James Harden trade ripples through NBA; first-week notes

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:07 PM

Bruce Jenkins

The James Harden trade sent shock waves throughout the Western Conference. Oklahoma City’s title chances took a hit, the NBA’s new luxury-tax stipulations came clearly into focus, and a number of individuals found their season outlook radically changed.

At the top of the list: Jeremy Lin.

Before the deal, Lin appeared to be lost in the Houston Rockets’ sea of confusion, a natural leader without a cause. We’d stop short of calling them a playoff contender, but Harden’s arrival changed everything. He scored 37 points, then 45, in his first two games. He and Lin developed an instant backcourt rapport, as if they’d been playing together for years. If nothing else, Lin will have some fun this season, back in the spotlight as must-see television.

"We’re running the offense through James, and he frees everybody up," said Lin, who posted 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in Friday night’s win over Atlanta. "He knows what he’s doing. We’re thankful that he showed up."

The Rockets are now set at three positions, including the one-dimensional Omer Asik at center (he scored no points against Atlanta, but pulled down 19 rebounds). They’re sorting out the forward positions among a crowd of young players, notably Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, and that would appear to be a weakness until further notice.

Still, there’s a ray of hope for a team that lost out on the big-name free agents and took a major hit when David Stern rejected the Chris Paul deal last year (Pau Gasol would have joined the Rockets). "We have some direction now," said coach Kevin McHale. "That’s a start."

Around the NBA:

-- Talent isn’t the problem in Oklahoma City. The Thunder picked up high-scoring Kevin Martin, promising rookie Jeremy Lamb and two first-round draft picks from Houston. Perry Jones has big potential at small forward, and Eric Maynor, an invaluable backup point guard, returns from a knee injury. That team’s biggest issue will be crunch-time decision-making. Russell Westbrook, so fabulously talented (maybe the best pure athlete in the league) and so erratic, doesn’t have a point guard’s instincts.

-- Early candidate for most deceiving game of the year: Knicks by 20 over Miami at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Carmelo Anthony -- who claims he’s changed, but hasn’t -- got his 30 points on a 10-for-28 shooting night, and the Heat looked totally disengaged. As Jalen Rose joked (we think) on ESPN, "I wish I’d been at that party they went to in New York the night before."

-- Definitely not a mirage: The winless Lakers. Things will change, but only if this aging team gets healthy. Dwight Howard’s back surgery has him playing much closer to the floor, at least for now. Steve Nash played exactly one game before getting hurt. And coach Mike Brown demanded 43 minutes out of Kobe Bryant in Friday night’s loss to the Clippers, despite his lingering right-foot injury. Bryant limped out of the Staples Center telling reporters, "It feels like it’s about to fall off right now."

-- The Lakers aren’t playing energetic defense, and they have no idea what they’re doing in the new Princeton offense, a strategy roundly criticized around the league (with TNT’s Charles Barkley leading the way). As J.A. Adande wrote on ESPN.com: "The Lakers look months away, not weeks. The Clippers are already there."

-- As the Lakers search for an identity, they’ll regret being stuck with a guy who has the gall to call himself Metta World Peace. He’s a terrible fit in L.A.’s radically new world and should have been dispatched via the amnesty provision. (I hope never to mention him again, because my newspaper won’t let me call him Ron Artest without a long explanation.)

-- It doesn’t get much more exciting in the backcourt -- offensively, at least -- than Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. They led the Bucks to a Friday-night win that spoiled the Celtics’ home opener. But this is a middle-of-the-road team with a tenuous future. While Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson and others cashed in on four-year contract extensions, Jennings was denied in Milwaukee. He and Ellis could become restricted free agents next summer. They’ll have an eye on future destinations if the season goes sour.

-- Jimmer Fredette appears to be doomed in the NBA. He’s nobody’s point guard, and that experiment has to end -- especially with Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks ahead of him in Sacramento. His only hope is at shooting guard, with another team, and he’ll have to work hard at creating his own shot. Perhaps a long-range bomber at the end of some contender’s bench?

-- Dumbest story of the year so far: The Lakers are targeting LeBron James for 2014. Really? We have to dip into the fantasy world already? That’s superstardom in today’s NBA: not where you’re playing, but where you might play later on.

-- It was a great week for telling the truth. This was TNT’s Reggie Miller, commenting on the absurd practice of evaluating the NBA through statistics: "These are lab geek rats, never played a game in their life, somewhere with their pocket squares on their little laptop computer, punching numbers. ... Those things don’t play basketball games for you! Humans play basketball for you."

Then came 76ers coach Doug Collins, asked if he was an "analytics" guy. "No. If I did that, I’d blow my brains out," he told reporters. "These 20-page printouts after every game -- not for me. My analytics are here (pointing to his head) and here (his gut)."


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