A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
Take One: DeMarcus Cousins gives the Warriors a new look against the Rockets
The fox, it is said, knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one important thing. For the past 18 months, the Houston Rockets have been the hedgehog — bludgeoning opponents by repetitively isolating James Harden and Chris Paul — while the Warriors, fighting Houston’s best efforts, have tried to stay versatile, pass-happy and unpredictable.
The Warriors waxed and waned and eked by in seven games last postseason, and up until Wednesday night’s victory, the Rockets won every regular-season game this season. But on Wednesday, the ball zipped all over the court — the Warriors opened the game with six assists on their first six field goals.
So what changed? First off, Andre Iguodala started in place of Kevin Durant, an otherworldly scorer whose self-belief goads him into making exactly the kind of plays the Rockets want: contested one-on-one jaunts against switches. Sure, they’ll need someone who can hit those shots in the playoffs.
They’ll also need a philosophical anchor. DeMarcus Cousins — who finished with a season-high 27 points on 16 shots, grabbed eight rebounds and dished seven assists — looks like the guy. Cousins’ defense is one culprit for the malaise that has followed the Warriors since the All-Star Break. But on offense, his presence imposes a will that grounds them in principles — even when he’s sharing the floor with Durant. According to NBAwowy, when Cousins is on the floor, he leads the Warriors in usage, and 74.2 percent of their buckets are assisted. When he hits the bench, that number drops to 65 percent.
Like Durant, Cousins attacked mismatches all night, backing down P.J. Tucker and James Harden with ease, treating help rotations he had half a foot on as just what they were: helpless. But not before running dribble handoffs (Cousins leads the Warriors in screen assists per game) and looking for cutters, slipping pocket passes through Tucker and Clint Capela. The movement doesn’t stop when Cousins is in the post. In fact, it may even increase. Klay Thompson, the NBA’s most dangerous off-ball target, ran hard and got rewarded all night, finishing with 30 points.
Asked if he enjoyed attacking smaller guys on switches, Cousins sounded off with the confidence of a man with a healthy Achilles. "I don't really care,” he told reporters. “I don't think anybody could stop me one on one. Period. You can put whoever you want on me … honestly.” He has a point. If Capela, standing 6-foot-10, possesses the center of gravity to brace for Cousins’ onslaughts to the rim, he did not show it last night.
Behind Cousins’ efforts, the tumbling Warriors snapped the Rockets’ winning streak at nine. A potential Western Conference finals matchup that appeared to be teetering toward a long war of attrition might have found its ace in the hole.
Take Two: How to lose fans and alienate free agents
Try as the franchise might to hide it, New York Knicks owner James Dolan’s ego rules his decision-making, from petulant flare-ups like banning a fan who told him to “sell the team” from Madison Square Garden, to his explanation for why: It was a staged ambush motivated by a desire to go viral, he told ESPN’s Michael Kay.
Not because the abysmal Knicks are 13-55 and destined to miss the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
Nor was it the fact that since the turn of the millennium, the Knicks have had more head coaches than playoff wins — games, not series.
When the going gets tough, Dolan disconnects from reality and heads somewhere else, presumably somewhere the last 20 years never happened. “New York,” Dolan exclaimed, when asked if he was worried the dysfunction would scare away potential free agents, “is the Mecca of basketball.”
In defense of his organization, he implicated potential future employees in rule-breaking. Stop me if his cadence sounds at all familiar here. “We hear it from people all the time, from players, from representatives, about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc., but that doesn’t stop them from telling us, and they do. And I can tell you from what we’ve heard, I think we’re gonna have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
Reports that he might sell the team? Fake news — just like the reporters he bars from press conferences.
To tie a bow on things, he chalked up the Knicks’ dismal record to their youth movement, having to check — and I can’t believe I’m not making this up — his notebook before rattling off the names of his prized young assets. It was typical Knicks: talk up a questionable future when quizzed about the desolate present.
For 48 minutes, he oozed bluster and dealt in absurdities, raising the pertinent question the Knicks will face in their offseason pursuit of stars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: How will a man so obsessed with quelling his own sensitivities ever cater to somebody else’s?
Take Three: LeBron James is finally losing control of his destiny
It’s one thing to accept that LeBron James, for the first time in 14 years, will be splayed out in a banana boat come April. It’s another to witness the day-to-day reality, the scoring totals that inch closer and closer to passing Kobe Bryant and breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time record but have no impact on the fate of the lottery-bound Lakers.
On Tuesday, he walked into the United Center — the house Michael Jordan built — and put up 36 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a win. The Lakers’ season will wind down with a slate of matchups that, in October, would have been considered marquee: the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night, the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, and the Warriors on April 4.
For the Lakers’ purposes, those games only matter now as they pertain to LeBron’s pursuit of Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record (James’ 32,377 points to Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387). It’s weird to watch, because the numbers once felt like an afterthought: another record broken en route to something greater. He notched a triple-double in the worst loss of his career.
The box score never really highlighted the essence of a game he played. And now it’s all that matters. No matter how many gaudy stats he racks up, LeBron James — vanguard of player empowerment — is no longer in control of his own destiny.
He made his own bed — signing with a franchise that’s more glitz than substance, having a hand in questionable free-agent signings, basically advocating for an Anthony Davis trade — but as a fan, it still sucks to watch him lie in it. At least, as Sportsnet’s Ashley Docking put it, “It’s a California King with a 1,500 thread count.”
Take Four: The NBA’s upcoming existential crisis
If you want to understand the melodrama that has defined the 2018-2019 NBA season, the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas cuts to its core succinctly: “Brands don’t have teammates.” Can a player be loyal to his brand and loyal to his team at the same time? Which takes precedence?
The dirty little secret of player empowerment is that, aside from salaries, it hasn’t trickled down much. Only the best players can wield power, and their personal pursuits no longer only hold front offices hostage, but fellow teammates as well.
We’ve already seen it negatively impact the teams of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Durant this season, and it only feels like the start of what could be the NBA’s biggest existential nightmare: Aversion of the spotlight has long been an asset in locker rooms, but winning may no longer offset the giant financial incentive for star players to market themselves to the nth degree. Five years from now, what — in an age of unfulfilled champions — will winning even look like in the eyes of these uber-talented professionals?
Take Five: Ben Simmons — Harden-stopper
On March 8, Ben Simmons racked up an accolade that alludes most All-NBA defenders: blocking James Harden twice in the same possession.
In the first quarter of the 76ers’ loss to the Rockets, Harden blew by Jonah Bolden only to find Simmons rotating from the opposite side and lunging out to block his right-handed floater.
The ball landed in Harden’s palms. He reset the offense, crouched down and started jousting with the third-year player. A jab-step to the right, and Simmons followed him. Harden opened up his dribble. Then he put the ball out in front of him. Simmons arms didn’t even flinch — not until Harden tried to step back and fade for real, only for the ball to be met 26 feet out by Simmons’ palm.
As I wrote yesterday, Harden’s dominance lies in his deception. The key to defending Harden is not to anticipate, but to mirror him exactly. That requires quick reflexes and an even sharper wit. It’s no surprise that Simmons, with the athletic profile of a young LeBron James and generational vision in his own right, is shaping up to be one of the few players suited to defend the NBA’s scoring leader.
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