Wednesday, February 19, 2014

NBA Trade Scenarios: OKC should trade Russell Westbrook


Russell Westbrook fell again to injury on Christmas Day and everybody wondered, could Oklahoma City continue to play at an elite level without their star PG and one of the best players in the NBA? Kevin Durant clearly took offense to that (no pun intended) and has torched the league after Westbrook went down. Since that injury, Kevin Durant has put up 35 points, eight rebounds, and six assists per game on nearly 50-40-90 shooting (52.7-39.9-87.8). Throw in six 40-point games along with a career-high 54-point show against the Golden State Warriors and you are only beginning to get a picture of how unstoppable the 6’10” forward is. Even if he claims he’s shorter.
Being one of the founders of the “Trade Westbrook Club,” my history begging Sam Presti to trade one of the best players in the game goes all the way back to May 2012 when James Harden was still with Oklahoma City. Just imagine a Durant-Harden combination where Harden can play a Chris Paul-esque point guard role where he can facilitate for Durant & Co. but also create for himself… Too late for that.

But with only one day left before the 2014 NBA trade deadline, I’m back to preach the same message: Sam, please trade Westbrook. I know Durant already told Bill Simmons that Westbrook is returning to play the Heat on Thursday night, but that doesn’t stop you from pulling a fast one and keeping together a Durant-led team that has an NBA-best 20 wins since Westbrook’s re-injury. The development of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson has been staggering and those are role players that can support King Kevin.

The fad in today’s NBA is to bring together as many superstars as possible, from KG-Pierce-Allen to LeBron-Wade-Bosh to Harden and Howard. Durant and Westbrook, two of the best players in the game, should naturally follow as a brilliant combo…but we’ve seen that it has fallen short. That's not to say an NBA Finals appearance isn't laudable, just to say that Durant and OKC's potential is higher without Westbrook.

Now we have also firsthand that a Westbrook-less Thunder is better without him. The scoring machine has been fully unleashed and his sidekicks are stepping up.

I want to point out that the other major star combinations are actually not comparable to Durant and Westbrook. The successful combinations had complimentary talents—Pierce’s scoring, Ray’s sharpshooting, and KG’s inside/defensive presence with the 2007 Boston Celtics; LeBron’s everything, Wade’s slashing, and Bosh’s stretch-4/5 abilities in Miami. Even Kobe and Dwight theoretically had complimenting talents a la Kobe and Shaq but we all know the disaster that turned out to be. Speaking of which…


Russell Westbrook’s trade value is two-fold: 1) it frees Kevin Durant to truly become the primary scorer. Somehow despite KD’s scoring titles and overall efficiency, Westbrook still manages to jack up more shots than Durant (last year Durant had more than 100 less shots than Westbrook). 2) His trade value allows OKC to further compliment the pieces that OKC has on the court without the elite point guard.

Without getting too far speculating precise trade possibilities, I want to highlight one particularly attractive option.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at first glance appeared to be potentially clashing scorers when they joined forces. (We’re talking healthy Wade here, not the appearing and disappearing act he has been since mid-November 2013.) But LeBron’s ability to facilitate shone through and gave Wade opportunities to get open jumpers and easy baskets. 27 points and seven assists per game since joining Miami in 2010-11 is reminiscent of an up-and-coming All-Star near the other South Beach.

Golden State fans must be drooling at the possibility
of a pairing of these two stars.
Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook would be an absolute perfect pairing. Two players that run the point but are also capable (and perhaps more naturally) shooting guards would be filthy to watch. The ultimate ability to combine an athletic scorer with the best shot in the game. Point guard and shooting guard would be interchangeable and Steph Curry would have the chance to play off the ball and get some more catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Two questions must be asked, though: would OKC dream of trading one of their stars to a potential Western conference contender? And is a Westbrook to Golden State trade feasible and desirable for OKC?

Precedence says that Sam Presti has no problem trading a core player to another Western conference contender. True, Dwight Howard hadn’t signed with Houston at the time OKC traded Harden to their cross-state neighbor, but it had to be within Presti’s foresight that Houston was stacking their cards. (Houston is yet another example of aligning complementary stars.)

