Tag Archives: James Harden

James Harden Is Gone, Deal With It

It has become a common refrain revolving around a suddenly disappointing Oklahoma City playoff run, something of a go-to move once the head-shaking and the Perk-wringing ceases:

“Poor Kevin Durant had to do everything without Russell Westbrook and James Harden”.

At its very core, the statement is factually accurate. The load thrust upon Durant during this postseason was monstrous, and eventually led to his downfall at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. But it is also partially borne out of a sentiment that is 6 months out of date. Yes, Westbrook’s absence has been a humongous blow to the Thunder’s title chances, as injuries to top 10 players worldwide are wont to do. But the absence of Harden hurts the Thunder just as much as the absence of prime Hakeem Olajuwon hurts the Thunder – both of them would help, both of them wear Rockets jerseys instead, and we should move on.

Criticism of the Harden trade is hardly new. It has been a prominent thread upon the NBA discussion spool since Sam Presti and Daryl Morey shocked NBA observers three days before the start of the regular season, will likely remain such until Kevin Durant raises Oklahoma City’s inaugural NBA championship, and even then, may return if Houston matches with a Larry O’Brien of their own. All-world contributors rarely get traded by contenders; whether Presti knew that Harden is such a player or not, willingly declining to retain his services for the following decade is a historical outlier. Morey, for his part, gambled on Harden being this sort of player, and is now watching his creation pay off in the form of long-term relevance.

My issue with the Harden talk, however, stems from what is either a conceptual misunderstanding or wilful ignorance of what the trade was supposed to accomplish.

I don’t think there is a single soul who thinks this team wouldn’t have been better had The Bearded One been there to come off the bench instead of Kevin Martin (who, to be fair, had a decent if inconsistent playoff run). This includes Sam Presti. Trading Harden wasn’t done with this season in mind – otherwise, Presti wouldn’t have gone for a trade that includes only one rotation player in Martin and three long-term prospects in Jeremy Lamb and two future first round picks. Rather, the idea behind the Harden trade was a wager that the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka core was enough to contend long-term to allow a Harden sacrifice of sorts in the name of financial and roster flexibility.

Was that idea misguided? Common logic dictates that once a title is within your grasp, an immediate full-on pursuit is the only reasonable plan. The NBA becomes volatile once timelines are stretched to multiple years, with multiple future dynasties having dissolved before they’ve even managed their initial ascension over the course history. Within said prism, Presti’s decision is a too-cute attempt to juggle both immediate and future fruit.

That said, Oklahoma City’s regular season performance indicates that this current core, even Harden-less, is indeed title-caliber. The Thunder blew the league away in average margin of victory, which has a strong correlation with playoff success, and matched their typically potent offense with their first top 5 defensive outfit of the Kevin Durant era. By all accounts, this team was a major Miami-shaped hurdle away from the title, and that hurdle was possible, if not probable, for a clearing.

If this seems like a long-winded attempt to make the story about the Westbrook injury, well, it is. Russ is just too big a variable to presciently dissect any other part of this current’s team makeup. While the stagnant offense and the Scott Brooks question (and, as a byproduct, the Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher questions) are concerns, confidently stating that they would or would not ultimately be the downfall of this squad with Westbrook’s meniscus remaining intact are but speculation. As is the baseless claim that had the team both kept Harden and seen the same Westbrook injury (though, without Harden, the Rockets never make the playoffs and Patrick Beverley can’t run into Russ, but then again, without Harden maybe the Rockets never sign Beverley in the first place and instead he signs with the Utah Jazz who would have surely been the 8th seed with the Rockets out of the picture, except, there was no Harden trade, right, so I bet the Mavericks would have traded for Kevin Martin instead, and they really needed more scoring, so with Martin I bet they make the 8th seed and they don’t have Beverley and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed).

Moving Harden did not doom this title run. It lowered the odds in the name of the future. The question, then, is not whether Sam Presti’s long-term trade was, indeed, a long-term improvement. And while it’s not looking good, it’s impossible to say so early on. Yes, Jeremy Lamb did not impress in his rookie season… but the point guard who just sunk the Thunder, Mike Conley, was a bust three years in. Yes, Harden is a franchise player any way you try to analyze his game, but those touches and that stature were unavailable in Oklahoma City, and it’s impossible know how he would have developed with those restrictions. Yes, the pick OKC will get from Toronto will probably be in the lower teams of a terrible draft… but good players emerge from such spots every now and then, much like Serge Ibaka (24th, 2008) or Reggie Jackson (24th, 2011) have for these exact same Thunder. And with the exception of one Cole Aldrich, Presti’s drafting acumen has been proven almost every time he’s stepped to the plate.

I personally don’t think it was a good move – Harden is too good, and that team was too special, with three young stars growing and bursting upon the stage together – but I also don’t know how the future pans out. Presti has somehow backed himself from being a leaguewide golden boy to having somewhat of a burden of proof, but he’s done an excellent job before, and will probably make good moves again. Pointing to the Harden trade as the move that dismantled the team of the 2010s when the Thunder have neither seized hold of the decade nor lost their grip on it is premature.

Revisionist History 101

In which Noam and I discuss Omer Asik, Jerry Reinsdorf’s frugality, Daryl Morey, carrots and revisionist history. 

Noam: Last summer, Daryl Morey took his poison pills and dropped them in the drinks of his New York and Chicago counterparts. When the mischievous act was all said and done, Morey emerged with a new starting point guard in Jeremy Lin, and a new starting center in Omer Asik. Glen Grunwald and Gar Forman, meanwhile, were left to try and figure out how a pocket square nerd stole their prized assets; the Biffs to Morey’s McFly, if you will.

The reaction to New York declining to match Lin’s offer sheet was loud and swift, as New York reactions tend to go. The anti-Bulls movement was much quieter. Asik was just one member of the well designed Bench Mob that the Bulls willingly broke up last summer, and Derrick Rose’s knee didn’t leave much narrative space to begin with. If the death of Linsanity by James Dolan’s odd pettiness was predictably absurd, Jerry Reinsdorf’s frugality leading to a new home for Asik was predictably predictable.
Not anymore! With Joakim Noah hobbled and Asik coming off a fantastic inaugural season in Houston, it has finally, belatedly become acceptable to chastise the Bulls for letting him go. Some may say that waiting 9 months to form an opinion on a move is the smart thing to do; I would counter that in the world of restricted free agency, where decisions must be made within 3 days, such opinions reek of revisionist history. Jordan, your opinions reek of revisionist history. Defend yourself or reek forever.
Jordan: Seriously? I just showered, so I shouldn’t smell all that bad. And Noam, I believe you’re the one engaging in revisionist practices. Asik’s defensive brilliance is impossible to define in simple numbers or even by sight. On/off data doesn’t appear in box scores, nor do per 36 statistics. All we saw was a gargantuan Judge Reinhold doppelganger moving around the court with a speed just above plodding or lumbering, occasionally blocking a shot or snagging a difficult rebound, but nothing spectacular. His genius lies in the “hidden” (though, not really all that hidden) numbers. Fortunately, it is in the swamps of those murky mathematical waters that Daryl Morey makes his home. Morey saw Asik’s brilliance. This wasn’t an impulse buy, as one might do with a car or a puppy.

