Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers face the stiffest competition they've seen since doing away with the Sunday Whites curse against the Miami Heat a few weeks ago. The Oklahoma City Thunder, easily the best team in the Western Conference this season, comes to town to face the Lakers for just the 2nd time this season.
Obviously, the talking points around this game have little to do with basketball at the moment. The Lakers are dealing with some well chronicled internal issues at the moment, and now get to have their talismanic former leader, Derek Fisher, provide the salt in the wound of the the Lakers locker room, as Fisher returns in his new role as wise old man with a posse of young kids to drag his old ass around. Seriously though, we've got nothing but love for Derek Fisher, and couldn't be happier that he found such an awesome opportunity to display his best qualities. Just do us a favor and don't display them tonight.
In any case, I'm usually a pretty anti-social kind of dude when it comes to this whole blogging thing, but J.A. Sherman (my brother in initial based naming schemes) from WTLC was nice enough to reach out to me for a little Q&A exchange. Here's the link to his questions and my answers, and now its his turn on the hot seat.
1. So, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to be pretty good ... they've got their head above the Spurs, and shoulders above everybody else. Anybody with two eyes and a basic knowledge of the NBA have know the Thunder would be on the rise with all their young talent, but where does this season fall in terms of living up to or exceeding expectations? Did you expect them to put everything together on a consistent night in, night out basis like this, or are they progressing ahead of schedule?
The Thunder have followed what I would call a very unusual storybook line of progression in the past three years. We like to think that championship building is by and large organic, that any team can do it if they follow the right train of thought. If you really consider NBA history however, it is anything but. Dallas won last year because Dirk Nowitzki was finally accompanied with good (if high priced) imported veterans. The Celtics won because of trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Your Lakers won first because of signing Shaq, and then because of trades for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (ironically enough, in a trade involving Shaq). You really have to go way back to the origination of the Spurs' championship model to see a core that was developed through the draft, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, to see the same type of organic building.
Given the strangely theoretically 'normal' approach that OKC has taken, this season would seem to be a little bit ahead of schedule, but only in terms of their youth (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka are all 23 or younger). In terms of team progression, I thought they finished a bit ahead of schedule last season in getting to the WCF (losing to Dallas in five). This season, the challenge will be to get back to the WCF and then win it for a shot at the title. To win the title though, I fear that, knowing what I know about NBA history, they may have one more life lesson to learn before they climb the highest mountain.
In the moment though I think the biggest fear is that they become bored with the growth progress that the regular season offers. Remember how the championship Lakers had the tendency to drift at times during the regular season and then turn it on when the playoffs started? Well, we've seen signs of OKC doing the same thing, but unfortunately for them they do not have the collective experiences (or championship rings) to know how risky that can be.
2. Just about the only controversy I ever hear associated with the Thunder is the every other game reaction to Russell Westbrook's shot selection. Does that conflict extend all the way into the ranks of the OKC fan base, or is it the creation of a national NBA market that over-analyzes every action taken looking for things to talk about? Finally, considering the Thunder have far and away the best offense in the league, nearly 2 full points better per 100 possessions than their closest competitor, what exactly is the conflict even about?
You might say that the Russell Westbrook phenomenon is the media and public hunting for a story. To be sure, we all love stories. We like to look at a scenario and draw conclusions for it based on a lens through which we have seen things before. Some of those lenses might be Shaq & Kobe, Garnett & Marbury, or the movies we watch. Since we know how those stories end, it helps us understand how this particular story might end. Further 'helping' us with this story line are people like Simmons, Skip, and Charles (you all know who I mean).
While last season the over-indulgence of microscopic examination started to penetrate the tight Thunder core, this season it seems to have had a galvanizing effect. Despite the same level of criticism, the team is coming together even stronger than before, rather than become divided. It brings to mind this particular exchange where Durant actually approached a reporter and tried to make sense of it all.
