All posts by thetamilmamba

I Still Hate Kevin Durant

There are a lot of factors that basketball fans can look at in the wake of this year’s finals. First, a shout out to the Golden State Warriors. What a team, what a squad, what a front office! Even if I don’t think they’re particularly classy (save Steph), they’re an incredibly talented team that knows how to win. Also, LeBron is indeed the King. The first man to average a triple double in the finals, this man is as legit as they get. He’s solidified GOAT status for me, but we’ll get to that at some point eventually (my next article). Right now, I want to talk about someone who’s been the bane of my basketball fandom for the past year: Kevin Durant. His move to GSW is cowardly as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll explain why.

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KD is a top four player in the league (anywhere from two to four depending on how you want to order Curry/Kawhi). He has been in this position since 2011, when he led his team to the Western Conference Finals against the Dirk-led Mavs who would eventually benefit from LeChoke. Durant had another top five player in the league in Russell Westbrook, who is excellent albeit a little brash. He didn’t have great coaching, nor an extremely impressive ownership (though Presti is definitely a good GM), but had he chosen to stay in OKC, he would have had that other top five player in the league, an elite college coach who’d only get better in his second year, and an elite set of bigs (Al Horford would have hopped on the team had he stayed). It’s been reported since 2015 that Westbrook was much more popular than KD among Thunder players given his style and personality, and KD seemed to resent that. To be fair to KD, Brodie’s style wasn’t particularly conducive to KD all the time, often playing erratically. As a fan, my preference was that KD would stay with OKC and that he and Brodie would contend with the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs for the rest of the decade. Of course, that wasn’t meant to be, but it didn’t have to go down the way that it did.

KD could have gone to the Celtics or Wizards and given LeBron a challenge in the East, or to the Clippers, and teamed up with a good team to continue being a force in the West. He did none of that. In an absolutely classless move, without even letting his teammates know, he wrote an article talking about how he was “taking the hardest road” by joining a 73-9 team that was one LeBlock and one Kythree away from finishing as the winningest team of all time with back to back championships. As we saw throughout the year, the Warriors didn’t need him; they just needed him to not be a contender. The original Warriors starting five from 15-16 finals could easily have been back at the biggest stage given how great Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are, not to mention the insane defense of Iggy and the veteran skillset of Shaun Livingston. They could have also lost to KD/WB as they likely should have last year when they were down 3-1, but KD decided to shit the bed in games six and seven. Maybe the Spurs could have won. Unfortunately, we will never know, because by choosing to join forces with a team that basically didn’t need him, KD robbed the jewel of the NBA – the elite Western Conference – of its relative parity.

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At no point in NBA history in the post-merger era have two of the NBA’s top three/four players played on the same team as a result of one player joining the other, and likely four of the top 15 as well. Kyrie’s (arguably) not even top five at his own position. Durant, instead of choosing to be a competitor and attempt to beat the best, simply joined them. I’m confused as to how one CANNOT question his mental fortitude and character. If you are elite at anything, you may not have the AI/Kobe/Brodie mentality of “Us Against the World,” but you likely want to establish yourself as the best in your own right. Instead of figuring out a way to get back to the WCF and NBA Finals (which the THUNDER SHOULD AND COULD HAVE DONE), KD was attracted by easy layups and transition dunks that he’d get playing along with the most transformative offensive player of our generation, two of the top five defensive players in the league, and an excellent unselfish bench coached to near perfection by Barney Stinson’s basketball lookalike. He took the easiest road possible, and deserves criticism for it. Imagine if Wilt said in the 1960s, “Whoops, I can’t beat Bill Russell’s Celtics. Might as well join him!”, or if Bird had said the same about Magic or vice-versa. Imagine if Jordan said that about the Bad Boy Pistons, or if Shaq said that about the Bulls. If Kobe joined Steve Nash’s Suns, and, of course, if LeBron joined the Celtics (we’ll get to LeBron in a bit). The league would suffer as a result, and these people would be criticized. KD isn’t David West or Ray Allen; he’s great among great. He’s expected to lead his own team, one that was perfectly talented and capable when healthy to win a chip. The fact that he chose the easiest road possible is purely embarrassing, and the lies he told in the wake of it are even more confusing. Not to mention, he called the heck out of LeBron during the Decision (well-deserved). Is this really someone who deserves a free pass?

