Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: Northwest Division

Got Your Money

Hmmm ... what else can I do with $80 million?

OKC did the right thing on Thursday when they gave avant-garde roller skater and sometimes NBA point guard, Russell Westbrook, a contract extension. While OKC played it cryptically and refused to disclose the terms of the deal, sources are calling it a 5-year, $80 million deal with no opt-out clause.

From one Russell to another:

Checking in with Russ

Wednesday night was a fun one. I was camped in my usual spot on the couch, NBA TV kicking out basketball magic alongside early-season ineptitude (we see you, Utah!) for multiple hours straight. I switched over to the Oklahoma City-Memphis game just after halftime and had the opportunity to see Dancing with Noah favorite; Russell Westbrook struggle through a historically poor shooting night (see image below—courtesy of NBA TV). So far through three games of the young 2011-12 season, Little Bigs is averaging six turnovers/game and shooting 31% from the field while taking 17 shots/game. The laws of averages tell us that Russ will return to his norms and I believe in those laws. I also believe in trends and reality.

Dating back to the playoffs last year (17 playoff games and three regular season games), Russ is shooting under 40% and averaging close to five turnovers per game. His win shares are as poor as they’ve been his entire career and last night we finally saw a little public spat between Westbrook and Saint Durant. Arguments don’t imply divorce. I argue with my fiancée and I’ve gotten in pissing contests with my friends and had heated disagreements with teammates, so fights alone don’t mean the Westbrook/Durant partnership can’t thrive and continue to blossom. In all the fights I’ve been in, I wanted to work through to a solution and find a compromise. The argument we saw last night was probably nothing more than a heat of the moment thing, but going back to the playoffs last year, I can’t help but wonder about Westbrook’s self-image and intent. Does he see himself as a sidekick or the leading man? Is it 50/50? Is he confused? Am I confused? Am I speculating about shit that doesn’t really exist? Have I asked all these questions in the past and am I repeating my own mistakes searching for answers to hypotheticals that exist only in these confines?

I meant this to just be a quick little blurb, but I’ve slipped into a mini black-hole of curiosity where Russell Westbrook reigns and shoots pull up jumpers on fast breaks and is fueled by a smoldering desire to prove to someone, anyone that he can do it on his own. The “it” is whatever he defines it as.

As long as OKC keeps winning and everyone (Durant, Russ, Scott Brooks, Sam Presti) keeps saying the right things, these sub-par performances and chemistry questions will remain open-ended parts of the drama that spruce up the narrative, but don’t factor into its ending. If/when those things change is when we’ll be able to attach substance to Russell’s saga. It’s been a bad start to 2011-12 for Russ, but it can only get better than the misery he ran into last night:

 

Cause for Excitement

If you’ve read any of my team preview posts, you probably picked up on the theme of excited curiosity that surrounds the unknown. We all know what Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard and Samuel Dalembert are capable of doing, but we’re still learning about young players and guys who have switched uniforms.

With that that in mind, I was tickled last night as I sat on my couch, New Castle in hand, feet kicked up and landed the remote on the OKC @ Minnesota game. There was that Russell Westbrook whipping and snapping all over the court, a new haircut for Nick Collison, a DC battle between Beasely and Durant, and then the Spanish question mark Ricky Rubio. Yeah man, I was all skeptical about Rubio. Skeptical about his defense. Skeptical about his foot speed. Skeptical about the hype. I wasn’t quite hating on the kid, but I wasn’t supportive either and I can make a case that I wasn’t even fair in regards to his NBA potential.

I’m fully aware that 26 minutes and 18 seconds doesn’t count for much of a sample, but watching Rubio thread passes through the tiniest and tightest of lanes and openings had me stroking the stubble on my chin and nodding in agreement: Yes, that’s a man who can pass. The passes he made were hard enough to see let alone execute and he repeatedly threw these passes without making a single turnover. Ahhh … it was a breath of fresh air and for Minnesota fans, you people (whatchu mean, you people?!?! – it’s not even like that) should be rejoicing in the name of all that is round, leather and flies through a steel rim:

All the What Ifs in the World won’t take the Pain Away – Portland Trail Blazers Preview

“Why does shit like this always happen to my rotten ass?” – R.L.H.

