Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: Russell Westbrook

Pacing Against History, the Quarter Turn

Last season I had a monthly post to look at how players were pacing against random historical statistical achievements and now that we’re now roughly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, I’m revisiting the concept. It’s no longer the “young” NBA season, but we’ve escaped the doldrums of “small sample-size theater” and can look at trends as markers of potential sustainability like Russell Westbrook preposterously averaging a triple double. The audacity! Let’s dive in and embrace the stats instead of telling the kids to get off our lawn while we spit shine our shrines to Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan because goddamn it, yesterday wasn’t better than today and today isn’t better than yesterday. New frontiers await, let’s go!

Special thanks to Basketball-Reference for ALL stats

Special thanks to Basketball-Reference for ALL stats

  1. You want efficiency, here’s your damn efficiency: Kevin Durant scoring 27ppg on 17 or less FGA/gm. Since 1946-47, Basketball-Reference (BBR) tells us the only player with comparable volume and efficiency was Charles Barkley in 1987-88 when he averaged 28.3-points on 16 FGA/gm. Everyone said it would be easier in for KD in Golden State and so far it’s been historically easy.
  2. For just the 3rd time in league history, at least 10 players are averaging 25 or more points/game. Last happened in 2005-06 after a rule change. Additionally, a whopping 28 players are averaging 20 points or higher.
  3. BBR tracks rebound percentage beginning in the 1970-71 season when young Tom Boerwinkle led the league with 22.6%. Between 1971 and 2016, only four players achieved a 24% or higher rebounding rate. In 2016-17, three players, including Dwight Howard at a career-high 24.2%, are 24% or better – Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside are the other two. Dennis Rodman appears on this list seven times and holds six of the top-7 rates.
  4. Seems like everyone has strong opinions these days on how many threes big men should or shouldn’t be shooting. I may or may not be one of these people, but it doesn’t change the fact that players listed at 6’11” or taller are taking and making more threes than ever before. Prior to 2016-17, big guys had hit 1.5 or more threes/game 18 different times and it been accomplished by just seven players including the king of big man threes, Dirk Nowitzki who did it five times. But the throne is being challenged in 16-17 as six bigs are making at least 1.5 3s/game including Channing Frye who, if he keeps up his current pace, will tie Dirk for most appearances on the list. Also worth noting is that Frye’s on pace to set big man records for most threes made and highest 3pt-percentage.
  5. With advanced stats like individual defensive-rating, defensive plus-minus, and opponent shooting percentage, we have more and deeper ways to measure defensive impact. This is good, but there’s still some traditional measures that help identify the havoc players are wreaking on that end of the floor and steals and blocks do a decent job. Since 1973-74 when steals and blocks started being tracked, just two players (David Robinson once and Hakeem Olajuwon four times) have accomplished full-season averages of 2-plus steals and 2-plus blocks. A quarter of the way into 16-17 and the dashing young Grecian prince Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a bid to join these Hall-of-Fame legends with his averages of 2.2 in both categories. Fellow basketball savant Anthony Davis isn’t far behind at 2.7-blocks and 1.8-steals. Do these youngsters dare to jointly pull off a feat not seen since 1992? Dare they may!
  6. In all our years, we’ve only seen the greatest of the great reach the all-around statistical lines so indicative of great versatility as a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist per-game average. These are players like Oscar Robertson (5x), Wilt Chamberlain (2x), John Havlicek (2x), Larry Bird (6x), Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James. But legends must make room for new jacks and those include Russell Westbrook (31-10-11) and the aforementioned Giannis (22-8-6). Russ is the headliner, but at 22, Giannis and Oscar (in 1960-61) are the youngest ever to stack these stats.
