Only two days into its new season, the NBA is already in mid-season form.
The Brooklyn Nets looked better than advertised in their opening night victory against the Golden State Warriors, it is clear that the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers are going to continue to tempt basketball fans into thinking an eventual playoff showdown is forthcoming, and Jayson Tatum banked in a picturesque three to lead the Boston Celtics to victory in their home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks on a night where the late Tommy Heinsohn was honored.
There was no shortage of highlights. Ja Morant dropped 44 points, remarkable considering it was done with only one three-pointer, in the Memphis Grizzlies’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs, and the Sacramento Kings won in memorable fashion against the Denver Nuggets courtesy of an overtime buzzer-beater that Buddy Hield corralled into the hoop.
Reggie Miller and Chris Webber, two of basketball’s top analysts and each an integral member of the TNT broadcast team, are thrilled basketball is back underway. And there are no shortage of storylines surrounding the game, led by James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
Houston’s season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday was postponed after the Rockets could not field an eight-man roster following a potential spread of the coronavirus. There is also an endless amount of drama centered around Harden, with the latest controversy centering around violating the league’s health and safety protocol.
The news of the league policy violation broke after Miller and Webber spoke about Harden, but both agreed now is the time for a mutual parting in Houston.
“The system Mike D’Antoni built around him is gone, Daryl Morey’s small ball philosophy is gone,” said Miller. “Out of respect for a generational-type player like James Harden, it’s time to move on. He’s not 100% invested with the Houston Rockets right now.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get the same value in return from James Harden. I think Houston has to take the same path as the Oklahoma City Thunder, and stockpile as many draft picks as possible and revamp the system. Can they still be successful if James Harden stays? I’m sure, but the West is loaded. I think you need to get as many draft picks as possible and start to change your franchise that way.”
Unlike Miller, who played for the Indiana Pacers throughout the duration of his Hall of Fame career, Webber was part of a few blockbuster trades. He also sees a new destination in Harden’s future, which would allow the Rockets to commit to a rebuild.
“You shouldn’t give away your best value, you need to get the ultimate value for that player, [but] I don’t know if you’re ever going to get equal value for a great player like Harden,” said Webber. “But his head coach that built this system is gone, his GM is gone. It’s in the best interest, as soon as they can, to move on. It’s almost as if they’ve moved on from everything except for Harden. If you’re going to rebuild, you should officially do it.”
One of Harden’s rumored trade destinations has been the Nets, who are built around two superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Rookie head coach Steve Nash has already received comparisons to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, but Webber noted that there are drawbacks to these instant championship expectations in Brooklyn.
“Nash has the toughest coaching job [in the league],” said Webber. “People will falsely think he didn’t do a great job if he doesn’t win a championship, which isn’t fair. He’s going to need time. He’s getting comparisons to Kerr, but the Warriors had been together for a little while before Kerr. This situation in Brooklyn is totally new. What’s going to happen after they lose three in a row? How will he hide his team’s weaknesses and empower others?
“I think he’s ready, but there are issues in that locker room that affect a new coach. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the Eastern Conference Finals, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Toronto did, too. The East is wide open.”
Despite the presence of all-league talents like Durant and Irving, there are also massive question marks surrounding their bench. How much of a shot-blocking and rebounding factor will DeAndre Jordan play for the Nets? Will he be able to create space on the floor by finishing off the pick-and-roll? And how will Caris Levert, Joe Harris, and Spencer Dinwiddie fit into the offensive system? Miller added that the players on the floor not named Durant or Irving will make or break the Nets’ season.
“The question for Brooklyn isn’t about Kyrie and Durant playing together,” said Miller. “That’s what they’ve always wanted to do, so I’m not worried about two future Hall of Famers. They could both average close to 30 a game, but 60 points won’t win many games. The questions are about Levert and Dinwiddie. Can those guys get involved? How about Harris? If the Nets want to win the East and contend for a championship, you need the role players to play at a high level and contribute.”
Even with the explosive capabilities of the Nets, there is still no clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo front-rimmed a free throw that would have sent the Bucks to OT on opening night in Boston, and despite Milwaukee’s regular season success over the past two seasons, the East is a wide open terrain looking to be claimed.
