Tag Archives: Russell Westbrook

OKC’s Big Problem

Last month, the Thunder traveled to Oracle Arena to face the Warriors. After coming back from a huge deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Thunder ended up losing 116-108.

Oklahoma City’s starting lineup, consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and Steven Adams, had a point differential of +4 over the 20.6 minutes it played together.

The lineup containing Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Cameron Payne, Kyle Singler, and Dion Waiters wasn’t able to convert a field goal across the 2.6 minutes it played together. Even when Durant was switched in for Waiters, the lineup was only able to make a single shot over the 2.2 minutes it played together. Across the 4.7 (due to rounding) minutes that the Kanter/Adams combo played, it managed to score only four points on eight shots, and had a point differential of -5.

Why is this combo so awful?

Adams is a center in the mold of Tyson Chandler. He has little offensive skill and often scores off of lobs. Kanter is a post-up behemoth, ranking in the top sixth of the NBA in post-up attempts (among qualified players) with 139 despite playing only 20.6 minutes per game off the bench.

Having a pair of centers who operate best close to the basket isn’t conducive to good spacing and without proper spacing, it’s nearly impossible to create an adequate offense. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at a couple of plays from their time together during the game.

Here, we see Dion Waiters drive down the middle of the floor, looking for a layup. He’s unable to get a shot off, so he passes it to Cameron Payne. The rookie point guard then drives down the right side of the court. In a properly functioning offense, Payne would have space to drive to the basket for a shot at the rim. However, in this muddled mess, Payne has to stop short and let loose an awful floater that hits the side of the backboard.

Here, Waiters drives down the middle of the court. He’s met with a wall of bodies, and wildly chucks the ball out to Payne. The rookie immediately drives towards the rim, but yet again, he has to release an ugly floater in traffic.

Kanter is an offensive rebounding monster (he’s tied for 17th in offensive rebounds per game among players who have played in at least twenty games with an average of 2.8, overcoming his disadvantage in minutes) and he manages to corral the ball after Payne’s miss. However, he’s swamped by four or five Warriors at once. At one point, seven of the ten players on the floor are all in that tangled jumble of arms and legs. Kanter tries a couple of times to get a shot off, but the ball is ripped away, and the Warriors immediately launch a fast-break.

You might be wondering why this combination is a problem worth worrying about. After all, it’s impactful for only a few minutes every game.

In the regular season, the Adams/Kanter combo +0.3 per 3.5 minutes per game over 19 games.. However, what happens when the Thunder make the playoffs and need to beat both the Spurs and the Warriors, two historically great teams, to make the Finals? How’s that gonna work out?

In the playoffs, defenses are amped up and specific players are game-planned for. If Adams and Kanter are still playing together for a few minutes a game, then that’s time that the Thunder’s opponent will have a big advantage. In the regular season, against average teams, it’s often not a problem. However, against the Spurs and Warriors the deficit might be insurmountable.

I wrote most of this article before February 27th, when the Warriors overcame the Thunder in overtime to win the most exciting game of the season. I paid close attention to when Kanter and Adams played together, but they didn’t share the court for a single second. Similarly, last week, when the two teams faced off again, Kanter and Adams were never on the court at the same time. Perhaps Billy Donovan hacked into my account and read my draft of this article, or, more probably, finally decided to use common sense.

Not only did Donovan scrap the Kanter-Adams pairing against the Warriors, but he’s also done well to excise them from the rotation. Since the All-Star break, Kanter and Adams have played a mere 6.4 minutes together over two games. Amusingly enough, over those minutes, the Thunder were -5 and made only two shots on eleven attempts.

Now that Kanter and Adams are no longer playing together, Oklahoma City is poised to pose a serious threat to San Antonio and Golden State in the playoffs.

A Quick Word on the MVP Race

For the last few years, the MVP races have been somewhat dull. Since 2008 it’s been LeBron’s trophy to lose, and lose he rarely did. He captured four out of the six MVPs over the past six years. It’s taken either the whole basketball world collectively losing its mind over Derrick Rose, or Kevin Durant averaging a 32-7-5 on a 59-win team to wrest the award away from James. However, this year, with James missing a few games from nagging injuries and giving up shots and minutes to rest a little more, the race has suddenly been thrown wide open, and it’s anyone’s to win.

Before we can choose a winner, we have to decide what “most valuable” means, and that’s where the proposition gets murky. Everyone has their own opinion on what “most valuable” actually means. Here’s the brief rundown of each interpretation and the player it fits best.

The Best Player: The guy you would choose first in a draft to win a life-or-death pickup game.

Who? Who else but LeBron? When he goes all out, he’s unstoppable.

The Best Stats: Think Wilt. He averaged crazy stats back in the 60s but never led an elite team while he did so.

Who? Anthony Davis. A 24-10-2, with a steal and a half and three blocks a game on 53.7 percent shooting from the field and 80.2 percent from the line.

The Best Lines Night to Night: Huge triple-doubles, lots of blocks, etc.

Who? Russell Westbrook, obviously. That run of triple-doubles when Westbrook turned into Oscar Robertson for a few weeks (complete with the grumpy personality!) was jaw-dropping. He even turned in a few near quadruple-doubles when he turned the ball over seven or eight times.

The Best Player on the Best Team: This is usually the player who wins the award, as conventional logic concludes that the best team must have naturally had the best player.

Who? The Warriors are the best team and Steph Curry is their best player, so Curry would win.

The Most Valuable: This player carries his team nightly and succeeds despite little help.

Who? From night to night, James Harden has been the MVP. Curry can have a bad game and the Warriors can still win because he plays alongside an all-star (Klay Thompson), a rim-protecting big man (Andrew Bogut), and a DPOY candidate (Draymond Green). When Harden doesn’t show up to play, who’s going to pick up the slack? Trevor Ariza? Corey Brewer?

Of those different interpretations of MVP, who is most likely to win the award? James won’t win because he’s missed twelve games this year, and possibly because he stacks up poorly against past versions of himself. Davis won’t win because he’s also missed time, fourteen games, and his team wasn’t elite. Westbrook won’t win for the same reason, missing fifteen games, although he gets the edge over Davis in my opinion because of the insane lines he’s put up.

Harden and Curry, to me, are the clear frontrunners for the award. I think Harden deserves it because of his consistency, the extra load he’s shouldered (about 350 more minutes than Curry), and his irreplaceability to the Rockets.

However, Curry’s Warriors are going to win 67 games (assuming they beat the Nuggets at home tomorrow night), tied for the sixth-highest win total in NBA history, and a record on par with legendary teams such as the ’86 Celtics, the ’92 Bulls, and the ’00 Lakers (and the immortal ’07 Mavs who lost in the first round). With the historical clout that record provides, it’s Curry’s trophy to lose. Interestingly enough, the best player on each of those four 67-win teams (Bird, Jordan, Shaq, and Dirk) all won the MVP that year, providing precedent for a Curry victory.

Whatever happens, it should be an exciting cap to an exciting race. Onto the playoffs!