Yet the only numbers Reinsdorf took into account were those in the contract. Not the amount of minutes Thibodeau plays his starters, which border on insanity. Not the defensive numbers of the Asik/Gibson front court. Yes, it was predictable that Reinsdorf wouldn’t match, but predictability isn’t a defense. An explanation, maybe. By the way, how sad is it that an owner in one of the largest markets in the league being cheap is predictable? Especially when he spends so much on the OTHER MAJOR LEAGUE SPORTS TEAM HE OWNS. To claim the necessity of frugality with one team, then spend more money than Midas had gold with the other, is hypocritical to say the least.
This isn’t the case of a rookie, or a little-used player suddenly blowing up with a new team. Asik’s on/off numbers were impressive, and while they also came in a bench roll, and in limited minutes, teams simply didn’t score against the tandem of Asik and Gibson when they shared the court. Further, it’s not as if they ONLY had three days to measure the offer and make a decision. Teams record more data points on their own players than on any other player on any other team. Chicago should have been prepared for any such offer, and had a plan in place when it came.
That’s why it’s fair to glance in Reinsdorf’s direction when we learn of Noah’s injury or Chicago’s overall fatigue, while also seeing Asik thrive as a starter in Houston. Like Reinsdorf, they were predictable.
Noam: I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Asik/Judge Reinhold parallels, which is odd because the internet seems to come up with Asik lookalikes daily. Personally, I like to imagine that he is the love child of John C. Reilly and the goth kid from South Park.

But I digress. I don’t think anyone denies that Chicago’s last offseason was financially motivated to a fault. Kyle Korver was literally given away for nothing. Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson ended up signing minimum deals elsewhere, and while it’s not certain they would have done the same to stay in Chicago, their part in the Bulls’ success in the Tom Thibodeau era bench was undisputed. Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Vlad Rad – all were brought in as minimum replacements instead. Nate has had a good, if typically Nate-ish year, but without the emergence of Jimmy Butler, there would be a whole lot of nothing on the wing rotation a year after it was, if not a strength, then at least not a weakness.
It’s easy to lump in Asik as one of the Bench-Mob-Let-Go and complain about stinginess with regard to the entire ensemble. But Asik was a completely different situation than any of those guys. The deal he got from Houston was a much bigger long term commitment than any other Bull bench member, and though one could make the case that he was the most valuable Bull-sub in a vacuum, he was also part of a major frontcourt logjam; in a repeater-tax world, can one really afford to shell out around 40 million yearly to solidify only two positions?
The Bulls were stuck in a sinking ship, and had room for only 3 big men on the life raft. Joakim Noah had already reserved his place by finding the raft in the first place; from that point on, it was either amnestying Boozer, or refusing to extend either Asik or Taj Gibson. Of Noah-Boozer-Gibson, you can play any two of the three together and get by. Asik, on the other hand, couldn’t play next to Noah – the spacing is too bad, especially for a team that hardly shoots or makes threes – which would have once again limited him to fourth big status and a minutes per game figure in the teens. You can’t pay so much for that guy.
Jordan: That’s a fair point. Although, maybe they could have gotten away with amnestying Boozers and starting Noah/Gibson while bringing Asik off the bench. And again, it’s not as if this is the Pelicans or Bobcats. IT’S THE FREAKING BULLS. One of the most storied franchises in a world-renowned city with one of the most loyal (though god knows why) fanbases in all of sports. Reinsdorf can afford to pay four bigs, especially given their unique values.

Still, the refusal to match Houston’s offer was more emblematic of an ownership that has repeatedly favored finances over success. That Reinsdorf declined to match, coupled with Asik’s subsequent terrific play with his new team, is simply the boiling point for an already frustrated fanbase.

But let’s switch topics for a second. Does Asik’s production, as well as Jeremy Lin’s, vindicate Daryl Morey? Even though some of the basketball intelligentsia liked the Asik contract, hardly anyone loved it. Some even went so far as to question whether Morey had lost his mojo. Now? Morey’s sitting pretty with a young, talented team that is only going to get smarter and better. So, Noam, do you trust Daryl Morey again?
Noam: My Morey trust meter was refilled the second he pulled off the James Harden trade. The issue with Morey over the past few seasons was that his trades started to look like a series of randomly scattered incremental improvements rather than a coherent plan. Bringing in Harden leveled those concerns.

The Asik and Lin contracts are a funnier story. I don’t think you’d find many pundits willing to criticize them at this point in time – not when the Rockets are one of the league’s youngest teams with a bearded superstar, cap flexibility and plenty of room internal improvement. But again, this exists within the context of the Harden trade. Had it not gone down, we’d probably be looking at a bottom feeder starting a disgruntled Kevin Martin and hanging its hat on two lottery picks in a weak draft. In such a hypothetical scenario, the money Lin and Asik are getting, while not preposterous, might have been frowned upon.
This brings me back to my original point, elegantly circumventing your shameless attempt to change the subject by waiving a Morey-shaped carrot in front of my face – there is too little regard to context in the way we judge moves. Lin and Asik were good signings for the Rockets because they were young players who did well in limited sample sizes in their first two seasons – giving them slightly above average deals and banking on them sustaining that production when given 30+ minutes a night was shrewd business. Harden’s existence should have done nothing to retroactively change that analysis, but it probably did, because we’re human.
Similarly, the Bulls letting Asik walk has been made to look much worst in the months since. Be it signing Nazr Mohammed as a replacement, or subsequently running Noah and his plantar fasciitis into the ground, the Bulls have done everything possible to make us retroactively question their decision; it doesn’t mean it was wrong (albeit cheap).
Carrot Morey

Carrot Morey

Jordan: Damn. You saw through my ruse.

I think letting Asik walk was shortsighted, more than anything, at least from a basketball perspective. But, for the most part, you’re right. Still, an inevitable part of sports fandom is looking back on these sorts of moves and reacting accordingly, context be damned. We don’t know how Asik would perform in the absence of James Harden and his 56 assists to Asik, per NBA.com, nor do we care. All that matters is that he’s thriving while Chicago is depleted. We look back and wonder, what if, then look to who’s responsible for why it isn’t. Which, in this case, means Reinsdorf.
Noam: The Reinsdorf discussion is a different one for a different time, but I do want to drive a final financial point home. The new luxury tax works as something of an excuse for owners who don’t want to spend crazy money – which makes sense, since that was the entire point of it – but it does so much better than the old version. Fans couldn’t/wouldn’t emphasize with an owner that doesn’t cross the tax line to save money; however, staying under the line to keep the full MLE and the ability to sign-and-trade is the perfect artificial excuse. It’s what makes the Asik non-match work: in the new NBA landscape, overall roster flexibility with 3 very good big men takes precedence over being stuck with 4 of them.

The only counter is whether this is still true for large market teams, who can always get a premier veteran for the mini-MLE and can (mostly) survive tax payments. Add in Reinsdorf’s other major sports team, and the anger towards him is warranted. I just wish that anger didn’t cloud analysis of Chicago’s actual moves. Almost everything they did this year was a consensus screw up; this one, however painful in retrospect, makes sense.

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: The Thunder-Rockets 2012-2013 Playoff Preview

From October through April, thirty teams scratched and clawed their way for this opportunity. Who will make it out? Who will be disappointed? Who will shock and surprise? Who will hit an insane buzzer beater that will make us all collectively gasp so loudly that we will be able hear each other from six counties away? WHO? TELL ME, WHO?

Welcome to the Hardwood Paroxysm 2012-2013 Playoff Previews.

Virtual Systems Analysis

by Andrew Lynch

I wanted to start this preview off with the V for Vendetta volume of V’s video, because apparently I’m stuck in 2005. Honestly, though, that’s way too many V’s for this series. THUNDERROCKETS needs but three:

Vengeance. Vindication. Variance.

