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Rockets GM Daryl Morey: James Harden ‘only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch’

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Do you struggle with evaluating James Harden?

I know I do.

Harden’s Rockets, projected by some to contend for a championship, struggled to a 41-41 record last season. A fair share of their downfall could be pinned on him.

His defensive disinterest is appalling, and it sets a tone. His leadership is questionable, which matters a great deal for someone so empowered. He relies on tricking referees to draw fouls, frequently hooking his defender to create contact.

But I still put him on my All-NBA team, because his offense was so darned effective.

Elite individual offensive contributions are incredibly valuable. Harden’s defensive shortcomings can be hidden in a better team scheme. His leadership issues would matter less in a better team culture. But you can’t simply create what Harden provides offensively.

Long story short, Harden can be tricky to assess no matter how deeply you dive into his plusses and minuses.

Unless you ask Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey, via Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders:

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Morey has long defended Harden. That’s what general managers do for the superstar they acquired in tenure-defining trades.

But Morey also put his money where his mouth is. The Rockets will pay Harden an extra $20 million over the next two seasons just to get him locked up one extra year – and that extra year will cost about a max salary.

For better or worse, the Rockets are all in with Harden.

I think that’s a good plan given the alternatives, but I’m also not so sold on Harden that I find it foolproof.

Erik Spoelstra says it’s “a joke” Jimmy Butler is not an All-Star starter

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Jimmy Butler will be an All-Star when the game tips off in Chicago Feb. 16.

He just will be coming off the bench (to be voted on by the coaches), not starting, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says that’s “a joke.”

Spoelstra’s point is a good one: Is Butler a guard or a forward? Butler could only be voted on as a forward, but the Heat coach he sees Butler as the teams starting two guard, and in today’s positionless NBA should we define players this way at all? Here is what Spoelstra said, via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re still in these antiquated positions,” Spoelstra said… “So who’s to say what position Jimmy is? Does it matter? I put him No. 2 on my [lineup] card. So I go Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, I go Bam [Adebayo] and then Meyers [Leonard]. But you could flip any one of those guys around. And in many ways he’s our point guard. So should he be in the All-Star Game as a point guard? I don’t know.

“These are such antiquated labels that I feel like we’ve moved on from that years ago when we started talking about positionless [players]. But either way, regardless of how you want to label it or discuss it, Jimmy Butler should be a starter in this All-Star Game. It’s a joke that he’s not. Hopefully this will change things in the future.”

Butler was listed on the All-Star ballot a forward and could not be voted on as a guard. According to Cleaning the Glass’ breakdown, Butler has spent 44 percent of his minutes this season as a shooting guard, 42 percent at small forward, and 14 percent as power forward.

We probably should define Butler as a “wing” player, but that doesn’t fit neatly into the NBA’s voting categories. Butler isn’t even the most obvious category-busting player out there: Is 6’8″ Luka Doncic a point guard? What about Ben Simmons? They are both categorized as guards by the league, however LeBron James — the league leader in assists and the Lakers’ point guard in terms of running the offense — is a forward.

Would Butler have been a starter if he could have been voted on as a guard? We will never know.

I want the league to do away with positions, both on the All-Star ballot and the All-NBA ballot (where voters must choose two guards, two forwards, and a center). It’s also unlikely the league breaks away from that tradition, at least any time soon.

Which leaves Butler on the bench. Coaches vote for the reserves, they will undoubtedly pick Butler, and those results will be announced next Thursday. Butler unquestionably is playing at an All-Star level. In his first season in Miami he is averaging 20.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game. He has been the best player and the offensive focal point of a 31-14 Miami team.

Butler is not a starter primarily because of his peers, his fellow players. The fans voted Butler fourth among East frontcourt players. The media voted him third. [For transparency, I am one of the media pannel voters and I had Butler as a starter ahead of Pascal Siakam.]