And despite coming into the season with the hype-train choo-chooing for the Warriors, their performance of late has dropped them in the eyes of many in the contender picture in the Western conference.

Most importantly for Oklahoma City, the pieces that Golden State has to offer would fit perfectly with Durant. Golden State also has flexibility with two huge trade exceptions ($9 million and $4 million) which would allow them to take on more salary if they decided not to give up David Lee.

Here is one option:

Golden State gets R. Westbrook, K. Perkins, N. Collison
Oklahoma City gets D. Lee, K. Thompson, J. O’Neal


Although Westbrook’s demeanor might take time to work in Golden State, the upsides of a Westbrook-Curry backcourt are worth the trouble. Lineups like Curry-Westbrook-Iguodala-Speights-Bogut or Curry-Westbrook-Barnes-Iguodala-Bogut would be nightmares for opponents. Elite defense from three positions and easily the most potent scoring (not just shooting) backcourt in the game would make the most entertaining team in the league that much more must-watch.

If a trade like this went down, Oklahoma City would have to throw Ibaka at the 5, which they have done, or entertain the possibility of a three-team trade. You’ll have to email me if you want a crazy three team trade I drew up. It could be almost a remix of the Warriors trading away Monta Ellis where they acquired Bogut and Stephen Jackson and then dealt Jackson immediately.

OKC also gets to dump the Kendrick Perkinator even though Scott Brooks’ unhealthy affinity for the guy probably takes a hit. They add an ambidextrous bona-fide scorer inside if they decide to keep David Lee and a knock-down three-point shooter in Klay Thompson. OKC now sports lineups like Jackson-Thompson-Durant-Lee-Ibaka.

And I’ll take it to my grave, Klay Thompson is an above average defender, with Exhibit A being some impressive defense against one LeBron James:


(Note: right click on the video and uncheck "loop" to stop the above from replaying.)

Would both teams be willing to blow up a solid part of their core for the foreseeable future? Maybe not. Am I going crazy waiting for something big to go down at the deadline? Most likely. But if you draw up the futures of both teams, you might start to see that Westbrook to the Warriors would work well. For both teams.

Update: At the request of some readers, the three-team trade that I wound up with may or may not have included Westbrook and Kevin Love.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Greatest NBA players of all time


Debating the greatest NBA players of all time is often centered around four to five players that make the base for ranking the game’s best. But even among those elite there is little consensus among who goes where. The one (near) consensus of NBA fans today would be that the conversation runs through Michael Jordan.

A few quick comments since I did a greatest of all time ranking like this back in December of 2012. Some of you who have been reading since those days might be groaning… not another ranking of the greatest in the NBA, you say. Well, I decided it’s time for a new one because 1) I’m ready to spice up the debate by entering LeBron James into the discussion and 2) further research changed my ranking in a couple significant ways.

Not only that but I’m also going to change how I’m going to frame the debate. Instead of focusing on individual players’ accomplishments and briefly highlighting their rankings, I’m going to delve right into the debate and reason you through the ranking. The primary iteration of this had some great discussion in the comments section. I want to give you the opportunity to read my opinion prior to commenting—something that many GOAT articles fail to do. At the end I will summarize and give the career numbers of each of the top 10. So with that in mind, let’s get back to Michael Jordan:

The clear GOAT

The truth is that I’ve seen some people rank Wilt Chamberlain ahead of Air Jordan but those that's simply a result of being too enamored with his statistical prowess. Jordan’s combination of brilliance starts with statistics on a nightly basis and continues through post-season and NBA Finals glory. 6-for-6 in the Finals, a multitude of the greatest playoff performances of all time, and five regular season MVPs. Jordan’s legacy is felt to this day, where he  nearly triples the second highest brand sales of a basketball player.
Jordan dominated in every facet necessary when considering greatness: 1) regular and post-season stats, 2) awards, 3) championships (and more importantly Finals MVPs), and 4) that franchise player consistency. For that franchise player stature/consistency that I value highly, I would define it as a response to this question: who else would you rather have for their 10-year (or more) “prime” besides Player X? In Jordan’s case, the answer right now to that is simple: nobody.

