Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: OKC

Kevin Durant & the Extinction Level Event

I woke on the morning of July 4th, 2016 fumbling for my phone, looking for Kevin Durant updates. Instead my mom had accidentally butt dialed me and I went back to sleep. It was 7:39 AM PST. I dozed off and assume I checked the phone a couple more times without updates until 8:48 AM when in my holiday morning grogginess, I squinted at the Woj tweets:

8:39 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Kevin Durant will sign with Golden State, he writes on the Players Tribune

8:42 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Process w/Durant and Golden State players has been ongoing for months. They sold him on winning multiple titles together, easing Cu…

I had planned on going back to bed and enjoying the rare Monday off, but this was the Woj Bomb of Woj Bombs: Peak level Kevin Durant at 27-years-old, whose only modern statistical peer is LeBron James, is joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors.

07-05-16 - KD ELE

It’s not enough to write it or see it on paper or text with your NBA junkie buddies about it; though that last part is significantly helpful for processing those morning feelings that somehow cause 35-year-old men to pause and think and feel – or if Twitter’s your bag, just tweet through it.

My own preferences were no doubt a source of my conflicted feelings. I loathe this collection of Golden State Warriors. Steph’s mouth guard-chewing half-swagger, Draymo’s muscle flexing and nut striking, Steve Kerr’s “aw shucks” demeanor, their legion of bandwagon fans – you’ve read or heard it all before, it’s nothing new. A large part of my fandom is wrapped up in villainy and sometime during the 2014-15 season these Warriors firmly took a torch that’s most recently been held by the 04-07 Pistons, 07-11 Celtics, and loosely and limply by the 12-14 Spurs. On the other side, I’ve always been a Durant fan dating back to his days in Austin and the 10-15 times I saw him as a rookie in his one season in Seattle.

These 2015-16 playoffs with their history-altering unpredictabilities and hopelessnesses that turned into triumphs were a bonding agent I didn’t even need. The Warriors and all their 73-win glory with their national media hype man in Mike Breen were roundly slugged in the mouth, against the ropes, bloodied and swaggerless down 3-1 to OKC. Hope was palpable; we were given something we could feel. And in game five, there was Durant high fiving teammates, optimistic about a closeout game six in OKC. And there were the turnovers and Klay Thompson’s all-timer game and that hope fizzling, ungraspable. That game six which has the look and feel of a pivotal moment in NBA history and is a game I’ll always remember like game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals or game six of the 2013 NBA Finals; but the ramifications of this Saturday night in May something altogether unique in terms of basketball butterfly effects. Finally there was what felt like inevitability in the game seven defeat.

Throughout the playoffs, KD futures rose and fell stock market style: OKC wins and there’s no way he can leave the team now. OKC loses and he’s got to explore the open market; can’t win with Russ playing like this.

At the end of it though, when the wins and losses were stacked up, even in defeat it felt like these Thunder players had broken through. They’d figured out how to beat the bombers from Oakland and it was a matter of execution more than anything else. Hell, it was Billy Donovan’s first year as head coach and Steven Adams was a revelation. After nine long years, it looked like the 10th would be Durant’s.

The morning after OKC’s loss, I remember seeing stories about KD’s pending free agency and scoffing at the idea that he would leave the team with whom he’d just been to war. In my hopeful naiveté I interpreted the stories as clickbait guaranteed to stir conversation and generate more ad impressions. The concept of a departure was alien.

I don’t care to recap the daily play-by-play of Durant’s free agency visits except to say that with each passing hour (which felt like drawn out days punctuated by Twitter and text updates) what once felt like an inevitable return to OKC for a 1+1 deal seemed to ebb away like OKC’s 3-1 lead. With the exception of maybe an upgraded Boston with Al Horford, the other three teams (Clips, Spurs, Heat) were far behind the incumbent OKC. Golden State was the only team that offered some sort of up-level and it was the type of level-up that some think shouldn’t be available and only became available due to this once-in-a-lifetime spike in the salary cap and a perfect storm of events that opened up the possibility for four of the top-15-to-20 players in the league to join forces in their physical primes.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 3rd, I took the news that he would make an announcement by Monday as a sign that the decision had already been made. There was supposedly a second meeting with OKC and the closer call with GSW Exec/NBA logo Jerry West and the news on Sunday night that it was a two-horse race between GSW and OKC and then it was just the wait for what felt like a simple formality of an announcement.

