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.

Jimmy Butler shows up in Minnesota wearing a fanny pack and holding a football (PHOTO)

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Jimmy Butler is now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, reunited with former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. A draft day trade between the Bulls and the Timberwolves saw Butler head to Minnesota in exchange for the No. 7 pick in 2017 NBA Draft, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn.

Butler and Thibodeau get along quite well, and there’s little doubt Butler will be one of the league leaders in minutes played for the Timberwolves next season. With the trade finalized, Butler showed up in Minnesota this week alongside Thibodeau wearing a very Butler-esque outfit.

There’s no good way to describe it other than by looking at it.

Via Twitter:

The Bulls got hosed.

Big3 begins: 3-on-3 league has close games, not much Allen Iverson

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NEW YORK (AP) Allen Iverson plans to be more spectator than scorer in the Big3.

The Iverson of old might be the only thing Ice Cube’s new 3-on-3 basketball venture can’t deliver.

The rapper-actor’s league of former NBA players got off to a strong start Sunday, with the first two games both decided on winning shots in front of 15,177 fans.

Iverson’s team won the third game, though as player-coach he only put himself in for 9 minutes. At 42 years old, the former NBA MVP said he doesn’t expect to be playing heavy minutes in the 10-game season.

“But I think the best part about this game here tonight and all the other games, it was exciting all throughout,” Iverson said. “It didn’t need Allen Iverson the player, per se.”

The quality of play was spotty, as players had to shake off sometimes years of rust. But it was certainly competitive.

“I think it’s going to be incredibly good. The games are exciting, the players are still talented and they’re fun to watch,” said Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who coached Power to a 62-58 victory over Tri State in the second game on DeShawn Stevenson’s 3-pointer.

Entertainers such as LL Cool J and NBA All-Star James Harden were in the crowd for the first two games before Iverson, the main attraction among players, took the court following a concert.

He may be the biggest name in the league, but his role on the court will be minor.

“I signed up to be a coach, player and captain. Coach part is going to go on throughout the game,” Iverson said. “Playing part is not going to be what you expect.

“You’re not going to see the Allen Iverson of old out there.”

He can’t be blamed, given the risk of injury for players way past their primes. Jason Williams, the flashy point guard nicknamed “White Chocolate,” went down with a right leg injury late in the opener, and Corey Maggette had to come out of the second game. Both were expected to be OK.

And that might not stop more players from wanting to play. Recently retired Paul Pierce was in the crowd and Andre Owens, the star of Iverson’s 3’s Company, said Kevin Garnett might want to play.

“Sky’s the limit. Obviously you see the debut,” Iverson said. “I didn’t even expect it to be like this, and then obviously guys that’s retired now, to see the outcome of this situation right here, probably are going to get that itch.”

Games are played to 60 points but teams have to win by two, and getting to 60 wasn’t enough in either of the first two games.

In the opener, Rashard Lewis made a three-point play with his team facing game point as 3 Headed Monsters edged Ghost Ballers 62-60.

The game has gimmicks – Lewis made the first 4-point shot and teams had 14 seconds to shoot. Team names included 3’s Company and Killer 3s and some players wore nicknames on their jerseys, with Jerome Williams going with “Junk Yard Dog” on his.

Cube vowed the games would be competitive – players are vying for a revenue share based on final league standings. There was pushing and shoving in the post and a few hard fouls, and the physicality and trash talk appeared to heat up as the games went on. With hand checking allowed, the games looked nothing like today’s NBA game.

“Some people like that style, some people don’t,” Trilogy’s Kenyon Martin said. “So we’re here to fill that void for the people that appreciate the way the game has been played forever, you know what I’m saying? Basketball is a contact sport.”

The eight-team league will play on 10 weekends, culminating with the Aug. 26 championship in Las Vegas. Games are shown on Monday nights on Fox Sports 1.

3 HEADED MONSTERS 62, GHOST BALLERS 60

The 3 Headed Monsters blew a late lead after Williams went down and the Ghost Ballers went ahead 60-59 before Lewis scored and drew a foul, making the free throw to finish the game.

Lewis finished with 27 points and former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown had 17 points and 13 rebounds for the 3 Headed Monsters. Ricky Davis led the Ghost Ballers with 23 points.

POWER 62, TRI STATE 58

Stevenson finished with 20 points for the Power, making five 3-pointers. Maggette scored 15 and Cuttino Mobley had 14.

Jermaine O’Neal scored 18 points for Tri State, coached by Hall of Famer Julius Erving. Mike James had 13 points and 12 rebounds.

3’S COMPANY 61, BALL HOGS 51

Andre Owens had 20 points and 15 rebounds for Iverson’s team. DerMarr Johnson added 14 points and Al Thornton scored 13.

Iverson finished 1 for 6 with two assists.

Rasual Butler made six 3-pointers and scored 22 points for the Ball Hogs. Derrick Byars chipped in 19.

TRILOGY 60, KILLER 3’s 45

Al Harrington scored 25 points as Trilogy cruised in the final game of the day. James White added 16.

Reggie Evans scored 18 and Stephen Jackson 17 for the losers.

Watch Draymond Green name all 34 players drafted before him in 2012 (VIDEO)

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Is Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green a petty guy? I will leave that for you to decide.

He is certainly determined, a characteristic that has led him and the Warriors to two championships in the last three seasons.

Green was famously a second round pick, drafted No. 35 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. And according to the video I’m about to show you, Green can recite the name of every single player who was drafted before him in 2012.

No, seriously.

Via twitter:

This might be the best video I’ve ever put on this website.

DeMarcus Cousins has dropped a ton of weight this offseason already (PHOTO)

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New Orleans Pelicans DeMarcus Cousins has been known to carry a bit of weight on his frame. He is currently listed at 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds.

It appears that last bit has significantly changed over the off-season.

Cousins has reportedly dropped quite a bit of weight during his off-season regimen, eating right and even hiring the personal trainer who made Julius Randle look so good in just a short amount of time for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Speaking to WDSU, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry Said cousins was primed to take a new role for the pelicans next season, taking on a bit of a ball handler role as a point center. That should be easily done now that cousins has gained a little bit of mobility by shedding some weight.

Via WDSU:

When I saw DeMarcus, his body looked great. He invited us to his house for lunch; he’s eating really healthy — he’s got a chef that he’s hired. I was really, really excited about what he’s taken from the standpoint of trying to get himself ready for the season and obviously he feels like this is a very important season for him.

Looking at Cousins’ Instagram, you can clearly see the results of his eating and training regimen. He looks damn near svelte.

The newly-formed Pelicans had a disappointing end to the season, but with more time together they will certainly be one of the teams to watch in the Western Conference.