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but vengeance? She is a visage best viewed bearded, like some sort of angry carnival attraction. And James Harden, the PT Barnum of Offensive Efficiency, has a whole circus’s worth of vengeance to unleash upon his former mates in Oklahoma City. The Thunder wouldn’t give him his $6 million dollars, so he’s going to bring his Omer Asik elephants down I-35 like a millionaire Hannibal of Carthage.

Unfortunately for Harden and his three-point shooting acrobats, Oklahoma City stands to be vindicated for its decision — for now. The Thunder are heavy favorites, as they should be. Kevin Martin has done his level best to provide three-quarters of Harden’s production off the bench, and organic growth of the young core players has taken the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka combination to a higher plane of enlightenment.

The Thunder are far from nirvana, though, particularly with a Dalai Lama whose Four Noble Truths are predicated on playing Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher copious minutes. And, if the Rockets can jack up the variance in this series by running, gunning and doing what they do best, they’ll stand a chance — to win two games instead of one. It won’t be a very good chance; after all, circuses are kind of a dying business. But a little bit of probability goes a long way when the alternative is impossibility.

I Do Declare

by Amin Vafa

Any number of unexpected things can happen in this series. As a wise man once said, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!!!!” And he was right. Records can be topped, players can get injured (knock on wood that they don’t), upsets can occur, and hearts can be broken. But enough with the schmaltz. Let’s make some kooky predictions, shall we?

OK, I’m going to make three tiers of predictions, and make three predictions in each tier. Here we go:

Tier One: The Potential for an in-game fracas

1. Kendrick Perkins and Thomas Robinson will get double technicals in Game 1 because Robinson will misinterpret Perkins’s regular frown-prone face as a personal affront and will argue with him.

2. Kevin Durant (who is apparently “not nice” these days) will get a technical foul in Game 4 for yelling at Joey Crawford for calling him for a charge that he deserved.

3. Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia have to be separated in Game 4 because of Martin’s insistence that Knucklehead is better than that Parker’s.

Tier Two: Fans Gone Wild

1. OKC fans will boo James Harden in Game 1, causing him to go 3-15 in the first half. He will finish the game with 48 points.

2. Game 4 will be suffer a delay in the fourth quarter for over 20 minutes as the floor is being cleared of promotional “FEAR THE BEARD” fake James Harden-like beards that unhappy fans have thrown onto the floor of a 25-point rout.

3. Game 5 will begin on a 45-minute delay because “Mini Oil Derrick Giveaway Night” will have made the floor too slick. But for real, they should have seen that one coming.

Tier Three: WHAT THE WHAT?

1. The Rockets will lose the series at home at Game 6 because Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha will be replaced by MONSTARS. Kevin McHale is notoriously bad at game-planning against MONSTARS.

2. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will both get technical fouls in Game 2. This will occur because a fan from the stands will scream “WE SHOULDA TRADED YOU, RUSS!” Unfortunately, for Harden, the fan in the crowd will be an amateur ventriloquist, and Westbrook will think think Harden was the one who said it. The confusion will result in a very tense and confusing moment that will end in Westbrook sitting more minutes than he normally would.

3. Both teams will forfeit the series because they’ll all get emotional having watched hours of footage with Harden on the Thunder and Martin on the Rockets. As soon as both teams step out onto the court, Harden and Martin run past each other and hug their old teammates. They embrace and cry for so long that even the officials are too overcome with emotion to blow the whistle and start the game. The crowd goes silent for 10 minutes, until you hear one child sniffle. Then the entire stadium is filled with wailing sobs and memories of yore. The jumbotron no longer carrie a live feed and is instead filled with montages of Martin and Harden on their respective previous teams. The Rockets montage is set to “Good Riddance” by Green Day (those lyrics are so tricky, though! they’re so loving in parts!), and the Thunder montage is set to “Closing Time” by Semisonic.

Then the Thunder and Rockets all sign each other’s yearbooks. “H.A.G.S.!”

Through the Looking Glass

by Jordan White

Predictions for this series:

James Harden will score 45 points on 20 shots

James Harden will score 20 points on 30 shots

Chandler Parsons will continue to be handsome

Kendrick Perkins will continue to mean mug everyone

There will be at least one spat between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and once again we’ll find ourselves in the throes of the beaten-t0-death “they don’t like each other” narrative.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will continue to say how much they like each other

Jeremy Lin will remind everyone that he wasn’t a product of the New York media hype, and is actually pretty damn good

Omer Asik will be hilarious, without ever cracking a joke. Seriously, just look at the way he runs.

Derek Fisher will hit one big shot in a close game, vindicating Scott Brooks, but not really.

Reggie Jackson will miss an insignificant shot, and will get pulled instantly.

Serge Ibaka will bite on a pump fake

Terrence Jones will have a 20-10 game

Patrick Beverly-Reggie Jackson, though a likely insignificant match-up, will cause unexpected entertainment

Kevin Durant will have a triple double, and it won’t even be his best game of the series

The Thunder will win in 5.

Statistical Anomaly: Rockets @ Grizzlies

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Grizzlies “not as close as the final score indicates” win over the Rockets.

Quincy Pondexter, statistically speaking, is having his best season as a professional, but his play has had no impact on the final result. In fact, it has held an indirect relationship of late. Over the last 11 days, Pondexter is shooting 47.4% in losses and 18.8% in victories. Furthermore, Memphis was outscored by 12 points during his 16 minutes on the court and outscored Houston by 21 points in the other 32 minutes. That -12 plus/minus ratio is twice as bad as his cumulative ratio in the Grizzlies last four losses. As the playoffs approach, it is clear that Memphis can defend at a championship level (second best scoring defense in the NBA), but can they score enough? Don’t be surprised if they begin to phase out Pondexter in favor of an expanded offensive role for Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless.

Mike Conley filled his role to perfection, allowing the Grizzlies to play up to their potential. Five of Memphis’ last eight wins have come when the underrated point guard records a double double, with the last three such games coming in wins against playoff bound teams. Conley excels at initiating the offense, and while he can score at a high level, his cerebral style allows the Grizz to maximize their offensive productivity. He isn’t as physically gifted as the highlight reel point guards in today’s game, but the ability to read and react is just as valuable (see Parker, Tony). Memphis isn’t being considered a title contender in the top heavy Western Conference, but there is little doubt in my mind that Conley has the tools to be a PG on a title winner.

Grizzlies

Over the last two months, the Grizzlies have lost one game when Marc Gasol and/or Zach Randolph attempt at least three free throws and shot at least 76% from the line. Both players did so against the Rockets, giving Memphis the rarest of combinations in the NBA: paint protectors with touch and the ability to be effective in late game situations. Both players can control the lane and step out for the mid range jump shot, forcing opponents to alter their typical rotation. The Grizzlies are a team that nobody wants to play, especially if they can get bench production.

Thomas Robinson went 2/10 from the field as his unpolished offensive game tends to appear on a regular basis. That being said, he battles on the glass at a strong level for a 22 year old, giving Rocket fans reason for optimism. The rookie is averaging 16 rebounds per 48 minutes over the last 2+ weeks, a stretch that includes games against the Spurs, Jazz, and Pacers. Robinson is lucky to be a Rocket and Houston is lucky to have a young forward who is physically ready to succeed right now.

This was the sixth consecutive game against a team battling for playoff position in which James Harden shot less than 38% from the field. Against the Grizzlies, Harden (the fifth leading scorer in the NBA) took more shots than just two of his teammates. Not that I doubt Harden’s talent, but we at least have to ask if he is ready for being the “go-to” guy on the big stage. Sure, he played well with the Thunder, but he wasn’t the focal point of opposing defenses for 48 minutes. Defenses are going to throw the kitchen sink at the crafty scorer, and lately, he hasn’t led his team against the upper portion of the league.

