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Sunday, January 04, 2015

NBA Potpourri: James Harden, David Blatt, and The New York Knicks' Mess

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to revisit some recurring NBA themes, specifically how James Harden's game should be evaluated, how good of an NBA coach David Blatt is and what it will take to turn around the New York Knicks.

How Good Is James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012 after Harden refused to sign anything less than a max contract, I declared that Harden is best-suited to being a third option on a championship-contending team and I rejected the notion that he is an All-NBA First Team or Second Team caliber player. In contrast, Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, one of the most highly regarded "stat gurus," proclaimed that Harden is a "foundational player." I had never heard that phrase before but the only relevant or sensible interpretation is that Morey believes that Harden is great enough to be the best player on a championship-caliber team and/or that Harden is great enough to lift a mediocre or worse team well above its otherwise expected performance level. Harden is more than a third of the way through his third season in Houston, so one can draw at least preliminary conclusions about his game. Three issues should be examined: How Harden's departure affected the Thunder, how Harden's arrival affected the Rockets and how Harden has performed in terms of his individual productivity.

The Thunder posted a .712 winning percentage in Harden's final season with the team (2011-12) and they advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in no small part because Harden performed awfully on the sport's biggest stage; during the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden averaged 12.4 ppg--4.4 ppg worse than his regular season average--while shooting just .375 from the field and committing 12 turnovers in 164 minutes (Harden's teammate Russell Westbrook posted 11 turnovers in 211 minutes despite playing most of his minutes against the Heat's best players while Harden had the opportunity to play against reserves and/or tired starters).

Without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder improved their winning percentage to .732 and eliminated Harden's Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs--but Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending injury versus the Rockets, crushing the Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. In 2013-14, the Thunder posted a .720 winning percentage even though Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from his knee injury. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. This season, both Westbrook and 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant have missed a significant number of games due to injury but the Thunder are 17-17, including six wins in their past 10 games as Durant and Westbrook have returned to action.

There is no evidence that Harden's departure has negatively impacted the Thunder; their regular season record improved without him--no small accomplishment considering how good their record was in 2011-12--and their failure to make it back to the NBA Finals is related to injuries, not Harden's absence. If the Thunder had kept Harden then they likely would have lost Serge Ibaka and they would have been worse off.

What about Harden's impact on his new team? The Rockets' winning percentage improved from .515 to .549 in Harden's first season in Houston. That is equivalent to about three wins in an 82 game season. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed and promptly lost in the first round to, as mentioned above, Harden's old team.

In 2013-14, the Rockets added Dwight Howard--a five-time All-NBA First Team center who had almost completely recovered from the back surgery that slowed him down in 2012-13 when he played for the L.A. Lakers--and improved their winning percentage to .659. The Rockets tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth best record in the Western Conference, received homecourt advantage versus Portland based on a tiebreaker and still did not manage to even push the series to seven games, losing 4-2. 

This season, the Rockets got off to a fast start but their current winning percentage is .697 and they would not even have homecourt advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and it seems much more likely that they will fall behind the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as opposed to passing the teams that are already ahead of them in the standings.

The Rockets have improved a bit since Harden's arrival but they are still not a legitimate contender and the improvement that they have made has at least as much to do with Dwight Howard as it does with Harden. Harden is neither carrying a bad roster to unexpected heights nor is he lifting a good roster into legitimate championship contention. The Rockets have been first round playoff fodder the past two seasons and there is no reason to believe that they will advance past the first round this season.

Individually, Harden has put up some gaudy scoring numbers. He ranked fifth in the league in scoring in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 and he currently leads the league in scoring. However, Harden's field goal percentage plummeted as his role changed from being the third option to being the first option. For such a big-time scorer, Harden has a very limited offensive game; he either shoots three pointers or he drives to the hoop, throws himself into opposing players and begs for foul calls (which he often gets, at least in the regular season). Harden has no postup game and no midrange game; he plays the way that "stat gurus" prefer, because he racks up most of his points from either three pointers or free throws. It does not require an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that long two point shots (i.e., shots taken from just inside three point range) are not good shots; a player who has the ball just inside the three point arc should either step back and take advantage of the potential extra point or else drive closer to the hoop for a higher percentage two point shot. However, the idea held by many "stat gurus" that the midrange game is completely inefficient and/or unnecessary is extreme. Teams that cannot score in the midrange game are not going to advance very far in the playoffs unless they perform exceptionally well in other areas on a consistent basis.

Harden puts up decent assist totals but those numbers are a deceptive product of Houston's drive and kick offense; Harden is not individually creating offensive opportunities for his teammates a la great playmakers such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.

A player like Harden is not so hard to defend in the playoffs when the competition is tougher and the teams are well rested; you put one mobile defender on Harden, you deny Harden open three point shots and when Harden drives you avoid body contact while making sure to contest his shot. It is not necessary to double team Harden; Harden does not "tilt the floor" the way that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. It is no accident that Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in three of his five postseasons, including both of his Houston playoff appearances.

Despite his high scoring average, I still think that Harden is an overrated offensive player. When Durant and Westbrook created opportunities for Harden, Harden was a much more efficient player. Now, Harden has a license to shoot at any time but he is not efficient and he has not elevated his team beyond the middle of the playoff pack.

Then, there is the notorious matter of Harden's defense. Harden may be the worst defender among All-Star players in quite some time. Often, he does not even pretend to try at that end of the court. Supposedly his defense has improved this season but he set the bar so low that the only way he could have gotten worse is if he actually put the ball in the hoop for the other team.

