Just How Far Can the Houston Rockets Go?

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.

Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.

Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net Net Net Net
Lineup MP FG% 3P% eFG% PTS
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | C. Paul | P. Tucker 17:18 -.059 -.071 -.012 +12.1
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | C. Capela | E. Gordon | C. Paul 16:43 +.208 +.292 +.279 +29.9
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul 13:44 +.167 +.389 +.326 +49.8
R. Anderson | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul | P. Tucker 13:26 -.035 +.063 +.019 +16.1
E. Gordon | N. Hilario | L. Mbah a Moute | C. Paul | P. Tucker 12:51 +.257 +.083 +.300 +59.4
Player Average 471:37 +.044 +.071 +.094 +18.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/21/2017.

Holy hell, Batman.

In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.

All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.

Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?

For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.

Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.

There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.

I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.

But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

The NBA MVP Race, Explained

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Many smart people have invested their time and thoughts into dissecting this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race. Many have come to the conclusion that the award should go to either Thunder guard Russell Westbrook or Rockets guard James Harden, both of whom are having historically great seasons. And yet, several others believe that the award should go to LeBron James; many have felt that way about the MVP race every year because James is the undisputed best player on the planet.

Everyone who has a say in this discussion has at least some form of logic behind their opinion. That’s what has made this debate so great; many intelligent people have come to wildly different conclusions about the same thing. That’s not an indictment of the league; rather, it should be a celebration of just how good the players have been this season, rest or no rest.

Therefore, let’s delve into the different perspectives used to determine who should be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

For starters, there is a large subset of NBA experts who feel that the award should go to the best player in the world right now. Period. No questions asked. The question these people will ask is this: if aliens invaded Earth and we needed to pick our best player to play the aliens’ best player, who would we take? This perspective was made famous by Bill Simmons and Bob Ryan, among others, and it brings up another interesting question: should we give the Most Valuable Player award to the player who had the best season or the best player in the league? If we chose the latter, James would have more than his current four MVP awards. I would argue that LeBron has been the best player in the NBA since 2010, the year Kobe Bryant won his last NBA championship. And yes, that includes LeBron’s seemingly calamitous first year in Miami, in which I would like to humbly remind you that he led the league in win shares, a full 2.5 shares ahead of Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 league MVP.

Another perspective that voters use to choose the winner of the award is to use the definition of the word valuable in a literal sense. The logic these people use is this: if you took Player X over Team Y, how far would Team Y fall? When using this argument, in its simplest form, the candidate that best fits the description of “valuable” is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who became just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season, means more to the Thunder than any other player in the discussion. If Westbrook was taken away from Oklahoma City, it’s fair to speculate that they would be the Brooklyn Nets right now. The Thunder offense would run through Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and the team’s starting point guard would likely be Semaj Christen. Therefore, Westbrook is the dictionary definition of the word “valuable”.

A final argument for choosing an MVP would be to take the best individual season in the league for that particular year. This argument makes the MVP award seem more like the Most Outstanding Player award and it also loosens the definition of valuable. In this case, the argument depends on who you think of as having the best season in the league. That depends equally on statistics and the eye test; it’s also largely subjective. Through that interpretation, you could go with either LeBron, Harden, or Westbrook. It’s entirely up to you.

But who should be the MVP when the dust settles?

First of all, I am going to confine my argument to who I view as the top five players in the league this season. They are:

  1. James Harden (Rockets)
  2. LeBron James (Cavaliers)
  3. Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)
  4. Isaiah Thomas (Celtics)
  5. Russell Westbrook (Thunder)

So, now that we’re clear on that, we can move forward. I don’t see anyone else as having even a legitimate chance at or claim to the award. These are the five players who should have a mathematical chance at winning the trophy this season. Just so you know: players on this list who have sat out games for rest this season (James and Leonard) will not be penalized. They had reasons for sitting out games, it’s not their fault, and it shouldn’t reflect poorly on them.

