Clippers transform into a favorite after Kawhi Leonard, Paul George double dip

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USA Today

Clippers transform into a favorite after Kawhi Leonard, Paul George double dip

An earthquake stopped the NBA’s summer league on Friday night, but that will be a footnote compared to the seismic shift that shook the league a few hours later.

Kawhi Leonard is headed to the L.A. Clippers and so is Paul George. The Clippers reportedly are signing Leonard to a four-year, $141 million deal and netting George in a monster trade. The Clippers reportedly will send Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with a historic boatload of picks, including four unprotected first-rounders, a protected first-round pick and two pick swaps.

It’s a major coup by Doc Rivers and the Clippers franchise, which has lived in the Lakers’ shadow for decades. Led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, general manager Mike Winger and consultant Jerry West, the Clippers have added the best player in the NBA and the best player in franchise history. 
 
Snatching him away from their Staples Center roommates and the defending champion Toronto Raptors is the icing on the cake. Oh, and a runner-up MVP is coming along, too.

So how does this impact the Clippers and the greater NBA? Let’s dive in with three big questions.

1. Does this make the Clippers title favorites?

It better. School textbooks across the world will cite this trade to explain the “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” proverb.

If you ranked the Clippers’ top 12 assets heading into free agency, they just tied a bow around nine of them and shipped them over to OKC for a single superstar -- and an injured one at that (we’ll get to that later). They kept Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams on their team-friendly contracts but gave up just about everything else.

To recap: the Clippers will send away their unprotected 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks, their unprotected 2021 and protected 2023 first-round picks via Miami and the rights to swap picks in 2023 and 2025. That’s the most picks the Clippers can legally send under the collective bargaining agreement, which prohibits teams from selling first-round picks in consecutive years.

On top of that, the Clippers are sending their 2018 first-round pick, Gilgeous-Alexander, who was second-team All-Rookie last season. Wait, there’s more! Gallinari, who averaged 19.8 points last season and has a $22.3 million contract that expires next summer, will be going in the deal, as well.

The price is just astounding. I’m surprised OKC general manager Sam Presti didn’t get a share of Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s estate as well. Maybe he asked for it.

This has potential to be the NBA’s Herschel Walker trade: Thirty years ago, the Dallas Cowboys traded away Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a package that included five players and six draft picks. Like the Clippers, the Vikings thought Walker would be the missing piece to a championship run and gave up a king’s ransom to acquire him.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ draft haul yielded Emmitt Smith, who became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and safety Darren Woodson, who won three Super Bowls and earned five Pro Bowl appearances. In addition, Minneosta’s 1991 pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall pick, and Dallas used it to select defensive tackle Russell Maryland, a Pro Bowler who also won three Super Bowls with the team.

Walker didn’t make the playoffs in the two seasons he was with the Vikings. ESPN later produced a “30 for 30” short film about the deal, titled “The Great Trade Robbery.”

However, that doomsday scenario for the Clippers is unlikely. Leonard going to the Clippers blasted the championship hunt wide open, and adding George, who is still in his prime and just finished in third in MVP voting, will certainly put them in the running for the NBA’s best team.

But it all comes down to player health, a department of the NBA that has undergone a sea change in the last decade. Load management has become NBA parlance. Top sports scientists from as far as Australia have joined the NBA in droves. Fancy new practice facilities basically rival NASA’s astronaut training centers.

The Clippers are a shiny example of this global wave. The Thunder’s former director of sports science during their 2012 Finals run, Mark Simpson, is now running the Clippers’ health department. Simpson, a British performance guru in the cycling world before joining the NBA about a decade ago, joined the Clippers in 2016 as part of the team’s organizational overhaul under Ballmer.

In 2016, in the aftermath of the Donald Sterling era, Doc Rivers told me: “We were just behind. They didn’t spend money before.”

