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#pounditSunday, September 26, 2021

Stories by Jack Reining:

Three takeaways from opening night in the NBA

Kyrie Irving

After the shortest offseason in league history, the NBA is officially back. And while there is still the remainder of a 72-game regular season yet to be played, teams only get one chance to make a first impression. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the first night of action in the association.

Brooklyn Nets have a chance to be special

Heading into the season, the Brooklyn Nets were a popular choice as the team most likely to finish atop the Eastern Conference. During their first game of the season, they justified their burgeoning bandwagon. Kyrie Irving continued his tradition of opening night onslaughts, following last year’s 50-point performance by dropping 24 in the first half. Although Irving only scored 2 points in the second half, that was largely because his services were not required in the later stages of the blowout, as he finished the game playing just 25 minutes. As impressive as Irving was, it was Kevin Durant’s return and the fluidity in which he moved that has Brooklyn firmly in the championship discussion.


There is no defense for a player who is nearly 7 feet tall and can dance with the basketball, then elevate into a picturesque pull-up jumper as depicted above. Coming off a devastating Achilles injury, Durant looked like his former self attacking the defense. While there was little doubt that the former four-time scoring champion would still be able to light it up offensively, there were some questions about how Durant would fare on the other side of the floor. Embracing the shift to power forward, Durant’s defensive impact was profound, as he limited Golden State shooters to 2-13 shooting as the primary defender.

The Nets have assembled a talented roster around their two superstars, with Caris LeVert spearheading a versatile bench unit. Even without Durant and Irving last season, Brooklyn still made the playoffs, with many of the team’s key contributors returning in reduced roles for this season. Although it was just one game, there is no denying that top to bottom, the Nets have assembled one of the most talented, cohesive rosters in the NBA.

The reigning champs are easing their way into the season

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Grading the Bucks’ trade for Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans

Jrue Holiday

With the start of the NBA season rapidly approaching, teams are getting a firsthand look at how their offseason additions will blend on their new squads. For teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, this is an optimistic yet crucial time. Following consecutive premature playoff exits, the Bucks entered the offseason eager to improve their roster, with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impending 2021 free agency looming large. Entering the season with a championship-or-bust mentality, the Bucks swung for the fences in their trade to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans.

Originally only supposed to be a two-team swap, Milwaukee and New Orleans expanded the Jrue Holiday deal to include the Denver Nuggets and perpetually-active Oklahoma City Thunder, creating a blockbuster four-team trade. When the dust settled, the team’s returns were as followed:

Here is a look at our grades for each team involved in the trade.

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Grading the Lakers’ trade for Dennis Schroder from the Thunder

Dennis Schroder

The Los Angeles Lakers took a massive stride forward in their quest to repeat as NBA champions after agreeing to acquire Dennis Schroder from the Oklahoma City Thunder. A lightning-quick point-guard with the ability to stop on a dime and effortlessly elevate into his vastly improved jumper, Schroder has become one of the premier sparkplug scoring options in the NBA.

As Sam Presti and the Thunder look to stockpile future first-round picks, the return package of the 28th pick in this year’s notoriously weak draft class (Jaden McDaniels) plus the shell of Danny Green could be considered light for one of the best sixth men in the NBA. For Oklahoma City, the trade represents the seemingly long-overdue start to the rebuild many felt was inevitable after trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George last offseason. With just one year remaining on his contract, Green is an obvious candidate to be a part of a future deal as the Thunder continue to amass future assets.

Biggest Winner: Dennis Schroder

After playing the best basketball of his life this season with the Thunder, Schroder now has the chance to continue to redefine his narrative while playing on the biggest stage of his career. Once perceived as a player capable of putting up gaudy individual statistics without enhancing his team’s chance at winning, Schroder rounded out his game and became a far more balanced player this year. This improvement was due to his commitment to the defensive end of the court, while also exercising better judgment on his shot selection offensively.

Despite mid-range shots falling out of vogue around the league due to the rise of the analytic movement, Schroder and the Thunder proved there’s still tremendous value to be had in such shots. As a team, Oklahoma City shot the highest percentage on mid-range jumpers this season at 46.9 percent. Their 464 made representing the fifth-highest total in the league. Schroder finished in the 97th percentile for guards on long mid-range jumpers attempted (jump shots taken past the free-throw line but in front of the 3-point line) while converting on a very efficient 46.8 percent of them.

For as good as Schroder was offensively this season, his improvements as a defender were arguably more paramount for his progression as a player. Despite only standing 6-foot-1, Schroder was frequently utilized to guard larger players thanks to his 6-foot-8 wingspan. One of the best plays from Schroder’s season perfectly highlights that newfound defensive intensity.

Schroder started that play on Marcus Smart, but once he saw Kemba Walker turn back towards his own baseline, he immediately brought the double team. In an instant, Walker found himself in a position no ball-handler wants to be in, trapped between Schroder and Chris Paul. Schroder then relied on his long-reach to cleanly swipe the ball from Walker and glide in for the easy game-sealing lay-up.

Oklahoma City displayed an uncanny ability to win seemingly impossible games all season, with Schroder’s fingerprints all over some of the team’s most memorable plays. With a sixth-man extraordinaire capable of delivering moments like the play below, the defending champs are going to be even tougher next season.

Trade Grades:
Los Angeles Lakers: A
Oklahoma City Thunder: C

The LeBron Effect: How LeBron James impacted his Lakers teammates

LeBron James

Given the monumental impact that star players have in the NBA, the simple fact that basketball is a team game can often get overlooked. One of the defining tests of NBA superstardom is a player’s ability to positively influence his teammates’ play. Stars can improve a teammate’s play through not only their own play, but also their presence; the greatest players of all-time carry an aura with them that embodies winning.

Four-time NBA champion and Finals MVP LeBron James has illustrated this aura throughout the entirety of his 17-year career. James has the power to thrust his teammates into an unfamiliar position — directly in the spotlight.

If these players deliver when they are called upon, their legacies are cemented next to role players like Steve Kerr, whose famous 1997 Finals-winning shot lives on eternally in the Role Player Hall of Fame. Failure to deliver, however, means a player will be exposed to a level of scrutiny unlike ever before. This phenomenon experienced by James’ teammates can be known as the “LeBron Effect.”

James’ impact on his teammates is so profound that his influence was felt not just by younger players, but also by accomplished veterans like Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo over last season.

Here is a look at how James impacted the play of his teammates last season.

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How James Harden’s postseason failures are defining his career

James Harden

A very select few players in the NBA can deliver as the best player on a championship team. Any franchise blessed with one of these uniquely talented players has a championship window open, and must do everything in their power to optimize that time. If one of these generational talents delivers in that quest for an NBA title, their legacy is immortalized alongside the iconic names of basketball history. But if they fail, the narrative shifts to one of criticism and disappointment.

One of the hardest decisions a franchise can make is determining whether or not their star can be the kind of player that elevates his game when the moment calls for it, which is the difference between superstars and all-time greats. Following their disheartening playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets must finally acknowledge that James Harden is not that player.

The Lakers’ five-game dismissal of the Rockets was the latest installment in a series of postseason failures for Harden.

The story on Harden is enigmatic; despite being one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history, his postseason resume is marred with disastrously-timed meltdowns when his teams needed him the most.

In their effort to surround Harden with the pieces he needed, the Rockets reinvented the blueprint for NBA offenses. They launched threes with reckless abandon and stopped playing traditional bigs altogether to maximize their spacing. The influence of Harden’s offensive genius can be seen nightly across the league, as shooters seek to replicate the step-back jumper he has all but perfected. But for all his points and regular-season success, Harden has never propelled the Rockets into the NBA Finals. Some of that is due to the misfortune of facing tough competition like the stacked Golden State Warriors. And some of that is due to Harden not showing up in primetime.

Harden is a 3-time NBA scoring champ, 7-time All-NBA player, and he was the 2017-2018 NBA MVP. His list of superstar accolades is long, but he has come up short in the playoffs.

Harden’s postseason struggles initially began before his time in Houston, when he was still a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Here is a look at how his postseason career has gone.

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How the Los Angeles Lakers have built their NBA Finals lead

LeBron James

Following Jimmy Butler’s 40 point, 11 rebound, 13 assist masterpiece in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat looked poised to truly threaten the Los Angeles Lakers. But in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, Tyler Herro and the rest of the Heat learned there is no standing in the way of the King’s destiny.

By winning Game 4, the Lakers established a stronghold in the series, taking a 3-1 lead — an advantage LeBron James has never squandered before in his extensive playoff history. While the Heat, like seemingly every other basketball team in the world, don’t have an answer for the league’s most potent duo of James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ shooting and rebounding have been vital to their success.

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What is to blame for Clippers’ latest playoff failure

Kawhi Leonard

How does a team that began the season with championship aspirations find themselves listening to Paul George preach about loyalty after a catastrophic second-round defeat? The answer is because that team is the Los Angeles Clippers.

Since the Clippers’ arrival in Los Angeles, they have effectively filled the role of little brother to the iconic Los Angeles Lakers. Following the Clippers’ most recent postseason blunder, the Lakers now possess a prime opportunity to capture their record-tying 17th NBA championship, while their crosstown rivals have still yet to crack the code on advancing to the Western Conference Finals.

After acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers were supposed to finally exorcise the playoff demons that have haunted the franchise. Instead, the duo of All-Stars co-authored arguably the most painful playoff series loss in the franchise’s extensive history of painful playoff losses.

The team has already made a big move by firing Doc Rivers as head coach. Now they will look to maximize their potential next season.

But before the Clippers can move forward and set their sights to next season, they must revisit the events that transpired this year.

When they try to examine what went wrong, they must discover what is to blame. Here is our look at the culprits most at fault for the Clippers’ devastating series loss to the Denver Nuggets.

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How Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder defied all expectations this season

Chris Paul

When the clock struck zero in Game 7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets series, no one was in more agony than Chris Paul. Throughout the series, Paul’s leadership was a constant topic of discussion. The discussions all mirrored a similar sentiment about how impressive Paul’s “comeback season” was and how the Thunder defied the infamous preseason projections that gave them just a 0.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. For the NBA community, pushing the Rockets to a nail-biting Game 7 was reason enough to celebrate for the overperforming Thunder. For Paul, however, there was only agony.

Here we will examine how the Thunder went from a team few expected to succeed this season to one that surpasses nearly all expectations.

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