On James Harden and Team USA

Surely you’ve heard by now that James Harden declared himself to be the best all-around player in the game, some days ago.  Much has been made of the comment, but I personally don’t see a problem.  Obviously, the statement isn’t factually correct, but what does it matter?  I want my best player to exude confidence.  That’s a far more preferable scenario than the one in which the early 2000′s Kings found themselves when their star player, Chris Webber, literally ran away from the ball late in games, deferring to Mike Bibby.  You could counter this shows a lack of self-awareness, but I’d offer that maybe this means higher expectations.

But anyways, of greater personal interest were Coach K’s comments about Harden’s leadership with Team USA.  Maybe they’re true?  Maybe they’re a motivating technique?  (Remember how Jeff Van Gundy would routinely praise Kelvin Cato?)  In any event, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the experience this summer can only be a good thing for James.  When Kevin Durant pulled out from the team, I’ll be honest: I secretly hoped Harden would as well.  Seeing Paul George take the spill he did left a lasting impression, and it has not been fun holding my breath afterward every time Harden has driven the lane.  But players can get hurt anywhere.  True, the basket support was directly contributory in George’s case, but you can land awkwardly on the blacktop at Rucker as well.

Durant leaving was sort of a blessing.  Remember the stories about Lebron James getting to see how hard Kobe Bryant worked day in and day out after their summer together?  That wasn’t going to happen here as Harden and Durant are already familiar.  But now, Harden is establishing himself as the go-to player on a team comprised of some of the best in the world.  And he’s learning the way to win under a coach he purportedly respects.  This overall experience, and the confidence borne from it, can be nothing but positive.

If Harden comes back focused, transformed, maybe that’s better than any transaction Morey could have made.  He looks much trimmer in these games.  And as I noted earlier in the week, Dwight Howard already seems locked in.

We’ve been focusing on the personnel game for some years now.  But player transformation has been the traditional path to success.  Hakeem finding inner peace and trust in his teammates.  Lebron reinventing his game.  Harden can be the second best player in this conference.  If he puts in work on the defensive end, he will be.

To date, I like what I’m seeing thus far.  If you asked me now, I’m expecting a big year.

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The Morey Fallacy

I would have been much better served writing this post back in July when the topic was fresh and relevant.  But I didn’t, so now will have to do.

In the days following the apex of Houston’s disastrous summer, when the team lost Chandler Parsons after striking out on every major free agent, the critics came out in waves, celebrating Morey’s plight.  Some of the assertions made were true.  Many were regurgitated, the same things that had been said before the Rockets’ coup of James Harden and Dwight Howard in subsequent summers.  One critique of Morey, in particular, has consistently been levied throughout his tenure.

It’s said often that the Rockets’ general manager does not value, or does not understand the importance of chemistry.  This charge usually is made in hand with the one that claims he is far too active on the trade front.  Not only is this premise inaccurate, it is based on an unwarranted assumption.

The thinking goes like this: because Morey makes so many deals, he must necessarily be overlooking the importance of team chemistry.  If Morey gave proper worth to chemistry, and just let his teams grow, he’d see that they’d improve on their own.  ”How can these teams ever grow if he just keeps making moves every year?”

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Many of you were very upset by my characterization of James Harden in my last installment of this series.  There, I said that in Harden, “I [saw] a player who is selfish and not as committed to the team and winning as he is to himself.”  I stand by those comments and by that opinion. Dwight Howard is another matter altogether. To begin, Howard put any doubts to rest last season over whether he was worth the maximum contract to which he was signed.  More than just his dominance in the playoffs, he exhibited a newfound sense of maturity that would seem to bode well for the future. But for purposes of this series, what is Dwight Howard’s summer assignment?By some measures, as was chronicled on this very blog by Richard Li, Dwight Howard post-ups were the Rockets’ most inefficient play last season.  At the same time, the stretch of games where the Rockets’ center looked closer to his mentor than not was undeniable.  Howard also basically ate Robin Lopez for lunch in the postseason.  I’m not sure what to think.

Many have said they hope Howard carries the momentum of his playoff performance into next season.  I’ve countered, asserting that predication of an overall ability assessment of Howard upon the Portland series would be flawed – they were the single best matchup for him out of the seven other playoff teams.  As a representative sample of the opposite extreme, I’d point to his play against the Thunder and Clippers.  The argument then usually goes that those teams’ success against Howard is more an indictment of Terrence Jones (in those teams’ strategy to shift full attention to Howard, off of Jones).  I’d then counter that those two teams are the only opponents who really matter, for the long haul, and for now, it doesn’t look like a power forward upgrade is on the way.

Howard is what he is, at this point.  I can’t expect him to drop 35 and 15 on those conference rivals.  But as I mentioned, the development we saw last season was staggering.  He looked like Olajuwon at times, and I mean that seriously.  The footwork rapidly improved and the touch even softened.  Can he keep molding his post-game and sustaining his dominance for longer stretches of the year?  That would be miraculous, and would lengthen the team’s window.  But it’s house money, and I’m not holding my breath.

What Howard gives us right now is more than enough and it puts us in the conversation.  Further skill development would be great, but its not really a priority or something this team needs to win.  All I hope, regarding Dwight Howard, is that he continues recovering from the back surgery and maintains a high level of health.  Without him, there’s no chance.

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Taking a look at the schedule

The one interesting thing in August has happened: the NBA schedule was released last week. Now that we all have the full schedule at our fingertips, it’s time to take a look at Houston’s slate of games and check for items of note. There are always peculiarities to the schedule each year, and this one is no different. Back to backs are back, the Mavs are in for a nasty surprise, and there’s a surprise that’s not so surprising.

How many back to backs are there in this schedule? That’s a good question and it’s one of the first ones people ask. This year there are twenty sets of them for Houston, a fairly unremarkable number. They have nineteen games against teams on the second night of a back to back, so it’s not a huge factor. There are two instances of four games in five nights, one right before the All-Star Break (with another back to back immediately after the break) with another four in five spanning the end of March and the beginning of April.

What this means for Houston is that they won’t be particularly fatigued. The first year of Harden, the 2012-2013 season, contained a horrifying gauntlet of back to back and four in fives, something that really put a damper on the team at the end of the calendar year. This year, like the 2013-2014 season, is lighter on the endurance trials, something the Rockets should be relatively thankful for.

The Dallas Mavericks, however, are getting the opposite of a Christmas present from Houston. As division rivals, the two teams square off four times. The new and improved Mavs get four shots to exact revenge for Chandler Parsons against his old team… except that they’re on the tail end of a back to back every time. The Rockets are also on the second night of a back to back… the last time. The previous three, Houston will have the endurance advantage every time. That’s good news for a team that needs every advantage they can get in a brutal division. On a related note, two of Houston’s meetings with San Antonio come on the second day of a back to back for the Spurs.

The biggest non surprise is that the Rockets’ schedule starts out nasty, as always. The period before the All-Star Break is noticeably tougher than the period after, which features a lot fewer second-round teams. November may be a smooth start, but December and February in particular look to be unpleasant stretches of road for a Rockets team hoping to prove the world wrong.

Next time we’ll look at what the schedule means for Houston’s win-loss record, and I’ll give the best predictions I can. The numbers might surprise you, just like whatever insane trade Daryl Morey’s lining up will.

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Today’s was one of the more underwhelming episodes we’ve had in some time, with not much going on, but we did discuss the impact the Team USA experience might have on James Harden.  Also, you know how when the battery in a fire alarm gets close to dying and so the alarm keeps beeping intermittently?  Yeah, that is going on right now in my apartment, where this was recorded.

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