Sixers assistant coach Lindsey Harding is a ‘rising star’ in the NBA The first black woman to be a full-time NBA scout was recently promoted

Former WNBA star Lindsey Harding is changing the NBA game.

Harding became the first black woman to become a full-time NBA scout when the Philadelphia 76ers hired her before the 2018-19 season. And just before the NBA playoffs began, the former Duke star became the Sixers’ first female assistant coach when she was promoted to player development coach.

Harding joins Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks), Natalie Nakase (Los Angeles Clippers), Kristi Toliver (Washington Wizards) and Karen Stack Umlauf (Chicago Bulls) as the only women currently serving as assistant coaches in the NBA. Nancy Lieberman was also an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings.

“Becky gets hired and I said, ‘You know what? It could happen,’ ” Harding told The Undefeated. “I wouldn’t say that made me sure that I wanted to kind of get into it. But it let me know that it’s there, it’s open.

Harding’s basketball résumé speaks for itself.

Duke retired Harding’s No. 10 jersey after she finished her college career with 1,298 points, 579 assists, 296 steals and 565 rebounds in a school-record 128 games. The 5-foot-8 guard was only the sixth player in ACC history to register 1,000 points, 500 assists, 500 rebounds and 250 steals. In 2007, she was named the Naismith College Player of the Year and was the No. 1 overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA draft.

Lindsey Harding (center), formerly a player for the Phoenix Mercury, shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm on Sept. 15, 2016, at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Harding averaged 9.8 points and 4.0 assists in nine seasons with Minnesota, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix. She also played professionally in Lithuania, Turkey, Russia and Cyprus.

Before the 2014-15 NBA season, Harding accepted an invite to sit in on coaches’ meetings with the Toronto Raptors during training camp. Then-Raptors coach Dwane Casey said he expected Harding to become a head coach in the NBA one day.

After retiring in 2017, the Houston native served as an assistant coach with the Raptors’ summer league team. She spent a year in the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associate Program before fielding several job offers in the league. She chose to work with the Sixers.

“Her love of the game shines through in everything she does, and I think that has a positive impact on everyone she comes across,” said Sixers general manager Elton Brand. “She’s a rising star in this industry.”

Harding talked about her NBA career with The Undefeated in the following Q&A.


Why did you retire from playing basketball in 2017?

The process it takes to be great, all the hard work on the floor to be part of the women’s game, living in one city playing in the WNBA and then living in another country for seven months, and doing that over and over again, I was just tired of that stuff. Games? I love the game. I miss the games. That’s fun. But everything else around it, I don’t miss. And I think that was kind of easy for me [to retire].

Physically, I feel good. I’m happy. There are some people that look like they played a couple years too long. And I was happy that my knees are good. I didn’t retire because of injury. I got to choose.

Philadelphia 76ers player development coach Lindsey Harding (left) talks things over with Haywood Highsmith (right) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on April 10 in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Chris Szagola

What has your experience been like since joining the Sixers? Has everyone been welcoming?

No one has been unwelcoming. But there have been situations where you can talk to certain people that may want to downplay your accomplishments because it might not have been in the NBA — not to mention that these people might not have played either in the NBA. It’s a very competitive industry to be in, whether on the court or off. I ran into things like that.

Something as simple as me saying to certain people, ‘Oh, you know, I’d love to be in the office or possibly run a team someday, go in that direction.’ ‘Oh, a WNBA team. That’s great. I love the WNBA.’ But I want people to think differently. I don’t say bigger or smaller. I say, ‘Think differently.’ … You understand the game, you can learn just like everyone else. You have value. You have experience. Why not?

Is it humbling to know you were the first black woman to be an NBA scout?

I was at the African American museum for the first time in D.C. last year and they were talking about sports, and talking about the first woman this and that, and the WNBA and everything. I remember looking, I was like, ‘Can I get a picture of you?’ I was there by myself and said that to myself. …

When I got the scouting job … my mom was telling me, ‘Why isn’t [the media] talking about this? Why aren’t they saying you’re the first black woman to do this?’ I don’t know. …

There was an usher in Philly who looked at my credential and said, ‘You’re a scout for us?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘You’re the first black woman scout?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he got so excited.

