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.

Damian Lillard on players keeping strict bubble: ‘My confidence ain’t great’

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard
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The NBA is creating a bubble for its players at Disney World. Anyone who enters the bubble must pass multiple coronavirus tests beforehand. Everyone inside the bubble will receive frequently coronavirus testing and be distanced from people outside the bubble.

So why does it matter that coronavirus cases are rising in Florida?

Because the bubble has vulnerabilities. And if the bubble is penetrated by people who come into contact with the surrounding community, their likelihood of having coronavirus affects the odds of them spreading coronavirus within the bubble.

Disney employees who enter and exit the NBA campus (and NBA commissioner Adam Silver who plans to do the same) are required to stay distanced from players, but could get too close or even spread coronavirus via surfaces. Players could suffer significant injuries that require them to seek medical attention outside the bubble.

And players could sneak out of and back into the bubble or sneak in someone.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard expressed serious doubt that all the protocols and rules will be strictly followed by players.

“My confidence ain’t great,” Lillard said with a laugh Wednesday. “My confidence ain’t great because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 percent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules. I don’t have much confidence. But hopefully it’ll be handled to a point where we’re not putting everybody at risk or in a dangerous position.”

“I know there’re going to activities for us and all that stuff, but I mean, I’m gonna be chilling. I feel like there’s still a possibility for something to spread within that bubble, just with so many people doing so many different things that we’ve got to follow to be safe, even though we’re not exposed to the public. So for me, it’s going to be: What time is practice, what time can I get in the weight room, what time can I get some shots up, what’s the plan for game day. And then I’m gonna be in the room. I’m gonna have my PS3, my PS4, I’m gonna have my studio equipment, my mic, my laptop, I’m gonna have all my books. That’s it, man. I’m gonna be in the room, chilling.”

“It was just so many rules where everybody was like, ‘Man, are we even playing? Is this even worth it?'” Lillard said.

Why are they playing? Money. A lot of money.

The restrictions are cumbersome. Five-on-five basketball games are generally an unsafe activity amid this pandemic. To counteract that, the NBA must implement tight protocols that greatly minimize the risk of anyone playing with coronavirus.

Will players abide? Lillard knows NBA players well and has doubts, which is why he’s taking extra precautions by staying in his room so much. There are videos and rumors of players not socially distancing.

If caught leaving the bubble, players will face a 10-day quarantine. That’s a strong disincentive.

But the temptation to live freely is strong, too.

Though many voiced reservations, players signed up for this. Hopefully, they follow the rules designed to keep everyone in the bubble safe.

They have at least one doubter, though.

Doc Rivers: Lou Williams expected to join Clippers for restart

Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Lou Williams
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers says Lou Williams is expected to join the team for the NBA’s restart in Florida.

Williams has described himself as “50-50” on whether he would finish out the pandemic-interrupted season because he didn’t want to distract from the ongoing push for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

“Obviously, up until we get on the plane, anything can happen,” Rivers said during a video conference with media Wednesday. “But I do expect Lou to be with us. I would be very surprised if he’s not.”

Williams, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, was averaging 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 60 games before the league shut down in March due to the coronavirus.

Rivers said he doesn’t think any of the Clippers are opting out from resuming the season. The team heads to Orlando, Florida, on July 8.

“But listen, it is their choice and we support that,” the coach said. “There are so many reasons for everybody to play but there are also very valid reasons for guys to opt out. I don’t think many will. I think they are all invested in what we are trying to do. But again you don’t hold it against anyone on any team. This is extraordinary times and we just have to support each other.”

Guard Landry Shamet echoed other players’ feelings about traveling to Florida at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in certain states.

“It’s obviously a concern, but we’re in the best possible situation and scenario to combat that,” he said. “If there’s a scenario where you feel more comfortable it would be being in a bubble. That’s as controlled as any environment can be, so that’s one positive that I’ve been thinking about.”

Rivers added, “I’m hoping when we get to the bubble it becomes the safest place in America.”

LeBron James’ voting rights group converting arenas into polling places

LeBron James Orlando
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ATLANTA (AP) — If basketball icon LeBron James gets his way, NBA arenas and other sports venues around the country will be mega polling sites for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and entertainers, are joining with other professional basketball leaders and Michigan’s top elections official to push for mega voting sites to accommodate in-person balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Than A Vote, the James organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout in November, shared its plans with The Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena for voting later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County elections officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks’ proposal to use State Farm Arena as a polling site. Plans call for the arena to serve as a countywide early voting site ahead of Election Day.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in its June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for in-person voting while still enforcing social distancing guidelines. It also underscores the attention on the mechanics of voting amid the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden warning that state and local officials have the power to “corrupt” the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her “partnership” with the Pistons an “blueprint for other teams and leagues seeking to advance our common goal of protecting access to the vote for all.”

Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the arrangement in his city ensures “high turnout” in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, former New York Knicks head coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities around the country on how to replicate the existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed they are willing to use their home arena as a voting site in the most populous city in the key battleground of Wisconsin.

The coordinated push is a turnabout, of sorts, in the often-partisan jousting over voting procedures.

Some Democrats panned Kentucky elections officials for limiting in-person June primary voting in the state’s two most populous counties to Louisville’s Exposition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in federal court that the plan, part of culling voting sites statewide amid coronavirus concerns, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected their claims, and voting proceeded without the melee that some advocates had forecast.

Now, Benson, a Democrat, is pushing the arena model not as an example of potential voter suppression, but a way to fight it. “One of our greatest challenges in protecting voters’ access to democracy this November is identifying accessible locations where citizens can safely vote in person,” she said.

Amid COVID, that could outweigh potential logistical difficulties of large sites. Lines for such venues can still be long — just as with normal polling locations — as was seen in Lexington at some points on primary day. Voters also could face traffic jams or public transit hiccups given the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably larger turnout than primaries.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing bipartisan push for large-venue voting. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State a plan for widespread use of professional and college sports facilities.

James’ group is officially nonpartisan. But the NBA star has been open about its emphasis on the Black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity politics. James has not endorsed Biden, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Bucks owners, the Lasry family, are major Democratic Party donors. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that landed the Democratic National Convention in the city.

Missouri man freed from prison with help from WNBA’s Moore

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A Missouri man was freed from prison Wednesday after a county prosecutor declined to retry his case, punctuating years of work by WNBA star Maya Moore and other supporters who argued he was falsely convicted of burglary and assault charges.

Moore was on hand when Jonathan Irons, 40, walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She clapped as Irons approached a group of people waiting for his release. She then dropped to her knees at one point before joining a group hug around Irons.

He had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when Irons was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’ defense team, according to The New York Times.

The Missouri attorney general’s office unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision, and the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County decided against a retrial.

Moore and Irons became friends after meeting through prison ministry, according to the Times. The 31-year-old Moore, a Jefferson City, Missouri, native who starred at UConn before helping lead Minnesota to four WNBA titles, put her career on hold last season to help Irons.

Moore said in January she planned to sit out a second season and miss the Tokyo Olympics. After Irons’ convictions were thrown out in March, she told the AP her plans hadn’t changed.

“’My decision to take another year was bigger than this case,” she said at the time. “But obviously this case was in the forefront of my mind. I’m looking forward when this is done to finally getting some rest and time with my family.”