The man who said the words above probably didn’t realize he was speaking for the downtrodden and hard luck of the world when he spoke those words of frustration and exasperation. Nor did he realize I’d be using his words to describe a sentiment shared by Portland Trail Blazers fans from sea to shining sea, but here we are…

The Blazers’ injury and draft-related woes have been re-told as a cautionary tale to would-be GMs for years like some kind of pro basketball boogeyman creeping in the knees and joints of promising Portland players, just waiting to strike when the time is worst. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are the latest victims of said boogeyman, but Darius Miles, Sam Bowie (different circumstance) and Bill Walton find themselves associated with some variety of Rose City fever. To be fair, Bowie and Oden had the misfortune of preceding Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant in the draft; a sin so egregious that both men’s names will be forever intertwined with the Hall of Famers who came after them.

As much as I fantasize about an encyclopedic-length Choose Your Own Adventure novel based on NBA scenarios that could’ve, but didn’t happen (guarantee I’ll revisit this idea multiple times in the future), reality still looms with its cold hands and dark mornings. Despite the Roy/Oden apocalypse, the Blazers’ 2011-12 reality is much more comfortable than the unforgiving steel of a coroner’s cold table—which is where Roy’s career sadly resides. Mourning is a necessary part of the grieving process, but let’s not lose sight of the potentially exciting group Portland’s pieced together beginning with a man who’s blossomed over his five-year career: Mr. LaMarcus Aldridge. Prior to last season, I never liked his game and considered him soft by NBA standards. At 6’11” with broad shoulders, athleticism, balance and coordination, he was far too talented to get seven boards a night over his first three seasons. In Roy’s absence last season, Aldridge matured and seemed to become tougher, smarter and more polished at the same time. If I’m holding him to the All-NBA standards he’s achieved, the only thing I can ask is for him to continue improving his rebounding. 8.8 boards per game still seems like an underachievement. The other area of concern is that Aldridge just had the second heart surgery of his career for a condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. From all reports and internets, it’s not a life or career-threatening issue, but damn … can a Blazer fan go through an anxiety-free season?

It’s a fun cast of characters with Aldridge. Raymond Felton’s back it with the weight issues and while it’s easy to make jokes about fat NBA players, Felton’s Ricky Hatton-esque off-season weight gain habit hasn’t prevented him from steadily improving as a pro point guard. He’ll be spelled by recent signing, the 50-point mercenary, Jamal Crawford who returns to the Northwest in a homecoming of sorts (he’s a Seattle product). Crawford has always been a mesmerizing player on the offensive side of the ball based on his lean, lanky physique and heat check-ability. His limbs are made of rubber which allows him to make cuts and do things with the ball that other humans are physically unable to do (except for Rajon Rondo, who seems to be from a similar planet). In another era (like the 70s), I feel like the Big JC would’ve been adored for the effectiveness of his on-the-court trickery and competed with Earl Monroe or George Gervin for icon status. Yep, I like me some Jamal Crawford and hope to someday write an e-book about him that uses Youtube clips for footnotes and celebrates his underrated contributions to physical creativity, artistry and inventiveness.

The Gerald Wallace/Nicolas Batum tag team isn’t quite as fresh as Jamal, but Crash and Batum should provide ample highlights. Batum’s one of those players who’s always overrated by video game developers and thus gets overrated by some percentage of video game-playing NBA fans simply because he’s good on a video game. The reason the pixelated version of Batum is nice is because two of his best skills translate perfectly to the gaming realm: Dunking and shooting threes. Is this the year the real-life version (just turned 23 and already has three years of experience in the NBA) lives up to the promise foretold by NBA 2K11? Or will he have to play second fiddle to Wallace’s maniacal efforts?

There are other Blazers of intrigue like Wes Matthews, Marcus Camby and the Rhino, Curt Smith and owner Paul Allen, who happens to be a bit stranger than I realized. Unfortunately, it’s the absences of Brandon Roy and a hobbling Greg Oden that continue to attract the headlines. Even if this group of players is able to make the playoffs and advance out of the first round for the first time since 2000, we’ll all witness it under the burning question … what if they had a healthy B. Roy and Oden? And what that happens, just look back to the quote at the beginning of this post.

