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March 21, 2011
Trend Watch
Streaking Harden, Williams Effect, Upsets

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending player: James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder

When the Thunder dealt Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline, it created a need for a third scorer to complement Oklahoma City's All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It has been Harden, the Thunder's sixth man and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, who has filled that void. Harden's minutes are up since the deadline (from 25.7 a game to 30.4) and he has improved his scoring average from 10.6 points per game to 17.7. Only one other team has a third scorer who has been so prolific over the course of the season--the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh (18.2 ppg).

Harden's improvement has been twofold. First, in addition to minutes, he's getting most of the extra touches and shot attempts that once went to Green--whose replacement in the lineup, fellow second-year standout Serge Ibaka, is less of a scoring threat. Harden's usage rate has increased from 17.9 percent of the Thunder's plays to 23.5 percent. Even with the increased responsibility, Harden has been accurate from the field. His 63.8 percent mark on two-point attempts has powered a True Shooting Percentage of 62.7 percent, up from 59.2 percent prior to the deadline. Harden won't continue to shoot so accurately inside the arc, but that figures to be somewhat offset by an improvement in his three-point shooting (just 32.8 percent since the deadline, down from 36.7 percent).

After a poor start to the season, Harden came on as a reserve scorer starting in December. Surely, that helped convince Oklahoma City that Green's scoring punch would be more expendable. The Thunder has replaced Green and Krstic with the duo of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, a superior defensive tandem, and relied on Harden to make up the lost offense. That has helped Oklahoma City go 9-4 since the deadline, including six consecutive wins before Sunday's surprising home loss to the Toronto Raptors that came despite Harden's 23 points.

Trending team: New Jersey Nets

Because of a strained right wrist that sidelined him on Sunday, new Nets point guard Deron Williams may see his season end prematurely. Still, in the month Williams has played for New Jersey since being acquired from the Utah Jazz last month, he's offered a glimpse of the positive effect he can have on the Nets' offense. In the seven games Williams has played, New Jersey has scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions--a rate just below league average (108.7). Before adding Williams, the Nets had an offensive rating of just 103.4.

What makes Williams' impact all the more remarkable is how poorly he has shot the ball since the trade. Presumably as a side effect of the injury, Williams is making just 28.6 percent of his threes and 35.3 percent of his twos--far below his usual marks (34.5 percent and 51.1 percent, respectively, while in Utah this season). Yet as a team, the Nets have improved their effective field-goal percentage from 47.2 percent to 48.1 percent with Williams.

The explanation, naturally, is the way Williams has helped his teammates shoot the ball by setting them up in better positions. Center Brook Lopez has enjoyed the biggest benefit. Lopez's field-goal percentage was 47.7 percent before the trade. Alongside Williams, he's shot 53.8 percent. Rookie Damion James, who has established himself as a starter at small forward, is making 58.3 percent of his shots with Williams after playing poorly in the early going. Weighted for each player's shot attempts with Williams, the net effect on his New Jersey teammates has been an improvement from 44.8 percent to 46.6 percent from the field.

At the same time, Williams has helped the Nets cut their turnover rate. They turned the ball over on 13.9 percent of their plays before adding Williams but just 11.8 percent with him, which would be the league's lowest mark for the full season. That performance has to make New Jersey think that a healthy Williams can lead an above-average offense with some reinforcements added over the summer.

League trend: First-round upsets

With the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the books, upsets are on the minds of basketball fans everywhere. Naturally, with seven-game series, the NBA Playoffs are not designed to be as unpredictable. On average, there is about an upset and a half per year among the eight first-round matchups.

The surprising fact is that number has scarcely changed since the league expanded the first round from a best-of-five format to best-of-seven series, starting in 2003. Since then, the team without home-court advantage has won 11 times. (Note that a 12th lower-seeded team, the 2006 Los Angeles Clippers, won with home-court advantage because the Denver Nuggets had such a poor record as a division champion. That series wasn't really an upset.) In the previous eight playoffs, there were 12 first-round upsets.

Where a difference might be evident is in the very closest of first-round series: No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchups. Those were nearly tossups when they were best-of-five games, but the four seeds have dominated them 11-5 since the first round was extended.

Seed   5-gm     7-gm
--------------------
 1      6.3      6.3
 2      6.3      6.3
 3     18.8     25.0
 4     43.8     31.3

Knocking off the top two seeds in the first round has always been difficult, regardless of series length. Surprisingly, second seeds have been just as likely to win as first seeds over the past 16 years. But unlike the NCAA, where No. 16 seeds are still looking to pull the ultimate upset by knocking off the top seed for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 games, the 1994 Denver Nuggets, 1999 New York Knicks (who advanced all the way to the NBA Finals) and 2007 Golden State Warriors give hope to the NBA's underdogs.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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