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Russell Westbrook, Superstar or Stephon Marbury 2.0…?

May 26, 2011 5 comments

One of the most predominant – and bizarre – narratives of this year’s NBA playoffs, has been the devolution of Russell Tiberius Westbrook.  For reasons which strike me as a little odd, the mainstream media and the blogosphere have knocked Westbrook around like a pinata at a seven year old’s birthday.  Glancing – and somewhat feeble – blows from intrepid youngsters offering plenty of welts and bruises, but failing to spill the candy everywhere.

In the span of a month, Westbrook has gone from being viewed as one of the top young point guards in the NBA, a player selected to the all-NBA second team, and a franchise linchpin, to being the man largely responsible for prematurely ending Oklahoma’s season.  He has been criticized for not passing to Durant, for making poor decisions, for pounding the ball, and for being the second shooter on the grassy knoll.  He has been called selfish, a liability, and even – gasp – the second coming of Stephon Marbury.

Only John Hollinger – an ever present voice of reason  – has continued to articulate (Pay Site, sorry) that if Westbrook isn’t Derrek Rose’s equal, he’s closer than we all think.  And this is the point really, Westbrook, like Rose, is a 22 year old phenomenon.  He’s a physical marvel, he’s capable of getting to the rim at will, he’s a franchise player.  Yes, he still has pieces of his game that need work, but so does LeBron and he’s been in the league for 8 years.

It may be that Westbrook never learns to temper his scoring gene.  It may also be that he never matures into a better deicsion maker, but this offseason is far, far too early to write him off.  Yet, somehow, despite that, some pundits are making the case that OKC would be wise to pursue trades for Westbrook and look to turn the keys to the team over to Eric Maynor.  Obviously this has all the wisdom of electing Donald Trump president, but we wouldn’t be Sports on the Brain if we didn’t at least consider what the Zombie Sonics could get in return for their mercurial point guard.

Given his age and skill set, these are the players for whom the Zombies would consider trading Westbrook:

  1. LeBron James, 27.34 PER
  2. Derek Rose, 23.62
  3. Dwayne Wade, 25.65
  4. Dwight Howard, 26.13
  5. Blake Griffin, 21.93

That’s it, that’s the list.  The Zombies aren’t going to trade him for Kobe, because the Black Mamba’s a decade older, with about 2 million more miles on the odometer.  Likewise Manu, Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, Pau Gasol and even Dirk are too expensive, too old, and too beaten down by the NBA.  Even if the Knicks wanted to part with their shinny new bauble, Oklahoma’s not jumping at a Westbrook – Carmelo Anthony deal, because in Kevin Durant they already have Anthony version 2.0.

What about the other star point guards in the league?  Well, Chris Paul would be tempting, because I think with Paul OKC might have beat Dallas this year, but Paul’s balky knee makes that one a non-starter.  There’s Deron Williams, but he’s four years older and has never had a season as good as Westbrook’s this year.  Why trade for the older, more expensive guy if he’s not demonstrably better?  Steve Nash?  Too old.  John Wall?  Too young.  Tony Parker?  Too French.  Rajon Rondo?  Well, that one’s interesting.  He’d certainly pass to Durant, and he’s a better defender, but  – and I cannot stress this enough – he shot 56% from the line this year.  How is it going to improve the Zombies late game execution, if their point guard shies away from the ball?  No, that wont do…

All of which brings us back to our original list:

  1. LeBron James, 27.34 PER
  2. Derek Rose, 23.62
  3. Dwayne Wade, 25.65
  4. Dwight Howard, 26.13
  5. Blake Griffin, 21.93

If those are the players who OKC would want in a trade for Westbrook, which of those guys would be available in return?  Not James obviously.  Nor Rose.  Those are probably the two least accessible guys in the league.  And if the Heat aren’t trading James, who has been in South Beach for about 23 seconds, they sure as heck aren’t trading Wade – not unless this “Big Three” experiment had been a complete disaster, and I think we’re a little past that point now.  And, you could argue that given how much positive publicity he brought the Clippers this year, that Blake Griffin is pretty unattainable, at least until he’s a little closer to free agency, all of which leaves us with one name:

Dwight Howard.

As we all know, Orlando’s all-star pivot is arguably available.  He would represent a massive upgrade at the center position and would form a fearsome front court with Durant and Serge Ibaka.  Would the Magic trade him for Westbrook?  Well, not straight up, but Russ and Kendrick Perkins might be enough.

Dwight Howard… that’s just about the only possible trade out there for Russell Westbrook.  So, unless Sam Presti sees Orlando’s area code on the call display, we can be pretty sure he’s going to ignore any and all calls for Russell Westbrook this offseason.