  7. From the world of the weird, since the advent of this great game only a single player has averaged at least 25-points while making 8-or-less field goals/game. That lightning rod of making a lot out of a little is James Harden who reached the over-25/under-8 marker thrice is being threatened with new company this season as argyle-sock-puppet-loving Jimmy Butler throws his hat into the ring of mondo-efficiency with 25.6-points on just 7.8-field goals/game.
  8. Joel Embiid doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders due to his lack of minutes which is a result of nightly restrictions and not playing back-to-backs, but for rookies, he’s embarking on some strange records:
    1. Usage rate: He’s currently at 37.6% which would easily eclipse Ben Gordon’s record of 30.4% back in 2004-05. NBA usage rates are tracked back to 1977-78.
    2. Turnovers: No player has ever averaged as many turnovers (3.8) while appearing in as few minutes (under 24). As his playing time and frequency level out, one would expect there to be a balancing out, but until it happens, he’ll remain in lonely, rare company.
    3. Three-point shooting: For rookies who have attempted at least 30 threes in the first 13 games of their debut season, Embiid ranks 4th overall in accuracy at 51% (18-35) behind well-known shooters Brent Barry, Jason Terry, and Dana Barros.
    4. Blocks & Threes: With all these unicorns like Embiid, Giannis, and Porzingis galloping around NBA cities, new frontiers are being explored with frequency. Since 1983-84, only one other player (not limited to rookies) has as many blocks (29) and threes (18) made through his team’s first 13 games and that’s Wilson Chandler in 2010-11.
  9. 28-points-10-rebounds-1.5 3s had never been reached before this season and now we’ve got two players breaking on through to the other side (interestingly enough, a montage of Westbrook drives, dives, and boards could easily be set to The Doors tune) of NBA statistics: Westbrook (31-10-1.8) and DeMarcus Cousins (29-10-1.7). There’s a lot of similarity in how these guys play so while positionally (not a word, but we’ll go with it) and physically they couldn’t be much more dissimilar, they’re both emotionally volatile players fueled by something deep in their guts and chest cavities. They’re wrecking balls with immense responsibilities riding on their shoulders and their carnage is leaving bulk stats and fragile records in their wakes from Sacramento to Oklahoma City.
  10. A usage rate over 30% will typically land a player in the top-10 in the league in overall usage. But 30% usage and under two turnovers/game? That’s rare. So rare that prior to this season, it’s been accomplished just three times: by Kobe Bryant last year (more a result of his bullish shot jacking), LaMarcus Aldridge in 14-15 (30.2, 1.7), and Dirk in 08-09 (30.3, 1.9). Joining this rare combination of usage and efficiency are Kawhi Leonard (30.6, 1.9) and Zach Randolph (30.9, 1.3). Though I haven’t seen as much Z-Bo as I would like, I’m assuming there’s a lot of catching and shooting with little dribbling and not much playmaking. Kawhi, by contrast, has more assists/game than anyone else on this list.
  11. Blocking shots and scoring the basketball at an elite level are the domains of Kareem, Hakeem, the Admiral and Pat Ewing, right? I mean those are the first names that come to mind when I think of that joint skillset, but prior to this season, only a single player had ever average 30-points and greater than 2.5-blocks for an entire season. Can you guess who it is? Think, think, guess, guess, don’t skip ahead. This year, Anthony Davis (31.5, 2.7) is flirting with joining Buffalo Brave great Bob McAdoo (30.6, 3.3) in this exclusive club of tall, lean basketball pros.
  12. After tonight, the Brow of unibrow fame is already up to six 35-point, 15-rebound games. Since 1983-84, the most a player has had in a single season was Charles Barkley with 12 in 87-88. We know the Brow’s susceptible to missing games to aches, pains, strains, sprains and the like, but this is a fun one to watch.
  13. 50-40-90 club but with 48-38-88 thresholds so we can see who’s sniffing around. 20 games into the season and we’ve got four candidates: Stephen Curry (49-42-92), Patty Mills (51-45-96), Terrence Ross (50-44-94), and J.J. Redick (49-46-90). Only once since we’ve been threes came into the game have we seen more than one player reach this dead-eye shooting summit: 2007-08 when Jose Calderon and Steve Nash landed there together.

