NBA Stock Market: Dr. Harden Mr. Westbrook

Two sides to the NBA’s most exciting coin this season.

The NBA is an unpredictable force early in the season as we wait for injuries to set in, stats to normalize and the New Orleans Pelicans to field five actual NBA players in their starting line-up. One week in, it’s hard to make any difficult judgements because we’re still waiting for statistical outliers to bring themselves back to earth. Two weeks in we start to try and make definitive statements about system changes, the way teams adapt defensively and whether or not one player is ready to take the leap. Three weeks in and DeMar DeRozan is still on a scoring tear that is giving Raptors’ fans more wet dreams than a new Drake single, Anthony Davis is still more akin to a laboratory experiment than a NBA player and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are both out there matching Oscar Robertson’s statistical output that we never thought we’d see replicated in our lifetime.

Say what you say about his defense, or lack thereof, James Harden has adapted quite well to his positional “change” under Mike D’Antoni. Obviously, the phrasing is simply nominal. Harden is as much a point guard as a hot dog is a sandwich, but it is an indication of a positionless NBA future that Charles Barkley has been denying while screaming on a corner with a giant bell in one hand and a stack of newspapers in the other. He is the team’s primary ball-handler, for obvious reasons, distributor and scorer. Asking him to play defense anything other than this side of “occasionally passable” would exhaust him by the mid-season mark. Still, here is more or less traditionally a shooting guard.

His game is silky smooth and he benefits from a myriad of moves that put defenders on their toes and force them to keep up with a flash of hand motions that resemble something out of a Naruto sequence as much as they do dribbling. Keeping the ball in Harden’s hands allows the team to surround him with three competent shooters that open up the lane for moves like these:

One of Harden’s most dangerous weapons is his change of pace. You can see him lure opponents into a lull before quickly exploding past them for an easy floater. His lackadaisical mannerisms on both ends serve as a visual decoy for the deadly scoring threat they conceal. Harden is at his best when he can use that change of speed to maneuver into the paint and draw fouls or kick out the ball. To their credit, the Rockets acquired a few players this summer that slot well into this game plan, including Ryan Anderson who is more than capable of knocking down threes and is repaying Houston by shooting a career high .413% from three this season on 6.2 attempts per game. The other other wrinkle that frees Harden up to average 12.6 assists on the season in addition to his 30.3 points is Clint Capela. An effective roll man, he doesn’t even have to set the screen for defenses to often collapse around Harden to create these opportunities.

Out of 45 made field goals for the season over 82% of Capela’s are assisted. If we pull that stat out on Capela/Harden connection, the pattern should still hold. Out of those 45, 17 are alley-oops and the majority of the rest are either dunks and/or layups. He has created an open space for Harden to operate by being a willing motion man in the restricted area, unlike the static Dwight Howard presence. Harden is on pace to get historic numbers, but his team is very well operating around him to allow his smooth style to dictate the pace of games.

On the other hand, moving Harden out of the equation, bumps the Rockets offensive rate down to a historically low 82.8, which I think could be bested by some junior college teams, if not high-school. There is a very distinct lack of even a semblance of a metaphor for a second creator anywhere on that bench contributing to a static offense and an overall non-dynamic performance that requires Harden on the floor at all times. Things aren’t much different in OKC either.

If Harden plays basketball with the grace and maneuverability of a matador, Russell Westbrook is more akin to a raging bull that’s just been let out of its cage and is racing towards you at full speed. I’m not sure what NBA rims ever did to Russell Westbrook but he treats them as if they’re a prop in NBA Ballers and breaking one signifies a momentous victory for him and the team (the game just ends I suppose).

While Houston carefully crafted an intricate offense that allows Harden to maneuver into the paint and make decisions based off available options, Oklahoma’s approach is more like when you violently shake a can of coke before giving it to your brother and giggling as he opens it. Their entire style is predicated entirely on the mood and the general state of aggravation Russell Westbrook is in on any given day, and so far it has worked to the tune of a 6–5 record (after an unpredictably hot start) and Russell averaging 32 points, 9.9 assists and 9.2 rebounds. And if your eyes just did a 360 into your skull and back, you’re not hallucinating, those numbers are basically a decimal point each away from a triple-double average, something that would be absurd, even by Russell Westbrook — Human Experiment standards.