I never preferred Durant stay with OKC. I didn’t care one way or the other. The drama of the meetings and the possibility of NBA shakeups are hugely entertaining, future-altering decisions. Lives change, jobs are won and lost, legacies defined by decisions like these. Durant’s destination only mattered to me as long it wasn’t Golden State. For the villain to be the winningest team in regular season history and then to somehow get better and get better by snatching up their primary rival and all the while to be a supporter of that rival? In all its possibility, it wasn’t comprehensible in the sense that I didn’t want to comprehend it even though the image of a Curry-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Draymo lineup leaves me with some kind of confused attraction. How do you guard that lineup? It’s not unfair, but it is unguardable. The entire plot reads like a WWE script, but without the obvious literal chair in the back.

Here in Seattle and across the basketball-sphere, some folks are celebrating OKC owner Clay Bennett’s loss today as a “how’s it feel to lose something you love?” Screw Clay Bennett. But more than Bennett being the thief in the night, the system of professional sports with its exploitative model that strong-arms cities and states for publicly funded arenas, the former Sonics owners led by Howard Schultz, and of course then-Commissioner David Stern were all complicit in this jacking. My personal experience separates the pro sport monolith (with its own unique dramas) from the game and front office operations. As soothing as vengeance can be, the day-to-day of weight of a 24-7 talk track world infatuated with the Warriors is the greater of two evils. I prefer a world where Bennett gets his comeuppance and the Warriors get theirs as well. But in this reality, Golden State’s now delivered consecutive back-to-back soul crushing blows to the former Sonics franchise.

The remainder of this piece of is a personal log of sorts whereby I offer up a basic analysis and open-ended questions of what this all means:

  • What are the CBA ramifications? The owners and players association will be embarking on new negotiations and one can only imagine that more than a few owners are going point to KD’s departure from small market to large market as a chief reason for finding more ways for incumbent teams to keep their stars. Does this mean changes to the max structure? The league wants parity but as long as stars have a cap on their earning potential and freedom of movement, they’ll continue to join forces in order to win. Hard caps and max adjustments have been tossed around as solutions, but personally the removal a player max is the radical and balanced equalizer. I won’t hold my breath though as the NBA’s bulging middle class is a majority and stands to lose the most in a no max scenario.
  • Before the draft, as the details of what GSW would have to do sign KD came out, it seemed like an overreaction for the Warriros to dump two starters and at least one key reserve for just one player. They won 73 games and were one of the most dominant and popular teams I’ve ever seen at a time when the league is reaching broader audiences all over the world. But it always came back to Durant’s talent. Certain players are worth moving mountains for and 7-foot 27-year-olds who average 27-points, 7-rebounds, and nearly 4-assists in over 600 games in their first nine seasons are worth it. The only other guys who have done this through their first nine seasons are LeBron, Kareem, Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt, and Elgin Baylor. Kevin Durant is that kind of dude. But, it’s not without risk. Bogut’s gone, replaced by Zaza Pachulia. Golden State will sign other ring chasers and fill out a roster the same way we’ve seen the Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, and Heat do successfully. It’s a model that can and does work. Areas that still give me pause about this GSW team are in the paint and on the boards. It wasn’t just OKC’s ability to switch with length or the Cavs utilization of Tristan Thompson on defense that allowed those teams to find success against GSW. It was a relentlessness on the boards that battered and wore them down. That won’t change much if they start Draymo or Zaza at center. The potential for the greatest scoring team of all-time that happens to project as an excellent defensive team is the obvious counter-argument.
  • Golden State was battered and without Bogut for much of the Finals. All those shots Harrison Barnes missed in a series that went seven games and culminated with a five-point difference? Got to think Durant easily covers that type of gap.
  • When LeBron went to Miami there was consternation and hand-wringing over whose team it would be — Bron’s or Wade’s? I don’t anticipate the same type of concern, but GSW has a clear alpha dog leader in Draymo. Curry is its more mild-mannered best player, but Draymo is their heart and soul. How does Durant, another alpha dog, plug into this existing hierarchy? As always, winning cures all and my gut tells me everything will be copacetic.
  • Probably the most impressive and awful part of this signing is the aforementioned complete destruction of OKC as a Western Conference contender. It’s not like Anthony Davis left a crappy Pelicans team or Damian Lillard left a decent Blazers team. The best fucking player on the Warriors’ most dangerous West opponent just joined them. In one fell swoop, KD turned Golden State into an All-Star team while eliminating their top rival. Anything can happen in sports when fragile, imperfect humans are involved, but assuming a modicum of health, these Warriors have just the Spurs and maybe the Clippers as potential West challengers. The Clippers are running back the same squad from last year but without Cole Aldrich while the Spurs appear to be replacing Tim Duncan with Pau Gasol and potentially losing Boris Diaw. On paper, OKC was the challenger. Now? On paper at least, all roads lead to Oakland.

