- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
In 1989, Doug Collins just kinda said “eff it.”
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Not really. He’s from Benton. Speaking from personal experience, they don’t say “eff” down there, and anyone who was within earshot of the then-Chicago Bulls coach’s work on the sidelines during 1988-89 will tell you that his sideline patter was replete with all manner of words you couldn’t even squeeze into a family website some 27 years later.
After a season – seasons, really – spent trying to find a point guard to suitably stand next to Jordan in the starting lineup, Collins decided (following a loss against Boston, one which Jordan sat out with a pulled groin) to line MJ up as his starting point guard. To just let the guy dominate the ball. Jordan was the best player in the NBA at this point, and he had the ball in his hands for most of the game anyway, so why not cut the pretense and just let the franchise run things as he saw fit?
The result was a 10-game dash that saw Jordan average 26.9 points, 12.8 assists, and 8.8 rebounds a game. The Bulls won eight of 10 contests. When John Paxson entered the starting lineup as ostensible point man following that stretch, Jordan reeled off a triple-double in nine of his next 10 games (missing out by three boards in a loss to Detroit), while still lording over the rock and dishing an average of 11.3 assists per game.
All while scoring at a league-leading rate, and contributing 47 steals during that 20-game run. It was glorious.
It was also penny-wise and pound-foolish, as the Jordan-dominated show made it so just about every score on their end of the court had to have a statistically-based Michael Jordan-insignia’d endorsement on it. Not because MJ was selfish and wanted either the dime or the points, but because that was the way the offense was set up.
In the playoffs, the Pistons loaded up on this singular philosophy, and downed Michael’s Bulls in the Eastern finals. Partly as a result of that outcome, but mostly because of the Michael-or-bust offense that Doug Collins had put in place, the team parted ways with its head coach over the offseason. Phil Jackson, boasting what Jordan derisively referred to as an “equal-opportunity offense,” was hired to lead his first NBA team as a replacement.
Still, I’m telling you … it was glorious. And this is what we might see out of Russell Westbrook this season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder lost out on the same Kevin Durant Sweepstakes that they seemed to be comfortably in front of heading into the offseason, and because 7-foot former MVPs that can drop 30 in their sleep aren’t usually awaiting your attention on the waiver wire, the Thunder found it rather difficult to replace Durant’s production in the summer that followed KD’s decision.
Into the vacuum, yet again, steps Westbrook.
He’s been here before, adroitly subbing for Durant’s MVP-styled play during an injury-soaked 2014-15 turn that saw Russell run up his own list of knockout triple-double numbers – a habit that stuck with him deep into 2015-16, even with Durant around.
Worse for Thunder fans but more enticing for those bent on selecting Westbrook No. 1 overall in their fantasy league draft was the initial start to OKC’s offseason.
The team shook NBA draft night by sending longtime Thunder forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando for defensive-minded hybrid guard Victor Oladipo, and rookie big man Donatas Sabonis. The trade will likely pay off for Oklahoma City in the long run – both additions come younger and cheaper, and Ibaka’s effectiveness had been waning – but as Sabonis acclimates and Oladipo finds his role, someone will have to pick up Serge’s scoring and rebounding numbers.
Westbrook, who led all qualifying guards last season by a ridiculous margin in rebound rate, would seem keen to fill in wherever needed.
Russell averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds last season, with two steals per contest. His scoring numbers dropped in Durant’s final season with him as a teammate, but somehow he still led the Thunder in usage rate even with Durant around and shooting the ball a team-leading 19 times per game while scoring 28 a night.
Last season’s usage rate still nearly mirrored Jordan’s rate from 1988-89; and Michael didn’t have an ex-MVP lining up beside him, one that nearly led the NBA in scoring as Durant did in 2015-16. And Westbrook’s usage rate, spent partially without Durant in 2014-15, was the league’s highest since Kobe Bryant went hog-wild for a terrible Los Angeles Lakers team back in 2005-06.
Kobe scored 35 a game that year, but he didn’t bring nearly the same passing (4.5 dimes) or board-crashing (5.3) panache that Westbrook comes through with regularly.
This is why Westbrook, health-willing, will be something else this season.
He doesn’t turn 28 until December, and has a good chance to act as the league’s best player. That would be in place even if Durant decided to remain with the Thunder.
Kevin is in Golden State, though, which means that the confluence of in-prime talent, ability to harvest out-of-this-world statistical accomplishments and the possibility for a 50-plus win season should have MVP voters (already wary following Stephen Curry’s disappointing 2016 postseason; because you know us sportswriters are perpetually boasting our modern-as-tomorrow angularity) lining up to seek out his name in the drop-down menu.
Something was taken from all of us when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors. The man is allowed to seek employment on his own terms wherever he chooses, but as fans we’re also allowed to rue a potential lost opportunity at what could have been an absolutely classic Western Conference finals rematch in 2017, pitting in-prime Thunder teammates against a Warriors team looking to make its third straight Finals. With both OKC and GSW attempting to prove that those 3-0 or 3-1 spurts, respectively, were flukes.
Instead, the Thunder will enter 2016-17 as an upstart. An underdog until proven otherwise, with its fearsome little fireball leading the way.
Take it in, though. You’ve got but a few weeks until your friends start hounding you for your League Pass password. This is going to be the watch of the season.
Previously, on BDL 25:
– – – – – – –