Future: An Alternative to Winning or Losing – Minnesota Timberwolves

Did you know that Wesley Johnson (24), a rookie last year, is older than Kevin Love (23) and Michael Beasley (22)? Or that Beasley’s older than Ricky Rubio (21) and Derrick Williams (20)? The T’Wolves’ core is filled with youth, dreams and ceilings that reach beyond the firmament. To realize Kevin Love’s 30-30 game is to tip-toe into our past and dance with Moses Malone. To load up on youthful assets like David Kahn has done is put to faith in the future and bank on the development of at least one of Beasley, Johnson, Rubio, Anthony Randolph or Williams to partner with Love’s already historic body of work.

Being so bad for so long (last year, six teams had more wins (57 or more) than the Wolves have had over their past three years combined (56 total)), has helped Minnesota stockpile players who are barely old enough to drink. The front line is already established with a diverse threesome who can produce stats, but have struggled to generate wins. The backcourt, mostly point guard, is more mysterious. It’s not quite as confusing as crop circles, but Jonny Flynn, Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio give new Coach Rick Adelman options at the point. I picture a training camp where point guard front runners rotate on a daily basis like Republican Presidential candidates jockeying for position. With any luck, Kahn will throw the whole situation into chaos by drafting Marquis Teague to compete for the position in 2012.

Beyond the potential starters, Minnesota has elements of intrigue coming off the bench. Randolph perennially inspires stargazers to grab hold of isolated visions of potential and extrapolate them into 82-game projections punctuated by big, bold IFs. While the performances across his first three years as a pro have been marked by more valleys than peaks, it feels like we often forget this kid is just 22.

Then there’s Derrick Williams—Minnesota’s reward for being a terrible team yet again in 2011. Williams is an explosive combo forward; a strong rebounder with a slow, but accurate jump shot. Sometimes we see guys devour inferior competition in college, then get to the pros and look ordinary when faced with the world’s finest. Derrick is better than ordinary, but is he quick enough to guard Nicolas Batum? Is he beefy enough to bang with Serge Ibaka? Fortunately, Minnesota can ease him into these questions and peers like Love and Beasley can help provide the answers he seeks.

When winning’s not an option, an exciting underdog with a white hero to latch onto, a quadruple double threat and a previously post-hype Spanish point guard becomes an acceptable substitute. T’Wolves fans won’t have a lot of team success to celebrate this year, but the individual will be at the forefront many times over.

Let Your Heroes go in Peace – the Utah Jazz

For as long as I’ve been following the NBA, the Utah Jazz have been identifiable by the presence of players and a single coach who’ve cultivated a respectable workmanlike ethos. From their ancient leathery coach, Jerry Sloan, the approach flowed toward the blue collar duo of Stockton and Malone and was seamlessly transitioned to a modern-day version in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The Jazz we knew are no more.

The new Jazz are a mishmash of good, but not great players. Their fans go to sleep at night whispering soft prayers to the basketball gods, “Please let this be the year of The Al Jefferson. And maybe if you could see to it that Derrick Favors can become a starter and Enes Kanter can be the real deal; well, it’d kinda cool. ” Regardless of how the basketball gods respond to those requests, big Al’s support system is still young, shallow and somewhat unreliable. That description might sound more applicable to a group of teenagers, but it fits the new Jazz too. Al’s flanked by delicate Devin Harris (averages missing 14 games per year) and Paul Millsap. After that it starts getting lean. It doesn’t look like Andrei Kirilenko is going to re-sign which leaves Gordon Hayward (a tribute to classical Jazz roots), CJ Miles and Raja Bell to fight for the last two starting spots.

