Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

It’s James Harden Appreciation Day

13 min read

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Our perpetual search for positives in such a depressing year was a little less desperate this week.

That’s because Thursday is International Left-Handers’ Day — one of my favorite “holidays” — in what has been a historic N.B.A. season for lefties.

The Phoenix Suns’ Cameron Payne, who was signed out of the N.B.A. G League on June 30 because the Suns needed a backup point guard, became the 50th left-hander to play in 2019-20. That represents a new high for an N.B.A. season, according to Basketball Reference, up from last season’s 42 lefties and topping the 49 who appeared in at least one game in 2002-3.

Payne has played well, too, supplying key production off the bench for the Cinderella Suns in their bid to earn a spot in this weekend’s Western Conference playoff play-in round. Phoenix arrived in Florida staring at a daunting six-game deficit behind the No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. After Payne scored a clutch 15 points (with three 3-pointers) in a recent win over Indiana, as part of the Suns’ 7-0 start, I asked him if he was trying to crash the All-Lefty Team that I, as a fellow lefty, excitedly unveil every August.

“If I’m on there, I’m on there,” Payne said with a laugh.

The truth, of course, is that he is just grateful to be back in the league. A lottery pick in 2015, Payne had stints this season in China and with the G League’s Texas Legends after the Toronto Raptors released him in October. Reuniting in Phoenix with Coach Monty Williams — an assistant in Oklahoma City when Payne became known more for his pregame dance routines with Russell Westbrook than his actual play — has pumped new life into Payne’s career.

“They’re giving me confidence,” Payne said of Williams and the Suns’ coaching staff.

A magical run at Disney World wasn’t quite enough to earn Payne one of the six spots on The New York Times’ annual All-Lefty squad, but there is much here to discuss — most notably when you see who else didn’t make it.

BACKCOURT

ImageDe’Aaron Fox had a good season, but his place on the All-Lefty team is as much the result of other contenders faltering.
Credit…Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

There is nothing more automatic for this newsletter than proclaiming Harden to be the best left-hander in the league. He would certainly need a championship or two to ever join Bill Russell in the conversation for all-time lefty supremacy, but Harden is certainly the most feared southpaw scorer that the N.B.A. has ever seen.

The second guard spot, though, was trickier than usual. Miami’s Goran Dragic would have been the best choice, but he will fill a different need for us. So it came down to Fox, Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell, Utah’s Mike Conley and the rookies Kendrick Nunn (Miami) and RJ Barrett (Knicks), with Fox winning out despite a flurry of caveats.

Fox’s individual production (21.1 points and 6.8 assists per game) was impressive, but Conley’s inconsistent first season with the Jazz landed Fox beside Harden as much as anything. For all of his otherworldly speed and scoring ability, Fox has to become more consistent and more durable for the Kings. This is the level of expectation that has been foisted upon him, fair or not, after General Manager Vlade Divac’s increasingly regrettable decision not to draft Luka Doncic in 2018 because Sacramento already had Fox.

I was courtside for Fox’s 39-point masterpiece against San Antonio here in Florida on July 31 and have always enjoyed watching him zoom past hapless defenders. He has certainly improved as a shooter as well, but Fox’s long-suffering franchise (see Numbers Game below) needs him to become a certifiable cornerstone player who consistently makes teammates better. Beating out the high-scoring Russell (whose defensive deficiencies can’t be overlooked) and Conley (who hasn’t had the impact Utah hoped) isn’t enough.

FRONTCOURT

Credit…Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

After numerous back-and-forth consultations with the voices inside my head, I just couldn’t do it.

I simply couldn’t put Zion Williamson on this squad after he appeared in just 24 games as a rookie — especially after his limited availability and defensive struggles in the N.B.A. bubble helped make New Orleans’ stay so chaotic.

Sabonis made the leap to All-Star status this season, and Simmons, despite his back and knee woes, offset the ongoing concerns about his shortcomings as a shooter by emerging as a Defensive Player of the Year contender.

But the format employed here is the same used in N.B.A. All-Star balloting: Our All-Lefty Team is composed of two backcourt selections, three frontcourt selections and a sixth man. So I needed a third big alongside the two gimmes and, because Williamson only managed to play in 34 percent of the Pelicans’ disappointing season, I felt compelled to look elsewhere despite his flashes of dominance (22.5 points in 27.8 minutes per game on 58.3 percent shooting).

The other options? There is not a slam dunk among them: Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre, the Knicks’ Julius Randle, the Nets’ DeAndre Jordan and Ingles.