Simpson and long-time head athletic trainer Jasen Powell will have their hands full. The Clippers are title favorites, with one significant caveat -- if Leonard and George are healthy. You could say that about any star duo in the NBA, but Leonard and George in particular have two of the shakiest medical histories in the sport. Leonard missed all of nine games in 2017-18 dealing with a mysterious quad injury. 

George missed all but six games in 2014-15 because of a gruesome broken leg, which isn’t the most relevant major injury on his record. This summer, George required surgery on both shoulders to repair damage and may not even be healthy for the start of 2019-20 season.

In early May, George underwent rotator cuff surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder. The recovery from that operation is serious and put George’s readiness for training camp in doubt. A month later, George underwent a second procedure, this time repairing a small labral tear in his left shoulder.

Despite those worrisome procedures, the Thunder did not want to give him up. How do I know? They just got seven draft picks and two really good players for him. Perhaps Presti is genuinely concerned about George’s health and used his powerful leverage to bleed the Clippers dry of their assets. If Leonard’s commitment was truly contingent on George coming, Presti understood his negotiating power. The Clippers weren’t going to walk away because of a pick swap in 2025.

The massive bounty in this deal tells you how much George mattered to the Thunder’s future. We often hear teams say a star player of theirs is untouchable unless they’re blown away with a deal. It’s safe to say the Thunder were blown away with the deal.

Even with the shoulder surgeries, we can pencil George in as a top-10 player in the NBA. Leonard is a top-five player. For now, L.A. boasts a starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Leonard, George and presumably Montrezl Harrell at center. The Clippers can still bring back restricted free agent Ivica Zubac to start at center and continue to bring Harrell off the bench along with Lou Williams and Moe Harkless.

Everything has to break right for the Clippers to win the 2019-20 title. In many ways, that’s what happened in Toronto. The Marc Gasol trade panned out. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson got hurt, whereas Leonard and the Raptors’ rotation stayed remarkably healthy throughout the postseason. As I wrote after they won the title, the Raptors got some luck along the way -- as does every championship team!

This isn’t the finished product. The Clippers can use the room exception to add another player. The Andre Iguodala sweepstakes will bubble to the surface now that he’s on a rebuilding Memphis team. An Iguodala swap for Harkless and a longer-term asset seems fair for both sides.

The Clippers aren’t heavy title favorites at the moment. I’ll put them on the same tier as the Lakers, Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia, with Utah, Portland and Denver just on the outside. If they land Iguodala, the Clippers will rise to outright favorites.

2. What do the Los Angeles Lakers do now?

Leonard’s decision helps the Clippers, but it hurts the other L.A. team more. 

The Lakers don’t have a two-way wing star like Leonard. They gutted their roster to acquire Anthony Davis, and the free agency market dried up while Leonard deliberated on his choice of employment. 

This was always the risk of waiting on Leonard. Leonard’s top proxy in free agency was 30-year-old Jimmy Butler, but he’s in South Beach. Every other star player is gone.

The Lakers are left with Leonard’s longtime teammate Danny Green, who isn’t nearly the player that Leonard is, but can certainly help the Lakers on the wing. Green finished with the fourth-best plus-minus in the NBA last season behind Stephen Curry, Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That lofty ranking had more to do with his star teammates than himself, but he’s a nice pickup for the Lakers as a 3-and-D consolation.

The Lakers reportedly are also signing JaVale McGee to a two-year deal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a Klutch client, could be following on a two-year, $16 million. Green, McGee and Caldwell-Pope are notably signed on the same timetable as James, expiring in 2021.

Splitting up Leonard’s max slot with three rotation players isn’t a nightmare scenario. They still have LeBron freaking James and Anthony freaking Davis. But this was always the risk of waiting out on Leonard. If the Lakers had sniffed out Leonard’s preference for the Clippers from the outset of free agency, they could have pivoted and prioritized other top free agents.

But Leonard is such a transcendent player that, even with an outside chance at bringing him in, you have to stay at the table. How much of a chance did the Lakers have? Sixty percent? Twenty percent? One percent? Internally, the Lakers’ brass must have had a walk-away percentage. It apparently never got to that point.

