January 19, 2021, 2:04 am
Almost a week ago from today, James Harden was sitting at the podium addressing the Houston media after their fourth loss in five games, and second straight to the Lakers. He’d go on to slam the door shut on his Rockets career by burning down any bridges left between him, the organization and his teammates. “We’re just not good enough,” he said, flatly.
Now with two games, and two wins, under his belt as a Brooklyn Net, that same question remains under a new context, can this team be good enough to win a title? Getting to that answer is going to take a lot more time and evidence than we have seen thus far, but the Nets’ narrow 125-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks has given us a good starting point. Brooklyn being able to go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee without Kyrie Irving is undoubtedly an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that the Bucks could very well be the best equipped team in the league to match up with the star studded Nets defensively. Harden and Durant have displayed a “never forget how to ride a bike” level of chemistry, easily playing off one another and finding each other on numerous drives and spot-ups throughout the game. Harden himself looks happier and lighter on the court and it’s clear that the transition away from the Houston turmoil has been nothing but a positive for him. It’s a sure bet that he believes that his new team is good enough to contend for a title, however, the biggest challenge for this team awaits once Kyrie Irving returns.
We’ve seen numerous times in the NBA that it takes time for superstars to get acquainted with one another and figure out the best ways to maximize their respective strengths. How Harden, Durant and Irving learn to navigate these challenges as a unit will dictate exactly how good this team can be.
Meanwhile in Houston, the Rockets officially transitioned to post-Harden life with the debut of Victor Oladipo, the best player coming back in their deal. While most would agree that the real haul (and purpose) of the trade was the acquisition of their several draft picks from Brooklyn, there is still a valid question to be asked whether getting Victor Oladipo in return was “good enough”.
The Rockets maintained throughout their negotiations that they sought an all-star level player to build around as well as a mountain of picks to accompany him. Oladipo certainly has the all-star pedigree, but coming off of his devastating injury and heading into unrestricted free agency after this season, is he really the type of player Houston will be building around moving forward? It remains puzzling to me that Houston ultimately went with Brooklyn’s packaged over Philadelphia’s, who were widely know to be offering 24-year old All-NBA star Ben Simmons. Whatever the hang ups were that prevented that deal from going through (other players being involved, general pettiness from Tillman Fertitta, ect.), I personally would have a hard time reconciling opting for more draft picks instead of rolling with the known, superstar quantity that is Simmons.
Whatever the case, Oladipo looked great in his debut in Houston, flashing nice pick-and-roll chemistry with now-franchise staple Christian Wood, and pushing Houston towards a narrow 125-120 loss to the Chicago Bulls en route to 32 points, nine assists and five rebounds. Dipo is sure to continue showing out during the rest of this season as he pursues a new contract in free agency, and it remains to be seen whether the Rockets will be the ones who invest in him. If they do resign him, it will be very interesting to assess this deal down the line, and whether it was ultimately a good enough return for James Harden.
Adds of the Night
Jarred Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt assumed the starting PF job for Minnesota on Monday while Juancho Hernangomez (health and safety protocols) and Jake Layman (personal) were out of commission. He’s always flashed talent, and he put some of that on display with three steals, eight boards, a block and three assists on efficient, low-volume shooting from the field. That all around production at that spot was a sight for sore eyes for Minnesota, and while it’s possible that this could only be a fill-in opportunity for Vandy, Minnesota’s power forward rotation is weak enough to where it could be an audition for something more. There’s a chance he could play well enough to earn the spot full-time, and is worth an add based on that possibility alone.
Jakob Poeltl: Poeltl is likely not taking LaMarcus Aldridge’s starting time any time soon, but he is undoubtedly putting some dents in that armor over his last two games. He followed up his 30 minute gem from Saturday with another solid ball game in 21 minutes on Monday. The upward trend in playing time is notable, but the places where he’s getting it is even more so. Poeltl checked in for Aldridge with a 2-point lead late in the third quarter, and didn’t check out until the Spurs held a 20 point lead with 2 minutes left to play in the game. Popovich rolled with his bench as they took the game out of Portland’s hands, and Poeltl played a big part in their success. It’s the second game in a row where Poeltl just looked better than Aldridge and was a part of the closing unit of an eventual win, and you have to wonder if he’s starting to turn a corner. He’s mostly a speculative add for teams who can afford to stash him, but it’s clear that the center rotation in San Antonio deserves some attention going forward.
Obi Toppin: The rookie has tons of offensive upside, but it just doesn’t appear that he will be able to crack the minutes necessary to realize it this season. Toppin is really only capable of playing power forward, and unless he starts sharing the floor with Julius Randle at center, it’s borderline impossible to envision how he can ever get a role above 20 minutes on a consistent basis. He’d probably need more than that to be effective anyhow. He’s safe to send to the wire unless a bunch of minutes open up for New York at the four.
OUT – Covid Protocol
Washington Wizards: Entire team, at least 7 unnamed players with positive cases
Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl Anthony-Towns, Ricky Rubio and Juancho Hernangomez
Miami Heat: Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley
Memphis Grizzlies: Jonas Valanciunas
Dallas Mavericks: Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell
Chicago Bulls: Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison
Houston Rockets: Danuel House
Orlando Magic: Mo Bamba
Toronto Raptors: Alex Len
San Antonio Spurs: Drew Eubanks
Phoenix Suns: Dario Saric, Damian Jones and Jalen Smith
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
CJ McCollumn (foot sprain) is set to miss at least the next week, and could miss the one after that as well. Did somebody just say Dame Time?
John Wall (knee soreness) missed his third straight game, and it is unclear when he will be able to return. Meanwhile teammates DeMarcus Cousins (right ankle soreness) and Eric Gordon (leg) returned from a one and two game absence respectively.
Cam Reddish (left knee contusion) missed his second consecutive game for the increasingly shorthanded Hawks. Danilo Gallinari (ankle) meanwhile, was considered doubtful for this game, and still appears to be a ways away before he can make his return.
Alec Burks (ankle) went into Monday’s game listed as doubtful and ultimately did not play. His projected return, while getting closer, still has no date.
Patrick Williams (hip) and Otto Porter Jr. (back) were both scratched from Chicago’s game against the Rockets, which was the second night of a back-to-back for the team.
Tyler Herro (neck) missed his second straight game on Monday. He is considered game-to-game going forward.
Lonzo Ball (bilateral knee soreness) has been upgraded to questionable for Tuesday’s game, after his initial diagnosis anticipated him missing a week.
Joe Ingles (Achilles) is questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Pelicans while Derrick Favors (knee) is considered probable.
Steph Curry’s Record Chase: Steph and the Warriors earned a massive comeback win over the Lakers to close out the MLK Day slate of games, undoubtedly the biggest story from that match. However, as Reggie Miller alluded to Steph in their postgame interview, Curry is only 14 3-pointers away from passing the Hall of Famer for 2nd all-time on the NBA’s career 3-point leaders. Once he passes Reggie, Curry will need 413 3-pointers to pass Ray Allen for the NBA record. It is inevitable that this will happen, but for you Curry diehards you can start to do the math and figure out what game in what season you need to tune into to watch him make history.
Chris Boucher’s 20/10 Portfolio: Boucher powered Toronto with another stellar bench performance and his fourth 20 point, 10 rebound game of the season. I wish I had ESPN’s Stats and Services in house to tell me how many players have compiled that many 20/10 games off the bench through their first 13 games, but alas, I do not. I’ll venture out and guess that the answer is “not many”. I can tell you that Boucher only had ONE 20/10 game in his career before this season, so quadrupling that in just about a month of games sounds like a pretty good rate. He’s compiling a runaway 6th man of the Year campaign (even if his role as a bench player is really just in name only), and honestly should be in the argument for Most Improved as well.
Revisiting Wendell Carter: Last time I wrote about Carter in this space I was gushing about out of position assists, and how WCJ could elevate his fantasy game to top-80 status if he managed to continue averaging the 2.7 he was at the time while averaging the same stats elsewhere that he did last season. The good news is that Carter has mostly continued that trend of dishing it, averaging 2.4 assists through 14 games. The bad news is that he still hasn’t cracked the top-100, even when you factor out his first two games where it looked like the entire team was sleepwalking. The biggest factors limiting him from realizing that upside at this point is his block rate is lower than it has been in the past, and his FT shooting has been hovering just above 70%, which is a good 5 points off from his career average. The rest of Carter’s stats (aside from the assists) are remarkably similar to what they were last season, which tells me that the same can happen for his blocks and free throws as well. Perhaps we’ll check in on WCJ again next month to see if he has progressed in either area.