You’re thinking, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DECISION? LEBRON DITCHED CLEVELAND TO GO TO MIAMI.” I hated LeBron for four years because of this. I got over it when he made that incredible stand against the Warriors in 2015 and am a big fan now, but he was the villain of the NBA for four years. He deserved it. What LeBron did, though, isn’t half as bad as what KD did, and comparing them equally displays a fundamental lack of understanding of basketball. LeBron saw that his team, which he had put on his back with zero help for seven years, was unable to win, and he was tired of doing everything by himself. Let’s not forget that Jordan couldn’t get out of the first round without Scottie Pippen. Along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they chose to go to Miami as a result of both Pat Riley’s insane work culture as well as of course weather and opportunities. The other two were not top five in the league at the time, either. What seed was Miami the year before? Fifth, third in their division. What happened to Cleveland after LeBron left? 19-63, got the first pick also known as a young man who believes in a flat earth named Kyrie Irving. Other fun facts: the decision raised a million dollars for charity, despite it being douchey as can be. Also, other things he got criticized for, like the “not one, not two, etc.” were simply for hyping up a Miami crowd, not a guarantee of anything. Handled poorly? Yes. Did he redeem himself? Absolutely. As bad as KD? Absolutely not.

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As stated earlier, KD wrote an even more idiotic letter that dramatized his soft decision as something difficult, was fairly passive-aggressive with the media all year, and joined a team that arguably didn’t even need him to get its end result. I give KD all of the credit in the world for his performance in the finals; the man showed up to play. He’s a great player, and could go down as the third greatest SF of all time after LBJ and Larry Legend. It’s for this reason that his decision, and this outcome, frustrates me so much. He didn’t need to do this, yet he did it anyway. And he deserves all criticism for it.

Space Jam 2.0: Which Current Starting Five Would You Bet on to Save the World?

On August 17, 2016, sports journalist Nick Wright conducted an interesting exercise: if we were in a real-life Space Jam situation with one basketball game against super-powered aliens to save the Planet Earth, what squad do you go with? As much as I love the fabled Toon Squad, this might be a tough pick here. Remember, it’s not just great individual players who we are looking for, but the world needs a team that can win. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that we’re playing in today’s moderately paced (compared to the slow ‘90s and fast ‘60s) NBA, with similar positional values and the rules of today’s basketball games. Let’s evaluate Wright’s picks.

PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Lebron James
C: Anthony Davis

Let’s go through the evaluations, starting with the point guard position. Wright’s a big Brodie fan (as is this writer), but his logic was also fairly sound. Westbrook has the speed, athleticism, and dynamic ability that’s needed against an alien squad. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s probably not human either. In this offense, Westbrook would be able to slash and kick, probably racking up nearly 15 assists a game given the ability of his teammates on this team to actually hit a corner a three. Speaking of threes…

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Indiana Pacers

Klay Thompson was Wright’s pick at SG. Thompson’s a great choice because of his ability to shoot threes and defend. Remember, playing in an NBA game styled as it would be today, three and D players are incredibly valuable. You could put Thompson on the other teams’ best backcourt player, but honestly, why would you when you have…

Kawhi Leonard. One of the best basketball players in the NBA, period. Leonard is currently carrying a relatively underwhelming Spurs team to the 2nd seed in the West. Leonard has also cemented himself as a  great three-point shooter and playmaker, with excellent off-ball abilities and IQ, and of course, with tremendous defending. On this team, he can catch-and-shoot, set up motion plays and will likely anchor the defensive end with a fantastic attitude. He has already defended the best player in the world with relative success, bringing us to….