Oubre had one of the strongest statistical cases, after he averaged 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds in the most productive season of his career. But the Suns’ superior play in the bubble without the injured Oubre — they have functioned better as a team leaning on Mikal Bridges and the rookie Cam Johnson — weakened his candidacy. And while Randle had even better numbers (19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game), they had the feel of empty-calories damage because of the 21-45 Knicks’ lowly standing.

So I turned to Ingles, who lacks eye-catching statistics but has played better as a reinstated starter after some struggles adapting to a bench role early in the season. Amid the well-chronicled tension in the Jazz locker room this season, with relations strained between the All-Star duo of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Ingles’ intangibles as a glue guy make up for what he doesn’t deliver in terms of box-score shine.

This spot, though, should have been Zion’s. It’s an absolute downer that he wasn’t on the floor often enough to seize it.

SIXTH MAN

Credit…Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Dragic was my preseason pick to win N.B.A. Sixth Man of the Year honors and — if I voted on such awards — would have been right there with Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder on my ballot.

The Heat asked Dragic to move to the bench this season, to be their Manu Ginobili, after Jimmy Butler’s arrival. He responded by building strong chemistry with Butler that has kept him in Coach Erik Spoelstra’s preferred lineup to close out games.

Dragic, at 33, is also the oldest left-hander in the league.

A fresh round of highlights and reflections from my fourth full week inside the N.B.A. bubble:

  • Wednesday will mark one month since I took residence here. I have settled into a pretty good routine, can scarcely remember my seven-day quarantine, addressed my coffee crisis and finally convinced myself that this basketball smorgasbord is really happening.

    The days ahead, though, figure to be challenging (maybe even mentally taxing) for some players as the first few teams start heading home and a first-of-its kind postseason — all in one place — begins this weekend with a Western Conference play-in round.

    The completion of 88 “seeding” games in a span of 16 days may sound fast, but I suspect teams with title aspirations are going to be a bit conflicted when they watch teams like the Wizards, Kings and Pelicans head for the airport. The first round of bubble departures figures to underscore just how long campus inhabitants have already been here — and how far away the finish line truly is for, say, the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks.

  • Regional pods.

    That phrase has been a constant in conversations with front-office executives on campus and refers to what many believe will be the foundation of the next N.B.A. season: short-term regional bubbles designed to host up to a month’s worth of games. The short-term bubbles would be followed by rest periods and training in teams’ home markets.

    No one in league circles seems comfortable projecting when it will be safe to stage games in front of fans again — even with reduced crowds. But confidence in the bubble approach is almost universal at this point. Less clear is when next season will happen, whether that’s in December, January or later. Difficult negotiations between the league and the players’ union are ahead.

  • My biggest personal challenge of the past seven days: figuring out how to cover a Dallas Mavericks practice and watch Manchester City’s Champions League death match against Real Madrid at the same time on Friday. Unlike the soccer-loving Luka Doncic, I managed to see all of the goals as they went in (on my phone) while the Mavericks were still on the floor.

  • I ordered dinner from room service on my first 11 nights here and on 16 of my first 18 nights in the N.B.A. bubble. Room service is only open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. and that was typically my only substantive meal of the day. But I have gradually ventured beyond that limited sphere through the league’s delivery app, which operates from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nothing I’ve ordered rivals the extravagant steak-and-lobster fare regularly featured on the @NBABubbleLife Twitter feed, but there is one particular $21 French Dip that has been a magical find — especially in a world with $24 chicken wings from Disney room service that aren’t exactly Lou Williams-level.

  • I am trying to get 15,000 steps a day in here and, so far, have succeeded more days than not. There isn’t as much spare time to work out as you would imagine, with so many games and practices to attend, but I have, in my old age, gotten pretty good at writing drafts on my trusty BlackBerry while walking. So I frequently walk-and-write in the garden outside my door — despite some occasional heckling from fellow scribes.



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Credit…Kevin C. Cox/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line. Responses may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: Tua Tagovailoa will likely be the only left-handed quarterback in the N.F.L. this season. An article I read recently discussed some potential explanations for this, including the possibility that football coaches are steering away from using left-handed players in prominent roles. Do you, as a noted southpaw advocate, think there is a similar dynamic among coaches in basketball? — Arlo Fazli (Washington, D.C.)

Stein: Thankfully, not. Not in the N.B.A. anyway.