For starters, the MVP award should go to a player who helps his team at both ends of the floor. That is particularly true this year, with the particularly astounding play of the respective candidates. Out of the five I’ve chosen, Thomas has the worst defensive rating (112) and Box Plus-Minus (-3.4) on the list; both statistics are used to gauge a player’s value defensively, with the former gauging his value per 100 possessions and the latter using a positive/negative scale. Thomas is clearly the worst defensive player out of the five, and while his offensive prowess makes up for his defensive deficiencies in Boston, it doesn’t compensate for his deficit compared to the other four players. IT4, for as great as his season was, is out.

That brings us down to four. Out of the four remaining candidates, three are asked to be the primary ball-handlers and general creators of offense for themselves and their teams. The one player who does not fit this description is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has the lowest assist-per-game (3.5) and rebound-per-game (5.8) figures among the five initial contenders for the award. Part of that is how the Spurs’ culture is built; the organization and scheme are structured so that no player overtly stands out. Coach Gregg Popovich has been quoted as saying that the team looks for players who are “over themselves” and who value the team over their own accolades. While that strategy is a large part of the Spurs’ sustained success, it isn’t conducive to players looking to win MVPs (unless you’re Tim Duncan, who won the award in 2002 and 2003). Leonard falls into that same category: a player who fits perfectly into the Spurs culture. Unfortunately, Popovich’s system doesn’t allow any player, even one as good as Leonard, to have the impact necessary to win the award. This is shown in Leonard’s 31.1% usage rate (a measure of plays run for a certain player while he is on the floor). For as much of a Kawhi Leonard disciple as I am, he’s out.

That whittles this discussion down to the three players I feel are truly deserving of the award. It would be completely fine if any one of Harden, James, or Westbrook took home the trophy; that is a testament to just how good they have all been this season. Honestly, who you think should win between these three likely depends on your interpretation of the award. I’ll go through some criteria that I view as important, particularly in a tight race like this year’s.

Many believe, as do I, that the worst thing one can do with the basketball is turn it over. In this category, Russell Westbrook and James Harden take the biggest hit, as both are averaging well over five turnovers per game. If you take a deeper look, though, you realize that Harden and Westbrook are the primary creators for their respective teams, averaging double-digit assist numbers; in fact, both players assist on more than half of their teams’ baskets when they are on the floor. James’ assist percentage is slightly under 42% for the season, a full 15 points lower than Westbrook’s and eight lower than Harden’s. Also, James only has a slight advantage in assist-to-turnover ratio. These are the figures for each of the three superstars:

  1. LeBron James: 2.128
  2. James Harden: 1.947
  3. Russell Westbrook: 1.929

While LeBron obtains a clear advantage over the other two, it’s hardly disqualifying. Also, I would tend to give Westbrook and Harden a break here; their usage rates of 41.7% and 34.2%, respectively, are appreciably higher than James’ rate of 30.0%. Part of that comparatively low figure is the fact that James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two excellent offensive players at his disposal. However, it’s clear that the Cavaliers require slightly less out of LeBron than the Thunder out of Westbrook or the Rockets out of Harden. So, as much as it pains me to say this, LeBron James, the greatest player in the world, is eliminated from the conversation for Most Valuable Player.

Now, we’re down to just The Beard and The Brodie. Let’s take a step back and first realize that the player I don’t choose to win the award would be an MVP in just about any other season in NBA history. Both had historically great years and should be appreciated for what they’ve done to make an otherwise anticlimactic NBA season interesting. Unfortunately, only one can win my vote for league MVP. Let’s take a closer look.

Westbrook has Harden fully beat in the rebounding category, as he has accumulated 205 more rebounds in 145 fewer minutes of on-court time. Even though Harden is a better shooter than Westbrook, he is shooting only fractionally better from three-point land this season (.347 to .343). Harden does have a better offensive rating, but Westbrook has a slightly better defensive rating. Both are actually having rather similar seasons, the only major difference being that Westbrook averaged 2.6 more rebounds per game than Harden. Harden was also slightly more efficient, as he took roughly five fewer shots per game than Westbrook. I must say, it’s extremely close.

