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Bill Simmons Comments on James Harden, Dallas Defense

I linked to Bill Simmons' latest Grantland piece in today's loud links, but there are a few elements that I think deserve some small highlights.

Dizzying Highs and Terrifying Lows | Grantland

I want to focus on two assertions he made that I find interesting in relation to the Thunder:

1. The case for James Harden

"Along with Dirk Nowitzki, James Harden, Dwyane Wade, and Zach Randolph, [Tyson Chandler] is one of the five biggest winners of the 2011 Playoffs."

Put aside the fact that this comment is directed toward Tyson Chandler's play for a moment. The really remarkable element that comes out of this assertion is the fact that Simmons has subtly acknowledged that he mis-read the potential of James Harden. If I may refer you back to a post I did on my old web site:

...They whiffed on that James Harden pick. He's not good! He may be good at some point, but this is year two. You're a rookie, last year, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt...transition, you're getting paid...year two is when you're supposed to start showing people that you're good...I watched him in person on Wednesday night and I'm not sure what his skills are. He's supposed to be this fantastic role player, who can play a couple positions, who can guard anybody, who drains the corner three, great athlete, fills in on the wing...

...And with the James Harden thing, it was a chemistry pick, and it filled a void, and it was somebody they knew that was gonna be their third best player. But my thing is, if he's your third best player, I'm not sure you're winning anything. [And if he's not] then who is their third best player? Don't you draft him hoping he's going to be better than Jeff Green? Harden went third.

To be absolutely fair, Simmons made this comment in 2010, not the second half of 2011. When we all watched Harden play early on in the season, we had the same reservations. Harden did not seem comfortable, he was not bringing to the table the things the team said he could, and as a result the rotation was a mess. It is not like Simmons was wrong then, because he saw the same things we did. In fact, this very topic was the subject of my inaugeral post here at Loud City.

What makes the point remarkable though is not merely that Simmons' (and ours, if we're honest) points were wrong, it is that over the course of the last third of the season and the playoffs, Harden proved that the Thunder were right about him. As we watched him play a key role in the Memphis and Dallas series, Simmons' statement proved to be correct. Harden  was the chemistry guy. He was their role player. He played multiple positions. He guarded everyone from J.R. Smith to Dirk Nowitzki. He hit huge 3-pointers.

Finally, in the Dallas series, Harden WAS the 3rd most important player, behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. We collectively died inside when he fouled out in Game Four because we knew he was the only guy on the court who knew how to push the Thunder offense when things grew dire. Likewise, it was Harden's play in Game Five that gave the Thunder a fighting chance against the surging Mavericks. Dallas had to actually solve the Harden problem to get past OKC in the Conference Finals.

Looking forward, I think we're all very excited to see how James Harden continues to gel with Westbrook, Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins. I think Simmons will be as well.

2. The Case for Russell Westbrook

This point is more subtle and inferential on my part:

Dallas made a key adjustment in Game 4, sticking Shawn Marion on Wade and Kidd on LeBron - with the implication being, "We can do this because LeBron won't make us pay by taking Kidd down low and torching him" - and it worked like a charm. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, they mixed it up by throwing a zone at Miami, hoping LeBron would get confused, stand around, avoid long 3s, and stop moving. That worked, too. To repeat: The Mavericks built their defensive strategy around LeBron's limitations and predictabilities.

Simmons' observation is astute - by the end of both Games Four and Five, Lebron looked like he had no idea what to do.  In other words, Dallas built a defensive strategy that tested LeBron's mental abilities, not his physical abilities. In thinking back to the Thunder series, I think it becomes evident that Dallas did the exact same thing with Westbrook.

As we had discussed before, Dallas defended Westbrook by attacking his psyche, not his physical game. They made him think he could go where he wanted to, but in reality they were baiting the trap so that Westbrook could get in but not out. When the carpet kept getting pulled from underneath Westbrook, he did not consistently have a Plan B to make the Mavs pay for their strategy. By the end of Games Four and Five, Westbrook and the Thunder offense looked completely lost.

I've compared Westbrook to James in the past because I think they have a similar physical make-up - they are both remarkable athletes to which basketball is almost incidental. Sometimes they even amaze themselves by what they can do. However, Westbrook, like LeBron, still has the mental aspect of the game to master, and it sometimes means the physical part of the game has to stay in check.  The difference is that Westbrook wants to attack when he should go with the flow, and LeBron wants to flow with the current when he should attack.

To be clear, I'm not asserting that in any way that LeBron or Westbrook are not intelligent basketball players. I've been watching James sine he was in high school and there is no doubt that he possesses a high basketball IQ. In the same way, Westbrook has repeatedly been lauded as the exact kind of player the Thunder front office loves, and character and intelligence are always high on those lists. Rather, it is more like how NFL teams deal with a player like Peyton Manning. Manning is routinely recognized for his studious habits, computer-like capacity for remembering details, and dogged preparation for upcoming opponents. Manning's intelligence and high football IQ, combined with his physical ability, make him one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. So why is it that Manning only has a 9-11 post-season record and a Single Superbowl win to his credit? Is it because Manning suddenly becomes dumb when the stakes are highest?

The answer is of course, no. Manning does not get dumber. Rather, the collective intelligence on the other side of the ball gets larger. The playoff contenders feature dozens of very smart men who are trying to solve the riddle of Peyton Manning. The odds are heavily in their favor. Over time and myriad plays, the odds are that they will figure out some tendency, however small, and exploit it.

So to it has been with Dallas and their commitment to game planning and defensive schemes. They know that they don't have the athletes to contend with either Westbrook or James, but they have figured out their psychological weaknesses and exploited them.  Westbrook and James did not get dumber; their opponents got collectively smarter. All the credit goes to the Mavericks and their devised strategy to cause those weaknesses to work against their respective opponents. Pretty smart.