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LeBron James. LeBron is the best player in the world, indubitably. A true sheriff, he’ll be the anchor for this team doing what he always does: facilitating like no other. He’ll likely be team captain on the court and off the court, despite his previous run-ins with Klay and his father. He’s also likely the only player in the league who Russell Westbrook might defer to: I would not be surprised if LeBron got the maximized potential from Westbrook. Of course, with setting LeBron up next to Kawhi, the two of them would be the most dominant wing pairing on both sides of the ball, with LeBron getting Kawhi open looks and Kawhi feeding LeBron in the post. Of course, the team does need a great rebounder with scoring ability, which brings us to…

Anthony Davis. Davis is phenomenal on the defensive end, the offensive end, and at the end of games (The OKC Thunder know this all too well). A clutch athlete with good fundamental skills, the Brow is likely to be the final piece to an excellent team. He’ll mesh well with LeBron, be able to play pick and roll with Westbrook, and shoot the ball himself with efficiency.

For this theoretical team, let’s also throw in a coach. This answer is obvious: Gregg Popovich. No explanation necessary. GOAT team deserves GOAT coach.

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Obviously, the aliens would need to have quite some talent to beat a team like this. So, let’s turn the exercise on its head: whose talents would the aliens steal in order to beat this team? After careful evaluation, it’s likely the aliens would pick some team that looks somewhat like this:

PG: Steph Curry
SG: John Wall
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Draymond Green
C: Rudy Gobert

Steph Curry. This dude is incredible. He can pull up from anywhere on the court and pull defenses 30 feet from the basket. I do happen to think that Steph doesn’t show up in big games, including most of the 13 NBA finals games he’s played in. However, a healthy Stephen Curry is near unbeatable, and besides, who knows if the alien who’s stealing his powers is clutch or not? Defense is a concern, given that there is exactly 0 chance Steph can put the brakes on Westbrook, which means that his alien host would likely guard the taller but less explosive Klay Thompson (who’ll probably guard him back given that Westbrook would be better off guarding the Alien with Wall’s powers). This means that Curry will be helped by…

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John Wall. Wall’s an interesting pick, but as far as this writer is concerned, he’s been the best two-way PG in the East and is very deserving of a spot on this team. The biggest worry the Alien team would have to consider would be a soaring Westbrook, who can offensively dominate the game by beating his man off the dribble. My two other contenders, DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul would both have trouble stopping Westbrook, given DeRozan’s continuous defensive inconsistency, CP3’s size. Since Steph isn’t going to be stopping Brodie, Wall can do that, while playing off of the ball and relying on other assets to contribute to his team. If the Aliens steal Wall’s powers, their defense just improved incredibly. However, they’ll need a little offensive spark, which brings us to….

Kevin Durant. For the last 5 years, it’s safe to say that Durant has been the second best player in the NBA, behind LeBron James (though I would say both Russell Westbrook and James Harden are more valuable as players this season). Durant’s shooting and scoring ability would work perfectly in this system, and the team’s spacing would greatly improve. Durant’s skillset should provide a huge variety of offensive and defensive weapons to the alien host, save a big body. Speaking of big bodies….

Draymond Green. Unequivocally, I personally think Draymond is one of the dirtiest, whiniest, and most unsportsmanlike players in the NBA. But he’s also a great player, and he’s not afraid of anything. These attributes are important in defending LeBron James, who strikes fear deep into the hearts of most of his opponents. Draymond is also an excellent passer and a loyal teammate, making his host someone who will likely hold this alien squad together through his vocal attributes. As aggressive as Draymond is, he doesn’t have much size, which fortunately can be provided by…

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Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower is without a doubt the biggest all-star snub of the season, and deserves respect for his incredible defensive presence. His talent will allow him to protect the rim against drivers like Westbrook, Kawhi and Lebron. The aliens will also have an excellent height advantage with this addition, given Gobert’s 7’1 frame.

As for Coach, given the three Warriors on this team already, let’s have Steve Kerr’s talents come to the sideline. Again, no explanation really necessary.

Both teams have excellent skill and talent, and it’s fair to say both have an excellent shot at winning if they play the game well. So, I’ll leave it up to you. Who wins the game?

