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Three Things to Know: James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken

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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) James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken. At what point do we say “the Warriors have a problem?”

I’ve been at the forefront of the “whatever, they’ll get it together when it matters” campaign, that we’re measuring the Warriors against the impossibly high bar they set. However, the Warriors were crushed at home by the Lakers on Christmas (even with LeBron James having to leave the game), next they gave away a fourth-quarter lead to the Trail Blazers and lost in overtime, then Thursday night they repeated the pattern blowing a 17-point lead to the Rockets, going to OT and losing again.

At what point do we say “this is a problem?”

Thursday the Warriors’ problem was named James Harden.

He has vaulted himself back into the MVP conversation with a historic run in the last dozen games: 40.1 points per game average in those 12 on a ridiculous 64 true shooting percentage, plus 9 assists and 6.6 rebounds a night. Harden now owns the NBA record streak of games with at least 35+ points and 5+ assists at nine (and counting), and he has topped Stephen Curry’s record for consecutive games with five or more made threes at eight.

Against the Warriors, he had 44 points, made a career-high 10 threes, had 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Oh, and with the game on the line did this.

Which, frankly, was instant Karma after the Warriors took a two-point lead on a Curry shot that only happened because the referees somehow missed an obvious out-of-bounds call when Kevin Durant “saved” the ball to keep the play alive.

Harden’s run has carried the Rockets offense and propelled the team to an 11-1 run that has taken them from 14th in the West to fourth. The last six wins have come with Chris Paul out. That said, I’m not ready to say Houston is back to being title contenders — their defense is 13th in the NBA during the win streak, it’s not great, Harden is just covering it up right now.

The Warriors aren’t playing like contenders, either.

In those same last dozen games, the Warriors are 7-5 with a meager +1.1 net rating. Curry and Draymond Green are finally healthy, yet the Warriors are not playing with the consistency of execution or passion we expect of contenders. In the final 3:30 of regulation against Houston, Curry and Durant — mostly Durant — took all the shots and were 2-of-8.

This roster is thinner, Golden State could use a good DeMarcus Cousins in the paint (nobody knows exactly how good he will be whenever he returns), and the Warriors look older and a little slower.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the Warriors’ “don’t worry, we got this” attitude when asked about their struggles it is right. They are back-to-back champions, maybe Golden State can just flip the switch.

But at what point do we say “the Warriors have a serious problem?”

2) Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio and DeMar DeRozan reminds everyone he was traded, too. Spurs fans got their cathartic moment. Despite the fact Gregg Popovich didn’t like it, when Kawhi Leonard returned to San Antonio Thursday Spurs fans lustily booed every chance they got and even changed “traitor” at points (but Danny Green got plenty of love).

Leonard and the “he will make Toronto different in the playoffs” narrative have dominated the storylines around the Raptors and in the run-up to this game. DeMar DeRozan — the guy that was the reason the Spurs went with the Toronto package, the guy pissed he was traded from a city and franchise he loved over the summer — dominated the game and reminded the world he was part of the trade, too.

DeRozan came out of the locker room hotter than a TexMex salsa with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in the first half. He finished the game with his first ever triple double. DeRozan finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, and the Spurs got the 125-107 win.

Overlooked in that was LaMarcus Aldridge bullying Serge Ibaka on his way to 21 points on 14 shots, or that Bryn Forbes had 20 points on 10 shots. The Spurs were the classic efficient Spurs. Which is why they currently are a playoff team (tied for the seven seed at 21-17) in the crowded West.

One final thought: Toronto misses Kyle Lowry. A lot. And they missed Jonas Valanciunas a lot in the paint, also.

3) The first round of fan All-Star voting is in and… what exactly are you all thinking? The first round of fan voting is in and if we went by that the All-Star captains would be LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo (remember the new All-Star format has the fans picking the 10 starters, who are thrown in a pool the captains choose teams playground style). That makes perfect sense, they are two of the best players in the NBA this season.

The other eight in the starter’s pool would be: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Derrick Rose, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, and Dwyane Wade.

Um… really fans? Wade, who comes off the bench on a struggling Heat Team and is playing replacement player level basketball, but you want him over Victor Oladipo or Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry? I love the Rose comeback story as much as the next guy, but you’re picking him over James Harden or Damian Lillard? And Doncic is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but if you’re picking him over Anthony Davis or Paul George you’re doing it wrong.

That said, it’s an exhibition and fans vote their heart. So if they have Vince Carter — who I think entered the NBA during the Taft administration — seven in the East frontcourt voting, so be it. Or if they vote DeMarcus Cousins, who has yet to touch the court for the Warriors, 10th in the West frontcourt, so be it.

