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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Westbrook

The Thunder must consider trading Russell Westbrook

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It’s too soon to panic over the Thunder’s 0-4 start but the time is coming, or should have come already to consider Russell Westbrook’s long term future on the team. Westbrook turns 30 on November 12th and starting this year his next five seasons he is owed: $35,654,150 (age 30), $38,178,000 (age 31), $41,006,000 (age 32) , $43,848,000 (age 33), $46,662,000 (player option, age 34). He has had several knee surgeries or injections in his career after a meniscus tear that cost him the 2013 playoffs and due to related arthroscopic surgery 28 games during the Kevin Durant 2014 MVP season. This was followed by several durable seasons until a PRP injection this summer. Westbrook’s style of play depends on his unstoppable explosiveness and his ability to contort his body finishing at the rim and skying for rebounds, areas of his game most vulnerable to diminish with athletic decline. To his credit all signs are Westbrook’s physical conditioning routine off the court is phenomenal and has even benefitted teammates crossing his path like Victor Oladipo, and immense dedication to their bodies has helped stars like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant extend their primes to amazing lengths. On the other hand Westbrook has played his whole career like it’s the NBA Finals and no doubt pushes his body to extreme lengths off the court and one has to wonder if this punishment will have some cost down the line.

The risk is clear. By holding onto him deep into his contract, Westbrook may physically decline until his supermax either becomes an albatross or loses most of his current trade value. The upside is hoping for a 2011 Mavericks run, a team who held onto their superstar when some may have already cashed out on his value and had the stars align in his 13th season. However Dirk Nowitzki’s game was built on size and skill, not athleticism making him a tremendous fit for longevity if anyone has been. Furthermore the Mavericks had won 55 games in 2010 leading up to their title year and a few years earlier had shown a formula for contending with a Finals loss in 2006 and 67 wins in 2007 despite no clear second star better than Jason Terry or Josh Howard.

Sam Presti pulled a rabbit out of his hat at the time with the Paul George trade after Westbrook’s MVP season, but with 48 wins and a 6 game playoff loss to the Jazz they only improved by one regular season and playoff win compared to the year before. The loss of Andre Roberson continues to be felt and no doubt they won’t judge this season until he returns, but when Roberson played his last game for the Thunder they were sitting in 5th for the West last season, and their record with him playing was 24-19 for a 50 W pace, a marginal improvement. Roberson’s lack of shooting most likely would have been the target of defenses in the playoffs such as the Jazz which the Thunder had issues solving anyways. With the highest payroll in the league and owing 2020 and 2022 future 1sts to the Magic and Hawks one has to ask where they go from here in terms of assets to improve the team, and whether the George trade was already the equivalent of the Tyson Chandler pick-up for the Mavericks to take them to the next level if it was going to happen.

An MVP caliber player is a virtual necessity to win a title and based on that alone the Thunder could choose to push the Westbrook era as far as it’ll go. It’s unclear when they’ll have another chance at a talent this special. On the other hand with his style of play and starting a 5 years, 205 million contract, the Thunder must seriously consider whether 30 is the right age to move on from Westbrook’s salary while they can and replenish their assets.

Written by jr.

October 28, 2018 at 11:46 am

Why OKC is struggling in the playoffs

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Oklahoma City is down 3-2 headed to a Game 6 in Memphis. If the Grizzlies close out at home, it will be a disastrous result for the Thunder who haven’t had a healthy playoff exit since the 2012 Finals and who would be forced to celebrate Kevin Durant’s MVP in a press conference, 2007 Dirk Nowitzki style. If they get through the Grizzlies, this series and losing 2 games at home already, doesn’t bode well for them in the 2nd round and beyond.

What is happening? Scott Brooks is getting the biggest blame, Russell Westbrook as always has his detractors and Kevin Durant’s disappointing numbers, possibly from fatigue, haven’t helped. There’s also the fact that the Grizzlies may just be one of the 4 best teams in the league with the Heat, Spurs and Clippers and sometimes, you just get took by an even bigger dragon.

My explanation for the Thunder’s problems and why I never expected them to get out of the first 2 rounds heading into these playoffs, can be explained in an 7 word sentence:

They don’t move the ball well enough

Ball movement is crucial in the postseason. When I envision most of the great playoff runs, I see teams who are surgical dissecting the opponent’s halfcourt defense. By moving the ball they pressure the defense into exposing an open shot sometime in the 24 second shot clock. From the stars to the shooters to the big guys, if a team is smart and patient enough they can find the shots. The phrase “read and react” is important when understanding how great offenses beat great defenses.

For having one of the best records in the league the Thunder are not good enough at this. Whether it’s because of Russell Westbrook’s erratic of play, Scott Brooks lack of an offensive system, the insistence to play non-offensive threats like Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, or a combination of factors. They are not a team who patiently dissects the opponent or excels at read and reacting. Instead of working the body to weaken their opponent, they just throw haymakers and hope they land.

Consider the example of the 2011 Mavericks, one of my favorite recent champions. Offensively they gave the opponent a no-win situation. If you didn’t cover Dirk with more defenders, he annihilates his matchup. The moment you put extra defensive attention on Dirk, the Mavs supporting cast used their passing skill and basketball IQ, to find one of their many open 3 pt shooters or bigs at the rim. They at once had the most unguardable one on one scorer in the league and a team masterful at taking advantage of it once you left other defenders open to guard him. The combination meant there was practically nothing teams could do except hope they missed good shots.

Ideally the same could be built around Durant, but with an even more talented star. But right now the Thunder are not a skilled or smart enough team, or are not getting the right message from the coach, to play a read and react style or to master their opponent tactically. The Thunder are losing for the same reason John Calipari’s Kentucky only has one national title so far, despite having the most talented team virtually every season. In the tournament Kentucky’s age and less refined style of play, usually catches up to them. The difference is Cal’s team’s warts come with the territory of building rosters around often raw freshman. In OKC’s case, they can build whatever type of team they want and have just chosen this path.

Written by jr.

April 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Is Russell Westbrook’s talent level overrated?

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Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I tried to make a list of the 30-40 most talented 25 and under players, using my talent grading system. I may not post it. My apprehension is that a large number of the players are too closely graded, making it hard to rank one over the other.

However I will say that if I do post it, Russell Westbrook will be ranked lower than you can imagine. Now, by making it onto the list, Westbrook is still a blue chip talent. Some other players I gave a similar grade include Chandler Parsons, Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, Larry Sanders, Mike Conley, Jr. to name a few. All excellent talents, but in a tier below superstar, perennial all-star talent, which many believe Westbrook has.

As a talent Westbrook has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. In what I call “physical impact talent”, Westbrook may be as gifted as any PG in NBA history. Westbrook is one of the most athletic specimens in all of sports, pairing that explosiveness with a strong body. Add in elite ballhandling and he’s as dynamic as it gets in the NBA, for skills attacking the basket off the dribble. In both the halfcourt and transition he puts relentless pressure on the opponent that defines the pace of the game.

However, the above only makes up 1/3 of what I use to rate talent. Where my doubts about Westbrook’s talent lie is the other 2/3.

My “skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent” category treats shooting range as key, in addition to passing or post skills if a player has them. Westbrook is an average shooter at best for a PG. With a career 3P% of .302 and 0.6 3PM/2.1 3PA split, including .321 3P last year and 1.2 3PM/3.7 3PA, his outside shooters are weak – especially considering that with the defenses worrying about Westbrook’s slashing and Kevin Durant, those 3 point shots are likely to be open. Westbrook’s career 81.4% FT rate is respectable for a PG.

With that said, Westbrook is at least a decent passer and his size gives him post potential against smaller defenders.

In this category, I’d rate Westbrook from average to slightly above average.

The final category I look at is “feel for the game talent”, or to put it another way, instincts. Russell’s decision making and awareness of teammates has been criticized throughout his career. Fluidity and control is the biggest smoking guns I look for in feel for the game. Westbrook does not have fluidity that stands out and at times, can look out of control driving to the basket. I’d rate Westbrook from average to slightly below average in feel for the game.

In short, this combination – all time great physical impact tools, but average skill and feel for the game, does not rate as a superstar talent by my system. I do have Derrick Rose on that next level of talent because I see his feel for the game as elite, showing great fluidity and control – while his skills and physical talents are similar to Westbrook’s. Stephen Curry is an all time great shooter with an elite feel for the game, making up for a weakness physically. Rajon Rondo is an elite athlete with an elite feel for the game, but struggles to shoot, albeit making it up with exceptional passing skills. Those players are elite in 2 categories and average in another by my grading, while Westbrook is elite in 1 and average in 2.

Mike Conley, Jr. is obviously physically inferior to Westbrook, however he is a better shooter (.362 3P last year on 3.7 3PA) and is a more controlled, fluid and feel for the game friendly player. Jrue Holiday doesn’t shoot any better than Westbrook, but also has a high feel for the game, in addition to a great combination of speed and strength superior to Conley, but inferior to Westbrook. It makes sense to me that their feel for the game/fluidity talent, or shooting in Conley’s case, would make up for what Westbrook has over them physically.

Ricky Rubio is something of an inverse Westbrook. He has a feel for the game that is truly special – genius, arguably. However with just decent athleticism and serious shooting/touch problems, the “other 2/3s” for him is also a problem.

At other positions, Westbrook’s teammate Serge Ibaka compares favorably to him as a talent, for me. Ibaka has elite athleticism and length, helping him physically impact the game. Struggling to put the ball on the floor hurts his ability to attack the basket. He has a great jumpshot for a PF, better range than what Westbrook has for a PG. However, I likewise do not see more than average feel for the game. He at times can look stiff instead of natural and uses athleticism more than positional instincts to defend.

Now whether you take any of the above as meaningful is up to you. However it poses another question. How can I justify saying this, when Westbrook’s production can (seemingly) only be reached by a superstar talent? There are different methods of evaluating production of course, some may trust his 23.2ppg, 7.4apg, 5.2rpg as meaningful, whereas I’m more impressed by his combination of volume (25.08 possessions/game, using FGA+0.44*FTA+TOV) and above average efficiency (111 ORTG, league average 105.9). Others may point to that he helps spearhead one of the best offenses and teams in the league.

Either way, it’s hard to argue Westbrook isn’t a superstar talent, if he’s producing like one.

My argument against this is unreliable context. In other words, there could be a Kevin Durant effect. Durant is a rare type of superstar offensively, enough that it’s reasonable to present that Westbrook, among other Thunder players like Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, may benefit in the efficiency category from it.

And certainly, if Westbrook had been traded to his own team last summer, my initial reaction would’ve been “watch out above for falling shooting percentage”. With the extra defensive attention on him, I’d have actively expected that efficiency to fall below the league average rate of 105.9. His TS% of .532 last year is already below average, it may have dripped dangerously to .50 on his own team. Both of this would have made it reasonable to call him a blue chip, but flawed talent.

This isn’t entirely fair, of course. To call out Westbrook’s efficiency for falling, when he’s never had the chance to prove that won’t happen. My point is more to present reasonable doubt. That just because Westbrook has star numbers, doesn’t mean he has to be a superstar talent.

And frankly, it’s not that big of a deal to be ‘only’ as talented as a player like Mike Conley, Jr. or Chandler Parsons or his teammate Serge Ibaka, if he is. Westbrook is an excellent talent and with Ibaka, Sefolosha, Collision, Jackson, etc., along with Jeremy Lamb, who I feel has superstar talent – the Thunder still have a stacked team around Kevin Durant.

Written by jr.

September 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

The Presti Dilemma, or the Perils of Premature Zealotry

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English: James Harden, a player for the Oklaho...

English: James Harden, a player for the Oklahoma City Thunder at ARCO Arena. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new NBA season dawns and it feels like a breath of fresh air. After an off-season of claustrophobic analysis done in a vaccum, we now get to actually see how it all plays out, and of course on the top of everyone’s mind right now is OKC and what will come of the trade of James Harden to the Rockets.

We are now two games in. Two otherworldly games in where James Harden took the favorable prognostications of the most analytically inclined and blew right past them. There is the urge to crow of course, although that runs plenty of risk in terms of prematurely asserting a conclusion based on poor sample size. What I’m more interested is the position and decision making of Sam Presti.

Presti has recently been the darling of the NBA’s GMs and understandably so. He sat on the knee of the Godfather of contemporary NBA team franchise building, Greg Popovich, and since moving to the Oklahoma City Thunder has had nothing but great success. He seems to have it all coming and going, and even if you foresee me quibbling with that diagnosis, I’m not going to say that’s terribly wrong.

What I note though is that Presti is currently, and will be for the foreseeable future, on the virtual hotseat for the decision to trade Harden, and I think that to the extent he made a mistake here, the mistake was made quite a while ago.

As Presti neared the time when a decision about re-signing Harden could be no longer put off, theoretically he had 3 choices:

1) Re-sign Harden to continue playing his current 6th man role.

2) Let Harden go.

3) Re-sign Harden and bump up the man’s primacy at the expense of others (ahem, Russell Westbrook).