This was an interesting match up as it pitted a strong defensive unit against an elite offensive squad. The difference, however, was the Grizzlies versatility on offense and the poor defending of the Rockets. No playoff team wants to see either one of these teams, but for my money, it’s the Grizzlies that fit the postseason format better. They can run if need be, but they prefer to grind in the half court, and with their personal, they are probably the best team in the league at playing their game. The Rockets can run up and down the court, but could they beat any of the elite teams in a series format that way? I’d rather take my chances with the Grizzlies, a team that dictates pace and excels when they control the style of play. Who do you think is better prepared for the playoffs? Do you trust the team with a true star player, or would you rather roll with a balanced scoring attack? Fast paced offense or bloody your nose defense? Who ya got?

Statistical Anomaly: Timberwolves @ Rockets

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Rockets 108-100 victory over the visiting Timberwolves.

Omer Asik continues to grab rebounds, but his offensive game is as limited as ever. For the third time in four games Asik recorded 0 FTM, 10+ rebounds, and single digit points. Prior to this run, Asik only had one such game in the calendar year. A consistent presence on the offensive end would be nice, but Asik gives Houston exactly what they need. With their high scoring back-court, Asik provides toughness and grit on the interior, a reason why no team wants to see Houston in the first round. They don’t match up well with Oklahoma City, but if they can move up to the six seed and play Memphis, Asik’s role would be a key factor in their potential success.

For the second time in three games, James Harden attempted 10+ three pointers and 10+ free throws, something he hadn’t done once in his career prior to this stretch. Is it possible that Harden is the most complete (not the best but the most complete) scorer in the NBA? He’s more consistent from distance than LeBron and he attacks the basket better than Durant. At 23 years old, Kobe Bryant averaged a similar number of points (25.2 as compared to Harden’s 26.2), but he shot 25% from distance. Harden’s ability to get to the rim is highlighted by his 10 FTA per game and the fact that no player averages more FTM+3PM (11.0).

Harden

The Timberwolves have lost 41 games this season, but heading into action Friday, they had a better winning percentage when scoring 100+ points (.733) than the Denver Nuggets (.712). The stat line from James Harden (37 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end) was eerily similar to the stat line Russell Westbrook produced on January 22nd (37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end). The last time the Timberwolves scored 100+ points in a losing effort. Minnesota’s success when scoring 100+ points comes from their successful offense inspiring solid defense, but without a true star player (healthy), they lose high scoring games when they can’t match the scoring abilities of the opponent’s best player.

Oddly enough, JJ Barea has been at his best from inside the arc in those games that Minnesota losses despite eclipsing the century mark. He has had just three games since the beginning of February in which he has made at least two two point field goals and shot better than 50% on two pointers, with the Timberwolves losing all three contests while scoring 100+ points. With Barea being an undersized, yet aggressive, point guard, it makes sense that when he is on the floor, the scoring picks up. He has an uncanny ability to get into the paint and thus get Minnesota good looks at the basket, but he also has a very difficult time matching up with bigger guards on the defensive end. That is why Barea is pigeonholed as a valuable piece off the bench as opposed to a starting PG in the NBA.

Ricky Rubio continued his run of well rounded games, notching seven rebounds to go along with his seven assists and 14 points. Over his last 13 games, Rubio is averaging 13.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 6.9 rebounds. For reference, Chris Paul’s greatest season AR (assist + rebound) average was 16.5. Rubio’s seven dimes against Houston was the most predictable stat of the entire game due to the 10 assists he handed out on Wednesday. If you break the Timberwolves point guard March into consecutive two game segments, you’ll notice that in all four instances, he has tallied exactly 17 assists. It is clear that Rubio is getting comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, a dangerous thought for the rest of the league when Kevin Love is on the active roster. “Testigo” (“witness” in Spanish) is still only 22 years of age, the same age Steve Nash entered the NBA at. In a league where explosive point guards are becoming the norm, Rubio is a throwback floor general who makes everyone around him better. He may not be a player to build a winner around, but he is certainly the type of PG that will maximize the talent of the pieces on the floor.

The Rockets improved in a big way seemingly overnight by acquiring Harden and Lin this off season, and the Timberwolves could be the 2013-2014 version. With a solid back-court, a healthy Kevin Love, and a top 10 pick (Shabazz Muhammad would be a nice fit), things are headed in the right direction for Minnesota. When it comes to the rockets, they score enough to keep up with anybody. That being said, they need to commit to the defensive end of the floor if they want any chance in a series format. They have lost as many games this year when scoring 100+ points as the Timberwolves have scored 100+ points, not the ideal formula to win in June. James Harden has proved himself a championship level player and the Rockets have a nice core of young players to support him. Their arrow is pointing up, but their improvement in the win column next season will be directly correlated to their defensive intensity. Offense sells tickets, but defensive still plays a vital role in winning titles.

 

 

2013 All-Star Profiles: James Harden

Typewriter by etharooni via flickr

Typewriter by etharooni via flickr

After about two weeks into my job as a copywriter, one of my Associate Creative Directors called me into his office. He asked me about my experience in copywriting (minimal) and how much I knew of the history of advertising (even less). He sent me away with a book on copywriting and a few words of advice passed on through generations of copywriters: for your first five years as a copywriter, you have no business doing anything except copying your betters.

The words weren’t his own, at least not entirely. That bit of advice can be traced back to David Ogilvy, widely considered the father of modern advertising.

It’s no bad thing to learn the craft of advertising by copying your elders and betters. Helmut Krone, one of the most innovative of art directors, has said: ‘I asked one of our writers recently what was more important, doing your own thing or making the ad as good as it can be. The answer was “Doing my own thing”. I disagree violently with that. I’d like to propose a new idea for our age: until you’ve got a better answer, you copy. I copied Bob Gage for 5 years, I even copied the leading between his lines of type. And Bob originally copied Paul Rand, and Rand first copied a German typographer named Tschichold.’

I, too, started by copying. Working in a London agency, I used to copy the best American ads. Later, I began to do my own thing.

-Ogilvy on Advertising

Many great writers, be they novelists, playwrights, script writers, or poets, all give similar advice when asked how to become a better writer: copy your betters.

The practice of mimicry extends into the realm of basketball as well. In fact, it’s flat-out rampant on the hardwood. Consider Kobe Bryant, whose turnaround jump shot in the post is a near mirror reflection of Michael Jordan’s signature move later in his career. Every year, we learn of more and more post players making the pilgrimage to the house of Hakeem, in hopes of mastering the Dream’s flawless post moves. ESPN’s David Thorpe writes an annual article about the season’s top rookies and another player’s move or asset that the rookie should seek to incorporate into his own game.

Of course, we don’t refer to it as copying. We veil these practices with narrative colloquialisms such as “improving his game,” “adding to his arsenal,” or “growing as a player.” And while these are all true, it doesn’t change the fact it’s still copying. Which is fine! It’s the sign of a player who isn’t content, who wants to get better. The purpose isn’t to become the player whom they’re mimicking, but rather add that skill to their own unique abilities.

From the moment he was drafted, it was assumed James Harden would be the starting two-guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He oozed star, and at the very least, starter, potential. And yet, for Harden’s first three seasons, it was Thabo Sefolosha, not the bearded wonder, who started for Oklahoma City. Harden was instead relegated to the bench and given the role of sixth man.

