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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.

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo to wear “Equality” on jersey

Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey
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While a couple of high profile stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davisare forgoing a social justice message on their jersey, Giannis Antetokounmpo has settled on one.

“Equality.”

That’s what the reigning MVP told reporters Monday, it’s the same message his brothers (Thanasis Antetokounmpo, also on the Bucks) will wear. Giannis would not get into why he chose “equality.”

Antetokounmpo, who grew up as a poor immigrant in Athens, is not going to complain about the bubble conditions. From Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“I’m in a situation where I’m extremely blessed and I cannot complain. Obviously, it doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s always something to complain, there’s always a problem and an issue,” Antetokounmpo said. “But I try to kind of not focus on that. So as I said, my apartment in Greece, when I was younger, with my four brothers, was way smaller than the suite that I have in the hotel, so I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.

“This is something special,” he continued. “Hopefully, this pandemic never happens again so we never are able to come back in the campus, but at the end of the day, this is part of history, so just being able to be here, participate in this, I’m just trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy every moment, trying to enjoy basketball. I’m happy that we’re back playing basketball, something that I love doing, so there’s nothing really to complain about.”

If only every player had that mindset.

 

Pacers’ increasingly optimistic Victor Oladipo to play in restart

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“With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing… getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me.”

That was Pacers’star Victor Oladipo explaining why he would sit out the NBA restart in Orlando.

Then he got to the Walt Disney World property and saw the set up of the bubble, and he got in some five-on-five practices with teammates, and not it appears he might play after all, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Oladeipo may lace them up and play at the end of the month, but nothing is set in stone. Of course, a competitor like Oladipo wants to get on the court, and there is an unquestioned energy finally getting back out there after the coronavirus-forced interruption.

There are also another $2.7 million reasons for him to play (the salary he would lose sitting out). Countering that, Oladipo also got one more year under contract and his concerns about an injury from ramping up to fast are legitimate.

Oladipo missed more than a year after surgery to repair a torn right quad tendon. He played in 13 games before the league was shut down, and in the last five of those he averaged 18.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.

Indiana enters the bubble as the five seed in the East, tied with the sixth-seed Sixers, and just two games back of the four seed Heat. There could be a lot of shakeups in the middle of the East standings, which would impact first-round playoff matchups.

The Pacers are a much more dangerous threat with Oladipo in the lineup, but the player and the team need to decide if now is the time to push that advantage.

Kings’ Richaun Holmes quarantined after leaving NBA bubble for food delivery

Kings center Richaun Holmes
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Coronavirus cases are surging in Florida. The NBA’s bubble is in Florida.

Is that a problem?

Theoretically, the bubble location shouldn’t matter. The NBA’s setup at Disney World is designed for players never to come into too close of contact with the surrounding community. So, it wouldn’t matter how prevalent coronavirus is in the surrounding community.

Unless someone violates the protocols.

Which nobody eeeeever expected would happen.

Kings center Richaun Holmes:

Presumably, Holmes – like Rockets forward Bruno Caboclo – faces a 10-day quarantine

That’s the way to ensure Holmes didn’t contract coronavirus from the deliverer. Holmes would almost certainly test positive and/or show symptoms within 10 days if he has coronavirus. A player spreading coronavirus within the bubble is the ultimate fear for the NBA.

Unlike some other players, Holmes even vouched for the quality of food brought to his room. Yet, he still wanted outside delivery.

Maybe there’s a safe way to get it. The deliverer – away from people – could set the food down at the edge of the campus then retreat at least six feet. At that point, Holmes could go pick it up.

But without those precautions, Holmes put himself – and therefore everyone else in the bubble – at too great of a risk. Hence, the lengthy quarantine.

Holmes has been essential to Sacramento’s turnaround. Yes, Marvin Bagley III should be healthier. But the energetic Holmes is the Kings’ most dependable center.

To make the playoffs, they’ll need him following the rules and allowed outside his room.

NBA: 19 more players, two at Disney World tested positive for coronavirus

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On June 23, 16 NBA players tested positive for coronavirus. Between June 24-29, nine more NBA players tested positive.

But that downward trend took a sharp reversal in July.

At least 19 more players, two after arriving at Disney World, have tested positive for coronavirus

NBA release:

Of the 322 players tested for COVID-19 since arriving on the NBA Campus July 7, two have returned confirmed positive tests while in quarantine.  Those players never cleared quarantine and have since left the Campus to isolate at home or in isolation housing.

Since July 1, during in-market testing, 19 NBA players newly tested positive.  These players are staying in their home markets and recovering until they are cleared under CDC guidelines and NBA rules for leaving home isolation and joining the Campus.

Those 19 new positive tests are a disturbingly high number.

It can be difficult to compare different date ranges. June 23 is only a single day, but as the first day of in-market testing, it covered weeks of players potentially contracting coronavirus. The second testing period (June 24-29) is shorter than the July period (which varied based on whether teams departed July 7, 8 or 9 for Disney World).

But, ideally, the number of cases would’ve shrunk as players became increasingly immersed in the NBA’s plan, which called for greater precautions and testing.

The league and teams should investigate why there were so many new cases in July – then explain the findings to the public. Given the lack of transparency around the restart, I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

At least there are no known positive tests from players who’ve been given free reign within the bubble. That’s the most alarming scenario. Two players testing positive during their in-room quarantines appears to be the system working.

However, the league should confirm that anyone traveling with those two players didn’t become infected en route. A false negative could be catastrophic.

This brings the minimum total of NBA players who’ve tested positive for coronavirus under the league’s restart plan to 44.

And there’s two positive tests at Disney World.* Plus everyone who tested positive before June 23 (at least 10 players**) and tested positive only outside the NBA’s system.

That’s a LARGE segment of NBA players – at least 54.

*It’s possible these two players previously tested positive, tested negative, traveled to Orlando then tested positive again. So, they’re not necessarily new cases.

**Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, Pistons big Christian Wood, four Nets including Kevin Durant, Celtics guard Marcus Smart and two Lakers.

Yet, it still doesn’t say much about the safety of the NBA bubble, which is just getting underway. The outside world is dangerously full of coronavirus. That’s what all these positive tests so far show.

Additional positive tests – by players fully involved in the bubble – will be far more chilling for the NBA’s planned season completion.