Backdoor Cut: Houston #Rockets James Harden post-game presser 11.5.16

The Sports Inquirer attended the post-game presser of Houston Rockets’ guard James Harden following his team’s 112-97 road loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 5. He scored a game-high 30 points, dished out a team-high 12 assists and grabbed nine rebounds in the defeat.
Topics included thoughts on the loss, the Rockets’ slow start and defensive struggles.

Backdoor Cut: The Sports Inquirer’s 2015 NBA Free Agency Primer


By E. Marcel Pourtout, Editor

Its time for the 2015 NBA Free Agency Primer.

Music to listen to: Silently Falling by Chris Squire (RIP)

We’re less than 24 hours away from the most frantic period of the NBA offseason, free agency.

Unlike professional leagues such as the National Football League, National Hockey League and to a lesser extent Major League Baseball, its possible to buy yourself into a contender spot in the NBA.

If you look at the most consistent championship contending franchises of the past five years in the NFL (New England, Seattle, Green Bay), NHL (Chicago, Anaheim) and MLB (San Francisco, St. Louis), each of them drafted the top core players of their teams and have used free agency as a supplement.

There’s still value in drafting well in the NBA as evidence of the San Antonio dynasty and the current champions Golden State. However, we’ve also seen Miami get LeBron James and win titles. Houston traded for James Harden and signed Dwight Howard to become a conference finalist. It can be done.

The 2015 NBA free agency period will be interesting because while there isn’t a game changer like James or even Harden available, current and future All-Stars will have a chance to move. Furthermore, two of the biggest markets in the league will be major players which will begin our primer.

-What will the Knicks and Lakers do? Every major free agent will be linked to one of these two teams because they’ve hit their respective bottoms and have the money to rebuild.

For the Lakers, this the first offseason since 1998 where they will have to think about the post-Kobe Bryant era. He has one more year left on his contract and may retire at the end of this upcoming season. Its doubtful he’ll leave money on the table but Bryant’s time as an elite NBA player is over.

Los Angeles showed its hand in the NBA Draft last week when it took point guard D’Angelo Russell over center Jahlil Okafor. If the Lakers didn’t have the belief it was signing a front court player this offseason, it would have taken Okafor because while Russell is an elite guard prospect, Okafor has game-changing potential.

You will see either LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe or Kevin Love in a Lakers’ uniform next season. My money is on Love who we will address later.

New York drafting Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis last week wasn’t as large of an indicator as Los Angeles. It did show that Phil Jackson and the Knicks’ front office has an eye towards the future which won’t involve Carmelo Anthony.

When the Knicks become a title contender in two to three years, Anthony won’t be a part of it. He’s had some strong offensive years and showed he could be a competent defender when Mike Woodson was the head coach of New York but the 2015 version of him doesn’t fit the rebuilding plans the team really needs.

Every unrestricted free agent will be on the watch list for the Knicks from the ones mentioned earlier to DeMarre Carroll, Paul MIllsap, Marc Gasol. This is the reason the Knicks brought Jackson on. We’ll see if New York gets it money’s worth.

-Restricted free agency makes things complicated. The market for guys like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson and Golden State’s Draymond Green would be more open but their current teams have the ability to match any offer another team gives. Its more complicated than that but that’s the simplest way to put it.

I could see Leonard returning home to play for the Lakers, Thompson getting a major offer from Toronto (because all Canadians should play for a Canadian team, just kidding, or am I? and Detroit replacing Monroe with Thompson but none of those are probably going to happen. Expect each of those guys to stick with their original teams.

The wildcard to me is Leonard. Butler will be the main player in Chicago in two years in status and pay which the Bulls are aware of. Thompson’s agent represents James as well, that’s a package deal. I thought Green would leave the Warriors at the midway point of this season but he proved his value in the championship run. I expect Golden State to clear money with aging players like David Lee and Andrew Bogut to re-sign Green and eventually Stephen Curry in two years.

Everyone, including myself, assumes that Leonard won’t leave the Spurs. He’s a major player in that system, no state tax, winning franchise, etc. We’ve also been conditioned to believe that not only do the Spurs keep free agents, they re-sign their players to franchise-friendly deals. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and hosts of others have done that.

Leonard may be different but San Antonio has the chance to keep him, get Aldridge and re-sign Duncan. Unless the Lakers or a franchise we’re not thinking of (Knicks?) makes a massive offer the Spurs can’t match, Leonard will be a Spur.

-James, Duncan and Dwayne Wade aren’t going anywhere. All three of those guys are the best players in their franchises’ histories and are free agents only in contracts.

Expect James to sign a two-year deal that makes him a free agent once again in the 2017 offseason when the salary cap is expected to expand and the maximum deals will guarantee more money.

Duncan is on a year-by-year basis at this stage of his career. He’s not going to another team. The Spurs will offer him a respectable two-year deal at a fair market value that will probably be his last contract as an NBA player.

