James Harden is going to force a referendum on the definition of value.
Because as he continues to post stats indisputably worthy of MVP consideration, his Houston Rockets teammates aren't doing enough to get him the lofty win totals award voters demand.
Coming into Monday's 114-106 win over the reeling Washington Wizards, Houston had been the NBA's biggest two-face. With Harden on the floor, the Rockets outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. For context, that would have ranked behind only the full-season figures the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors posted last year.
When he sat, opponents mauled Houston got 30.3 points per 100 possessions. There is no helpful comparison for that figure. But if you want to get imaginative about it, that's roughly the differential you'd expect from a game between an NBA team and a pack of milk-drunk feral cats.
To narrow that yawning on-off chasm, Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni swapped Corey Brewer into the starting lineup for Eric Gordon. It was an imperfect move, but one that, in theory, could have utilized Gordon's offensive talents to prop up the second unit.
The Brewer-Gordon exchange didn't have much of an impact on the game. However, the Wizards' sensible defensive tactics—make anyone but Harden score—affected the proceedings early.
Harden's teammates weren't up for the challenge initially, and he forced the action. The Rockets star accumulated six turnovers in the first half as the Wizards trapped and double-teamed him at every opportunity. At least at first, Harden was pressing, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
He wasn't bothered for long.
To counter the pressure, Harden whipped passes to corner shooters, spoon fed Clint Capela for lobs and accepted his fate as facilitator. And then, the Wizards lost focus and defensive integrity (which tends to happen for a team ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive rating). That's when Harden reverted to his usual approach: scoring on everyone, in every way, all the time.
He keyed a 12-0 fourth-quarter run that put the game out of reach, posting a plus-nine on the night that grossly undersold his impact.
Harden, on brand, was unguardable, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine observed:
Yes, his individual stats were again dominant. Harden scored 32 points and assisted on 15 Houston baskets. It was his fourth game this year with at least 30 points and 15 assists. Last year, there were only three such games in the entire NBA all season.
He's the only guy in the last 30 years to post those totals three times in a month, per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse:
There are three weeks left in November, by the way.
The numbers fail to illustrate Houston's singular dependence on Harden. Watch any stretch of Monday's game in which the Rockets strung together buckets. Harden was either scoring them, setting them up or commanding enough attention to make it easy on everyone else.
There's a discussion to be had about whether the style of play D'Antoni and the Rockets have chosen is an optimal one. Something about the nature of basketball as a team sport makes this one-man stuff feel a little wrong. And it's worth noting Houston, even with Harden producing at historic levels, is only 4-3 and needed a late surge to beat the 1-5 Wizards.
This is mediocrity the hard yet individually spectacular way.
D'Antoni's lineup move suggests he's concerned, and the Rockets must find answers or risk wasting Harden's efforts.
Perhaps Houston should slow the pace to a crawl whenever its best player sits. Limit possessions he can't affect. Hope that by running down the shot clock and walking the ball up, opponents can't maximize the return. Knowing D'Antoni, it's hard to imagine him seeing a slower tempo as a solution to anything, though.
Lineup tweaks are a good start, and maybe Patrick Beverley (when he returns) could imbue the second unit with a defensive mindset.
Realistically, Harden is going to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 37 minutes per game. The Rockets need to stumble along without him only for short stretches. If there's a way for them to do that—whether through rotation moves or sneaky strategic gambles—Houston's ceiling is high.
And Harden might snag the MVP his numbers warrant.
Curry Did Not Miss 10 Three-Pointers Again
Stephen Curry set an NBA record with 13 made three-point shots, finishing with 46 points in the Golden State Warriors' 116-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a solid follow-up to his most recent effort, a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in which he went 0-of-10 from three and broke a streak of 157 straight games with a made triple.
In this one, he hit easy shots and ridiculous ones:
And the record-breaker looked like this:
The Warriors surged to a massive second-quarter lead behind some scorching shot-making from Curry and flashes of what their offense could someday become but then gave the whole advantage back in the third quarter. Turnovers, half-interested defense and a general certainty they’d win reduced the Warriors to a mess.
Curry had to heat up again, and Draymond Green had to conjure his most rabid defensive self to secure the victory against the winless Pelicans.
Basically, the Warriors looked a lot like they did last year: intermittently transcendent and disinterested. Curry and reliable five-minute surges from the Death Lineup were good enough to make that formula work last year, so maybe Golden State is getting back to a familiar (if occasionally frustrating) formula.
Prepare the "I Told You So" Cannon
This whole thing with the Indiana Pacers transitioning from their gritty, defensive past to an uptempo offensive present always felt wrong.
Hiring Nate McMillan, a coach with a conspicuous history of playing slow and leading poor defensive clubs seemed dangerous. Trusting Myles Turner to man the middle, pairing one small guard (Jeff Teague) with another (Monta Ellis) and essentially performing the overhaul all at once in one offseason?
Sketchy. Risky. Dangerous.
For anyone who spent the summer doubting, the first half of a 122-100 blowout loss to the Charlotte Hornets offered validation.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com highlighted an individual weakness:
While the Hornets' official feed broke out the record books to contextualize how Charlotte got whatever it wanted as a team:
After that showing, Pacers assistant Bill Bayno offered this up to Jeremiah Johnson of Fox Sports Indiana, via Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports:
It's not that complicated: The Pacers are the team many skeptics expected them to be. If they don't know who they are and what they created, that's on them.
Sorting this out will take personnel changes or a massive in-season defensive leap from Turner. Otherwise, Indiana will have its own occasional big scoring nights, but opponents will get loose like the Hornets did with regularity.
Despite missing George Hill because of a sprained thumb, the Utah Jazz torched the Philadelphia 76ers by a final score of 109-84.
The Sixers are 0-6, but try watching this play and telling me they're winless:
Joel Embiid scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and did that thing up there in 19 minutes.
He's never going to pass, he's always going to try to do a little too much with the ball and all this losing might eventually stunt his growth. But Embiid still stands as the lone atom of meaning in the cosmic void that is the Sixers.
If and when this mess ever works out, he'll be the reason.
This Is How OKC Will Win
OKC held the Miami Heat to 36.9 percent shooting in a 97-85 win on Monday, stifling the Heat attack in a brutally effective stretch bridging the second and third quarters. In that 24-minute span of basketball, Oklahoma City allowed 34 points, five fewer than it scored in the first quarter alone.
Westbrook contributed 14 points and dished 11 assists in only 27 minutes while Enes Kanter mopped up inside with 24 points and 10 rebounds.
For things to go right, it had to be this way. The Thunder, sans Durant and Serge Ibaka, have no spacing. They have few creators outside of Westbrook and one of the worst offensive wing rotations in the league. Survival was always going to depend on defense.
Monday found OKC getting by just fine, per Royce Young of ESPN.com:
At 6-1 (the best seven-game start since moving to Oklahoma City) and ranking among the top five in defensive efficiency, OKC is doing more than surviving.
Autopilot Has Never Looked So Good
The Los Angeles Clippers have done this before.
Boasting unparalleled continuity and chemistry, the Clips casually deconstructed the Detroit Pistons on Monday, coasting to a 114-82 win to move to 6-1 on the season. It was like they were giving a lecture on team play...only instead of words, L.A. was communicating via thoughts, as ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz noted:
This is no small thing. The Warriors are struggling to integrate new pieces. The San Antonio Spurs are transitioning out of the Tim Duncan era. The Cleveland Cavaliers are only entering their third year together.
The Clippers' familiarity with one another gives them an advantage.