Why Oklahoma City could remain the best fit for Russell Westbrook

BOSTON – Before we look at where Oklahoma City is going, it’s worth a moment to appreciate where they are. History is not kind to teams that lose a franchise player. The season after LeBron James left Cleveland, the Cavs fell to 19-63. The Hornets a year after Chris Paul left New Orleans? 21-45. The Magic post-Dwight Howard? 20-62. The Thunder lost a bona fide top-five player in Kevin Durant last summer, and they are 20-12 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. That’s a credit not just to the incomparable Russell Westbrook, but to the collection of solid (or better) players Oklahoma City has put around him.

Now, there’s a reality in OKC: The Thunder fall apart when Westbrook is off the floor. It doesn’t happen much — Westbrook is averaging 35.1 minutes per game, second highest of his career — but the on/off numbers are ugly, on both ends of the floor. Many nights Westbrook isn’t just a big part of Oklahoma City’s offense — he is the offense.

Russell Westbrook is playing a lot of minutes this season. (AP)
Russell Westbrook is playing a lot of minutes this season. (AP)

And that’s to be expected. The Thunder lost Kevin freaking Durant. You don’t simply slide someone else into that slot. The dearth of perimeter shooting caused by Durant’s defection has been a killer. Andre Roberson (29.5 percent from 3-point range) has been awful. Victor Oladipo (38.1 percent) is solid, while Domantas Sabonis isn’t shooting enough to be a real threat. That’s boxed in Steven Adams in the post and is why OKC continues to pursue the Kings’ Rudy Gay, with injured guard Cameron Payne the carrot.

Again, though: What was Oklahoma City supposed to do? It had to go all in on Durant, and when he took off, it used the freed cap space to lock in Westbrook for another year, salvaging the future of the franchise.

And this franchise does have a future. Adams is a rising star, a double-digit scorer for the first time in his career with unlimited potential. Thunder coaches gush about the offensive repertoire Adams flashes in practice, and there is a healthy belief the burly center will eventually develop into a dominant post scorer. Oladipo and Sabonis are a better long-term fit than Serge Ibaka, and the Thunder have enough interesting young pieces to get teams interested in a mid-level trade (Gay, for example) to address a need.

So, keep the core, land a star in free agency and keep this train running … right? Well, no. For starters, Oklahoma City has never been a player in free agency. Oklahoma-born Blake Griffin’s name is connected to the Thunder for that reason, and it’s worth noting that OKC has had no indications — none — that Griffin is interested in coming home.

Besides, how would the Thunder pay him? The Thunder are tied to $106 million in guaranteed contracts next season; that doesn’t take into account Roberson, whose new deal could push OKC into tax territory. Trading Enes Kanter would clear space, but only about $9 million — or about the room they will have with the full mid-level exception ($8.4 million) the Thunder will have to work with anyway.

And here’s another thing: Maybe OKC isn’t after Griffin. Oh, they would take him. The thought of a Westbrook-Griffin tandem is terrifying, particularly in transition, where the two uber-athletes would be monsters in the open floor. But GM Sam Presti isn’t foolish enough to put the fate of the franchise in a 27-year-old’s desire to return to his roots.

Presti is trying to build a conference contender — and maybe he already has one. Not now, of course. Golden State is the class of the conference and Oklahoma City has one of the youngest starting lineups in the NBA. But the new Collective Bargaining Agreement offers hope to teams built to be balanced, not star heavy — albeit a hope that likely won’t be realized for two or three seasons.

Consider: Team executives believe that the rise of max salaries under the new CBA, coupled with the stabilizing of the salary cap, will lead to serious belt tightening across the NBA in the coming years. In Golden State, that will happen as early as this summer, when re-signing Kevin Durant — who will likely opt out of the $27.7 million he is owed next season to sign a deal that would pay him in the mid-$30 million range — could cost the Warriors key role players Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, whose rights would need to be renounced to clear the necessary cap space to re-sign Durant.

An even bigger decision could loom in 2019, when Klay Thompson is set to hit free agency. Will Golden State be willing to pay Thompson a max deal? And even if they wanted to, what kind of team could the Warriors field around their collection of stars?

