Untitled NBA Column: # 2

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images from Fox Sports
3 Things That Have My Attention

As the holiday season begins to fully encompass our laughably short attention spans, the time has come to shift focus from the doldrums of football toward the NBA and all the wonderful tales this season holds. As someone who’se followed the league closely for over a decade, it’s easy to dismiss the 2016–17 campaign, largely due to the fact that Cleveland and Golden State seem as destined to colide in a third consecutive Finals as they did in October. The Warriors are 22–4 despite only recently starting to look fully in sync, while the Cavs have clumsily stumbled their way to 18–5. Even with just a two game lead on the pole position in the Eastern Conference, their biggest competition — Toronto — seems destined to carry the distinction, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” at least in their current iteration. And while it’s certainly easy to tune out, catch up on some movies, or finally get around to starting Game of Thrones (Matthew Zappoli), there’s still plenty of things to keep your interest. Here’s three that have my attention, roughly a quarter of the way through the season.

Melo Drama

Topping off the list is drama in New York. For one, I just moved to the city, so it’s kind of my contractual obligation as a resident to complain about the Knicks. On the surface, some would call any criticism about a team above .500 that won only 49 games over the past two seasons shallow.

But this is the same team who traded for Derrick Rose and stood by him through this summer’s controversial legal troubles, all in the name of winning. The same team that used $50 million and a set of unique accomadations to coax 71-year-old Phil Jackson into the front office as President of Operations in 2014. The same Knicks that took an ill-advised nose dive into the free agent pool this summer, dishing out $72 million over four years to Joakim Noah, a 31-year-old center whose game solely revolves around energy and athleticism and another $50 million to Courtney Lee, who came highly touted as an ‘under appreciated two-way player,’ despite playing for six teams over an eight year span. The lone financial victory came in the form of Brandon Jennings — 1 year, $5 million — to back up Rose even though he was only a year and a half removed from a ruptured achilles and inspired little to no confidence that he would return to form after stints in Detroit and Orlando in 2015.

Generally the case with New York is that decision making and opinions all come down to whether or not it is acceptable to believe in a 32-year-old All-Star who has battled injuries over the past three seasons. In this case, that’s Carmelo Anthony, who spent the summer helping lead Team USA to a fourth consecutive Olympic Gold Medal and using his platform as a nine-time All-Star to fight for more awareness about various social causes. He’s still averaging 22.0 PPG, but thats on 42% shooting and 32% from three. Even worse, most of the shots come at the expense of the lone shining beacon for New York basketball fans, Kristaps Prozingis.

Carmelo has been criticized so harshly as a ball stopper that at this point, it’s basically become engrained in even casual fans minds. When Jackson made headlines last week with disperaging comments about Anthony, it came as little surprise to anyone who has watched Phil use the media for years to try and get reactions out of his superstars — both good and bad. The struggle here really comes down to a balance between desires. If the Knicks want to make the playoffs, it’s in their best interest to keep Anthony, win 45 games and maybe even a first-round series. But what happens if Carmelo gets injured? Will there ever be another time in Anthony’s career where he can fetch real assets to help set up Porzingis as the future of the Knicks?

Last night I watched Porzingis dominate the Suns on both ends of the court, leading a 14-point third quarter comeback with Anthony feverishly waving his towel on the bench in support of the second year player. Porzingis and a lineup of Ron Baker, Justin Holiday, Kyle O’Quinn, and Lance Thomas seemed to click more in those brief moments then any time Anthony has been on the court all season. Once Carmelo returned in the fourth quarter the ball stopped moving, screens stopped becoming about getting someone open for a shot and about getting the ball to Anthony in his spot, usually the short corner, sometimes the top of the key. Quickly optimism for a victory against a 7 win Suns team faded when Anthony jab-stepped the souls out of his shoes in an effort to create what too frequently became a fade away jumper with P.J. Tucker’s hands surrounding his face. When Porzingis fouled out with 1:34 left in overtime, hope was lost. Carmelo capped off a 3–15 shooting night with an airball on the team’s final possession and the Knicks lost.

The sooner the Knicks move on from Carmelo and allow Porzingis to fully establish himself as the focal point of team, the better. But I get it. They want to make the playoffs. Does trading Carmelo to a contender help them this year? Probably not. Does Jackson have the patience required to build a young roster through extra draft picks? Definitely not. So maybe they shouldn’t trade Anthony. All I know is, this roster as presently constructed isn’t even a top four team in the East and if that’s the standard Jackson and the New York faithful will accept, then by all means. But if that’s the case, they might as well start up that Derrick Rose extension to go along with those first round exits they’ll be having.

Westbrook's 'O'dyssey

Once my anger subsided to a palpable level I flipped over from MSG Network to ESPN for the conclusion of Oklahoma City’s contest against the Trail Blazers, or more importantly, Russell Westbrook’s unfathomable quest to average a triple double. A TRIPLE-DOUBLE! Earlier that week, Westbrook’s seven game streak of triple doubles ended in a 99–96 win against the Celtics. He fell short by four assists but still managed 37 points, 12 rebounds, and a timely lefty layup with 30.6 seconds left to secure the win.

Unfortunately this night, Westbrook fell short for a second consecutive game, sitting the entire fourth quarter in a Trail Blazers rout. But that’s nothing to be discouraged about in Portalnd, the same location where Golden State took a 25 point L coming out of last year’s All-Star break. The Blazers always play tough at home.