The Grizzlies Roar…

April 30, 2011 Leave a comment

If we believe that the best team over 82 games, should get to play the worst (qualifying) team over 82 games, then nobody actually would have picked the Memphis Grizzlies to play the Western Conference champion Spurs.  Of course, the Grizzlies liked their chances against the Spurs more than their chances against the Lakers, so they tanked a few games near the end and thus spat at the feet of the Spurs.  In the past, spitting in the direction of the Tim Duncan-Greg Popovich Spurs would be tantamount to sticking a knife in your own belly, but these aren’t your older brother’s Spurs.

As it turns out, the Grizzlies were right to want San Antonio, whose silver regular season turned to brass last night when the Bearscats knocked the Four time Champs from the postseason.  For some reason, I feel some vague sense of satisfaction about this.  Maybe this makes sense: the Grizzlies do – after-all – still hold the name given to them when they were Vancouver’s own, but then I doubt too many Minnesotans claim the Lakers’ success as their own.  No, I think mostly it’s just that the Grizzlies seem like such misfits and I’m the kind of guy who likes misfits.

Memphis is led by Zach Randolph who had become such an overpriced league joke that in the span of eight months he was traded first for Tim Thomas and a retiring Cuttino Mobley, and then for Quentin Richardson; hardly blue chip talent.  Their second best player is Rudy Gay and he’s been injured since the middle of February.  After that, they have the Frank to Pau Gasol’s Sylvester; they have Mike Conley who was drafted at least ten spots too early; they have OJ Mayo who at the deadline this year they basically tried to trade for a broken dishwasher and an expired book of coupons; and – of course – they have Tony Allen!  Like I said, misfits.

In the last ten months they have overpaid to retain Gay, Conley and now Randolph.  They gave away the second pick in the draft, a year and a half after making it.  Last year they even signed up the circus, when they brought Allen Iverson on board.  And yet, the Grizzlies have somehow assembled a team that made them a trendy pre-season playoff pick.

It’s as though they followed the Atlanta Hawks model of how to build a playoff team.  The Hawks you will remember, returned to the middle of the playoff pack, despite butchering the 2004, 2005, and 2006 drafts.  Despite incompetence, the Hawks eventually acquired enough lottery picks to buoy them upwards.  The Grizzlies have basically done the same thing.  Despite drafting Mike Conley over Joakim Noah, OJ Mayo over Russell Westbrook, and Hasheem Thabeet over Steph Curry, the Grizzlies have scrapped, clawed, and bitten their way from 22 wins (two years running), to 24, to 40 and a bare miss of the playoffs last year.

The Grizzlies started the season –  as young teams do – inconsistently, winning a couple games in a row, but then losing four or five.  On December 6th they were 8-14.   After that, they went 23-11 until the Gay injury.  For an inconsistent, immature team, that might have been the end of their run, but… these are Grizzlies, not bear-cubs.  They finished off the season by going a respectable 15-8, including their two game no-show to ensure that they met the Spurs in the first round, not the Lakers.  If not for Gay’s injury, the Grizzlies might have climbed all the way to the fifth seed and set up a first round battle against Oklahoma City.  Yet, why meet the Zombies in the first round, when you can instead meet them in the second?

Something tells me that despite the Grizzlies’ mistakes, this isn’t the last time that we will witness a bizarro all-Northwest playoff battle between the Zombies and the Grizzlies.  Too bad that instead of Seattle-Vancouver, these games will take place roughly 2,500 kilometers away.  Sigh…

NBA What Ifs…

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Well, a week into the season, the NBA is chugging along without any great surprises.  After their opening night stinker, the Heat have looked good, the Lakers are destroying people, and the Suns couldn’t defend a chair.  So, there’s not much really to talk about, except… some what ifs!

1) What if the Miami Heat had drafted OJ Mayo instead of Michael Beasley with the number 2 overal pick in the 2007 draft.

