Oct 30, 2014 4:41 PM EDT
The Oklahoma City Thunder ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, but the first game of the Russell Westbrook experience was everything people hoped it would be. Without Kevin Durant, Westbrook got the chance to dominate the ball the entire game and he did not disappoint, with 38 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds on 11-26 shooting. One of the most explosive guards in the NBA has been unleashed - there is no one to steal shots from on this team.
Westbrook has been one of the most polarizing players in the league for years, the embodiment of the debate about the importance of having a “true PG” on a contending team. A combo guard in college, he still has the instincts of a scorer, although he has slowly turned himself into more of a floor general. When he is at his best, though, he looks a lot like what he did on Opening Night against the Portland Trail Blazers - putting his head down and hunting for his own shot.
At 6’3 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, he is one of the biggest and most athletic PG’s in the NBA. His combination of size and speed means it is impossible for defenders to stay in front of him and he has a lethal pull-up jumper when they play off him. Like his former backcourt partner James Harden, Westbrook is also an expert on drawing contact around the rim. He has averaged over 6 FTA’s a game in his career and he went 15-16 from the charity stripe against Portland.
Westbrook dominated his individual match-up against Damian Lillard, who had only 10 points on 3-10 shooting on Wednesday. Lillard had absolutely no chance of guarding him - Westbrook took him down to the post, he blew right by him and got to the rim and he rained in jumpers from the perimeter. While Lillard isn’t exactly known for his individual defense, he didn’t have a prayer against Westbrook, who could do whatever he wanted against him.
His play on the other side of the floor was just as impressive, as he stymied Lillard and prevented him from getting into the lane. Westbrook doesn’t have a rep of a great defensive player, but tell it to the guys he goes up against. On a recent AMA chat on Reddit, Ty Lawson called him the toughest player he faces in the NBA. The numbers back it up, as Westbrook has a history of holding guys like Lillard, Lawson and Chris Paul below their season averages.
The problem for Westbrook is that he isn’t totally locked in on defense, particularly off the ball. Like most elite athletes who can turn it on at any time, he has a tendency to cut corners on that side of the floor over the course of an 82-game regular season. He’s a fairly unrefined player, which isn’t all that surprising for a guy whose only 25 years old. Maybe the scariest thing about Westbrook is how much room he still has to grow as he moves deeper into his 20’s.
Like the rest of the Thunder, Westbrook has been around for so long that people forget how young he is. He is in his 7th season in the NBA and Lillard is in his 3rd, yet he’s only a year and a half older. Westbrook has been playing at an elite level for a really long time - he was competing in the Western Conference Finals at 22. As a result, he has had to grow up under the national eye, with everything he does on and off the court micro-analyzed to death.
No one has any patience anymore, particularly for younger players. They are supposed to be basketball playing robots as soon as they come into the league - we have all this data that tells us why they don’t play like 10-year NBA veterans, which can skew our perception of what they can be. Everyone wants to put them in a box and judge them on their statistics, rather than looking at the big picture and accepting that they will make mistakes as they figure things out.
Westbrook is the prime example of that, as there were people ready to give up on him 3-4 years ago because of his tendency to dominate the ball and freeze out his teammates. Nevermind that Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring in four of the last five seasons, so he clearly isn’t hurting for touches in Oklahoma City. It’s a tough line to walk for a scoring PG, especially for a guy with the talent to be a primary option for the vast majority of teams in the NBA.
And for all the stats that Westbrook has racked up with the Thunder, he has hardly been playing in advantageous situations on offense. Teams straight up didn’t have to guard Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, sending multiple defenders at Westbrook and Durant with complete impunity. OKC ran a really stagnant offense and they didn’t spread the floor, so Westbrook had to bail out a lot of possessions going 1-on-3 at the end of the clock.
That’s what could be the most interesting angle of this next two months for Westbrook - not just playing without Durant, but without Perkins and Sefolosha too. If the Thunder have Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson in their spots, Westbrook will have a lot more room to operate in the halfcourt. He’s not a guy the defense wants to guard in space - imagine the type of numbers he could put up if he was playing in Jeff Hornacek’s system in Phoenix.
