Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
James Harden is an MVP candidate
The Brooklyn Nets have won 14 of their last 15 games, almost entirely without Kevin Durant, and discussion of James Harden's MVP candidacy is heating up — a testament to how quickly the conversation changes in the NBA.
The narrative heavily favored LeBron James for the first third of the season, until Anthony Davis' Achilles injury left the Los Angeles Lakers reeling relative to their brilliant start. Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid assumed the reins by the All-Star break, until a knee injury hit the pause button on his campaign. Reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's candidacy will be hindered by the fact that the only three players to win the award three times in a row — Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird — all did so with championship rings as supporting evidence.
The absence of a clear-cut contender on the Utah Jazz, and the inability of every other legit candidate to launch his team into a top-three seed in either conference has left people with platforms to begin seriously considering Harden.
Stop. Just stop. James Harden should not be an MVP candidate.
You should not get to be an MVP candidate when you flaunt the league's coronavirus protocols in favor of partying, show up weeks late for work, quit on your teammates to the point they are openly questioning your commitment and leave a franchise chasing top lottery odds in your wake. Sorry. You just shouldn't. Harden's true value this year was to himself, forcing his way to a championship ready-made preferred destination, even if it meant mailing in a month.
That is his right. It should also preclude him from MVP consideration this season. Harden has played for two teams in 2020-21. One is surging up the Eastern Conference standings, and the other is second to last in the West, where he left them. The Houston Rockets are surely feeling the value Harden brings to the Nets in reverse and even worse.
There are those who point to this as further evidence of his individual value. The award is for the Most Valuable Player, after all. But what we are really talking about is that player's value to his team. We often discuss MVP in terms of what a player's team might look like without him, but to put it into practice is antithetical. If the sole criteria of the award is one’s intrinsic value as an entity unto himself, just hand LeBron the award before every season.
This all could be moot when Durant returns. He is Brooklyn's best player. Kyrie Irving is also averaging a 28-5-6 on 52/42/88 shooting splits and nowhere to be seen in the MVP discussion. Are we sure Harden is the most valuable player on his own team? If Irving quit his way to Houston, we might have our answer. While we are at it, flip Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard to the L.A. Clippers to see how both teams fare. Might as well add Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic to the Milwaukee Bucks, too, just to see if one team starts tanking and the other dominating.
Any player who wants to join a super-team should be free to push for it, but joining forces with other superstars inherently reduces his value. When Durant teamed up with Stephen Curry, it lessened the burden each had to carry.
The Nets were good without Harden. Their 7-6 record at the time of his debut was deceiving, given their fourth-ranked net rating (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) and games missed by both Durant and Kyrie Irving. They have been roughly the same with Harden in the lineup since the trade (+6.2). As a whole, Brooklyn has been 3.0 points per 100 possessions better with Harden on the floor in non-garbage minutes this season, per Cleaning the Glass. Good.
Yet, the Nets have been more than 10 points per 100 possessions better with Harden off the court and just one of his two All-NBA teammates on it. Harden has helped stabilize bench units, but Brooklyn has that luxury because coach Steve Nash staggers his minutes with Irving, whose lineups are +13.5 points per 100 possessions in 933 possessions without Harden. That number falls to +5.8 in 929 possessions with Harden on the court and without Irving. (Put Curry on the Phoenix Suns, and see how their bench improves in minutes staggered with Chris Paul.)
Harden has the counting statistics. He is averaging 25.5 points (48/37/87 splits), a league-high 11.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds in 35 games, 27 in Brooklyn. If he plays every game from here on out, he will get to 58 with the Nets, 80% of the season. Even if he were to match the impact of James, Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, who have missed two games combined, none of them quit on his team for a month and submarined a franchise this season.
Chris Webber is a Hall of Famer
Obviously, Chris Webber is a Hall of Famer.
Webber's contributions as the best player on the Fab Five — the most influential college basketball team of the last 50 years — warrant consideration alone. He is a five-time All-NBA selection who could have doubled those honors were it not for impediments within and beyond his control. At his peak, he was a bona fide MVP candidate and one of two All-NBA First Team forwards when Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki were playing at the same time.