I hear the rumblings that Wade may sign with Cleveland to reunite with James but Miami can offer a longer contract with more guaranteed money than the Cavs. Its rare that an athlete leaves money on the table especially when he has injury issues like Wade.

-Love may pull a Howard. Two offseasons ago, many believed that Howard wouldn’t leave the Lakers. Winning franchise, southern California lifestyle, its the frickin Lakers and nobody turns them down. Furthermore, Los Angeles could offer more money and an additional year on the contract. Howard still signed with Houston.

Explanations ranged from no state tax in Texas (which matters to pro athletes) to playing alongside Harden (basketball purposes) to getting away from Bryant (reality). All of those were factors in Howard’s decision but he wanted to be happy playing basketball.

In covering athletes for the Inquirer the past few years, I’ve learned that they’re motivated by different things. Money, prestige, power, relationship with teammates, interaction with coaches all matter. However, comfort in your environment may be second only behind money/financial security for the pro athletes.

Love didn’t have a good year in Cleveland. Between injuries, struggling playing alongside James in Cleveland’s offensive system and experiencing the highest level of criticism ever experienced in his career, Love had struggles with the Cavs.

He can sign a one-year deal with the Cavs and give it another go with the top team in the East by a wide margin when healthy. Love can sign a long-term deal for financial security which is important because of his injury past and the chance to play alongside James and Kyrie Irving.

Or Love can just sign a two-year with the Lakers, the franchise he’s always wanted to play for in his college and home city (I know he’s from Oregon and went to high school in the state but work with me) similar to what Millsap did with the Hawks in 2013. Once that deal is up, Love is a free agent in 2017. My money is on this happening.

-What else is there to know?

  1. Atlanta has decisions to make. It will be tough to keep both Millsap and Carroll because both of them will get deals north of 10 million a year. Trust me, there’s a franchise we’re not even thinking of that make those offers. Both men want long-term deals due to age (Millsap) or the reality that their personal market will never be higher (Carroll). I believe that Carroll will return to the Hawks while Millsap will be with another franchise. Look for Atlanta to sign either Tyson Chandler or Omer Asik at center, moving Al Horford to the power forward spot.
  2. Marc Gasol will stay with Memphis. He’s been in the city his entire adult life and even went to high school there. The Knicks are too toxic for him and while his brother Pau had good years with the Lakers, I don’t see Marc leaving. The Spurs would be of intrigue though.
  3. Lighting-round predictions for where I think other top players will sign:
  • Khris Middleton: Milwaukee
  • Bismack Biyombo: Portland
  • Brandon Knight: Phoenix
  • Danny Green: San Antonio
  • Goran Dragic: Miami
  • Tyson Chandler: Atlanta
  • Paul Pierce: Clippers
  • David West: Indiana
  • DeAndre Jordan: Clippers (watch out for Dallas)

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

Backdoor Cut: The Sports Inquirer’s NBA Playoffs Preview

nbaBy E. Marcel Pourtout, Editor

The NBA Playoffs have arrived which means its time for series predictions that will be incorrect and be used to mock my prognostication skills for the rest of my sports media career. Not much can go wrong with these. I’ll throw in my postseason award winners throughout my picks as well.

Eastern Conference:

Atlanta over Brooklyn in five: I’ve had a front-row view of the Hawks the entire season and they’re primed for a long postseason run. While many like to discuss the ball movement and sharp execution of the offense (which is true), my pick for Head Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has developed Atlanta into a top-ten defensive unit in efficiency. Yes, the Hawks allow the most three-pointer attempts in the NBA but make up for it with solid interior defense and rebounding.

This matchup is difficult for Brooklyn because its three best players are inferior to Atlanta’s. Jeff Teague has developed into one of the top point guards in the league and has dominated his matchups against Deron Williams all season. Paul Millsap and Al Horford’s ability to play outside the paint on offense makes life hard for Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez on defense. Joe Johnson will score but will be neutralized by DeMarre Carroll.

Look for Atlanta’s bench unit led by Dennis Schroder (who should be in the top-five in the NBA for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player), Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore to have productive efforts against a Nets’ unit that is lacking.

Toronto over Washington in six: Before the season, I had the Wizards projected as the third best team in the East behind Cleveland and Chicago. Washington has been inconsistent all season since Bradley Beal started the year injured. The Wizards haven’t been able to find the consistency necessary to do well in this postseason despite the strong play of John Wall.

Many playoff series come down to matchups and this is where the Raptors are superior. Kyle Lowry has the ability to neutralize Wall and even outplay him for a game or two. Beal will have a strong series but so will DeMar DeRozan for Toronto. I have little confidence that Paul Pierce can check him on the defensive end. Look for Lou Williams, my Sixth Man of the Year, to swing the series in Toronto’s way.