As covered above, there were more left-handers in the N.B.A. this season than ever, including two lefties who unequivocally rank as the face of their franchises: Houston’s James Harden and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson.

I quickly polled five teams over the weekend to make sure my viewpoint was as current as possible and didn’t hear a single issue raised with left-handedness at the highest level of the sport. One trusted executive remarked that, after more than three decades working in the N.B.A., he couldn’t remember a single draft, trade or free-agency decision in his career that had been influenced by a player’s dominant hand.

It is far more common to hear basketball people say that they believe left-handers have a slight advantage because they are more scarce and thus more difficult for defenders to adjust to. There’s no better example than Harden.

Q: I think we’re forgetting about Lemon Pepper Lou. — Brandon Ramirez (Sherwood, Ark.)

Stein: Brandon is right. He was responding to one of my tweets Saturday, when I said that the first bubble flap worthy of my trusty #thisleague hashtag was the trash talking on Instagram between Portland’s Damian Lillard and the Los Angeles Clippers duo of Paul George and Patrick Beverley.

My bad. As a prisoner of the moment, I had temporarily forgotten about the Clippers’ Lou Williams earning an extra 10 days in quarantine after he was photographed at the Magic City strip club during an excused absence from the bubble to attend a family funeral in the Atlanta area. Williams said he made the detour purely to indulge in the establishment’s famed chicken wings.

In that instance, #thisleague was also the appropriate response.

Q: Does the basketball look the same to you in this setting as far as how the game is being played, intensity, player comfort? — @JGold1979 from Twitter

Stein: The seeding games have been fun. The quality of play has been better than naysayers projected, scoring has risen slightly from where the league was in March, crazy box-score lines have been a daily treat and there has been no shortage of showmanship even without fans in the stand.

When you miss the game as much as so many of us have, it’s only natural to bask in its return. So don’t apologize for basking.

Let’s be clear here, though: What we’ve been seeing is far from perfect. Offenses look like they’re way ahead of defenses, which is surprising after such a long layoff. My eye-test takeaway, from the games I’ve attended, is that players are getting to the basket on drives with greater ease than normal — and I believe that’s a byproduct of substandard defensive effort. Various top-four seeds in both conferences have had little to play for in these 88 seeding games, which will conclude Friday. The runway to the playoffs was long and, as some front-office executives feared going into the bubble, some coasting was inevitable.

Yet it’s also been interesting to hear several players remark that the conditions are more favorable for shooters than many N.B.A. arenas because so much of the lighting at the three Disney game venues is trained on the floor — with dark backdrops behind the baskets.

“I feel like it’s a hooper’s gym,” Phoenix’s Devin Booker said last week, adding that the dark backgrounds make it “easier to shoot” from a depth-perception perspective.

The safest conclusions we can draw: Eliminating the travel component that so readily messes with body clocks and recovery patterns, and removing hostile crowds that are also known to affect performance, have helped many players acclimate offensively.


Credit…Monica M. Davey/Epa

Sacramento was one of the first three teams in Florida to be eliminated from playoff consideration, extending the Kings’ playoff drought to 14 seasons, the longest in the league. Phoenix remained alive entering Tuesday’s play in its quest to end the league’s second-longest playoff drought, which dates to its loss in the 2010 Western Conference finals.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic clinched this season’s No. 1 ranking for triple-doubles on Saturday with his 17th of the season — and third in the N.B.A. bubble. The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and Denver’s Nikola Jokic are next in line with 13 each but do not have enough games left to catch him. Doncic, 21, is the youngest player to lead the N.B.A. in this category.

In the four games Indiana’s T.J. Warren has played in the N.B.A. bubble without yours truly watching courtside, Warren has averaged 39.5 points. In the two games I caught live, Warren averaged just 14.0 points after being hounded by two top-shelf perimeter defenders: Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges and Miami’s Jimmy Butler.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. recently became the first rookie in nearly 10 years — since Blake Griffin early in the 2010-11 season — to post back-to-back games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds, according to Stathead.com.

If you combine his A.B.A. and N.B.A. statistics, Artis Gilmore remains the most prolific left-handed scorer in men’s pro basketball history with 24,941 career points — ahead of James Harden’s 20,890. Gilmore is 10th among left-handers in N.B.A. career scoring with 15,579 points but maintained a lead of 4,051 points entering Tuesday’s play over Houston’s Harden, who recently supplanted David Robinson as the N.B.A.’s No. 1 career-leading southpaw scorer.


Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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