However, this is where things start to turn: Westbrook, for all intents and purposes, smashed the league’s single-season usage rate mark with his performance this season. (The stats from this year aren’t yet official on Basketball-Reference, so it’s still unofficial.) Russ’ aforementioned 41.7% figure is a league-record and three points higher than Kobe Bryant’s 38.7% rate in 2005-06. The way I interpret this is that no other team in the history of the NBA has relied on one player as much as Oklahoma City has on Westbrook. That statistic is something that most people read and pause momentarily to make sure they’re not missing something. But that’s just how reliant the Thunder are on their best player every single night of the year.

And that is why if I had an MVP vote this season, I would use it on Russell Westbrook. When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in free agency, many assumed that the franchise would take a major hit. While the Thunder are clearly not as good as they were last season, they are still solidly in the Playoffs with 47 wins, just eight fewer from last season. And not only did they lose Durant; GM Sam Presti also dealt the team’s third-best player, Serge Ibaka, to the Magic last season for Victor Oladipo. Then again, Orlando’s old GM took a picture of a whiteboard with the team’s free agent targets this summer, so he’s not exactly one you should trust with making good deals (Hint: the picture got into the wrong hands). The Thunder lost two of their three best players from a season ago and only lost eight wins. Not bad at all.

This is the final thing: Westbrook did something this year that was only done once before in NBA history, and that is average a triple-double. Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62; it hasn’t been done since until this season. And while you may balk at Westbrook’s high turnover number, consider this: turnovers weren’t tracked during Robertson’s record-setting year. It’s entirely possible that he turned it over just as often as Westbrook; we’ll never know for sure. Forget the MVP discussion for a second; Russell Westbrook did something this season many of us have never seen before. That is historically awesome and his season is nothing anyone should soon forget.

This is also not meant to denigrate the seasons of anyone else in the MVP discussion. All players mentioned in this article have had excellent seasons and are all worthy of consideration and admiration.

When you consider the breadth of Westbrook’s accomplishments, though, he has the best case for the award. If he wins, he will be the first player to win Most Valuable Player on a sub-50 win team since Moses Malone took home the honors after the 1981-82 season; Malone’s Houston Rockets won 46 games that season. Just like this year’s Thunder, Malone single-handedly elevated his supporting cast, which consisted of an aging Elvin Hayes, a number of role players, and a future NBA coach (Mike Dunleavy). Westbrook did the same for this year’s Thunder squad, and his supporting cast may have been even worse than Malone’s.

While we can look at the numbers all we want, debate history, and, frankly, split some hairs along the way, it comes down to this: Russell Westbrook had one of the best seasons ever, one worthy of getting him to the Hall of Fame all on its own. While the others were also historically good, Westbrook had the most outstanding season of all and carried his team to places they would have never been able to dream of otherwise.

If you are reading this and you have an MVP vote: don’t take it lightly. My decision was not made without serious research and deep thought, and yours shouldn’t be, either. Ultimately, you must put the time in to make the decision you feel is best. What I’m saying is this: vote your conscience. Make your own decision.

And I’ll throw in my decision: I’m voting for Russell Westbrook.

**All statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted**

Is James Harden Really This Good?

Photo Credit: Soobum Im/USA Today Sports

Photo Credit: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

If you don’t think James Harden is one of the best players in basketball, think again. And think quickly.

Harden is having one of the great beginnings to a season in the history of the sport. Through just eight games, the beard is averaging over thirty points, thirteen assists, and seven rebounds per game. Granted, we’re only eight games into the season, but still, Harden is on pace to average numbers that have only been reached by Oscar Robertson. And usually, we would say “player X and others” in this situation, but there are no others here. Harden is in a league of his own, doing things many of us have never seen before.

But, as is often the question with hot starts in sports, will Harden be able to keep this up over the course of a full season?

First, if we are asking whether or not Harden can keep up this performance and these exact numbers, the answer is probably no; actually, that probably is likely closer to definitely. There is a reason Robertson is the only player in league history to average a double-double over the course of a full season. Additionally, Robertson averaged 45 minutes per game in the 1963-64 season for the Cincinnati Royals, one of the seasons in which he averaged a double-double. Harden has been held under 38 minutes per game so far this year, and don’t expect that number to increase that much, either; Harden’s career high in minutes per game is 38.3 in 2012-13.