While these doors in the NBA have been opening for women, why do you think there haven’t been many black women given this opportunity?

I don’t know. For one, I think now people are realizing this could be a path. Because if you don’t know, you then may not pursue it.

So a lot of people have actually called me and reached out: ‘Can you tell me about this?’ ‘What do you think?’ And I have players now that are black women who have called me about [the NBA Basketball Operations Associate Program] expressing interest and know that it is there.

Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Lindsey Harding views warm-ups before a home game against the Chicago Bulls at Wells Fargo Center.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

What did you learn from being a scout?

I’ve seen so many games and learned the players. I have an idea about most of the players, if not all, in the league. So when players and when coaches are talking about certain players, there’s quite a few of them that I’ve written reports on, so I have a really good idea of who they are and what they do. That was a big reason why I wanted to scout, too, is to learn the league.

Have you encountered any sexism or harassment?

People know why I am there. They know what I have done. They all respect that, especially because most of them really haven’t had that experience. So that is great, but some people still see you as a woman first. And it could be at times an ego thing or it could be a woman [thing] … there could be some comments.

I play it forward. I can joke with the best of them. If we’re joking, I have no problem. But if they’re pointed toward me, that is when it might not be fully professional. But as a whole, it has been fun. That line might have been [crossed] a little bit. But I am the type of person, I handle myself, let them know certain things, and it has been great, especially in this climate.

There are things that women, not just in this job but in society, have to deal with. Unfortunately. You just hope that over time it changes.

Is basketball the same to you no matter the league?

A lot of basketball you have, especially from my position, being a point guard, you have certain feels, you make certain adjustments. I learned the basics. Because I’m 5-8 on a good day, I have to have the correct form to shoot, use both hands to finish, use the right angle to pass to the post. You do a lot of the little things that these guys get away with because they’re bigger and stronger. We talk about the little things, what I can see, what I can teach and what I can do. It’s a lot of the little things that I have had to perfect to be good because I don’t have the physical attributes.

How did you go from being a scout to an assistant coach right before the playoffs?

A few people talked to me about it, but I didn’t know. I was unsure for a while of when they were going to look to hire. The moment I showed interest and everything, there was an offer out there. I know it’s probably an unusual time to go with playoffs, but it just kind of moved quickly. I was like, ‘Sure, absolutely.’ This would be great, and they just give me like, ‘One, two, three, done.’

What made you comfortable making the transition at this time of the season?

What is that quote? It’s like, ‘If you’re doing something comfortable, it’s not worth doing.’ It took me a couple of months to get comfortable with scouting until I finally learned the ropes, knew what I was doing. It’s tough in this time because you’re still getting to know people. But it’s playoff time, so you don’t want to mess up routines, you don’t want to interrupt any of that stuff. You just want to, at this time, all hands on deck, helping out with anything that needs to be done right now.

Of all the positive comments you’ve received this season, what has meant the most to you?

One of the biggest things that got me was words from a player now at Duke. She is a black girl. She was talking to me about she wanted to stay in basketball when she finished playing and graduated. She wanted to do men’s basketball. She wanted to get into coaching.

Listening to her talk was amazing because she sees it as an option. Even when I was in college, I didn’t even think I could … so my mind didn’t even go there as far as working on the NBA side in this way.

San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon (center) talks with guard Patty Mills (left) next to head coach Gregg Popovich (right) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 7 in Detroit.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Obviously, Becky Hammon is doing it, and Jenny Boucek’s doing it, Kristi Toliver. It was just another thing that hit me because I’m a Duke alum, I’ve spent some time there, and she was like, ‘Hey, you’re doing it. This is what I want to see for my future.’ That’s pretty special to where now kids like her, she’s in school, and she’s like, ‘You know what? I want to focus on this and do this.’

What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to follow in your footsteps?

One, this job is kind of like any job. Relationships are very important. Making sure you meet and know the right people, it’s very difficult, especially after my years of playing, to be around NBA organizations and staff long enough to develop relationships.