We’re a quarter of the way in, but this has the making of a legendary season for statistical achievements, driven by those former three Thunders rolling roughshod through the league in their own tradition-defying ways. Usage rates at the individual level are rising in line with individual scoring and the range expansion of big men means more of the court is open to new batches of players which means the entire ecosystem of stats is undergoing historical change. This is fun, it’s unseen, let’s get our sunscreen (I’ll make sure your neck is covered) and venture off into worlds unknown with Boogie and Russ and the Brow. Godspeed!

First, the Obvious

It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.

Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestro Steve Nash.

Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)

russell-james

We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.

Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.

Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.

If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.

But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.

By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.

Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.

Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.

Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.

All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.

To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com - a great website

Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com – a great website

Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:

oscar-pace

The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.

Russ and the 25-20 Club

Russell Westbrook spent last spring (Feb-April) averaging 31.4 points-per-game, 9.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and two steals while shooting 85% on 11.4 free throw attempts/game. Because of that and because of hundreds of games of visual and statistical evidence, I shouldn’t be surprised when Westbrook unleashes hell’s scorn on opponents like he did against the Clippers tonight when he pulverized Chris Paul of Meet the Hoopers ad campaigns (“Kevin, where you get all them dimes from?”) and his Clipper friends/teammates to the tune of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-best 20 assists.

Dancing with Noah is nothing if not interested in random historical comparisons for the sakes of context and connecting to a shared past – one that often creates feelings of nostalgia in me if we’re being honest. And while it might be a poor carpenter who blames his tools, it’s a resourceful blogger that utilizes the genius gift-giving of basketball-reference’s Player Game Finder tool.

The criteria:

25 points, 20 assists since 1983-84

The list is longer than I expected: 10 players accomplished the feat 22 times since 83-84 with Russ making #23. (Also, NBA TV tells us Oscar Robertson had the 25-20-10+ triple double three times.)

03-09-16 - Russ & 25-20 Club

It was last accomplished by Steve Nash in January of 2006 in a triple overtime losing effort against the Knicks. Nash played 55 minutes scoring 28 points on 3-13 shooting from three with 22 assists. Also of note: Shawn Marion played 60 minutes for the Suns (39 and 14) and Eddy Curry of Baby Bulls fame went for 20 and 15. But painfully (for Bulls fans at least) we digress.

Prior to Nash, it was Stephon Marbury on April 25th, 1999 with 26 and 20 in a winning effort over the Pacers. A New York Times reporter named Chris Broussard led off his recap with:

Perhaps it was a glimpse into the future: Stephon Marbury running the offense to near perfection, Keith Van Horn scoring on jump shots and powerful drives, the other Nets contributing in various ways and, maybe, just maybe, Don Casey on the sideline planning the strategy.

It wasn’t a glimpse into the future, but it was a hell of game from Marbury and he wasn’t hesitant to let everyone know: “A lot of people don’t have enough heart to throw the ball (referring to behind-the-back passes) because they think they’re going to get a turnover. I’m totally different. I know that it’s going to get there if I see him ahead of time and the guy steps to the ball.”

I won’t go through every occurrence, but call out a couple because every impressively unique performance is wrapped in a story. There are a couple more games that stood out for various reasons like John Stockton’s (he of four appearances on the 25-20 list) 26-point, 24-assist, 6-steal on 12-16 shooting effort against the Rockets in January of 1988. He also had just one turnover. In a most Stockton quote ever, Houston Chronicle writer Eddie Sefko reported that Stockton said, “The night means nothing without the win.” Of course not.

There’s a 10:30 condensed version of Stockton’s gem on Youtube which I’ve included below. And maybe it’s the splicing, but the game feels like it’s played at a breakneck pace. There’s something kinetic about it and it’s not just Stockton pushing breaks or Malone filling in those breaks and celebrating with weird fist pumps after dunks (fast forward to 2:00), but there’s constant movement and a radio-style announcer describing every moment of activity.

