Russell Westbrook was emotional, he was hot when taken out in the third quarter. The plays that the Thunder were supposed to be running nobody was executing so he was left solo, and that led to some ugliness. He was yelling and we’re guessing they were words on George Carlin’s list. He was hot enough that assistant coach Mo Cheeks had to come down the bench and calm him down. He stayed out of team huddles. Then Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter.
And none of that matters. Not if the Thunder are about winning. Not if Westbrook is mature. The question isn’t why it happened, because it has happened to a lot of guards.
The question that matters is does it bother Westbrook going forward?
He said all the right things after the game, saying when the team is winning — and the bench unit, including backup point guard Eric Maynor with Kevin Durant was playing more cohesive basketball than the Thunder starters — then go with the hot hand. It worked; the Thunder beat the Mavericks 106-100 and evened the Western Conference finals at a game apiece.
“I know you all want to ask the same question and I’m going to give you all the same answer: We were winning,” Westbrook said in a locker room interview broadcast on ESPN.
Westbrook now joins a long line of great point guards who sat for the fourth quarter of big playoff games. Chuck Daly once sat in-his-prime Isiah Thomas in the fourth quarter of a Game 5 against the Bulls because Vinny Johnson and Joe Dumars had it going. That’s just the top of a long list. (Thomas dropped 33 in Game 6.)
“I’ve done it a few times during the year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of sitting Westbrook after the game in a news conference broadcast on NBA-TV. “Doesn’t happen often, Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done and his time was to come out then I stayed with Eric.”
The guess here is Westbrook was over this by the time he hit the bus.
Westbrook is not a guy that comes to the NBA as a super-pampered player. He didn’t start in high school until he was a junior, and he went to Leuzinger in the greater Los Angeles area (Lawndale), not exactly a basketball powerhouse. At all. Then he went to UCLA where Ben Howland sat him. Then, when he was getting some good run, he benched himself for a stretch. He dealt with all of it and came out better on the other end.
Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the constant questions he will be asked about this leading up to Game 3 on Saturday will wear on him. Maybe this will be a clubhouse issue, but I doubt it. There are few clubhouses with teammates as tight together as OKC. It’s something that will be discussed for the next few days to no end.
But Westbrook (who had 18 points and played pretty well) and the Thunder have probably already moved on. They better if they plan on winning this series.
CHARLOTEE – Former 76ers president Sam Hinkie undertook one of the most ambitious tanking campaigns in NBA history. Over a four-year stretch, Philadelphia went 19-63, 18-64, 10-72 and 28-54.
That incensed many around the league.
The NBA pursued and eventually enacted lottery reform. Despite his denials, many believed NBA commissioner Adam Silver pressured the 76ers to oust Hinkie. In many ways, the league is still shook by Philadelphia’s bold strategy to lose so long.
“I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding,” Silver said Saturday. “…There’s a mindset that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe, personally, that’s corrosive for those organizations, putting aside my personal view of what the impact it has on the league overall.”
Except it is a winning strategy.
The 76ers are proving that.
They’re 37-21 and led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players drafted with high picks earned through tanking. Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris using assets stockpiled through tanking. The 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a high salary because they had a low payroll, the byproduct of a assembling a roster of young, cost-controlled players acquired through tanking.
Few teams have ever planned and executed a multi-year tank. Most tanking teams entered the season planning to win then pivoted once that went sideways. Some teams decide to tank for a full season. But deciding in advance to tank even two straight years? It’s rare.
The SuperSonics/Thunder probably did it their last year in Seattle and first in Oklahoma City. With Kevin Durant already on board, that netted them Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a decade of strong teams. Of course, that situation is complicated by the franchise leaving one market and getting a grace period in its new location.
Few teams have the resolve to set out to tank that long, let alone the four years the 76ers committed to the cause. Most teams that go young still add a veteran or two in hopes of winning sooner than expected.
Even Chicago, which knowingly took a step back last season by trading Butler talked big about that being a one-year ordeal. Chicago’s struggles this season were unintended, at least initially. The Bulls have obviously shifted gears, but that was only after failing to win early.