Obviously, it is much easier for the men who play because they’re with their coaches every day, or their GMs and everything. So that’s one barrier that makes it a little tougher. So it’s going to different events and making these contacts, and knowing that it may take years and years, and at that time you have to prepare yourself. How I prepared myself was my years of playing.

How excited are you for the Sixers in the playoffs?

I am super excited for the playoffs. I think we’ve done well this season. We have a great group of guys that this organization put together, and I know that everybody is excited and ready. So, yeah, I’m new to this side, so I’m still learning day by day. But this is something really exciting to be about.

Can you envision women playing in the NBA one day?

Why not? There are some great players in the league now. From what I’m watching … I am going to throw a name out there everyone knows. Diana Taurasi is one of the best players to ever play the game. She shoots better than the majority of people I have ever seen shoot the ball, men or women. She has respect from pretty much anyone.

I would love to see her try. I am not saying she will lock people up on defense. But the way she moves, shoots, and how smart she is, she’ll get to the free throw line.

People will joke at me and laugh about it. But why not? If we put a boundary on something, then why would it happen? I am a person that thinks outside the box.

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With Manchester City Out, The New Champions League Favorite Is …

Eight days ago, the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index (SPI) gave Manchester City the best chance to win the Champions League. On Wednesday, Manchester City crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion, conceding three goals at home to Premier League rival Tottenham Hotspur. The series finished 4-4 on aggregate, but Spurs get to play on because of the competition’s away-goals rule. Remember all that talk about City winning the historic quadruple? That’s all over now.

Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues got off to a quick start, grabbing the lead via a strike from Raheem Sterling in the game’s fourth minute. Sterling’s goal canceled out Tottenham’s 1-0 aggregate lead, and the tilt was on. But it wasn’t long before Son Heung-min struck to give the lead back to Spurs, and it wasn’t long before he struck again. At that point it looked like City was doomed, but then they stormed back, scoring twice to tilt things back in their favor. Spurs were not done, however, and got the series-winning goal from unlikely hero Fernando Llorente in the 73rd minute. They still had to survive some end-of-the-game drama: City scored what appeared to be the winning goal, but VAR ruled that forward Sergio Aguero was offside in the buildup, and Tottenham was on to the semifinals to face Ajax.It’s also worth noting that fellow WNBA star Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx has said she plans to sit out this upcoming season to focus on ministry work.

‘>1 At 26-8 last season, the Storm finished with the league’s best record and went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in three games for the championship — with Stewart a catalyst of both efforts.

The former UConn star made her presence felt on offense (she led the league in total points and offensive win shares and ranked as the most-efficient offensive player in the league on a per-possession basis, per Synergy Sports) and on defense (second in defensive win shares). Her game had expanded considerably in her third year, in which she streamlined her shot profile and became a more prolific 3-point shooter while also developing into one of the WNBA’s three most-efficient offensive players in the post. (Star scorer Liz Cambage and Griner are the others, according to data from Synergy Sports.)2

There’s almost certainly no way the Storm can replace Stewart’s all-around impact — something that few players in the world, if any, can make on a night-to-night basis. She was averaging almost 22 points (shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc) and eight rebounds while collecting more than two assists, one block and one steal per game. But the Storm does still have a talented roster without Stewart.

Even at 38, as the WNBA’s oldest player, point guard Sue Bird has shown that she may have plenty left in the tank. In 2018, she logged career-best marks in virtually all her shooting metrics, while also assisting at the best rate she ever has. Fellow guard Jewell Loyd, a former No. 1 overall pick, is more aggressive and finished second on the team in scoring, with almost 16 points per game. She attacks the basket regularly and gets frequent trips to the line as a result. Natasha Howard was far and away the team’s best offensive rebounder — a skill that, without Stewart’s stellar shooting, will become even more important.

Yet the team’s best bet offensively without Stewart may be to use more of an up-tempo style. The Storm were the WNBA’s most efficient team in transition last season, with players like Loyd and Jordin Canada in particular excelling when they played with improved pace. Playing faster might be a bit tough at times on the aging Bird. But the alternative — playing more slowly and being more deliberate about finding shot attempts — may not work all that well. Seattle was solid when the shot clock ticked under the four-second mark last year (ranking second in efficiency when that was the case, per Synergy). But Stewart was a primary reason for that, scoring on 43 percent of her plays that went late into the clock.3

Assuming that the Storm take a considerable step back, the door figures to open for the semifinalist Phoenix Mercury — led by Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Griner — to win their first title since 2014, when they set a record for wins in a season.

Last season, Phoenix pushed Seattle to a fifth and deciding game for the right to play in the WNBA Finals, even entering the fourth quarter with the lead, despite being on the road in front of a raucous Storm crowd. It took arguably the best showing of Bird’s life in that last period to eliminate the Mercury.

But now, without a superstar like Stewart, several Herculean efforts from a number of her teammates may be necessary to get Seattle anywhere close to the promised land again this year.


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Which NBA Playoff Teams Have The Most Star Power?

The NBA playoffs can sometimes come down to key role players knocking down clutch shots in important moments. But mostly, it’s all about the stars. The league revolves around its top players more than any other sport, and those players usually determine where the championship resides each season.

So which playoff team has the most star power? One way to measure this is to break players into tiers based on their performance metrics. A few years back, my boss Nate Silver devised a system called “star points,” which awarded teams a score based on how many stars it had on its roster. Players in the top tier of stars (“Alphas”) are worth 3 points apiece, those in the next (“Betas”) are worth 2, and the lower tier (“Gammas”) are 1 apiece. Teams generally need at least 5 of these star points in total to begin thinking about a title run, and 7 star points is where a championship roster really begins to take form.

Perhaps surprisingly, there aren’t any teams with 7 or more star points this season. The Golden State Warriors would have had 8 if DeMarcus Cousins hadn’t been injured Monday night, but Cousins is out indefinitely with a torn quadriceps and may miss the rest of the playoffs. That drops the Warriors into the co-lead with 6 star points, alongside Toronto. And that could mean a more wide-open postseason than we’ve been used to, in which role players might take on an even greater degree of importance.

To calculate star points this season, I turned to the constantly updating player talent ratings from our CARMELO projection-system depth charts. (In the previous iteration of star points, Nate used an amalgam of various advanced metrics, but that was before our player ratings updated in-season.) After resetting the cutoffs for each tier to maintain a similar number of players of each type,1 I found that the NBA has six current Alphas (four of whom are active in the playoffs), 13 Betas (12 of whom are in the playoffs, but one of those — Cousins — is injured) and 17 Gammas (13 whose teams are in the playoffs, with two injured).

The NBA’s championship-caliber players, 2019 edition

2019 NBA player tiers based on CARMELO-projected plus/minus talent

ALPHAS BETAS GAMMAS
PLAYER TEAM +/- PLAYER TEAM +/- PLAYER TEAM +/-
Harden HOU +8.0 Westbrook OKC +5.3 Leonard TOR +3.7
Antetokounmpo MIL +6.9 George OKC +5.2 Horford BOS +3.4
Jokic DEN +6.8 Gobert UTA +5.1 Green GS +3.3
Curry GS +6.6 Paul HOU +4.9 Nurkic* POR +3.3
James LAL +6.3 Towns MIN +4.9 Holiday NO +3.2
Davis NO +5.8 Lillard POR +4.7 Simmons PHI +3.1
Durant GS +4.6 Oladipo* IND +3.1
Vucevic ORL +4.5 Siakam TOR +3.0
Embiid PHI +4.4 Griffin DET +2.9
Irving BOS +4.1 Walker CHA +2.8
Cousins* GS +4.1 Bledsoe MIL +2.8
Butler PHI +4.0 Millsap DEN +2.8
Lowry TOR +4.0 Green TOR +2.8
Covington MIN +2.7
Drummond DET +2.7
Conley MEM +2.6
Gasol TOR +2.5

* Out indefinitely with injury

Players in italics are on teams that missed the playoffs.

Sources: ESPN, Basketball-Reference.com

In an unusual twist, two of this season’s Alphas — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — actually missed the playoffs. (Their intertwined soap opera is worth its own set of charts.) But among the postseason’s remaining star power, there are some interesting mixes of player tiers on the top teams.

The Warriors might be a surprise with only one Alpha (Stephen Curry), one Beta (Kevin Durant) and one Gamma (Draymond Green). Durant didn’t quite qualify for Alpha status, in part because he ranked only ninth in Real Plus-Minus (and 18th in Box Plus/Minus) this season. Meanwhile, Green was downgraded to a Gamma because of a weak offensive season,2 Klay Thompson barely broke even in projected plus/minus talent (+0.1), and Cousins now appears to be lost for at least most of the playoffs. The usual caveats about the Warriors’ sometimes lax regular-season efforts apply, but based on performance metrics, this team’s name recognition might outpace its actual star power at this point.

And yet, only the Raptors match the Warriors in that regard among postseason teams. They also did it in a very different way: Unlike Golden State, Toronto boasts no Alphas, but it does have one Beta (Kyle Lowry) and four Gammas (Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green and Marc Gasol). Wait … Lowry is a Beta and Leonard is only a Gamma? The difference between the two (+4.0 vs. +3.7) is so slim as to be splitting hairs, but Leonard had a surprisingly down year in RPM, ranking just 37th in the league, while Lowry ranked 20th. The broader point, however, is that Toronto has assembled an unusually deep stable of star talent. The team has long been known for its depth down the roster, but a series of moves helped turn that depth into something slightly different: a collection of quasi-star-level talent at the top of the lineup.

How the playoff teams stack up on star power

Current CARMELO ratings and star points* for 2019 NBA playoff teams

Players By Tier
Team CARMELO Rating Alphas Betas Gammas Star Points
Golden State Warriors 1794 1 1 1 6
Toronto Raptors 1775 0 1 4 6
Houston Rockets 1753 1 1 0 5
Philadelphia 76ers 1673 0 2 1 5
Milwaukee Bucks 1739 1 0 1 4
Oklahoma City Thunder 1673 0 2 0 4
Denver Nuggets 1673 1 0 1 4
Boston Celtics 1641 0 1 1 3
Utah Jazz 1699 0 1 0 2
Portland Trail Blazers 1581 0 1 0 2
Orlando Magic 1534 0 1 0 2
Detroit Pistons 1425 0 0 2 2
San Antonio Spurs 1548 0 0 0 0
Indiana Pacers 1544 0 0 0 0
Los Angeles Clippers 1500 0 0 0 0
Brooklyn Nets 1478 0 0 0 0

* Star points are based on a weighted total of a team’s stars, in which Alphas are worth 3 points, Betas are worth 2, and Gammas are worth 1.

Team totals do not include injured players.

Sources: ESPN, Basketball-Reference.com

The Rockets and Sixers rank just below the Warriors and Raptors in star points with 5 apiece, but where in that group is Milwaukee, the East’s No. 1 seed? The Bucks have perhaps the Alpha of all Alphas this season in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But only one other player around him qualified as a star: Eric Bledsoe is a Gamma, while Brook Lopez barely misses the cutoff. Milwaukee’s overall lack of supporting star power would make it a historical anomaly if it does end up winning the NBA title.

The Utah Jazz, in the midst of a brutal first-round matchup against the Rockets, also has very little star power (one Beta in Rudy Gobert). But they have a bunch of guys who just barely missed Gamma status: Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Ekpe Udoh and Donovan Mitchell all had CARMELO plus/minus ratings under +2.5 but greater than +1.5. If we added an extra category for “Deltas” — worth, say, a half-point per player — the Jazz would leapfrog Boston and be much closer to the top of the heap than the bottom.

Regardless, there’s a reason that star points don’t track perfectly with a team’s CARMELO rating or its championship odds. Depth does matter some, even if the effect is less of a factor as rotations shorten during the postseason. And sometimes teams are simply built with a blueprint that helps them perform better than their star power would suggest (the Bucks are a good test case there as well), while others aren’t quite as good as their multiple stars say they should be (the Sixers could be lumped into that group).

