No. 1: Harden emerging as Team USA leader — If you missed it yesterday, our John Schuhmann had an excellent stats analysis of Team USA and its rampage through exhibition play as it readies for the upcoming FIBA World Cup. One of the key points he noted is how well the squad has fared when James Harden and the rest of the starters set the tone in games. Aside from how his play is helping the U.S. team on the scoreboard, guard James Harden has also shown himself to be a leader in other ways for Team USA. Michael Lee of the Washington Post has more on that topic:
Harden’s responsibilities increased once more when Kevin Durant, his close friend and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, backed out of his commitment, citing fatigue and not the injury to George as the reason. That left the lefty Harden as the only first-team all-NBA player remaining on the squad. The earlier withdrawals of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook also meant that Harden and Anthony Davis were the only holdovers from the 2012 London Olympics team.
“Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said as his team continues to prepare for the tournament in which the winner earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He’s the one.”
Harden’s career changed dramatically after that summer as Oklahoma City traded the then-sixth man of the year to the Rockets. He became an all-star in his first season, playing so well that Dwight Howard forfeited a bigger pay day from the Los Angeles Lakers to join forces with him in Houston a year later. The constant adjustments have been so common for Harden that the steadily-evolving situation with Team USA over the past few weeks feels almost normal for him.
“It’s so many things these last couple of years that’s been thrown at me, from me being traded, to people talking, just everything,” Harden said. “I try to focus on myself and how can I be a better basketball player. It’s still basketball at the end of the day. I try to do it to the best of my ability and continue to work hard.”
Harden declared himself as the best player alive two weeks ago, expressing a sentiment that was neither delusional nor particularly serious. But it represented a mindset that is required for elite-level basketball players – especially one with obvious deficiencies on the defensive end who also happened to be a viable candidate for league most valuable player last season. When pressed about that opinion, Harden didn’t backtrack.
“I think everybody feels that way. Every NBA player. Even growing up, growing up youngins have dreams that they want to be the best basketball players in the world,” Harden said. “As a basketball player, or any athlete, you got to have confidence, you’ve got to have confidence the whole time. You just go out there and do your job and have confidence that your abilities are good enough. Whatever is thrown at me, I just try to take it for what it is and just have fun.”
No. 2: Hinkie unsure if Embiid will play in 2014-15 — The Wolves and Cavaliers got a lot of the publicity and hype Tuesday when they introduced their new-look rosters in the wake of the Kevin Love trade. There was a third team involved in that deal — the Sixers — and its general manager, Sam Hinkie, talked with the local media about Philly’s new additions in the trade (Alexy Shved, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) as well as its youngsters (Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams). Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News has more on the news conference:
While the call was to discuss the trade, many topics were brought up to Hinkie:
* On whether Embiid may play this season: “I don’t know at this point. Right now, he’s in Philly and visiting with a variety of our medical professionals and going through tests. He’ll get a good baseline and then we’ll put together a rehab plan. He’s still in a boot. He was shooting threes on one leg in our gym [Monday]. I don’t know how it will play out. We’ll take an approach without knowing where the finish line is. We want to know how we can be sure to put him in a position to have a long NBA career. However long [rehab] takes will be however long it takes. In my experience with this injury, a very reasonable approach that our medical professionals take is to put these hurdles in place for them to rise above and then measure the symptoms and then let’s see what happens in the days after. Is there tightness or soreness or swelling? Does the MRI or X-ray show something different? When we set that road map, no one knows [how long it will take].”
Hinkie also said that in rehabbing last season from a torn ACL, Nerlens Noel had not setbacks. Noel, of course, missed the whole season. Read into that what you will.
On the progress of Michael Carter-Williams following his April shoulder surgery: “Things are coming along. I haven’t seen the full report of late and haven’t seen the most recent checkup. He can shoot and is working hard. He is not ready for full five-on-five contact.”
On what the summer told him about Nerlens Noel: “He’s had a pretty good summer. Within a week or 10 days after the season he was in the gym. At the very end of the season he had met all of the benchmarks that we laid out. Your ability to maximize your gifts is what we need. He has the ability to change the game very quickly. He can get off the floor quick enough to wait for guys to shoot [then block shots]. He can impact things that way. He has a real quickness with the ball. His ability to run the floor we haven’t seen yet.”
No. 3: Clips keep the good vibes going, give Rivers extension — The offseason for the Los Angeles Clippers wasn’t always bright, especially as the team dealt with the on-again, off-again matter of getting the team out of former owner Donald Sterling‘s hands and into that of new owner Steve Ballmer. But now that the transaction is done, the Clippers have gone about making sure the coach who saw them through a difficult time — Doc Rivers — is around for a while. Rivers and the team agreed to an extension that keeps him in L.A. until 2019 and is another move in a positive offseason for the team. Our Scott Howard-Cooper has more:
Doc Rivers got a new contract as coach and head of basketball operations, the team announced. About three months ago, he was having to consider leaving, wanting to be with the organization in a city he loves but not at the cost of working for someone who had just spouted such racist comments. And now, Rivers signed a package reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! worth $50 million over five years.
Ballmer is the owner, but Rivers is the leader. That was the case anyway behind the scenes, a role Doc grabbed almost immediately after joining the Clippers and moving to marginalize Sterling on basketball matters, even if it meant publicly calling out the boss. (Sterling could have fired him the first week of the season, for all Rivers cared. Rivers knew he would get another lucrative offer before long, and even if he didn’t, anything was better than living with Sterling’s destructive intrusions.) But once Sterling’s hate became public and the first round against the Warriors stopped being just about the first round against the Warriors, Rivers’ navigation of an impossible situation became the public platform of his value.
Rivers had two more years on the deal he signed after being traded, at his request, from the Celtics, championship credentials in tow. Ballmer could have wanted to settle in, get a feel for the operation before making any major decisions that didn’t need making in August, maybe even wait the entire 2014-15 to see if Rivers can deliver more than a trip to the second round. Instead, the new contract ends the issue of the coach/president and his future in a move for stability.
It is why the new deal can be so expected and so celebrated.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Utah Jazz rookie Dante Exum will come off the bench for Australia at the FIBA World Cup … Free-agent guard Toure Murry has reportedly signed a 2-year, $2 million deal with the Jazz … The Clippers are expected to waive Carlos Delfino via the stretch provision … Free-agent forward Michael Beasley reportedly had a second workout for the Lakers … Big man John Henson may start at center for the Bucks next season …