“The two teams I’m really looking forward to watching in the East are the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards,” said Webber. “Washington is going to commit to play hard every night because of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. I think those teams are going to be fun and they’re going to be the surprise teams this year in the East, but no matter how you look at it, there is no frontrunner.”
Miller stressed that the Miami Heat also belong among a crowded list of contenders in the East, though it is difficult to gauge where until they have sustained success outside of the bubble.
“I’m not sleeping on the Heat,” said Miller. “They weren’t surprised to be there in the Finals, they expected to be there. Jimmy Butler gets a lot of credit, but that was a collective team effort. And if Goran Dragic is healthy, and Bam Adebayo is healthy, who knows? That’s not the Lakers’ fault, you play who is in front of you, but no one should sleep on the Heat. They’re also a frontrunner.
“But the bubble was a very unique situation. No travel, same arena. Tyler Herro was great, but he didn’t have to go in anyone else’s arena and shoot. Duncan Robinson was great, but he didn’t have to go on the road and do that. Now add travel and back-to-backs, and can the Heat’s role players still play like they did in Orlando?”
Webber also questioned whether the move away from the confines of the bubble will hurt Miami.
“Unless you were a family member, you weren’t expecting Herro to do what he did in the playoffs,” said Webber. “And don’t get me wrong, he did it. He earned it. So how will playing in real arenas and the travel change this season? No one is going to outwork Miami, but there are teams with more star power. But isn’t that what Jimmy Butler is built on? I think that’s what the Heat are built on.”
Another team in the East with equal parts potential and question marks is the Philadelphia 76ers.
Led by newly hired coach Doc Rivers, the Sixers will look to form a distinct identity in the East. Time will tell if that means going inside with Joel Embiid and becoming more of a defensive team, or building the offense around Ben Simmons and have a team intent on running.
Rivers is known for his ability to form a strong identity with his players, which he did as well as any coach in league history during his 2008 championship season in Boston. But he comes into Philly with a blemish after his exit from the Clippers, who collapsed in the Western Conference semifinals against the Nuggets. Matters were compounded further when the Clippers’ Paul George noted that Rivers’ lack of adjustments caused the team to squander a commanding 3-1 series lead. Though coaches are always the first to go, Miller was asked if Rivers was unfairly maligned during his exit from the Clippers.
“I think it was a little unfair for the blame to be put on Doc Rivers for that collapse,” said Miller. “I thought it was unfair for Paul George to come out and talk about not making in-game adjustments, solely putting it on Doc Rivers. I thought it was a little bit selfish for none of the other Clipper teammates to come out and say, ‘No, that wasn’t the case. We messed up.’ When Paul George said that, some other Clippers should have come out and said, ‘It was all of us.’”
The Clippers, who defeated the Lakers on opening night, are now coached by Tyronn Lue, who coached the Cavs to their title in 2016.
“Ty Lue is a championship coach,” said Miller. “But like Doc said, if they’re talking about in-game adjustments and not making any, Ty Lue was right next to him.”
Now that the league has moved away from the bubble, the NBA’s capital city is once again LA. Only two months removed from the NBA Finals, the Lakers are poised to defend their championship, becoming a top story with every victory and defeat, as LeBron James and Anthony Davis seek to prove that the bubble championship was no fluke.
“At the end of this 72-game regular season, the Lakers will be the team to beat,” said Miller. “They’ll start slow. They’re integrating a lot of new pieces–Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell–and I want to see if Schroder and Harrell can have chemistry like Harrell did with Lou Williams. That was a lethal one-two punch off the bench for the Clippers, they were nightmares for second units. All bets are off if that happens.”
The Lakers meet the Dallas Mavericks in LA on Christmas night, and all eyes will be on James.
“We’re always focused on LeBron, and this season will be no different,” said Miller. “Health is going to be of utmost importance. This is a quick turnaround for LeBron. I don’t think he expected to start December 22. I think they’ll start a little slow, but don’t be surprised by that.”