Video Breakdown: How James Harden leads the NBA in assists

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James Harden is stacking assists like they’re pancakes for the Houston Rockets this year, and perhaps the only player standing between him and the 2017 NBA MVP is Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. While both have penchant for triple-doubles, it’s Harden’s passing that has taken an eye-popping leap this year and deserves closer examination.

Harden’s per-100 possession passing statistics have gone up about 60 percent over his last two years in Houston, and he’s now averaging nearly 12 dimes per-game as he distributes proportionally to Houston’s rim-rolling big men and myriad 3-point shooters. That’s incredible considering his usage rate has not notably increased.

So how has Harden done this, how has his passing affected the Rockets offense, and is there any possible way to stop him?

Find out by watching this week’s NBA Playbook in the video above or by reading the text version below.

Gravity

It’s no secret Harden is a monster on drives and on the pick-and-roll, and his ability to penetrate and draw defenders around him has been a big part of his success this season.

Houston runs this double screen pick-and-roll play that has a lot of options on it. You’ve got two screeners here at the top, with one set to pop to the arc and one ready to dive hard to the lane.

As Harden rounds the pick, you’ve got all three defenders sliding and looking at Harden. Clint Capela’s body angle shows he’s just going straight for the bucket, and because both Harden and Ryan Anderson are shooters, the Cavaliers decide to play up toward the arc and leave the paint unguarded.

Film study reveals Harden often likes to pass to the corner opposite the direction of his drive. As Harden dribbles on this play, not only does he draw multiple defenders as before, but as Nene takes a purposefully wide roll angle to the hoop, that draws down the defending guard to help out. Eric Gordon is then left with enough space to get himself a 3-pointer.

Transition

Mike D’Antoni’s system has encouraged Harden to get the ball early and make a decision, sometimes passing at the half court line or even earlier.

Here are a couple examples where Harden receives the ball, then makes a decision strikingly early to get the ball out to either Anderson or Trevor Ariza. Teams need to pressure Harden when he’s the main recipient of a defensive rebound, lest he hit his teammates filling the wings.

It’s difficult to guard, happens often, and it’s something to understand about this Rockets offense as it relates to Harden’s success passing.

Rim runners like Capela have a mandate to run as hard as they can and in transition and to the bucket. Likewise, Houston’s shooters have a mandate to get to the wings as fast as they can in transition and go up almost immediately with their shot.

Forward Shooting

Anderson and Ariza have been critical to Harden’s success this year, and some of the plays Houston runs for these two are super fun.

We saw this dive play get Capela a bucket earlier in the video, but the Rockets also use it to get 3-pointers. Here against the Cavaliers, Houston is running it on the sideline, with Capela and Anderson again as the screeners.

Capela dives to the lane and this time takes Tristan Thompson with him — remember last time Cleveland played it high — and LeBron and JR Smith have to stop Harden’s drive to his strong side.

Anderson has to do is fade to the arc.

This is another set the Rockets run with frequency, with a double screen to the corner by the two posts as Ariza comes to the arc. The secondary action comes when Capela then screens down for Anderson as he pops to the 3-point line.

How to Stop Harden

Like with Westbrook, there haven’t been many teams that have been able to stop Harden. However, the Rockets have had a couple of losses where Harden hasn’t notched too many assists, and teams have helped slow Harden’s passing by doing three things:

  • Played extremely soft ICE on the pick and roll with non-shooting Rockets big men, sealing off Harden’s passing lane to the roller.
  • Kept their forwards from digging off Houston’s 3-point shooting front court players.
  • Closed on shooters multiple feet beyond the 3-point line, higher than you’d expect.

For example, in the following two videos, watch the outside defenders stick to Houston’s 3-point shooters to force Harden to try to finish at the rim:

In both plays by the Spurs and the Jazz, none of the wing defenders help to dig down, instead staying on the 3-point shooters on the arc. Some of them don’t even step foot inside the paint, and in fact against Utah Gordon Hayward actually moves slightly toward his own player as Harden drives.

They’d rather give up a well-contested shot at the rim with the two primary defenders than help and leave Houston’s shooters open. They’re betting on themselves being able to stop him with multiple defenders down low than have 3-point attempts go up without pressure.

Put that together with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge closing out hard, playing way higher than he normally would, and you’ve got a way to cull some of Harden’s assists.

But, let’s be honest: not really.

Like with Russell Westbrook, not many teams have been able to stop James Harden. The man is a passing machine, and it will be difficult to chose between him and Russ for the MVP this year.

AP source: Bulls agree to 2-year deal with Mirotic

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CHICAGO (AP) A person with knowledge of the situation says the Chicago Bulls and forward Nikola Mirotic have agreed to a two-year contract that could pay as much as $27 million.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity Sunday because the deal has not been announced. The Bulls hold an option on the second year.

The 6-foot-10 Mirotic averaged 10.6 points last season. He has scored 10.8 per game over three seasons.

The Bulls are rebuilding after winning 41 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs. They traded All-Star guard Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft night for three players 23 and younger – Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen.

Yahoo Sports first reported the agreement.

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Sparks, Lynx take part in pregame demonstrations prior to WNBA Finals

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The WNBA has been no stranger to demonstrations of social conscience in recent years. On Sunday, things were no different.

Before the Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, both the LA Sparks and Minnesota Lynx participated in their own pregame demonstrations.

The Sparks, similar to many NFL teams on on Sunday, stayed inside the locker room during the national anthem. The Lynx decided to take the court, but linked arms in their own show of solidarity.

This came in response to Trump’s recent comments about Colin Kaepernick. The former “Trump Steaks” founder called anybody who “disrespects our flag” a “son of a bitch”.

That prompted many NFL team mates to join together in their own demonstrations, either kneeling for the national anthem or staying inside their locker rooms.

Trump also decided to disinvite the Golden State Warriors after star Stephen Curry said that he would vote know heading into a team meeting to discuss whether they should visit the White House as the reigning NBA champions.

That prompted response from several players around the NBA and in Golden State, as well asWarriors coach Steve Kerr, who asked for Trump to remember that he represents the entire nation and not just his constituency.

Meanwhile, Game 1 of the Finals was pretty incredible with the Sparks winning thanks to a Chelsea Gray jumper with two seconds left to make it 85-84. LA leads Minnesota in the series 1-0.

Report: Chicago Bulls and Dwyane Wade reach agreement on buyout

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Well it finally happened.

According to Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Bulls and Dwyane Wade and have reach an agreement on a buyout.

This has been coming for some time, as it does not make sense to have Wade in the fold for a young Bulls team moving forward. Both sides seem to have been at a stalemate for some time as Wade’s salary is $23.8 million for the upcoming season.

Wade will now be free to move to another team, and many people think that he will be headed to the Cleveland Cavaliers to join his pal LeBron James.

Via Twitter:

The Cavaliers are over the cap, so the only deal Wade would be able to sign at the moment would be for the veteran minimum.

The full banana boat crew of Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron, and Wade were not been able to get on a single team this offseason, so Cleveland does seem to be the most likely option.

What Wade can bring to the Cavaliers is another question. Cleveland has relied heavily on Richard Jefferson over the past two years, so it’s not out of the ordinary for them to use a veteran often. Wade has certainly declined in recent seasons but his per-100 possession statistics show he could still be useful for a championship-level team needing a bench ball handler and scorer.

Whether he would accept that role is another thing altogether, and if role is important to Wade moving forward he could end up in a different place than with James in Cleveland.

San Antonio is another interesting place for him to land, although so to is back home in Miami. We still have yet to see where Wade will sign, but this is just yet another item to declare this NBA offseason the greatest of all-time.

Report: Knicks wanted Cavs’ Tristan Thompson in potential Carmelo Anthony trade

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Carmelo Anthony is now a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but save for a refusal from the Cleveland Cavaliers he could have been playing with LeBron James this season.

According to Cleveland.com, the New York Knicks apparently tried to complete a trade with the Cavaliers before settling with the Thunder.

The centerpiece of the potential trade with Cleveland would have been power forward Tristan Thompson, a favorite of LeBron. The Cavaliers apparently decided against making that trade, which is how we wound up with Anthony heading to play with Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

Via Cleveland.com:

The Knicks wanted Thompson, 26, a center who like James is represented by Rich Paul. The Cavs told them no. Thompson is under contract for three more seasons, beginning at $16.4 million this year. Cleveland was willing to do a deal that would’ve cleared some contracts off the books, such as sending Iman Shumpert ($11 million this year) and others.

New York also asked about one of Cleveland’s two first-round choices for 2018, and the Cavs weren’t about to part with either.

The Cavs view the Brooklyn pick they own for 2018 as invaluable for multiple reasons. Trading the Knicks their own first-round pick would prevent them from being able to move the Brooklyn pick later this season.

Obviously an important backstory here is how much LeBron likes Thompson, and that they share the same agent. Thompson remains a somewhat underrated part of the Cavaliers overall success during the regular season.

Thompson played much of the year at center for the Cavaliers last year, apparently making it his permanent position. Cleveland’s roster without Thompson but with both Kevin Love and Carmelo would have been an odd mix, forcing Love to likely be the person to play the 5.

It makes sense that the Knicks would want to Thompson, and it also makes sense that the Cavaliers refused.