Besides minutes, though, it’s going to be very difficult for Harden to do this simply because of the laws of averages. He’s going to hit a rough stretch at some point this season and that’s coming sooner rather than later. Also, look to see how defenses adapt to Harden and if they try to get the ball out of his hands. That strategy would theoretically drive down his numbers and force his teammates to account for more offense.

But let’s just think about this for a second: I compared James Harden to Oscar Robertson. Is that something you ever thought you would hear? Granted, don’t be surprised to see a dropoff come soon for the Rockets star. But still, we’re talking about James Harden and Oscar Robertson in the same sentence, people! We need to wake up and realize that we’re seeing something that hasn’t been done in many years. It doesn’t matter if that’s in 80 games or eight; it’s spectacular nonetheless.

And now, let’s think hypothetically: what would need to happen for Harden to continue at this torrid clip? What would the Rockets need to do to give him the help he needs to continue his success?

For starters, Harden’s role will have to remain unchanged in D’Antoni’s offense. Last year’s starting point guard, Patrick Beverley, has missed the beginning of the season after undergoing knee surgery in October; however, he could be returning to practice next week and hopes to come back to the active roster by November 25. Harden has currently been acting as the Rockets’ starting point guard, but will that continue when Beverley returns? It remains to be seen, but the hopes of an unprecedented statistical season may take a hit upon Beverley’s return and Harden’s hypothetical shift back to shooting guard, his original position.

At the same time, a common misconception of Harden’s tear is that his numbers have been artificially inflated by D’Antoni’s high-octane offense. While D’Antoni has been tremendously helpful in Harden’s development, his offense hasn’t actually worked at an overly quick pace. Houston ranks 16th in the NBA in possessions per game (96.9), a far cry from when D’Antoni consistently engineered the Suns’ offense to near the top of the league in pace. D’Antoni’s Pheonix offense operated so quickly that it earned the nickname “Seven Seconds or :ess”.

Interestingly enough, this year’s Houston offense has actually had a faster pace than the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, but it’s not like Harden couldn’t do this on other, similarly talented teams.

Harden’s move to point guard has paid dividends not only for him but also for the Houston offense. Their offensive rating ranks fourth in the NBA and is up roughly three points from a season ago. The rest of the offense has been simplified, as well. More often than not, Harden facilitates and gets fellow starter Trevor Ariza and new acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon involved. Also (and this cannot be understated), new starting center Clint Capela has boosted the offense with his energy and unselfishness; meaning, he doesn’t need the ball with his back to the basket to succeed (looking at you, Dwight Howard). Losing Howard was somewhat of a blow for the Rockets, but replacing him with Capela has:

  1. Helped Harden and others assume bigger roles in the offense and
  2. Indirectly made the offense much more efficient

Even if Harden does not sustain these numbers, he should still have success in the new-look Rockets offense. D’Antoni’s offensive scheme has always been very point guard-friendly (Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin) and that trend has continued with Harden. D’Antoni moved Harden to point guard before this season, which solved one of the team’s main weaknesses from last season. While it remains to be seen whether or not he will stay as the team’s main facilitator, his beginning of the season has been incredible.

Yes, he may not be able to continue what he has done over the first eight games of the season. But what James Harden has accomplished to start his campaign should not be overlooked, as it may be a harbinger for both individual and team success in the future.

Where Does He Go Now? The Future of Frank Vogel

Photo Credit: Associated Press
Photo Credit: Associated Press

Frank Vogel is one of the best coaches in the NBA.  He’s an intelligent, charismatic team builder who has molded the Indiana Pacers into one of the most consistent teams in the league.  He’s also out of a job.

After coaching Indiana to five playoff appearances in nearly six years as the team’s head coach, he was let go by team president Larry Bird because… well, I don’t know why:

“Good coaches leave after three years”.  Larry Bird is the one of the best basketball players ever; what some forget is that at one time, he was a pretty good NBA head coach.  Ironically, he led the Pacers to three straight playoff appearances and the franchise’s only NBA Finals appearance in 2000.  Indiana lost to the Lakers, ending Bird’s third season as head coach.  And then…. he left.  Irony.

