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Triple Zeros: WTF, WFT?

Triple Zeros: WTF, WFT?

NFL

🏈Undefeated No Longer
🏈Gase Firing Folks

NBA

🏀Melo ‘7’ Again
🏀Bron Talks Kyrie
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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

Kawhi Learns Lesson Lebron Learned a Decade Ago

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is learning, the hard way, a lesson that LeBron James had to learn in the same fashion. That lesson is that it’s easy to assemble talent, but far more challenging to build a team. In a Game 7 on Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the postseason’s most consistent performer tried to fly in the face of history but wound up flying too close to the sun.

LeBron’s 2010 Lesson Being Learned By Leonard

Decisions Decisions

We all remember when LeBron sat down for that ESPN special, which was the idea of a fan, by the way. The NBA world watched with bated breath as he, in search of his first championship, took his talents to South Beach. Teaming up with his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they would go on to bring the Heat organization its second and third titles.

Instant success was elusive, though. That first postseason the Heat ran through each of the first three rounds in five games apiece and were third in opponent points per game. But they ran into the buzzsaw Dallas Mavericks, the third-highest scoring team in those playoffs, and fell in six games, cementing the legacy of Dirk Nowitzki and casting another shadow on that of James.

If he couldn’t win with his handpicked team, then would he ever get over the hump? He obviously did, but his 17/8/7 line left a lot to be desired and led to the J.J. Barea memes. James and Leonard would meet in back to back Finals but the 2010 series is where Leonard’s current path, wholly different to this point, has caught up to James’ from a decade ago.

The Same Difference

Kawhi’s legend grew from his defense of James. Even though the latter averaged 26.7/9.3/5.5 the former proved to be a James agitator; much like a bigger (and quieter) DeShawn Stevenson. The result was a Finals MVP in 2014. Leonard would see his scoring jump the following season as he made his first All-Star appearance but the Spurs lost in the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Three years after winning his first championship and Finals MVP, Leonard found himself embroiled in a months-long dispute with the organization that had developed him. The issue at heart, a lingering quad issue, and the organization’s questionable (at best) handling of it. From lost faith in the team medical staff to teammates publicly comparing the severity of their injuries to his.

It all concluded with a blockbuster deal that sent Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. The season they had was storybook, winning 58 games and, ultimately the championship. Leonard earned another Finals MVP as the Raptors downed a Golden State Warriors squad that lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during the series.

Catching the King

Success breeds expectations and this is where Leonard finds himself in James’ shoes of 2010 now in 2020. Leonard’s new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, whom he spurned the Raptors for, were eliminated in seven games by the “year away” Denver Nuggets. Kawhi was as steady as they came, but a supporting cast that was often touted as the deepest in the league frequently left meat on the bone.

In what was Leonard’s quest to match James’ ring total, ended in a flurry missed flailing layups from Montrezl Harrell, short jumpers from Paul George, and Lou Williams’ greatest contribution being highlighting the wings named after him at a strip club. They flashed the greatness we heard about all season but they rarely displayed any consistency outside of Leonard.

He averaged 24.3/8.6/5.9 for the series, having only two games with fewer than 23 points. But he saved his second-worst performance for the worst time. He averaged 31/10/5 against the Mavericks, a team that gave the Clippers enough issues to take notice, in the first round but found himself putting up two games of scoring in the low-teens, including 14 points on 27% shooting in Game 7.

A King’s Lesson

Kawhi may have had a poor performance in Game 7 but he had been carrying his team for the majority of the playoffs up to that point. A dud game was due even if it came in an absolutely awful situation. The bigger issue may have been the lack of cohesion from his squad that cropped all too often.

Head coach Doc Rivers can talk about conditioning being the major factor for L.A. and Harrell about locker room issues but it sure did look like the lulls in scoring and lapses in defense were the results of a team that didn’t play together much in the regular season and lacked a true point guard. It became clear they were an impressive collection of talent but not a top-flight team.

The Clippers, much like Toronto the year before, had a great record without Leonard. But with early distractions to Williams and Harrell combined with ineffectiveness from his “Robin”. George, in particular, was a disappointment in these playoffs. He averaged 18 points in the Mavs series on 36% shooting (27.5 3P%) before upping it to 21 points on 43% shooting and 38% from deep except he fell back into what has become a meme about him and scored 10 points while shooting 25% in Game 7.