So, if my description of Harden is correct then why did he make the All-Star team the past two years and why did he earn an All-NBA Third Team selection in 2013 before making the All-NBA First Team in 2014? I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status.

Maybe Harden will prove me wrong. Maybe he will become more efficient offensively. Maybe he will start to play defense. Maybe he will shoot better than .400 in the playoffs and lead Houston past the first round. Until he does those things, though, I will not consider him an elite or "foundational" player.

Is David Blatt an NBA Championship-caliber Coach?

The simple answer is "No." How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title.

Let us not misunderstand what happened several years ago when Team USA went through a stretch of failing to win gold medals in FIBA play. Those Team USA rosters did not include Kobe Bryant--the best player in the world at the time--and neither the players nor the coaching staff took the task seriously enough. If Team USA had been better coached and if the rosters had been better constructed then Team USA would have won every time. The fact that some FIBA teams could win one 40 minute game under FIBA rules against NBA players did not at all prove that the FIBA players and/or teams are superior to NBA players and NBA teams playing under NBA rules. If the best FIBA team played an 82 game NBA schedule that team would struggle to win 41 games--but if Team USA players trained year round under FIBA rules they could show up in any FIBA league or competition and win the championship.

The NBA game is faster, tougher, more physical and more complicated than the FIBA game with which Blatt is familiar. Blatt's supposedly sophisticated FIBA offensive sets are not getting the job done in the NBA even though Blatt's Cleveland squad is blessed with the best player in the NBA, two other All-Stars and a host of good NBA role players--and Blatt has yet to prove that he can teach and/or motivate NBA players to play good defense on a consistent basis.

The real questions are (1) Can David Blatt become an NBA championship-caliber coach? and (2) Will he become such a coach fast enough to keep his job in Cleveland? Blatt is not entirely to blame for Cleveland performing below expectations; LeBron James has admittedly coasted at times, various players have been injured and now Anderson Varejao is out for the season. However, even when LeBron James played hard and the Cavaliers were at full strength they did not consistently look like a championship team. It is interesting to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received during his first stint as Cleveland's coach. The current Cleveland team has more name-brand talent than Brown ever coached in Cleveland--though I think that talent on Brown's teams has been underrated a bit--but Blatt's squad lacks the attention to detail on defense that Brown's teams consistently displayed.

What Will it Take to Turn Around the Knicks?

The Knicks must get rid of Carmelo Anthony and rebuild their roster from the bottom up. When Mike Ditka first became coach of the Chicago Bears, he told the players that the good news was that he was going to lead the team to a championship but the bad news was that most of them would not be on the team by the time that happened. I expected that after Phil Jackson took over New York's basketball operations he would not re-sign Anthony; if someone other than Jackson did that he would probably be ridiculed for letting an allegedly elite player go but I thought that Jackson has enough championship credibility to defend such a move in the media--and cutting ties with Anthony is clearly the route that the Knicks should have taken.

Jackson publicly identified the Knicks' problems before he joined the team's front office: the Knicks have, as Jackson put it, a "clumsy roster." Anthony will probably be able to put the ball in the bucket until he is 40 years old but his overall game has not improved much since he entered the league: he likes to play one-on-one isolation basketball, he passes only as a last resort, he plays defense when he feels like doing so (not often enough to lead a team to a championship) and he is a capable, though not exceptional, rebounder considering his overall athletic gifts. He is not a good leader; he and his teams perform best when he is being guided/mentored by players with a championship mentality (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd in the NBA, Kobe Bryant with Team USA). 

The Knicks are currently 5-30, barely ahead of a Philadelphia team that has been accused of tanking. How can anyone possibly believe that Anthony is even close to being an elite player? Take Anthony off of that New York roster and add any elite player from the past 30 years; can you imagine the Knicks only winning five out of 35 games? A few years ago, Kobe Bryant made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center. At some point, people have to stop looking at statistics, stop being blinded by reputation and just look at what is actually happening on the court. Carmelo Anthony is a physically gifted athlete and an All-Star caliber performer but he is never, ever going to lead a team to an NBA championship. He could possibly be the second best player on a championship team if the best player is a great leader, if the team is extremely well coached and if the right supporting cast is on hand.

I wonder if Jackson thought that Anthony would play his way out of New York in such a fashion that Jackson would not be blamed and meanwhile Jackson could take his time retooling the rest of the roster. In other words, if the Knicks had posted a respectable 45-37 record this season and Anthony had turned in his typical playoff disappearing act in a first round loss then Anthony might have considered waiving his no-trade clause and Jackson could have dealt Anthony without being viewed as the villain.

Jackson must have known that the Knicks would not be a contender this season but he could not have possibly imagined things going as disastrously as they have. Media members are rightly criticizing Jackson for giving up Tyson Chandler but Jackson's biggest mistake thus far has been committing so much guaranteed money to someone who is just not a franchise player. Jackson should have done what Masai Ujiri did in Denver: send Anthony to a team dumb enough to take him in exchange for a package of good, solid players. If Anthony would not have agreed to such a sign and trade, then the Knicks should have let him walk and used the salary cap space to rebuild their roster. Normally, I would not advocate possibly letting an All-Star leave without getting anything in return but in this case the reality is that Anthony is not going to lead New York to a championship and thus it makes no sense for the Knicks to pay him as if he is an elite performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM