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D’Antoni: James Harden not only MVP, but most improved, too

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston coach Mike D’Antoni thinks James Harden should win a second straight MVP award.

The veteran coach also believes the Beard should take home another award, too.

“I don’t know if he’ll get MVP, he should in my opinion,” D’Antoni said. “But he definitely should get most improved player because he’s improved his game.”

It’s daunting to think: Harden is actually getting better. And there are plenty of numbers to back it up as the Rockets prepare to play the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals starting Sunday.

A year after Harden became the first Rocket to win MVP since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 when he led the team to the first of two titles Harden has improved in almost every statistical category.

He raised his scoring average from 30.4 to 36.1 points lead the NBA, upped his rebounds from 5.4 to 6.6, improved his steals from 1.8 to 2.0, raised his free throw percentage from 85.8 to 87.9 and made 4.8 3-pointers a game after averaging 3.7 a year ago.

And those numbers don’t even take into account how much he’s improved on defense and the skill with which he uses his step back 3-pointer.

Never lacking in confidence, Harden wasn’t surprised that D’Antoni’s thought he could be called the league’s most improved player a year after winning MVP.

“It’s true,” he said. “Every year I try to come back better. I try to come back and find ways to be more impactful than I was the year before and I think I was this year. And hopefully next year it will be the same thing. To try to go up as high as I can until I’m done.”

Some criticize Harden’s game because they believe he relies too heavily on drawing fouls and piling up chunks of his points at the free throw line. The Rockets scoff at that notion and even one of the Warriors disputed that theory.

“He can do everything,” said Golden State’s Kevin Durant said, a former teammate in Oklahoma City. “If you’re not focused, he can drive past you, hit you with the shoulder because he’s strong, finish with either hand. He’s shooting floaters now. Obviously the step back 3-pointer is one of his staples, but I never really believed he was just a free throw guy. He can score in a variety of ways.”

Another quality which people believe puts Harden in a league of his own is his ability to adjust to any defense and figure out ways to play around it. The Jazz tried several tactics to try and corral Harden in their first round series with Houston, but he still averaged 27.8 points as the Rockets won in five games.

“He’s like artificial intelligence,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said during the series. “His ability to dissect and recognize different situations, particularly spacing, and they do a great job with him.”

Though Harden led Houston in scoring in every game in the first round, he didn’t shoot particularly well in the series, especially in Game 3 when he set an NBA playoff record by missing his first 15 shots. If the Rockets hope to finally knock off the Warriors in the postseason this year they know that Harden will need to continue that improvement D’Antoni raved about. Houston has been eliminated in the playoffs by Golden State in three of the last four seasons including last year in the Western Conference finals.

“You’re never satisfied, you never get too comfortable,” Harden said. “I watch film, I’m in the gym. I work on my conditioning. I study moves. I try new moves I just don’t do the normal.”

Harden isn’t simply trying to be the best player in the game today. He’s focused on leaving his mark as one of the best the league has ever seen.

“That’s one of the things you dream of when you’re a little kid on the playground outside, to be one of the best basketball players ever,” he said. “So that’s what I strive for and that’s what I’ll continue to go (after) until I retire.”

A boost to that legacy would be to help Houston win its first title since 1995. Though Harden won’t look too far ahead, he knows that great players are often judged on how they perform in the playoffs and he’s determined to do all he can to get the Rockets past the Warriors and give them a shot at that elusive championship.

“It’s very important,” he said. “Obviously, championships are important. But I’m just taking it one game at a time. That’s all I worry about. I let everything fall in place where it needs to be.”

 

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-