Confidence can be an athlete's best friend. Given the often razor-thin margins separating the athleticism and skills of players at the NBA level, a healthy self-regard can be the difference between a just-missed chance and a roster spot, between a flubbed audition for bigger minutes and a rotation place seized, between being viewed as steady enough and perceived as an emerging star. And when things look grim, the shot clock's winding down and the roosters are crowing and the cows are spinning circles in the pasture , believing you'll make the shot can be nearly as important as keeping your elbow in and following through. James Harden, like many other top-level NBA superstars, clearly does not lack for confidence. The Houston Rockets All-Star joined several fellow NBA luminaries — Team USA teammates Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis, and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant — on Tuesday for an event promoting "NBA 2K15," the forthcoming new installment of the successful annual basketball video game. As part of the event, Harden and his pals sat down to answer questions about a variety of topics — favorite songs, gaming habits, prospective NBA rule changes, how their electronic avatars compare to their flesh-and-blood selves, etc. In answering one question, Harden offered not only an evaluation of the talents of his All-Star pals, but also a very generous estimation of his own: "I'm the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," Harden said. "Steph Curry would probably be the best shooter, pure shooter, in the NBA. KD would probably be the best scorer in the NBA, and Anthony Davis would probably be the best shot-blocker in the NBA." Well, then. Harden struck a similar note during a recent interview with ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson : Scoop: Bottom line, you are on this [U.S. national] team and a lot of players aren't, but in your mind, who is the best basketball player alive right now? Harden: Myself. Scoop: That's what I was about to say, "including you." You made that sound like it was an easy answer. Harden: It is. Myself. There are plenty of ways to poke holes in this, if you're so inclined — starting, of course, with those not-so-nice mixtapes of Harden playing lackadaisical defense . There are two sides to the court, after all, and if you're going to call yourself the best all-around player in the NBA and the best basketball player alive, you've got to play both of them. At this stage in his development, Harden just doesn't D up frequently enough, or at a high-enough level when he is committed to the task, to merit serious consideration alongside the likes of more consistently elite two-way performers like LeBron James, Paul George and Chris Paul, or Durant, who isn't necessarily a stopper himself, but whose unparalleled offensive gifts and metronomic production vault him to a different level, into the sort of rarefied air where you win MVP awards . Harden's not there right now. (For what it's worth, Harden did offer a hedge in his conversation with Jackson , saying that he's "still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD and Kobe [Bryant] ... That's something I get to look forward to every single day to motivate me.") Here's where we focus on the phrases "at this stage in his development" and "right now," and where we take a deep breath to remember that James Harden is A) six days shy of his 25th birthday and B) just two years removed from coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. He's not a finished product yet, because of course he isn't. Two years back, the hirsute lefty responded to his first crack at starting by averaging 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, making his first All-Star team and leading the Rockets to their first playoff berth since 2009. Last year, he responded to the ramped-up expectations that came with the addition of Dwight Howard by improving his field-goal and free-throw percentages, bumping up his assist rate while averaging fewer turnovers per minute, turning in a higher Player Efficiency Rating than any other two-guard in the league and rising from the All-NBA Third Team to the No. 1 squad. Maybe we shouldn't give short shrift to the suggestion that he'll respond to rampant criticism of his shortcomings by improving upon them and reaching another level, as Durant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love did after strong turns for the U.S. in the most recent edition of this tournament, then called the FIBA World Championship, back in 2010. Harden's combination of handle, playmaking, footwork, marksmanship and athleticism make him the game's premier shooting guard at the moment, as well as a rare bird in a historical sense. Only Harden, James, Rose, Dwyane Wade, Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing and Charlie Scott have averaged 25 points, six assists and four rebounds per game for a full season before their 25th birthday, as Harden did last year. That's two Hall of Famers, two surefire future Hall of Famers, the youngest MVP in league history and Scott, who made five All-Star teams in the ABA and NBA and put up 25 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and three assists in a championship-clinching victory for the Boston Celtics over the Phoenix Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals. Not bad company. To date, however, Harden's offensive prowess as The Man in Houston has resulted in only individual accolades and a pair of first-round postseason exits. That includes a six-game defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers this spring in which fellow All-Star Damian Lillard hit the series-clinching shot on a possession where Harden appeared to call for a defensive switch that moved bulldog point guard Patrick Beverley off Lillard in favor of small forward Chandler Parsons. Why exactly that switch happened remains unclear — “We had a certain defensive scheme," Harden said after the game — but what's unmistakable is that for a Rockets team that seems to have struck out this summer to take the next step in a brutal Western Conference, they're going to need their signature stars to work determinedly to turn their weaknesses into strengths. For Harden, that means dialing it up on the defensive end and taking on more responsibility for Houston's fate both on and off the floor. The good news for Rockets fans is that, to hear Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski tell it, Harden's doing precisely that in his role as one of the core performers on the U.S. squad that's preparing to compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain later this month. Coach K recently praised Harden's "terrific" maturity and called the former Arizona State standout and 2012 Olympic gold medalist "as good a leader as we've had for this team," especially in the aftermath of losing George to a gruesome injury and Durant to accumulated fatigue . "He is an upbeat guy, smart, and he’s obviously very, very talented," Krzyzewski told media members during Team USA's workouts in New York . "With this group, especially after Kevin left, he has asserted himself even more as an older guy. "I don’t how maturity develops when I’m not around it all the time. I just know that he’s one of the best players in the NBA, and having this responsibility here will only make him better," Krzyzewski added. "These guys get better after playing [with Team USA], because they go to places that they don’t necessarily go to on their own teams, whether it be in a subordinate role at times, a leadership role, the key player, the good talker, or whatever. James checks every box." Harden, for his part, is trying to take advantage of the opportunity to lead the national team, and to develop his own voice as the sort of established elite performer to whom younger, more inexperienced players can look. "Obviously, I’m still learning and have a long way to go, but the first couple of steps is already there," he said. "So trying to be more vocal is part of my leadership role, especially on this team — guys have the talent, but guys are kind of shy and might not want to talk. Coach K had plenty of talks with me, [telling me to] make sure you’re vocal, make sure guys hear you. So that’s what I tried to do." After making no bones about where he sees himself among the ranks of the NBA's best, the whole world definitely hears Harden now. What he says next — with his play in Spain, with his comportment on both ends for the Rockets, and as the tip of Houston's spear come the 2014-15 postseason — ought to tell us an awful lot about whether "best all-around player in the NBA" was mere acting-as-if or simply an ahead-of-schedule pronouncement of the next stop in the rising star's upward trajectory. More Team USA coverage: - - - - - - - Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YourManDevine Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL , "Like" BDL on Facebook and follow BDL's Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.
As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History . Today, Kelly Dwyer revisits Joakim Noah making a meal out of Paul Pierce during the first round of the 2009 Eastern Conference playoffs. If you stick with the game long enough, and your team long enough, you’re usually rewarded with a couple of different generations’ worth of highlights. If your fandom sustains, the cookin’ ain’t greasy and your squad's on the right side of both luck and execution, the highlights can play out in varying, wonderful contexts. Watching Michael Jordan win a couple of Slam Dunk Contests was thrilling in the moment, but they were taken in by a kid who could barely write in cursive at the time. Those 3.9 seconds that John Paxson left on the clock in Phoenix were fretted over by a kid still learning his way around a guitar fretboard. Championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998 were celebrated with fist-pumps and laps around the basement den by a young adult who was just starting to figure out that he wouldn’t mind writing about this game for the rest of his life. Jordan retires, families grow old and often apart, and the kid’s got to get his stuff together. The Chicago Bulls have to rebuild, and they’ll pay the price for most of the next decade. You’re now legally allowed to buy beer, and your gut pays the price for most of the next decade. You get a girl, she comes with some kids, and you get a place of your own. And, if you’re lucky, you once again get a team and player of your own. Joakim Noah, for me, is that player. And he plays on my team. I’m very lucky. It wasn’t always easy for me, my team, and Joakim Noah. He was drafted to a Bulls team in 2007 that had made the second round of the playoffs the year before, taken in the lottery as a response to Isiah Thomas’ obsession with Chicago native Eddy Curry. What seemed like the perfect rookie slot on an up-and-coming team turned into an outright nightmare in 2007-08, though, as the Bulls performed terribly on both ends, and Noah was treated as a whipping boy of sorts after he chided some laughing veterans on the Bulls bench during a loss (nothing wrong with that) and argued with respected Bulls assistant Ron Adams (nothing cool about that). The bad-luck streak in dancing school changed a bit as the year moved along. The Bulls were somehow able to find a taker for Ben Wallace’s contract in a trade, which gave Joakim a proper mentor in Brad Miller while afforded starting status to Noah, who, even with his rookie quirks, was still outplaying the indifferent Wallace. Then the Bulls shot up eight slots in the 2008 lottery, allowing them to draft Chicago native Derrick Rose with the top overall selection in that year’s draft. The team also hired Vinny Del Negro to coach, because you can’t win ‘em all. The next season was designed as a holding pattern as the team celebrated backing into a franchise player in Rose, who won the Rookie of the Year that season. Chicago finished at .500, understandable for a young team still figuring things out, but possibly an underachievement considering the level of talent and sound veteran helpers (Miller, John Salmons and Ben Gordon and don’t laugh they were actually pretty good then) the rotation boasted. By the time the team hit the first round of the playoffs, they were expected to act as a road bump of sorts for the defending champion Boston Celtics, even if the C’s were working without Kevin Garnett. Rose and the Bulls caught a still-sleeping Boston squad on the first matinee game of the 2009 playoffs, with the rookie scoring 36 points to go along with 11 assists, and Noah contributing 17 boards and three blocks. The younger Bulls lost the next game, just barely, but after a blowout Boston win in Game 3, things seemed to have righted themselves. Chicago roared back to take Game 4, though, in a double-overtime battle. Boston hung on to win a disputed Game 5 at home, in yet another overtime classic. With Game 6 pitched back in Chicago, with the Bulls’ backs pushed up against the proverbial wall, Joakim Noah helped me make some memories of my own: I didn’t see this one in my parents’ basement, or in a living room I had to share. This was in my house, my living room, on my TV, with my Latrell Sprewell-styled air punches thrown and me not giving a rat’s ass if I woke up my kids who were trying to sleep in the next room. My favorite player on my team, going nearly coast-to-coast and fouling out the other team’s best player along the way. Putting these Bulls up three points (after the foul shot) in triple overtime and forcing Celtics coach and Maywood, Ill., native Doc Rivers into a state of despair. This is my memory, something I’ll never forget, and something Joakim Noah was perfectly suited for. This was a center going 79 feet after slapping a steal away from a swingman. This was a center who in no way resembled the mythical “low-post scorer that we can dump the ball into” that my father continually asked me if it was possible to deal for. This was a guy who worked his way through the lows of 2007-08, coincidentally being suspended by the team on the same day of the lowest point of my professional career, who later developed into my absolute favorite type of player — a