TrueHoop: Russell Westbrook

Let Westbrook be Westbrook?

May, 6, 2014
May 6
11:51
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Amin Elhassan debate which point guards they'd take over Russell Westbrook in a playoff series, and whether Russ would be better off on another team.

A ThunderWorld without Westbrook

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
9:44
AM ET
Young By Royce Young
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Russell WestbrookAP Photo/Sue OgrockiA knee injury has downed Russell Westbrook for the third time in eight months. Is it all OK in OKC?
There was a familiar tone of defiance in Russell Westbrook's voice as he said it.

"Never," he answered Sunday when asked if he had any doubts he'd be the same after a third surgical procedure in eight months. "Never a doubt."

Westbrook's unwavering confidence isn't shocking. He's Russell Westbrook, the man who fires from 18 feet with 20 seconds on the shot clock and never thinks twice about it. But his inner confidence doesn't ease any of the growing concerns emanating across Oklahoma City.

The Thunder’s superstar point guard, their heart and soul, their emotional leader, has now had the same knee operated on three times since Patrick Beverley crashed into him last April, causing a torn meniscus in his right knee that threatened to sap the explosiveness that allows his game to thrive. Westbrook plays with an uncaged fury, but it works only because he's such a freakish athlete, because his body makes it so.

When Westbrook returned from arthroscopic surgery in November four weeks ahead of schedule, he was pain-free and didn't need long to look like his old self. The Thunder ripped off 20 wins in 22 games, capped by Westbrook's Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

Then the bad news came: another scope on Westbrook’s knee because of swelling, another multiple-week absence.

The anxiety and fear absent on Christmas as Westbrook carved up the Knicks crept back into focus. "The team will manage the situation" -- that's how Thunder general manager Sam Presti described the situation over and over, yet there's no denying the future is murky again. The cryptic description of the injury -- from a loose stitch the first time to something being called “the area of concern” this time -- makes it impossible not to fret.

During his availability on Sunday, Westbrook was peppered with a lot of specific questions about the procedure. When it was over, he stood up and said, “It’s not really any of y'all's business, anyway.”

That’s just the Thunder to their core. We all exist on a need-to-know basis, and the organization’s tight-lipped approach in some ways leads you to believe it knows what it’s doing. But the reticence also increases the worry. I had a friend and OKC resident recently phrase it to me like this: “Royce, why do the Thunder keep lying to my face?” After all, three procedures in less than a year doesn’t exactly ease concerns. First it was the loose stitch, now it’s persistent swelling. Was the original surgery botched? Is there something wrong with Westbrook’s knee we don’t know about?

The Thunder are as prudent as any team when it comes to the long-term health of their players, so it's not hard to decode the current mindset and give them the benefit of the doubt. A healthy Westbrook in April is of far greater value than his playing through uncomfortable swelling in January. The question is: Will the Thunder have a healthy Westbrook in April?

Westbrook's value on the floor can't be undersold. Before "the player that crashed into him" -- which is what Presti called Beverley in a recent teleconference -- put Westbrook out, some wondered if Westbrook held his team back. They nitpicked box scores, fixating on stats like Durant's shot attempts versus Westbrook's. They wondered if Durant needed a more "pure" point guard alongside him, whatever that means. But when the Thunder struggled without Westbrook in the playoffs, that talk disappeared rather listlessly.

When asked last postseason what he'd learned about his team after playing without Westbrook, Durant had a simple answer.

"That we need him," he said. "That we miss him."

Every team wants to preach a "next man up" mentality, but that's a difficult proposition when the first man is Westbrook. Reggie Jackson has filled the spot admirably, but for a team so driven by Westbrook, that's like asking for Coke and hearing, "Is Pepsi OK?" Besides, the shift has taken the super-sub away from the role in which he'd become so comfortable.

In a certain sense, Durant is the next man -- then the next, and the next -- but the Thunder's philosophy has never been to assign a burden that heavy on a single player. Durant tried to carry that load in the postseason against the Grizzlies and learned from it. He's been spectacular in the seven recent games without his All-Star buddy -- 35.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists. In two of the seven games, Durant has attempted more than 30 shots, something he’d done only four times previously in his career. What so many wanted from Durant, to see him unhinged without a shoot-first point guard supposedly holding him back, we’re seeing.
[+] EnlargeOklahoma City Thunder
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCan the Thunder cope with the loss of Westbrook?

The Thunder, though, are 4-3 during that time.

Durant’s talent is interplanetary, but he needs help. And if he can get it, the Thunder may be better for it in the long run. Amid cries for additional help last summer, Presti and his staff remained disciplined, sticking to their core principles of building a roster from within and giving an opportunity to talented youth like Jeremy Lamb, Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams. The Thunder, now 27-8 and in second place in the Western Conference, are deeper than they've ever been, and far stronger than the team that limped out of the second round of the postseason in five games to Memphis. Durant is better, and so is his supporting cast.

Still, while there may always be some debate over what Westbrook does on the court, the Thunder are better with him healthy. They miss him.

They never had to for the first five years of his career. Westbrook was the unbreakable man, the player who had never missed a game since high school, the guy who treated ankle sprains and hip contusions like a runny nose.

Now, he’s being associated with the likes of Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Derrick Rose -- the What Could’ve Been All-Stars. But what’s so confusing is that Westbrook's performance on the floor belies the complications off it. One day he’s dropping a triple-double at the Garden. The next he’s on the operating table.

So you have to wonder, are we going to be asking what could have been not just with Westbrook, but with the Thunder too? With Westbrook, they’re a bulldozer that throttles through the league with a historic margin of victory. Without him, they’re a team eliminated in the playoffs by a No. 5 seed and dispatched on Tuesday by the 12-25 Utah Jazz.

Westbrook may be fine. He may return in a few weeks and put all these fears to rest. But even after that, Thunder fans will remain on a knife's edge wondering when that next press release will announce another procedure for their point guard. And the questions will start again.

The March classic we never saw coming

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
10:40
AM ET
By Benjamin Polk
Special to ESPN.com
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Kevin DurantGarrett W. Ellwood/Getty ImagesWith buzzer-beaters and frantic action, one mid-March regular-season game became a classic.
Most regular-season NBA games share a certain weekday rhythm. First quarter proceeds to fourth, runs are exchanged, the game winds down. You wake up in the morning and go to work. You tell a few jokes, come home and go to sleep.

But sometimes this rhythm is disrupted. Sometimes a game ruptures our expectations, startles us out of our patterns of habit. Sometimes the everyday turns transcendent.

On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves slouched into Oklahoma City to play the Thunder. Both teams were wobbly with fatigue, the result of the grueling, lockout-compressed schedule. The Thunder were cruising to the top seed in the Western Conference while the Wolves were shredded by injuries -- Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley were all on the shelf -- and mired in another wrecked season.

We thought we knew what was coming. Kevin Love would grab some rebounds. Kevin Durant would score a bunch of points. The Thunder would roll the Wolves in routine fashion and we would all say goodnight, see you again tomorrow. The season would grind on.

Instead, what we got was a minor classic, a wildly exciting two-overtime 149-140 Thunder victory. Love scored 51 points. Durant went for 40 and 17 rebounds. Russell Westbrook dropped a career-high 45. J.J. Barea notched his first triple-double. The game had manic offense, frayed D, impossible plays, incredible performances, desperate comebacks. Westbrook and Barea relentlessly shredded defenders. KD and Love traded buzzer-beating 3-pointers like new-school editions of 'Nique and Larry.

“It was a crazy game, it was crazy,” Durant says. “We almost gave up 200 points that game!”
[+] EnlargeKevin Love
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsKevin Love matched an important late 3-pointer from Kevin Durant with one of his seven own treys.

“It was mayhem,” Love says. “It was just nuts.”

By the end, despite the humble circumstances, the game somehow felt consequential. “I replay it in my mind a lot,” Durant says. “It was one of those games that you’re going to think down the line and be proud that you were a part of.”

The game wasn’t played at near-perfection levels like last season’s NBA Finals; it was much weirder and woollier, filled with absurd bounces and fatigue-addled mistakes. But it shared with those Finals a sense of crazy, righteous desperation. And those very imperfections made it feel more beautifully unhinged and thrilling, as if the fundamental facts of everyday life -- the blemishes and mistakes, the banalities and small absurdities -- had become transfigured. The game had no impact on the standings and didn’t so much as blemish the playoff picture. By our normal calculus it meant almost nothing. And yet it felt as if something truly meaningful were at stake.

“The crowd gets into it and gets energized,” says Love when asked to describe the game’s energy. “In something like that it’s fight-or-flight. You really have to pick up your intensity to a whole new level. You know the other team’s really going at you and giving us their toughest blows and you’re trying to put that sledgehammer on them too.”

So what was the moment that transported this game to that new level? Was it Barea -- displaying all of the desperation, skill and absurd bravado that make him the maddening, fascinating player that he is -- converting an offensive rebound and diving layup to tie the game at 113-113 with 27.3 seconds remaining and cap the Wolves’ late comeback?

Was it Durant’s answer on the ensuing possession, the gorgeous crossover and step-back 3 that had Anthony Tolliver skittering on his heels? Or Love’s cold-blooded, heavily defended, buzzer-beating, game-tying reply seconds later, his seventh 3 of the game? (“He said ‘In your face,’” said Westbrook, who was guarding Love on that shot. “He kept pointing like ‘In your face, in your face.’”)

Was it KD’s corner 3 at the end of the first overtime that tied the game at 129-129 and capped a five-point, 46-second comeback? Or his in-out dribble and deep-leaning baseline fadeaway that put the game away in the second overtime?

Or maybe it was one of those strange plays that give a game like this its rough texture and life? Like, in the second overtime with the Wolves trailing by three, when Tolliver gathered an offensive board, found himself wide open at the doorstep of the basket, poised to cut the lead to one … and blew the layup. Almost instantaneously, Westbrook was streaking in the other direction for an electric coast-to-coast finish that put OKC up by five. It was a devastating -- and devastatingly quick -- swing that stunned the Wolves and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

So which was it?
[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsRussell Westbrook surged late, scoring a career-high 45 points.

Says Durant: “Really, when Kevin Love hit that shot to take it into overtime. After that it was like, man, whatever comes through this game, I’m not surprised.”

Says Love: “We were down by like 10, and people watching might have thought it was over. But then we made a run back at them at the end and started inching our way back. And when I hit that shot on Russell to head it into the first overtime, I thought, ‘this is a wild game.’”

But by the time Love hit that shot, the game’s intensity had already escalated; the Wolves had already capped their improbable comeback with Barea’s offensive rebound and drive to the rim. Love himself acknowledges that his shot was not just remarkable in and of itself, but as the culmination of an unfolding process.

Even more telling is Barea’s answer. When asked which moment defined the game’s new intensity, he did not hesitate: “Oh, when we hit a shot to win the game and they tied it to go to overtime.”

Which sounds perfectly reasonable, except that what he describes never actually occurred.

Without a doubt, the individual moments are memorable in and of themselves. But they carry special significance in our minds because of the context of intensity and thrill from which they emerged. Ray Allen’s Game 6 buzzer-beater is already legendary not simply because it was a great shot at a hugely important time, but also because it signaled the incredible competitive fervor of the entire series. Love’s 3 is memorable not just because he nailed a deep, heavily contested shot as time expired, but because it embodied and distilled everything that came before and after: the incredible shots and feverish rebounding battles; the appalling turnovers, the blown layups.

Some spectacular plays -- a Blake Griffin dunk, a Kyrie Irving crossover -- come out of nowhere. But most truly great moments feel impoverished as disembodied highlights. They are culminations; when we watch them we realize that something incredible has already begun to happen. They are instances of a phenomenon already in progress, of a game already overflowing.

10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
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"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

The changing mood in ThunderWorld

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
12:14
PM ET
Young By Royce Young
Special to ESPN.com
Archive


When the franchise formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, they brought with them a terrible basketball team. The Sonics were 20-62 in their final season, in the basement of the Western Conference, and a combined 66-98 in the two seasons prior. But what they did have was promise. At least that was the pitch to the new, unassuming fan base. Hang in there, bear with us and maybe by 2013 or 2014, this team could be kind of not terrible.

But the Thunder's first four seasons were much more than that: a combined winning percentage of .679, four playoff berths, three division titles, two trips to the Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals appearance.

With that immediate, almost overwhelming success, the team established a unique brand power and fostered an incredible culture in Oklahoma. After taking the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers to six games in their first playoff series in 2010, the state was in love. No longer merely a novelty or a seasonal distraction from college football, the Thunder were something you could really embrace.

But with success comes expectation. And with expectation its ugly cousin, entitlement. Pretty soon, "We're just happy to be here" becomes, "We want to win now." And it isn’t just the fans -- the national media has started asking pointed questions, too. And when real-life results have fallen short of expectations, the Thunder love has cooled.

After a freak injury to Russell Westbrook derailed their once-promising 2012-13 season, the Thunder’s perception has drastically changed. General manager Sam Presti is no longer the boy genius. The "Thunder Model" no longer looks like such a sure thing. The Thunder once seemed infallible, the team all other teams should try to emulate. But that’s clearly no longer the case.

On Sunday night, from Haralabos Voulgaris: "Really hope KD bolts OKC when he can, OKC ownership definitely doesn’t deserve him." ESPN.com's Marc Stein retweeted Voulgaris, tacking on, "Flammable one, but getting harder to argue." Recently on “NBA Countdown,” Bill Simmons called the Thunder a "mom-and-pop organization." For Oklahomans, who obsess over the national perspective of the team, these kinds of statements cut deep.

Identifying the origin of this new perspective on the Thunder really isn't hard -- Oct. 28, 2012, the night they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder offered Harden, then a year away from restricted free agency, a significant extension, one that would've made him the highest paid sixth man in NBA history, but he rightfully wanted a bigger role and more money. It’s a decision that hasn’t worked out too badly for him, either.

When Harden departed for Houston, Oklahoma City lost more than his significant production. He also took the team’s innocence. After four years of riding the good times to the top of the standings, the trade was the official "welcome to professional sports" moment for a new fan base, and its fallout is still rippling down the Oklahoma prairie. People still aren't over it, and they may never be. Something was taken from them -- not necessarily Harden, but the chance to really see what that Thunder team could do.

But with success comes expectation. And with expectation its ugly cousin, entitlement. Pretty soon, 'We're just happy to be here' becomes, 'We want to win now.'


Outside the arena before Sunday’s game against the Suns, a fan approached me -- we do casual encounters with strangers in Oklahoma City. After exchanging introductions, the first thing he said was, "I think I'm ready to hit the panic button."

The Thunder were 1-1.

But let’s take a broader perspective. Here's the current state of the Thunder: With Westbrook back -- and not just back, but back -- they have a roster that won 60 games last season, finished atop the Western Conference, logged a near-historic margin of victory, finished in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency and features the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James. The only significant subtraction was Kevin Martin, who was quietly effective in his lone season with the team after coming over in the Harden deal. And if losing the reigning sixth man of the year didn’t slow the Thunder down, will losing this sixth man really do it?

The clock on when they will reach such lofty expectations appears to be ticking, though. After bowing out in the second round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, fearing the repeater tax, chose to invest in the development of their young talent rather than spend in free agency. The approach was an affront to those hoping for a splashy move that signaled they were really taking advantage of their championship window, and for some, it officially began the countdown to Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2016.

The Thunder are guaranteed three more seasons with Durant, and four with Westbrook. The fear of either leaving for another city is unspoken, but real. Oklahomans don't want to admit it, but the whole state suffers from a "little man's complex." For one of their cherished stars to leave on his own choosing would be the most traumatizing event since Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. That anxiety brought on by the future unknown has taken Presti's process and placed a spotlight squarely on the present.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The Thunder have avoided the luxury tax, but that has less to do with the current finances and more about the future bottom line. They aren't philosophically opposed to paying the tax -- OKC was willing to dip about $9 million into it with its final offer to Harden -- but they are fearful of the repeater tax. And with three seasons guaranteed left with Durant, having the house in order for the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016 was more important than breaking over the tax threshold this season for a player like Dorell Wright or J.J. Redick.

Still, fans are fickle, especially once they get a taste of winning. Four years ago, everyone in OKC could recite Presti's talking points -- process, sustainability, development, patience. Now, those same fans have dropped the message and are now saying things like "title or bust."

The process Presti preached has been accelerated, but the goal remains -- a championship-level team in a small market. That's the overlooked part of Presti's sustainability propaganda. The idea with that isn't to just be a decent team for the next 10 years. It's to win 10 straight championships. And if you're going to do that, you have to have 10 outstanding teams. It's simple probabilities: The more bullets you have in your gun, the more opportunities there are to hit your target. The Westbrook injury resuscitated the anxiety over the Harden trade, but it should've reshaped things the other way. Certain events aren’t predictable. And if your plan is to "go for it" for one season or two, you're a torn meniscus away from it all falling apart, and more devastatingly, you might have to spend the next six or seven seasons trying to dig out of that short-term decision.

So as expectations in Oklahoma City grow larger, the collective patience is stretching thin. The taste of winning and visions of raising a banner have clouded everyone’s vision and acceptance of the original plan. But their ascendancy was always probably a little misleading, or at least misunderstood. This has always been a process and one that really, still remains right on track.

Thunder could suffer from Westbrook injury

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
5:10
PM ET
By Jose De Leon, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKnee surgery will cause Russell Westbrook to miss the first 4-6 weeks of this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Tuesday that will force him to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the NBA season.

Westbrook had surgery in May to repair cartilage in the same knee after he was hurt in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first round playoff series with the Houston Rockets. Prior to this, Westbrook had never missed a game in his five NBA seasons.

Westbrook's durability allowed him to put up some very impressive statistics in his first five NBA seasons.

He's one of just six players to put up at least 7,500 points and 2,500 assists in his first five seasons.

His injury could also have a negative effect on the Thunder early in the season. Only four players had more Win Shares than Westbrook’s 11.6 last season – LeBron James (19.3), Kevin Durant (18.9), Chris Paul (13.9) and James Harden (12.8).

Using advanced offensive and defensive stats, Win Shares estimates the number of wins a player had for his team.

When Westbrook went down in the playoffs, both sides of the ball took a hit. The Thunder averaged 18 fewer points per game largely in part to a much slower pace (they averaged eight more possessions per game with him in the lineup).

With Westbrook out, Durant was featured much more in the nine postseason games, particularly in the second half.

Durant’s usage percentage after halftime in the first two games against Houston was 27 percent (Westbrook was at 37 percent). Usage percentage is the percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the floor.

In the Thunder’s nine postseason games without Westbrook (beginning on April 27), Durant’s usage percentage jumped to 34 percent, second highest among all players who played at least five games in the postseason (Carmelo Anthony was first at 37 percent).

Economists vs. tanking: David Berri

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
2:09
PM ET
By David Berri
ESPN.com
Archive
NBA Draft board
Mike Stobe/NBAE/Getty Images
The NBA Draft might be the single most influential reason we see teams tank. Should we get rid of it?

There are essentially three ways a team can acquire the productive talent it needs to contend for a title:

The Heat approach: Acquire productive veterans
This approach has also recently been used by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The problem is that the NBA has a maximum salary. This means that teams cannot use higher wages to attract better talent. Instead, productive veterans are now considering whether or not your team is likely to win. In other words, the Miami Heat approach seems to require that you already have stars to attract more stars.

In addition, teams have to know which veterans to acquire. The New York Knicks have tried to build with veterans for years. But in most recent seasons, the Knicks have failed because they tend to acquire relatively unproductive veterans (primarily because the Knicks focus too much attention on per game scoring).

The Spurs approach: Acquire productive players in the latter part of the NBA draft
When we think of the Spurs, we tend to think Tim Duncan. Although Duncan was the most productive regular season performer for the Spurs in 2012-13, about 48 of the team’s regular season wins came from other players -- the five most productive were Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, and Manu Ginobili. Each of them was either a non-lottery first round pick or a second-round pick. All teams have access to such players, but the team must be able to identify such talent. And since the Spurs are relatively unique in utilizing this approach, it’s reasonable to assume most teams cannot consistently identify productive players outside the lottery.

The Thunder approach: Acquire productive lottery picks
The third approach is to acquire productive talent in the NBA lottery. Most recently, the Thunder accomplished this when they built an NBA Finals team around the talents of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Lottery picks are granted to the NBA’s non-playoff teams, so you have to lose to implement this strategy. You also must have a fair amount of luck. Not only does it help to finish very high in the lottery, you also have to be able to select the productive players with those high picks. In some years, though, this is difficult. For example, none of the top seven talents selected in 2010 have become players who produce wins in large quantities. A similar story can be told about most of the players at the top of the 2006 NBA draft.

There is another problem that the Thunder discovered. Initially draft picks play under a rookie contract, so these players can produce wins at a very low cost. But this contract expires fairly quickly. Specifically, the Thunder were able to employ Harden for only three seasons. Once a player moves on to his second contract, the team essentially moves to option No. 1 (i.e. building through productive veterans). So not only does this approach requires luck, it’s also a short-lived strategy.

Nevertheless, teams seem to try and follow the third option. And for that to happen, teams have to lose -- or pursue the strategy of tanking. Such a strategy essentially contradicts a fundamental promise made by sporting competitors; that the competitors will do their very best to win the game.

To eliminate this strategy, we simply need to remove the incentive behind this approach. Again, teams only get high lottery picks by losing. And the more you lose, the better your chance of getting the top picks in the draft. If we want teams to stop doing this, we need to change the incentives of the people who implement this strategy.

This can be done in three ways:

Return to a non-weighted lottery
In a paper I co-authored with Joe Price, Brian Soebbing, and Brad Humphreys, we presented evidence that the NBA’s non-weighted lottery -- utilized in the 1980s -- seemed to reduce the tendency to tank. Back in 1985, only seven teams didn’t make the playoffs. Today it is 14 teams. If all lottery picks were selected via a non-weighted lottery -- as was the case in 1985 -- the worst team in the NBA could receive just the 14th pick in the draft. This would effectively eliminate a team’s incentive to be as bad as possible to get the best pick possible.

Eliminate the draft
A more radical approach (for North American sports fans) is to eliminate the draft. In European sports, there is no draft. But on this side of the Atlantic, it is taken for granted that the losers in professional sports leagues are rewarded with high draft picks. However, as we have noted, this gives teams an incentive to tank. So a simple solution is to abolish the draft and allow top amateurs to negotiate with more than one team.

One issue with this approach is that the top amateurs could simply choose to sign with the NBA’s best teams. This is especially likely if the NBA’s rookie salary cap is kept in place. After all, if the wages of the top players are going to be the same, then these players will simply choose to play for the best teams. To avoid this problem, the NBA could implement a system where playoff teams cannot sign a player until 14 amateurs have already received offers from non-playoff teams. And once a player received an offer from a non-playoff team, he could not sign with a playoff team (but could still sign with any of the other 13 non-playoff teams).

This system would force the non-playoff teams to be as competitive as possible, since the top amateurs would probably prefer to play for the best non-playoff team possible. And again, would eliminate the problem of the tanking.

Punish the losers
The tanking strategy is easy for decision-makers in the NBA to embrace. Teams that pursue this strategy are essentially trying to lose to enhance the team’s draft position. This is a simple strategy to follow. Trying to win is difficult, but losing is easy and the more incompetent the decision-maker, the better the strategy can be implemented. Imagine how easy it would be to do your job if you were rewarded for doing the job badly!

To stop this behavior, the NBA could simply implement a rule that says if a team misses the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the team must fire its general manager. If this rule was put in place, constant losing would lead to consequences for executives.

David Berri is a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins (FT Press, March-2010). He has written extensively on the topic of sports economics for academic journals, and his work has appeared at The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Freakonomics.com and Time.com.

Is Parker the NBA's elite point guard?

May, 29, 2013
5/29/13
11:19
AM ET
By Sunny Saini, ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesTony Parker's 23.10 PER in the regular season was 3rd among PG (Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook).
In the Western Conference Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Parker averaged 24.5 points per game, 9.5 assists and two steals while shooting 53.2 percent from the field. That's pretty impressive, considering the Grizzlies had the second-best defense during the regular season.

The series was highlighted by Parker’s career-high 18 assists in Game 2 and then in the series-clinching Game 4 Parker was 15-21 (71.4 percent) for 37 points to advance the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Finals.

Parker has two games in the last five postseasons of at least 35 points and 70 percent shooting, and is the only point guard to have two of those games during that span.

Parker has led his team to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in his career. With his consistent success in the regular season, and especially in the postseason, you can make the case that he’s the best point guard in the NBA.

Consistent Winner

Since Parker made his NBA debut in 2001-02, he’s won three NBA championships and was named Finals MVP in 2006-07. Since 1990, Isiah Thomas, Chauncey Billups and Parker are the only point guards to win the Finals MVP.

Parker has also led the Spurs in scoring and assists for three consecutive seasons and five of the last eight seasons.

What's more, Parker has won 70 percent of the games he’s played in, including the playoffs, the best winning percentage among point guards during that span.

Scoring with the Best

Parker was tied with Chris Paul and Stephen Curry among point guards with 1.03 points per play (PPP) this season. What separated him was that he scored on 50.4 percent of his plays, which ranked him third behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant among perimeter players.

Parker’s Strengths

• Parker led the NBA in scoring off pick and rolls this season, with an average of 8.5 points per game.

• On pick and rolls which included Parker’s passes, he averaged 1.03 points per play, which ranked him third this season behind Paul and James.

• Parker led all NBA point guards this season with a 10.1 points per game average in the paint.

• In the Western Conference Finals, Parker drove to the basket 61 times in the half court and created 76 points for the Spurs. Parker had 17 assists when driving to the basket, and his teammates were 17-31 (54.8 percent) on those plays, including 9-16 (56.3 percent) on 3-point field goals.

The Spurs outscore their opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when Parker is on the court but that drops to 2.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. That difference of 8.5 points per 100 possessions was more than Paul, Curry, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams this season.

Killer Lineup: OKC's keep-the-faith starters

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
12:13
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive





Miami Heat
Russell Westbrook | Thabo Sefolosha | Kevin Durant | Serge Ibaka | Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 1,024
Offensive Rating: 110.1 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 96.6 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
At some point this weekend, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins will play their 2,000th minute together as a single unit (since the February 2011 trade that brought Perkins to OKC). For all the success this lineup has enjoyed, it still receives a fair amount of grief for its underperformance on the offensive end. Much of that criticism is residual. This was one of the Thunder’s weaker offensive groups in 2011, and again last season.

Whether it’s Durant’s ever-expanding game, Westbrook’s maturation as a floor general, Ibaka’s proficiency as a midrange shooter or Sefolosha’s 62.2 percent true shooting percentage, the Thunder’s starters are now an offensive juggernaut. So as much as we regard Perkins as offensive blockage, or Sefolosha as a liability, this thing works. It’s not perfect, but it’s an undeniably effective offensive group.

This is some very fine machinery, but its inner workings aren’t terribly complicated. The primary reason it hums, of course, is Durant, who has graduated from explosive scorer to offensive fulcrum. He’s making decisions that never would’ve occurred to him three seasons ago.

The old favorites are on display nightly. When Durant is faced up, he sweeps those arms to one side while he glides with a long stride and a single dribble to an open space where he elevates for a jumper. Several times per game, Durant will get double-pindowns from Perkins and Ibaka, pop out to the perimeter, catch, turn and shoot. Nothing fancy, but as half-court offense goes, Durant with a half-second to shoot is probably the hardest play to defend in the league.

The Thunder have also introduced some new wrinkles -- and perfected some old ones -- in large part because Durant’s awareness of his full range of skills has grown substantially. Now when a defender plays on the top side to deny a pass, Durant will signal for a backdoor pass. When Durant is off the ball, he’ll often be presented with a menu of options -- a cross-screen from Sefolosha or, simultaneously, a down screen from Perkins or Ibaka. Durant will read the floor, then choose where he wants to go and how he wants to get there. These days, that process takes Durant barely a nanosecond.

The Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll has grown from experimental to expert this season. Durant’s movement on this play is often something between a pop and a roll -- let’s call it a “proll.” As Westbrook bursts off the screen into the paint, Durant will often float for a second, then dive, so he’s trailing Westbrook. If the pass is there, Westbrook will shuttle a pass behind him to Durant. If a baseline defender has rotated onto Durant, that usually means Westbrook has a clean route to the hoop. Durant will also slip this screen, especially when defenses are in trap mode against Westbrook.

Over the past season and a half, Ibaka has become more than just a high-pick man for Westbrook or Durant. When Ibaka pins for Durant, he’ll simply pop or dive to the basket when Durant catches the pass. With defenses doubling Durant on that action, Ibaka gets a ton of clean looks or open drives, with Durant threading the needle. If Durant is smothered, Westbrook will bypass him and send the ball directly to Ibaka. Both Durant and Westbrook orchestrate more advanced stuff with a lot more confidence than during their early years in the league.

Much of the Thunder’s early offense results from Westbrook pulling up or attacking on the secondary break, or hitting Durant with an outlet pass. Particularly in transition, both Westbrook and Durant are always looking for a body that can precipitate contact. Only James Harden has used more possessions in transition this season than Westbrook, and three-quarters of Westbrook’s possessions on the break result in a drive to the basket or a pull-up jumper.

In the half court, Westbrook is a master of finding seams and holes. Thanks to his accelerated first step, the slightest opening will do. To this end, Ibaka’s ability to extend to the 3-point line has done wonders for this unit’s spacing, and Westbrook is the primary beneficiary. Westbrook isn’t dependent on high screens -- say, relative to a point guard like Chris Paul -- but he’ll use them a fair amount depending on matchup. He’s still a little too eager to take a dribble jumper coming off those picks, but he probably takes more flak than he deserves.

The Thunder will look to attack what they deem as mismatches. Ibaka will get the opportunity to post up when he’s matched against a small-ball 4. Westbrook takes additional liberties against smallish point guards. Durant is almost always a mismatch for his defender, so there’s not much of a variable there.

How it works defensively
Length matters a lot, and it’s a primary reason coach Scott Brooks has stayed faithful to this unit despite calls to go small with Durant at the power forward slot, or to replace Sefolosha with a more potent offensive threat. Since Perkins arrived in Oklahoma City, this five-man combo has remained comfortably below the 100 points per possession mark -- no small feat.

There’s no single way to maximize length as a defensive unit. You can leverage that advantage on the perimeter -- play up on every shooter, trap every ball handler on a high pick-and-roll, and stay home in the corners. The Thunder starters approach it a little differently, with a focus on cordoning off the paint.

It’s a stretch to call what the Thunder do defensively a system, because Brooks encourages flexibility on the defensive end. He’s a firm believer that opposing scorers and facilitators need to encounter a range of defensive looks from multiple defenders. In Brooks’ mind, variety is the best defensive tactic because there isn’t a coverage scheme in the world Tony Parker or Chris Paul can’t crack if you use it enough times.

Brooks empowers his big men to make reads and call out coverages. For instance, Perkins will size up the action, then he might call for a switch, or a trap with Westbrook while yelling for Ibaka to get a full tag on the roll man. When you challenge Brooks about his reliance on Perkins, he’ll explain how important Perkins’ stage direction on defense is to what the Thunder want to accomplish defensively.

Versatility aside, the Thunder’s starters have certain inclinations. They’ll pressure the ball handler on the pick-and-roll. It’s not an aggressive trap, but both defenders will corral the point guard, nudge him away from the paint and toward the sideline. Against the pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, sometimes Perkins or Ibaka will counter with a long show. Ibaka has become extremely confident at containing smaller guys, and he buys plenty of time for teammates who get hung up on a pick.

None of the five starters has any misgivings about being left on an island against an isolation scorer, whether it’s a 6-foot-1 speedster or a bully-baller on the wing. Westbrook and Sefolosha have enormous wingspans and strength, and neither Ibaka nor Perkins backs away from a challenge on the perimeter. On curls, off-ball screens and pindowns, the Thunder switch liberally. They’ll front the post at times and get very aggressive with their ball denial. Westbrook will pick his spots, but it’s not unusual to see him hounding a point guard 30 feet from the basket -- not gambling, just straight-up pressure.

Debate rages over whether Sefolosha is an ace defender, or merely very good. Anecdotes are always dangerous, but if the playoff wins over the Lakers and Spurs are evidence of anything, it’s that Sefolosha can neuter some of the most creative playmakers in the game with his long arms and quick feet. He’s also one of the hardest guards to screen in the game. He’s anticipating, planning for you, and he knows how to evade the screener without losing contact with his assignment.

The Thunder don’t run the defensive scheme Tom Thibodeau fashioned in Boston, but Perkins is still inclined to play that way when he’s defending the basket on the ball side. He’s judicious and somewhat selective about the practice, but he’s definitely still a Celtic at heart, tactically speaking, acting as that “third defender” when the ball works its way to the wing.

Durant’s defense has improved inordinately. That’s not so much the result of better fundamentals as a heightened awareness of what’s materializing behind him. He now understands how to turn a contest of strength (where he might have a disadvantage) into a battle for space. He’s hyperaware of where Ibaka is lurking, looking for any excuse to challenge a shot. Off the ball, Durant has been more eager to crash the paint and has become an expert straddler, maintaining a healthy balance between his wing assignment and the paint, where he might be called upon to collapse on a drive, or pick up a roller.

Ibaka has expanded his defensive game and has become a better decision-maker with regard to space, rotations, when to load up, when to contest and when to resist the urge. That last item is still the most difficult for Ibaka. When you think about the best lanky defensive big men in the league (e.g., Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah), they’ve historically been more concerned about holding down the fort on the weakside rather than swatting shots. With his size and wingspan, Ibaka gives his teammates a lot of leeway as defenders, but only if he times his movements and chooses his spots. So far this season, there’s been an appreciable gain. Now imagine what the Thunder could do defensively if Ibaka gets all the way there.

Westbrook can 'paint' Knicks into a corner

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
1:08
PM ET
By Ernest Tolden, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Russell Westbrook is riding one of his hottest, and most-efficient, stretches of his career heading into Thursday’s game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks. He’s averaging 27.4 points since Feb. 1 -- only LeBron James (28.2) and James Harden (27.7) have a higher scoring average over that stretch.

Russell Westbrook
Westbrook
In each of his last three games, Westbrook has shot at least 50 percent from the field which is tied for his longest stretch of the season. And, of the 22 games this season when Westbrook has shot over 50 percent, 10 of them have come since Feb. 1. Before this stretch, Westbrook was shooting just 41.6 percent from the field.

Specifically, Westbrook’s efficiency has improved the most in the half court. In 14 games since February, Westbrook is shooting 46 percent in Oklahoma City’s half-court offense. In his first 46 games, Westbrook was shooting under 40 percent in the half court.

Westbrook also averages 9.7 points in the paint this season, which ranks fourth among guards. This is an also an area of the court Westbrook has dominated during this recent stretch. He has scored at least 10 points in the paint in a career-high six consecutive games, including a season-high 20 in the Thunder’s win 122-105 win over the Lakers on Tuesday.

Westbrook could continue to find success against the Knicks, who allow 19.4 points per game inside the paint by opposing guards, the 11th-most in the NBA this season.

Monday Bullets

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
5:59
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • When is it cool or not cool to boo your own player on his home court? The jeers for Andrea Bargnani have grown increasingly loud at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic writes that as bad as Bargnani has been this season, the former No. 1 overall draft pick hasn't crossed the Vince Carter threshold in Toronto and shouldn't be subject to the home boo. Eric Koreen of The National Post says that while Bargnani is a reasonable target, the booing borders on the absurd when fans start killing a guy because he got caught with a hand grenade at the shot clock buzzer and fired up a desperation heave: "When fans boo him without cause, the valid points get lost. The booing is not helping, as Bargnani is shooting just 30% at home this year compared to 47% on the road."
  • There was an active Twitter argument today about weather as a factor in free agency. To that effect, here's what "relaxing after practice" in February looks like in Los Angeles. And here's what coming home from a long February road trip looks like in Miami.
  • Steve McPherson of Hardwood Paroxysm on dunks in the digital age: "[G]reat dunks are not strictly physical acts carried out in three-dimensional space before disappearing into an unrediscoverable past. They are not simply performed, but witnessed, recorded, replayed, ingrained in our memories. They are spontaneously generated, but not out of the void, not from nothingness. They instead occur where the ley lines of practice, talent, chance, the known and the unknown converge to create something larger than life. In this way, they are less part of a game and more akin to musical improvisation."
  • Let's say you and your teammates make a pact to not shave until the team gets to .500. What happens if you get traded? Dahntay Jones, who went from Dallas to Atlanta at the deadline, is sticking with the pledge even though he's no longer a Maverick [Hat Tip: Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward].
  • At Friday's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss will be presenting a paper that takes a hard look at how to evaluate interior defense. The Bucks' Larry Sanders plays prominently in the study.
  • Big guys tend to get passed over in final-possession situations at the end of games. Down one in that situation on Saturday night, the Hawks inbounded the ball to Al Horford. The play calls for a hand-off to Devin Harris, but as Peachtree Hoops shows us in pictures, Horford opted to keep the ball and back down Larry Sanders one-on-one. Horford was aggressive on the drive and found an easy bank shot from the right side to win the game for Atlanta.
  • After an 0-for-8 start from the field in his season debut on Saturday, Danny Granger drains his ninth attempt and the Pacers' bench goes berserk.
  • Michael Pina, writing for The Classical, on Kenneth Faried: "Pull any possession from Faried’s career and in some order he will soar, crash, overheat, and explode. Catch him at the right (or wrong?) moment, and all these things will seem as if they're happening at once. He seems to be enjoying himself, and he is already very effective, but he also plays with all dials squarely in the red. But to look at Faried and wonder what will happen when he "learns how to play" doesn’t quite work, either. Faried will get better—in areas like boxing out, setting screens, learning a post-move or two, and gaining overall insight on the defensive end—if not likely to the point of reinvention. He will never be Tim Duncan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and those responsibilities will never intersect. His job, to stick with the tautological statement thing, will be to be himself, and he will always do it better than anyone else could."
  • Jarrett Jack God Mode is a thing in Oakland.
  • Stephen Jackson: Less impressed with In-and-Out Burger than your average Spur or Californian.
  • The Basketball Jones took a Twitter meme on the road to Houston, asking NBA players (and Russell Westbrook himself) whether Westbrook is a cat or a dog. Watching the video, you get the sense there are some macho implication at work here, as some of the responses suggest that portraying a fellow player as feline is emasculating.

 

Who is the fastest player with the ball?

February, 15, 2013
2/15/13
3:19
PM ET
By Mark Haubner
ESPN.com
Archive

Getty ImagesSkills, scmills. Who's the fastest guy with the ball?
Mark Haubner is the founder of The Painted Area TrueHoop Network Blog. Here's his HoopIdea to make All-Star weekend more exciting.

Are you excited for the NBA Skills Challenge coming up on Saturday night?

Of course you’re not.

Watching point guards dribble around an obstacle course at half-speed, occasionally stopping to pinpoint a rudimentary chest or bounce pass, is a pointless exercise worthy of fast-forward treatment on your DVR.

Ten editions of the Skills Challenge have proved that the event not only provides minimal entertainment value but also is irrelevant to the conversation of sports fans. Though intended to showcase the fruits of passionate, dedicated training, if anything the Skills Challenge conveys a sense of apathy, with players going through the motions in an event in which they are required to participate.

It’s time for a change.

It’s time for the Fastest Man With The Ball competition to replace the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday.

(Note: the idea was first floated in this corner of the internet by John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog as part of a 2009 TrueHoop Network roundtable on improving All-Star Weekend, and deserves a re-airing in the HoopIdea era.)

“Who is the fastest man with the ball?” is a question that you’ll periodically hear on NBA broadcasts. It’s a topic that’s fun for fans to debate, and it’s a crown that players might actually aspire to compete for and hold.

The specifics of the rules can be up for debate. Let’s say players start on the baseline and go down and back the full court, needing to make a layup each time, before finishing with a sprint back to half court, for a total of about 70 meters with the ball. Perhaps two baskets could be set up at each end of the court for some head-to-head competition. There might need to be something like a minimum number of dribbles to prevent players from simply throwing the ball ahead and sprinting after it.

Feel free to tweak away at these ideas all you like. I’m sure we can come up with something reasonable. The key is agreeing on the premise of finding a way to measure top speed with the ball, something that would resonate with fans from casual to hard-core much more than navigating the Skills Challenge labyrinth.

Who would win the 2013 Fastest Man With The Ball competition? My guess is that the odds-on favorites would be John Wall and Ty Lawson.

Who else would be in my ideal eight-man field? Well, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo would be no-brainers if they weren’t injured. Without them, I’ll put Tony Parker, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison on my list as definites, and I have Eric Bledsoe just edging out Nate Robinson in the freak-of-nature category.

And yeah, I’m saving one last spot for LeBron James, just because I’d love to see what would happen.

Here's the best part: While the Skills Challenge doesn't really tell us who the most skilled player in the NBA is, the Fastest Man With The Ball would result in a meaningful title that could be debated and discussed all season.

I know I’d be eager to watch and see the results, and that’s a lot more than I can say about the Skills Challenge. It’s time to try something different.

Thursday night game bullets

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
1:25
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
With Stephen Curry and Dirk Nowitzki not dressed, and the Grizzlies waiting on Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis, the Memphis-Oklahoma City and Dallas-Golden State games didn't reveal anything monumental, but there were still a few takeaways from the action:
  • Russell Westbrook likes his basketball piping hot, and that often elevates his game. But leading by 25 points in the second half, Westbrook needs to know how to calculate the cost-benefit analysis of melting down over what he termed after the game "a miscommunication." Let's say for argument's sake that Thabo Sefolosha hung Westbrook out to dry in the lane, or mistimed his cut which, as a consequence, brought a Memphis help defender to Westbrook as he tried to post up Jerryd Bayless. What possible good is derived from a tantrum? Perfectionism can be an admirable trait for a professional, but is there any part of Westbrook's game that suggests he's a perfectionist?
  • Big guys with skills demand attention, and in that regard Andrew Bogut is already helping the Golden State Warriors' half-court offense, even in limited minutes and even with Curry on the bench in street clothes. A small squad like the Kaman-less Mavericks needs to send help when the Warriors post up Bogut who, even as he shook off the rust, had the wherewithal and vision to either avoid the second defender by gathering quickly then getting into his move for the lefty flip shot, or kicking the ball out if the rotation left an opening on the perimeter or hitting a baseline cutter. (In the second half, when Bogut was visibly exhausted, the Dallas Mavericks opted to play him one-on-one.) Then, of course, there was the defensive end, where Bogut challenged Dallas at the rim. Second-half blocks of Shawn Marion and Brandan Wright at point-blank range were just two of several Bogut-influenced defensive possessions for the W's. On the botched Dallas possession with the game in the balance, Bogut stepped up from the back line to help on a driving O.J. Mayo, then dashed back to Wright when the ball was delivered to Marion. A second later, Marion's zippy baseline pass to Wright underneath would've produced a layup. Instead, Bogut punched the ball away and it landed in Jarrett Jack's hands going the other way. Andrew Bogut: defensive closer.
  • It’s almost always smart to leave a productive player on the floor with two fouls in the first quarter. And it’s equally smart if you’re the opposing team to attack that player and force him to defend. Two possessions after Klay Thompson picked up his second foul midway through the first quarter, Mayo rejected a ball screen from Elton Brand, assuring that Thompson, his defender, would stay with him as he dribbled left. Mayo went right at the body of Thompson, who was whistled for his third foul seven and a half minutes into the game. Jackson again kept Thompson on the floor with foul trouble in the third, when the second-year sharpshooter picked up foul No. 4 midway through the period. Thompson didn't foul again until the final minute of regulation.
  • Future Golden State opponents: When a Warrior sets a down screen for a shooter, chances are that screener is about to streak to the basket once he finishes the business of freeing up his teammate. The Warriors are moving off the ball offensively as effectively as any team in the league this side of San Antonio, and it's one of the primary reasons Thompson is finding clean looks all over the court.
  • With Jason Kidd, the Mavericks ran an efficient quasi-system that allowed intuitive players who had been together for a while to find shots for one another off reads. This season, the Mavs have some good quality parts, but the collection as a whole is a bit disparate. Darren Collison isn’t Kidd and you sense he could use an offense that’s a tad more organized, though down the stretch their flow produced some quality shots, several off penetration. Not every set needs to be commandeered on the sideline, but a little more structure would do this group some good -- even the vets.
  • The first half ended on a bizarre series. Vince Carter launched a corner jumper with about 22 seconds to go before intermission. On his landing, he appeared to slip and came up with a gimpy right ankle. With the shot clock turned off, the Mavericks reset for a final possession. Confident that Carter was essentially a nonentity nursing himself in the right corner, Harrison Barnes essentially ignored Carter, collapsing instead on Elton Brand, who’d flashed to the paint just inside the foul line. All alone in the corner, Carter made a sharp cut along the baseline to the rack, where Brand found him for a massive jam. Was it a bald-faced decoy by Carter?
  • Seven games of Grizzlies-Warriors would be like a prestige cable drama.
  • The high pick-and-roll way up top has become so prevalent that it seems odd when teams run a ball screen at the elbow, an action that was commonplace eight years ago but now almost feels exotic.
  • Oklahoma City will run the Westbrook-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll, but Westbrook far prefers to feed Durant an entry pass in the post, and that’s often what transpires on this call. Truthfully, it doesn't make much difference because Durant will generally succeed either which way.
  • Westbrook was a handful for Bayless, who competes but isn’t a gifted defender. Bayless chose to run under ball screens and Westbrook made him pay repeatedly. Bayless also cheated off Westbrook on a few occasions to put himself in position to help on Durant, but that also produced uncontested attempts for Westbrook.
  • Serge Ibaka runs the floor these days in transition with a finer-tuned sense of timing. He always has been quick and willing to make a rim run, but he wasn’t always mindful of that invisible yarn that existed between the ball handler at the controls of the break, and himself.

Thunder at Clippers: 5 things we saw

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
2:35
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin Durant Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant took over the game with a 24-point second half against the Clippers.

Kevin Durant at the top of his game
There isn’t enough length, ball pressure, traps, help or divine intervention to stop a run like Kevin Durant put together down the stretch on Tuesday night. The All-Star forward scored 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the field in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 109-97 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

"When a guy is nearly 7-feet tall with a crossover like Jamal [Crawford's], it's going to be tough," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said of Durant's performance.

Durant can hit from anywhere, but he loves nothing more than to work from the top of the floor, which makes the game a living hell for the defense. It would be hard enough to defend Durant in a utility closet, but when he has the ball way up top with the floor spread, help defense becomes treacherous because the opposition is stretched from sideline to sideline -- which is how something like this happens.

In addition to the firestorm he started in the fourth quarter, Durant also racked up seven assists. Driving down the gut of the lane, Durant hit Thabo Sefolosha for a couple of corner 3-pointers and found Serge Ibaka for a 3-pointer and another baseline jumper. He also found Ibaka on a basket cut from that perch. The more Durant built his nest at that spot, the more you’re going to his assist rate soar as it’s doing this season.

Life without Chris Paul
It’s not that the Clippers can’t find shots without Paul, but, organizationally speaking, things don’t run as smoothly. Because there isn’t a tried-and-true system in Los Angeles, Paul is essentially the on-the-spot play designer for the team. After the game, Clippers forward Blake Griffin described how the game is harder for the Clippers when Paul isn’t out there.

“[Paul] controls the game,” Griffin said. “He’s calling plays. He’s making sure guys are in the right spots. He’s always thinking and always talking. When he’s out there, he’s your guy you always look to see what we’re in, or what we’re doing or what we’re trying to do.”

Blake Griffin's big night
"We really don't double," Thunder coach Scott Brooks when asked why his team chose not to send extra defenders at Griffin, who finished with 31 points, hitting 11 of his 19 field goal attempts. Griffin had to dig hard for those 11 field goals, as he had to wrestle with Ibaka for position down low. Meanwhile, the Thunder weren't allowing Caron Butler and other Clipper wings to set that cross-screen to free up Griffin to catch the entry pass from the wing, then quickly storm the basket.

Still, Griffin had a tremendous outing on a night when he had to dig for every inch of space on the right block and contend with Ibaka's combination of length and savvy as a defender. The driving spin move was in full effect, as was the fadeaway baseline jumper.

"He had a great game," Brooks said. "He's one of the strongest, quickest athletic guys. He's an awkward scorer. You don't think he's going to jump, but then he jumps, or he jumps off the wrong leg. He just has a knack. He's an amazing player."

Kevin Martin making good
In 61 seconds of court time spanning the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, Martin drained three 3-pointers to turn a six-point Thunder deficit into a one-point lead that the Thunder would never relinquish.

How did Martin get those looks? The first came on a double-single, with Martin looping counterclockwise around his teammates from the top of the floor to the left sideline. The second occurred when Martin found an open lot along the arc after DeAndre Liggins collected a long offensive rebound. The third was more familiar, something we might have seen while Martin was playing in Rick Adelman’s corner offense -- a little set with Nick Collision situated off the left elbow with Martin swinging around from the top to collect a handoff, then shoot from beyond the arc.

