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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 3

March 6, 2017 in Opinion

As we home in on the final months of the season, it’s clear that this NBA campaign has been one of sheer unpredictability. Perhaps not at the top of either the Western or Eastern conferences, but certainly elsewhere.

The trade deadline saw one of the biggest moves in recent memory, while other teams reinforced smartly ahead of the play-offs.

Without further ado…

Best Team: Boston Celtics

It’s bewildering how far the Celtics have come in such a short period of time.

At the start of the season, they were struggling to find consistency with Isaiah Thomas’ brilliance being tossed away by under-performing team-mates.

At this point, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, not just a surprise package.

They are the only team that can step to the Cleveland Cavaliers in both the regular season, and the play-offs. They have offered the Eastern Conference, as well as neutrals, the hope of an upset in the road to the Finals.

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Little Isaiah floats a shot against 7ft Marcin Gortat

Thomas’ electrifying form is infectious, and has clearly spread to those around him.

Jae Crowder looks a man possessed, while Jaylen Brown is making a case for being one of the standout performers in his age-bracket.

Coach Brad Stevens has yet to manage a play-off game, so it will be interesting to see how his youthfulness and hunger translates to the biggest stage.

As of right now, his progression has been impeccable. Not only has he got the Celtics in 2nd place, two wins behind the Cavs, but he already has an All-Star game under his belt.

GM Danny Ainge’s reluctance to make a trade at the deadline could hurt this team in the play-offs, especially since their interior defence is non-existent.

But the percentages they are currently shooting at could see them blow out any team on any given day.

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

One has to wonder if copy and pasting part two of this quarterly report would suffice in this section. But, somehow, the Nets have worsened.

Not only did they make no significant push at the trade deadline, they allowed 3-point shooting maverick Bojan Bogdanovic to move to Washington for next-to-nothing.

Without a shooting presence, and an underperforming Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, the Nets look nailed on for one of the worst NBA season records of all-time.

They were 8-33 when the previous report was written. 21 games later, they have only won two more. And only three of their wins have come in their own conference.

The Nets look a dishevelled franchise. Broken, unfixable and unwatchable. New York has become devoid of any team worth shouting over.

Most Improved Team: Washington Wizards

Not only are the Wizards the most improved team, they’re undoubtedly the most entertaining.

A backcourt comprised of John Wall and Bradley Beal has become one of the most talked about partnerships this season. Electrifying and productive in the clutch, these two have a genuine chance at making the conference finals this year.

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John Wall prepares to shoot a free-throw

They’re third in the conference, boasting 17 wins in their last 23 games. In the first quarterly report, we had them down as one of the most disappointing teams.

Right now, they look unstoppable. Whether that be going toe-to-toe with the Warriors and beating them, or taking the Cavs to overtime, the Wizards look like the real deal.

Wall is posting up career highs in points, assists and 3pt percentages. Likewise, Beal. Around them is a team made up of hot shooters and workhorses.

Otto Porter Jr. has the best 3pt shooting percentages in the entire league – yes, higher than Steph Curry and James Harden.

Kelly Oubre Jr. looks to be developing into a future star of this league, meanwhile Markief Morris is doing all the dirty work at both ends.

With the smart acquisition of Bogdanovic at the deadline, the Wizards have become even more of a sharpshooting team. This could be the key to any play-off upset.

Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has gone from the typical brutish European centre to a player of immense, unplayable quality. He’s posted up multiple triple-doubles in the last 20 games, driving the Denver Nuggets from mediocrity to a near-lock for that 8th place play-off position.

He’s one of the league leaders in assists, and one of the most proficient passers around. A playmaking maverick, a rebounding machine and a point-hoarder, Jokic is utterly phenomenal.

Despite his bulk and height, he moves elegantly and to a level that we have never seen in the NBA. If there’s one player who deserves this award at the end of the season, it’s Jokic. From complete unknown to one of the hottest names around.

Best Trade: DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans Pelicans

I wanted to avoid the blockbuster move as much as I could, since I feel as though Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to the Toronto Raptors is the move that most improves a team and equips them best for a play-off push.

