Miami Heat v Oklahoma City Thunder – Game Two

The Extra Pass: The biggest deadline acquisition? Russell Westbrook.

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In just a few short hours, the NBA trade deadline will pass. If history is any indicator, we’ll see somewhere in the range of eight trades go through.

Some will be big, and some will be small…and none will have as big of an impact on the title picture as the return of Russell Westbrook will.

Whether Westbrook returns from knee surgery and plays in the marquee matchup against the Miami Heat remains to be seen, but let this sink in: the team with the best record in the league will welcome back one of the best players in the league. Every other addition has no chance to be anything but overshadowed. We know the level Westbrook is capable of playing at.

It’s just been a while since we’ve seen it. Westbrook rattled off a triple-double in his last game on Christmas day before going under the knife again, and plenty has changed since.

Kevin Durant, improbably, got even more effective and more efficient. Jeremy Lamb stepped up as a viable option on the wing. Reggie Jackson showed he’s more than capable of stepping in when needed. Scott Brooks even took out Kendrick Perkins at the right time. No, really.

If the Thunder looked better, it’s because, well, they got better. That makes sense, as the improvements just didn’t stop while Westbrook was away. Bigger roles and responsibilities were thrust upon the whole team, and the response was certainly encouraging.

But it was also a bit misleading. Not in the sense that Oklahoma City’s success was a fluke, or that Durant couldn’t sustain this type of performance, but rather in the sense that Westbrook should be viewed as anything but completely essential to the Thunder’s title hopes.

There’s a tendency to think that sort of thing when a team succeeds without a player. Call it the Ewing Theory or whatever you will, but it’s common place in the NBA.

You can hear the murmurs already. Every pull-up jumper that clanks off the rim with 18 seconds left on the shot clock will feel like lost money more than ever before. Every 4-for-16 game will be met with more disapproval than ever before. Every face Durant makes after a Westbrook shot will be over-analyzed. You’re crazy if you don’t think most people want to see Westbrook fail.

If it were any other player, you might be worried about the pressure or the scrutiny bleeding over to on-court performance. It could certainly cause someone to be less assertive, and to maybe deviate from the way they once played. We’ve seen that happen.

The chances that happens with Westbrook, though? Slim to none. More than ever before, he’ll need that confidence and aggressiveness he’s displayed throughout his career, primarily because he’s coming off multiple surgeries. There is very little room for doubt in the mind of a professional athlete, and Westbrook has never exhibited anything but the utmost confidence in his abilities. He’s equipped perfectly to handle these current circumstances.

Ultimately, that’s good for Oklahoma City. It may cost them a few wins in the short-term as Westbrook shakes off the rust and everyone readjusts, but make no mistake: the Thunder are undoubtedly a much better team with Westbrook back in the lineup.

It’s just something to keep in mind during deadline day. The bar is about rise, and fellow title competitors may want to act accordingly.

Mike Conley does not crush Knicks free agent dreams, says everything on table

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) gestures after making a 3-point basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When you talk about the most underrated players in the NBA, especially with the casual fan, Mike Conley is at the top of the list. The Grizzlies’ point guard has played at an All-Star level for a few seasons now but hasn’t gotten the recognition, in part because it’s Memphis and in part because the West is stacked with quality point guards.

The New York Knicks desperately need an upgrade at the point.

Which has led to the latest fantasy of seemingly every Knick fan (and talking head in the city) — the free agent Conley coming to New York this summer. When asked about it Friday before the Grizzlies and Knicks squared off, Conley didn’t kill the rumors (which in New York is like throwing gasoline on them). Here are his quotes, via Ian Begley of ESPN.