Offensively, the Lakers should be fine. It was Leonard’s defense that would have been the most welcomed addition. Leonard spent his postseason neutering All-Star after All-Star on his path to the title. According to NBA.com matchup data, Leonard’s top defensive assignments, in terms of most possessions defended, were Ben Simmons, Antetokounmpo, Aaron Gordon and Middleton -- three of whom were All-Stars.
 
Using NBA.com’s matchup data, an analysis by NBCSports.com found that Leonard gets matched up against superior scorers than James, who just isn’t the defender he once was. (That’s what happens when you have 56,000 minutes on your NBA odometer.) In the postseason, Leonard’s defensive assignment (the player he guarded) normally scored 23.3 points per 100 possessions on average. But going against a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Leonard, that scoring rate fell to 16.3 points per 100 possessions, a significant decrease of 7.0 points.

James, on the other hand, defended lesser scorers, with a normal average of 20.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season -- the equivalent of Jae Crowder and DeMarre Carroll. Against James, their scoring rate dropped to 15.7 points, a decline of 4.7 points. Still a sizable gap, but not quite up to Leonard’s standard.

Without Leonard, James will undoubtedly spend more energy guarding All-Stars than he’d like at this stage of his career. Green will help, but this is a top-heavy roster with one-dimensional counterparts.

We’ll see if the Clippers and Lakers fight over Iguodala. It’s unclear what’s left in the Lakers’ asset chest that will entice Memphis. A sign-and-trade involving Lakers free agent Alex Caruso might do the trick, but their lopsided salaries will make it difficult even if Memphis holds interest in Caruso.

This was the downside of going all-in for Davis. When Leonard doesn’t commit, they’re left to scramble with veteran minimum contracts. Davis and James are good enough to sleepwalk their way to 50 wins, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the roster shakes out. 

If the Lakers had a stronger infrastructure in the front office and on the sidelines, I’d pick them to win the West. Frank Vogel, even with his strong resume in Indiana, has never coached inside the Lakers’ pressure cooker that got the best of Luke Walton, Byron Scott, Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown before him.

3. What happens to Toronto and OKC?

The Raptors should be fine. They’ll grieve Leonard’s departure by fitting themselves for championship rings. 

This will sting. The city -- the entire nation of Canada, for that matter -- fell in love with Leonard. Some naysayers may have argued that one year of Leonard isn’t worth losing DeMar DeRozan and Jacob Poeltl and a first-round pick, but flags fly forever. The Raptors are NBA champions, regardless of where Leonard chose.

The Lakers don’t have a two-way stud to fill in for Leonard, but the Raptors can put Pascal Siakam in his place. He’s not Leonard; no one is. Still, the Raptors went 17-5 in the 22 regular season games that Leonard missed, largely because Siakam stepped up on both ends of the floor.

Even without Leonard, this is probably a 50-win team or close to it. It’s not just about losing Leonard; they lost Green, too. Once VanVleet decided he wanted to be Kyrie Irving in the Finals, Green’s starting spot vanished, but he was still a super useful wing for this team. Norman Powell figures to step into the starting spot, though OG Anunoby, who missed the postseason with an emergency appendectomy, might have a say in that.

There’s a nonzero chance that Toronto slides and goes on a fire sale. The Miami Heat won 37 games after James went back to Cleveland and have struggled to emerge out of the pack. Following the 2011 championship, the Dallas Mavericks decided to break up with Tyson Chandler and have the same record as the Washington Wizards since that title run (308-322). Cleveland won just 19 games last season.

With a mix of savvy veterans and promising stars, the Raptors will probably have a smoother transition than all of those post-title teams. The expectation here is that Masai Ujiri honors his contract and stays with the Toronto with a little sweetener (perhaps an MLSE ownership slice?) to keep him away from D.C. or any other suitors.