Rather than pout about this role, or point out that he was severely more offensively gifted than Sefolosha, Harden took to the role, and did what any young player who strives to be great should do: he copied his betters. More specifically, he copied those who were better at that role. He became Manu Ginobili, using awkward dribbles and pick and rolls to get to the rim at will, making spectacular plays made possible only by his vision. He was Jason Terry, scoring in bunches immediately after entering the game and nailing seemingly every wide open three pointer. He copied them so well, in fact, that he won the Sixth Man Of The Year Award last season.

During that award winning campaign we began to see flashes of the true James Harden. There was his 40-point outburst (on 17 shots) against the Phoenix Suns, and his single-handed decimation of the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of the playoffs. They were performances of a player showing that his time copying was over.

Something starts to happen as we copy: we develop our own voice. It’s impossible to write exactly like another writer and our own voice will inevitably interject itself into the writing. Which is exactly what is supposed to happen. The purpose isn’t to plagiarize, or to become a perfect copycat of one’s favorite writer, but rather to learn. In the case of the writer, learning how Neil Gaiman effortlessly injects the supernatural into every day life, to the point where the readers accept it as a reality, or how Kurt Vonnegut takes the time to develop every character, is invaluable to their own development. The writer, having studied these methods, then takes these lessons and uses them in his or her own writing. Much like lineage, we may be able to see traces of the writers from whom they copied, but ultimately the voice is that of the “new” writer.

In the first of what is sure to be many All-Star campaigns, Harden has become the player we expected, and the star for whom Daryl Morey and Houston had so yearned.

If Harden’s Sixth Man of the Year award recognized his mimicry, his All-Star berth recognizes him finding his voice. The player we see in Houston is the one we’d seen glimpses of in Oklahoma City. Freed from the constraints of the bench, Harden has total control of the offense. Perhaps more importantly, he has complete freedom to be himself. As with the “new” writer, we still see traces of Harden’s predecessors in his game, but every shot, every pass, every drive is his own. This is James Harden, realized.

The Dissection Of Shot Selection: Limitations

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That faint thumping you hear in the distance, that subtle vibration of the cement and carpet beneath your feet; it’s me once again pounding the drum of shot-selection. Over the past few weeks I’ve brought a few different pieces on the topic here to Hardwood Paroxysm, all built around Expected Points Per Shot (XPPS). If you have not yet been introduced, XPPS is a metric that measures the quality of shot distribution. It is built around the expected values of shots from different locations and rolls the shot-selection of a player or team up into a single number. For context, the league average is 1.047.

XPPS takes its expected values from leagues averages. But because players constantly over and under-perform league averages we also look at Actual Points Per Shot. The difference between the two, is a measure of a player’s shot making ability. Last time we looked at the effect a few different players have on the shot-selection of their teammates. Today I want to share a few shot-selection vignettes, stories of players who have learned specific lessons and are using them to make the most of their offensive opportunities.

‘Can’t Make Them . . . Don’t Take Them’

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | XPPS 1.093 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.060 | Shot Making Difference -0.033 |

Coming into his rookie season, the biggest question mark in Kidd-Gilchrist’s offensive repertoire was his outside jumpshot. Those concerns have proven to be well-founded as he’s shooting just 25.0% from outside of 8ft. However, Kidd-Gilchrist has demonstrated remarkable restraint and recognition of his own weaknesses – those long-distance shots make up just 28% of his non-turnover offensive possessions. At this point he has posted an XPPS of 1.093, well-above the league average of 1.047. Just 38 players in the league have played at least 750 minutes this season with a shot selection that efficient (XPPS > 1.090). That list of 38 is split fairly evenly between big men and backcourt players or wings. Most of the wings on this list derive their efficiency from a reliance on three-point shots. However, Kidd-Gilchrist is on an island by himself in that just 2.1% of field goal attempts have come from beyond the three-point line. Of all the players on that list of 38, the one his shot selection most closely resembles is Joakim Noah.

In the long-term, a shot distribution of that variety will be an enormous limiting factor. Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to reach and push through his ceiling will almost certainly be determined by whether or not he can develop a consistent outside shot. At some point moving towards that goal will require him to begin taking and (initially) missing large quantities of jumpshots. But in the meantime it’s refreshing to see a rookie wing, one selected at the top of the NBA Draft, not fall prey to the lure of shot attempts and the pressure to assume offensive leadership. The shots Kidd-Gilchrist is taking this season require much more effort and patience to attain than simply pulling up for a jumper anytime the mood strikes. That a rookie, especially one on a struggling team, would show such a fanatic devotion to playing his role and inhabiting his strengths is truly unique.

‘These Are Better Than Those’

Marcus Morris | XPPS 1.086 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.067 | Shot Making Difference -0.019 |

Last year was an extended struggle for Marcus Morris. He couldn’t crack the Rockets’ front-court rotation and in the 125 minutes he did make it on the floor, Morris forced shots at a prodigious rate. The fact that he took 54 shots in 125 minutes is not quite as unforgivable as the fact that 40 of them came from outside the paint, where he shot just 27.5%. With Omer Asik entrenched in the middle, ability to provide floor spacing from the power forward position is the key to minutes this season and Morris has made some big changes to earn himself a share of those minutes.

First off, Morris is making shots. His Actual Points Per Shot this season has climbed to 1.067, after working out to a basement scraping 0.696 last season. In addition to confidence and repetition, he has made himself a more efficient scorer with a much improved offensive balance. Instead of the nearly 3-to-1 ratio of shots outside and inside the paint he put together as a rookie, Morris now sports a much healthier 1.6-to-1 ratio. Last season, the dreaded mid-range jumpshot constituted 42.6% of his shot attempts. This season it’s been just 15.4% of his arsenal. Morris has also clearly learned some lessons of basic efficiency from his teammate James Harden. Most of those mid-range shots that seem to have disappeared, have really been moved a step or two back, behind the three-point line. Last season, three-pointers accounted for 31.7% of shot attempts, this season it’s been 45.8%.

All of those changes add up to an XPPS of 1.086, well above the league average. His percentage on corner threes is just 29.7% and he’s making just 65.6% of his free throws, accounting for the slightly below-average production as compared to his shot selection. But overall Morris is shooting 37.0% on three-pointers for the season. Consistent rebounding and defense are still concerns, but in terms of understanding his role in the offense and where his shots should be coming from, Morris has come light years from where he was as a rookie.

These Are Even Better Than Those

Quincy Pondexter | XPPS 1.107 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.121 | Shot Making Difference +0.014 |

For the past several years the Memphis Grizzlies have had an incredible offensive advantage on the interior with the frontcourt tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. However, that advantage has frequently been strangled by the inability of the Grizzlies’ backcourt to space the floor. Without consistent outside threats, opposing defenses are able to collapse into the lane swarming Randolph and Gasol and rebuffing penetration attempts by Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, all without fear of repercussions. In his 1002 minutes last season, Pondexter was definitely part of the problem. He took almost as many mid-range jumpshots as three-pointers (55 to 71) and finished the year having made just 30.1% of his three-pointers.

This season Pondexter has refined both his shot selection and shot making. His XPPS is up to 1.107 about the same as Shane Battier’s 1.118, and his Actual Points Per Shot is considerably higher than Battier’s 1.080. The biggest improvement has not just been moving mid-range shots out past the three-point line, but also refining his three-point selection. On average, a corner three-pointer is worth 1.157 points per shot, where an above-the-break three-pointer is worth 1.048. If you stretch that out over 100 shots, it’s a difference of 19 points, significant to say the least. Of Pondexter’s 78 three-pointers this season, 62% of them have come from the ultra-efficient corners. On those 48 corner three-pointers, he is shooting 47.9%. Pondexter has been out since the end of December with a sprained knee, and the Grizzlies can’t get him and his floor-spacing back soon enough.

Just Because I Can Make Them, Doesn’t Mean I Should Take Them

Chris Copeland | XPPS 1.075 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.160 | Shot Making Difference +0.085 |

Like Pondexter and Morris, Copeland has fought his way into his team’s rotation with better-than-expected scoring efficiency from the outside. A 28-year old rookie, Copeland has shown a smooth stroke and, through 340 minutes this season, is shooting 45.5% on mid-range jumpers and 38.2% on three-pointers. What makes Copeland so special is that mid-range jumpers make up just 20.8% of his non-turnover offensive possessions, where the league average is 29.6%. By comparison, three-pointers make up 34.6% of Copeland’s non-turnover offensive possessions, where the league averages is 18.1%. That works out to an XPPS of 1.075, well above average, and a mark he is out-performing by an average 0.085 points per shot.

It’s an easy argument that Pondexter, Morris and Kidd-Gilchrist shouldn’t be taking mid-range jumpshots, since they don’t make them very often. But Copeland is a very solid mid-range shooter and still demonstrates a terrific amount of restraint. Even though he’s proven to be a capable mid-range shooter, those shots are still a much less efficient offensive option. This season he has made 15 of 33 mid-range jumpers for an average of 0.909 points per shot. On three-pointers he’s made 21 of 55, for an average of 1.145 points per shot. Even above-average mid-range shooters provide less-efficient scoring on a per-shot basis than average three-point shooters. For a rookie, especially one who may be down to his last chance to carve out a niche in the league, shots are a lifeline. Often we see players in his situation greedily gobble them up in a desperate grab at impact. But Copeland has displayed a razor sharp focus on efficiency and in doing so has probably earned himself an NBA roster spot for as long as his body can sustain him.

All The Marbles

James Harden | XPPS 1.126 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.170 | Shot Making Difference +0.044 |

Everytime I look at these XPPS numbers, I inevitably find myself staring at James Harden. 24 NBA players have played at least 1000 minutes this season with a Usage Rate of more than 25.0%. Of that group, only Kevin Durant and LeBron James have a higher Actual Points Per Shot. None has a higher XPPS.

Durant’s incredibly efficiency is a product of his length, quickness, instincts and that beautifully smooth jumpshot. LeBron’s efficiency is a product of his unique combination of brute strength, transcendent athleticism and understanding of the physical laws of basketball. Harden can claim no similar scaffolding to his offensive performance. His efficiency is not a product of any underlying structure, it is the structure itself. I don’t know if he was gifted with this cloak of efficiency, or if it’s a learned compensation strategy. But the fabric of it is every bit as unique as what LeBron and Durant have.

Just 18.0% of Harden’s shot attempts this season have been mid-range jumpshots. While the league average is 29.6%, average for the group of high-usage scorers to which Harden belongs is actually much higher – 33.1%. Together 72.6% of Harden’s shot attempts come either at the rim or from behind the three-point line and about one out of every five non-turnover offensive possessions he uses results in a trip to the free throw line. Every hesitation dribble, every exploitation of the league’s traveling rules, every step-back three-pointer and every presentation of the ball on a drive to the rim, with an implicit invitation to reach in and foul; these are all real-time examples of Harden pushing pulsing, throbbing life into his skill-set with the fluid of efficiency. If you watch him long enough you can almost see the outer edges of his body dissolve into Matrix-like streams of statistics. Again, I don’t know if James Harden was born a natural scorer, but he certainly plays one on TV.

Paroxysm At Gametime: Raptors Show Signs Of Life Against Scary Shooting Guards

Photo by Bruce Guenter on Flickr.

It’s Friday, December 13 and the Toronto Raptors are in disarray. They’ve lost 13 of their last 14 games. Three of their five opening day starters are out with injuries. Toronto is two and a half months removed from president and general manager Bryan Colangelo saying, “There’s that feeling that there could be something special about this group, but time will tell.” With reporters making jokes about a way to commemorate the Raptors’ record potentially falling to 4-20, time has emphatically rejected the “special group” hypothesis.

The Raptors are matched up with an 11-11 team from Texas. Head coach Dwane Casey’s main challenge is containing Dallas’ new starting shooting guard, O.J. Mayo. Entering the game, Mayo is averaging 25.1 points per game in wins, shooting 54.7 percent from the field and 61.4 percent from 3-point range. In losses, Mayo is averaging 16.7 points, shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from 3-point range. Casey says the Mavericks have given Mayo the ultimate green light and he’s the reason they’ve treaded water without Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle says opponents are now trying to attack him defensively because he’s been so effective as a scorer and he’s most impressed by how hard he’s worked at improving his game. “He’s seeing a lot of attention from the opponents defensively with double teams and things like that,” Carlisle says. “He’s trying to understand as time goes on the importance of discipline and patience.”

Toronto gives Mayo plenty of attention, trapping him on every pindown, forcing him to give the ball up. He never gets in rhythm and scores just 10 points, making two field goals on a season-low eight shots. He turns the ball over six times. The Raptors win by a score of 95-74, playing the determined defense expected of a desperate team.“They had a lot to do with us playing poorly and after tonight it’s very, very clear that whatever problems the Raptors franchise have are completely unrelated to coaching,” Carlisle says. Casey refers to his team getting back to the basics in practice, working on fundamentals. He calls stopping Mayo a team effort and credits Mickael Pietrus and Alan Anderson in particular for stepping up to the challenge.

Mayo says he’s disappointed in how handled the traps and he’s a better player than he showed. “I’m playing like crap,” he says. “I can’t worry about the trap more than I’m worried about attacking. I gotta continue to attack even though there is a trap and then use my outlets as far as my other teammates. I’m playing like crap in that area right now to be honest, so I’ll look at the film and get better.”

Vince Carter knows how frustrated Mayo is and has some veteran advice for him. “Stay the course,” he says. “Easier said than done, I know. Stay the course. In his new role, if you would, playing the big minutes, our go-to-guy, leading scorer, they’re going to key on you. So it’s our job to make it easier for him. It’s our job just to move the ball and make plays. He has to be patient. He’s a competitor. He wants to win and he wants to do all he can.”

“It’s the first time in my career it’s pretty much been happening,” Mayo says. “So, I’m struggling these last two games with the turnovers, taking care of the ball. But I’m going to get better, though. I gotta look at some film and obviously sit down with coach and see what I can do in those areas.”

Carter says he will watch film with Mayo, too, and he absolutely remembers when he started seeing schemes set on stopping him in Toronto over a decade ago. “It’s tough. It’s a whole new world for him,” he says. “It’s going to take time and I think he’s patient enough, he wants to win, he’ll learn it. And I’m going to help him.”

At the conclusion of his media session, Mayo is milder. “You’re going to make shots, you’re going to miss shots,” he says. “Have some games where you make plays, you don’t make plays. Crappy games, great games. So it’s a season, man, it’s like a relationship. It’s a rollercoaster.

“It’ll be alright,” Mayo says, and that seems self-evident with how well he’s played this season. Whether Toronto will be alright is a different issue.

***

On Saturday, the Raptors are preparing for a matchup with an 11-11 team from Texas. Casey’s main challenge is containing Houston’s new starting shooting guard, James Harden. Entering the game, Harden is averaging 27.5 points per game in wins, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from 3-point range. In losses, Harden is averaging 21.9 points, shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from 3-point range.