The problem for Oklahoma is that while unleashing Hurricane Westbrook is an extremely terrifying experience for individual defenders and an entertaining one for NBA fans and casual observers alike, it is not a particularly sustainable strategy, especially when the rest of your team is objectively trash beyond the next five guys up. Oladipo struggled to become the scoring punch we projected him to be and Adams is yet to take the offensive leap the Thunder needed him to. That leaves Enes Kanter, who is one of only three players averaging in double digits (Westbrook & ‘dipo are the other two) and is the only bench player worth any substance in the moment.

The team lacks a definitive identity beyond letting Russell Westbrook go “Scorched Earth” in arena’s across the association, and while that is entertaining, his violently absurd brand of basketball has to be both hard on the human body and winning percentages. The Thunder net rating difference with and without Russ is -26.6, which isn’t as much a gap as it is a trench at the bottom of the ocean that no one has discovered yet because God knows how deep it is and what kind of Godzilla we’ll find down there.

Buy: Clippers Bench

I don’t know if the law of averages is an honest to God real thing, but I assume it is since it’s the law, but U.S. also has a president-elect who happens to be on actual trial so who knows how much it’s worth, but for Clippers’ sake I hope it’s not. Rivers has been a lot more hockey-like in his substitution patterns, preferring wholesale swaps. At first glance, you’d think this a risky strategy for a team that names Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights as it’s marquee off-season acquisitions, but it works.

In the past, the strategy has been to surround Jamal Crawford with whatever spare change you could find between the cushions and hope for the best. This year, the second unit is not only outscoring teams, it’s doing so with gusto. However, their primary contribution comes on a defensive end with a unit net defensive rating of 91.1. The lengthy roster of limbs allows them to switch at around 4 positions on the floor, five if Speights is feeling motivated enough. None of the second unit players, outside of maybe Wesley Johnson, are particularly adept defenders, but their willingness to rotate and work hard hides that fact well enough to allow them to stifle teams. The Clippers always had a deadly front five, now they might just have the bench that they needed for a deep playoff run.

Hold: Charlotte Hornets

I still don’t quite know what to make of the Charlotte Hornets. On one night they’re quite terrific, on the other Spencer Hawes’ man-bun symbiotically takes over his motor functions and makes this happen.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good team that’s sitting at 6–3 (good enough for fourth in the East) with All-Star snubee Kemba Walker playing the same kind of under-the-radar spectacular basketball he has been for the past few years while pushing 25 and 5 on averages. However, they’re also the same Hornets from a few years ago.

All of their wins came against lesser opposition while they got closed out by Boston, Toronto and Cleveland — all teams we view as contenders ahead of Charlotte. It’s a tough sell for Hornets fans and they’ve done an exceptional job staying in top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating for years, but it just seems that this is it. Much like the Raptors, the current record and performance have this team maxed out at their potential, which may be a hard fought first round Playoffs loss.

Sell: Everything Orlando Magic

Just a few years removed from “winning” the Dwight Howard trade and stock-piling a mass of young assets the Magic are back in the midst of an identity crisis. They chose to reward one of their most consistent performers in Nicola Vucevic by stockpiling his position with both expensive and expiring assets. They also decided that Orlando was one of few cities who’s misplaced trust wasn’t yet irreparably damaged by Jeff Green by giving him $15 million to play in front of their most exciting young assets in Aaron Gordon. They traded away one of their young talents on a controllable contract who could at least hit the rim from behind the arc on for a player who’s ceiling is a third-best player on a contender and who happens to be on an expiring contract. It’s a mess.

Orlando are dead last in the league in offensive rating with 0 blueprint on how to escape it. Their pace is stagnant and their list of shooters who are effective is basically just an Evan Fournier business card. On the other end, bringing in Frank Vogel, the defensive mastermind who methodically constructed Helm’s Deep and held it until Miami took it apart in that one Playoff series, hasn’t had the benefit we expected. The Magic are 28th in the league in defensive rating with a measly 109.1. Things were definitely not good. At least Frank Vogel still has the perpetual facial expression of a husband who knows someone is sleeping with his wife.

Buy: Malcolm Brogdon Small Sample Size

If you’re currently in the Fantasy Basketball apothecary I recommend you stock up on the Brogdon Miracle Tonic where available. Milwaukee Bucks were always going to struggle with traditional point guard designation, but with all of the fan fare around Point Giannis, you don’t think they’d care much. Luckily for them, the universe did and delivered Brogdon in the Draft. A steadying force with the second unit, Brogdon is the reliable ball handler that Jason Kidd needs when it’s time to settle things down on the court and so far he has repaid him.

Buy: Marquese Chris — Human Cargo Plane

You can have this:

Or This

Or this:

In any way, Marquese Chris’ level of regard for human life in the paint is currently deep into the negatives.

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