Webber was the best player on a Sacramento Kings team that should have won the title, if not for a Robert Horry miracle and arguably the most egregiously refereed game in NBA history. He may not have lived up to his potential, but his potential was somewhere between Duncan and Garnett. Falling short still lands him in the Hall of Fame.
Webber has as many All-NBA selections as Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh — the two surefire Hall of Famers in this class — combined. Every player with six All-NBA nods is enshrined in Springfield. Only a handful of five-time picks have yet to make it. A trio of them are finalists this year: Webber, Tim Hardaway and Ben Wallace, all three of whom deserve to be in, especially if Mitch Richmond is worthy. Kevin Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire are the other two.
None had the cultural impact on the game that Webber did. You can draw a very clear line between what the sport was like before and after the Fab Five, and basketball is better for it. Not to have that represented would be another injustice in a long line of them for C-Webb, whose purported faults revealed him to be a trailblazer in many ways.
Free Kyle Lowry
There has been much discussion of Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry's availability at the trade deadline, and for good reason. The six-time All-Star and 2019 champion could swing title odds if he were to land on the Sixers, Heat, Clippers or Nuggets, four teams that will at least inquire about the impending free agent's availability in a deal.
There are roadblocks to a trade, most notably his status as a franchise icon and an expiring $30.5 million salary. Matching money will be difficult for a contender that views Lowry as a game-changer, much less matching it in a manner that satisfies a savvy front office that values the soon-to-be 35-year-old's contributions to the organization.
Both Lowry and his agent have publicly denied the suggestion he "has been telling everybody for a month that he is getting traded," but the Raptors star also is not publicly denying the possibility of a deal. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"For me, personally, whatever happens, we'll see," Lowry told reporters after a practice last week, according to ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "I don't know. We don't know. Like, honestly, I don't know. If I could tell you, if I could look at a crystal ball, I would tell you, but I don't know what the crystal ball says. I don't what is going to happen. I don't know what they're thinking, I'm thinking. We'll just kind of get to that point and figure it out from there."
You get the sense Lowry would be open to a deal if one sends him to a stable and winning team. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey even cited a source who relayed Lowry "would like to be in Philly," his hometown. Non-contenders will not part with the capital it would take to rent him for half a season, and Lowry has enough cache in Toronto that he should be able to dictate a short list of destinations if the two sides agree it makes sense to split.
And it does make sense. He is 15 years into a career that has exceeded all expectations, still playing at an All-Star level (18-6-7 on 45/40/87 splits in 35 minutes per game) and forever commanding his teammates' respect. That has translated to a 17-23 record and an 11th-place standing in the East in this unconventional season. Playing in Tampa Bay has clearly impacted the Raptors negatively, and under normal circumstances, they are probably closer to the team that made the conference semifinals last season, but even then this roster's ceiling falls short of contention.
Toronto may well decide it is in its best interest to keep Lowry as the elder statesman to an established young core that includes Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, especially if the Raptors believe they can re-sign him at a reasonable rate this summer. In all likelihood, though, Lowry will never be more valuable than he is right now, and the price tag it takes to retain him this summer may ultimately restrict team-building efforts for years to come.
If Toronto can secure an asset that helps propel the future of the franchise forward — a solid first-round pick or a quality young player in a package of expiring contracts — there is no reason beyond sentimentality to turn it down.
Lowry may well be the most beloved Raptor in franchise history, but this is not the Boston Celtics parting with lifer Paul Pierce. Lowry also will not fetch the same return Boston got for dealing Pierce and Kevin Garnett together in their mid-30s. It is still good business to prioritize the future over the past, even if it means a few tears in the present.
As Lowry said, regardless of what happens, "I will retire as a Toronto Raptor," just as Pierce did on a one-day deal in Boston at age 39. We have seen Lowry in a different uniform before, and whatever one he wears next will not prevent us from thinking of him as a Raptors legend. He will not play in Toronto forever, and it is increasingly clear he will not be around to see them to their next title, so they might as well take a stab at finding someone who could be.
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