There is never a dull moment in the NBA and the tumult caused by the increasing cases of COVID-19 and cancellation of games overshadowed — for a brief moment — another blockbuster trade.
Yes, the Brooklyn Nets did it again, gutting their assets — as they did eight years ago — to acquire James Harden. The Nets traded three first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps to the Houston Rockets and shipped out Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs in a four-team deal that could shift the power in the East to New York City.
Harden pouted his way out of Houston, eventually saying after a Tuesday loss to the Lakers that the Rockets weren’t good enough to compete for a championship and it was time for him to go. He was a Net the next afternoon.
It’s not often one of the more prolific scorers in NBA history is traded, but it was time. Harden reported to camp late and out of shape, and his lack of desire made it apparent he was ready to join a new team. It’s not exactly the way to exit a situation, but for Harden it worked.
The question is whether a player who relies so much on one-on-one play, who has dominated his team’s offensive arsenal for eight years, can play with fellow superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
“An elite player, an elite leader, and an elite teammate,” he said when asked the type of player Brooklyn was receiving. “Willing to do whatever it takes to rack up wins. Chemistry, sacrifice, and we’re all elite. We’re all unselfish. We’re all willing passers and we play the game the right way.”
What happened in Houston? The Rockets decided to retool. General manager Daryl Morey left for the 76ers. Mike D’Antoni wasn’t re-signed as coach and joined Steve Nash and the Brooklyn staff. Russell Westbrook asked out because Harden wasn’t focused. The Rockets added players such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Christian Wood, but that wasn’t enough to convince Harden to stay.
“I don’t need the negative attention, I’ve never been that guy,” Harden said about the public trade demand. “There was something I felt like out of my character. But the ultimate goal is to get where I can compete.”
At 31, Harden wants to win. A championship is the only thing lacking on his résumé. He has accomplished all the individual accolades and he felt it was time to commit to a team concept. Perhaps he is maturing, but how he handled the situation was anything but mature.
“I’ve been through all the ups and downs with that organization,” Harden said. “I wasn’t disrespectful to anybody, especially to the organization. I just made a comment the team as a whole wasn’t good enough to compete for a title. At the stage I am at now, that’s what I would love.”
The Rockets were bounced out of the Western Conference semifinals in the bubble in five games by the Lakers last season. Westbrook immediately wanted out. Harden wasn’t far behind.
“After the bubble, I just wanted to reevaluate my career, the team, and the direction the organization was going,” Harden said. “You look from top to bottom from the general manager leaving to Mike D’Antoni leaving to reevaluating our personnel to see if we had enough to compete with the best teams in this league. As time went on and free agency, I felt like we didn’t have a chance. As much as I love the city of Houston, love being there, I think at the point of my career it’s not about money, it’s reaching the highest goal, winning at the highest level. It didn’t go as much as I would have liked it to go, but both sides are happy.”
Nets GM Sean Marks is all in, like his predecessor Billy King, who made the ill-fated Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce deal with the Celtics in 2013. Marks gutted the team’s future assets.
Yet the return could be the most imposing offensive lineup since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh won championships in Miami. But there is major risk.
Harden has never been to an NBA Finals and is considered a self-consumed player, while Irving has proven to be unreliable with his recent personal break, and health is always an issue.
“The timing was right for us. The process sped up very rapidly,” Marks said. “What we set out four of five years ago was culture. We have multiple culture drivers here and they will hopefully take us to the next level. We’ve got to wait and see how it all fits on the floor. They have given us all the right answers. They’re all looking for that common goal. We’re all looking for that common goal, to be the last team standing.
“It’s a tough decision, without a doubt. There comes a lot of thought, a lot of process went into this. We’re not bankrupt right now. There’s still multiple ways to build.”
Marks said Irving’s absence and personal issues did not encourage the Nets to pursue Harden harder. The sides had been talking for months.
“We’ve certainly weighed all the intel and all the factors,” Marks said. “What we’re looking for is we have some high expectations. I’m not going to wane from that and that’s why we brought in who we have here, and that includes the coaching staff as well.