Westbrook is going to mount a full-fledged assault on the rest of the league and there’s no player more fun to watch in that scenario. He’s a guy you want to see live to appreciate just how fast he is - he has 2-3 more gears than most NBA players and he’s the rare 6’4 guard who can play at 11+ feet in the air with absolute ease. The Thunder might struggle on the road without Durant, but Westbrook unleashed in front of their home crowd should be something.
Durant took his game to a whole different level when Westbrook was out last season and now it’s time for Westbrook to return the favor. This experience should help him grow a lot as a player, as he will no longer have Durant around to bail him out of bad possessions. Everyone on the floor is going to depend on Westbrook to spoon feed them open shots, so he almost has no choice but to play under control as much as possible. It’s all part of the maturation process.
The knocks on Westbrook are all the stuff you would expect from an elite athlete in his early 20’s. He has always been able to get by on his athleticism, so he never had to develop the mental side of the game. As he matures on and off the court and develops the ability to think the game at a high level, he is going to be a serious problem. The intersection of the mental and physical elevators is when an athlete is at his peak and that’s still years in his future.
These next few weeks are going to be a learning experience for Westbrook. Portland was able to slow him down in the second half because they switched the 6’8 Nic Batum onto him. That’s something he hasn’t seen very often in his NBA career, since Durant commands so much defensive attention. When you tower over everyone who guards you, you can get away with taking a lot of circus shots and forcing the action, even when the defense sends help.
What makes Oklahoma City so dangerous in a seven-game series is there isn’t a team in the league who can guard Durant AND Westbrook. They are two of the five best players in the NBA and either one of them can take over a game at anytime. Everyone wants to talk about where Durant will go in free agency in 2016, but where is he going to go to find a better sidekick than Westbrook? As those two continue to improve, the Thunder only get scarier.
Oct 24, 2014 3:24 PM EDT
Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA concludes with a look at the Southeast Division, which features a number of young teams on the rise. While the Miami Heat have run roughshod over the division for the last four seasons, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks have been patiently growing rosters who could now be in a position to take advantage of the departure of LeBron James.
It wasn’t a pretty process, particularly for Washington and Charlotte, which featured some of the worst teams in the NBA for years. After swinging and missing on several lottery picks, they didn’t have the talent base to attract many free agents and they had to spent a lot of time chewing their medicine, bleeding fans as they racked up huge loss totals. The Wizards eventually lucked out in the lottery while the Hornets made a few shrewd free agent moves.
They both appear on the right track, but the leap from good to great is the hardest one to make in the NBA, as the Atlanta Hawks can attest. They have made seven consecutive trips to the playoffs without cracking the Conference Finals and they don’t appear any closer to getting there, beyond hand-waving about cap space and flexibility. Just because a team is on an upward track doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in behind them and jump them in line.
Atlanta was forever haunted by passing up Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 and a lot of the upside in Washington and Charlotte will depend on what happens to the final lottery picks they made before becoming playoff teams - Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. Unless you have a transcendent superstar like LeBron, you need to have everything else in place and all the pieces have to be lined up in order to be an elite team in the NBA.
- Miami Heat: Norris Cole
If you want to know why LeBron James is back in Cleveland, you can start with the dearth of young talent in Miami. After years of ignoring the draft, there were not many young players on the Heat roster that LeBron could look at with confidence as he tried to figure out where the team would be in 2-3 seasons. The only real candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is a guy who is going to have to fight to earn a contract extension.
Cole has played a valuable role as a backup PG on two championship teams, but he’s still an inconsistent offensive player whose never had a PER above 9 playing at one of the most fungible positions in the league. For all that he does as a defensive spark-plug and energy guy off the bench, a 6’2 guard who can’t create a lot of offense is only so valuable in the NBA. Once Miami drafted Shabazz Napier in the first round, the clock started ticking for Cole.
- Washington Wizards: Otto Porter
Porter’s rookie season didn’t go exactly as planned, as an early injury and the Wizards emergence in the playoff picture relegated him to the end of the bench. Nevertheless, he’s still only 21 years old and he still has a very intriguing skill-set for a 6’9 forward. The key for Porter is developing his jumper, as the threat of the three-pointer should open up the rest of his game and allow him to thrive on offense without spending too much time in the paint.
