Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Making Sense of the West

Attention: Basketball columns will be coming in hot. 

Picking up my coverage of the NBA midway through the season is going to have an inevitably awkward opening paragraph.  Rather than bore with banal introduction and stage setting…

I guess this is my exposition, homie, this shit is basic, welcome to NB-ation (good morning).

Youth is being served out West, at least thus far.  Although traditional West Coast powers like the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavs continue to win games, it is the upstart (and rightfully so) Thunder and Clippers, along with their four all-stars (Paul, Griffin, Durant, Westbrook) and one should-be all-star (Harden) stealing the headlines.  Of all the sub-plots of the season thus far, the one that intrigues me that most is whether or not these two young, seemingly fearless teams are legitimate.

Oklahoma City has been on the cusp of a championship the last two seasons.  Their six game series with LA in 2010, despite losing it, was a positive sign for the organization.  Last year they fell a few games short of the finals.  This season?  They have the top record in the conference.  Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are the most dynamic threesome outside of Miami.  However, we are beginning to see the problem that ultimately ended Miami’s attempts at a championship last year: there is just one basketball and OKC needs to find a balance.
OKC needs to make the statistics match the facts; Durant is by far the
best player on the team
Ranking point guards is the new ESPN pastime and I could sit here and rattle off the top five.  Then again, what difference does it make if I say Westbrook is the third or fourth best point guard versus the fifth or sixth?  (There was actually a heated argument on ESPN the other day because one yelling mouth said Westbrook was number three and the other babbling lover of self-speech thought he was the fourth best point guard.  All I could hear was, “there’s nothing to talk about anymore.  If only we could find someone to give Tebow-esque airtime”… I will get to that story at a time that accurately reflects its significance for the current season.)  However, regardless of where you may think Westbrook stacks up, it is obvious that he is miles behind Kevin Durant.  Westbrook has averaged just one less shot attempt per game than has Durant.  This is a problem.

You will rarely hear someone say a player needs to score less, but if averaging 22.6 a game means Westbrook cannot muster more than 5.5 assists, something needs to change.  Given the surrounding talent, Westbrook is in a position where it is simply inexcusable for him to be ranked 17th among qualifying point guards in assists/game. 

Derrick Rose took home MVP honors last season playing the point guard position like Westbrook is this season but, given the rest of the talent on Chicago, Rose really wasn’t in a position to be the team facilitator.  They needed 25 a game.  Yet, he still managed to dish the ball around for 7.8 assists per game.  Westbrook must be able to approach that assists average and there’s really no reason why he cannot.     

Chris Paul won the starting spot in the All-Star game because he plays in Los Angeles, but from a basketball standpoint, he deserved it.  Paul is taking just under 14 shot attempts/game and allowing guys like Griffin, Caron Butler, and DeAndre Jordan to make meaningful contributions.  Even though Westbrook shoots it nearly five more times per game, Paul is averaging is still averaging just under 19/game.    

I said I’d refrain from ranking the top point guards, but this type of stuff is what separates Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and Deron Williams from the rest. 
Chris Paul has made a relatively seamless entry onto the Clippers  
The problem, though, is more than just Russel Westbrook; Durant needs to pursue the ball more aggressively.  It’s impossible to watch more than the opening fifteen minutes of a Thunder game before the announcer proclaims, “Folks, it’s just impossible to guard Durant.”  Correct.  Durant is averaging 19.2 shot attempts per game, which is the fourth most in the NBA, but that number could and should be higher.  I’m not suggesting that he receive Kobe-level impunity, but 21 tries a game seems reasonably high.  If Westbrook can bring his average shots/game down to 15, he could donate two more in Durant’s direction and one more for Harden, whose 10 field goal attempts/game doesn’t even put him in the top 50 league-wide.  Why isn’t he getting the ball? 

So what about those Clippers?  Well, the top two for OKC are certainly better.  We can attempt to compare Westbrook and Paul but mentioning Blake Griffin in the same sentence as Kevin Durant is blasphemy.  Still, I feel a tendency to give the edge to L.A. and that has nothing to do with Griffin forcing Kendrick Perkins into the Hall of Shame.  While Durant and Westbrook have more experience together, their styles seem to be clashing more as of late.  Meanwhile, the recently forged Paul-Griffin marriage is so amiable that the team is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Red Ivey.  Paul is a pass-first, score-second guard while Griffin really doesn’t need or want the ball in his hands more than fifteen feet from the basket.  The same can be said about DeAndre Jordan, who really needs to challenge Serge Ibaka to a litany of athletic challenges the next time these two teams face off.

The Western Conference reminds me quite a bit of the East two seasons ago.  LeBron and exciting Cleveland and Dwight Howard and the young Magic had the two best records in the NBA.  The upstart Atlanta Hawks finished third and the veteran, but average-at-times Celtics sat in fourth.  However, come playoffs, the poise and determination of Boston allowed them to, not surprisingly, represent the conference in the finals.  Are the Clippers and Thunder like the Magic and Cavs?  At this junction of the season, I think they’re both kind of like Miami in 2011: a year away from a championship. 
Bynum's 12 field goal attempts per game seems like a
pretty good number; he's played in 25 games and is
shooting 55%
Three West teams can fill the Boston role; the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavs will all be matchup nightmares for the Clips and Thunder come May because of said experience.  In the shortened, injury-a-plenty NBA regular season, these recent NBA champions are privy to the secret about the regular season that Boston knew in 2009-10: it doesn’t matter.  They’ll rest stars, lose “big” games, and have to withstand a media and fan-base onslaught but, come playoffs, they will be ready. 

The counterargument to this stance is that all three of these veteran units have problems and I’m not talking about little hiccups or questions marks.  I’m talking about weaknesses as obvious as M&M sized pimples.  San Antonio could conceivably collapse if the gym at the Weinstein’s Assisted Living complex gets run down.  Los Angeles’ success relies too heavily on one player.  Dallas jus started looking like the defending champs two weeks ago. 

Yet, I still like one of these three to be the conference champ.  With all the surrounding hoopla, it seems almost impossible to choose the Lakers as the favorite, but their retarding factor seems to be the least damaging.  Sure, Kobe plays a bigger role in determining his teams’ success than any other player in the league, but isn’t that a good thing?  Shouldn’t we all praise Kobe for chucking up 24 a game when we chastise LeBron for disappearing and being too quick to give up the ball?  Shouldn’t every team’s best player need scoring opportunities?  Isn’t Kobe’s lack of short-term memory the quality that makes him a winner?  And so what Dwight is most likely sticking the year out in Orlando?  Isn’t the combination of Gasol and Bynum better anyways?  Mike Brown might be one of the most overrated coaches in the league, but does a team as experienced as the Lakers really need an all-time great? 

The answer to these questions will decide the conference. 

Nobody outside of the state of California is giving the Lakers any shot, but maybe that’s exactly how they want it.   


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