“We all read the media, the hearsay, like everybody else. We’re always having constant conversations around the league. Just over the last 48 hours the conversations with Houston sped up. It was like a snowball. We’re very fortunate to be looking at James Harden amongst the Nets family.”
IN SEARCH OF HAPPINESS
Discontented Irving a consistent theme
The Celtics dealt with Kyrie Irving for two years and it wasn’t always pleasant. While he was able to bond with his teammates and did build good relationships, there were sides to Irving that alienated the organization.
While the Celtics would have welcomed him back if he decided to re-sign a maximum deal, the fact they were able to swap Irving for Kemba Walker (helped by Al Horford’s opt-out) was an exchange more for Walker’s off-the-floor attitude.
Walker has embraced and encouraged the growth of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It was uncertain if Irving wanted to see his younger teammates flourish. Irving said he wanted to join the Nets because it was a chance to go home.
This was supposed to make Irving happy, and Irving’s happiness has become more of a mystery over the years, a confounding issue because he never seems to be content. In Cleveland, he became a champion but freely acknowledged that didn’t make him whole. He wasn’t completely pleased playing second fiddle to LeBron James, being his “little brother” and watching as James received perks and benefits from the organization that he didn’t receive.
In Boston, Irving was immediately a leader, but he was moody and had a propensity to shut off people. Instead, he wanted to play with close buddy Kevin Durant, and his Brooklyn years were supposed to be comparable to Camelot.
It hasn’t worked out that way. What’s more, Irving has caused the same distress as in his previous two locations. Irving has missed five games for personal reasons, leaving the organization to attempt to explain his actions.
Irving was on a Zoom call Tuesday, along with actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, to support Manhattan District Attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi. The Nets were playing the Nuggets at the same time.
Irving was also seen maskless at a birthday party last weekend and was fined $50,000 for breaking the league’s COVID-19 conduct policy. He’ll miss Saturday’s game because of COVID-19 protocols.
The fact Irving took a personal break in the middle of a season has his critics reemerging and questioning his desire to play. Irving acknowledged during his Boston days he wasn’t an 82-game-per-year player. He didn’t see the need to play in all the games and had no issue getting rest for injury healing or load management.
Irving’s desire has been questioned for a few years. He decided to shut it down last season because of shoulder surgery. He possibly could have returned for the team’s resumption in the bubble, but he elected not to play.
He played in seven games this season, averaging 27.1 points, a career-best 50.4 percent from the field, and 42.6 percent from the 3-point line, before taking his break.
“I have talked to Kyrie,” Nets GM Sean Marks said. “I know he’s excited about getting back on the court with his teammates as soon as possible. We’re going to let Kyrie address this in his own way. I’m not going to shy away from this. Without a doubt the organization is disappointed with not having Kyrie amongst us, in the trenches with us. I don’t want to speculate and say why he’s out.
“I’ve had conversations with him and I’ll continue to have conversations. We’re looking forward to him being back in the gym. He’s part of our family. You would hope there’s a more-than-adequate excuse why he needs personal time. He will address that.”
COVID changes include fraternization issues
The NBA knew there were going to be issues with COVID-19, despite having no positive tests in the bubble for that three-month period. After postponing the Houston-Oklahoma City game Dec. 23, the league continued smoothly until the past two weeks, when several games were postponed — including three Celtics games — and 16 players tested positive for COVID-19 when the league’s released its recent numbers Jan. 6.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was one of two team members — along with Robert Williams — to test positive, and his interaction with Wizards guard Bradley Beal, and how it looked, was one of the reasons the league reassessed its COVID-19 regulations and added new guidelines.
Tatum tested positive following the Celtics’ 116-107 win over the Wizards Jan. 8. He was seen fraternizing with Beal, a close friend and mentor, following the game, along with Jaylen Brown.
The NBA initially based its COVID-19 standards on its medical experts and CDC guidelines. The CDC website states that transmission of the virus occurs when a party is within 6 feet of another person for 15 minutes.