I’d say “give the people what they want” except the NBA is not going to do that. Remember the fan vote counts for 50 percent of the total, with a player vote making up 25 percent and a media vote making up the other 25 percent. Plus, the fan vote will shift as more votes come in. Which is good. Also fans, you can stop voting for John Wall, he’s not going to be playing (but is 10th in fan voting in the East guards somehow, despite a down year before his injuries).

Report: Knicks to interview former Knicks coach Mike Woodson

Former Knicks coach Mike Woodson
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The Knicks appear set on both hiring Tom Thibodeau and conducting a coaching search.

Mike Woodson, who coached New York from 2012-2014, will be part of the process.

Ian Begley of SNY:

New York also interviewed Woodson in 2018 before hiring David Fizdale. I understand why the Knicks can’t make up their mind on whether they want him as their coach.

Woodson won 58% of his games with New York, the third-best mark in franchise history (behind Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy). In 2012-13, Woodson did some really creative things with Carmelo Anthony at power forward and two-point guard lineups.

But by the end of that season, Woodson went away from what worked. His views became increasingly suspect the next season. When the Knicks fired him, it appeared to be time to move one.

Will New York return to Woodson? Probably not. The expectation remains Thibodeau will get this job. But Woodson will at least have an opportunity to make his case for a very-strange return.

When Charles Barkley tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to Auburn

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Dirk Nowitzki was not headed to an American college before the NBA. Like most of the best European players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, even going back to Tony Kukoc and others — he was taking a straight trip from his European team to the NBA.

That didn’t stop Charles Barkley from trying to get him to go to Auburn.

It wasn’t meant to be, but Saad Yousuf at the Athletic tells the story of Barkley trying.

The Auburn alum reflected on his first meeting with Nowitzki, in 1997 at a Nike exhibition game in Germany, in which the Big German put on an offensive clinic against a team featuring Barkley, Pippen, Michael Jordan and other NBA talents…

Barkley called Nike and made a strong push to get to Nowitzki through any channel, legal or not. “Just tell him, anything he wants, we’ll get it done,” Barkley recalled in 2012. “Just give him anything he wants; he’s got to go to Auburn.”

Barkley didn’t stop there, though. Nowitzki left such an impression on Auburn’s greatest hoops export that Barkley even talked to Cliff Ellis, Auburn’s coach at the time, to encourage the program to make a run at this relatively unknown teenager in Europe.

Ellis notes that in 1997 he couldn’t just jump on YouTube and find clips of a player, there wasn’t much film of European players. Still, the coach was willing to go on Barkley’s word and reached out.

Turns out Kentucky, Stanford and other colleges did as well, but to no avail. Nowitzki went straight into the 1988 NBA Draft, where the Bucks took him ninth overall then executed a draft-night trade sending the big German to Dallas for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The rest is Hall of Fame history.

For Barkley, Ellis, and Auburn fans, it’s quite the “what if.” That was a 29-4 Auburn team in 1997-98 that was an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed led by a couple of future NBA players (Mamadou N’Diaye and Chris Porter). Add Nowitzki into that mix and… we will never know. But it could have been glorius.

 

How will, should player salaries be allocated as only some NBA teams resume?

Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns and Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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The Timberwolves will play 64 games this season. The Mavericks will play 75-77 games before the traditional playoffs.

Should Dallas players get paid a higher percentage of their salaries than Minnesota players?

That’s one of the thorny questions as the NBA resumes its season.

Though players have individual contracts with defined salaries, there’s an overriding factor in determining actual wages. The Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for players and owners to split revenue approximately 50-50. Salaries are adjusted to reach that 50-50 split.

Each year, the salary cap is set to a number designed to get total player salaries to about 50% of league-wide revenue. Obviously, that’s a difficult target to hit precisely. So, there are mechanisms to adjust the distribution of money if necessary. If their total slated salaries are higher than 50% of revenue, players don’t receive their full salaries. If their total salaries are lower than 50% of revenue, players get a shortfall check from owners.

Coronavirus has disrupted that well-oiled system

The league is missing a major chunk of revenue. Players’ slated salaries would call for them to earn WAY more than 50% of revenue. That’s why the NBA has been withholding a portion of players’ salaries. Force majeure allows teams to reduce players salaries for games canceled due to an epidemic.

The NBA’s reported plan reveals the number of lost games. There were 259 regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended. The continued season includes 88 regular-season games (eight each for the 22 continuing teams) plus 0-4 play-in games.* No playoff games are being canceled.