That being said, Vogel will have plenty of options if he wants to coach next season.  Let’s look at a few of those here.

Honorable Mention: Portland Trail Blazers

Yes, it sounds crazy; the Blazers already have Terry Stotts, one of the best coaches in the game and the runner-up in this season’s Coach of the Year voting.  Stotts, however, is at the end of his contract and while a deal should still get done, it will be interesting to follow whether this team and its coach come to an impasse in negotiations like the one encountered by Vogel and the Pacers.

It’s not likely that this job will be open, but it’s definitely one worth watching.

New York Knicks

Let’s just skip the formalities: there’s no chance Frank Vogel is coaching the Knicks next season.  They’ve seemingly locked in on Kurt Rambis as their guy (for some reason) and aren’t conducting much of a coaching search right now.  Vogel actually grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey and worked for the Lakers and Phil Jackson as an advance scout during the 2005-06 season.

Also, remember that Jackson, the team’s president, waited until June 10, 2014, before hiring Derek Fisher as its head coach the last time the job was open.  Vogel won’t last until then for the seemingly unhurried executive.  The likelihood of Vogel coaching the Knicks next season is easy to figure: zero.  There’s no chance of this actually happening.

That being said, it is fun to imagine the Knicks making a good coaching hire, for once.

Houston Rockets

This one is really interesting.  The Rockets have a superstar in James Harden who, believe it or not, is only 26 years old.  Ironically, Paul George is also 26, and we saw what Vogel was able to do for him.

However, the problem with this move would be the Pacers’ and Rockets’ respective paces and styles of play.  While Vogel’s Pacers have averaged just over 93 possessions per game over the past four seasons, the Rockets have been successful by pushing the pace and garnering more possessions.  In fact, Houston has eclipsed 96 possessions per game over that same time period, outrunning Indiana… but not necessarily outplaying them.

The teams have basically had the same amount of success over the past four years, with the Rockets making the playoffs every year. However, the Pacers have found more success in the second season, with two Conference Finals appearances in 2013 and 2014 and a seven-game first-round series with the Raptors this year.  The Rockets, on the other hand, have been eliminated in the first round in three of the past four seasons with a Conference Final appearance and a quick exit at the hands of the Warriors wedged in between.

Also, there’s the minor issue of the Vogel’s style of play and, more significantly, the ability of the Rockets’ personnel to hypothetically carry it out.  Dwight Howard has an opt-out clause that he can use this July 1; needless to say, he won’t be back after the tumult of this past season.  With his imminent departure, the Rockets are looking square in the face of starting Clint Capela at center unless, of course, the team can sign or draft a big man this summer.  Vogel’s Indiana teams had the most success when his offense was allowed to run through David West and Roy Hibbert, each of whom was one of the best big men in the game at one time.

Much was made of the Pacers’ going small and playing faster this season; while it worked for one year, there is no doubt that Vogel is much more comfortable espousing an old-school, traditional style of play on offense.  The Rockets wouldn’t be able to carry this out in their current form, so something would have to give.

But it sure would be intriguing to see what would happen if Vogel coached the Rockets, even if it would be different than what we’re used to from him.

Memphis Grizzlies

This fit is emerging as the most logical one for Vogel, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo.com’s The Vertical reports:

The preliminary stages of Memphis’ search to replace Dave Joerger include Vogel – the formerIndiana Pacers coach – who used the weekend to decompress after losing his job on Thursday, league sources said.

Vogel plans to start evaluating head-coaching opportunities early this week, league sources said.

The fit in Memphis makes the most sense for Vogel.  His old-school, slow style of play with a heavy emphasis on big men suits the Grizzlies’ “grit-and-grind” mantra perfectly.  If the team can secure Vogel as its head coach, it won’t have to change its style of play much, if at all.  What the team will have to change is its health, and there’s not much that can be done about that.

This season, the Grizzlies used an NBA-record 28 (!) players en route to a 42-40 record and a first-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs. Key pieces such as Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen all missed significant time over the course of the regular season. Also, no player on the team started over 57 games for the team, forcing Memphis to use 28 different starting lineups over the course of the season, with 12 of those combinations starting just one game.

