Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 1/21

A Match Made in Heaven?

The Houston Rockets have had an interesting start to their season. They came out of the gates blazing hot, before suffering through a slump that coincided with Chris Paul’s second spell on the sidelines this season due to injury. In games in which the newly acquired point guard has played, the Rockets’ record is a very solid 21-5, although that statistic was a more impressive 14-0 just a few short weeks ago. Rockets star James Harden has also missed time this season, and when the entire starting backcourt has suited up, Houston is an almost unblemished 17-2.

When Daryl Morey shipped off a bevy of role players to acquire the former Los Angeles Clipper in a sign-and-trade this offseason, many questioned whether or not Paul and Rockets star James Harden could coexist, especially given Harden’s highly successful transition to the point guard position in 2016-17. Harden and Paul are known as two of the league’s most ball dominant players, and neither of them appeared ready or able to relinquish their ball handling duties.

There are two primary reasons that explain why they have been so successful through 19 games together. Harden is primarily a scorer, arguably the most unstoppable one in the league, but he has worked hard on developing his ability as a passer over the course of his NBA career. This development concluded with him leading the NBA in assists per game last season. Chris Paul is one of the premier facilitators in NBA history, but he is also underrated as a scorer. He’s mostly been so ball dominant as a necessity, never having played alongside a an all-star guard, much less one of Harden’s caliber. Paul has proven this season that he can fit seamlessly into the Rockets offense because he is an excellent catch and shoot three point shooter, he can create his own shot if need be, and he will keep the ball moving and create better looks for the collection of perimeter threats that Houston has.

More importantly, Houston knows it can succeed without Paul or Harden on the floor. Many of last year’s supporting players, namely Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza still reside in H-Town, and last year’s team won 56 games and came within a couple of games of reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Reigning NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni understood that and has found a way to mostly stagger his two star guards’ minutes, mostly only playing them together at the beginning of the game and the second half, and the final seven or so minutes. Both Paul and Harden can operate really well when surrounded by weapons who stretch the floor, and they take turns going at opposing team’s reserves, times in which they have both experienced immense success.

Furthermore, occurrences like game six of last season’s Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs, or the recent meltdown against the Boston Celtics, in which an exhausted Harden resorted to launching a number of ill-advised, contested threes, will no longer happen because Paul can always be there to shoulder the ball handling duties when necessary.

The Rockets have been successful when Paul and Harden share the floor, but they have especially exerted their dominance when one of them is sitting. Paul has taken over the offense when Harden is off the floor, shooting more and running the Rockets patented pick-and-roll, while being surrounded by perimeter marksmen. With Harden hurt, Paul upped his season scoring average from about 14 to close to 19 points per game.

With Harden recently returning to the lineup, Paul will have to spend more time as a low-usage, high-efficiency player that he seemed content to play during Houston’s long win streak. The Rockets have been difficult to beat when Harden and Paul suit up, and both seem to have embraced the role that they are asked to play.

The Rockets are in the driver’s seat for the West’s second seed, and are the frontrunners to challenge heavy favorites Golden State for conference supremacy. Despite their regular season success, the playoffs might present a new and more difficult challenge for Mike D’Antoni’s team.

In the postseason, teams rely more on their stars and backups minutes are slashed down. Houston has found a lot of success this season with their ability to attack other team’s benches with a Hall of Fame point guard led attack. However, in the playoffs, they will need to find a way to play more often with Harden and Paul on the floor together. Moving forward this season, the Rockets will need to experiment more with different offensive schemes to get their stars more accustomed to playing and succeeding together.

The Curious Case of Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard’s injury in itself has been strange to watch unfold. He missed the first 27 games of the season due to an undisclosed quadriceps injury, and when he returned, he played just over 23 minutes per game over nine contests while intermittently sitting out games when the schedule got too busy. Making the situation even more strange was the fact that the Spurs chose to complete the bulk of Leonard’s restricted minutes in the first half, and he rarely saw the court down the stretch.

Just as it seemed as he was rounding into shape–he played over 28 minutes and scored over 19 points in each of his three most recent games–the Spurs star had to sit again with what seemed like a relatively minor shoulder injury.

However, while he was out recovering, San Antonio announced that he spell on the sidelines would be extended by an indefinite length of time, not because of his shoulder, but due to the quad injury that had been hampering him early in the season. Although Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has never been one to speak too openly to the press, he has been especially reserved when discussing the health of his best player. He had been so coy regarding Leonard’s status that the injury seemed far more serious than originally believed, and that it was not at all surprising that Kawhi will now face another extended period of time off the court.

