Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)
James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.
Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.
That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).
It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.
Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.
This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.
That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.
2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).
This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.
Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.
Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.
3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.
The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.
The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)
Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.