He’ll have a tough choice to make if Toronto stumbles out of the gate. Lowry ($34.1 million), Gasol ($25.6 million) and Serge Ibaka ($23.3 million) will be on expiring deals. They could just let those run out and then do the full rebuild next summer. But if the season goes south quickly, they’d be wise to pivot like the Clippers did and build for the future around Siakam, who is a restricted free agent next summer and could command a max contract.

As for OKC, I love what they did here. Losing Durant in 2016 for nothing was a haymaker, but Presti has rebounded nicely by moving George in the NBA equivalent of the “Herschel Deal.”

In the short term, Russell Westbrook will probably gun for his fourth straight triple-double season (which is still crazy to type out), and Gallinari will fit in nicely as a stretch four that can soak up the scoring opportunities in George’s void.

But this is all about the future. Putting aside the fact they’ll be essentially picking in the Clippers’ spot for the next half-decade, this deal also makes it more likely they keep their own first-round picks in 2020 and 2022. The 2020 first-rounder goes to Philadelphia (acquired in the Markelle Fultz deal via Orlando) only if OKC is one of the best teams in the NBA because it is top-20 protected. If OKC isn’t a top-10 team after George’s departure this season, it will splinter into two second-round picks.

The 2022 first-rounder headed to Atlanta for taking on Carmelo Anthony last summer is lottery-protected and turns into two second-round picks if it doesn’t convey. There’s a very real chance that OKC is a very different team by then and could be rebuilding with their assets as Westbrook enters his mid-30s.

The Thunder can go two directions here. They can try to maximize the Westbrook-Adams era and rebuild on the fly with the bevy of picks. Or they can recognize they aren’t title contenders anymore and hit the reset button. Westbrook is religion in Oklahoma, and it’s hard to imagine the Thunder trading such a loyal player after KD left. But it’s a legitimate path now that George has left.

Still, expect OKC to spend at least one season rolling with the current core. Don’t be surprised if they check in on Kevin Love and Bradley Beal now that they’ve lost Westbrook’s co-pilot. Myles Turner and 2017 first-round draft pick Domantas Sabonis in Indiana also become more tantalizing as possible OKC targets. The Thunder could be a couple moves away from being contenders again. About half the NBA probably thinks they can win the title next year. What’s one more?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

The Miami Heat have never gotten off to a better start. Not the Heatles, not the Shaq-led teams, no team in the 32-year history of the franchise. At 18-6 through 24 games, none have won more games than a ragtag team led by the 30th pick of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Butler.

This Heat team fully embodies the underdog mentality of Butler, whose ESPN recruiting page still reads NR -- for Not Rated. Two of the team’s starters, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, spent last season in the G League. Meyers Leonard, who’s starting at power forward, was iced on Portland’s bench last season until Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in late March. 

Then there’s Miami’s affinity for late-game heroics. Led by the best closer in the NBA, Butler and the Heat are 6-1 in clutch situations this season, trailing only James’ Lakers for the best record in the league in those moments.

But the biggest revelation has been Bam Adebayo, who, similar to what Butler did in Chicago, patiently bided his time on Miami’s bench behind the Heat’s $100 million man, Hassan Whiteside. Few would blame Adebayo if he checked out while watching Whiteside’s listless play be rewarded with a starting gig. Instead, the former No. 14 overall pick is dazzling alongside Butler.

Following the surprising start and with Butler and Adebayo already racking up triple-doubles, is it time for the Heat to go big-game hunting in the trade market? Miami has all the markings of a classic “one player away” team and several league executives have pegged the Heat as the East’s most interesting team as the December 15 landmark approaches, unlocking 2019 free-agent signees to be eligible for trade. 

Is Chris Paul in their sights? Is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin? Let’s take a look at the NBA’s most surprising contender and whether they need to trade for another big-name player.

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

I mean, where to begin with this guy? Adebayo might be the best quarterback in South Florida, which, granted, isn’t saying much these days. But no team in the NBA has scored more points off of handoffs than the Heat, with Adebayo at the forefront of most of them, per Synergy Sports tracking. In a departure from Whiteside, Adebayo actually seeks bodily contact with opposing defenders on these handoffs, flicking the ball to shooters in the pocket as they curl around Adebayo’s Mack-truck-like hip-checks.

But Adebayo isn’t just a hand-off quarterback. Like Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets to much greater fanfare, Adebayo also runs Miami’s offense often. Five of his 11 assists against Atlanta on Tuesday night came after he started his dribble beyond halfcourt. Point guards almost never make an outlet pass to their center, but this happens all the time with Nunn and Adebayo. With Adebayo regularly playing the “point center” role, it’s downright dizzying for defenses to figure out who’s running the fastbreak. In fact, Adebayo has assisted more of Nunn’s baskets than the other way around.

No one’s prouder of this development and the changes in Miami this year than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who popularized the term “positionless basketball” is seeing his versatile dream come to life. His power forward, Leonard, is shooting 50 percent from downtown. His center, Adebayo, is second on the team in assists. If Adebayo added a 3-point shot, he’d be the basketball antithesis of Whiteside, whose tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room, league sources told NBC Sports. 

Heading into this season, Heat officials privately raved about how different the locker room felt compared to years past. Players were genuinely playing for each other. They were having fun again. And while that’s a common preseason refrain across the league, Miami’s 5-1 start and wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets showed that there was something different happening in Miami this season.

While Butler has gotten the headlines, Adebayo might just be Miami’s difference-marker. As of Wednesday, Adebayo ranks 10th league-wide in win shares, making him and Butler one of two team pairings among the league’s top 10 (the other duo was featured in Wednesday’s Haberstat). The Heat are also 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. And those 11 assists from Wednesday night? More than Whiteside tallied in all of his 17 starts last season combined.

Just 22 years old, Adebayo has already developed into one of the most untouchable young players in the NBA. Unless someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is put on the table, don’t expect the Heat to take trade talks involving Adebayo seriously -- not even for a future Hall of Fame point guard.

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

It’s not hard to talk yourself into Paul on the Heat. Who is more hell-bent to win a championship than Pat Riley? It could be Butler, who has never even reached the conference semifinals. It could be Paul, who, along with Steve Nash, might be the best player ever without a Finals appearance. Theoretically, those ultra-competitive spirits could fuse a bond between Riley, Paul and Butler.

Also, Paul is still playing at a high level and could really help the Heat with Goran Dragic battling nagging injuries. You need high-IQ grown-ups to win in the playoffs and Paul is definitely that (almost to a fault at times). Sharing the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hurt Paul’s box-score numbers, but the 35-year-old’s positive impact is undeniable. The Thunder are plus-59 with Paul on the floor and minus-44 with him on the bench. (Sidenote: Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the opposite scoreboard impact). 

There’s also the Banana Boat factor. The transitive property of NBA friendship suggests that Butler would get along with Paul. Butler is close with Wade. Wade is close with fellow Banana Boat member Paul. Therefore, a Butler and Paul pairing would work out, right?

Don’t hold your breath. Before trading Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City, the Rockets tried to engage the Heat on a three-team deal to reroute Paul to Miami, but the Heat resisted, multiple sources told NBC Sports. The Heat’s desire for Westbrook was “a level above” their interest in Paul, according to one high-level source involved in those talks. 

As it stands now, the Heat aren’t expected to make a run at Paul, per multiple sources. They like their locker room chemistry and aren’t actively looking to shake it up. More importantly,  Paul’s contract complicates Miami’s potential future. Paul will be 35 years old in May and is due $41.4 million next season and will be 37 when he’s due $44.2 million. A glamour market like Miami doesn’t need to make trades to acquire a star. Smaller markets like Utah, Charlotte and Portland do.

The same goes for big-name players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, each of whom, like Paul, are due north of $30 million 2021-22. Reminder: Antetokounmpo could be a free agent in 2021.

After polling executives, the league-wide sense is that Paul will remain with the Thunder this season simply because of his enormous contract. While it’s theoretically possible that Paul could agree to turn down his $44 million player option for 2021-22 to grease the wheels on a potential trade, right now, that is the longest of long shots. Besides overcoming the idea of giving up 44 million buckaroos, Paul is also the president of the players’ union and it would be a bad look to set that precedent of turning down that amount of money to make it more palatable to a team. 

If Paul were younger and didn’t have that price tag hanging over his head, he might be Miami-bound. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like a Paul-Butler partnership is in the cards, leaving Miami to hunt for help on a different level.

What about smaller fish?

Butler may not be an ideal fit with Paul, but there’s one name to watch as Dec. 15 approaches: Kyle Lowry. By extending his contract to 2020-21 last summer, Toronto made him more palatable to teams like Miami that want to keep their options open for the summer of 2021. Lowry would be an title-tested upgrade over Dragic and has looked strong this season following offseason thumb surgery. 

As of this writing, it’s unlikely Toronto cuts bait on Lowry with the Raptors playing this well. Alongside MVP candidate Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry might actually be closer to a title in Toronto right now than he would be in Miami. But if Toronto’s season began to sour or if president Masai Ujiri wanted to get ahead of an offseason remake of the Raptors, the Heat could be an enticing dance partner. Would a package of 23-year-old Justise Winslow and Dragic’s expiring contract be enough to open a dialogue? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

If not Lowry, then New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick could be a target of the Heat. Despite going separate ways this summer, Redick and Butler grew close in Philadelphia as like-minded competitors and, per a source, to this day they maintain regular communication through a group chat forged in Philadelphia.

Redick signed a two-year, $27 million contract this past summer to act as NOLA’s floor-spacer and veteran mentor. Things haven’t gone to plan. Redick may have joked at media day about Zion Williamson messing with his postseason streak, but at 35 years old, Redick didn’t exactly expect to be 6-18 at this point in the season. No one in New Orleans did.

Redick would thrive in Miami. He’s shooting a blistering 44.9 percent on 3-pointers and would be a sniper in Miami’s hand-off offense. Redick and Joel Embiid cooked teams with that action last season, making Redick an ideal fit next to Adebayo (Philly ranked No. 1 in points off handoffs last season).

The problem with Redick is that New Orleans might not be ready to flip that switch just yet. There’s still time for Williamson to return and right the ship before the Pelicans are forced to make a drastic change. They didn’t acquire Redick for him to be a two-month rental. But the Heat have five players -- Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard -- near Redick’s salary number to make salary-matching easier and a few young assets that could entice New Orleans to act. Would the Heat put Nunn on the table to acquire Redick? I’d do it if I’m the Heat.

Another floor-spacer to monitor is Davis Bertans, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player alongside Adebayo, Siakam and Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham. Bertans makes the Wizards competitive, but he could make a borderline contender like Miami into a legitimate Finals threat. 

With a $7 million contract that expires in the summer of 2020, Bertans would be more affordable salary-wise than Redick. It also means the Heat would have to toss more sweeteners into the deal to make it palatable for Washington. The Heat only have two of their next seven second-rounders and can’t trade a first-round pick until 2025.

Teams like Miami will be making calls on Bertans, who figures to be the Nikola Mirotic of this year’s trade deadline. But the Latvian may be playing his way off the trade market. At 27 years old, he fits in line with Bradley Beal and John Wall’s long-term trajectory. Don’t be surprised if Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard signs him to an extension and keeps him for the long haul. He’s been that good. 

Whether Bertans remains available or the Heat chase someone like Redick or Lowry, it’s clear the Heat are better positioned to add a solid rotation player than a max-salaried All-Star like Paul, Griffin and Love. It’s tempting for Miami to go all-in and try to load up for the 2020 NBA Finals, but that route makes more sense for a small-market team.

The allure of a 2021 free agent class that could feature Antetokounmpo, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo is too good to pass up.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

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