In reality, this wasn’t much of a choice. Or rather, the difference between the first two choices is blown up out of proportion, and the risks involved with the third choice are so massive it’d be shocking if any GM would dare be so bold. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matt Johnson

November 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm

MVP/Power Rankings Monday: The 10 Best Points I Can Make About the James Harden Trade

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BOOM! James Harden to the Rockets. Trades like this simply don’t happen often. Harden is 23, has All-NBA talent and was very controllable by the Thunder. Therefore, it’s really fun to talk about.

Here are roughly the 10 most insightful points I could make:

10. The Veto strikes again – Fun game, what happens if David Stern doesn’t block the Chris Paul to the Lakers deal? Paul obviously is on the Lakers, the Clippers either still in NBA hell or peeking their head above with an 7th/8th seed. Does the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade still happen, or do one of the Magic, Nuggets or Sixers go “Eff that, I’m not letting the Lakers have a dynasty”. If so, Howard is on another team as well. Either way, both Paul and Howard’s career paths and probably at least 1 title are affected. Then there’s Anthony Davis likely being on a different team than New Orleans. Davis could end up having an iconic career for the Hornets, changing that team and the one that would’ve gotten him if not for the veto. Finally, James Harden ends up on a team that isn’t the Rockets if not for this and if he breaks out to be a franchise star, the veto changes an era for Houston. And the Thunder assuming they trade Harden, get very different pieces for him – these pieces possibly changing the title picture in upcoming years. The Veto had a massive butterfly effect on the league.

9. The brilliance of the Omer Asik signing – The second most important piece on the Rockets now isn’t Jeremy Lin, it’s Omer Asik. Asik looks to be one of the best defensive centers in the league immediately for the Rockets. Getting a true defensive anchor at C is very hard, some teams go decades without one. The brilliant part of this signing is it happened while Houston had gone all in on trading for Dwight Howard. They had the foresight to have a plan B if they didn’t get Dwight and the balls to sign Asik as a backup C again if they had secured Howard. I suspect many teams would’ve been too blinded by the thought of Howard playing center for them, to consider signing Asik at the same time.

8. The Rockets still have huge cap flexibility and assets – As has been noted in a few places, the Rockets’ are looking at max free agent capspace next year. If Chris Paul leaving the Clippers becomes a real possibility, the Rockets will be involved trying to get him. Josh Smith and Al Jefferson are other plausible targets. Capspace is also valuable in a trade – Perhaps Memphis wants to get out of Rudy Gay’s contract next summer. With capspace and young players to trade, the Rockets are an ideal trade partner.

Speaking of young players, aside from Lin, the Rockets do have other enticing pieces like Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich and Scott Machado. Aside from giving Harden talent to work with, the Rockets just proved building up a store of trade assets is always a good strategy if another star becomes available. Read the rest of this entry »

2011 Player of the Year – Final

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The Player of the Year Watch has gone on all season long. Here we have the Final ranking.

Player (last rank)

1. Dirk Nowitzki (1A)

This is an easy choice for me. When it comes to literally lifting a team, Dirk has been the personification of this all year long. With the way LeBron came on against Chicago, I thought he was going to make me toss that aside but it didn’t happen.

I’ll admit that I actually thought that Wade was the MVP of the Finals over Dirk, but over the course of the entire season, nobody contributed value like Dirk.

2. Dwight Howard (3)

My regular season MVP got knocked off his perch down to the 3rd spot after the Conference Finals. However he floats back up a spot after LeBron’s weak Finals play. I’m always hesitant to let someone who has already been eliminated rise in my rankings, particularly when they were eliminated in an upset in the first round, however I can’t find real fault in Howard’s playoff performance, and what happened in the Finals did sway my opinion on LeBron’s season.

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2011 POY Watch – End Conference Finals

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The Player of the Year Watch continues past the regular season factoring in all of the playoffs and coming up with the player that truly had the best overall season. After each round, I will update the rankings.

Player (last rank)

1A. Dirk Nowitzki (4)

It’s been a joy to watch Dirk this year. He would without question be my Offensive Player of the Year. He plays so damn smart, with such an unreal touch. The Mavs are in the finals, with not a ton of talent around Dirk. I know that fit matters, and the Mavs have fantastic fit, but Dirk deserves some credit for helping to build that fit to.

1B. LeBron James (3)

And then there’s LeBron. I talked once before about how much I hate ties in rankings…when I last ranked a tie. Again though it seems appropriate right now as an in flux ranking to have a tie on top.

What LeBron did to Chicago was unreal. Tier 1 level offense, with world class defense. He is the best player in the game, and at this point I’m expecting him to take the crown over Dirk when all is said and done. But as they say, that’s why they play the game.

Read the rest of this entry »