Russell Westbrook

If Derrick Rose is an MVP candidate, what does that make Russell Westbrook?

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Derrick Rose has made it clear that he intends to produce at an MVP level this season, but he’s off to a bit of a rough start. In total, Rose’s numbers against the Thunder were nice: 28 points, six assists, four rebounds, and only two turnovers. That’s enough to get Rose into the discussion, if not merit a place as a serious contender for the award. But take in Rose’s full stat line and his season opening performance becomes markedly less impressive; it took Rose 31 shots (!) to get to that 28-point mark, and he connected on just 38.7% of those 31 attempts. Oomf. Rose’s performance takes a huge fall on the basis of efficiency, and though he was able to keep his turnovers down, it’s not exactly kosher for him to be taking that many shots, particularly when he’s hitting so few of them.

One of the biggest detriments to Rose’s efficiency was the impressive number of long jumpers he managed to chuck. Rose is actually a pretty sturdy shooter from mid-range, but he took 12 attempts from 16+ feet from the basket, and made just two of them. He fell in love with the long two-pointer, and while I don’t necessarily doubt Rose’s ability to hit that shot, it’s a flat-out waste for a player with his speed, handle, and creativity to be suckered into those attempts on the regular.

If Rose sticks to this prescription, he’s no MVP candidate. Even if he drops 28 a night with six assists. Volume can be impressive on first glance, but efficiency is what endures. Great players are often marked by their discretion, and last night’s D-Rose wasn’t all that great.

Russell Westbrook was, though. Rose and Westbrook will likely always be linked by their position and some nostalgic commitment to draft classes (Rose was selected No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft, Westbrook at No. 4), but the two were entirely different in approach last night. Rose doesn’t have a teammate like Kevin Durant to work off of, but Westbrook managed some of his most impressive sequences on his own. Westbrook isn’t coasting in KD’s wake. He’s as vital to OKC’s success as Durant, and together they’re powering the damn thing. If the Thunder make it to 50 wins again, Durant will be soaking up an unfathomable amount of sunshine. But Westbrook, camped out in partial shade, deserves his due.

Last night, Westbrook only matched Rose’s 28 and six. He only threw in 10 rebounds for good measure (is there any question that Russell is Jason Kidd’s heir apparent as the top-rebounding point guard in the league?). He only did it all on a 15 shots and 53.3% shooting. No big deal, just truly MVP-worthy numbers from a guy who hasn’t made a peep about the award and likely won’t even be mentioned in MVP chatter all year, save as a Durant footnote. But last night, Westbrook blew “MVP candidate” Derrick Rose out of the water, and it wasn’t even close. Compare the tape (I haven’t even mentioned Westbrook’s defense, which is very much superior to Rose’s), compare the highlights, compare the box scores, compare the final verdict — by almost every conceivable measure Westbrook was the better player, even if it was only for a single game.

Rose will certainly have better nights than this one, but it’s scary to imagine that Westbrook might, too. Yet Rose will live in the spotlight due to declarations of his MVP candidacy and claims of an improved three-point shot, while Westbrook will be pegged as a mere sidecar rider. The hype around Rose is deserved — he’s a phenomenal talent, and this was not one of his finer nights — but to let Durant’s clout obscure Westbrook’s brilliance would be tragic.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.