lillard recently reiterated he would rather stay with the Portland Trailblazers without a championship than “sell himself out” for one. That is a noble and refreshing take, especially with the current landscape of the Association. This could be a situation where a team has to ‘save’ Liilard from himself. It is possible he could win a championship in Portland, but his current team’s roster does not stack up well against the rest of the continuing teams. It will be interesting to see what happens with Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum.

Raptors fans had to have been thinking things were looking up when it came to keeping their prized trade-acquisition, Kawhi Leonard. That is until he came out with this during this past weekend’s festivities. It highlights a fundamental snag in their plan from the start. He is from California and has been determined to get to L.A. or bust. That may be the Lakers with LeBron, it may be to the Clippers with KD. Whatever the case Leonard is not a fan of snow and Canada won’t be getting rid of winter anytime soon.

Let the NBA’s Second Act Commence

No one knows how the second half of the season will unfold. You can bet it will be full of surprises and upsets but please hold the injuries, basketball gods. That way we can focus on if one of the favorites wins MVP, who makes the playoffs and who misses, and where will all the pieces land when the dust settles after free agency this offseason.