That narrative alone would contend with Markelle Fultz for strangest injury related storyline of 2017-18. What makes the story even more compelling is San Antonio’s success without their two-time defensive player of the year. The Lamarcus Aldridge-led group is 25-12 in games that Leonard has not appeared in, and only 5-4 when he does play.

San Antonio is on pace for about 53 wins–significantly worse than last season–but still remarkable, especially given that their best player has missed the vast majority of the year so far. Much of the credit goes to coach Popovich, who continues to lead of the league’s stingiest defenses while seamlessly recalibrating the offense around Aldridge, a player who had struggled so much last season that he requested a trade over the summer.

San Antonio, as presently constructed–with or without Leonard–have little to no shot at upending the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors in a seven game series. Leonard is one of the league’s five or six best players, as his run in last year’s playoffs proved, but his lack of considerable impact on the team is intriguing.

The Spurs may be in the market for another big move this summer, and rumors will continue to swirl around Aldridge, because despite his success, he has yet to perfectly mesh with his fellow star. Moving on or trading Leonard was never even mentioned as an option before this season. His game and persona seem tailor made to fit into the Spurs’ unselfish, winning culture.

It is still unlikely that the Spurs move on from Leonard, but that option may at least be on the table at this point in time. The other part of this story that is likely unique to Kawhi and his organization’s culture is how under the radar it has flown.

San Antonio sit in third in the west, and no one has batted an eye. On talent level alone, the fact that they have stronger records than, say, the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Oklahoma City Thunder makes no sense. Outside of Aldridge, no player  on the Spurs can come close to claiming star status. On the flip side, Leonard doesn’t seem to be treated like a true superstar and MVP candidate. If any other team was missing its best player and had assembled such a strong record, we would be impatiently waiting for the star to make his return, anticipating that it would make the team that much more of a serious contender.

In the case of the Spurs, they can beat any team in the West, except for the Warriors. Kawhi doesn’t seem to change that equation much. His future on the Spurs seems secure, but the rest of the season in Texas will be fun to track.

Warriors Players Battling for Another Title

The NBA right now has eight players who are, in my opinion, the clear eight best in the league. LeBron James is first, followed by some combination of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. The next four are, in no particular order, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook.

Harden’s white hot start to the season catapulted him into talks of being the league’s second best player, but his relative inefficiency, defensive shortcomings, and tendency to disappear for stretches relegate him to a clear fourth in my personal rankings.

The players battling to follow LeBron on the best player list are Golden State Warriors teammates Curry and Durant. They are the only two players who carry a heavy load on offense, score efficiently, play serviceable to excellent defense and play for a top team.

When Curry went down with an ankle injury, Durant, already the second best (if not the very best) in most people’s eyes, seemed to solidify this ranking. He scored at a higher clip with his point guard out, and his per-36 minute numbers for the season are at least in the same universe as LeBron’s.

Durant per 36: 27.2/7.2/5.6 on a .511/.404/.889 split

James per 36: 26.4/7.8/8.5 on a .554/.369/.754 split

This season, Durant has also made the defensive leap, going from slightly above average on that side of the ball in Oklahoma City to very good last year to Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner thus far in 2017-18. He’s among the league’s top five shot blockers and has consistently guarded the opposing team’s best player, including holding James to one of his worst performances of the season during the Warriors Christmas Day win over Cleveland.

His lessened focus on scoring since his arrival in the Bay Area has led to impressive improvement as a passer, an off the ball threat and on defense. It is hard to dispute that he is the league’s second best all-around player.

Durant can still size up and shoot over anybody, and he can finish from difficult angles due to his insane length. He couples an ability to break down any defender in an isolation situation with being one of the league’s deadliest catch and shoot threats. Durant used all of these skills to put together stunning performance after stunning performance while Steph was out.

However, since his return, Curry has somehow arguably been better than the reigning Finals MVP. Over his past eight games (all Golden State wins), Curry is shooting the ball at a better clip than his historic MVP season two years ago. His hot shooting has put his numbers to the level of James and Durant.

Curry per 36: 30.2/5.2/7.1 on a .495/.418/.918 split

Harden has been incredibly impressive this season. He is likely the MVP frontrunner at this point in the season. Despite his exploits, Durant and Curry’s individual successes have solidified them as the second and third best players in the league.

These are all extraordinary statlines to be putting up, and it is hard to separate Curry from Durant in terms of offensive prowess. Durant’s defensive jump makes him the likely second best player, but with the Warriors exerting their dominance over the rest of the league, perhaps Curry and Durant can develop a more competitive battle for the rest of the season.

 

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