With Trevor Ariza in Houston, there should be more minutes for him this season, especially since Washington is going to want to carefully monitor Paul Pierce’s playing time. The Wizards' second-unit is still in flux and Porter could carve out a nice role for himself as a secondary playmaker and versatile defender. If all goes according to plan, a strong sophomore campaign could propel him towards a spot in the starting line-up in 2015.
- Charlotte Hornets: Cozy Zeller
The transition to the NBA wasn’t easy for Zeller, who went from being one of the biggest players on the floor in college to average-sized for his position. After spending most of his life playing inside-out, he had to learn to play outside-in. He started to pick up steam as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, taking on a bigger role in the rotation and averaging much better numbers after the All-Star break.
Still only 22, Zeller should have a much bigger role for Charlotte this season and he could really benefit from playing with Lance Stephenson. His NBA ceiling will still depend on his perimeter jumper, but his ability to run the floor, crash the glass and play with the ball in his hands at 7’0 240 will make him an effective weapon against second-unit big men. Going forward, the Indiana big man combination of Zeller and Noah Vonleh should be fun to watch.
- Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroeder
After dazzling observers at Summer League, Schroeder came back to Earth as his rookie season progressed and NBA teams began daring him to shoot from the perimeter. Hawks fans can only hope that Schroeder spent most of the summer in the gym working on his jumper, because that’s the main thing holding back from being an excellent NBA player. For the most part, a player who plays a lot with the ball in his hands has to be a threat to score it.
While only 6’1 170, Schroeder is an excellent athlete with long arms which allow him to play bigger than his size. If he could handle a bigger role on offense, it would allow Atlanta to play more two-PG line-ups and free up Jeff Teague to hunt for his own shot, ala Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap opening up the lane, there should be plenty of driving lanes on the floor for explosive guards like Teague and Schroeder.
- Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris
You could put a number of different guys in Orlando in this spot, as the Magic have young players trying to establish themselves in the NBA at almost every position on the floor. The three lottery picks taken by the new regime - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon - will be given every chance to show what they can do, but everyone else on the roster is fighting for a spot in the pecking order and a place in the long-term plans of the franchise.
Harris is a prime example of that, as minutes at the two forward spots in Orlando are suddenly in short supply. Like most combo forwards, he is probably most effective as a small-ball PF, but you could say the same thing about Gordon and the Magic didn’t give Channing Frye $32 million to ride the bench. Harris can score and rebound the ball, but he will have to expand his game to hold down a starting job and secure a contract extension in Orlando.
Oct 20, 2014 5:41 PM EDT
Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Central Division, where most of the action in the Eastern Conference is. After four seasons of wandering in the desert, Cleveland is celebrating the return of their prodigal son, a move which instantly changed the trajectory of the Cavs franchise and the balance of power in the league. So what teams are positioned to be their rivals over the next few seasons?
The last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls were one of the up and coming young teams in the NBA, losing to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. A lot has happened in the meantime, but the Bulls have managed to bring along a number of young players and they have a few promising rookies coming down the pipeline. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy and return to form, that could quickly become one of the best rivalries in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers emerged as LeBron’s chief rival when he was in Miami, but they have been decimated by injuries and free agent defections in the off-season. Like Chicago the last few years, they are trying to overcome a devastating injury to their franchise player while using that time to develop a few young players and position themselves to get back into the fray. It could turn out for the best, as the Pacers might benefit from adding a lottery pick to their core.
Down the road, both the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks have the young talent to conceivable challenge Cleveland. While both are still in the beginning of a rebuilding process, they already have the most important parts behind them - acquiring potential franchise players. The Central Division is interesting now, but it could conceivably become much more interesting in the next few years ... or the Cavs could just steamroll everyone. That’s possible too.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters:
After receiving a max contract in the offseason, Kyrie Irving is the young player who has gotten most of the pub on the Cavs new super-team. Waiters, meanwhile, is best known for some of the more reckless things he has said to the media. However, if he can continue to improve and live up to being a No. 4 overall pick, Cleveland can be really scary. For all the legitimately goofy stuff he does on and off the court, he is a very good young player.