Heavy is the Head

Kawhi’s earlier success this postseason doesn’t absolve him from blame. Scoring 14 points on 27.3% shooting (28.6 3P%) in a win-or-go-home situation is not the stuff superstars are made of. Except that’s exactly what they are made of. We have seen it play out right before our eyes with James in 2010 following a similarly poor showing in the postseason.

Of course, LeBron’s shortfall was in the Finals and Kawhi’s came in just the second round. But, beyond the success each had before, Leonard’s 2020 is shaping up very much like James’ 2010. How he responds will go a long way to solidifying his standings in the NBA. Standings that, right now, should show he (and everyone else in the NBA) is a step below LeBron James. For now he will just have to take solace in knowing. It’s easy to assemble talent but far more difficult to build a team.

The Bubble-Offs Have Finally Begun

Hoops fans we’ve been waiting for these upcoming moments for the last five months! The 2020 NBA Playoffs or what I’m coining the Bubble-offs. You all see what was done there? The road to this year’s championship will be like no other. It’s possible a team that had no business being in the tournament comes away with the trophy. Tell you one thing, if the bubble-offs are anything like the eight-game restart we’re in for some of the most exciting games you’ll ever want to see.

The Bubble-Offs are Here

It all kicked off this past Saturday when the NBA had its first-ever play-in game to get that last coveted 16th spot for the playoff birth. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Portland Trailblazers didn’t disappoint either with rookie phenom Ja Morant and bubble MVP Damian Lillard going toe to toe. Now let’s take a look at some teams that could burst the bubble of the two top-seeded and finals favorites Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Time for the Bubble-Offs

Locked In

If you had the Monday blues the NBA had you covered with a full slate of games beginning with the Denver Nuggets taking on the Utah Jazz. Unfortunately, Utah was without starting point guard Mike Conley Jr., who left the bubble for the birth of his child.  The other games on the docket were the Brooklyn Nets facing the Toronto Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers taking on the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Clippers seeing the Dallas Mavericks.

The top seeds are locked in, Bucks who take on the Orlando Magic and Lakers battling the Trailblazers, but there’s this thing called upsets or we can call them “bubble-sets.”   See what I did there again?  There’s usually one or two every playoff season and this year is no different.  The rest of the field shapes out like so, the Indiana Pacers versus the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Houston Rockets.

Potential Bubble Busters

The first potential bubble buster is Dame Dolla and the Trailblazers. Upsetting the Lakers would be reminiscent of the ‘07 playoffs when Golden State defeated Dallas. They match up well but King James won’t be stopped, in year 17, averaging 25 PPG, and a league-leading 10 assists a contest. Also, they have to contend with Anthony Davis‘ 26 PPG. After those two stars, there’s a significant drop off in firepower especially with no Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.

Portland has its own dynamic duo. Lillard is averaging 30 PPG, 8.0 APG, and is fifth in PER. Then you have CJ McCollum (22 PPG) who can light it up when he gets hot. Don’t forget, they also have an ‘03 draft alum in Carmelo Anthony; or should we say Slim Melo. Since the restart, he’s averaging 17.5 points a contest. The supporting cast appears to have the edge as well with Jusuf Nurkić averaging a double-double since coming back, Hassan Whiteside league leader in blocks at 2.9 and the bubble emergence of Gary Trent Jr.

The second team possibly popping bubbles is the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Though 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left for sunny L.A. and nobody has to deal with Drake on the sidelines. Even as the second seed in the East, the Raptors are not getting their respect. They basically have the same team with a superb coach in former Coach of the Year Nick Nurse. Veterans Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka steady the team, Pascal Siakam continues to develop into a star. Lastly, we can’t leave out Fred VanVleet, who just came off a 30- point, 11-assist Game 1 performance. It’s highly likely the Raptors will clash with the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals again. Don’t be surprised if it’s deja vu.

Grab Your Front Row Virtual Seat

This year’s playoffs will definitely have a different feel. All the games are at one site, there’s no home-court advantage or crowds. Player reactions are different as the stars adjust to not being able to feed off the fans. Role players must step up without pressure from the fans. These are all factors that will bring more excitement to this year’s games.

Holy Bubble: Exploring Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The NBA departed from the “Big 3” formula of roster construction this season, leading to a slew of dynamic duos. The shutdown (and restart sans fans) means a financial crunch is coming; we could see this trend continue for the foreseeable future. So, let’s take a look at some of the top duos around the Association.