 

 

NBA’s Atlas: How Russell Westbrook is Carrying the Thunder on his Shoulders

“The Hardest Road.”

Throughout the basketball world, those three words symbolized a remarkable transition in the sport. Kevin Durant, the most accomplished scorer in the league and arguably the second best player overall (after LeBron James), would be leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. His new destination? The 73-9, back-to-back Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors who had won the championship in 2015 and were up 3-1 in the NBA finals in 2016.

Naturally, many people were upset by this decision. First Take anchor and noted firebrand Stephen A. Smith described the decision as, “the weakest move I’ve ever seen from a superstar.” Charles Barkley, former NBA superstar and member of the 1992 “Dream Team” described the move as, “cheating.” Though many compared this to “The Decision”, where LeBron James left Cleveland to join forces with the Miami Heat, the situation was arguably worse. LeBron left a team that he had been carrying on his back for the first seven years of his career without any help in order to join forces with other stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh who had been doing the same with limited playoff success. In comparison, Kevin Durant left one of the top contenders in the Western Conference to join the team who they had lost to in the Western Conference Finals. Had Durant stayed, he could have likely continued his success with the team, possibly even beating the Warriors in the upcoming season. The basketball world was outraged and shocked.

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Of course, everyone’s eyes fell on one man: OKC superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and Durant no doubt had a very complicated relationship: Durant was the better player, at least as per general media and fan consensus, but OKC was Russ’ team. In the locker room, it seemed as if Russ ran the show, and these tensions came out on the court. Both Durant and Westbrook required the ball in their hands to make plays, and as Westbrook came into his own, leading the league in scoring in the 2014-2015 season, the balance became difficult to maintain. Now, it was finally, without a doubt, Westbrook’s team.

The Season

From the beginning, there was significant doubt as to whether the Thunder could even make the playoffs. Westbrook, a rather irreverent, controversial player known for his questionable basketball IQ as well as his insane athletic gifts, was seen as a Wild Card. After all, when KD was injured in 2014-2015, the Thunder missed the playoffs with Westbrook at the helm (although it was due to a buzzer-beater three-pointer by Anthony Davis). However, from the beginning, it became clear that Westbrook was going to will this team to success, despite all of the obstacles in his way. Playing against an improved 76ers squad, Westbrook posted a stat-line of 32 points, 9 assists, and 12 rebounds en route to an OKC win. His statline the next game? 51/10/13, beating the Phoenix Suns and recording his first triple-double. The game after that? 33 points, 16 assists, 12 boards.

Over the season, Russ has continued his excellence, and is currently posting season averages of 30.8/10.2/10.6, which is a ridiculous stat-line by any standard. The man is averaging a triple-double and carrying an objectively bad team with limited options to the seventh seed in the competitive Western Conference, while being 2.5 games away from the fourth seed. Without a doubt, he’s certainly my choice for the Most Valuable Player Award this year. And it’s not even close.

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Criticism

Of course, there’s fairly rational criticism of Russell Westbrook, and plenty of arguments against making him the MVP. His usage rate, around 42%, is historically high, leading to his abnormally high numbers. His TS% (true shooting percentage) is 54%, which reflects his poor-shot making decision. In terms of three-point shooting, Westbrook is shooting barely above 30%, yet launching six three-pointers a game. His turnover average of 5.5 a game is astronomically high, and reflects his general inefficiency.

There are also other great performers in the league contending to win the award. Kevin Durant, Russ’ former teammate and current rival, is playing on likely the team with the best record in the league, having a career year on defense and rebounding while shooting at a higher percentage than ever before. Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs young, mellow superstar, has been playing as incredibly as expected, carrying an aging Spurs team to currently the second best record in the Western Conference. LeBron James, who will almost certainly without a doubt go down as one of the top 3 greatest basketball players of all time, is continuing his excellent play on the number one team in the Eastern Conference. Though his numbers reflect his generally less intense play in the regular season, he continues to show the league why he is still its best player.

