Sink or Swim: Outlook After the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is kind of like that point in the semester where you sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, my grade sucks right now, but I still have X-amount-of-assignments and Y-number-of-weeks to get it up to a B.” For many teams, this is the last time they can really make adjustments to better position themselves in the post-season, and in some cases, make the post-season at all.

With that said, here are some extra credit homework assignments for teams with a little work to do in the final third or so of the season.

Philadelphia 76ers: Work out the Kinks

It’s not a difficult observation to see that the Sixers, for all of their raw talent, need to gel a little bit before attempting a post-season run. So what does this look like for Philly?

For starters, they need to figure out their lineups mid-way through games. Of course, all of the starters would be out in the beginning and sometimes ends of games, but figuring out how to balance scoring and defense in the middle of games would do wonders for Philly in terms of their ability to maintain a lead down the stretch (an area they struggle with, even against significantly worse teams). This was usually a by-product of their depth issues, but the trade deadline mitigated that in a big way, although it’s still a problem. But now that you have more functional pieces, it’s time for Brett Brown to put them together. He’s already gone offense/defense in crunch time with JJ Redick and guys like John Simmons or James Ennis, guys with a little more pep in their step.

One key aspect of Philly’s transformation throughout the season has been the slight increase in their usage of the pick and roll, despite using it significantly less than most teams even now. If Brown can find lineups to make pick and roll work, then he can throw a lot of different looks at the defense by integrating pick and roll into the fold of already lethal plays such as Embiid-Redick dribble handoffs, and Simmons drive and kick in transition.

While it is important for Philly to get a top 4 seed, it’s more important that they have all of this figured out come playoff time, and even so, they’re only a game or so back from the 3-seed and are currently tied in record with Boston at 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Make the Playoffs

I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? This is moreso homework for Magic, Pelinka, and Luke Walton than it is for the roster itself, but still. If you sign the best player in the world in free agency, sacrifice nothing to make it happen, and miss the playoffs with him for the first time since his prime started? After all of the noise they made after that signing, in the most profitable market in the league? That sounds like a recipe to get any or all 3 of those guys out of a job.

LeBron’s groin injury couldn’t have been foreseen, but at the same time, the man is 34. He shouldn’t need to play 82 games for you to scrape the playoff bubble, and even then, probably get swept in the first by Golden State. His absence was certainly longer than originally expected, but if there was some semblance of competence in the personnel and coaching, they wouldn’t be so reliant upon Lonzo Ball of all people staying healthy. More importantly, the trade deadline was a PR disaster for the this team, as they completely alienated their entire team in full public view while getting played like a fiddle by a now-jobless Dell Demps. The point is, this team needs something to feel good about, and fast, or else this whole experiment could get really, really ugly.

Houston Rockets: Conserve James Harden

For the Houston Rockets with James Harden playing as he is right now, there is not a single team that they cannot beat on any given night. With that said, Houston has got to be more reserved with the minutes and offensive load Harden is bearing. What’s more important, a second MVP for Harden, or making it past the first round?

Doing this for as long as he has thus far, Harden’s level of play is not sustainable long term. If it was, he’d be the best offensive player of all time and would have more than one MVP by this point. One thing is for sure, however: Harden has a troubling history of disappearing at important moments in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni himself has stated that he believes this to be a product of how cumbersome the regular season is for Harden, and this has been one for the record books. What truly did the Rockets in last year, when they were 2 quarters away from essentially winning a title, was Chris Paul getting hurt mid-series. You truly never know when Paul, in his 30s, may just need a game or two to recover. With that said, the Rockets are comfortably deep enough into the playoff race to have some wiggle room, and against many teams, Harden probably doesn’t need to go Super Saiyan for them to win games.

With that said, my advice to Houston is to do some load management with Harden. If he’s still got the juice come May, this team could easily make another Western Conference Finals run, if he is capable of elevating his level of play to even part of what we’ve seen out of him this year.


James Harden’s Play Puts Him Right Back In The MVP Conversation

Since the turn of the millennium, 3 players have recorded back-to-back MVP seasons, in Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Steph Curry (LeBron did it twice). As the reigning MVP, the honeymoon for James Harden is over, and the expectations for him entering this season went up after the Rockets’ historic (and not in a good way) season finale in the WCF.

The Rockets’ disappointing end to their all-time-great year was compounded by their rocky start to the current season by going 1-5 in their first 6 games. They lost as many games in their first 6 this year as they did their first 31 in the previous season. At the time, it was safe to say they weren’t going to win 60+ games this year, and they still almost certainly will not. But the Rockets have turned themselves back into a playoff team with their recent run, and Harden is the man responsible.

James Harden, in the last 2 weeks, has averaged 40.43 (!) points per game in 6 wins and 1 loss in that time frame. A win Monday night against the Grizzlies would cap off two 5-game win streaks in the month of December, despite Chris Paul’s absence for much of their recent schedule. If this team is able to put forth a record earning a top 4 seed in the West, after the start that they had, would certainly put Harden in the MVP conversation.

My only concern with all of this is Harden’s history of disappearance in the post-season. In the past 2 weeks, James Harden is averaging nearly 39 minutes per game, among the absolute highest in the leage. Chris Paul has yet to return from his hamstring injury, and who’s to say he doesn’t have another short-term absence for injury after he returns?

If this Rockets team is to accomplish what they would need to in order for Harden to be in the MVP conversation, what would be the point? He could be completely out of juice come playoff time, and they wouldn’t be able to earn full home field advantage last year, unforeseen circumstances aside. So what really is the use of earning a top 4 seed if it means Harden has so little left to give? You never know with Chris Paul. Harden might be running the show come April, anyway.

Harden’s play took a close game to near-garbage time against the Celtics.

There is also a question surrounding even the short-term sustainability of the type of play Harden has exhibited recently. Harden is nearly a lock for 35+ a night at the moment, but without CP3, is this team winning games without production from the bench? If Gerald Green didn’t go 3/7 from 3, and Austin Rivers didn’t score 10 points off the bench in short minutes, do the Rockets beat the Celtics? Harden does about as much on a night-to-night basis as any man could, but if Harden drops only 37 instead of 41, or if Eric Gordon doesn’t drop 21, do they lose to the Pelicans?

Speaking of Gordon, he will undergo an MRI on his right knee as I write this, meaning one of the most pivotal role players for Houston might take a leave of absence. Harden could put up 45 points every single night, but will that be enough against their upcoming schedule of Memphis, Golden State, Portland, Denver, and Milwaukee? As good as the Beard is playing, it makes you wonder whether or not the minutes load is justified by the potential return on investment.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe on 39 minutes Harden leads the Rockets past all 5 of those teams, but what will that really accomplish for their playoff aspirations?

All of these questions aside, one has to believe that there are still moves to be made by Houston before the trade deadline, or perhaps free-agent signings off of waivers. This team needs contingency plans in the event that anything happens to Chris Paul, limiting his ability to balance Harden’s minutes. But in the meantime, the Houston Rockets can let their diamond shine and step up his MVP contention.