*I’m counting play-in games as regular-season games. It’s a gray area. Perhaps, owners and players will agree to count them as postseason games. It probably doesn’t matter here, anyway. In terms of force majeure, regular-season and playoff games count equally. So, it’s simple enough to count them as regular-season games.

That’s 167-171 canceled games.

Except not every team will have the same number of games canceled.

There’s a four-game spread in the number of games each team has played so far. The Warriors, Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets are done now. Every other team will play at least eight more games. The Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, Suns and Wizards could play up to two play-in games.

Based strictly on games played, here’s how much players on each team stand to lose in salary:

  • Timberwolves: 19%
  • Hornets: 18%
  • Bulls: 18%
  • Cavaliers: 18%
  • Warriors: 18%
  • Pistons: 17%
  • Knicks: 17%
  • Hawks: 16%
  • Lakers: 12%
  • Spurs: 10%-12%
  • Celtics: 11%
  • Rockets: 11%
  • Clippers: 11%
  • Thunder: 11%
  • Raptors: 11%
  • Jazz: 11%
  • Nets: 9%-11%
  • Pelicans: 9%-11%
  • Kings: 9%-11%
  • Wizards: 9%-11%
  • Nuggets: 10%
  • Pacers: 10%
  • Heat: 10%
  • Bucks: 10%
  • 76ers: 10%
  • Grizzlies: 8%-10%
  • Magic: 8%-10%
  • Suns: 8%-10%
  • Trail Blazers: 6%-9%
  • Mavericks: 5%-8%

Is that fair to players on the eight done teams? They didn’t ask for their season to end prematurely.

On the other hand, they don’t have to do any more work. Other players must travel to Orlando, live under restrictions, play games with heightened injury concerns and risk contracting coronavirus just so the league can increase its revenue. Should eliminated players reap the rewards while sitting home?

This tension also exists in normal times. Players across 16 playoff teams divvied up just $20 million total for competing in the 2018 playoffs, and the amount was similar last year. Player income is largely earned on the regular season, even though the players playing in the playoffs disproportionately draw the revenue that funds everyone.

But the disparity feels sharper now – with the worst teams not even finishing the regular season and playoff teams facing a far larger burden just to keep playing.

To a certain degree, this is a player problem. Owners are going to pay approximately 50% of league revenue to players. The CBA dictates how players on each team should have their salaries cut through force majeure. If players want to share the losses more evenly among each other, owners should accommodate.

Consider this similar to cap smoothing, which the union infamously rejected. Except in that case, it was more just luck which players were in the favored class. Now, the players who could earn more will actually be the ones putting in the additional work. Then again, there could be a push for everyone to share the losses more equally.

Like many things disrupted by coronavirus, there are no good answers.

Report: NBA planning to start next season on Christmas

NBA Christmas
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The current NBA season – interrupted by coronavirus – could extend as late as Oct. 12. That means the league must delay next season. How long past the normal mid-October start? December was the popular notion, but that’s still a wide timeframe.

Now, we can pinpoint it.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

If the N.B.A. can successfully complete the 2019-20 season under this structure, it is expected that the 2020 N.B.A. draft would be moved to October, with free agency to follow shortly thereafter and a tentative plan to establish Dec. 25 as opening day for the 2020-21 season.

Coronavirus can ruin the best-laid plans. Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said play would continue around a positive test, it’s unclear whether that would delay this season’s schedule – then the offseason then next season. It’s also unknown how the country will be handling coronavirus in December. The cold weather, pushing people indoors, could increase cases.

But it’s still interesting to know the plan, even if it’s tentative.

People fondly recall the NBA season starting on Christmas in 2011. Many have pointed to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea of permanently opening in December to avoid overlap with the NFL, though he suggested mid-December – not Christmas.

That’s quite late.

This year, coronavirus has forced radical changes. A Christmas start might be totally reasonable for the 2020-21 season.

What about beyond?

If the NBA wants to begin each season on Christmas, this is the simplest time to shift. A different start date for future seasons would require altering the calendar to get on track.

There are plenty of issues with opening on Christmas in normal times, though:

  • Historically, TV viewership is down during the summer. That might be changing, but people might find other activities while it’s warm rather than attending or watching an indoor NBA game.
  • Would people really watch more NBA games just because fewer of them would compete with the highly popular NFL? The NBA regular season might just be too long to capture attention, no matter when it’s held.
  • By starting on Christmas, the NBA would reduce two marquee regular-season dates – opening day and Christmas – to one.
  • Many regional TV networks that carry NBA games also carry MLB games. Many of those networks already carry NHL games. But with baseball teams playing more games, there would be more conflicts.
  • With schools out, the American system is built on summer being more of a vacation time. People within the league – including players, especially those with children – might object to working during that time.