After practice, DeMar DeRozan explains how they were able to limit Mayo. “Just put pressure on him, got the ball out of his hands, contested every shot he took and if he’s hitting shots and making plays out of that, God bless him,” he says. DeRozan has been close friends with Harden since high school and emphasizes that, just like it was with Mayo, it will be a collective effort to try to keep him under control. His coach concurs. “You gotta give them different looks,” Casey says. “If you come down and give a guy like O.J. Mayo and Harden the same look every time down the floor, they’re too good. There’s not one guy in this league that can stop them one on one consistently. You may get them a couple of times, but consistently, they’re too good. That’s why [Harden] is who he is. He has a max contract, they gave it to him for a reason.”

***

Just prior to Sunday’s game, Casey says that he wants the defensive effort to carry over from Friday. “It’s infectious and guys [are] talking, playing together, everybody on a rope, staying together, getting back in transition, pointing. You can hear good defense and I think that’s one of the most important things you saw the other night.” He reiterates that you can’t stop Harden but “what we want to do is kind of control him as much as possible and slow him down where he doesn’t just feel like he’s in a gym by himself.”

Harden is anything but by himself early in the game, with the Raptors blitzing him on pick and rolls. His first shot attempt comes more than five minutes into the game, a difficult leaner from 18 feet on the right baseline. It’s the kind of shot he’d normally avoid. Toronto jumps out to a 10-2 lead and Harden scores his first points splitting a double team and getting fouled at the hoop with 5:08 left in the first quarter. Unlike Mayo, Harden slows down and adjusts to the way Toronto is playing him, registering an assist or a “hockey assist” on four 3-pointers in the final 2:21 of the period to come back and take the lead.

The Raptors scale back the help on Harden in the second quarter and, for the rest of the game, the Rockets shoot 3-for-16 from behind the arc. In the fourth, Toronto elects to switch on Harden’s pick and rolls with Amir Johnson. Harden gets to the rim and shoots 14-for-15 from the line to finish with 28 points, but he shoots 7-for-18 from the field and almost none of the shots are easy. It’s a great game by any standard, but he can’t get his teammates going and Houston loses 103-96, shooting 41 percent from the field.

“We had to adjust our blitz to make sure we get it out of his hand but not give up threes,” Casey says. “That was a byproduct of you have to choose your poison because not only is he a scorer, he’s an excellent passer out of the double team.”

“James is a tough, tough cover,” says Alan Anderson, who shared Harden duty with Mickael Pietrus and Terrence Ross. “He has the ball probably every time they come down the court. He’s isolation, he’s getting ball screens, he’s shooting threes, midrange, he’s doing everything.”

“I tried to take a couple charges on him, but he was so quick and I couldn’t get there,” Johnson says. “As long as you can contain a guy like that and contain the rest of the team and just let him do all the scoring, we pretty much did our job.”

More important than the defensive details is the fact that the Raptors look competent on that end again, as they were in 2011-2012. “We’re getting back to the way we want to play as a team,” says Casey.

“We’re going to all talk,” says Johnson. “Even if we’re just yelling anything out, you know what I mean, just calling names, we’re just going to yell, just try to have fun with them. Just get the offense confused. Instead of them attacking us, we take it to them and attack the ball and it’s really looking good so hopefully we can keep that up.

“We sit here and watch film every day and it’s just working for us,” Johnson continues. It’s just two games, though, and just a few days ago it felt like the franchise was falling apart. Any optimism emanating from the two-game winning streak should be tempered by the fact it is the team’s first two-game winning streak.

“Everything is turning our way and it’s starting to click,” Johnson says. Then he remembers not to get ahead of himself. “I don’t want to jinx nothing.”

Friday RTOE: Extension Talk

Photo from fdecomite via Flicker

Every Friday, the best available minds Hardwood Paroxysm has to offer will gather around the proverbial dinner table and discuss a random topic of great existing interest. Today we have Curtis Harris, Sean Highkin, Amin Vafa, Jared Dubin and myself discussing the newly minted extensions rewarded to 6 members of the 2009 draft class.

1. What did you think about James Harden’s extension (5 years, $80 million)?

Noam: It’s a no-brainer, and I thought this even before Harden’s electrifying Rockets debut. I don’t know if Harden can be THE MAN or not, I don’t know if he’s an alpha dog by nature, and I don’t know if he’ll get too many beard hairs stuck in the drain and annoy clean sink aficionado Patrick Patterson. And I don’t care. His production is off the charts, and he’s worth a post-rookie max. That’s it.

Curtis: I was born in Houston. I was raised right outside the city. I slept in an Hakeem Olajuwon shirt as a child. I bleed Rocket fuel. HELL YES WE GOT JAMES HARDEN. ROCKETBEARD! WOOOOO!!! Worth every penny.

Sean: Harden is worth the money. His efficiency may decline slightly from the insane levels it was at with the Thunder, but that just comes with the territory of taking more shots. I thought he was worth the max before the trade, but after seeing the way he and Jeremy Lin play off each other in Houston, I’m even more sold.

Amin: So glad they finally locked him down. The Thunder are going to be so… wait. What’s that? Oh, you’re saying he signed that extension with the Rockets? Wait, how is he on the Rockets? Oh, he got traded because he OKC didn’t want to pay him? So OKC shifted their window from now to 3 years into the future, hoping Jones and Lamb pan out? I mean, I guess that’s a good idea. But… WOOHOO JAMES HARDEN GOT PAID AND THE ROCKETS ARE FUN AGAIN!

Jared: Well, we knew this one was coming, and it’s well-deserved. Harden had star level production with bench player minutes and third-wheel shot attempts in OKC, but he’s the superstar foundational player Houston has been waiting for and finally got. If his first game as a Rocket is any indication, he’ll have no trouble living up to his price tag. It won’t all be as simple as he made it look against the Pistons, but Harden is a stud, and he’ll produce like one for the duration. The pressure he takes of Jeremy Lin is just a bonus. Harden’s mastery of the pick-and-roll as well as his isolation prowess make him a terrific offensive player. If he can take a leap on the defensive end, he’ll be a top 10 player in the entire league.

2. What did you think about Ty Lawson’s extension (4 years, $48 million)?

Noam: I’m a big fan of both Lawson’s game and Masai Ujiri’s braintrust. The Nuggets continue to build an unorthodox roster full of the midrange sort of deals that usually kill a team’s cap situation, but they’re giving them to very good players while hoping that they can either make the leap or be traded for very good value. Lawson may be closer to the former than any of the Nuggets before him.

Curtis: It may be slightly over his worth, but this deal for Lawson is solid like Lawson himself. Denver’s got the point guard spot safely locked up and in great hands for years to come. There are fewer ways to spend your money better and a lot more to spend it worse… like extending JaVale McGee for basically the same amount.

Sean: I’m a huge fan of Lawson, and I see no reason to doubt Masai Ujiri’s process in coming up with this figure and getting Ty to agree to it. Worst-case scenario, it’s a slight overpay but not an egregious one. Best-case, this could be as big a bargain for the Nuggets as Rajon Rondo’s $55 million deal with the Celtics.

Amin: I think it’s great. I think Lawson is worth the money, and I think Ujiri has proven to be really smart with his contracts. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen. At this point, everyone thinks Lawson is great and would have given him that money. If it turns out that he’s not worth the money (let’s call this the “Nene Fear”), then the front office will keep it hush-hush, shop him around, and get a great deal. Nice work for Denver and Lawson on this one. Plus, you gotta sign a guy who can feed McGee and Iguodala for alley-oops. I want to see like 90 of those per game. Is that doable?