If LeBron James retired today, where would he fit?

This brings us to one of the NBA’s most polarizing players today: LeBron James. At this point, the only real argument preventing Michael and LeBron for being in the discussion together is their respective playoff resumes. In terms of that franchise player stature, to me, LeBron comes in second to Michael Jordan. There is nobody else in the history of the NBA that I would rather build an organization around. While that is admittedly quite subjective, LeBron’s all-around talent and leadership is exactly what you want to build an organization around.

But in terms of overall “greatness,” he is certainly not No. 1 all time and falls down a couple more spots to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who won five and six titles respectively themselves, each with a couple Finals MVPs to boot. Kareem and Magic’s consistent greatness is for a longer period of time has yet to be matched by LeBron.

Between LeBron, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell, the separation is far less. LeBron has that “beast mode” combination of size, speed, and courtvision and has been the best player in the league for arguably every year since age 20, Larry Bird also had 9-10 seasons of stats that we currently think of as “LeBron numbers.” In the Hick from French Lick’s first nine years in the league, he put up 25 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists per game on nearly 50-40-90 shooting numbers. He also led the league in defensive win shares for four of those years (to LeBron’s zero) and was really an underrated facilitator for the simple reason that his ability to score was second-to-none.


And although James and Bird have the same number of Finals MVPs, that extra ring of Bird's comes into play namely because the 1981 Finals MVP voting came down to scoring where Cedric Maxwell beat out Bird by a couple points per game even though Bird had nearly 15 percent higher field goal shooting (Bird only shot 42 percent from the field that Finals). However, Bird dominated Maxwell in three other main facets of the game: rebounding (15.3 to 9.5), assists (7.0 to 2.8), and steals (2.3 to 0.2). So really you could argue either way, and ultimately it was Bird who led Boston to that point in ’81 anyway. So, right now it goes Bird ahead of James.

LeBron edges out Wilt and Russell mainly because the other two were able to feast on a less fine-tuned and competitive NBA. Bill Russell’s monstrous numbers need to be placed in context of a high-paced game where those 60s Celtics were so far greater than the other teams that he was able to win 11 titles. The parity of today’s league makes that task an impossible feat. So while it’s mind-boggling to think someone like Russell won 11 titles, we can’t automatically place him and every other non-60s Celtic who won a host of rings ahead of LeBron. I mentioned it earlier and I’ll probably say it again, rings don’t directly correlate to greatness. LeBron’s offensive and defensive versatility outweigh Russell’s defensive prowess. Russell feasted on a weaker league. (Surprisingly, this logic could apply to Michael Jordan, as I discussed in an article on how we overrate Michael Jordan on HoopsVibe in light of a changing league in the late 80s and early 90s.)

So at age 29, LeBron James is already one of the top-five greatest players in NBA history.

Magic vs. Kareem and Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell


Now time to differentiate between two teammates battling for the No. 2 and 3 spot on the GOAT list and two greats of the 1960s NBA battling for no.’s 6 and 7. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are always tough to place. Unlike the great duos since them (Jordan and Pippen, Kobe and Shaq, LeBron and Wade), Magic and Kareem were critical in nearly equal ways to the success of their Lakers. (In contrast, Shaq and LeBron dominated Kobe and Wade in MVPs and Finals MVPs and were clearly the better players. MJ and Scottie… no discussion to be had there).

The Magic vs. Bird rivalry of the 1980s is what brought the NBA to where it is today. In fact, if you haven’t watched the HBO special, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, I highly recommend it—it is probably the best sports documentary out there. One thing in there that I find notable is just how friendly the two were with each other. While you generally here retired players complaining of how friendly players like LeBron and Durant are with each other, these guys were really buddies. Yet somehow today's players are critiqued for befriending their rivals? I just don't get it. The game was and is great because of the dynamic between Magic and Larry. Nowhere in the rivalry was there really much talk of Kareem, which does go in Magic’s favor when comparing the two.

