Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook fit the pieces together? Will that be enough?

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This story tips-off NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video, and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

“We’ll figure it out. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be smooth at first, there are going to be ups and downs, and that’s part of an 82-game season. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ve caught a rhythm and everybody is on the same page going into the playoffs.”

That was a very rational sounding James Harden, echoing the mantra of his coach (for now) Mike D’Antoni: Great players figure out how to play together.

Harden enters this season paired with the third superstar who was going to help him bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Houston. First, there was Dwight Howard, an experiment that dissolved like Skittles in water. Then came Chris Paul, where the team had success but ran into the juggernaut of Golden State.

Now it’s Russell Westbrook — and from the moment the trade to land him went down, the questions about “how is this going to all work?” started to pop up.

We heard those same questions a couple of years ago: How are Harden and CP3 going to fit together on offense, they both need the ball in their hands? The answer turned out to be “very well, thank you” — the Rockets had one of the top two offenses in the league both seasons CP3 wore red. Both players had high usage rates but learned how to play off one another.

Can Harden and Westbrook — friends since high school who have played together before — find a fit that makes the Rockets even better?

Will that even be enough to lift Houston above the rest of the deep and very talented West?

There are no easy answers.

ABOUT THAT FIT…

The fit questions with Westbrook and Harden on offense focus on two key areas: Usage and three-point shooting.

Harden and Westbrook have been two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA in recent years (this is very different than when they played together on the Thunder years ago). Harden had a usage rate last season of 40.47, the second-highest in NBA history — behind Westbrook from two years ago. With Paul George on his team last season Westbrook’s usage rate came down to 30.9, still 10th highest in the NBA.

Harden also is the most isolation-heavy player in the NBA, with 48.7 percent of his possessions being in isolation last season (via NBA.com player tracking). Westbrook was ninth on that iso list.

Both players are used to having the ball in their hands and working without much help, so how is this going to work?

Probably better than people think. Eventually. As Harden said, “there are going to be ups and downs.” But one thing we will see is Houston getting the ball more to Westbrook to push the ball in transition — Chris Paul slowed the Rockets down the past couple of seasons (against D’Antoni’s instincts). Westbrook will speed them up, pushing from end-to-end and being a force of nature. And, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently, it’s easy to picture Harden being the trail man on those plays and stepping into wide-open threes.

“I think we’re going to get back to transition being more of a weapon for us,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the Houston Chronicle. “That was something Mike did very well his first year for us. Mostly because we were an elite halfcourt team, we got away from it. With a weapon like Russell in transition, you have to use it.”

Also expect D’Antoni to stagger the minutes for Westbrook and Harden a decent amount, making sure they each get their time to shine.

All that said, Harden is a much, much more efficient scorer in the halfcourt. When both stars are on the court and the play settles down, it would be a mistake by Houston to take the ball out of Harden’s hands. He is the best scorer in the league right now, with an unstoppable step-back, and he’s an elite playmaker for others. He wins games getting buckets and the Rockets need to let him keep doing that.

Maybe the most interesting thing to watch is D’Antoni’s impact on Westbrook’s shot selection.

Houston launches more threes than any team in the league, and players who go there and see D’Antoni’s flashing green light universally see an increase in attempts (usually by more than 20 percent). The past two seasons, Westbrook has averaged 4.8 three-point attempts per game, hitting 29.3 percent of them. Do the Thunder want him taking more threes?

Also, Westbrook took as many midrange shots per game as the Rockets entire team last season. Westbrook took 4.9 shots a game between the paint and the three-point arc (and he shot a dismal 31.8 percent on them), the Rockets as a team averaged 4.8. Those are not shots the Rockets want and you know they are going to encourage Westbrook to take the rock all the way to the rim and attack. He should, and try to start drawing fouls at a high rate again. If that results in a bump in efficiency for Westbrook, it’s good for everybody.

The bottom line: Harden and D’Antoni are right, star players tend to figure it all out. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did, with neither taking a big step back in usage rate. It’s been the same with other stars, including Harden and CP3. Westbrook can’t become a spectator when he doesn’t have the ball (as has been an issue at points in the past), but on offense expect the Rockets to figure it all out and be one of the top three offenses in the NBA.

WILL THAT BE ENOUGH TO WIN A TITLE?

This is the bigger question, and it rests on depth and defense.

Houston can roll out a closing five of Westbrook, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. That’s impressive. Few teams can put a better five on the court.

