What can LeBron James actually learn from training with Hakeem Olajuwon?

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Few things in the world of pro basketball are fetishized more than mentorship, particularly when the part of the wise sage is played by an NBA legend. There’s just something about NBA greats — past and present — comparing notes that really sparks the imagination; the idea that some enlightenment could be gained through two people sharing a gym is an alluring one, so much so that current players consulting with some of the game’s all-timers is as surefire way to generate headlines as it is the most whimsical basketball daydreams.

The most recent examples all seem to hover around the same legend: Hakeem Olajuwon. He famously met with Kobe Bryant, and was cited for his efforts every time Bryant set up shop on the block. Then he met with Dwight Howard, a move designed to increase the league’s most dominant center’s post repertoire. This year’s pairing? Hakeem and LeBron James, everyone’s favorite “he-should-really-post-up-more” player of choice. James’ ability to physically dominate his opponents has made him an effective post threat thus far, but his game down low could certainly use some polish. That’s where Olajuwon would theoretically help; a drop step here and a baby hook there, and James would go from an efficient but underused post threat into a certifiable weapon.

Of course, all of this leans heavily on the notion that Olajuwon’s tutelage actually creates a tangible benefit. There’s only so much that can be gained from short-term instruction, and while Olajuwon undoubtedly has much to teach any post player willing to listen, his time and influence are limited in these cases. He may be able to introduce a few ideas or moves, but to expect those skills to be fully formed is asking a bit much. Hence why Howard, who spends as much time in the post as anyone in the NBA, didn’t look the part of a completely reinvented player. He was a bit more fluid and did have a few new tricks this past season, but his moves were essentially as robotic as they had been previously.

A superficial examination of Howard’s case alone would say that Olajuwon’s teachings weren’t able to accomplish their intended goal. Yet where Olajuwon’s advisement may be truly beneficial is not in skill training, but in confidence building. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN’s Heat Index examined the before and after effects of Olajuwon’s instruction on post usage and efficiency, and found a particularly interesting development in the post play of another of Olajuwon’s apprentices:

In 2008-09, [Kobe] Bryant 14.2 percent of his overall play repertoire was used on post-up plays, or, put another way, he used 4.1 post-up plays per game. This includes post-up plays like drop-steps, turnaround jumpers, and even pass outs when the defense collapsed. On average, 1.035 points were scored per post-up play (you can find this under the “Efficiency” column).

And what happened the following season? Everything went up, but mostly his usage. Whether it’s a product of age slowing him down or a newfound confidence sparked by Olajuwon (or both), Bryant almost doubled his diet of post-ups in 2009-10. That’s an astounding change in playing style which we rarely see in the game today. His efficiency also saw a slight uptick from 1.035 to 1.058.

Bryant did become a bit better in the post, but more importantly, he started operating from the block almost twice as often. It’s notable that he was still able to boost his efficiency despite that increase in usage, but the far more relevant aspect of Bryant’s evolution is that he was willing to work out of the post so often at all. Haberstroh wonders if the same product might come from LeBron James’ sessions with Olajuwon, and rightly so; James’ biggest post problem isn’t a lack of effectiveness, but of willingness. If training with Olajuwon would give James the confidence to work down low more often, then that alone could make the NBA’s most brutally effective and efficient player that much more so.

Perhaps this kind of mentorship is guised as a workshop in post moves, but thus far the clearest benefit seems to be the transformation of the low post into a comfort zone.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.