Duo Dynamics in the NBA

The King and Brow

We begin with the inspiration for this piece. Anthony Davis might be the best teammate LeBron James has ever played with. Perhaps you’ve heard, but James is in Year 17 of an illustrious career. His play, he’s averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and leading the NBA with 10 assists per game. It’s important to note James leads the NBA in assists because Davis leads the Los Angeles Lakers in nearly every other statistic.

It’s understandable, then, that some would take umbrage with James garnering the MVP consideration. How can James be the best player in the league this year when he “isn’t even the best player on his own team”?

Aside from the Lakeshow looking completely lost without Bron on the floor, you mean? Take Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets, for example.

With the Lakers clinching the 1-seed already, LeBron sat. Houston, though, was without Russell Westbrook (quad) too. This should have been a fairly even matchup, if not slightly in L.A.’s favor with Kyle Kuzma active and no comparable threat for the Rockets. Turns out, Kuzma certainly did his part to uplift the team in James’ absence. Davis, however, did not.

He didn’t have a bad game. 17 points and 12 boards is a solid performance for most guys. But it definitely wasn’t an ‘MVP’ performance against a depleted opponent. And it wasn’t befitting of the player deemed the heir apparent to the Lakers franchise.

This season, Anthony Davis has averaged 26.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game when he and LeBron are on the floor together (57 games). Without James (three games), Davis’ numbers take a hit, falling to 24 points and 1.7 assists. His blocks raise, but only slightly from 9.4 to 9.7 per game. Davis averaging fewer assist sans James is probably the most surprising stat.

When they share the court, James is putting up 25.2/10.2/8.1 per contest. James, by himself, is throwing up 27.6/11.4/7.6 per.

The disparity has been even more pronounced in the bubble. James started slow, averaging 19.3/10.0/6.3 in four games and sitting a fifth before playing against Indiana. Davis was 23.2/9.2/3.8 in that same span and the Lakers went 2-3.

It was LeBron with the 20-plus point performance while AD struggled (mightily) and the Lakers lost to the Pacers on Saturday. The margin was smaller than any of their other bubble losses, though.

James has a higher offensive rating and a lower (better) defensive rating. In fact, L.A.’s defensive rating is better with Davis off the floor. Without Davis, the Lakers are 6-2 and score 121 PPG. Without James, 2-2 at 110.5 PPG. Which brings us to James, at 35, having played in more games than the 27-year-old Davis. And when you consider Davis’ statistical advantages aren’t as great as some would have you believe, it’s not really that complicated.

The Process and Big Ben

Heading East, we find ourselves with two very polarizing players; both enigmatic in their own way. Joel Embiid might be the most dominant player in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal when he’s right; both physically and mentally. Ben Simmons is Magic Johnson-ish only bigger and faster. The lack of a jumper is a big hurdle for Simmons. For Embiid, it’s always a volatile mixture of health and focus.

Together, these two can be among the most fun to watch. But there are far too many moments of a lack of spacing due to Simmons’ defender sloughing off. And while Embiid has about as complete a game as you’ll find in the NBA, the most important ability is availability.

So who has been more important to the 76ers? The answer might surprise you if you didn’t answer “trick question”.

Like in the case of LeBron and AD, we see Simmons with a higher offensive rating but Embiid has a better defensive rating. But their records are very similar without each other, though this season it has certainly favored Embiid. Maybe these aren’t as good of indicators in this instance; or at least not in comparison to how they impact each other.

Embiid, in 165 games with Simmons, averages 24.9 points, 12.2 boards, and 3.4 assists. Without it’s 25.2/11.6/2.9; granted in a much smaller sample size of 10 games compared to 52 the other way. For Simmons, its 15.8/8.1/8.1 with Embiid and 18.3/9.0/7.5 without.

Philly is 27-25 with Simmons but without Embiid and 6-4 when the opposite occurs. Again, the sample size is an issue with deciding here.

But all of that is career numbers, what about 2020? Joel is 5-2 without Ben while Ben is 9-7 without Joel. Many will want to give Joel the nod for the higher win percentage but, clearly, after reading the first entry, you know we won’t be discounting availability here.

Simmons was putting up 11.7/7.0/4.3 in three games before being shut down and having surgery for a torn meniscus. While Embiid has been a monster in the bubble averaging 30.0/13.5/3.3 and the 76ers are 3-1 in Orlando, the injury looms large. Simmons will obviously miss the rest of the season barring, perhaps, a Finals appearance.

The comparisons to Shaq aren’t just hyperbole for Emiid’s stature, demeanor, and dominance. It also refers to the need to have that guard or wing player to truly unlock his, and his team’s, full potential.