But it’s DeMarcus Cousins. Moving away from the team where he’s spent his entire career and joining former college team-mate Anthony Davis.

This move was mind-blowing for the NBA. Not only do the Pelicans now have the two best big-men in the league, they undoubtedly have all the potential in the world to bring a ring to New Orleans.

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DeMarcus and Davis, reunited

Rebounding has long been an issue for Championship winners in the past; with the Warriors for example it’s been their Achilles heel this year.

The Rockets have the same problem; the Cavs sometimes struggle… the list goes on.

The Pelicans not only succeed in that area, they thrive and feed off it. Second-chance points are their best friend. If they can sneak into the play-offs this year, expect this blockbuster trade to upset the biggest of teams.

If not, they’re set to be the most anticipated team to watch for next season.

If they can acquire the right pieces to place around this titanic, unplayable frontcourt, they’re legitimate contenders next season.

Surprise Package: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat traded off Dwayne Wade in the summer, effectively leaving their team devoid of star quality. But the players who were nothing more than good, have now become great.

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Hassan Whiteside contests a call

After a shoddy start to the season, where they were rooted to the bottom of the conference for 30 straight games, the Heat are now one win from a play-off spot.

How they achieved such a feat is tough to explain. They registered a 13-game win streak – the longest we’ve seen this season from any team – including victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers.

 

With the hustle, rebounding and blocking of Hassan Whiteside, the Heat are always a scrappy team to play against.

They’re physical and rough, with emphasis placed on bullying opposition teams off the court.

But, beyond that physicality, is a gorgeous style of play within their ball movement.

Players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are facilitators of the highest order, creating space on the court, knocking down 3’s from improbable range and finding Whiteside in the paint for easy points.

This trio have brutalised opposition and dragged the Heat from misery to magnificence. It will be interesting to see how this young, untested team can cope in the play-offs, if they make it.

Offensive Play of the 3rd quarter:

Watch as LeBron James forces an entertaining game vs the Wizards into overtime with one of the craziest shots we’ve seen all season:

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Defensive Play of the 3rd quarter: 

LeBron’s so good, he becomes the first player in our reports to be awarded offensive and defensive play in the same quarter. This chasedown block on Courtney Lee is stunning:

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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

January 12, 2017 in Features, Opinion

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt 1

December 6, 2016 in Opinion

With every team in the NBA having reached a minimum 20 games, we have arrived at the second quarter of the regular season.

The first was enthralling, unpredictable and offered up many exciting moments. Elephant Sport breaks it down into some fun categories.

Best Team: Golden State Warriors

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Curry lets fly from three-point range

It’s hard to look past the Golden State Warriors for this one. Despite losing their opening game to the San Antonio Spurs, and then suffering defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers a few days later, many were quick to attribute issues of chemistry to this Warriors side.

After all, this was the team to beat prior to the season. But how do elite teams bounce back? By winning. Golden State went one step further, though.

They swatted each and every single opponent out of their sight, notching a streak of 12 wins before falling to the Houston Rockets on their 20th match. They are currently nurturing a 17-3 record.

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, contrary to popular belief prior to the season, have grown a strong on-court bond together.

The former is posting up career-highs in every single department – not least of which, points. Meanwhile Curry has embodied the role of facilitator, aptly putting his ego to the side.

Worst Team: Dallas Mavericks

It’s tough to argue against a side who has only won four of their 21 encounters this season. Unfortunately, there have been two teams that have recorded an identical record.

The difference between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Mavericks? The former have at least looked entertaining and have some young stars that are lighting up the league, eg, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

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Dirk’s injury has crippled Dallas

The 76ers have also taken the biggest of teams to overtime and tend to lose by small margins. The Mavs, on the other hand, are completely devoid of any quality.

Dirk Nowitzki – their only star – has been injured for the majority of the season, which has exposed how frail and disappointing the Dallas side is without the 38-year-old.

The most disappointing thing about the Mavericks is that players like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut – two former NBA champions – have turned in good performances sporadically at best.