The condensed clip is worth watching as an artifact of three of our greatest players at or near the peak of their powers. Stockton as the engine, Malone as the body, and Olajuwon and as a lean do-everything center who went for 26-13 with seven steals and five blocks. Stockton is the show-stealer though as he single-handedly dictates how Utah would run in a way which Sefko described as “passing (that) would have made Boomer Esiason envious.” For a team associated in their later years with the Stockton/Malone pick and roll, their fast break was a purple wave rushing with Stockton at its head, flanked by Malone, Darrell Griffith and Thurl Bailey. Oh the breaks! As if Sefko wasn’t enough, one announcer (at 6:35) can be heard saying, “The Cowboys ought to forget about Troy Aikman, they oughta sign up John Stockton to quarterback that ball club.”

We can expand the criteria from merely the paltry, lazy man’s 25-20 to include the double digit boards as well which narrows our list down to Russ, Magic (twice), Isiah once, and the aforementioned Robertson with three.

And our final focus will be Magic Johnson’s 32-point, 20-assist, 11-rebound masterpiece in November of 1988 against Sir Charles Barkley’s 76ers. Magic’s performance was such that it inspired Los Angeles Times writer Gordon Edes to proclaim, “an agnostic might argue that the only religion the Lakers needed was Magic Johnson’s 32 points, 20 assists, and 11 rebounds.” Egads, Edes!

But such was Magic’s game that he evoked highest of praise and who can blame Edes for hyperbole when he writes that Magic scored 12 of his 32 in the last four-and-a-half minutes including a three that put the Lakers ahead for good. Magic’s game only seems appropriate against the backdrop painted by Edes who describes a scene that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell ceremony in Philadelphia accompanied by Grover Washington Jr. playing sax, Laker Tony Campbell getting ejected for apparently telling the ref “I love you, but that was a terrible call,” Orlando Woolridge getting kicked in the head and being unable to feel his fingers, and Charles Barkley shooting 5-14 from the line to muddy up an otherwise gorgeous 31-point, 23-rebound, 6-assist game with 13-19 shooting from the field. We throw around “what a time to be alive” with vulgar irony, but Christ, November 28th, 1988 was the time to be alive and Philadelphia was the place so sayeth Magic, Charles and Gordon Edes. Edes wraps the piece with a spookily prescient quote from Magic, “Two, three, four years, I’ll be gone. Then I’ll be delivering in a Park and Recreation League.” Magic was right about the timeline, just no one could’ve foreseen the circumstances.

And to take it back to where we started with Russell, he just so happened to be born just 16 days before Magic recorded his game against Philadelphia which was the last time we had an induction into the 25-20-10 club. There’s something oddly circular to the timing here, but let’s not dwell on coincidences. But damn, in some kind of cosmic nod to Stockton, all Russ was concerned with was the win as he said, “Just a win, man. More important just to see all my teammates happy and all see my teammates enjoy the game and enjoy this win.” It’s all too much coincidence or else there are some threads streaking through basketball space-time connecting Oscar to Magic to Stockton to Steph to Steve to Russ. Sometimes the continuity is too great.

It’s all lollipops and rainbows until someone averages 5 turnovers

Black Friday, a time for some consumers to pit their deal-stalking prowess against the masses, a post-holiday competitive consuming dessert. For the NBA, a day to get back on track after one of the few league-wide off days. For some, strange cornucopias like chocolate drizzled on turkey manifested themselves on this Friday.

11-28-15 - james & russ mysteries

The criteria:

  • 50 or more points
  • Nine or more turnovers

Two of my favorite storylines this year in the NBA sense of soap opera are Philadelphia and Houston. Black Friday was a chance to see these train wrecks on the same court navigating through their own personal debris in efforts to find some stable safety. But there can only ever be one winner in the NBA and for Houston (they won 116-114 at home knocking to Philly to 0-17 and extending their losing streak to 27 games) it took every particle of James Harden’s basketball being to achieve the victory. Harden hoisted the hodge podge Rockets on his back for the following line:

  • Harden, 11/27/15: 50pts on 12-28 from field, 6-12 from 3, 16-20 from the line, 9rebs, 8asts and 9 turnovers

This is right in line with the season he’s having where’s now averaging a career best 30 points/game alongside a career worst five turnovers/game. As I’ve written though, the only time the Rockets seem capable of competing is when James is dominating – efficiency be damned – and his inability to control the ball didn’t prevent a Rockets win. It does put him in some rare company though. As we see below, just two other players in the past 30 seasons have pieced together such uneven lines:

Harden wasn’t the only big leaguer to struggle taking care of the ball on this evening. Up north in Oklahoma City, Mountain Dew pitchman Russell Westbrook bing bang bobbled his way into 11 turnovers in just 29 minutes of play (he fouled out) against the Pistons and former teammate Reggie Jackson. His TOs covered a broad swath of ball un-control:

  1. Dribbled off his foot
  2. Forced a pass
  3. Charge
  4. Bad pass
  5. Bad pass
  6. Stripped
  7. Stepped out of bounds
  8. Charge (bad call as Ilyasova pushed into Russ as he drove)
  9. Dribbled off his foot
  10. Unforced lost ball on drive
  11. Charge (tried to draw contact jumping into defender)

The criteria:

  • 11 or more turnovers
  • 30 minutes or less

Unlike James and his friends Allen and Hakeem, Russ is all alone on this one. Since 1985-86, we’ve never had another guy turn the ball over this much in as limited playing time. It’s entirely possible that someone turned the ball over 12 times in 24 minutes of play, then proceeded to play another 10 minutes of TO-free basketball, but that’s not the criteria.

This is probably Russ’s worst game of the season. On top of the sloppy ball control, he shot 5-14 from the field and fouled out for just the ninth time in nearly 600 career games (playoffs and reg season). His already league-leading turnovers/game went from 4.9 to 5.2 in what’s suddenly become a race to the bottom between him and Harden to see who can turn the ball over most. Like Harden and the Rockets, OKC was still able to win and by double digits despite Russ’s off night. So instead of this being a costly headache, it’s the flipside consequence of a player that exceeds all speed limits and handling guidelines and occasionally goes off the rails as a result.

Not everyone can grace us with the ball protection and calm of a Chris Paul assist-to-turnover ratio. Harden and Westbrook are two of our most dynamic guards, centerpieces of a New NBA with an unstated philosophy that to make the perfect omelet, many, many eggs must be broken. On the same night, pro basketball wunderkind Stephen Curry dropped 41 points while turning the ball over six times and raising his career-worst turnovers/game up to 3.8. It’s like Tyler Durden told us in Fight Club, “even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.”

Sunday to Monday Thoughts on Basketball #12

After all the speculation and consternation of watching 30 teams war it out in great big shiny arenas across North America, we’re finally down to just two teams: El Heat y Los Spurs. I doubt this series will have any impact on President Obama’s meager attempts immigration reform, but let’s be real, we recognize the presence of our neighbors to the south be they Central Americans or Caribbean islanders (at least from a marketing perspective we recognize them), but yet our government continues the odd obsession with removing them at record numbers. Alas, for all the NBA’s inclusiveness, Latin America will be represented by just Brazil (Tiago Splitter) and Argentina (Manu Ginobili) while El Heat remain as American as apple pie. Enough with the geo-national conversation and on with the week that was:

Power be to Russell Westbrook: Sure, the Thunder’s season is over, but who are we to just forget about Westbrook like he was a six-game long fling? It was less than a week ago that Russ reminded us why he’s the most interesting, electric, cannonballing, nuclear, natural hurricane on legs with fingers for guns driven driven driven between the lines by madness that adhere to no ideas of yours or mine. So if our minds of full function, function beyond that of the incapacitated Donald Sterling, then let us remember Westbrook’s 40-point, 10-assist, 5-steal, 5-rebound as one of the most singular unique games in playoff or league history. Only Michael Jordan has accomplished the feat in the playoffs and only four other players have accomplished the feat since 1985. Praise the violent, virulent, vitriolic, vindictive Westbrook and his sweetly hypnotizing anarchic leanings.

