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James Harden, Russell Westbrook forming unprecedented MVP backcourt

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By rejecting the Thunder’s sub-max contract-extension offer seven years ago, James Harden set two superstar careers in motion.

When last teammates, Russell Westbrook and Harden complemented each other fairly well. Westbrook was a young star, prone to wild play. Harden was a backup who provided steadiness. Both were very good. Neither was great. They leaned on each other.

Separated, both blossomed into Most Valuable Players.

Westbrook advanced through stardom then really took off when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Westbrook became an all-around marvel, averaging a triple-double with excellent clutch play in 2016-17. He won MVP, edging Harden in the closest vote of the last dozen years.

After multiple runner-up finishes, Harden snagged the award the next year. He led the Rockets with one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history then topped himself last year.

Now, Harden and Westbrook reunite in Houston. Barring a sudden drop, they’ll become the first teammates in NBA history who are both in-their-prime former MVP guards. The pairing offers incredible upside – but plenty of potential pitfalls.

Harden and Westbrook will become just the fourth duo to play together within three years of already having won MVP, joining:

  • Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017 Warriors)
  • Moses Malone and Julius Erving (1983 and 1984 76ers)
  • Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (1959 and 1960 Celtics)

Those other top-end twosomes had more positional balance. Curry is a guard, Durant a forward. Malone was a center, Erving a forward. Russell was a center, Cousy a guard.

Harden and Westbrook will be just the third set of former MVP guards ever to play together. The other two:

  • Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (2013 and 2014 Lakers)
  • Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy (1970 Cincinnati Royals)

By the time he got to Los Angeles, Nash was rapidly declining out of stardom. Bryant missed nearly all of their second season together due to injury. Nash was washed up by that point, anyway. After six years of retirement, Cousy – who was coaching the Royals – returned to play seven games mostly as a publicity stunt.

Harden, 29, is definitely still in his prime. Westbrook remained in his prime last season. Though there’s risk the 30-year-old reliant on his athleticism falls off quickly, Westbrook should remain pretty darn good next season.

That creates a tough question for the Rockets: How do they deploy both stars?

Star guards generally provide their value by handling the ball. That’s why super teams have rarely stocked up on multiple guards. The fit is especially tricky because both Harden and Westbrook are lead guards. Westbrook has spent his whole NBA career at point guard. Harden has become so good at point guard under Mike D’Antoni, there’s no going back now.

Harden is better than Westbrook. But Harden’s superior shooting also makes him a far better off-ball player than Westbrook. When Westbrook is away from the ball, defenses will sag off him and clog spacing.

Will the Rockets take the ball from their best player to give it to their second-best player? That doesn’t seem ideal.

Westbrook can attack scrambled defenses rotating back to him when he gets the ball from Harden. But closeouts won’t be coming hard at Westbrook.

One of the disappointing developments of Harden’s time with Chris Paul was Harden not developing his off-ball game. Harden just doesn’t seem into whizzing around screens, pressuring defenses without the ball.

Harden also hasn’t shown much pace in starting his moves in isolation. He often pounds the ball until the shot clock gets low, neutralizing his teammates. That was a problem when Harden played with Paul. It’ll be an even bigger issue with Westbrook.

Maybe Westbrook’s attacking style will spread to Harden. The duo could be dangerous if attacking quickly. But there are questions about whether an up-tempo system would wear down Harden before the end of a deep playoff run.

Harden and Westbrook can stagger their minutes as much as possible. That’ll allow each time to have the offense catered to him. But that will still leave significant time they must share the court.

And that’s only offensively. The defensive issues are far worse.

Harden is a lousy defender at everything other than guarding post-ups. Westbrook is sometimes active and often reckless defensively. His reliability on that end is low.

P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can cover for some miscues in front of them. But that’s a big ask, especially with Eric Gordon playing in three-guard lineups.

D’Antoni has never looked especially interested in defense. It’s hard to see who will address the inevitable problems, if they’re even solvable.

But the Rockets get a major talent boost with Westbrook. He’s better and more durable than Paul. The upgrade is evident with the picks surrendered and extra year of salary absorbed by Houston.

That’s what the Rockets are betting on – MVP-level talent, no matter how it comes.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard is still getting his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

Just by two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with the Lakers. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN.

My guess is the young Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this year to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this deal was expected to go down financially. The risk for Howard is he is signing a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million. That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.

Report: Dwight Howard agrees to buyout with Grizzlies, will join Lakers on non-guaranteed deal

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Once again, the Lakers are betting that Dwight Howard and his back are healthy. However, this time the Lakers have hedged that bet.

After a workout this week in front of Lakers’ coaches and front office staff, Howard’s agent has worked out a buyout with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Howard will sign with Los Angeles, filling the role that had belonged to DeMarcus Cousins before he tore his ACL this summer. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added vital details.

There’s a segment of Lakers’ fans — a large, vocal segment — that is going to hate this move because of the history. The Lakers get that, but the coaches and staff also know this: If he’s healthy, and if he’s willing to accept a role on the court, if he’s willing to adapt how he is in the locker room and with the staff and front office (there are reasons Howard has bounced from team to team to team in recent years), Howard is the best fit for the Lakers on the court.

Last time Howard was a Laker back issues limited him on the court, and his not taking the game or his conditioning very seriously (Howard has a legendary candy-eating habit) rubbed Kobe Bryant the wrong way. To put it mildly. LeBron James is going to bring that same work ethic and attitude, but now the Lakers have some leverage on Howard with the non-guaranteed contract.

The Lakers had planned to lean heavily on Cousins this season. The Lakers have arguably the best center in the game today in Anthony Davis, but he does he want to play 30+ minutes a night banging away down in the post (nor is he physically built for that). Cousins was going to be the center much of the game, with Davis sliding over to the five for key stretches. But Cousins is almost certainly lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Howard was the best potential fit to replace Cousins on the court, or at least do so in combination with JaVale McGee (it’s going to take both of them to soak up all the minutes at the five the Lakers need). For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy just playing that role and doing those things, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role.

There are two key concerns bringing in Howard. Health is one, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season following another back surgery and some hamstring issues. The other is Will Howard accept the role he is given, play hard, and not be a distraction?

If Howard doesn’t fit, the Lakers also worked out Joakim Noah — who impressed a lot of people around the league with his solid 41 games for Memphis the second half of last season — and Mo Speights. They will have other options.

But for now, the Lakers are betting on Howard.