Getty Images

James Harden, Russell Westbrook forming unprecedented MVP backcourt

2 Comments

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.

Kawhi Leonard dunks on Luka Doncic, scores 36 to spark Clippers win

Leave a comment

DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks brought back one big man but lost another Tuesday night, and in the end, they couldn’t rein in the reigning Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points, Landry Shamet hit two clutch 3-pointers late and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-107 Tuesday night for their fourth straight win.

Leonard also had the dunk of the night going right over Luka Doncic.

Dallas ended a four-game winning streak, and more importantly, lost a key piece in center Dwight Powell just as they welcomed back Kristaps Porzingis.

Powell went down to a non-contact, right Achilles tendon injury in the first quarter, and though he will have an MRI on Wednesday, the team is fearing a worst-case scenario.

“Guys like him define the culture we want here,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “It doesn’t get much tougher than this, if it ends up being what we fear it might.”

Luka Doncic had 36 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for Dallas. He scored 24 points in the second half to help rally the Mavericks after they trailed by double digits from late in the second quarter through most of the third.

Shamet helped the Clippers seize the game late in the fourth quarter. His 3 from the left wing to give Los Angeles a 100-98 lead with 2:48 to play. Montrezl Harrell added two free throws, then Shamet sank another 3 from straight-on to put the Clippers up by seven. He finished with 18 points.

“We just kind of found a way to win,” Shamet said. “We’d loved to keep that lead the whole game, but that’s not how it’s going to be. It’s a long season. We got to find different ways how to win like we did tonight.”

Leonard added 11 in the fourth quarter, including his only 3 of the game with 1:15 left, which put the Clippers up 108-100.

But Dallas rallied, as Doncic hit a 3 and Maxi Kleber a dunk. After a Clippers turnover, Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s potential tying 3 spun around and out. JaMychal Green missed two free throws for LA, but then Doncic missed two – the second intentionally – and Leonard sealed it with two free throws.

 

Pelicans reportedly “really pulled back in trade talks” to focus on playoff push

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three-and-a-half games.

Despite an injury-riddled 17-27 first half of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are just three-and-a-half games out of the playoffs in a surprisingly soft bottom of the Western Conference.

Combine that with the team going 11-5 in their last 16 games, plus getting Zion Williamson in the lineup starting Wednesday, and the Pelicans have gone from sellers at the trade deadline to a team standing pat and planning to make a playoff push, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Around the G-League showcase just before Christmas (when league executives gathered in Las Vegas) there was a lot of buzz about the Pelicans trading point guard Jrue Holiday or big man Derrick Favors to help with their rebuild around Williamson. However, the recent hot streak and the emergence of Brandon Ingram as an All-Star level player has the Pelicans reconsidering their plans.

Memphis sits in the eighth seed in the West and has played well of late (8-2 in its last 10) behind the emergence of Ja Morant. However, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoneix, and Sacramento have all shown flashes in recent weeks and could make a run at the final playoff spot in the conference (or higher if some team fades from the pack). Every one of those teams is trying to decide whether to make trades for young players/picks at the deadline or make a playoff push (Portland is the one team that could do both because they will get Jusuf Nurkick, Zach Collins, and CJ McCollum back from injury).

David Griffin, the man with the hammer inside the Pelicans organization, has until the Feb. 6 trade deadline to decide whether to go for the playoffs or make trades looking for guys on Zion’s timeline. How the team looks in the next couple of weeks with Williamson back will play a big factor in that call.

Dallas’ Dwight Powell leaves game with Achilles injury and it looks bad (VIDEO)

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

This looks bad.

Hopefully it’s not what it looked like, but Dallas’ big man and critical role player Dwight Powell went down in the first half against the Clippers with a non-contact leg injury and will not return to the game with what the team is calling a right Achilles injury.

Here is a video of Powell going down as he plants to drive the lane; if you are at all squeamish this would be one to skip.

That looks a lot like a torn Achilles. Medical tests likely will confirm that tomorrow.

Powell is starting at center for the Mavericks, giving them 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, more importantly bringing toughness and doing the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Powell has become an important part of what is working in Dallas.

If this is a torn Achilles Powell is done for the season. This will ultimately mean more run for Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, plus it could send Dallas out into the market looking for another big man before the trade deadline.

Friends, family, former teammates of Delonte West trying to him find his way

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The conversation among Delonte West’s friends, family, and former teammates will sound familiar to people who have sat in living rooms or around dinner tables around the nation trying to find ways to help a friend or family member battling mental illness.

They offer help in a variety of ways — money, housing, a path to medical assistance through doctors — but can be frustrated at every turn as those steps fail to help.

West has been out of the league for seven seasons, but his challenges with bipolar disorder — something he announced he had during his playing days — have not ended. Last weekend, a disturbing video of West being attacked and beaten on a Washington D.C. street surfaced. It was followed by a second video showing West handcuffed and talking to the police, where West used graphic and disturbing language to accuse another man of pulling a gun on him. Legally, nothing came of the incident.

However, it showed how much West continues to struggle. A lot of people from the NBA family have tried to help West, but have been frustrated by the results, something Shams Charania wrote about at The Athletic.

Professional basketball allowed West to have structure in his life, to have a level of stability. According to those close to him, that has gone by the wayside since he exited the NBA…

Former teammate Jameer Nelson is one of many people who have witnessed West’s post-career distress and offered help. The National Basketball Players Association has maintained close contact with West and made itself available as a resource. His college coach at Saint Joseph, Phil Martelli, and West’s former player agent, Noah Croom, have been in communication with each other — and West — about providing him support. The same can be said for the Celtics and Mavericks. Both Boston GM Danny Ainge and Dallas owner Mark Cuban have been in direct contact at various points, according to those close to West.  They all want him to find his place in life, and they want to be a helping hand when needed.

The NBPA helped facilitate his residence change from Dallas to Maryland in recent years and extensively supported him financially, as recently as this month, according to sources. Ainge and the Celtics have given him a scouting job to scout games in the D.C. and East Coast area, sources said, but West has had mixed results due to fluctuating attendance. His close friends and family have all stepped in whenever they could.

As has happened with so many families around the nation, all that support and love has not been enough, it has not had the desired impact.

Nelson, West’s former St. Joseph’s teammate, posted this on Twitter over the weekend:

Delonte West announced he had bipolar disorder back in 2008, during his eight-season NBA career — a career that was cut short in part by a series of actions and lack of reliability (from teams’ perspectives) likely tied to his condition.

There is no shortage of love and concern for West, and there are a lot of people who want to help. How to help, and if he will accept that help, are very different questions. Ones a lot of people can relate to.