Johnson’s leadership lifted those championship caliber teams, but you can’t neglect Kareem’s importance. Take the 1980 Finals for example: Magic averaged nearly a triple-double for the series (22, 11, and 9) but Kareem put up 33, 14, 3, and five blocks. Kareem was undoubtedly a more valuable defensive presence. The edge has to go to Kareem when you also look at that franchise player consistency. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, famous for his sky-hook, scored more than 22 points per game in every season from age 22 as a Milwaukee rookie to age 38 as a Laker legend. At age 41, he still managed 10 points per game and started 74 games. You could even argue that Kareem peaked before he went to LA, where he averaged 35 and 17 on 57 percent shooting as a Buck in 1972.

The man also averaged more than 40 minutes per game in each of his first seven years in the league. With consistency over an extended period of time being critical to ranking the greatest of all time, the no. 2 GOAT has to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Magic is no. 3.

Now time to delve into the Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell debate. I must say that recent research did drop Wilt substantially in my ranking of him (I had him at No. 2 GOAT in my previous iteration of this ranking). For one, his blistering career scoring average of 30.1 points per game needs to be put into context. The pace in the 60s was much faster than today’s game. As /u/nevillebanks pointed out on reddit, his 1962 season (50 points per game!) is less impressive when adjusted for pace than both Jordan’s 37 PPG in 1987 and Kobe’s 35 in 2006. Chamberlain’s true shooting and effective field goal percentages were also the lowest compared to nine other greatest scoring seasons in NBA history. And so, Wilt falls to the discussion for No. 6 or No. 7 with Bill Russell, the NBA’s greatest champion.

In terms of statistical greatness, Wilt wins by a country mile when compared to Russell (as you can see in the stat rankings at the conclusion of the article). Russell dominates in championship totals. Incredibly enough, the two have an extended 51-game history of head-to-head matchups…and the series is nearly .500 at 26-25, in favor of Bill.

Bill Russell still managed more regular season MVPs than Wilt Chamberlain, which says something considering Wilt’s monstrous numbers. Separation between these two players really is illuminated in their desires, where Wilt cared about stats and Bill about championships. In the year that Wilt led the league in assists, he reportedly would yell at teammates for missing shots so he wouldn’t be credited with the assist. And while their regular season stats could arguably favor Wilt, in the playoffs there was no contest. Chamberlain admits that “people really started calling me a ‘loser’” after his first seven years in the league when he was 0-for-5 in series against Bill Russell.  

Another knock against Chamberlain was his 1965 interview with Sports Illustrated where he criticized, well…basically everyone. The great Wilt threw his teammates, coaches, and even NBA administrators under the bus in this interview, further damaging his public image. Superficially, you might argue the numbers Wilt put up give him the edge because he had a far superior offensive repertoire…something that I, at one time argued myself, as someone who never got to watch Wilt play. When you consider who you would want to build a championship organization around, the answer has to be Bill. This puts Russell at no. 6 and Wilt at no. 7 GOAT.


At No. 8, Shaquille O’Neal fits perfectly. Like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq dominated the league at his peak. The 7’ and 300-pound monster broke backboards and blocked shots like nobody’s business.


He averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks per game for his first 14 years in the league. So despite his drop in production from years 15 to retirement, 14 years is easily long enough to say Shaq’s sustained greatness puts him in the discussion. Obviously, the tension between Kobe and Shaq ultimately hurt Shaq’s legacy more than Kobe’s because in the early 00s, Shaq was the better player. It would’ve been something like the Kareem and Magic debate, except Shaq and Kobe would be in the discussion as top-five instead of bottom-five greats. Ultimately, it came down to Shaq not wanting to take a paycut at age 32 and Kobe wanting to prove he could win without Shaq. So, he fits in right behind Bill (who had more greatness as measured by championships, defensive skillset, and effort) and Wilt (who had greater individual talent and a longer era of domination).

With regards to the players below him, Shaq has some combination of more individual accolades, team success, and in all comparisons would be the guy you want to build your team around the most.