slick-passing big man who knows how to move his feet. Chicago went on to lose the series two days later, and turned in yet another .500 effort and first-round exit next season. Cap space and Tom Thibodeau resulted in Chicago managing the league’s best record over the next two seasons, but injury and LeBron James denied the Bulls a chance at the title. The last two seasons have been spent in purgatory while Rose recovered from two different severe knee injuries, possibly placing undue stress on the heretofore indefatigable Noah, who will turn 30 midway through 2014-15. The Bulls restocked again over the summer, Rose is healthy again , and the team figures to be one of the NBA's more intriguing outfits heading into next season. If things go wonderfully, they could make it past LeBron, into those Finals, and bring a title back home to Chicago. Because I’ve been blessed in my employment, I’ll be there to watch it happen in person. I’m glad I didn’t go to the United Center to cover Game 6 of the first-round match-up between Chicago and Boston in 2009, though. I’m glad I got to celebrate that moment in my own, grown, way. By acting like a giddy child all over again. More from BDL's Dunk History series: • John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk' • Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun • Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade More NBA coverage: - - - - - - - Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @KDonhoops
A look around the league and the Web that covers it. It's also important to note that the rotation order and starting nods aren't always listed in order of importance. That's for you, dear reader, to figure out. C : Upside and Motor . Bidding farewell to Anthony Randolph, a collection of athleticism and skills enticed the early positional revolutionaries and whose inability to put it all together consistently on the grand stage confounded the Internet and NBA lifers alike. He belongs to Russia now. Vaya con dios , Anthony. PF : Regressing . Missed this late last week, but a good strength-of-schedule analysis based on a variety of rest-related factors turned in by the great Ed Kupfer . SF : The Podium Game . A neat, easily accessible, video-based infographic scouting report on Detroit Pistons big man Greg Monroe's offensive game by Tom Westerholm. SG : Salt City Hoops . Speaking of scouting reports, here's Dakota Schmidt with a video-heavy look at how Trey Burke stacked on both ends of the floor during his rookie season for the Utah Jazz and what the 2013 first-rounder needs to work on as he enters Year 2, which could see him pressed for time at the point by 2014 lottery selection Dante Exum. PG : The Sporting News . Sean Deveney talks with former NBA guard Derek Anderson about his difficult journey, which saw him abandoned by his parents before he even hit high school, his efforts to try to find and help them later in life, and his decision to write about it all. 6th : Sportsnet . Dave Zarum and Matt Bonner talk about comedy — Andy Kaufman , improve , Internet videos , you name it — and why having a sense of humor is a really important part of being a member o the San Antonio Spurs. 7th : Eye on Basketball . Matt Moore goes in-depth on how the Phoenix Suns were able to completely surpass expectations last year and turn in a top-10 offense despite entering the season without a singular dominant scoring option and relatively few reliable expected contributors. 8th : Raptors Republic . Alex Wong and Blake Murphy chat about pressing issues facing the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors, like potential punchlines Drake might use to reference his KD tampering fine and the fallout from it ("“KD loves Toronto, he needs no reminding / I talked to Silver, I’m all about the linings.") 9th : HoopsHabit . Breaking down the Boston Celtics' options with Rajon Rondo, the prospective motivations behind their future course of action, and the likelihood that noted wheeler/dealer/ negotiating nutcracker Danny Ainge just lets his All-Star point guard stay put. 10th : Hardwood Paroxysm . Steve McPherson wonders whether next season's Cleveland Cavaliers team will look more like the 2010-11 Miami Heat that struggled to find rhythm and ultimately fell to the Dallas Mavericks than the versions of Miami that hoisted the O'Brien the next two seasons. - - - - - - - Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YourManDevine Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL , "Like" BDL on Facebook and follow BDL's Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.
|Adrian Wojnarowski||Los Angelesin 7||The 2-3-2 format is such an advantage to the home team. Just don't see a way Kobe doesn't close out in a Game 6 or 7 at Staples. Chance for epic series between these two teams full of great players and great winners.|
|Marc J. Spears||Los Angelesin 7||The Lakers have no one to slow down Rajon Rondo, but Kobe Bryant is playing on a higher level offensively than anyone in the postseason.|
|Johnny Ludden||Los Angelesin 7||For all the injuries he's dealt with, Kobe looks remarkably fresh. He'll need to trust his teammates more than he did in '08, but they'll also give him more of a reason to do so.|