Bogut has been inconsistent when protecting the rim and has fouled out twice already this season. Whereas Barnes is failing to dish out assists, averaging only one per game. By having the highest ball-usage on the team, he should be producing more often.

Most Improved Team: Houston Rockets

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Harden is producing his best numbers to date

The Rockets were lambasted in the off-season when they appointed Mike D’Antoni as head coach. This was seen as a signing that would continue to allow the Rockets to play shoddy defence.

But what most seemed to forget was that defence matters very little in the regular season, especially if you can create All-Star numbers on the other end of the court.

But, even then, many punters had the Rockets failing to reach the play-offs once the season ends. As of right now, the Rockets are sitting in fourth place behind only the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers – inarguably the three best teams in the Western Conference.

D’Antoni has assembled a team of cut-throat three-point shooters, including new boys Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.

With this maximised potential on offence, the Rockets have broken two records already this season: most three-point shots attempted in NBA history (51) and longest streak of three-points made in NBA history (17).

James Harden is posting MVP numbers and very close to averaging a triple-double for the season. D’Antoni’s influence has allowed ‘The Beard’ to both orchestrate play and run it too.

The Rockets are currently 13-7 and are the only side in the league to have beaten both the Spurs and Warriors already; both on the road.

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Boston Celtics

The Celtics are struggling more than most expected. Despite being third in their conference, a 12-8 record has been seen as a disappointment from inside the franchise.

Boston are in dire need of a strong rebounder – something they thought Al Horford could be. While Horford has been fairly good this season, his role seems to be more focused on getting points in the paint rather than winning possession off the board.

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The Celtics could prosper from a move for Cousins

With a consistent rebounder, the Celtics would lose a lot less. In fact, they currently lead the NBA in most second chance points conceded. This is, without a doubt, due to their lack of proficiency in the air when leaping for a rebound.

Who could they trade for? The Celtics aren’t devoid of pieces that they could put up. And they are also not a franchise unrecognisable to most.

With superstar Isaiah Thomas leading the floor, and a consistent army of good players surrounding him, now is the chance to join up with the Celtics.

In an ideal world, the Celtics move for Sacramento’s Demarcus Cousins. The often-aggressive centre is becoming disillusioned with what is shaping up to be another season of disappointment for his team.

He’s averaging over 10 rebounds per game, which should ring shouts of excitement in the ears of Boston. After all, how hard could it be to tempt a disillusioned player away from his suffering franchise while he’s in his peak years?

Sacramento needs picks in the draft to start building for the future. Boston could offer a pick or two, along with outcasts such as Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk. It makes sense.

Surprise Package: Los Angeles Lakers

Lakers at Wizards 12/2/15

Julius Randle, at just 22, is having a fine season

The Lakers post-Kobe Bryant were supposed to be an incoherent mess on the court. Plays on offence were going to diminish, meanwhile defensive presence was to continue being non-existent at best.

Having finished bottom of the West in the previous season with Kobe, one would be forgiven for thinking this season would be worse. Except they are already seven wins away from bettering last season’s measly 17 victories.

They are also one win away from a play-off spot already.

This is the first quarter they have had to play without Kobe’s influence in over 20 years. And they couldn’t look freer from his shackles.

Offensive play has been smooth, with sophomore D’Angelo Russell facilitating play from the point-guard position. His rotation partner, Jordan Clarkson, has also been posting up monster numbers from the bench.

Nick Young, often ridiculed for being a veteran with a kid’s mentality, has won two games for the Lakers with buzzer-beater shots and is leading the team effortlessly.

And then you have Julius Randle – by far the Lakers’ finest player this quarter. The 22-year-old has already registered a triple-double this season and is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game.

A supporting cast of Lou Williams and Timofey Mozgov has enabled the Lakers to flourish and, with a 10-12 record, they look like a dark horse for a play-off spot in a season where everyone expected the franchise to hit rock bottom.

MVP at the Quarter: Russell Westbrook

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Russ is clinching historic numbers

Many predicted this, but nobody quite predicted the enormity of Russell Westbrook’s play.

Following the departure of Oklahoma team-mate and long-term friend Kevin Durant, it was expected that Westbrook would play out of his skin in every game to compensate for the fact that he is the only remaining superstar on the Thunder.

Fast-forward 20 games and the point-guard is averaging a triple-double per game, including six in a row, which has equalled and bettered greats such as Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

With his outstanding play, Westbrook is now averaging a monster 31 points per game, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He has single-handedly dragged a quality-depleted Thunder side to fifth in the conference with an admirable 13-8 record.

James Harden seems like the closest contender but, if Westbrook does not slow down, elite names such as LeBron James, Curry, Durant and Chris Paul won’t even stand a chance next to the 28-year-old.

Rookie of the Year at the Quarter: Joel Embiid

Can anyone genuinely look past the eccentric 7’0″ Cameroonian centre?

After two long years of injury, nobody expected Embiid’s first NBA season to be one of such pure dominance on both ends.

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Joel Embiid warms up with a dunk

Despite being restricted to just 23 minutes per game, Embiid is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

Consider the fact that he is only appearing in half of every match, this is a fascinating return for the 22-year-old.

While honourable mentions such as Pascal Siakam and Jaylen Brown look impressive, they are nothing in comparison to the 76ers behemoth.

He moves as though he is several inches shorter on offence, and operates as a man possessed when protecting the rim on the other end. His entertainment factor is sky-high, often lighting up what is a very poor Philly side.

He already looks like an All-Star in the making.

Offensive Play of the Quarter:

A game-winner? Some fancy handles? A three-point shot?

How about all three combined into one smooth play by the Rockets’ James Harden against the Utah Jazz:

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Defensive Play of the Quarter:

Two plays rolled into one, watch as Kristaps Porzingis cements two monster blocks deep in the fourth quarter and OT to deliver the New York Knicks a victory against the Charlotte Hornets:

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Elephant Sport will be continuing this four-part series throughout the NBA season at every quarter. 

Forget Steph and LeBron – Harden will be 2017’s MVP

October 24, 2016 in Opinion

“MVP and he’ll lead us to the finals…”

Those were the words of Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in pre-season regarding James Harden’s upcoming year.

Are those expectations high? Perhaps. After all, Steph Curry and LeBron James are chasing records. The former could be only the third player to win three MVP awards in a row, meanwhile LeBron could equal Michael Jordan with five – one shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six (a NBA high).

So where does Harden fit in? What’s his motivation and why will voters opt for him over the aforementioned?

History

Harden was infamously snubbed for the 2015 MVP award after dragging the Rockets to a Conference final in a season where their squad was, arguably, at its very weakest. His single-handed quality, dropping 28ppg/8apg/5rpg, attracted voters.

But what attracted them more was the fairytale story of the Golden State Warriors and, in particular, the league’s new three-point-shooting sensation Steph Curry. A travesty, sure, but it proved that narrative plays an important part in the voting process for the MVP.

If narrative is, as proven in the past, a serious facet of the voting process, then this may very well be the year of ‘The Beard’. It has been three years of consecutive play-offs with Harden as the franchise player at the Rockets – prior to his arrival, they had undergone two barren years of no basketball post the regular season.

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He has this tradition of genuinely carrying a below-par side; this year, the voters asleep will awaken.

Because the argument against Harden has always been this: he cannot play defence – he commits too many turnovers. But these turnovers are born from having all of the team’s play channelled through his hands for a minimum of 80 games per season.

What difference is three or four turnovers per game when the majority of his time on the ball culminates in a clutch three-pointer or an alley-oop assist?

Make no mistake, Harden should be defending at a higher level. But so should his team-mates. The Beard cannot afford to focus on defense if there is no other teammate willing to put up some numbers on offence while he is contributing on the other side of the court.

But this season, the argument of defence may no longer exist. And with no argument toward his candidacy for MVP, Harden could take the award from the hands of Curry and James.

Improvements via D’Antoni 

The summer of 2016. Enter Mike D’Antoni – surely the best coach on offence in the league. A man known for improving the way teams space the floor, which is exactly what the Rockets guard needs.