More on Robert Swift: Speaking of players drafted by the Sonics, Seattleites have taken surprising umbrage to a Seattle Times piece that posted a little over a week ago about former Sonic struggler, Robert Swift. The cacophony from the Emerald City chorus accused author Jayson Jenks and the newspaper of intentionally humiliating the giant young redhead. The uproar was loud enough that Sports Editor Don Shelton felt compelled to write a blog post explaining why the Times posted it on the front page of the Sunday edition. The over-protective reaction from Times readers came out of nowhere. Reading Jenks’s original piece, it’s difficult to be viewed as a hatchet job. As Shelton writes, the piece is made up of interviews with over 20 people who were closely associated with Swift and at times even portrays the troubled big man in a sympathetic light. Clearly though, it’s a story in which the reading public is still highly vested in and which people are still processing their feelings.

The $2-billion Man: Steve Ballmer of Microsoft fame (also known for overzealous outburst, profuse sweating, and using honey as a vocal lubricant) purchased the Los Angeles Clippers from Shelly Sterling (of Sterling family infamy) for a record-breaking $2-billion. The purchase was quickly followed up by a Twitter-reported play-by-play meltdown occurring at the Sterling compound. The Los Angeles Times’ Andrea Chang was on the scene and reported on the spectacle here. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne continued to give us all the details we desperately needed including the ever-dramatic determination that Sterling was ruled mentally incapacitated – to the surprise of no one. A day later, again to no one’s surprise, we learned Donald would sue the NBA for an arbitrary amount of $1-billion. Of other interest is the league’s insistence back in 2011 that owners were losing money. Three years later and the going rate for teams is over half-a-billion dollars which should set us up for an inevitable showdown after the 2017 season when the players (or owners) have the chance to opt-out of the current deal which is certainly owner-friendly. And lastly, up north in Seattle, Sonics fans who saw Ballmer as a linchpin to a Sonics return have spent the weekend mortified, but still able to enjoy the gorgeous weather – so not too mortified.

Marvin Clark and amateur basketball bullshit: Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote what has become an almost trope in the world of college recruiting: Underprivileged kid is steered by “handlers” who initially have the kid’s best intentions in mind, kid comes into contact with high profile college athletics where hard sells come in more intensely than your greaziest and sleaziest used car salesman, kid is torn between pleasing everyone (a trait that is played on by handlers, family, colleges), etc. While these pieces have become rote, the story is no less frustrating. This time the subject is Marvin Clark, a 6’7” lefty combo forward with a nice shot from the Kansas City area. Wolverton delivers a linear biography mixed with semi-revealing comments from Clark. It’s a portrait that is at times painful, but more often irritating and upsetting as we see colleges run hot and cold like bi-polar love interests. If that weren’t enough, his handlers inject themselves into the process in ways that are questionable at best. Reading through the intensity of the recruiting process, one can’t help but question the NCAA’s played out talking points about student athletes and amateurs. There’s nothing amateur about building trust with a teenager and then cutting contact because you don’t receive enough attention from him. While it may be immature, it’s certainly not amateur. Fortunately young Clark lands at Michigan State in the hands of what we hope is a stable situation with a coach committed to both on and off court development. With any hope, the hard part of Clark’s story is behind him.

The most confusing awards: All Defensive Teams always seem to result in some level of dissatisfaction. We’re not too concerned about assessing defensive players here which isn’t to say that we don’t value defense, just that we’re not breaking out the razor blades and splitting little hairs on the topic. The votes are in and history will remember Joakim Noah, Paul George, Chris Paul, Serge Ibaka, and Andre Iguodala as all NBA first team defenders. Apply the meaning of all defensive teams to players and the league as you see fit.

In other news, the NBA Finals start on Thursday in San Antonio and best of seven series goes the distance, we’ll wrap up on Friday, June 20th – nearly three weeks from today. If that seems long to you, you’re not alone, but the NBA’s nothing if not cognizant of its product’s ability to keep a view hooked – no matter that there’s a 20-day window between the end of the Western Conference Finals and the potential game seven of the Finals. We’ll see you on the other side.