This move wraps up what feels like one of the craziest 2-3 month stretches the NBA’s ever experienced. I can only imagine the shockwaves falling on fans in OKC and the Bay Area right now. Hurt and anger, elation and renewal – and it’s only July. Depending on perspective, is the worst/best behind us or is it yet to come? Is this the burial or the resurrection? Summer is here, the pieces are settling into place, we have three months to rest up and mentally prepare. If pro sports exist to give many of us an escape from daily stressors and the absurdity of existence, then the NBA and Kevin Durant have delivered in spades.

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:


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.

Intersections and Roundabouts

It was somewhat painful to miss the OKC-Mavs game last night (game two), but my homey’s getting married, so I was on a flight. The flight had Wi-Fi, but apparently ESPN3.com doesn’t come on a plane too well and it ended up too choppy for my taste. So I missed the Durant smash on Haywood, Russell melting down, Dirk missing a free throw, Harden carrying the OKCs in the fourth and a bunch of other shit that didn’t make the Sportscenter recap I just saw four times in a row.

Oh, then the Eric Maynor thing.

Remember back in December of 2009 when the Jazz made a salary dump and traded Matt Harpring’s contract and Maynor to OKC for someone named Peter Fehse? It was a good deal for OKC at the time and it I’m guessing it made sense for the Jazz too since Deron was monopolizing the point and was officially the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor on that trade:

“Trading Eric was a difficult decision. But, along with Matt’s contract, it greatly helps reduce our luxury tax responsibility. Fortunately, with Deron and a proven backup in Ronnie Price we feel that we have depth at that position.”

OKC GM Sam Presti had been high on Maynor in the 2009 draft and was willing to take on Harpring’s $6.5 million salary to get Maynor as a backup/insurance policy for Westbrook. After seeing the turn of events last night and seeing more than a few OKC games this year, I wonder if Maynor wasn’t more of a long-term insurance policy. For Presti, it was a low-risk reach for a prospect who’s being paid on the rookie scale for the next three seasons.

For the Salt Lake faithful, they have to be wondering what the fuck just happened. They went from legit Western Conference challengers to lottery team almost overnight. If you look at the 2009-10 team, it’s easy to place the blame for their fall on bad contracts. They had Wes Matthews and Maynor—both gone because Utah didn’t want to or couldn’t pay them (or pay Harpring in Maynor’s case). The Jazz were over the cap in the first place because they gave Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur huge contracts. It was either Boozer or Millsap and the Jazz went with Millsap. They couldn’t keep everyone because they bet the house on a few guys who struggle to start now—Okur and Kirilenko. The weaker-than-expected team they fielded this season led to Jerry Sloan’s abrupt resignation and the equally abrupt ending of the Deron Williams era in SLC. And now a team that had a couple of solid young point guards is being linked to drafting … yep … another young point guard in the 2011 draft.