After that… things are less impressive. Austin Rivers is a solid backup point, and they have Danuel House and Gerald Green on the wing. Backup center, Tyson Chandler. Backup at the four, Gary Clark. Things get thin along the front line, and really once that first five is off the court this team is far less of a threat. Injuries can undo any team with title aspirations, but the Rockets, in particular, are not well equipped to be without one of their key guys for a lengthy stretch.

That’s another reason to expect D’Antoni to stagger Harden’s and Westbrook’s minutes during the regular season — he will want the offensive punch. Also expect some load management for the Rockets’ stars, even though neither is a fan of resting when healthy.

The bigger title question: Can this team defend well enough to win it all with Harden and Westbrook on the court a lot together in the playoffs?

The Rockets were 17th in the NBA in defense last season, although they were much better — 4.8 points per 100 possessions — better after the All-Star break (after assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik got them back in shape, but he’s in New Orleans now). Harden is a better defender than his reputation, he has quick hands and can get steals, but he’s not great on ball, and off-ball his focus can wander. Westbrook, for all his athleticism, also has a lot of defensive lapses and the Trail Blazers went at him at points in the playoffs a year ago.

Tucker is a quality, physical defender, and Capela can protect the rim, but can the Rockets slow down the West duos of LeBron James/Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard/Paul George, or even Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray? Nobody is going to stop those duos — just like nobody is going to stop Westbrook and Harden — but the teams that can best slow the other top duos down in the playoffs will have the best shot to advance. That’s where it’s hard to see the Rockets as elite.

Can Westbrook and Harden figure out how to play together and become an offensive force? The smart money is they do.

Is that going to be enough, or will the Rockets remain the second or third best team in the West? That is the real question, and Houston fans may not like the answer.

PBT Podcast: Lakers, Clippers, and Nikola Jokic as Beethoven

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Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level for weeks now, outdueling even Giannis Antetokounmpo recently in a Lakers’ win. LeBron James is still a force at age 37, Russell Westbrook has accepted the role and has been a game-changer as a sixth man, and the Lakers’ role players are hitting their 3-pointers.

It’s been an impressive run, but can the Lakers keep it up and be a genuine threat in the West? Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and I discuss all that, plus whether the now-healthy Clippers can find a groove and become a threat.

In Corey’s Jukebox he dances a little salsa and explains how Nikola Jokic is like Beethoven. Then there is talk of the Kyle Kuzma trade rumors, and what exactly are the long-term plans in Washington.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Brittney Griner
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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WASHINGTON — Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American officials said. The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The swap was confirmed by U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning.

Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the U.S. in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.

Three things to know: Pelicans take over No.1 seed in West after Suns crushed by Celtics

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Chris Paul returns, Celtics don’t care and thrash Suns

There are no statement games in December, but if there were this is what they would look like.

This could have been billed as a potential Finals preview — the top team in the East, the Boston Celtics, against the West-leading Phoenix Suns, who were getting Chris Paul back (he showed his rust after being out 14 games, with as many turnovers as points, four). However, the reality is there is a gap right now — based on Wednesday night, a rather large gap — between the top of the East and West.

The Celtics got 25 points each from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while the Boston defense held Phoenix to under a point per possession on offense on their way to a crushing 125-98 win. Boston led by 27 at the half and the final 24 minutes felt like garbage time.

“Feels like that game should count for two losses,” was how Devin Booker put it postgame (via Duane Rankin).

What it felt more like — especially paired with the Suns’ recent 130-111 loss to the Mavericks — is that Phoenix is the same team as a season ago: An outstanding regular season team with some deficiencies that get exposed in playoff-like (or actual playoff) games.

The loss dropped the Suns to the No.2 seed in the West for now — keep reading to check on the Pelicans — but whether it’s Phoenix or New Orleans or Memphis at the top of the conference right now, they are on a different tier than the teams at the top of the East. Boston and Milwaukee are just better.

The West’s preseason favorites — the Warriors and Clippers — both had ugly losses on Wednesday: The Warriors fell apart at the end against the Jazz (keep reading for more on that) and a Clippers team with their two stars fell to an Orlando team that had lost nine in a row. The Clippers and Warriors are keeping their heads above water and both are playing the long game, but we’re approaching a third of the way into the season neither has put it all together and looked like a threat for an extended period (injuries play into that in both cases).

Phoenix had looked like the best team in the West, and now we see the gap between them and Boston.

2) Pelicans take over top seed in West with win over Pistons

The New Orleans Pelicans are the new No.1 seed in the West.