This isn’t a squad to inspire fear in the hearts of competitors. Unless Kanter and Favors are able to replicate some Ralph Sampson/Akeem Olajuwon mid-80s type performances, these guys should fall short of the playoffs again. With a group of good players, but no anchor, no Deron or Karl, it’s going to be a challenging climb into the top-eight in the conference. Looking at their opponents last year, they were able to compete with non-playoff teams and Eastern Conference foes, but consistently struggled against inter-conference playoff teams:

 

 Opponent Games Wins Losses Win%
Vs West Conf Playoff teams

31

10

21

32.3%

Vs Non West Playoff teams

21

11

10

52.4%

Vs East Conf Playoff teams

16

8

8

50.0%

Vs Non East Playoff teams

14

10

4

71.4%

 

If Jefferson makes the leap to an elite post player (very possible given his skill-set and the lack of quality bigs in the league) and Favors/Kanter/Hayward make significant improvements, the Jazz could leapfrog Denver or New Orleans for one of the last playoff spots; aka lambs to the Mavs/Lakers/Thunder slaughter. It’s not a contending team, but the Jazz have just enough talent to compete for the playoffs and just enough youth to keep fans intrigued by a promising, but undefined future. It’s OK to let go; Karl, John, Deron, Jerry and especially Al insist on it.

 

Let’s Progress…Together – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder used to be in Seattle and I live in Seattle, so it seems like a good place to start previewing teams. And if you read my posts during the playoffs last season, you know I had a mostly-healthy fascination with the Thunder and the inexplicable decision making of their sparkplug point guard, Russell Westbrook.

Six months later and I still see Russell as the lynchpin of this organization’s development. They’re one of the few (possibly only) teams that return their entire roster from last year—a team that won its division and made it to the Western Conference finals. Oh, and four of the top seven in their rotation are under 24-years-old. If you’re an Oklahoma City fan, you have every reason to be frothing at the mouth when you think about the potential of this team.

But it goes back to Westbrook. I watched OKC play throughout last season and have heard/read their fans saying that no one should be surprised with Russell’s playoff performance; that’s just Russell being Russell. And to an extent, I agree. His decision making, or lack thereof, has driven Americans batshit crazy since he entered the league in 2008 (he’s started 229 of 246 games in his young career). It’s easy to dismiss his mistakes as a consequence of being a developing youngster learning through failure (the old Jordan way) and all we can do is hope that’s the case. On the surface, Russell may have been as Iverson-esque as he’s been for the duration of his career, but he just did it less efficiently while increasing his volume:

Westbrook Stats Regular season Playoffs Change
Field-goal   attempts/game 16.95 20.18 +19%
3pt Field   Goal attempts/game 1.26 2.82 +125%
Usage Rate 31.6% 34% +2.4%
Field-goal   Percentage 44.2% 39.4% -4.8%
PER   (performance efficiency rating) 23.6 19.6 -4
eFG%   (effective field goal %) 45.4% 41.4% -4%
TS% (true   shooting %) 53.8% 49.9% -3.9%
Turnovers/game 3.9 4.6 +17.6%

The regular season-to-playoff drop-offs are disturbing and indisputable. Russell’s shot/pass selection was always suspect, but it got worse when it mattered the most. With creative geniuses, we accept the mistakes alongside the eye popping, text-message inspiring tip dunks, but for the 2011 playoffs, we saw both from Russell, just far too many of the turnover/missed shot variety.

This year will be a telling one in the Thunder’s evolving catalog. While the rest of the league’s stars spin off to form super-friend mini all-star clusters, Oklahoma City’s faced with the opposite conundrum: Too many youngsters desperate for individual acceptance; aka too many cooks in the kitchen. In the 80s, this group would’ve stayed together for a decade and won a couple titles at the least. And if Westbrook and Durant were on separate teams, they might be banging down doors to play alongside each other. As it stands though, these guys seem like a break-up waiting to happen. Kevin Durant plus Russell Westbrook plus Serge Ibaka plus James Hardenit’s great to watch, but based on math alone, it doesn’t feel sustainable. Whether our imagined Westbrook versus Durant rivalry come to fruition or Harden’s beard decides to take him to more fertile hardwoods or the salary cap decides Sam Presti just can’t afford Ibaka; something’s got to give. Even The Beatles broke up once.

On their darkest days, they remain one of the three best teams in the west. Give them a healthy Kendrick Perkins and 66 games to gel and anything less than a conference finals appearance is a letdown. But a little growth and a little “get by with a little help from my friends”, and they’re a contender. Given their youth and what the average 24-year-old is doing at this age, the awesome expectations for this team could be their demise or the sentiment that drives them to unified success.

%d bloggers like this: