With another NBA season in the books and the playoffs set to begin tomorrow, it’s time to reflect on some of the takeaways and surprises of the 2016-17 campaign.
#1: The Transformation of James Harden
It was hard for me to not put Russell Westbrook #1, but I just can’t ignore the complete turnaround of Harden. Until this season, he was best known for being a ball hog, flopping and having no defensive effort. His turnaround has to be the biggest shocker of the season.
He’s managed to become an unselfish leader seemingly overnight. With the help of offensive genius and coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden’s assist numbers climbed from 5.7 for his career to 11.2 this season. And, on top of that, he’s scoring 29 points per game, 7 higher than his career mark.
Just how is he doing this? He’s certainly changed his whole approach to the game, but he also has the pieces around him to thrive in General Manager Daryl Morey’s moneyball 2.0 strategy. With a collection of spot up three point shooters and active bigs, Harden has the compliment of reliable long range assassins, spacing and athleticism to compliment his incredibly improved overall game.
With all due respect to D Leaguer and college great Russ Smith, the nickname starts and ends with Westbrook when it comes to professional basketball. This man has been nothing short of amazing this year, averaging a triple double that has made a profound difference on his team winning games and making the playoffs with a pretty lackluster cast. Don’t get me wrong, they have talent, but they badly need a 2nd scorer.
Let’s put this crazy season into perspective. We know that Russ surpassed the Big O with 42 triple doubles, turning in highlight reel performance after highlight reel performance. But, what’s really astounding to me is that he’s averaging about 9 more points per game than his career average, as well as 4.5 more rebounds a game and 2.5 more assists, all while shooting a very similar field goal percentage to his career average. It’d be one thing if he was shooting Kobe Bryant volume every game, but he’s not. And, how about that game winner to beat Denver near the end of the regular season? What a time to be alive!
Sure, Westbrook’s team will almost assuredly lose to Harden and co. in the first round, but there’s not much he can do to make up the talent gap between the teams. He’s had a season for the ages and has gone from bad guy to good guy for many NBA fans, as they marvel at his unmatched motor and skills that have electrified us this season.
#3: The Rise of the Greek Freak
The nickname says it all. Giannis Antetokounmpo can literally do it all, and he’s only 22! He might be the best in-game dunker today, but he does so much more. The man is averaging nearly 23 points per game, along with nearly 9 rebounds and over 5 assists, all way above his career averages. And, he’s led the Bucks to the playoffs.
You may not get to watch much of him and you may not be able spell or pronounce his name, but you better get to know his game because he might be the most explosive player in the game (Watch out Russ!) and one of the best for many years to come.
#4: Erik Spoelstra Can Actually Coach?
Between Pat Riley’s puppet and LeBron’s source for complaints, I never in a million years thought I’d praise the former Heat video intern for his coaching. Yet, I must.
Despite narrowly missing the playoffs, Spoelstra led a team without much talent to a solid season. Watch out for the Heat in the future. Maybe Wade regrets leaving.
#5: The Rise of D’Antoni
After disappointing years in LA and New York, it seemed Mike D’Antoni’s magic from the Suns days were a distant memory never to be seen again.
Then, the transformation of Harden and an offensive explosion ensued, with D’Antoni’s Rockets rising to the 3 seed in the West. Give Westbrook MVP, but this man deserves Coach of the Year!
There you have it! Another season of rising stars, surprises and epic records set. Enjoy the playoffs.