Of course, the simpler answer is that they need each other. Ben needs Embiid to be the wrecking ball and Embiid needs Simmons to operate the crane. Together they have a win percentage well above .600, separate we see talented individuals that are missing something.

The Beard and Brodie

The Beard and Brodie were polarizing together before they were polarizing apart, reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. But their lore has only since that time. Russell Westbrook won MVP on the strength of averaging a triple-double for an entire season (something he did two more times after) and is having his best scoring season since then.

James Harden is on his third-straight season scoring 30-plus points and actually won his own MVP the season after Westbrook. He has been vocal in his pursuit of another MVP and even went as far as to take shots at reigning (and likely repeating) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This one isn’t really a “who’s more important” (it’s Harden) as much as it is people might not realize how important Westbrook is to the Houston Rockets.

He had developed a pretty bad reputation as a guy who cared more about the stat sheet than the win column. For running off superstar teammates in Kevin Durant and Paul George (neither of which appears to be true).

Swap out Westbrook’s name for Harden’s and Durant/George for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony and you can leave everything else the same.

But Houston went out and traded for Westbrook; “rescuing” him from the doldrums that were sure to hit the Oklahoma City Thunder (but never did). That sent two messages. First, it signaled Harden’s willingness to adjust, even if only slightly to bring in perhaps the only point guard who would need the ball more than Paul, and was a worse shooter to boot.

The other message was that at least one organization outside of OKC felt he was the missing piece to the puzzle. If you don’t think so just look at the changes made to the roster following Westbrook’s addition.

Westbrook is shooting just over 25 percent from deep (yuck). He’s never been a great three-point shooter, save for one season when he shot 40 percent. Houston’s system is a percentages game where they only take threes or layup/dunks. They allowed some mid-range stuff when they acquired Paul but Westbrook provided the unique challenge of floor spacing.

Houston’s solution was to move center Clint Capela and run an offense where the tallest player on the floor at any given moment is 6-foot-7. Think Golden State’s death lineup but more concentrated.

That’s a lot to change just for a pice or someone you brought in to placate the face of the franchise. Clearly, they have a much higher opinion of him than that. We’ll see how it pays off.

A Fresh Pair of Jays

The youngest pair in our deep dive into duo dynamics across the NBA, Jayson Tatum entered the league with all the fanfare and continues to be the more publicized of the two. And perhaps that is rightfully so, but Jaylen Brown entered a year earlier and has developed into a very key piece for the Boston Celtics.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is another one where we’re more highlighting the importance of the “sidekick” than asking who is better. Though, the answer to that latter question might deserve more scrutiny than most realize.

Interestingly enough, they were both selected third overall. But the similarities don’t stop there. They were both taken after the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers picked first and second, respectively.

Taytum was in contention to be the first-overall selection in ‘17 before ultimately going behind Markelle Fultz and Lozo Ball; a mistake that probably haunts some in the 76ers and Lakers organizations to this day. Brown was never going over Brandon Ingram, let alone number one pick Ben Simmons.

Brown’s first year he averaged 6.6 points per game while mostly coming off the bench. Tatum started 80 games and scored nearly 14 points per as a rookie. Now it’s worth mentioning that Brown’s output jumped substantially with more playing time as a starter.

More important about that season is it was Kyrie Irving’s first (of two) seasons in Boston but he missed the postseason allowing Tatum and Brown to shine on the biggest stage.

Here’s where it gets interesting because Tatum got all the hype for his 18.5/4.4/2.7 and, at just 19 years old, deservedly so. But Brown was no slouch. He came in just behind Tatum with 18.0 points, 4.8 boards, and 1.4 assists of his own. Brown was even the high-scorer for Boston, with a 34-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round; a series Boston won in seven games.

We also have to consider Brown’s defense. It’s Tatum who has the better Defensive Real Plus-Minus, but it is Brown who regularly draws the tougher assignment. That is both in terms of individual talent as well as variety.

Tatum’s maturation into a two-way player should not be overlooked by any means. But context is key and if we are going to praise one for realizing his potential on both ends of the floor, Brown might need to get those roses first. So far in the bubble, Brown is putting up the better line, but that is largely due to a horrendous first game from Tatum. Minus that game, they’re within a point.

Again, this one isn’t about who is better. Just, whenever we mention how stellar Jayson Tatum has been, we need to be sure to mention how important Jaylen Brown is and how far he’s come.