At the core though, there is a legitimate question to be asked - why is Westbrook taking 20 shots a game when he plays next to arguably the most pure scorer in the game? And then we let the question hang there as if there is no answer at all.
Well, there IS an answer. The answer is: 1) Westbrook has to be a scoring threat to take the pressure off of Durant; and 2) Westbrook can score almost as easily as Durant can. In fact, as we saw in their last game against the Trail Blazers, Westbrook can carry the team for an entire half if he needs to. So for example, in a game where we saw two Kevins (Love & Durant) score 51 and 40 points respectively in a classic shootout, we forget that Westbrook was the Thunder's high scorer with 45. To paraphrase Chris Mullin, the only people who should have problem with the number of shots Westbrook takes is the other team.
Also, I do dig Kobe's vouching for the little guy - ""Everybody needs to just lay off on Russell. That's a bad little dude, man...He's got the same type of dog that I had in me, that I still have in me, when I was coming up playing with Shaq. He's got the same fight."
3. Did James Harden get bit by a mutant spider that was blessed with extraordinary court vision recently, or has he always been this fantastic as a playmaker? I seem to remember him being billed as a good overall offensive player that should be able to provide some outside shooting, but he's been dropping dimes that would make Magic Johnson smile all season long. Has there been any thought to playing him as a true point guard and moving Westbrook to shooting guard (which would relieve some of the same conversation listed above)?
James Harden has found a soft spot in the hearts and minds of NBA pundits and fans alike because he plays a different kind of game than most. Sometimes described as 'old school,' Harden is more likely to play beneath the rim rather than above it, and we non-leapers who get our hoops runs at the local YMCA can relate to that. He makes plays on a regular basis that we see ourselves making because we have no other choice; you and I have to find the right passing lane, or have space to drive, or a few feet of opening to get off a shot. Harden though, NBA player James Harden, he is supposed to represent the elite class of athleticism. Yet we still see him making YMCA-type plays, and it still works. It is a wonderful way for us non-athletes to connect.
I am exaggerating, of course. Harden is an exceptional athlete who can do things we will never be able to, but in the midst of high fliers like Westbrook, he seems grounded, and he shows us that intelligent basketball play still works.
Harden is arguably the second-best 2-guard in the West because he understands the rhythm of the game better than most. He sees the passing angles, he flows through the game like water rather than a Westbrook jackhammer, and is stupifyingly efficient on the offensive end of the court (consider in the last two games, he has scored 40 points off of 12-14 shooting). In short, he is the perfect compliment for Westbrook and Durant. And when the three play on the court together, each one is fully capable of engaging the offense, which means that the opposing team is faced with the prospect of two of the best scorers in the NBA playing off the ball. As a result, OKC is averaging a mind-boggling 115.2 points per 100 possessions when all 3 play together, a scoring rate that is unmatched in NBA history.
4. Bonus question: Is there any hope of the Thunder keeping all of these young stars for a sustained run at NBA greatness?
Short answer: NO.
Longer answer - the NBA gatekeepers have practically promised that teams like the Thunder will not be allowed to hoard young talent past their rookie contracts.
The league finds itself in a tenuous position. They certainly want teams that have gone through years of struggles to be able to get out of the hole, but if said team actually accomplishes this measure and turns itself around, there are precious competitive balance considerations that threaten to mitigate the organic development. My only guess is that the league wants good franchises to keep drafting good players, but want the good players to remain transient enough so that if the good teams develop them properly, those players will wind up in other situations to buoy teams who were not as adept at finding and developing the young talent.
How do I feel about this? As a Thunder fan it seems kind of unfair that a league would punish OKC's industriousness. If I were a fan of a different team though, like the Hornets or Bobcats, I might find it more tenable since other teams would ostensibly be doing the heavy lifting in bringing good players to market.
Thanks for the time, Mr. Sherman. Now mosey on over to Welcome to Loud City and cause a ruckus, my minions. (Just kidding, please don't cause a ruckus ... and I know you aren't my minions).