Maybe they should reach out to OKC and see if Russell Westbrook’s available.

Deconstructing Russell

When I initially decided to say something about Russell Westbrook, it was mostly critical because I was mad and had been sending emails and text messages about Russell pulling up for contested jumpers in crunch time of close games. It happened most noticeably in game four against Denver when the OKC point put up thirty shots and missed 18. OKC ended up winning the series 4-1 so it wasn’t a nasty strike on Westbrook’s young résumé; just another example of his frustrating tendencies. And that’s why I sent all those angry texts and emails: Because three years into the league, playing opposite the league’s top scorer in Kevin Durant, Russell still felt the need to gun from the point spot.

I say “still” because I’ve been watching OKC closely since they left Seattle and what used to be a cute little hiccup in his first two seasons has developed into something stranger and more difficult to define. First and second year point guards aren’t supposed to be polished. They make mistakes like throwing errant passes, pushing the break too fast and charging over veteran defenders. They shoot poorly from the field and do the wrong things at the wrong time. Basketball heads nod and agree that they’ll get it at some point. If they don’t get it, they’ll eventually be replaced by someone who does. Now in his third year as a player who’s already won a gold medal at the 2010 World Basketball Championships, already named to the all-star team, is already considered elite at his position; we expect him to improve this singular part of his game.  

Frustration leads to speculation, so I wondered what was motivating Russell to chuck up contested threes in close games when Kevin Durant was standing 15 feet away. Is he pulling a G-Money move to Durant’s Nino Brown? We all know how that turned out. Trying to prove to someone, anyone, that he could do the Durant? Is he trying to force his way out of the long shadow cast by Durant’s arms, legs and point-per-game average? Maybe it has nothing to do with Durant. Is he inept? Does he genuinely think it makes sense to pull up from 23 feet with Ty Lawson’s hand in his face when OKC is down 5 in Denver with under a minute left? Is he true a point guard?

Or is my frustration misplaced?

On any given day, Russell Westbrook is the third best point guard on the planet and on his bad days he’s still probably not much worse than fifth best. In terms of convention, he doesn’t fit the description. He doesn’t pass like his head is a giant eyeball seeing everything. He doesn’t lead like a general or a quarterback. He’s far from a calming presence on the floor (he’s led the league in total turnovers in two of his three seasons). He’s closer to a live wire whipping from baseline to baseline, bricking jumpers and collecting his own rebounds before defenders can even consider the boxout process. He’s never missed a game in three years which isn’t surprising even though he attacks offensive rebounds with bad intentions . By any statistical measure, he’s improved each year he’s been in the league.

Yet my text messages and emails are still met with mostly agreement. We agree: Russell Westbrook takes some dumbass shots at seriously inopportune times. We are a consensus, but through all my Russell Westbrook considerations, I can’t help but feel he might be onto something. The point guard he most resembles is Derrick Rose. Both PGs defy the position’s tradition by actively looking for their shots, but the difference is Rose doesn’t have Kevin Durant riding shotgun. He doesn’t have anything that even resembles Durant and as a result, every day in the United Center is Derrick Rose Day.

Which brings me to a place I didn’t think I didn’t think I’d arrive: Westbrook’s destiny and ceiling might be Derrick Rose’s 2010-11 season: MVP, best record in the league, all-star starter. He has the athleticism, a similar on-court mentality and damn near the exact same stats. If he truly believes he can do what Rose can do (he’s seen it up close at the World Championships), then he has a responsibility to himself to pursue it—potentially independent of Kevin Durant. Of course this goes against the grain of the selfless point guard who makes teammates better, but what’s an archetype to Russell Westbrook?

After all this, I’m no closer to understanding Russell Westbrook. I get it that he’s not a traditional point guard and I should adjust my expectations to him, not him adjusting his game to the expectations of his position. But until he’s got his own team or Durant’s sitting on the bench with six fouls or a boot on his foot, please Russell, do the right thing…whatever that is.

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