Kurt Helin

James Harden

Soon Harden will stop being seen in Air Jordans

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To quote some other writer, this is much ado about nothing. But when you combine celebrities and hundreds of millions of dollars in the dearth of the off-season, you get a story.

To be clear, there are 200 million reasons James Harden should stop wearing Air Jordans.

Harden’s new mega-deal with Adidas doesn’t officially kick in until Oct. 1, and he was seen around the Los Angeles area still wearing Air Jordans. Which he is certainly not a violation of the letter of his contract for another couple of weeks. Still, you can imagine that’s not sitting well with the people at Adidas. ESPN’s Darren Rovell asked the good people at Adidas about it.

Asked whether Harden will have to stop wearing his Air Jordan collection in public when the deal officially commences Oct. 1, Adidas’ Mark King said, “That’s part of the deal.”

“The difference between football and basketball is that a guy like Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have a walk-around shoe,” King said. “Harden does, and he will be in our lifestyle stuff.”

This matters to Adidas — they know they are a long, long way from toppling Nike in basketball shoes, but they have brought in other big names such as Kanye West to design lifestyle shoes to wear around. That’s a market they want to go after. Harden’s pop culture status — the beard, dating a Kardashian, being known for fashion — is part of the reason Adidas went in big to land him. So it doesn’t look good when he’s walking around in other people’s gear. It’s not a big deal, but it’s noticed.

Harden seems to have learned his lesson.

51 Q: Can the New York Knicks make the playoffs?

Phil Jackson
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can the New York Knicks make the playoffs?

This past summer, New York Knicks decision maker Phil Jackson tried to walk a fine line.

He attempted to balance rebuilding the franchise to compete for titles long term with improving the roster enough for next season that they could make the playoffs.

In trying to do both, he may have done neither.

On the bright side for Knicks fans, Jackson didn’t mortgage the future for a quick-fix, a New York tradition that put the team in this hole in the first place. That is at least a step in the right direction.

Whether you think he did a good job building for the long-term ultimately depends on what you think of rookie Kristaps Porzingis. If you think he’s another Euro bust, or even is going to develop into a solid NBA rotation player, then you also think Jackson swung and missed going for the home run with the No. 4 pick when better guys were still on the board. If you think Porzingis can develop into a franchise cornerstone player, then you think Jackson has them on the right path. The only thing everyone can agree on with Porzingis is that we are two to three seasons away from knowing who is right about him. He’s got skills, but he’s a project.

Aside KP, what move did Jackson make this summer that speaks to the longer-term? They struck out on Greg Monroe and other top free agents. Jerian Grant looks like a good pick, but he’s going to be a solid rotation point guard not a star (and if the Knicks continue to run the triangle that’s not the most crucial of positions). Maybe they can retain Robin Lopez long term. But the only potential big score is Porzingis.

What about the other side of the line Jackson tried to walk — can the Knicks make the playoffs next season?

Probably not.

They will certainly be better, but the playoffs will remain out of reach.

Last season the Knicks won 17 games. Last season it took 38 wins to be the eighth seed in the East, a number that likely climbs a little next season — let’s say just to 40 wins. That means the Knicks need to be 23-wins better to make the cut. That’s a lot of wins, and teams that make that kind of leap in one season usually have a very good reason for it. To use the other New York team as an example (although they were in Jersey at the time), the Nets got 26 games better the season they traded for peak Jason Kidd.

I like the Knicks’ off-season moves better than many, but adding Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Kyle O'Quinn is not 23-win jump impressive. It’s some solid singles, not a home run. You can be sure Sasha Vujacic isn’t the answer.

Phil Jackson was brought in to land guys that can improve a team 23-games, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, not tell those players he wants them to play out of position then not even meet with them. For more than a year, Greg Monroe was thought to be a lock for the Knicks and he chose Milwaukee instead — those are the targets the Knicks and their fans expect to land. Or at least be in the mix for.

(What was even more odd with the Knicks’ summer acquisitions was giving Afflalo and Derrick Williams player options for next season — why sacrifice potentially $12.6 million in cap flexibility next summer to retain those two guys?)

If the Knicks are going to make the playoffs, three things need to happen.

1) Carmelo Anthony needs to stay healthy and have a monster season. At age 31 he is coming off knee surgery that kept him out of more than half the Knicks games last season. He’s going to have to prove he’s still an elite scorer who can be efficient. More than that, he’s going to have to fit in with the triangle offense and not be a ball stopper. He’s got to lead by example, at both ends of the court.

2) The Knicks need to play some defense. The Knicks were 28th in the NBA in defensive rating last season (points allowed per possession) and if they are going to make the playoffs that needs to improve to somewhere near the middle of the NBA pack at least. Lopez protecting the rim should help, as will Afflalo on the perimeter. The Knicks need to be stronger on the defensive glass. One other area that needs improvement — defending the three-point line. The Knicks allowed the second highest percentage of made corner threes in the NBA last season, and the highest percentage of made threes above the break. In a league with more and more shooters, the Knicks need to defend the arc far better.