Jared: This is just about a perfect deal. Lawson’s value to the Nuggets is obvious. He’s the jet-engine that makes the high-octane Denver offense run smoothly. His ability to get into the lane, draw defenders and either score at the rim or dish to one of the many versatile finishers on the roster is an insanely valuable asset on a team that likes to push the pace whenever possible. He also plays nicely with backup Andre Miller, which allows George Karl to go to those two point guard lineups that worked so well last season. He’s not quite a guy you max out, but he’s close to that level, which makes $12 million per year a nice in-between number to settle at.

3. What did you think about Stephen Curry’s extension (4 years, $44 million)?

Noam: It’s all about the ankles, right? If Curry is healthy, it’s a steal; if the papier mache that connects his foot to his leg has yet to be replaced with proper ligaments then the Warriors are screwed. Statistically, the Warriors are bound to catch a break sometime in the near future. Hopefully it’s with Steph, because he’s too fun to watch on the court and too painful to watch on the bench.

Curtis: Ultimately, I think Golden State made the right, if perilous, move. How great it pans out depends totally on Curry’s fragile ankles. Not the safest of draft horses to hitch the wagon to, but the Warriors were unlikely to get a fine stallion like Steph from the local husbandry. I think that’s all the horse metaphors I can make.

Sean: I like this deal for the Warriors, mainly because Curry is worth far more than $11 million a year if he’s healthy. Having lived through a max contract for a player with max-level talent but massive injury red flags, I applaud Golden State for insulating themselves to a degree from the fate that met the Blazers with Brandon Roy. I hope he can stay on the court, because this Warriors team has a ton of potential.

Amin: I think this one is tricky, because it’s great contract for Curry, and it’s a great contract for Golden State… if Curry stays healthy. So far, the jury is out on his ability to prevent his ankle from turning into jelly. If he can prevent that, then they’ve got a steal.

Jared: Curry would be worth far more than $11 million per year if he could just stay on the floor. Unfortunately, his ankles are made of something even softer than paper mache. The Dubs were already pot-committed to Curry after they traded Monta Ellis, so extending him made sense. If he can stay on the court, this deal is great. If not, it’s not. Them’s the stakes.

4. What did you think about DeMar DeRozan’s extension (4 years, $40 million)?

Noam: Dammit, Bryan Colangelo. You were on such a good streak. You were patient and calculated and I was so sure you stopped overreacting to every semi-good thing coming your way, and then you had to do this. News flash: DeMar DeRozan is not good. He’s a really nice guy, and he doesn’t do dumb stuff, and other than that, he’s Nick Young without the range. Would you give $40 million to a smart Nick Young without the range? What’s next, $18 million to Landry Fi… dammit.

Curtis: GOOD LORD THIS DEAL IS AWFUL. I’m so sorry Toronto.

Sean: I don’t get this one at all. DeRozan strikes me as the perfect candidate for restricted free agency. My impression wasn’t that a lot of teams would be lining up to pay him, especially now that Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings are going to be on the market. So why wouldn’t the Raptors let him set the market and decide whether or not to keep him? $10 million a year is a massive overpay.

Amin: I think Toronto set the value high, but I think that’s OK. Basically, there aren’t that many high-profile SGs out there that you can build a team around, especially those that are approaching free agency. And if you’re saying “DeRozan isn’t a high-profile SG; my God, he’s got a below average PER,” then you’re half-right. He’s not great, but people know who he is (perception matters; thanks dunk contest!). Someone was going to give him that contract in the off-season, and Toronto was going to have to think about this decision down the road no matter what. This way, they create a better relationship between the front office and the player, the front office and DeRozan’s agent, and they get to see what he’s made of next to Lowry, Ross, and Valanciunas.

Jared: I do not understand this deal in any way whatsoever. The Raptors presumably drafted Terrence Ross and signed Landry Fields (ugh) specifically so they wouldn’t have to commit something like $40 million to DeMar DeRozan, but then they went out and did it anyway. There is nothing in his profile that even hints at him being a $10 million per year player, but the Raps made him one anyway. I’m dumbfounded.

5. What did you think about Taj Gibson’s extension (4 years, $38 million)?

Noam: I don’t love it, but it had to be done. Big men get paid in this league, Taj is as good as they get defensively, and once Chicago let Omer Asik go they couldn’t afford to lose the last remainder of The Ensemble Formerly Known As The Bench Mob. Taj is already 27, so unlike the rest of these guys, he’s unlikely to improve over the length of this deal, but if Chicago had let the market dictate his value, it would have been dictated much higher.

Curtis: Better than Boozer and half the price! This should seal Boozer’s amnestied fate next summer and not a moment too soon. Taj replicates well enough Boozer’s positives while absolutely covering up his awful defense. Love this deal.

Sean: This one is going to look like as much of a bargain as Omer Asik’s deal in Houston once the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer and Taj gets to start full-time.

Amin: Awesome work by the Bulls. He’s definitely worth more, and I think we can look for the frugal Bulls to shop Boozer this year or amnesty him in the off-season. They’ve lost Asik and they’re committed Noah and Gibson; Boozer’s not in those plans either. I could even see the Bulls trying to trade into the tail end of the lottery to get a decent young big man to group with Noah and Gibson in the rotation. Look for a team that wants some scoring but isn’t that serious about competing to take Boozer on (too many teams to name).

Jared: This will look like a bargain once the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer next summer, assuming Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to pay a guy to not play for his team (not a guarantee). Gibson is the lone remaining soldier of the best bench unit in the league, and he’s a start-level player getting bench player minutes. He’ll be well worth the $8+ million per year, even if he doesn’t improve from this day til the end of the deal. Foundational defensive big men don’t grow on trees, and the Bulls locked one up for below market value, just because they have another player who plays his position.

6. What did you think about Jrue Holiday’s extension (4 years, $41 million)?

Noam: This isn’t significantly higher than what I thought Jrue would get, but I really would have preferred it if Philly waited for the summer and got a good look for another year. Holiday hasn’t progressed like one hopes so far, and while at 22 he still oozes potential from every pore, Philly has taken something of a leap of faith assuming he works out. I doubt it comes back to haunt them, but I would have gone down the more cautious route.

Curtis: I looked up at basketball-reference.com the number of players who have averaged 10+ ppg and 5+ apg (Holiday’s averages) since 2010. It was 29 players. He’s literally an average PG at the moment. Not worth the money unless his supposedly voluminous potential begins to be actualized. I’m reserving judgment for now, which isn’t what you really want to hear when a team has just thrown $10 million a year at someone.

Sean: I’ll hedge on this one. He hasn’t been worth $10 million a year to this point, but he’d probably get more than that from somebody next summer, and he’s good enough that it’s worth locking him up before then and hoping he develops into that caliber of a point guard.

Amin: A great deal for both teams. The Sixers are in an exploratory stage with their team right now; with the loss of Iguodala and the unknown status of Bynum, they’ve got to hang onto their known commodities. Though it’ll be interesting to see how this deal influences Evan Turner’s deal down the road.

Jared: I’m not sold this is a good deal yet, but it’s infinitely better than the DeRozan one. Holiday’s seemed like a pretty average point guard so far in his career, but his size, athleticism and speed mean he profiles much better. He has a chance to be one of the better defenders in the league at the guard position, and if his offense ever catches up, he’ll be worth that double-digit million dollar money per season. I’m skeptical it happens, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.