Tag Archives: James Harden

The Bearded Freakshow and the race for MVP with Mr. Triple Double

After an offseason of drama and changes across the Houston Rockets organization, one major piece stayed constant. Superstar James Harden is without question a top ten, if not top five player in the league, and the Rockets realize that. Bringing in offensive minded veteran head coach Mike D’Antoni told the rest of the league that the Rockets were okay with being offensively driven.

Bringing in perimeter shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon were the first signs that pointed to the Rockets using Harden more as a point guard. We’ve all seen how great of a player Harden is when he attacks the rim, and with the opportunity to either go at the rim or dish it out to the perimeter, it’s no surprise Harden is averaging nearly twelve assists a game.

While Harden certainly gets attention and recognition across the league for his play, he doesn’t seem to get the same attention as the other superstars across the league. This could be attributed to the fact that his former teammate, Russell Westbrook has had one of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history. However, Harden isn’t very far behind the beast from Oklahoma City. He currently is averaging twenty-eight PPG (third in the league), twelve APG (first in the league), and eight RPG (which ranks first among shooting guards). Westbrook has managed to earn twenty triple-doubles this year, but Harden sits right behind him with twelve.

There is no reason to say that Westbrook does not deserve to be considered first in the MVP ratings, but the argument for Harden is about as good as it can get. He has led the Rockets to an excellent first half of the season, as they currently sit third in the competitive Western Conference.

However, there is a lot more to discuss when looking at the season Harden has had thus far. He ranks second in the league in terms of estimated wins added, with a score of fourteen (13.6). He sits behind only, you guessed it, Russell Westbrook (13.7). Houston has thirty-two wins this year, so say Harden went down with a season ending injury. While the Rockets should be able to stay slightly above .500, they would immediately lose any opportunity to be a contender in the West. This may seem obvious, as when a team loses a star player like Harden, their chances of being successful take a large hit.

However, take a player like Paul George. The small forward is the Indiana Pacers best player, and is having a strong season. Yet, he currently ranks forty-second in the NBA in EWA with a score of five. The Pacers do not have as good of a record as Houston does, but this does demonstrate that losing a superstar does not always mean a team will go down the tubes.

As the second half of the season approaches, there will be two major storylines that will play out in Houston. The first and more important storyline is where the Rockets will finish up in the Western Conference standings. Could they surpass their interstate rivals the San Antonio Spurs or even climb all the way to the top and own the one seed over the Golden State Warriors? They are certainly in striking distance, and if they continue to play the way they are, the Rockets have a great opportunity.

The other storyline that Rocket fans will mainly be intrigued by is if Harden will hoist the MVP trophy at the end of this season. As referenced by most of this article, he most likely only trails Russell Westbrook. If the season ended today, it would be hard not to give it to Westbrook despite the Thunder’s “so-so” record. However, if Harden can keep up his phenomenal play and lead the Rockets to a fifty-five sixty win season, he will certainly have the resume as well to match-up. 

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Midseason Love/Hate, Part 2

Houston Rockets

Love: Dwight Howard anointing the Rockets as “Swag Champs”

The Rockets aren’t the first team I think of when I hear the phrase “Swag Champs”. Also I don’t really remember the Rockets winning the “swag playoff bracket” and claiming the title. Although I guess it was pretty swag of Dwight to name his team as champs without actually competing against anyone else.

Hate: James Harden’s beard

I know this is contrary to popular opinion, but if I was James I’d think about shaving it. The constant grooming and filtering through the beard for loose food particles just seems like a huge hassle. Also you know you’d get a great Gillette endorsement out of it. But he might end up being the league MVP so he can do what he wants.

Indiana Pacers

Love: Larry Bird’s stealthy tank job

The Pacers are pretty bad this year and although they probably won’t get a top five pick, they will be relatively high in the lottery. If you combine that draft pick with the return of Paul George, the Pacers become a formidable opponent in the East again next season. Larry Bird trading off some minor assets for more draft picks and clearing cap space could really make this off-season interesting for the Pacers.

Hate: watching the Pacers is the equivalent to watching paint dry

The Pacers without Paul George are by far the most boring team to watch in the NBA. They have zero appeal to anyone who enjoys watching basketball. No thanks Rodney Stuckey, I’ve seen all I need to see. Does anyone really like to watch David West go 6/15 from midrange? Or watch Roy Hibbert foul out in 22 minutes? After a more thorough evaluation of the Geneva Convention, I also found out that forcing POW’s to watch Pacers basketball is an approved form of torture.

Los Angeles Clippers

Love: Steve Ballmer’s enthusiasm

I mentioned his dancing to Fergie earlier, and that was truly epic. But it’s nice to see an owner who is visible and simply loves just being an owner of a sports team. He paid $2 billion for the Clippers and it’s because he straight up really wanted to own a team. I don’t empathize with many billionaire’s but I kind of enjoy the fact that he doesn’t take owning a team for granted… (yet).

Hate: Blake Griffin TV commercials

One or two is fine Blake, but it’s getting kind of ridiculous. I think I’d be more okay with Blake being in so many commercials if the Clippers literally did anything in the playoffs since he’s been there. He needs to have a stipulation in his next contract that says he can only do one commercial spot for every playoff series the team wins. Also I would like to come out and say with conviction that I believe another early exit in the playoffs for the Clippers is likely. Their team chemistry is mediocre, they don’t have the talent on the wings to win four straight series, and their lack of depth off the bench is a problem that will become more evident as the season goes on. They have star power, but I can’t see them getting to the finals unless Blake, CP3, and Deandre Jordan play out of their minds through April and May and just overpower opponents to mask the inefficiencies of the rest of the team.

Los Angeles Lakers

Love: Nick Young recruiting free agents during games

I would really like to live in that fantasy land that Nick Young lives in. How can he possibly think any respectable NBA stars would be willing to play with Kobe (he’s definitely not retiring), himself, and guys like Ronnie Price, Wes Johnson, and Ed Davis. What’s the upside for potential free agents coming to LA? Take less than 10 shots a game and miss the playoffs by a very wide margin. Sorry Nick, but I admire the effort by Swaggy P trying to help out Mitch Kupchak this offseason.

Hate: Julius Randle’s injury

I was really looking forward to getting to watch “Baby Z-Bo” play for the Lakers. Getting hurt in the first game in your pro career must have been extremely devastating to Julius, and Lakers fans being subjected to more Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre than required is a harsh punishment. But unfortunately Julius will just be part of this injury cursed draft class with Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid.

Memphis Grizzlies

Love: Ground & Pound

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph dominating the paint on a nightly basis is a pleasure to watch. The Grizzlies really control the tempo of every game with these two behemoths and force opponents to play in the halfcourt which heavily favors their style of basketball. Grizzlies are my pick to come out of the West, so get your tickets for the bandwagon while they last. The addition of Jeff Green was such a major coup for Memphis. Jeff Green as your number one or two option is not a good thing, but Jeff Green as your number four option is such a great asset. He has the offensive talent, and he will have a few games in the playoffs where he will score over 20 points a game and those games can swing a series in the Grizzlies favor.

Hate: I’m not sure how to pronounce “Joerger”

While you were sleeping the Grizzlies didn’t retain Coach Lionel Hollins and hired Dave Joerger. I always want to say [JORG-er] or [YORG-er]. But it’s actually pronounced [YAY-ger]. Case closed!

Miami Heat

Love: that I was proven wrong as a Dwyane Wade doubter

I truly thought Wade had nothing left in the tank after last season, but he has proven many doubters like myself wrong, and has played at an All-Star caliber level. Although he still struggles with injuries, when he has been active he’s been outstanding. I don’t think it’s out of the question Miami could steal a playoffs series, or at least push a quality team to a seven games if Wade is healthy come April. Wade and Bosh have been great, but it’s still a little puzzling how much worse Miami has been without LeBron. Replacing LeBron with Luol Deng, a respectable NBA talent, seemed like a decent move; and a move that would insure them to be over .500 and around a 5 or 6 seed. The difference in wins from this year and last shows the true value of LeBron on the Heat and how he was kind of carrying Wade and Bosh these last few seasons.

Hate: Miami Heat fans

You Heat fans are all frauds and shouldn’t be allowed to have an NBA franchise. There are 28 other teams that don’t have LeBron. Their fans still show up to the games. Shame on you Miami!

Milwaukee Bucks

Love: replacing Larry Sanders with Jason Kidd’s ex-teammate Kenyon Martin

They both played together on the New Jersey Nets 2002 NBA Finals team; that was almost thirteen years ago! I can’t imagine the Bucks even reaching out to Kenyon Martin if Jason Kidd wasn’t the coach. They both played together so long ago that the Nets have moved to Brooklyn since their departure. The Bucks have probably been in some talks with the Mavericks and Grizzlies to bring back Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter too. I feel very nostalgic about the fact that these old teammates have reunited.

Hate: Larry Sanders marijuana addiction

Dude, you’re getting paid millions of dollars to play basketball. You really can’t lay off the ganja? The problem for Larry is that he’s kind of in a Catch-22. He needs money to buy the weed, but the only way he can get money is to play basketball. It’s somewhat hilarious that he’s prioritizing marijuana over extremely large sums of money. If Larry can put down the bong for a few months the Bucks could really use his defensive presence in the playoffs. Teams in the East would feel much better about their chances seeing Zaza Pachulia rather than Larry Sanders.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Love: Andrew Wiggins making the Cavs regret trading him

Andrew Wiggins has really been stellar over the last month and maybe the Cavaliers won’t regret trading him this year, but it seems like Wiggins is going to be a stud for many years to come. There is an increasing likelihood that Kevin Love is going to leave Cleveland this year in free agency and that should really bum out Cavs fans even more. So now they basically traded a future perennial All-Star for a one year rental of Kevin Love, and in a year that they probably won’t win the title. GM LeBron strikes again!

Hate: Flip Saunders hiring Flip Saunders

The definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Insanity is also the definition of the Timberwolves ownership group giving complete control to Flip Saunders.

New Orleans Pelicans

Love: Anthony Davis’ Player Efficiency Rating

Analytically AD is putting together the best year EVER by an NBA player and is on pace to shatter the previous record for a single season PER. That’s really cool. To put this into perspective, Davis’ PER is 31.82. In the history of the NBA, only ten times has a player recorded a PER greater than 31.00. Of those ten seasons, LeBron James did it 3x, Wilt Chamberlain did it 3x, and Michael Jordan did it 4x. Wilt has the highest PER ever, also at 31.82. Anthony Davis is in some pretty historic territory and exclusive company. The most dumbfounded thing about this is that Pelicans are almost certainly going to miss the playoffs…my head hurts.

Hate: we’ll never get to see Anthony Davis in the playoffs

Monty Williams is a terrible coach, and it doesn’t help that they’re in the toughest division in the NBA. Also the Pelicans roster construction in my opinion is just weird with the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans; and they have almost no cap flexibility to make tweaks to the roster in the offseason. It will really be a shame if we continue to go without “The Brow” during postseason play for much longer. Now watch this ambiguously racist Pelicans commercial!

New York Knicks

Love: the audacity to ask for a 2nd round pick for Pablo Prigioni

There was a report a few weeks ago that the Knicks were shopping Prigioni and asking for a 2nd round pick in return. What?! Who in the hell would ever give up any type of asset for an almost 40 year old third string PG? Phil Jackson should’ve asked for something more reasonable like a washing machine and maybe a deal would’ve gotten done. Optimistically trying to move your worst player for assets is proof the Knicks are committed to tanking. Phil is doing a fabulous job of setting his team up to fail, but it would’ve been interesting to see what the team could’ve done if Steve Kerr didn’t parlay his offer with the Knicks into a coaching job with Golden State. Credit Kerr for his incredible foresight and savvy to not be Phil Jackson’s pawn and instead move to Cali with Steph & Klay and become one of the frontrunners for coach of the year.

Hate: everything else

Seriously, everything else. There’s literally almost nothing to love about this team.

(D)Roses and Thorns Podcast 2/5/15: Talking Bulls

Jake Weiner, Jacob Bikshorn and Drew Hackman discuss the Bulls-Rockets game, Pau Gasol’s utter lack of defense, questions about the team’s effort, the everlasting minutes debate, Taj Gibson trade rumors, bench issues, and of course, Kirk Hinrich. Enjoy!

If you missed last week’s podcast, you can listen here.

 

BULLet Points: Rockets Blast Off On Bulls

  • Wednesday night’s drubbing in Houston was business as usual for the 2015 version of the Bulls, a team that is frankly not even average. Since the calendar turned over, the Bulls have scored 103.7 points per 100 possessions but have given up 104.1. It doesn’t take an NBA expert to understand that giving up more points than you score is a bad thing. While that offensive efficiency is good for 11th in the league, their defense ranks 22nd. The Knicks are in 23rd. THE KNICKS!
  • The bad defense was out in full force in Houston, as the Rockets hung 101 points on the Bulls. Chicago did hold Houston to just 41% shooting from the floor and 29% from three, but a lot of those misses were wide open looks that the Rockets typically splash in their sleep. Houston’s shot chart was predictably all shots in the paint or shots from beyond the arc.
Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 10.55.01 PM
via ESPN

 

  • The Rockets went an uncharacteristic 2-6 from the corners in this game, and missed a slew of point blank shots in the paint. In many ways, the Bulls were lucky to have only lost by 11. This one could (and maybe should) have been even uglier.
  • Houston used the excellent penetration ability of James Harden to create all of these great opportunities. Harden, who at one point scored 11 consecutive points for the Rockets, was 5-6 in the second quarter and really messed with the basic principles that the Bulls employ in defending perimeter players. In pick and roll situations, the Bulls typically have the man guarding the screener drop back a few steps in an attempt to coral the ball handler. Unfortunately, Harden was so good getting through the teeth of the defense that the typical drop-back scheme wasn’t enough to slow him down. So the Bulls adjusted, blitzing Harden with double teams 27 feet from the basket. Harden, one of the best passers in the league, was able to use the Bulls’ pressure against them, making nifty passes to open players, who made more nifty passes to more open players.

pau-gasol

  • The lack of success in slowing down Harden with their typical defensive strategy is very concerning. Tom Thibodeau literally wrote the book on this system that a large number of teams have adapted as their own, and to see the Bulls execute it poorly enough that they abandoned it is a huge issue going forward. Against a team like the Warriors, where the slightest amount of breathing room is all Steph Curry needs to launch a great shot, it’s not unusual for the Bulls to alter their strategy. But Harden, who was only 9-20 in this game, wasn’t bending the Bulls out of shape with long range shooting. He was just driving past the man tasked with slowing him down.
  • The men who were tasked with dropping back in coverage were Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol. Gasol in particular was hard to watch in this game:

  • Gasol played like the Tin Man on a rainy day, seemingly stuck in place on several defensive possessions where they Bulls desperately needed him to rotate into position. Whether it was on plays where he was directly responsible for slowing down the ball handler, or he was guarding the big not involved in the pick and roll action, Gasol was a step slow and a second late on pretty much everything.
  • The bench Wednesday night was atrocious. Nikola Mirotic looked physically outmatched by the athletic rockets in his 12 minutes of court time. Mirotic was one for eight from the floor and was a minus 17. IN 12 MINUTES. Taj Gibson, who managed a double-double in 30 minutes off the bench, was a -10 for the game. Aaron Brooks, who committed two very costly turnovers to start the fourth quarter (when the Bulls were down just five points!) was a -15 in 15 minutes. Jeff Van Gundy pointed this out on the broadcast, but it’s worth restating here: the depth of the Bulls was a perceived strength going into the season and for much of the first two months. Lately, this has been a shallow squad. McDermott hasn’t found the floor for real minutes since his injury. Tony Snell has not played at a level that Thibs deems worthy of a rotation spot. And Mirotic seems to have slammed into the rookie wall like a Porche with a brick on the accelerator.
  • Rose had a typical game for what he is these days. 9-22 from the field, 2-9 from three, only four attempts at the free throw line. Should Rose be shooting more than twice as many triples as free throws? Should I eat fewer Sour Patch Kids and more salad? Sometimes things are easier said than done.
  •  The lone bright spot in this otherwise lackluster game was Jimmy Butler, who managed to play with intensity on offense despite the nearly impossible task of defending James Harden on the other end. Butler was 9-18 from the field and forced the issue off the dribble, getting to the line eight times. Butler wasn’t just bulldozing his way to the basket, as he made a fair number of difficult jump shots. According to NBA.com, Butler was 4-7 on contested shots Wednesday night. Butler was a -1 overall, but considering he played all but seven minutes of an 11 point loss, he clearly cannot be blamed.
  • Kirk Hinrich somehow played more than 30 minutes again. He shot 1-6 from the field, and passed up a slew of open looks, including one with the shot clock winding down that led to a 24 second violation and a turnover. Hinrich’s presence on the floor isn’t just personally humiliating for Hinrich. He’s also absolutely destroying the spacing for his teammates. Houston, a well coached team that understands how to play the percentages, was more than comfortable ignoring Hinrich on the perimeter, sending his man crashing into the paint to clog up whatever action the Bulls tried to run. The absence of Mike Dunleavy has forced Hinrich into a role he hasn’t been able to handle since 2009.
  • Things can only get better…I think.

The Butler: An Unexpected Journey

Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.

While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.

jimmy butler

Of course, this could be horrific for Bulls fans. After the season, Butler will be a restricted free agent, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet that the Bulls will have the ability to match. While the Bulls have expressed that they’re happy to match a big contract if Jimmy is worth it, one only needs to look at Houston, Dallas and Chandler Parsons to see how dicey things can get when a savvy team gets creative with the offer sheet. In fact, stay in Houston for a moment and you’ll remember that the Bulls lost Omer Asik to a backloaded offer sheet that had more consequences for Chicago than Houston. The Bulls’ front office was confident about retaining Asik as well.

If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):

(stats via Basketball-Reference)
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.

To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):

stats via Basketball-Reference
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).

Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.

Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.

Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.