Russell Westbrook injury throws race in West wide open

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were already no lock to make the NBA finals. They were a slight favorite to make a return trip to the big stage but the Spurs (if healthy, and they are starting to look it) have always been a threat, plus there were the Grizzlies and Clippers as dark horses (just ones beating each other up in the first round).

But with Russell Westbrook out indefinitely to have surgery on a torn left meniscus, the race in the West is wide open. The Thunder are not out of the mix by any means, but they are no longer the frontrunner, either.

We don’t know if Westbrook will be back these playoffs (we will not have a timetable until after the surgery), but he’s certainly out for the second round. How fast he returns will depend on the kind of tear then how they choose to repair it. Look at it this way, Andrew Bynum had his meniscus repaired and missed a season; Metta World Peace did and missed 12 days. Different types of tears, different surgical approaches to the repair (plus Westbrook is more explosive than World Peace so he needs to be more cautious). I would say 4-6 weeks is more likely.

The Thunder and Westbrook need to think long term here — he’s 24 and Oklahoma City’s championship window is a long one. Don’t rush him back for these playoffs.

The Houston Rockets can make this series a little tougher on the Thunder now, but I still see OKC closing this out in five games, maybe six.

It’s the next round when things get interesting — the Grizzlies or the Clippers.

This is particularly true against the Clippers — Westbrook was a +6.9 (per 48 minutes) against the Clippers in their three meetings this season. If this is the matchup, the Thunder could really have used the athleticism of Westbrook to counter and challenge what Chris Paul brings at the point for the Clippers. I like Reggie Jackson, he’s solid, but it’s not the same. Also, the Clippers are a deep team and run a lot of fresh bodies out there, the Thunder will find it hard to cover the massive minutes he plays (Westbrook played the entire second half Wednesday after the injury).

Memphis is a grinding, defense-first team that would make if very tough on  Durant as the Thunder’s first option. Durant will still get his — we’re talking about the best pure scorer in the game today — but he’s going to have to work a lot harder and likely be less efficient. You beat teams like Memphis with your second, third and fourth options and those are less impressive for the Thunder with Westbrook out.

If they reach the conference finals and take on the San Antonio Spurs, again they could have used his athleticism against Tony Parker and to break down a generally stout Spurs defense — he was a +5.9 per 48 minutes against San Antonio this season.

The finals are an entirely different matter, but needless to say the Thunder’s chances against the Heat without Westbrook are slim.

But the Thunder have to get there first, and to do that it’s going to fall on Kevin Durant. He will be the focus of the offense — and the opposing team’s defense — every trip down. He’s a very efficient scorer and an improved playmaker, but he’s going to have to be every bit of that and more for the Thunder to reach their goals without Westbrook in the lineup.

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.