Oh the irony of Shaquille O’Neal coming in, representing the Los Angeles Lakers, at No. 8.

Kobe, Oscar Robertson, Duncan and Hakeem: four players, two spots


You’ll likely see some variation on the 12 players I’ve mentioned in these 10 spots on most greatest NBA players of all time lists. The one who gets knocked off first for me is Oscar Robertson. The Big-O, out of these four, simply did not sustain greatness for as long. So while he is the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season (1962), he did not have the numbers or accolades necessary to get him into my top-10. (Some of that could very well be attributed to the fact that two players on this list dominated Robertson's era.)

As for the Kobe vs. Duncan debate, both players dominated an era of basketball, but Duncan was better able to affect the game on both sides of the floor. There were no trade demands, no drama, Duncan quietly has been the centerpiece of a successful organization for verging on two decades. I realize that Kobe Bryant is one of the most popular players in the NBA and many readers will ultimately disagree with my ranking of Kobe, but his stage in Los Angeles blew his greatness out of proportion. In the same way that I argue Michael Jordan is overrated (and yet still the greatest NBA player of all time), so too is Kobe Bryant.

Nobody ever questions Kobe Bryant's work ethic or desire, but the blips in his career where he couldn’t succeed without help proved his mortality. The Black Mamba needed a solid core to succeed and is known for alienating those around him. Add on top of that Duncan’s greater total in Finals MVPs and regular season MVPs, and Duncan has to be deemed the greater player.

Where does Hakeem Olajuwon fit into all of this?


Initially, one might argue behind both Duncan and Kobe because of fewer championships. The hidden factor here is Michael Jordan. Jordan dominated the prime of Hakeem with two three-peats. As if that wasn’t enough, three of the other top four players in the league also held the throne in Hakeem’s prime (Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, and Larry Bird). But when he got his opportunity, unlike Karl Malone and John Stockton, he delivered back-to-back championships during Jordan’s first retirement. He proved he was a champion, just had the misfortune of playing in a time with greater champions.

And with 17 of his 18 NBA seasons as a Houston Rocket, he was clearly the man you could build a franchise around. Famous for his Dream Shake and incredible post moves, Olajuwon had the best post moves ever from a true center. At 7’ tall, The Dream was unstoppable in his own right. Players like Kobe, Duncan, and Dwight Howard, seek his help today for gaining an edge in the post. You can question how greats like Russell and Chamberlain would fair in today’s game, there’s no doubt that Hakeem would succeed.

Michael Jordan said, in a 2005 interview with Marvin Shanken that “if [he] had to pick a center [for an all-time best team, he] would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people…people don’t realize he was in the top seven in steals…For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him.”

While I don’t agree that Olajuwon beats out all of the greats that MJ mentioned, The Dream sneaks in ahead of Duncan and by nature of my Kobe vs. Duncan discussion, Kobe, too. Hakeem’s individual skill-set does put him high in the ranks of great individual players, but when assessing greatness, there are factors (like championship and MVP totals) that need consideration, too.

And yes, Kobe Bryant is not one of the top-10 greatest NBA players of all time…he’s “only” the eleventh.


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
20.0
11.2
3.1
0.7
2.2
.506
.693
4
2
3


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
21.8
11.1
2.5
1..7
3.1
.512
.712
2
1
2

8. Shaquille O’Neal

Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
23.7
10.9
2.5
0.6
2.3
.582
.527
4
1
3


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
30.1
22.9
4.4
N/A
N/A
.540
.511
2
4
1


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
15.1
22.5
4.3
N/A
N/A
.440
.561
11
5
N/A

5. LeBron James

Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
27.5
7.2
6.9
1.7
0.8
.495
.747
2
4
2


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
24.3
10.0
6.3
1.7
0.8
.496
.886
3
3
2

3. Magic Johnson

Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
19.5
7.2
11.2
1.9
0.4
.520
.848
5
3
3

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
24.6
11.2
3.6
0.9
2.6
.559
.721
6
6
2


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG %
FT %
Titles
MVPs
Finals MVPs
30.1
6.2
5.3
2.3
0.8
.497
.835
6
5
6