It’s not just Golden State that will have headaches. Teams with players under old max contracts will have to deal with the realities of paying players new ones. And that is why some teams believe the superstars will eventually disperse, and that a deep, balanced team with one star will have a better chance of winning.

Which brings us back to Oklahoma City. It goes without saying that persuading Westbrook to sign an extension this summer is a pivotal moment for the franchise. Westbrook is eligible for a five-year, $219 million extension that would kick in for the 2018-19 season — effectively tying him to the Thunder for the next six seasons. If Westbrook declines, OKC will have to explore trading him to avoid the catastrophic possibility of losing him for nothing the following summer.

But if he signs … the Thunder might be on to something. Their young core of Adams, Oladipo and Sabonis is locked up long term. Oklahoma City has had to fork over draft picks in trades in recent years, but it has its own in what is expected to be a loaded 2017 draft and has a front office that hits on low to mid-first-round picks more than it misses. With Westbrook on board and a supporting cast that figures to develop rapidly around him, the Thunder should continue to improve.

So, yes, the Western Conference belongs to Golden State, and there is a strong likelihood that the Thunder will have to watch Durant raise a banner or two in the coming years. But Westbrook and OKC’s stockpile of young talent have helped the team avoid the collapse of others who lost A-list stars and could position the Thunder for another deep playoff run much sooner than expected.

3-POINTERS

The NBA is experimenting with officiating crews in the D-League. (AP)
The NBA is experimenting with officiating crews in the D-League. (AP)

3. The NBA’s four-referee experiment

On Monday in Brooklyn, in front of a smattering of fans attending an NBA Development League matinee, the NBA launched a new experiment: four referees in a game. It was the first of nine D-League games that will feature four- and five-person officiating crews this season.

The impetus behind the experiment came from teams that wanted to know more about the mechanics involved with four-person crews, which “morphed into a larger conversation about possibly using five,” Bob Delaney, NBA vice president of referee operations and director of officials, told The Vertical. The league tinkered with expanded crews of non-NBA officials at the Jersey Shore Basketball League last summer and again at the Utah Summer League.

The advantages of an expanded crew, Delaney said, are fairly basic. More referees mean more eyeballs, which means a better response to harder-to-pick-up calls such as traveling and offensive/defensive three seconds. One of the configurations of the four-person crew has a referee on either sideline. Often with a three-person crew, a referee is seeing a play evolve from a north/south angle; with four, referees can see it east/west — the same angle from which players and coaches on the sideline see the game.

Another advantage: less running. When a referee is moving, his or her eyes are moving, and that can cause calls to be missed. Also, as officials tire, their decision-making is not as sharp. By reducing the ground a referee has to cover, the league believes it can improve performance. The five-man configuration will have two lead officials in stationary positions on each end of the court.

The potential downside is obvious: More officials could mean more whistles, which could slow the game down to a crawl. The NBA has gone to great lengths to speed up the game where possible, with some success. The length of games last season (two hours, 15 minutes, 36 seconds) is down nearly a minute from 2013-14 (2:16:28). Not coincidentally, fouls called have ticked down from 41.4 per game in 2013-14 to 40.5 last season. Games turning into whistle-fests are the last thing the league wants.

I was on hand Monday when the four-person crew debuted in the Long Island Nets-Westchester Knicks matchup, and it was largely uneventful. The four-person crew seemed to move fluidly; there was a high number of fouls called (59, well above the D-League average of 45.1 last season) while the game was longer (2:21) than last season’s average (2:14). Some of that can be attributed to a close game — the Nets won a 118-114 squeaker — but it certainly bears watching.

It’s a work in progress. Literally. After the first quarter, Delaney huddled with the four officials. The normal three-person crew movement was causing the floor to end up unbalanced with four; Delaney instructed the officials to slow down the rotations. With a three-person crew, the lead official — situated on the baseline — is expected to get in line with the ball when it comes to a pause. With four officials, the rotation doesn’t need to happen as often, and Delaney told the referees in Brooklyn to only rotate when the ball was at the bottom tip of the circle.