According to Second Spectrum, the league’s official tracking provider, players are not exposed to each other during games for more than five minutes. But what about after games? What about maskless conversations for 2-3 minutes in which saliva and perspiration could be exchanged?
The video showing Tatum joking and conversing with Beal following the game was shown countless times, an embarrassment for the league since Tatum was hours from finding out about his positive test.
The Board of Governors and the Players Association met Tuesday and Wednesday to adjust the rules, which focus on player behavior in the locker room and off the floor. Prior to the changes, players could have as many as two guests in their hotel room on the road. Players are required to test daily, but friends and family members aren’t.
One of the rules, for the next two weeks at least: “When on the road, players and team staff are prohibited from leaving their hotel [other than for team activities or emergencies] or interacting with non-team guests at the hotel.”
Essentially, players are not allowed to leave their hotels for walks, etc., while on the road, or have guests. That appears difficult to regulate, but the NBA wants to send an alert that the players’ behavior is the reason for the spike in positive tests.
Another interesting regulation is player conduct when the team is at home: “For at least the next two weeks, players and team staff are required to remain at their residence [when the team is in its home market] at all times except to attend team-related activities at the team facility or arena, exercise outside, or perform essential activities, or as a result of extraordinary circumstances. Away-from-work interactions are limited to those with household members, family, and any personal staff working regularly in the home.”
The league also has mandated that all players wear facemasks on the bench, even those who are active. Initially, players who were in uniform were not required to wear masks on the bench. Only inactive players, coaches, and staff wore masks.
The league has set up “cooldown chairs.” Players who exit games will sit 12 feet from the bench and can catch their breath before donning masks. The league wants to do everything it can to prevent potential spreading.
This is not the bubble, where everyone the players came in contact with was tested daily for COVID-19, and wearing masks was essentially optional.
The final rule discusses conduct on game days, where players are not allowed to arrive at the arena more than three hours before a game (wonder how Ray Allen would have felt about that) and pregame and postgame greetings will be limited to fist and elbow bumps. Over the past few days we’ve seen players break that rule with postgame hugs.
The NBA is not going to stop players fraternizing, but the goal is to place players on alert because the worst-case scenario for all sides is to postpone the season. But the health of the players and their families should come first.
The NBA’s G-League Ignite, a team designed to develop high school prospects who chose not to attend college, added veteran guard Jarrett Jack. The G-League will resume its season in an NBA-style bubble in Orlando. The Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ affiliate, were one of 11 teams that chose to opt out. Jack is looking to get back into the NBA as a backup point guard and he could serve as a mentor for the younger players … The G-League conducted a three-round draft that was essentially one round because several teams passed on their second- and third-round picks. The first selection was former Tennessee forward and Grant Williams’s college teammate Admiral Schofield, by the Greensboro Swarm. Other notables in the first round were former NBA guard Gary Payton II by Raptors 905, ex-first-round pick Justin Patton by Westchester, and former Knicks guard Allonzo Trier by Iowa. The Red Claws plan on resuming play next season … The Knicks had been one of the league’s surprise teams before a recent slump, but coach Tom Thibodeau has his club playing hard and playing often. Thibodeau has the reputation for giving his players heavy minutes. Standout Julius Randle and second-year forward RJ Barrett are each averaging more than 37 minutes per game. Barrett was taken third overall in 2019 and was supposed to be a cornerstone, but his lack of efficiency has been an issue. He is averaging 16.3 points per game because he is taking three more shots per game than his rookie season. He is shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from the 3-point line. Thibodeau is still trying to figure out what to do with the Knicks’ recent lottery picks, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. Knox, in his third season, has etched a role as a reserve forward. Ntilikina, a Phil Jackson draft pick, has been injured and has been lost in the rotation. Meanwhile, former ninth overall pick Dennis Smith Jr., who got off to a rousing start with the Mavericks, has played in just two games because of a quadriceps injury and has been buried in the guard rotation. He has been a shell of the player who averaged 15.2 points per game as a rookie.