“I think everything will be on the table when that time comes,” Conley said Friday morning after the Grizzlies’ shootaround at Madison Square Garden. “I haven’t committed to anything…

“They’ve got talent, obviously,” he said. “I think [Kristaps] Porzingis surprised a lot of people. He’s going to be very, very good in this league. He already is pretty good. But he’s going to grow each year, and they already have one of the best small forward in Melo [Carmelo Anthony]. They’ve got a young team, so they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

The smart money is on Conley staying in Memphis, the only NBA team he has ever played for. Conley was very active last summer in recruiting Marc Gasol to remain in Memphis, and has said it would be very difficult to leave him. Plus the Grizzlies can offer more money — one more guaranteed year plus larger raises.

The Knicks will need to lose some salary before July 1 just to offer Conley a max, which likely starts around $24 million (depends on the final salary cap number). What the Knicks can offer is a larger stage for his brand and the chance to bring that brand out of the shade of Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Conley — who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, is shooting 35 percent from three, is good on the pick-and-roll, plus is one of the best defensive point guards in the game — will have plenty of other suitors as well. He’s one of the best players on the free agent market this summer.

NBA GM: Warriors ‘leaders in the clubhouse’ for Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant, left, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) and Andre Iguodala (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Kevin Durant to the Warriors is having a moment, but even the most recent and most credible report linking the Thunder star to Golden State contained an important caveat:

Make no mistake: Durant isn’t close to gone in Oklahoma City – no decision, no leaning, sources said

Nobody has credibly reported Durant is leaning toward leaving the Thunder. The issue at hand is where Durant would go IF he leaves Oklahoma City.

Except one NBA general manager has gone a step further.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

General managers know a lot of things we don’t, but like anyone, they can also be prone to repeating gossip and hearsay. Does this general manager have inside info, or is he just participating the echo chamber? Impossible to say, but the possibility of the former raises the level of intrigue.

Of course, the Warriors can’t be the leaders in the clubhouse, because they’re not in the clubhouse. Free agency doesn’t begin until July. Nobody has made their final pitch, not even the Thunder.

It’s fun to make bold predictions now, and this general manager has a chance of looking genius. But sometimes the desire for that designation causes people to get ahead of themselves.

Report: Clippers quickly rebuffed interest after Nuggets called about Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) gets tied up near the basket by Denver Nuggets forward J.J. Hickson (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 110-103. (Michael Goulding/The Orange County Register via AP)   MAGS OUT; LOS ANGELES TIMES OUT
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Here was my gut feel on a report that the Clippers had talked to the Nuggets about trading Blake Griffin to Denver:

1. Nuggets calling Clippers about Griffin

2. Clippers saying they’re not interested

3. Nuggets leaking the fact that Griffin trade talks happened with the Clippers – technically true! – to excite their fan base and potential free agents considering whether or not to take Denver seriously

Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

https://twitter.com/DanWoikeSports/status/695691007053070336

Woike is the more reliable source of information here. I believe that’s all this was.

The Clippers probably shouldn’t sell low on Griffin now. But if the Nuggets made a truly reasonable offer based on Griffin’s peak value – and I doubt they did – it also wouldn’t hurt to consider it.

LeBron James wants to leave Hack-a-Shaq rules as they are

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives on Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he increasingly believes the league should change its Hack-a-Shaq rules this offseason.

LeBron James – who has the commissioner’s ear on a number of issues – disagreed.

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“I don’t really see a problem with it,” James said at shootaround Friday in preparation for the Celtics. “At the end of the day, it’s a strategy of the game and whatever it takes to win. If that’s a part of the game, and you have a guy that is a bad free-throw shooter and you put him on the line, that’s a part of strategy.”

“That’s no different from a guy that can’t shoot well from the outside and you try to make him shoot bad from outside, or if a guy is turnover-prone and you put pressure on him. It’s all part of strategy. It’s no different,” he said.

There is a difference – a big one.

Hacking someone takes no basketball skill.

I could intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond. I could not keep a bad NBA outside shooter from getting into the paint. I could not force a turnover-prone NBA player into coughing up the ball.

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting an opponent’s weakness, but with the exception of hacking, that takes ability of your own.

Hacking is an outlier strategy, and as a result, it deserves special treatment in the rulebook.