The NBA is in the data collection phase of this experiment, so don’t expect any changes soon, if ever. But if increasing the number of officials proves to be effective and efficient, it’s something we could see in an NBA game in the future.

DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings are vying for a playoff spot — for now. (AP)
DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings are vying for a playoff spot — for now. (AP)

2. Could Orlando emerge as a Cousins contender?

The fall of the Trail Blazers this season has put the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff field within everyone’s reach. Really: The Suns and Mavs, still sitting with single-digit win totals, are five games back. Sacramento currently occupies the eighth spot, and there is no stronger evidence that DeMarcus Cousins isn’t going anywhere than that; Kings ownership has made it clear that a first-round obliteration by the Warriors is worth it, just to make the playoffs.

Should things change, Orlando could be a team to watch. The Magic are an oddly constructed bunch, flush with paint-centric bigs and young guards, low on anything resembling a traditional wing. While the rest of the league goes small, Orlando — with its Bismack Biyombo/Serge Ibaka/Aaron Gordon frontcourt — is stuffing the floor with oversized big men with limited range. Meanwhile, Mario Hezonja, the fifth overall pick in 2015, has played spotty minutes, leaving the Magic thin on dynamic floor spacers.

Something has got to give. Cousins wouldn’t solve Orlando’s perimeter problems, but moving a couple of bigs — a Gordon/Nikola Vucevic-headlined package would have to be appealing to the Kings — for a franchise center would at least give the Magic some direction.

Because right now Orlando is … what exactly? The Magic have some nice young pieces in Gordon, Fournier and Elfrid Payton but lack any discernible star power. Gordon is playing out of position while Payton was relegated to the bench last month — and has put up better numbers since. The clock continues to tick toward Ibaka’s free agency this summer and the staggering salary Orlando will have to pay to keep him.

Again, all indications are Cousins is going nowhere. But if the Kings get serious about looking for a trade partner, Orlando has a lot of pieces that would fit.

Yep, George Karl is making waves. (AP)
Yep, George Karl is making waves. (AP)

1. George Karl napalms … everyone

At 65, and coming off an unsuccessful stint in Sacramento, it was unlikely George Karl was going to get another head coaching job. His new book — “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection” — all but guarantees he won’t. Already, Karl has had high-profile disputes with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin over the contents of the book, and in a recent interview with New York Magazine, Karl took aim at a player he never coached: Damian Lillard, whom Karl branded as the primary reason for Portland’s struggles this season.

Terry Stotts — a former Karl assistant — did not take kindly to Karl’s opinion.

“As you know, I owe a lot to George. I got my start in coaching with George,” Stotts said on Wednesday. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. He’s a successful coach.

“That being said, if he wants to diminish his chances for the Hall of Fame, if he wants to undermine his chances of being a head coach again in this league, if he wants to settle old scores with GMs or players or whoever else, that’s his prerogative. But when it comes to my team and my players, he needs to stay in his own lane.

“He doesn’t know Damian Lillard. He doesn’t know how coachable he is. He doesn’t know what a great teammate he is. He doesn’t know how much Damian cares about winning, and how important he is to this franchise. I thought his comments, however well-intended they may have been — which I don’t understand — I can’t tolerate.”

Friends of Karl say he doesn’t mind the negative attention; buzz, good or bad, will only help book sales. But it’s interesting to see a coaching lifer, a man who sought the UNLV head coaching job days after being fired in Sacramento, make himself so toxic. Will he regret it? Will a team that might have considered Karl hold the book against him?

As for the Hall of Fame, that should be a non-issue. That Karl has not even been nominated is a little nuts. Karl has never won a championship — his 1996 SuperSonics team was among the Michael Jordan victims in the ’90s — but he’s a top-five coach in wins (1,175) and one of nine in the 1,000-win club. He had successful stints in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver before flaming out with the Kings and was one of the great offensive innovators of his time. Whatever you think of him, his accomplishments are Hall of Fame worthy.

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