And finally, James Harden. Harden, much like Westbrook, has been much aligned for his basketball IQ, and in particular his defense. However, under new coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has thrived in a new system with a team built with the floor spacing and shooters that he needs. Harden’s been putting up historic numbers as well, leading the league in assists with a much higher TS and less usage. Most importantly, Harden’s Rockets are third in the Western Conference, having won more games against the Thunder as well as leading the Thunder in the season series 2-1. He’s currently the consensus mid-season pick for MVP.

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Why It Doesn’t Matter

All of the aforementioned points are true. But they’re flawed when discussing the role of MVP. Despite all of this, the award still belongs to the Thunder PG.

In terms of Westbrook’s statistics, his usage rate is historic, like his turnover rate. But this is where the eye test needs to be applied. The Thunder offense revolves around Westbrook not just because he has the ball in his hands, but because there are very few true creators on the team. SG Victor Oladipo was ball dominant on a bad Orlando Magic team and is often unable to create shots with the Thunder, while big men Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are highly reliant on working with Westbrook to get the ball in their hands. Newcomers Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis have been playing up to expectations, but nothing more than what’s expected of young players in the league. Westbrook’s three-point shooting is subpar, but if he doesn’t at least attempt to shoot the ball, defenders can simply clog the lane and take away the Thunder’s biggest offensive threat: driving the lane. It’s also difficult to be expected to take smart shots when no one on the offense can score at all. It’s hard for Donovan to implement a legitimate offense with the arsenal of players he has, and it forces Russ’ hand to take over the game, for better or for worse. But generally, it’s for the better.

Speaking of statistics: averaging a triple double is a ridiculous accomplishment, done only once in history by none other than Oscar Robertson, widely considered one the best players in NBA history. It’s an accomplishment that deserves to be rewarded-just like Steph’s 402 three pointers last year. Such a unique, multidimensional, versatile accomplishment demonstrates the value of Russ.

Most importantly, Russ deserves MVP because he is doing more for his team than anyone else is currently doing for theirs or can do in general. Looking at the other four possible contenders, it becomes so clear why what Russ is doing is unique. In the case of Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich is so good of a coach that it simply doesn’t matter who he has, the Spurs will likely win 50+ games anyway. As great as Kawhi is, the Spurs would likely find a way to win without him. In regards to Kevin Durant, if he was off the Warriors, they would still find a way behind Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green to win 60+ games as a result of their impeccable shooting, ball movement, and coaching. While LeBron is the best player in the world without any doubt, the Cavaliers still have two highly skilled all-star caliber players in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It also doesn’t help that LeBron very clearly “coasts” during the regular season, in order to save stamina and energy for the playoffs as a result of aging. Bringing it to the consensus choice, James Harden, as great as he’s been, he’s been benefiting from a fantastic system run by former Suns, Knicks, and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who made superstars out of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire. Plus, taking Harden off the Rockets leaves them with enough talent, shooting, and defense to still compete in the West.

But take Russell Westbrook off the Thunder, and they have nothing. They wouldn’t be a lottery team, and they would certainly miss the playoffs. Without a legitimate playmaker or consistent scoring threat, the Thunder would struggle against any skilled opponent. Despite the drama that has happened this past offseason and despite the media pressure on OKC, Russ has excelled and carried the team on his back. There’s a reason why the players and the media voted for him over anyone else to start the all-star game: he is doing something that almost no one else in the league can do; Westbrook is carrying a very mediocre team to the playoffs, and with his explosive abilities, they possibly even the chance to go deep into the playoffs and upset some of the better teams.

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As far as I’m concerned, the Most Valuable Player Award is not the “Best Player in the League of Award.” Since around 2008/2009, that’s been LeBron James. But it also isn’t the “give it to the best player on the best team” award. James Harden has been having a historic year, but his relative advantage to Westbrook is based on team success that he has plenty of help creating, as opposed to Russ having to do it alone. Don’t let me be misunderstood, Harden isn’t a bad MVP candidate. Should he win, I’d happily accept it. But no one, and I repeat no one, has been more relevant, more important, and more valuable to his team’s success than Russ. If we go by what the award actually stands for, there’s one man who stands above all else.

And that man is Russell Westbrook.