PBT Midseason Awards: James Harden or Russell Westbrook for MVP?

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We are at the NBA season’s midpoint, which means we finally have seen enough games and compiled enough stats to start a conversation about the NBA end-of-season awards. Nothing is close to locked in yet, this is more like a horse race that is just coming out of the backstretch and starting the sweeping turn towards the finish line — a lot of things can change, and there will be players making late runs at some of these awards.

That’s not going to stop us from making picks for all the major categories — plus the best album of 2016. Because we can. Below are the picks for Kurt Helin, Dan Feldman, and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Russell Westbrook
This is a coin flip between Westbrook and James Harden, with half a season to decide who gets the hardware. Right now I’d have a very slight lean to Westbrook, who is not just averaging a triple-double but has the Thunder in the playoffs on a 48-win pace — when he sits the Thunder are 17.5 points per 100 possessions worse (yes, that stat has noise and speaks to team depth, but point is without him this team is screwed).

Dan Feldman: James Harden
Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double — and Harden is still having a(n every so slightly) better season, which is just incredible. Unless Westbrook taps into his higher defensive potential more regularly, Harden’s efficiency gives him the edge.

Dane Carbaugh: James Harden
There’s obviously a strong case for Russell Westbrook here, but the thing that brings me back to James Harden is this: he’s increased his assists per-100 possessions this season despite his usage only going up by 1.5%. That’s ridiculous, and a prime example of the many ways Harden has been extra efficient this season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Joel Embiid
Before the season I didn’t think he could win it because he was going to be on a minutes restriction, plus there would be pushback to having a third-year player win the award, but this race isn’t even close. Embed still got a lot of work to do defensively, but he’s far ahead of Malcolm Brogdon/Jamal Murray/Buddy Hield/Domantas Sabonis and the rest. Plus, Embiid is just fun to watch. And the league could use more fun.

Dan Feldman: Joel Embiid
It appeared Embiid would run away with this award, but Malcolm Brogdon has made it competitive. Still, Embiid’s talent, even if less refined, has made a bigger impact so far. He’s a force defensively, and his offense is diverse, albeit sloppy.

Dane Harbaugh: Joel Embiid
Not voting for Embiid here is voting against fun. It’s voting against hope. It’s voting against aesthetics. It’s voting against the culture. There’s real evidence Embiid is going to be a force in the league barring health for years to come, and to see it on display this year in unpolished form has been everything we wanted from The Process.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert
He is the anchor of the best defense in the NBA this season, and he’s not a slow-footed big who you can destroy when he gets dragged into pick-and-rolls (he can hold his own). There are others such as Kawhi Leonard still in this race.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert
The Jazz center erases the paint and is more than adequate when pulled outside. Teams haven’t found a way to run him off the court, the first test for any rim protector in this era. That allows Gobert’s interior skills to shine. Draymond Green is within striking distance, but this is Gobert’s award to lose.

Dane Carbaugh: Rudy Gobert
It’s hard to argue that Rudy Gobert is not the DPOY. He’s the anchor for the NBA’s most efficient defensive unit and he’s not only a paint clogger but a shot blocker that doesn’t give up rebounding chances as he chases swats. Utah is extremely fun to watch on defense — gasp! — and Gobert is a big reason why.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Eric Gordon
This is the most open race on the board, but right now what Gordon brings Houston has him in front. This is the Gordon the Pelicans thought they were paying for (injuries undid him there), averaging 17.9 points per game and shooting 41.1 percent from three. Lou Williams had the lead for me but has slipped of late (as have the Lakers).

Dan Feldman: Enes Kanter
I did little more than pick a name here. This race is WIDE open with serious consideration also going to Greg Monroe, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patty Mills, Jon Leuer, Marreese Speights, Tyler Johnson, Dwight Powell, Wilson Chandler and…

Dane Carbaugh: Eric Gordon
It’s sort of unfair that the Houston Rockets get to bring Eric Gordon off the bench, and I bet most NBA opponents would agree. Gordon is not only having a great comeback season as a scorer — averaging better than 17 points per-game — but he’s doing it efficiently as well. Daryl Morey hit a home run with Gordon and Ryan Anderson this season.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike D’Antoni
Note to Lakers/Knicks management (and fans): Yes you can win with Mike D’Antoni’s system and him as coach, but you have to give him players that fit his system. He’s not bending. But when you give him his players — James Harden at the point, healthy seasons from Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — he’s going to win a lot of games. And the man is a groundbreaking coach.

Dan Feldman: Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni’s touch has brought out the best in the Rockets’ offense, starting with the subtle tweak of making James Harden the point guard. Houston’s defense has even neared league average, a credit to how D’Antoni organized his staff. His coaching prowess is limited to players who fit his style, but the Rockets do, and D’Antoni is doing a very nice job with them.

Dane Carbaugh: Mike D’Antoni
Let’s put Houston’s rise to the upper tier of the Western Conference on hold for a second. Is there anyone who was more unfairly written off than Mike D’Antoni? His SSoL Suns were the prerunner to today’s modern NBA offenses, but because of some awkward years in New York and LA with some mismatched rosters, everyone wrote him off. Apparently he’s been in the lab, with a pen and a pad, trying to get the Rockets off the ground. It’s worked by turning Harden into a point guard and surrounding him with shooters who get rid of the ball like it’s made of molten rock. I, for one, am here for SSoL II: Electric Boogaloo.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF YEAR

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Entering his fourth season, his improvements have been as big as his strides. Jason Kidd made the brilliant move (in the second half of last season) to move him to a point-forward position and put the ball in his hands, and he is driving and dishing with the best of them. He leads the NBA in points in the paint per game at 13.4 — more than DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and the rest of them.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is the runaway winner here. He has improved so much, so quickly, he’s probably due for regression to the mean. But he still has plenty of leeway to come down to earth and still cruise to this award.

Dane Carbaugh: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I think many of us were expecting Andrew Wiggins to grab this spot, but if it weren’t for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise the Timberwolves guard might come in second to his own teammate in Zach LaVine. Meanwhile, the Greek Freak has garnered the second most All-Star forward votes in the East, (only to LeBron James has more). If you aren’t watching Bucks games, you’re missing out.

BONUS: BEST ALBUM OF 2016

Kurt Helin: A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)
Dan Feldman: Lemonade (Beyoncé)
Dane Carbaugh: Still Brazy (YG)

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.