Chicago over Milwaukee in five: The Bulls were my preseason pick to win the East and I’m sticking with it even though Atlanta and Cleveland have solid cases as well. I would be more confident in my pick if we knew a healthy Joakim Noah would be available during the entire postseason. His ability to run the floor and play defense causes problems for every post player in the league.

The Bulls benefit from my Most Improved Player winner in Jimmy Butler, the revival of Pau Gasol and my second-place finished in Rookie of the Year in Nikola Mirotic. Derrick Rose is what he is at this stage of his career and serves best as a distributor. If he gets out of line, Aaron Brooks can step in and do a competent job at point guard.

The Bucks have been a nice story this season and Jason Kidd has proved to be a competent NBA head coach after a rough start in Brooklyn last season. The youthful Bucks are going to get valuable experience in this series and Giannis Antetokounmpo will thrill in one of the games. However, the Bulls size will prove to be too much in this series.

Cleveland over Boston in five: Brad Stevens is a tremendous young coach and I like seeing Isaiah Thomas light it up off the bench for the Celtics just as much as the next guy but this series has the potential to be a sweep for Cleveland. Sometimes it comes down to talent and the Cavs are simply better. The inefficiency of Kevin Love, the lack of postseason experience and potential fatigue of LeBron James are factors that may hurt Cleveland later in the playoffs but not now.

Eastern Conference finals: Chicago over Atlanta

Western Conference:

Golden State over New Orleans in five: Stephen Curry is my MVP for this season in a very close race with James Harden.

It looks like I simply took the best player on the best team which isn’t the case. While the Warriors have superior talent to the Rockets which makes Harden’s case of being more “valuable” more tangible, Curry has driven the bus for them to have a historically dominant season. Curry has made the most three pointers in a season, sits in the top-ten in points, assists and steals per game. Furthermore, while neither Curry or Harden are defensive beasts and going to remind you of Gary Payton in his prime, I give Curry the edge in this category.

As for this series, its going to be the national platform for Anthony Davis to shine for the Pelicans. If you watch the NBA everyday like me, you already know that Davis is one of the top-five players in the NBA right now based on talent. My list is James, Kevin Durant, Davis, Curry and Harden in some order for those interested.

However, it takes a playoff series on the national stage like this one for the casual fan to see Davis the way I do. He’s Tim Duncan on offense with a better jumpshot and Kevin Garnett on defense with comparable foot movement and better shot blocking. The best post player I’ve ever seen defend a pick and roll with the ability to stick with the guard on a switch is Garnett in his prime. Davis already there and is only 22.

Golden State can try to control Davis with my Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and that will be a fun matchup. However, Davis is faster and taller. We’re going to see a 20 point, 15 rebound, five block game from Davis in this series. The Warriors will still find a way to win out because of Curry, Klay Thompson and my potential breakout player for the entire postseason, Harrison Barnes.

Memphis over Portland in seven: Coin flip series with both squads dealing with injury issues. I’ll take the Grizzlies in a close one.

San Antonio Spurs over Los Angeles Clippers in six: Chris Paul should be in my top-five list of best players in the NBA. Best midrange shooter in the NBA (look it up), top-level defender and always among the leaders in assists. Blake Griffin has evolved his game beyond dunks. DeAndre Jordan has had a career-year and made a major case to be Defensive Player of the Year.

I’m still taking San Antonio. Out of all the teams I saw come to Atlanta this season, the Spurs were the most impressive in person. Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter running an effective high-low post game. Tony Parker getting to the lane with ease. The most impressive display was the two-way play of Kawhi Leonard. Best defender on the court by a wide margin and able to score as well.

Over the past month of the regular season, he’s been one of the five best players in the league. The Clippers have no answer for him on either side of the court. Furthermore, Los Angeles struggles in the postseason often because they rely too much on Paul. The offense becomes pass the ball to Paul and get out of the way. That can work for stretches of the regular season but not in the playoffs. Also, the free throw shooting troubles of the Clippers will play a major part in at least two of the games in this series.

Houston over Dallas in seven: Harden was my MVP for 80% of the season. He’s the most efficient guard in the NBA and has gone from terrible on defense to average on a good day. It looks like he’s at least making an effort on that end of the court.

This series rides on Dwight Howard. He’s struggled with injuries the past three seasons and his hold on the best center in the NBA claim has been taken away. Howard has played the last 10 games returning from injury once again and looks OK. If he can find a way to be a 15/10/4 performer, that will help the Rockets’ cause.

Dallas’ experiment with Rajon Rondo has been mixed but he turns it on in the postseason and needs a big postseason on a contract year. Monta Ellis will cause problems for Houston as well. Dirk Nowitzki is also a veteran playoff performer and knows what to expect. Either team winning the series wouldn’t surprise me but it will be a lone one. I’ve giving the edge to homecourt and Harden willing his team to victory.

Western Conference Finals: Golden State over San Antonio

NBA Finals: Golden State over Chicago