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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.

LeBron James finishes Rajon Rondo alley-oop to close out half (VIDEO)

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One of the reasons LeBron James leads the league in assists — other than the fact he can do anything on the basketball court he wants — is that he was the Lakers’ only quality playmaker to start the season. He had to set guys up.

Until Rajon Rondo returned recently from injury.

Now Rondo is setting up everyone — including LeBron for this monster alley-oop just before the half Tuesday night.

LeBron can still finish with the best of them.

Just don’t ask him about doing the dunk contest.

 

New Orleans spoils Carmelo Anthony’s Portland debut in 115-104 Pelicans win

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jrue Holiday had 22 points and 10 assists, Brandon Ingram added 21 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans spoiled Carmelo Anthony’s Portland debut with a 115-104 victory over the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Anthony finished with 10 points while Portland leading scorer and four-time All-Star Damian Lillard missed his first game of the season with back spasms.

Starting at forward and playing across the street from where he led Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA championship over Kansas, Anthony scored the Blazers’ first points of the game on a 3-pointer from 26 feet out. However, he wound up missing 10 of 14 shots in what was the first game of his 17th NBA season.

Ingram looked spry in his return from right knee soreness that sidelined him four games, particularly on an authoritative, driving, one-handed dunk that got the crowd roaring in the opening quarter.

J.J. Redick hit 4 of 9 3-pointers and scored 14 points for New Orleans, which has won two straight and three of four. Kenrich Williams, who got the start at forward, filled the stat sheet with hustle plays, grabbing 14 rebounds to go with three steals and a blocked shot. He also scored eight points.

Holiday highlighted his night with a spinning dribble around Nassir Little for a driving dunk. In the second half, he scored on an unusual play in which he remained under his own basket, re-tying his shoes while his team advanced 4-on-5 into the offensive end. Holiday then came sprinting down court, took a handoff from Nicolo Melli near the 3-point line and exploded toward the rim for a layup.

C.J. McCollum led Portland with 22 points, while Hassan Whiteside added 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Anthony wasted no time getting his first shot off. His miss from 20 feet came within the opening 30 seconds and was Portland’s first shot of the game. Anthony also took Portland’s second shot, hitting his first of two made 3s.

But when Anthony tried to rise for a two-handed dunk in the first half, he was met with resistance by a member of the NBA’s rookie class when eighth overall draft pick Jaxson Hayes rejected the attempt.

Hayes closed out the half with his third block, swatting away a driving floater by Anfernee Simons to keep Portland’s lead at 54-53.

New Orleans seized momentum in the third quarter, going up by 13 on a sequence that began when Melli hit a 3 and then got the ball right back in a largely vacated Portland back court after Nickeil Alexander-Walker dove to swipe the ball away from McCollum. Melli went straight in for a dunk that made it 83-70.

Portland responded with three quick 3s — two by Kent Bazemore — during a 9-2 run that trimmed New Orleans’ lead to six before Alexander-Walker, who had hit 11 3s in his previous two games, ended the period by banking in a straightaway 3 to make it 88-79.

Watch Carmelo Anthony’s first bucket as a Trail Blazer

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That Carmelo Anthony started the first game he played for Portland speaks to why they signed him in the first place — this team is so shorthanded along the front line that the guy they just signed got thrown into the fire.

Anthony responded with a solid level of play. His first bucket was a wing three where both defenders went to CJ McCollum and left ‘Melo wide open.

Anthony played 12 minutes in the first half and had 7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and three fouls. The team was looking to keep him at around 20 minutes for his first game back.

Portland led New Orleans 54-53 at the half.

How a single computer folder and dogged HR official exposed former Kings executive’s $13.4M embezzlement scheme

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Just how close did Jeff David come to getting away with embezzling $13.4 million from the Kings while working for them? He already secured a new job with the Heat and was in the process of moving from Sacramento to Miami.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

On this Monday, walking through the Davids’ new front door is a dizzying procession of cable guys, utility workers and movers. Amid all of this, Jeff receives a phone call from a former co-worker with the Kings. Her name is Stacy Wegzyn, and she works in HR. Jeff last remembers sitting in her office in Sacramento just months earlier, being told that the Kings were going to eliminate his position. After a few pleasantries, she gets down to business. She tells Jeff she’s been going through his old files, and in doing so she found one labeled “TurboTax” that references an entity called Sacramento Sports Partners.

“I was just curious what that is and if those are documents that should go to somebody else,” Wegzyn says.

It’s a seemingly innocuous inquiry from an HR lifer. But it’s one that will dictate the rest of Jeff David’s life. If he knows that — or senses it — he doesn’t let on.

“No, no, no,” Jeff responds. “That was a … man, this is taking me back. Maybe 2015?”

Wegzyn presses on. She asks Jeff whether the documents contain anything that anyone with the Kings needs to see. Jeff assures her they can trash them because the entity isn’t around anymore. A few minutes after he hangs up, his mother-in-law, Nancy, is standing at the front door when an FBI investigator appears, asking to speak to Jeff.

If you like the NBA or true crime – let alone both – I HIGHLY recommend reading Arnovitz’s full piece. It’s riveting!