It’s important to emphasise “guard”, too, since D’Antoni’s first action was to move Harden, permanently, to point guard. What this does is it forces Harden to defend against opposition stars such as Curry, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley etc.

“He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A playcaller, a good basketball mind, he’s already telling guys we can do this, we can do that” – Mike D’Antoni

His previous position of shooting guard allowed him to slack on defence and often sit on the wings, awaiting the opposition to score before he begins to move up the court.

Harden will be forced to play defence now – that’s perfect for him. Why? Think of the aforementioned narrative. There will be no more argument to his name; he’ll be a bonafide superstar who showed that, regardless of status and ego, he’s willing to sacrifice some points on offence to mark a dent in the opposition’s field goal percentage.

Numbers game

The NBA is all about numbers. And it’s those numbers that, unequivocally, make up the bulk of the voting decisions in the run-up for MVP. So let’s take a look at Harden’s numbers last season:

  • 82 games played
  • 29ppg
  • 7.5apg
  • 6.1rpg
  • 4.6topg

The Beard may have broken the record for most turnovers in an NBA season, but this is something that moving to point guard will correct. Because there is a stronger reliance upon defending, Harden will shift the ball and dribble with more intelligence.

That should, in theory, reduce his turnovers per game – the one true hindrance of his candidacy for MVP.

7.5 assists per game is a monster number for a shooting guard whose job is to hoard points for his team rather than dish the ball. Houston’s number 13 is now a point guard; this means more passes which equals more assists. 6.1 rebounds per game without playing defence? That too will improve.

It’s simply inconceivable that Harden’s numbers will not increase.

He could very well average a triple-double by the end of the season because, let’s face it, he will always record a superstar level of points. Only one player has ever recorded a season-long average of a triple-double. That man was Larry Bird. And that man went on to win MVP by a landslide.

Seeding

If narrative and numbers make up two of the three pillars of voting, then seeding is the third. Essentially, no player bar Michael Jordan has ever won the MVP award without finishing as a top four seed in their conference.

This is the one true worry for Harden: are the Rockets good enough to take top four in their conference? Last season they put up a miserable 41 wins and 41 losses which saw them scrape into the play-offs via the eighth seed. If Harden is to tick the ‘seeding’ box, then he has to improve the Rockets by 13 wins. Is that do-able? Most certainly.

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Mike D’Antoni – the key to Harden’s MVP award?

There was a lot of unhappiness in the Rockets’ backroom after the sacking of Kevin McHale and appointment of interim coach JB Bickerstaff.

The players had no tactical instructions – play was largely concocted out of nothing rather than through intelligent coaching. Add to that the brewing rivalry between Harden and team-mate Dwight Howard – a period which saw Harden refuse to pass to the big man while the latter refused to play the pick-and-roll.

This affected the Rockets’ record. With bad apple Howard ousted  – subsequently shifted to the Atlanta Hawks – and D’Antoni arriving as a coach with ideas and a solid foundation to build upon, there will be no negative or average record.

D’Antoni’s main concern this year was to improve the shooters around Harden, essentially making it easier for him to grab assists.

With Eric Gordon and Ryan Andersen joining as potent three-point shooters, and Clint Capela proving to be an improved post-scorer, the Rockets will score more points than ever before. And this is a side that, for three years running, has registered more points than any other side in the league.

In the regular season, defence matters not if you can blow out opposition on offence. But the Rockets have shown in pre-season that defence is something they have most definitely improved upon.

From an offence standpoint, ‘Clutch Nation’ have also proven themselves as reliable scorers even when Harden is not on the court. Against a strong Memphis side in pre-season, Houston’s bench registered 90 points. None of which were scored or assisted by Harden.

The key to winning MVP is not solely down to self-improvement; the team around you also has to perform. So is 13 extra wins achievable, all things considered? Yes. In fact, it would not be a surprise if they registered even more.

Wrapping things up…

This is the best side surrounding Harden in a long while. It may very well be first time that the beloved “Fear The Beard” quote comes to life and dominates the NBA.

Harden is a sleeper hit for the award, but one that unequivocally ticks all the boxes. Forget Curry and LeBron, this is 2017’s MVP.

 

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