What does Oklahoma City look like without James Harden?

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Getting hit with the cold truth hurts. Getting hit with it 37 times? Ask a Thunder fan how that feels. Here’s the truth, and it has been evident long before last night’s coming out party: James Harden is a star in this league.

And no matter how you try to rationalize trading Harden while competing for a championship, Oklahoma City is worse off for it – at least for this season. That has less to do with skill than it does with fit, because Kevin Martin has long been one of the most underrated and efficient scorers in the league. Things will just look very different. Here’s how.

16-23 Feet: Getting Crowded

Don’t cry for the “lost art of the mid-range game.” It’s the worst shot in basketball, and teams that rely heavily on it typically don’t have much offensive success. To that point, the Charlotte Bobcats, offensive juggernaut they were, led the league in shot attempts from 16-23 feet last season.

Oklahoma City took the 7th least attempts from 16-23 feet last year, but all that’s about to change. Kevin Martin may be ultra-efficient, but he still likes to create space and fire off his jumper from this distance on the floor. Martin typically averages nearly 5 attempts per game from 16-23 feet. Compare that to James Harden, a guy who rarely pulled up for long-twos, as he shot exactly one per game last year.

With Westbrook and Ibaka firing from this distance more and more as the years get on, the Thunder offense could be a little streakier than it has been in the past. The Thunder did shoot the league’s best percentage from here last year (42.6%), but buyer beware. There was better stuff on the menu when Harden was creating options that no other player on the current roster is capable of replicating.

Nick Collison loses his dance partner

Part of the reason Harden was able to have so much success in the pick-and-roll was because of the chemistry he enjoyed with Nick Collison. Apart from being a great screener, Collison knew exactly when to slip, or re-set, or simply leave Harden to his own devices. It would be a shock if Martin enjoyed the same success with Collison, as he looks almost solely to free himself, rarely feeding the roll man with a clever bounce pass.

And that hurts. Like an offensive lineman in football that gets sick of pass protection and just wants to run the ball a few times, big men in basketball setting screens want to roll hard to the rim and get rewarded with the ball every now and then. Collison has routinely been one of the league leaders in plus/minus, but without being so closely attached to Harden, his effectiveness should dwindle a bit.

Pin-down screens for all

Ultimately, it’s Scott Brooks who faces the biggest task of replacing Harden with Martin, simply because Harden was such a good “freelance” player. Even though Martin is actually a very good isolation scorer, he’s by no means a primary ballhandler. While Harden could get you in your stuff and out of it when it got bad, Martin can only finish the equation.

What’s that mean? More Eric Maynor handling the ball with the second unit, and a whole handful of the “Kevin Durant package” plays, which are basically pin-down screens, designed for Martin. Although he’s still far from a creative offensive mind, Brooks has gotten better at getting Durant the ball closer to the basket. Doing the same with Martin is a good idea, as he’s led the NBA three of the last four years in free throw attempts per 36 minutes.

Stagnant offense

This should be the big fear for the Thunder – the offense becoming too stagnant. Oklahoma City sometimes has a tendency to take turns, which can really leave them without any flow. Usually, Westbrook or Durant are so good and so unstoppable that it doesn’t matter, and that will be the case again this year. But once playoff time rolls around, the Thunder will miss the ability of Harden to break down the defense as a primary ballhandler.

Softer defense

Harden doesn’t measure out as a great defender, but the raw goods were there. Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much resistance at all, as he’s not laterally quick or nearly strong enough to deny anyone spots on the floor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, but at least Harden had the physical ability to hang with a Dwyane Wade type – Martin just doesn’t.

A little more frail

Okay, this is the actual biggest fear – Kevin Martin missing significant time. Martin missed 26 games last year, 36 three years ago, 31 the year before that, and 21 the year before that. Harden, meanwhile, has only missed 10 games over his first three seasons.

Although stylistically they’ll go through changes, it’s important to remember that Oklahoma City was bold enough to draft Harden where they did in the first place. If they are so willing to hit the reset button over a few million dollars every year, it seems almost likely that there’s something underneath the surface that we can’t quite see. Until that reason surfaces, however, take the Thunder for what they are — a less varied, less durable, less likely championship contender.

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.