The players had Butler sixth among forwards, behind Jayson Tatum and Butler’s Miami teammate Bam Adebayo. This vote is still a popularity contest, and Butler has burned a few bridges behind him.

That doesn’t mean Spoelstra is wrong and it’s a joke Butler is not a starter.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook score season-high 45, help Rockets beat Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored a season-high 45 points and had 10 assists, and the Houston Rockets overcame another tough night from James Harden to rally past the Minnesota Timberwolves 131-124 on Friday night.

Westbrook helped key a second-half comeback after Minnesota led by six points in the third quarter. He finished 16-of-27 shooting, was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line and added six rebounds. Eric Gordon scored a season-high 27 points off the bench for Houston, which won its second straight game following a season-long, four-game losing streak.

Harden, who went 1 for 17 from 3-point range in a home loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, was 3 of 13 overall and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc against Minnesota. He finished with a season-low 12 points. Harden also left the game for part of the third quarter, limping badly to the bench before returning in the fourth.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which has lost eight straight. Andrew Wiggins scored 28 points for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota’s streak prompted some frustration after Wednesday’s 117-110 loss at Chicago, when coach Ryan Saunders said the team is simply not playing well. Saunders also challenged Wiggins at halftime of that game to be more productive.

The Wolves started strong while Houston was missing shots. Minnesota led by six in the opening quarter. The Rockets hit just two of their first 11 shots and Harden was 1 of 5. The Rockets also trailed in Minnesota in November before recovering for a 125-105 win.

Led by Westbrook, Houston led by as many as 13 on Friday, but the Wolves didn’t fade.

Minnesota cut the Rockets’ lead to 110-108 with 6 minutes remaining.

Houston had the finisher in Westbrook. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 after the Wolves closed within two.

Kawhi Leonard racks up first career triple-double, lifts Clippers past Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard got his first career triple-double and scored 33 points, Landry Shamet added 22 and the Los Angeles Clippers shrugged off an early 15-point deficit before hanging on to beat the Miami Heat 122-117 Friday night.

Leonard finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He was first credited with the triple-double in the third quarter — briefly, because one of his rebounds was taken away after a stat review. He then officially got it on a rebound with 3:55 left.

Lou Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15 and JaMychal Green added 14 for the Clippers.

Jimmy Butler led Miami with 20 points. Butler left midway through the fourth after appearing to turn his right ankle for the second time in the game, capping a night when he also got inadvertently popped in the eye during the first half.

Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro scored 19 points each, Bam Adebayo had 18 and Duncan Robinson added 16 for Miami. The Heat fell to 20-2 at home – 0-2 against teams from Los Angeles. Their only other home loss was to the Lakers.

Miami was down by 18 with 8:34 left, then went on a 24-9 run and got within three on a 3-pointer by Dion Waiters with 34 seconds remaining. But they got no closer, and Leonard sealed it by going 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final moments.

Leonard flirted with a triple-double on two other occasions this season, missing it by two rebounds on Oct. 26 at Phoenix and by one assist on Nov. 11 against Toronto.

The Clippers were without Paul George (left hamstring) for the eighth consecutive game and Patrick Beverley (right groin) for the second straight game, though Beverley tried lobbying his way into the lineup.

Miami was without two point guards – Kendrick Nunn missed the game with left Achilles soreness and Goran Dragic was out with a sore left calf, something that flared up after he got kicked in Wednesday night’s overtime win against Washington.

So, down to 10 available players, Miami had no choice: Dion Waiters played for the first time this season.

Waiters, who had been suspended three times for various issues since October and embarrassed himself and the organization when he ingested at least one cannabis-infused edible and needed medical attention when the team charter plane wrapped up a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in November, played 18 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 4 for 9 from 3-point range.

Miami ran out to a 24-9 lead after seven minutes. The Clippers were within eight by the time the first quarter was done, and 65-63 at halftime. Then they outscored Miami 38-20 in the third to take total control.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.