Even without Kevin Durant, checking in on the Thunder will be a necessity while Westbrook continues to put up historic numbers. At the time of writing this, he’s averaging 30.7 PPG, 10.7 RPG, and 10.8 APG through 25 games, which in any other year would put him in the top spot for MVP consideration. But for me, that distinction goes another former teammate, this one in Houston.

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The James Harden (feat. Mike D'Antoni) Redemption Tour

When James Harden and Dwight Howard joined forces in Houston they were supposed to take the middling Rockets, a team desperate for star power, back to championship prominence. After a tumultuous single season in Los Angeles, taking a back seat to Kobe Bryant from the moment he landed at LAX, Howard looked forward to the prospect of becoming a leading man again, something had done successfully in Orlando for eight seasons. After all, Harden had played third, sometimes fourth fiddle to Durant and Westbrook in OKC, and the prospect of a new Shaq and Kobe esque high-low game running rampant through the West seemed like it was on the horizon.

Needless to say the duo fell supremely short of expectations (three first-round exits and one WCF appearance). As Harden ascended to the forefront of the MVP discussion in 2014, it became obvious that the two could not coexist unless Dwight willing and enthusiastically agreed to become a sidekick. Tensions boiled over as Dwight sat fourth quarters (in between regularly bricking free throws) and Harden dribbled the air out of the ball even when it became detrimental to the team. More concerning, no one seemed to like playing with them. Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin both left in free agency, to which Harden and Howard dismissed them as role players, much do the dismay of Parsons. The Rockets tried to replace them with a run at Chris Bosh, during his 2014 free agency, but he elected to stay in Miami even though Dwyane Wade was 32, and LeBron had gone back to Cleveland.

Harden has never been the player who meets all the aesthetic requirements of an NBA superstar. He’s had the gimmick, his impossibly well-kept woodsman beard, which reaches marketers and casual fans. He’s had the statistics, even the ability to dominate games for long stretches of time. He’s never been especially athletic, but what for what he lacks, he’s always made up for with a unique awareness of space and tempo. For many, that translates to an uncanny ability to draw fouls. Harden uses a wide range of moves to coax whistles from referees, sometimes by extending his arms wide when opponents reach so they strike his wrist instead, or sometimes by taking the slightest contact and turning into an entirely separate work of art that seems more reminiscent of an actor’s prowess on Broadway than someone playing basketball in the Toyota Center. This is a player who once scored 27 points with just two field goals. A player whose first Adidas commercial featured a mocked talking head show where the hosts debated whether Harden was “Trying to Score, or Get Fouled?”

In 2015 Harden entered camp out of shape and used the first half of the season playing into it. The media and people around the league blamed his lack of focus that summer to excessive partying, and an off the court relationship with Khloe Kardashian among a myriad of other women. He also signed a 13-year $200 million shoe deal with Adidas almost certainly impacting his motivation for financial stability. He played all 82 games and put up a career high in points (29.0), but those who watched the 41–41 Rockets knew he wasn’t making the team better, even if he was responsible for the majority of their success. After shopping Dwight near the deadline, the former 3-time Defensive Player of the Year left for his hometown Hawks, hardly entertaining Houston’s offers of staying with Harden.

Enter 2016. The Rockets unceremoniously moved on from Kevin McHale and interim coach John-Blair Bickerstaff, to hire Mike D’Antoni, who almost fell out of the league entirely after two disappointing stints with the Knicks and Lakers. D’Antoni, once viewed as an offensive mastermind, an innovator in the sport, had failed to mimic his “Seven Seconds or Less Offense” that captivated the league between 2005–08. In Phoenix, D’Antoni created and implemented an offense that highlighted not only high volume perimeter shooting but also teamwork and a trust that players like Steve Nash could be the best pure shooter but still lead the league in assists or that Shawn Marion could lead the team in rebounding while guarding opposing point guards down the stretch.

The S.S.O.L. Suns played a joyous brand of basketball that became the foundation for San Antonio’s free-flowing pace and space style that won them a title in 2014 and also the blue print for Golden State’s excellence the over past three seasons, and counting. The S.S.O.L. Suns were like the iPod touch — an ability to catalog and collect music via USB storage or the internet while playing games or working with Apps — way ahead of its time. The Warriors are the modern smartphone, an iPhone 7 lets say, an absolute staple in today’s society, that wouldn’t be here without the original touch. Those Suns never made it past the Conference Finals, but their impact was undeniable.

Under D’Antoni, Harden has transformed from simply a foul-drawing nightmare to the league’s best playmaker, save maybe for LeBron. His previous jobs in New York and L.A. revolved around other disgruntled superstars, Carmelo and Kobe Bryant. Neither of whom were willing, or at times able, to adapt their games to his whims. When former starting point guard Patrick Beverley went down with an injury to start this season, Harden stepped in as the team’s point guard, something he did a lot of in college. His position change has yielded new dividends as he’s averaged a career high 11.6 assists, still maintaining a 28.1 PPG scoring clip. The Rockets have won a respectable 18 games, even though the Houston roster lacks any resemblance of a complimentary All-Star. Without Harden, the Rockets are undoubtedly one of the league’s worst teams, with him, they’re one of the seven or eight best.

Just last season, the S.S.O.L. innovator was toiling away in Philadelphia as an assistant to Brett Brown and advisor to Sam Hinkie. His resurgence with the Rockets has coincided perfectly with Harden’s elevated production, and looks the part of a successful comeback story. For the first time since coaching Nash in Phoenix, he seems fully in sync with his star player. Harden’s return to the MVP discussion is as much about his desire to prove dominance as it is for D’Antoni to re-prove his relevance. The two are joined together in this story of redemption, even if they’ve both always been great.