Caution, Contents may be Fragile

What oh what, have the playoffs become?

No Rose, no Rondo and now no Russ

Kobe’s Achilles, we lost Dr. Buss

 

D. Lee’s hip and the eggshell pacing Spurs

Tyson Chandler’s neck and Noah’s fascist fascia

Pain, disappointment and injurious-expecting paranoia

 

We’re lost and wandering in D. Wade’s aching knees,

And the strange Baker’s Cyst of MWP’s

Supporting characters’ ankles so brittle and Meek(s)

 

Under x-ray machines Steph Curry’s ankle still weak

The Linsane have crumbled under bird-chested contusions

While the unhealthy continue to foster successful allusions

 

Steve and Steve are baked in sunny LA, we put out a missing person’s report on Stoudemire, Amare

The most shocking of all is the tearing meniscus of a bionic man

Russell Westbrook has fallen; it’s more than we can stand

 

Reminds me of the woe I felt back in nineteen-and-ninety

When I watched another unbeatable, unbreakable, mythological man

Get pummeled to a pulp, his wobbly legs not allowing him to stand

 

Mike Tyson, meet Russell, Russ, this is Mike

So different, so same, made of futuristic metals and the like

Yet falling so sadly, the mortal myths settle

 

The excitement is waning, the birds are chirping

Turn off the TV because the hope has splintered

Let’s go outside because spring is here and it’s been a long winter

OR

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:

 

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.

And Like That, He’s Gone

I was an angry basketball fan last night when OKC shat the bed once again in the fourth quarter. I was texting out blames to Russell, Kevin, Maynor and especially Scotty Brooks. It was inevitable and Dallas somehow knew it with all their experience and come-from-behind poise and it grated me; grated the skin right off into a nasty little pile on my coffee table.

On that note, I decided to say goodbye to the Thunder for the 2011 season:

Russell Westbrook: You were the most intriguing player in the playoffs this year and in terms of basketball culture, you’ve made the leap. We all knew who you were and anyone who watched OKC knew what you were about, but by the end of the whole thing, I just wanted to give you a hug and tell you it’ll all be alright:

Kevin Durant: Was there a sadder scene than Durant at the game four post-game press conference? All gangly arms, legs; shoulders hunched forward and infinite sadness painted on his 22-year-old face with that damn backpack on asking, “What could I do?” We love you Kevin because it hurt so bad:

James Harden: Has Harden always been this good or is it a product of off-the-radar, covert development? Was OKC just playing possum for next year when they unleash this guy? Seeing him play point opposite Westbrook and Durant on the wings was watching living, breathing basketball genius—and then Scott Brooks snatched it away from us:

Nick Collison: I watched Collison play a few years in Seattle before the departure and was always impressed with his defense. He did the best job any single human could do against Zbo and Dirk and did it all by his damn Iowan self. This man is underappreciated.

Serge Ibaka: Don’t be scared, Serge. It’s all over now.

Kendrick Perkins: We all stood up and applauded the great Sam Presti after he made this trade; then the playoffs happened and we realized he was still hurt. Perkins was about as effective as a grocery cart with a brain would’ve been (as opposed to a grocery cart without a brain?) and was exposed by John Hollinger as being the biggest detriment to OKC’s success against Dallas. We know you weren’t healthy, but still, it was ugly.

Eric Maynor: You walked into my life as a warm, soft beacon on the horizon; something to cling to in a time of chaos and tumult. Then you betrayed me when you tried to slay Dirk on one play.

 Scotty Brooks: Jeeeeee-sus. I used to be a Scott Brooks fan and maybe there’s still a place in my heart where he can redeem himself, but when OKC calls a timeout and I immediately text people “Bad Shot Alert!”, it’s a fucking problem. And any arguments about Brooks being just a second-year coach or coaching a simple game because his team is so young are ignoring the obvious: Brooks was out of his league. Maybe it’s time to hit up Phil Jackson for some of that peyote:

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