It’s easy to see why the Grizzlies took a step back last season.  None of their best players could stay healthy for the entire year and the continuity of the team’s play was shattered.  That being said, the team could be back to its old ways next season, and new leadership may be part of their potential improvement.  Dave Joerger was almost inexplicably fired after this past season for the team’s subpar performance; now, it’s easy to see why he was canned.

The Grizzlies had something better lined up the whole time.

Time to End Hack-a-Jordan

Last night saw the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers play in game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.  It also saw one of the worst-played, aggravating, least watchable games the NBA has seen in a long, long time.  Most, if not all of the game’s awfulness was due to the Rockets using the strategy that has come to be known as “Hack-A-Jordan”, the fouling of the Clippers’ worst free throw shooter DeAndre Jordan (40%) incessantly, so much so that he shot 28 free throws in the first half, an NBA playoff record.  The league rules state that once a team fouls the other five times, each defensive foul leads to two automatic free throws.  Every time the Clippers got into the bonus penalty situation, Houston and coach Kevin McHale would have one of its players (non-rotation bodies such as Clint Capela and Kostas Papanikolaou) foul Jordan, obviously, blatantly.

The history of fouling opposing players with poor free-throw percentages seemingly dates back to the late-1990s to the early-2000s, when coaches would foul Shaquille O’Neal (career 53% free-throw shooter) in hopes of stopping him and the Lakers’ offense.  In the video below, the Portland Trail Blazers, in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, try to come back by fouling Shaq over and over again in the fourth quarter, to mixed results.  While the Blazers were trailing Los Angeles by thirteen points going into the fourth quarter, they did get Shaq to shoot just 12-for-25 from the line in the quarter.  However, the Lakers outscored Portland by two in that quarter, and the Big Aristotle’s free throws accounted for half of their points in the fourth.

However, the strategy actually dates back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain, who only shot 51% in his career from the charity stripe.  Despite his pedestrian (at best) free-throw shooting, Chamberlain was possibly the most dominant basketball player of his generation, and it could be assured he would be on the floor in late-game situations.  This led to teams wishing to put Wilt on the line to try to mount a comeback in the late going.  As you can imagine, the game of attempting to foul Chamberlain turned into sheer ridiculousness and distracted from the game itself.  Reacting to this, the NBA decided that, in the last two minutes, a foul away from the ball (otherwise known as an intentional foul), would result in two free throws and possession of the ball for the team fouled.  With the perpetual fouling of Shaq and DeAndre, it is done before there is two minutes left in the game.  Often, between five and two minutes left in the game, teams ramp up the hacking, trying to get it all in before the two-minute mark.

So how should the rule be changed?  It’s simple: if a team fouls Jordan (or anyone else, for that matter), away from the ball, without the fouled player attempting to get to the ball, it should be deemed an intentional foul.  The fouled team should consequently get two free throws and the ball.  Want to really discourage “Hack-a…”?  Let the oppressed team choose which player it wants to shoot the free throws, just like technical fouls.  Personally, I am in favor of doing this as well.  Think about if Chris Paul (86% from the line) or J.J. Redick (89%) would have shot the free throws as a result of the Jordan fouls.  The game would have been over in the third quarter, which would not have made any difference in terms of the game’s watch-ability.  If anything, making the game a 50 or 60 point game due to the fouling would have saved us all from watching any more of that game than we would have had to.

Here’s my point: does watching a team foul the other’s worst free throw shooter time and time again make the game more enjoyable for the fan?  Sure, there are more strategic possibilities upon performing Hack-A-Jordan, but there is absolutely zero flow and rhythm to the game.  We often complained about the length, but more importantly, the pace of baseball games before this season saw the addition of clocks between innings to cut out dead time. The pace of games during the Rockets’ Jordan-hacking has been as bad, if not worse, than baseball was.  In a game that is growing exponentially and around the world, how can anyone on Earth stand to watch these “theatrics?”  And, especially considering that the Clippers play on the west coast and the Rockets play an hour behind in Houston, how can children who are just beginning to grasp the game of basketball bear to see this?  They actually should be thankful that they aren’t allowed to stay up late and watch the games, because they would be bored out of their minds and never watch basketball again.

As a final warning to the reader: don’t blame opposing teams for fouling Jordan.  It’s a smart strategy, especially if you are behind, as the Rockets were for most of the game last night.  Kevin McHale and Gregg Popovich are simply trying to create more possessions and interrupt the Clippers’ offensive rhythm.  It’s not their fault; it’s a strategy that dates back decades.  While Jordan isn’t the dominant player Wilt or Shaq was in their day, he wreaks havoc on the glass and is an enormous presence on defense.  However, he has not been discouraged by his results from the line, and it hasn’t affected other areas of his play.

If the Clippers win an NBA title this year on the legs of DeAndre Jordan’s free throws, then look for the rule to be changed.  If they lose out on a title due to DeAndre Jordan’s free throws, then look for the rule to be changed. History has shown that NBA commissioner Adam Silver is open to change (i.e. lengthening of the all-star break, talks of a mid-season tournament in Las Vegas) and will look at all options in regard to this story.  The rule will likely be changed, and it’s about time.

It’s time to put an end to repercussion-less Hack-A-Jordan.

NBA Playoff Preview

East First Round

(1)Hawks vs. (8)Nets: Hawks in 4

(4)Raptors vs. (5)Wizards: Raptors in 6

(2)Cavaliers vs. (7) Celtics: Cavaliers in 5

(3)Bulls vs. (6)Bucks: Bulls in 6

Discussion: The Hawks easily dispatch of and sweep the Nets like they have in the regular season.  The Raptors defeat the Wizards in a series of two fairly evenly matched teams.  The Celtics take a game (most likely game 1) from the Cavs, a team greatly lacking in playoff experience who will come out flat and nervous.  But don’t expect the upset here.  Finally, the Bucks outperform expectations but eventually succumb to the superior Bulls.

West First Round

(1)Warriors vs. (8)Pelicans: Warriors in 5

(4)Trail Blazers vs. (5)Grizzlies: Grizzlies in 6

(2)Rockets vs. (7)Mavericks: Rockets in 7

(3)Clippers vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6

Discussion: The Pelicans, fresh off their first playoff berth since 2011, take a game from the Warriors but cannot hang in the series.  In a series of complete attrition, the Grizzlies survive the Trial Blazers; both teams are suffering from critical injuries.  The Rockets-Mavericks series is a toss-up, but the advantage goes to the team with home court.  Finally, the Spurs defeat the Clippers and set up a second-round date with Houston.

East Semifinals

(1)Hawks vs. (4)Raptors: Hawks in 6

(2)Cavaliers vs. (3)Bulls: Cavaliers in 7

Discussion:  The Hawks defeat the Raptors in 6.  The Hawks have not been to a Conference Finals since 1970.  The Cavaliers defeat the Bulls in what could arguably end up as the best series in the playoffs, as both teams are profusely talented and evenly matched.

West Semifinals

(1)Warriors vs. (5)Grizzlies: Warriors in 6

(2)Rockets vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6

Discussion: The Warriors dispose of a Grizzlies team that will likely be without starting PG Mike Conley for the playoffs.  The Spurs defeat the Rockets.  Crazy guess: the Spurs employ either a Hack-a-Smith strategy (Josh Smith: 49% Free-throw shooter) or play Hack-a-Howard (53% Free-throw shooter).

Conference Finals

(1)Hawks vs. (2)Cavaliers: Cavaliers in 6

(1)Warriors vs. (6)Spurs: Spurs in 6

Discussion: Both road teams prevail here.  The Cavaliers overwhelming talent overtakes the Hawks teamwork and discipline.  The Spurs defeat the Warriors in a battle of the New Guard vs. the Old Guard in the NBA.  This sets up the LeBron vs. the Spurs rematch for a third straight year.

NBA Finals

Cavaliers vs. Spurs: Cavaliers in 7

Cleveland finally gets its title.  This Cavs team is obviously far better than last year’s Cavs team and the play of Kyrie Irving at the point will be the difference.  Bold prediction: Kyrie will win Finals MVP.  The Cavs win this series by the slimmest of margins, in 7 games.

Enjoy the playoffs everybody!