Before they blew a 31-point lead Monday night — and, more importantly, lost Cousins to injury — the Warriors were looking every bit the star-studded machine we thought they’d be all season long. Now, they are still sizable favorites to win it all, but their edge in star power is not quite as decisive as it’s been in recent seasons. We’ll find out soon enough whether that will matter in Golden State’s quest for a third straight championship, or if another team near the top of the rankings above can finally supplant the Warriors and build a star-powered legacy of its own.


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Kyrie is built for Game 7 heroics. But leading the Celtics to a championship is a whole ‘nother skill. After chafing under LeBron, Irving struggles to connect with his teammates in Boston

Kyrie Irving is facing the toughest task of his professional life: learning how to lead.

Scoring around, over and through defenders looks easy for Kyrie. He’s built for Game 7 game-winners. But leadership is based on character. Can Irving connect with, inspire and elevate the Boston Celtics in these playoffs? The answer will set a new narrative for his career.

Irving has always been different. From his love of singing and Broadway show tunes to his infamous flat-Earth rabbit hole, the 27-year-old point guard is not your conventional NBA superstar. But he does fit one cliché: The best players want their own teams.

That’s what the game whispers in the ears of the greats. It’s why Kobe Bryant chased Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles, why James Harden Eurostepped away from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and why Irving left LeBron James in Cleveland.

There’s nothing worse for a hooper than when a player who’s not on your level tries to take control. The best need the ball in their hands to control their own fate — and they deserve to have it. Basketball is the most individualistic of team sports. As Michael Jordan famously responded when Chicago Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter told him there was no “I” in team: “There’s an ‘i’ in win.”

But if the Boston franchise belongs to Irving, what’s that like for the rest of the Celtics?

“When we play with him, it’s more like a show,” said Terry Rozier, the backup point guard with starter talent. “We sit back and watch — watch him go crazy.”

When Irving missed the playoffs last year after season-ending surgery, Rozier stepped up and showed out, helping Boston make a run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.

As Michael Jordan famously responded when Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter told him there was no “i” in team: “There’s an ‘I’ in win.”

But when Irving returned to the court this season, he saw Rozier as competition. Many picked Boston to win the East, but they regressed and finished fourth. Irving had one of the finest individual seasons of his career, but as losses to bottom-tier teams mounted, teammates chafed under his public criticism. Irving blamed the “young guys,” questioned coach Brad Stevens’ strategy, seemed disengaged at times and chewed out Gordon Hayward on the sideline after Hayward didn’t pass him the ball at the end of a close loss. Several Celtics said basketball was no longer fun.

This is the season Irving’s career collided with the idea that the best player is supposed to be the leader of the team.

On the one hand it makes sense: The team wins more games if the best player sets a winning tone on and off the court. How can a player truly be great if he doesn’t want to lead?

However, putting the ball in the basket and leading a team require different skills. One is physical; the other is emotional. And leadership sometimes entails putting the needs of others first, which can run counter to the mentality that made a player great in the first place.

Irving’s difficulties are reminiscent of the struggles that Bryant, one of Irving’s mentors, had early in his career. “Kobe had a tough time. I think his teammates really got down on him. He tried too hard to be a leader,” Winter, who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with head coach Phil Jackson, said in Roland Lazenby’s book Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.

“He didn’t know how to lead the way his teammates wanted to be led. … He just wasn’t sure how to go about it,” former equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas said in Showboat. “He was always in competition with them for being the marquee player, being the leader, and he wanted to be the scorer all the time.”

In December, Irving acknowledged some of his shortcomings in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “I realized I had no idea what I was doing to begin this season, in terms of what we looked like, the plays we’d be calling, my relationship with coach Stevens, my relationship with every guy on this team. It’s going to be unique with each one of them.”

Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (center) talks with forward Marcus Morris (left) after a play against the Indiana Pacers in the second half of a regular-season game March 29 in Boston. The Celtics won, 114-112, that night, but despite being picked by many to top the Eastern Conference standings, they regressed and finished fourth.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m accountable for these guys to play at a certain level every single night and demand that out of them,” Irving said. “If that comes with being in some guys’ faces and making them feel uncomfortable and not being well-received or not well-liked, that’s just what it comes down to. … You can’t be soft or fragile on the way to that championship because guys will be coming after you. So why not challenge our guys during the season to prepare them for that?”

That’s also reminiscent of Jordan, whose teammates took years to consider him their leader. “Michael is a challenging type of guy,” Jackson said in the book The Jordan Rules. “He’s not the type of guy to commiserate or put his arm around someone’s shoulder. He’s going to say, ‘Step up, chump, and make some shots.’ ”

Chumping dudes isn’t wise on a team like the Celtics. Irving’s talk about guys being fragile probably doesn’t go over well with Marcus Morris, who grew up in a North Philadelphia neighborhood where eye contact with the wrong person could get you shot. Jaylen Brown accurately pointed out that when Irving talked about accountability, it did not apply to Irving himself. Then there’s Jayson Tatum, who emerged as a star in last year’s playoffs and must be wondering why Irving would monopolize the ball in Boston after James did the same thing to Irving in Cleveland.

James’ leadership style with the Cavaliers included setting an example with his preparation and organizing off-court bonding activities. During games, James controlled the ball but was a willing passer. In the 2016 Finals, after losing the first two games to Golden State, James told his team in the pregame tunnel huddle: “Follow my lead. Follow my lead from start to finish.” The Cavs won that game, lost the next one to go down 3-1, then took it to Game 7 — where Irving’s 3-point tiebreaker finished Golden State.

Now Irving is in Boston. He has a chance to figure out his problems and lead the Celtics to a championship. Or maybe he’ll try with another team, since he was conspicuously noncommittal about re-signing this offseason, another questionable leadership decision.

Leadership can be learned. Great players are constantly working to improve their games, adding new shots and new counters to beat the defense. They can do the same thing with the intangible skills that elevate teams to a championship level.

That’s what Bryant did. After the Lakers lost in the 2008 Finals, Bryant changed and led the Lakers to two more titles. “The area he has grown the most has been his leadership and his trust of the other players on the team now,” teammate Brian Shaw said in Showboat. “He manned up.”

And Bryant got that message from Jordan, who early in his career regularly insulted his “supporting cast” in the locker room and never advised them about their performance.

Bryant said Jordan told him: “Listen, you have all the individual tools. Now you have to figure out how to connect with each one of those guys and bring the best out of those guys. It’s not about just passing them the ball and saying that’s what makes guys better. That’s not it. You have to figure out how to touch the right buttons to make them want to be the best versions of themselves.”

That only happens when a superstar becomes a leader — when a superstar becomes the best version of himself. These playoffs will show whether the best Irving is yet to come.

Kyrie Irving had one of the finest individual seasons of his career, but as losses to bottom-tier teams mounted, teammates chafed under his public criticism and several said basketball was no longer fun.

Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

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Let’s Overreact To First-Round NBA Playoff Games

 

FiveThirtyEight

 

This week on Hot Takedown, we’re reacting to a series of upsets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Los Angeles Clippers pulled off the biggest comeback in playoff history, but we don’t necessarily think the Warriors should be too worried for the rest of the series. Other upsets included the No. 7 seed Orlando Magic defeating the No. 2 Toronto Raptors; that Game 1 victory had Mike Tuck on “Open Mike” from Orlando’s 96.9 The Game positing that Orlando is underrated in the Eastern Conference. Our basketball guru, Chris Herring, makes a guest appearance to help us break down this claim.

Someone who is openly shaking in his boots this week is golfing great Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods’s victory at the Masters gave him his 15th major, just three behind Nicklaus’s all-time record. Does Tiger have it in him to catch Jack? Or do we expect this to be his last big victory?

Inspired by Tiger’s feat, our Rabbit Hole dives into other statistically improbable comebacks.

Here’s what we’re looking at this week:

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