At 6’4 220 with a 6’7 wingspan, Waiters is a dynamic scorer who can shoot, handle, pass and swing between either guard position. While he will have to play more without the ball in his hands this season, he is going to get a lot of open looks and he is more than capable of capitalizing on them. If he makes the easy play, moves the ball and competes on the defensive end, he could be one of the best fourth options in the NBA and start living up to his boasts.
- Chicago Bulls: Tony Snell:
After being thrust into the Chicago rotation by necessity as a rookie, Snell will have to compete for minutes on a much deeper team. He has all the tools to be a successful wing player in Tom Thibodeau’s system - at 6’7 200, he has the length and athleticism to swing between multiple positions on the perimeter and he has shown the ability to knock down 3’s. While he was only at 32% last season, he was a career 38% three-point shooter at New Mexico.
In order to get on the floor, he will need to internalize Thibodeau’s defensive principles while also becoming a more complete offensive player. He shot 38% from the floor last season, numbers only Kirk Hinrich is allowed to put up in Chicago. In a best-case scenario, Snell makes a leap similar to the one Jimmy Butler made in his second season. If not, with Doug McDermott breathing down his neck for minutes, he may not be long for the Bulls.
- Indiana Pacers: Solomon Hill
Hill didn’t really get a chance to show what he could as a rookie, when he was behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in Indiana’s rotation. With all three gone this season, the Pacers will give Hill every chance to eat up minutes and establish himself as a legitimate NBA player. They made their bones as a franchise that drafts and develops, so they have to hope that Hill learned something going up against those guys in practice.
Coming out of college, Hill had a rep as a guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. At 6’7 225, he doesn’t have elite athleticism and he was never an explosive scorer at Arizona. He was a very smart four-year player who could do a little bit of everything - shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend. While he probably can’t handle a huge offensive burden, he could become an effective NBA player by just filling in the cracks and playing within himself.
- Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
There was only one real reason for Stan Van Gundy to take the Pistons job - the 21-year-old freak of nature on their roster still young enough to be molded into anything. Despite all the dysfunction around him last season, Drummond put up some fairly eye-popping numbers - 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting. Not only is he one of the biggest human beings in the league, he is incredibly athletic for a guy with his monstrous size.
If you close your eyes and project a few years forward, you can see Van Gundy using Drummond in many of the same ways he used Dwight Howard in Orlando. To be sure, he still has a ton of work to do on both ends of the floor and his free-throw shooting is going to have to improve. Nevertheless, for as raw a player as Drummond still is, he still managed to put up a 22.6 PER last season. Spread the floor around him and anything is possible.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis was one of the best stories in the league last season, but all the positive press has obscured what a raw player he still. For all the flashes of greatness he showed as a rookie, he wasn’t all that effective in his time on the floor, with per-36 minute averages of 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 41% shooting. Translation to potential to production is not easy in the NBA, especially for a 20-year-old on a bad team without many veterans to lean on.
For Giannis, this season is all about filling out his body and becoming strong enough to deal with the physicality of the league. If he can handle that, his length, skill and athleticism should take him a long away. Jason Kidd has made noises about using him as a point forward, which might not be a bad experiment for a Bucks team going nowhere. He can conceivably improve every facet of his game, which is exciting but also tells you how far he has to go.
Oct 10, 2014
Wesley Johnson, Ben McLemore, Draymond Green, Alex Len and Reggie Bullock are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.
Sep 25, 2014
While Mark Jackson had a lot of success, he was far from a perfect coach, so thereís nothing wrong with replacing him with Steve Kerr. But if David Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, the Warriors have been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than Xís and Oís.
Sep 17, 2014
As players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. Jacksonís current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.
Sep 15, 2014
The scariest part about the United States' performance is that this wasnít even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain, yet they still haven't lost a game since 2006.
Sep 11, 2014
Boris Diaw served as Franceís primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.
Sep 05, 2014
Everyone in Spainís rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.
Aug 25, 2014
Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.
Aug 01, 2014
Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.
Jul 21, 2014
Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.
Jul 17, 2014
Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.
Jul 09, 2014
The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.
Jul 06, 2014
With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.
Jun 27, 2014
With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.
Jun 26, 2014
The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.
Jun 25, 2014
Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.
Jun 23, 2014
The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.
Jun 21, 2014
Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. Heís the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.
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