3) Someone needs to step up and be a reliable second scoring option. Here’s a fun question: After Anthony, who were the next three highest points-per-game scorers for the Knicks last season? If you guessed Andrea Bargnani (14.8), Alexey Shved (14.8), and Amar’e Stoudemire (12), well, then you cheated. Because nobody would guess that. But those were the guys, which explains why the Knicks scored the fewest points of any team in the NBA last season. And now all three of those guys are gone. This season players like Afflalo, Langston Galloway and others need to become reliable options on the offensive end.

The reality is that the Knicks likely miss the playoffs next season, but that is not the only thing they are playing for.

They need to be impressive enough that come next summer the big name free agents out there — starting with Kevin Durant, who has people in his camp that want him to consider the Knicks — actually take meetings with and give serious thought to the Knicks. Right now, for top free agents the Knicks are an afterthought. Elite free agents are getting paid and getting endorsement money anywhere they go, what they want to see is a team turning the corner, on its way to winning. Monroe saw that in Milwaukee, not New York. The Knicks need to be good enough to change that perception, to be seen as a team just a player or two away.

Making the playoffs would help that perception, but it’s not a necessity.

However, if they suffer through another ugly season, Jackson and the Knicks front office have some serious and significant changes to consider.

Hornets’ coach blames self for last season’s issues

Steve Clifford
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Steve Clifford did what any good coach would do — he fell on the sword for his players.

Last season’s Hornets won 10 fewer games than the season before (and missed the playoffs), mostly because of an offense that got 3.5 points worse per 100 possessions. There were a lot of factors that led to the step back: Al Jefferson‘s conditioning, early defensive struggles, Kemba Walker being injured, Josh McRoberts being gone, Mo Williams missing most of the season, and on down the line.

But when talking to the media in Charlotte Tuesday, Clifford took the blame on himself, reports the Charlotte Observer.

“We’ve got to be more ready to start the year. … Last year I did a poor job of getting the team ready for the season. We were bad (initially) on offense and bad on defense.”

The Hornets want to jump back into the playoff picture and made off-season moves more targeted at the short-term rather than the long-term (such as drafting more-ready Frank Kaminski as opposed to taking the massive package of picks Boston offered for the No. 9 slot because Justise Winslow was still on the board). They added players such as Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, and Jeremy Lin to make them better now.

Despite all that, a lot of the Hornets early success will come down to big man Al Jefferson — is he ready to be an offensive focal point and provide a little more on defense than he did to start last season? Clifford thinks so.

“He lost considerable weight. He’s where he should be.”

The challenge for Clifford is molding a roster where about half of the players are new, and get them to play a more balanced offense that is not too Jefferson-centric. Like every coach, what he wants is more ball movement.

“Hopefully more five-man movement and quick decision-making,” Clifford said of his offensive goals 10 days out from training camp. “If we can combine that with a good post game, … (Jefferson) is by far our best offensive player. He’s 10 years of 19 (points) and 10 (rebounds). But we can’t play where every play is to Al.”

The Hornets should be in the playoff mix in the East. Things need to go right for them — Batum needs to step up with a big season, a little better offense from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t hurt, their defense needs to be rock solid — but it could well happen.

Walt Frazier says Wilt Chamberlain is GOAT

wilt_chamberlain_warriors_72866735
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It’s a bit of a bar stool argument; there isn’t only one right answer to “who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” It’s a matter of opinion (well, so long as you don’t say Craig Ehlo). The conventional wisdom right now is Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time (Magic Johnson says he is), but if you want to argue for Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Magic, or a few others you’re not out of line.

Former NBA star and now Knicks’ color analyst Walt Frazier was asked about it on Bleacher Report, and he went another direction:

Wilt Chamberlain.

“If I had to pick a guy it would be Wilt Chamberlain, because if you look at his records, it’s hilarious, nobody will approach any of his records. So he would be my guy. Bill Russell would be behind him. A guy who is always overlooked is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the leading scorer in the history of the game. The skyhook is the most lethal weapon the game has ever seen, but when people talk about the greatest player he’s not even in the top five.”

I agree with Fraizer on the last part — Abdul-Jabbar does get shortchanged in this conversation far too much. Six time champ, six time MVP, his numbers stack up with anyone.

I was on a television show in Los Angeles with the Hall of Fame basketball writer Mark Heisler (formerly of the Los Angeles Times, now blogging for Forbes) and he made a good point: For him, the GOAT conversation has to be broken out into big men and guard/wings. He said their roles and what they provide on the court are so different, it’s not fair to compare the contributions of guys such as Kareem and Jordan. He thought they were separate discussions. I think there’s something to that logic. It’s also hard to compare across eras because there didn’t use to be a three-point shot, and how defenses were called (zone, no zone, hand checking on the perimeter) has changed.

Still, you can make a good case for Chamberlain — for his career he averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds, he was physically far ahead of his time. He was the first big man in the NBA who was a real athlete, and he changed the game.

Tony Parker drops 9-in-a-row on Latvia (VIDEO)

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France is loaded with NBA talent — Boris Diaw, Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier — but Tony Parker is the guy that makes it all work.

And he was making it work against Latvia on Tuesday.

He finished with 18 points to lead France to the quarterfinals win — and that included dropping nine in a row at one point, which you can see above. The French win sets up a rematch with Spain — and the winner gets a ticket for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Expect Parker to step up his game.

By the way, for all the talk of LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Parker is just as central to making the Spurs offense work as well.