This summer the Miami Heat gave away the number two pick in the 2007 draft and 3 million in cash for a 2011 second round pick.  Think about that for a second, the Heat selected a player two years ago with the second pick who was so irrelevant to their future that they paid Minnesota to take him.  Pat Riley is going to win executive of the year for this season and deservedly so, but that’s a colossal waste of a high pick.  What makes it particularly galling, is that Riley knew it was a bad pick at the time.  He did everything he could to trade out of that pick and kept threatening to pick OJ Mayo… So, what if he had picked Mayo?  At the time, the problem with Mayo for the Heat, was that he was too similar to Dwayne Wade (albeit nowhere near as good), now however that’s exactly the player the Heat need.  With LeBron James acting as the de-facto point guard, the Heat don’t need a traditional point guard, they need someone who can defend and shoot.  Carlos Arroyo has been manning the position, but… come on.  Mayo’s a good defender and a great shooter.  In his two years in the league he has comfortably averaged 18 points a game on 45% shooting from the floor, with 38% three point shooting.  Of course, by dumping Beasley’s contract, the Heat were able to squeeze out enough money to offer Mike Miller his deal, but a) with Mayo they wouldn’t have needed him and b) if they really still wanted the long haired sharp shooter, I’m sure they could have found a way to make it work.  Now, the Heat are going to win 64+ games anyhow, so at some point it’s just an embarrassment of riches, but Mayo is exactly the kind of guard that the Heat want starting next to Wade and James.

2) What if the Knicks had not traded Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill to the Rockets last February?

Desperate to get Jeffries contract off their books in hopes of landing LeBron, the Knicks gave Hill (meh), money, and draft picks in 2011 (swap) and 2012 for Tracy McGrady.  The move did allow them to clear enough salary cap space to grab a second max free agent, but when Joe Johnson re-upped with Atlanta, Bosh (made irrelevant by Amare’s signing) and Wade joined in Miami, all the Knicks’ eggs were in the James basket… We all know how that ended and for all their efforts, the Knicks ended up Raymond Felton as their second banana…  Making matters worse, Hill and those picks are exactly what the Knicks need as they desperately pursue Carmelo Anthony.  If the Knicks had not made that deal, then they could offer up a package to Denver that involved their 2012 pick, Jeffries and Curry’s expiring deal (which would allow Denver to shed a onerous contract along with Carmelo) and a couple of young prospects out of A. Randolph, J. Hill, D. Gallinari, and K. Azubuike.  At this point, when Denver knows that Carmelo’s gone and nobody really wants to offer them much for him, that looks like enough to bring him to MSG (where he might need a hard hat, but that’s another topic for another day…).  Instead, the Knicks will have to hope that the Nuggets get desperate as the trade deadline approaches, because as it stands they don’t have the pieces to pull a Carmelo trade off.

3) What if the Zombie Sonics had drafted Joakim Noah and Steph Curry?

I sort of touched on this in my NBA Preview blurb on the Zombies, but I think I’m going to elaborate a little more and toss Curry in as well.  As I said then, I think that Sam Presti is easily one of the five best GMs in basketball, but there are two glaring examples of mistakes he made in the draft, that are holding back what could be a dominant franchise.  First, in 2007 he took Jeff Green fifth instead of Noah.  As I said two weeks ago, Green’s a nice player, but Noah’s the sort of hustle, rebounding, defense, unselfish player that helps teams win championships.  People are always talking about the Scottie Pippen to somebody’s Jordan, well Noah’s would have been the Dennis Rodman to Kevin Durant’s Jordan.  Only, you know, without the wedding dress, tattoos, and tantrums.

On top of that, the Zombies could have picked Steph Curry to pair in the backcourt with Russell Westbrook.  Look, I think it’s too early to throw James Harden under the bus, he’s only 21 and may still develop into a solid NBA player, but looking at him right now his ceiling seems more dependable rotation player than perennial all star.  Curry on the other hand is the sort of incredibly gifted, incredibly intelligent player who would pair perfectly with both Durant and Westbrook.  As John Hollinger points out in today’s PER Diem (Insider, sorry), the Thunder have underperformed people’s expectations this season in large part because nobody besides Durant can shoot.  Curry came out of the womb knocking down threes and he would help cure what ails the Zombies.  I know that Russell likes being a point guard and that’s fine, because with him, Curry would just slide into being the shooting guard (and what’s in a name anyway?); a position from which he would bomb threes hand out dimes, and make opponents pay for doubling Durant.  It would be awesome to behold and they’re all so young that it would just be a really fun decade of hoops in Seattle (what, if I’m changing their picks, I’m dam sure changing Howard Schultz selling them to an ownership group that was obviously moving them to Oklahoma.  Shame on you Howard, shame…).