While the Suns were getting their doors blown off by the Celtics, the Pelicans took care of a feisty Pistons team 104-98 behind 29 and 10 from Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans are legit: Sixth in the NBA in offense, third in defense (the real surprise and a sign of the work coach Willie Green is doing), and second overall in net rating behind only the Celtics. New Orleans has a balance of veterans and youth, athleticism and savvy. Having a locker room leader like CJ McCollum to get everyone pulling the rope in the same direction has been critical in the Big Easy.

The Pelicans are on a 54-win pace. If that seems high to you know Cleaning the Glass thinks that underestimates the Pelicans’ current performance and says they have played more like a 57-win team. The more conservative estimation of fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR model still has the Pels winning 50 games.

Part of that is there Pelicans also have done what great teams do: Keep winning despite its stars being out. McCollum, Herbert Jones and Brandon Ingram have recently missed time, but New Orleans has won five in a row and 10-of-12 despite the shifting lineups. They have depth, balance and an identity that carries them.

The next couple of weeks will be a real measuring stick for New Orleans: They host the Suns for two games, travel to Utah for two, then face the Suns again, followed by the Bucks. Six games against quality teams.

Expect plenty of New Orleans wins in this stretch. This team didn’t luck its way to the top of the standings, and while we can debate how far they might go in the postseason they have earned the right to be in the discussion of who could come out of the West.

3) Jazz score four points in final :07 seconds, beat Warriors

The Warriors were without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, so they can shrug off this loss if they want, but when you’re up four with 13.3 seconds left — and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had just been ejected on a soft Flagrant 2 — this is a game you should close out.

The Warriors didn’t. First, they let this happen.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker curled off a pick and drove to the basket and the Warriors wisely were going to let him have it, but as he drove Klay Thompson “fell asleep” (his words) on Malik Beasley, who was wide open at the arc. Alexander-Walker passed out of the easy two to Beasley, who drained the 3 and made it a one-point game, 123-122.

Still, the Warriors should have closed this out — they were ahead with 6.9 seconds remaining and the ball. Inbound the ball, hit your free throws, get out with the W. Instead, after a timeout, this happened.

Golden State inbounded the ball to the red-hot Jordan Poole — he finished the night with 36 points — but Alexander-Walker stripped him, the ball caromed to Beasley who raced up in transition and he found Simone Fontecchio for the game-winning dunk.

Steve Kerr was understandably frustrated after this one.

“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Kerr said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We turned it over, and they took the game and it’s a shame because our guys did a lot of great stuff.

“I thought, to that point, they really fought and earned the right to win the game and then we didn’t close it. And you got to close it. You got to be rock solid with the ball. You got to be smart defensively. And we were neither of those things the last 13 seconds.”

The Warriors are 13-13 and sit as the 10 seed in the West. It’s easy to say they have looked better of late and are playing the long-game coming off an NBA title — both of those things are true — but there are games like this that are a reminder this Warriors team is different and not quite as deep as the one from a season ago.

Watch insane Jazz comeback in final 10 seconds, Fontecchio hits game-winner to beat Warriors

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The Warriors were up four points (123-119) with 13.3 seconds to go — they had the game on lock.

Then it got wild (well, this game had already gotten wild with a Jordan Clarkson ejection on a soft Flagrant 2 just 15 seconds earlier).

Utah’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker came off a pick and drove to the basket and had an easy layup, but as he drove Klay Thompson admitted he drifted into the paint and “fell asleep” on Malik Beasley, who was wide open at the arc. Alexander-Walker passed out of the easy two to Beasley, who drained the 3 and made it a one-point game, 123-122.

Still, the Warriors were up with 6.9 seconds remaining. All they had to do was inbound the ball and hit their free throws.

Golden State inbounded the ball to the red-hot Jordan Poole — the best player on the floor that night with 36 points — but Alexander-Walker stripped him with a strong defensive play. The ball bounced to Beasley who raced up in transition and he found Simone Fontecchio running the lane and the big man finished the play with a dunk.

“We didn’t take care of the ball,” coach Steve Kerr said after the game, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We turned it over, and they took the game and it’s a shame because our guys did a lot of great stuff.

“I thought, to that point, they really fought and earned the right to win the game and then we didn’t close it. And you got to close it. You got to be rock solid with the ball. You got to be smart defensively. And we were neither of those things the last 13 seconds.”

The Warriors can shrug this off, they were playing without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green for the night, but still the win was in their hands. For a Jazz team that has struggled since a surprisingly hot start, this is the kind of win that can spark a team mid-season.