After all of that, Kevin Durant managed to play nine games with the Brooklyn Nets, only six of them alongside Kyrie Irving, before that team acquired another All-Star Wednesday afternoon. Joining Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan, the latter of whom Jarrett Allen had finally supplanted as the Nets’ starting center this season prior to the trade, will be one James Harden, Durant’s ex-teammate, the 2018 MVP and a revolutionary offensive genius.
Of course, Harden has become as confounding a teammate as he is an actual basketball player, and his uneasy exit from Houston begs many questions, not the least for which because of the destination. The ever-prickly Durant is playing at an MVP level; Irving is essentially AWOL; Harden openly ripped the Rockets organization Tuesday night, all but forcing his team’s hand. Now, those three find themselves together, apparently at their communal behest.
Taking a concept to its ideological extreme can be a perilous exercise: first, one must fully concoct an actionable conviction, one that finds pros outweighing cons; then, after experimenting with the idea, one must attempt to put it into practice and – the hardest part – convince others that this pursuit is, in fact, worth investigating, in the hopes that an audience sees its potential, wildly glorious benefits and agrees that it is, at the very least, worth a shot.
Ideas like this tend to provoke the “hard sell” label, and they allow detractors to seize upon various nooks and crannies in order to mock the ideation and its true believers. To buy all the way in, one must steel themselves for the possibility of a very public humiliation, often in the mouths of bad actors and those who could never regress to the norm for lack of having ever deviated from it. Somehow especially content with the median, these people envy middle managers and the people who ride the coattails of people who actually possess half-decent beliefs, for they themselves believe only in what they see, not in what may be.
When they traded starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a multi-team deal that netted them the coveted Robert Covington at this year’s trade deadline, the Houston Rockets bought all the way into an idea that head coach Mike D’Antoni pioneered over a decade ago yet was unable to fully realize before various factors ended his tenure with the Phoenix Suns. Now, with none other than Russell Westbrook as their nominal center on offense, Houston is making the bet that running teams into the ground can overcome any, uh, shortcomings they may otherwise have.
Bradley Beal, magician – Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports
Along with the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings (who have apparently revealed themselves to be frauds) and, until very recently, the Phoenix Suns (who very well may still be frauds but are enjoying a good run right now), the Washington Wizards are, historically speaking, an NBA team only ostensibly and have a history of producing the sort of spectacular assclownery typically reserved for Stefon’s nightclubs, the bum-rush for Popeyes chicken sandwiches and Congress, all of which can be set to the Benny Hill theme music without much disruption.
On Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, however, the Wizards reached a new low, one to which only one other team in NBA history can stake a claim: they managed to score 158 damn points in regulation in a one-point loss. Their forebears? The 1991 Denver Nuggets, who lost 162-158 to the Golden State Warriors on November 2, 1990. That team won 20 games. When you’re hanging with the post-ABA, pre-Melo Nuggets, you know you’re in great company!
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
To get this out of the way up front: the NBA shrinking in the face of one nation in which it has interests – one whose interests happen to conflict with those of what the American ideal is supposed to be, mind you, as it suppresses the protests of people in Hong Kong, facing potential extradition to the mainland, where prisoners’ cases can be ignored entirely – makes the league’s put-on image of empowerment look transparently weak.
That Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked the current, ostensibly bipartisan discourse with a fairly innocuous tweet seems to say more about that nation, its insecurity as a world power and its desire for overwhelming power on a world stage, than it does about anyone who has anything to say about it, but the NBA is at some fault here, and commissioner Adam Silver is in an even more unique position than he was when the Donald Sterling circus unfolded five years ago.
With a deep breath – and I know it’s complicated to dig out of that tunnel, even if human rights shouldn’t be – I would like to move on to the Rockets themselves, and the fascinating approach(es) they may take this season in integrating the likes of, ehem, Russell Westbrook into their offense.
At a time reported to be 7:30 pm Eastern but which will probably be sometime shortly thereafter, the 2019 NBA Draft will begin tonight. That means that, for the devoted, a tweet, or text of a tweet, from Adrian Wojnarowski will pop across their phone screens, sometime between 7:28 and 7:30, informing the masses what we’ve all known since before the Anthony Davis trade, before the All-Star Game, before Christmas: that Zion Williamson of Duke will be the #1 overall pick.
That he is presumably going to New Orleans is the karmic injustice befitting a team that wasted Davis’ first seven years in the league but which new general manager David Griffin is already turning toward the future. If Zion happens to be the key to open that particular sarcophagus, alongside the newly-acquired Lakers tweens, then the Pelicans will be raising hurricanes, toasting the next decade of success.
If he’s caught in the right place at the wrong time, however, then the draft gods will have proven infallible once again. That’s the beauty and sorrow of any professional sports draft, but this year, and this one, feels especially momentous.
The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field (1860)
At one point, it seems, humans were much better off. In our innocence and, eventually, naïveté, we inherited a large swath of flora, fit for our use and designed to provide eternal happiness. It was here where we were whole, and it was here where we decided to channel our desire to the one thing we could not have. We’ve been suffering ever since, to our great delight.