The Zombies’ lineup (or, in this case, should I say the Sonics’ lineup) would be:

PG – R. Westbrook

SG – S. Curry

SF – K. Durant

PF – N. Collison

C – J. Noah

Bench: N. Krstic, S. Ibaka, T. Sefolosha, D. Cook, E. Maynor, C. Aldrich

Solid.  Too bad Presti missed out on those picks (and Shultz sold to Bennet and company), because that is a squad I really would have enjoyed watching…

NBA Preview Part 3 – Rise of the Zombies…

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my few complaints about basketball these past few years, is that I really haven’t had anyone other than Nash and the Suns to cheer for. I mean, I like LeBron and I love watching him play, but even before the who “Taking my Talents” thing I wasn’t feeling a lot of emotion when his team lost. I like Chris Paul, but the Hornets? Mhhh… The Raptors I should like, because you know they’re 3,000 miles away but on the correct side of the border, but they’re named the Raptors and have a stupid looking dinosaur on their shirts, so, ahhh… no. Portland? Too boring; Boston? Too pink; Lakers? Too Douchy; Orlando? Too whiny; Oklahoma? Too… well, wait a second Goldilocks, because we might have stumbled onto something here.

I shouldn’t like the Oklahoma Zombie Sonics, I really shouldn’t. After all, I’m a Northwest boy and they plundered my best source of “local” hoops. Yet something is drawing me to them, something almost like… how they remind me of… the Tampa Bay (Not so Devil) Rays. I know, I know it’s like comparing apples and milk, but I just can’t quite shake the comparison and here are ten reasons why:

1) They both are young exciting teams from small markets who have put a serious scare into much larger, flashier markets.

2) They both have players who if they aren’t already, might soon be the very best in their sport: Kevin Durant and Evan Longoria.

3) They both have what could be the best management team in their sport: Sam Presti and Andrew Freidman. Both young and well versed in both modern metric s and traditional scouting, these two young stars have assembled outstanding staffs that allow them to run intelligent operations on small budgets.

4) That management has done a spectacular job of building very competitive teams with those limited budgets by using draft picks, hungry young players and the occasional savvy veteran.

5) Despite unprecedented (ok, that might be slightly hyperbolic) draft success, they have both whiffed on a pick that seemed somewhat obvious back then and seems extremely obvious now. In 2008 the Rays had the first pick in the draft and they selected high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Now 19, Beckham just completed a season in which he hit .256, .346, .359, which would be fine for a slick fielding middle infielder drafted in the fourth round, but leaves someone wanting when it’s the top pick in the drat. The other player the Rays were considering and the one that most pundits thought should be the first pick, was Florida State catcher Buster Posey, who may or may not be the starting catcher for a team about to start the World Series. Yup, that’s a bang your head against the wall every time you think of it mistake – and believe me, I know about those kinds of mistakes, I cheer for a team that picked Ricky Romero over Tory Tulowitzki. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a wall to see…

For Oklahoma the mistake wasn’t quite as onerous. Still, in the Durant draft, The Sonics traded Ray Allen to Boston for the fifth pick and used that selection on Jeff Green.* Now Green has been a solid contributor to the Zombie Sonics success, but the ninth pick on that night was Joakim Noah, who I felt then and I feel now, is a future starting center on an NBA championship team. Green’s good and obviously given their success, he works well with Durant, but Noah would be the defensive post presence that the Zombies were looking for when they almost traded for Tyson Chandler.

* I know most observers would say that selecting James Harden over Steph Curry last year was the bigger mistake, but I’m not ready to write Harden off, so I’m still in a “wait and see” over that one.

6) They both should be located in the Northwest – sorry Oklahoma, but it’s true. I’m not saying you don’t deserve A team, I’m just saying that you don’t deserve Seattle’s team. Your passion for the Zombies has been outstanding and your owners clearly care enough to ensure that you have great management (more than we can say about other owners, cough-michaelheisley-cough), but Seattle supported that team for 40 years and all they refused to do was build a THIRD pro-sports arena in a five year period. You guys should get Memphis’ team, or maybe even New Orleans, but Durant and company should be making it rain in a city where it actually rains.

(and Tampa should be moved to Portland, but that’s a different column for a different day).

7) They both have a limited window in which to make this work. The Rays may have seen that window close, as this offseason they’ll loose Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and perhaps Matt Garza, while the Zombies have to face the inevitable departure of Russell Westbrook and their other young stars. Watch what happens with the potential labor stoppage, because that could have serious ramifications on the future of the Zombies.

8) Of course, both teams are capable of extending that window, because of reasons two and three (great players, plus great management, equals prolonged success… maybe).

9) I’m running out of things that Oklahoma and Tampa Bay have in common.

10) Even though I shouldn’t (because one competes in the AL East with my Jays and the other stole a team from Seattle), I can’t help cheering for these two teams, because they run their organizations exactly as I would want mine run, you know, if I were an owner of a professional sports team, instead of an owner of a goldfish named Blinky…

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