“We still put in a little corner action, having me play off Nick Collison in the high post just like Brad Miller,” Martin said. “But you have to do more than one thing. You have to be able to take people off the dribble, come off screens, read, iso. Here, with the second unit I have to be more of a scorer. Then, when I’m out there with [the starters], I can be how I was in Sacramento when I played with Mike Bibby and [Chris Webber], just roam and get open jump shots.”

We don’t immediately think of Martin as a versatile player, but he’s demonstrating in Oklahoma City how many ways he can hurt defenses with different actions and approaches.

Eric Bledsoe, starting point guard
The common knock on Bledsoe is that the third-year guard isn't fully verse in running an NBA offense. It’s one thing to lead the storm-troopers in the Clippers’ second team, but quite another to orchestrate the team’s more studied starting unit. Contra those skeptics, Bledsoe filled in nicely for Paul during the Clippers’ 3-0 road trip last week, but there were moments on Tuesday night when, as the Clippers’ starting point guard, he got out over his skis.

The Clippers tried to make life easy for Bledsoe by running a series of elbow sets in which Bledsoe fed Griffin in the high post then cleared. They also called for a steady stream of pick-and-rolls for Bledsoe and Griffin. Too often, Bledsoe missed the angle on an entry pass, or held the ball a moment too long while the offense ground to a halt. As a result, Bledsoe, a 26 percent shooter from 16-to-23 feet, launched five shots from that range in the game’s first nine minutes. On the Clippers’ first possession of the second half, Bledsoe fired up another 22-footer indiscriminately when he couldn’t find an immediate alternative.

Bledsoe still had his moments -- a block on Nick Collison, timely cuts to the basket, vicious ball pressure on Westbrook and a couple of unseemly offensive rebounds out of nowhere. But he’s just beginning to grasp that delicate balance between patience and aggression that Paul understands better than any point guard in the game.

Dealing with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
12:35
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris Paul and Kevin DurantNBAE/Getty ImagesDevising a strategy against Chris Paul and Kevin Durant is at the center of any Clips-OKC matchup.
“Like a playoff game in November” is how Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks characterized the Thunder’s 117-111 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thanksgiving eve.

It was a riveting, but odd game. Chris Paul spent much of the night pinned against the left sideline by Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder’s troop of big men. As a result, Paul logged one of the worst statistical nights of his career.

Blake Griffin battled foul trouble, which disrupted the Clippers’ rotation, as did the absence of Caron Butler. Both teams had prolific spurts when they scored at will, yet there were lengthy stretches when the game became an offensive slog. And neither team put together many big runs. Yet when it was all over, the Clippers and Thunder had played an instant regular-season classic. On Tuesday night, the two teams will face off again, and the winner will leave Staples Center with the best record in the NBA.

It’s still early and the San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in assembling the Western Conference playoff bracket, but the way the standings have started to settle, a Thunder-Clippers matchup with high stakes is highly likely. The Clippers feel they match up well with the Thunder. They’re 3-2 against the Thunder in the Chris Paul era (three of those five games played in Oklahoma City), and one of those losses came in that overtime game. The Clippers' primary worry about a potential matchup with the Thunder -- no wing to match up with Kevin Durant -- was addressed in the offseason when they signed Matt Barnes. No team in the West truly matches up well with the Thunder -- there are only degrees of desperation trying to guard them -- but Barnes helps, as presumably will Grant Hill who has returned from injury.

A faceoff between the Thunder and Clippers presents each team with a series of tough riddles, starting with how to deal with the opposing superstars. Interestingly, the two teams will employ similar strategies against Paul and Durant respectively, largely because they have similar attributes defensively.

The Thunder locked up Paul in the first meeting, and Sefolosha deserves much of the credit. Paul finished with nine points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field with four turnovers and nine assists. On the Clippers' pick-and-rolls, Sefolosha glued himself to Paul’s right shoulder while Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins forced Paul miles from the paint. When Paul was able to get some middle, he would run into a third defender pretty quickly. As far as shooting over Sefolosha, Paul struggled with that, as well.

The Thunder have improved their team defense this season. They rank sixth in the league overall in efficiency (points surrendered per possession). More important, the Thunder are learning some important truths about themselves. They’re beginning to recognize that they have the length and speed to do some very cool stuff defensively. Ibaka and Russell Westbrook would have to break character to thrive in a strict Tom Thibodeau-style defense, but the Thunder are starting to understand they can still apply some of its main principles. Against the Pauls and Tony Parkers of the league, they can afford to load up the strong side of the floor because guys such as Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have the length and speed to zone up the weak side while Sefolosha and the other big man are harassing the ball.

As dynamic and crafty as Paul is with the ball, he’s a point guard who thrives most when his big man provides him with a solid screen. That means Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom need to give Sefolosha a harder time, give him the right tackle treatment that will allow Paul to split the defenders and get to the middle with a layer of space around him. You can send a third man at Paul once he clears the two pick-and-roll defenders, but with momentum and control, Paul will find a way to make a play for himself (floater, pull-up jumper, little scoop shot or just draw contact for three freebies).

No doubt Paul will spend some time today thinking about how to adjust his strategy against Sefolosha and the Thunder’s defense, and he's unlikely to go 2-for-14 from the floor again Tuesday.

The Clippers’ defense has seen an even more dramatic improvement than the Thunder's, jumping from 18th to fifth in defensive efficiency. The defense had plenty of flaws last season, but a central one was the absence of anyone on the Clippers who could lock down a bigger wing (Eric Bledsoe can pressure the life out of smaller guards, but, at 6-foot-1, you can’t assign him to Durant).

This season, Barnes wasn’t explicitly brought in for the veteran minimum to be the designated stopper, but it’s a job he can handle more than adequately. Durant scored 35 points in 47 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting from the field. Nineteen of those 35 points came at the line, although Barnes was responsible for only three of the nine fouls committed on Durant.

Barnes did a good job of forcing Durant to his left. A gambler by nature, Barnes roamed very selectively as he devoted careful attention to Durant at all times. Jump shots were contested aggressively. Durant turned the ball over six times, four of which can be credited to Barnes on strips and deflections.

There’s no such thing as a Durant-stopper and likely never will be -- and 35 points is 35 points -- but Durant used a ton of possessions to get there. It will be curious to see how Vinny Del Negro assigns the task of covering Durant, especially with Butler in action, but the Clippers have a very nice option in Barnes, something that wasn’t available to them last season.

How the Thunder contend with Paul and how the Clippers contend with Durant are just two facets of a matchup with an endless number of facets. Both teams will be tempted to go small, as they did in the first meeting, but it’s unclear who has the advantage in that scenario. The Clippers are a paint team defensively, more focused on the rim than the arc. Can they find a balance? The Thunder turn the ball over excessively, something that will kill a team against the Clippers. If Bledsoe is the Clippers' best option on Westbrook, someone else has to surrender minutes.

However these questions get answered and regardless of the new ones that surface, one thing is certain: A playoff series between these two teams would be spectacular.

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