Edinnu was the Assyrian root, via Sumerian, that ended up giving the Garden of Eden its modern-day name, courtesy of the Aramaic root, meaning “to be fruitful, plentiful.” We could’ve had it all, indeed.
I realize this can be a lot to handle, and I’m not asking you to internalize it all at once. This is the same effect that defenders likely have when facing James Harden, and, similarly, that stupefied state renders fans senseless when they watch him.
Thomas B. Shea/USA Today Sports
Early returns on the 2018-’19 NBA season have been extremely varied. That’s not to say the basketball itself hasn’t been good; between the paralleled excellence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, the ongoing development of LeBron’s Lakers Day Care, DeMar DeRozan embracing San Antonio, Steph Curry firing out of the gate and Klay Thompson one-upping his Splash Brother by nearly quadrupling the number of threes he’d made all season in a single night, there has been plenty to see, and not all of it has to do with the Golden State Warriors’ seemingly inevitable death march to their fourth title in five years.
Some of it has been a bit…strange, though. Some things are off, and it isn’t just Markelle Fultz. Defenses are getting to Ben Simmons (or, rather, not getting anywhere near him, except in the paint). The Boston Celtics, who took LeBron to seven games in the East Finals last year and are now re-integrating two All-Stars into their lineup, have returned a maniacal defense but have been unexpectedly dysfunctional on the other end. Oklahoma City stumbled out of the gate. 50-point Derrick Rose? 50-point Derrick Rose. The Sacramento Kings have won four in a row and five of their last six! What is this world coming to?
In the midst of all the madness lie the Houston Rockets, who currently sit at 1-5 with matching bottom-five Offensive and Defensive Ratings. James Harden has looked all the MVP he was a year ago, and Clint Capela has continued to progress into a two-way force, but everything else is amiss. Mike D’Antoni and company have some ’splaining to do.
Somewhere between Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in Game 5 and their dubious, NBA playoff-record streak of 27 consecutive missed three-pointers in the second half of Game 7, the Houston Rockets lost the best chance any team was going to have of felling the Golden State Warriors. It was foolish for any of us to doubt them – not that all of us did, mind you, but some did – and now, the team which stands to define a generation sits four wins away from its second straight title and third championship in four years.
The proposition was always thus: beat the Warriors, a team with four current All-Stars, five probably Hall of Famers and a wealth of role players to fill in the gaps, four times in seven tries. Even after the Rockets won 65 games, grabbing the top seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, it was never a real possibility that Golden State would lose until and unless such a catastrophe actually happened.
After going down 3-2 and entering halftime of both Games 6 and 7 down by double-digits, Golden State calmly and mechanically worked its way back, outscoring Houston 64-25 and 58-38 over each game’s second half, respectively. As always, the Warriors were able to turn to all of their other stars if one didn’t shine so brightly. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.
Oh, how quickly we forget. Or maybe it’s just about wanting to believe in something, anything, so much right now, surrounded by *gestures more broadly than any wingspan at the NBA combine could contain* all of this, that we can talk ourselves into believing in the most irrational things. Just look at [caters to your political leaning by making a correspondingly tactful reference to current proceedings]. Somewhere between Roger Daltrey and George W. Bush, however, we were supposed to have learned not to get fooled again. And yet, here we are, forcing ourselves into this dance once again like a spurned defender asking for a second helping of James Harden.
Are we really going to do this? We’re going to do this. Alright, fine, let’s do this: Houston had a problem, and then it remembered its own solution, and now the Western Conference Finals are tied 1-1. This doesn’t solve anything.
Right now, the world is James Harden’s oyster. He is the toast of the town, the cream of the crop and other phrases Frank Sinatra deleted from the original lyrics to “New York, New York,” complete with the requisite GQ profile. He is the presumptive NBA MVP and, depending on whom you choose to trust, should already have two in his cabinet. He’ll be the second player ever, after Bill Walton, to win both the Sixth Man of the Year and MVP awards. This is his time.
Equally important is the fact that, with these Houston Rockets, Harden has the best supporting cast since Oklahoma City traded him to Houston prior to the start of the 2012 season. Following his historically-efficient 2016-’17 season running the point, the first under prescient head coach Mike D’Antoni, and flaming out in spectacular fashion against the Spurs in the second round of last year’s playoffs, the Rockets went out and picked up the best point guard of his generation to share some of the load in the back court and promptly rolled off a 65-win season, the best in the history of the franchise, capturing the 1-seed and beating the epoch-defining Golden State Warriors two out of three times.
Chris Paul has enabled Harden in ways that Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and even the vaunted Durant-Westbrook combo couldn’t in years past. Harden is the first player ever to lead the league in points the season after he led in assists; he knows how to adjust. What lies before him is a remarkable challenge, one which could solidify his legacy as a figure of the zeitgeist. He figures to welcome this moment with open arms.