Chicago isn’t alone in major losing this season. Four teams – Suns (11-48), Knicks (11-47), Cavaliers (12-46) and Bulls (14-44) – are on pace to win fewer than 20 games. The last time so many teams won fewer than a quarter of their games was 1998, when a six teams – Nuggets (11-71), Raptors (16-66), Clippers (17-65), Grizzlies (19-63), Warriors (19-63) and Mavericks (20-62) – performed so poorly.
Does that mean the NBA’s lottery reform is failing?
“I’m certainly not here to say we solved the problem,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that while you point out those four teams, we have many more competitive teams this year than we’ve had any time in the recent past of teams that are competing hard, competing for spots in the playoffs, and great competition on the floor. So I think we’ve made progress.”
Silver raises a good point. Judging the shape of the league by only the bottom four teams is far too simplistic. There are a historic number of teams in the playoff mix. Maybe that’s because of lottery reform, which offers better chances of a top-four pick to teams that barely miss the postseason.
Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2018-19 teams are show by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15.
The 10th- through 14th-place teams in the Western Conference are historically good for their place in the conference. That matters.
But the sixth- through 11th-place teams in the Eastern Conference being in a tight race is because the top teams in that group are historically bad for their place in the conference. That matters, too.
There’s no simple way to judge this.
The glut of terrible teams this season is somewhat surprising because the draft projects to feature only one elite prospect – Zion Williamson. The new lottery rules give the bottom three teams each an equal chance (14%) of the No. 1 pick. The advantage of finishing with the worst vs. second-worst vs. third-worst is getting slotted higher in the draft if multiple of those teams get their numbers pulled in the lottery.
Maybe it’s just that four teams happened to be quite bad, and all four are committed to avoiding the fourth-worst record and just a 12.5% chance of the No. 1 pick.
Though tanking has undeniably worked for some teams, it’s probably bad for the NBA. So many games are uncompetitive. Fans lose interest.
But as long as high draft picks remain so valuable and tied to having a worse record, teams will tank.
“You understand now why there’s relegation, in European soccer, for example, because you pay an enormous price if you’re not competitive,” Silver said. “I think, again, for the league and for our teams, there’s that ongoing challenge of whether we can come up with yet a better system.”
But there’s also the pesky matter of what the Pelicans star will do the rest of this season.
Davis has repeatedly said he wants to play. The NBA threatened to fine the Pelicans if they didn’t play him. So, they put him in the lineup… to get booed by New Orleans fans. His performance in four games since the trade deadline has been incredibly uneven, ranging from elite to dreadful. In the Pelicans’ last game before the All-Star break, Davis left the arena after suffering an shoulder injury. He played just five minutes in the All-Star game, fewer than anyone but 40-year-old Dirk Nowitzki
So, what now?
According to sources on both sides, there is no plan yet in place for how they will handle this after the All-Star break. The Pelicans and Davis (with Paul advising) are re-evaluating the best way to handle his playing time – again.
While sources say the situation has not involved the National Basketball Players Association to this point, that would change if New Orleans attempted to protect its monumental trade chip by sitting Davis for the rest of the season – presuming he wanted to play. Then again, maybe Davis decides that he’s better off training in obscurity while we wait to see where his next stop might be.
Scott Kushner of The Advocate:
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry called the situation a “dumpster fire.” New Orleans can’t just simply return to the status quo.
But who makes this call?
New Orleans just fired general manager Dell Demps to elevate Danny Ferry into the interim role. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson is seeking someone to run basketball operations and report directly to her, but she hasn’t made that hire yet. The league can obviously intervene, too.
I’m extremely uneasy about making Davis a healthy scratch for nearly two months in the midst of an excellent season. But even just four games of him playing has been so ugly. Pelicans fans don’t want it. The Pelicans probably don’t want it. After his injury scare and dealing with the fallout of his trade request, Davis might not still want it.
Does the NBA? That’s the big question. Davis is a national draw. In a league where every game is available streaming online, that matters. The controversy surrounding Davis only adds to the intrigue.
In the end, the interested parties – New Orleans, Davis, NBA – will choose among the uncomfortable options. But at least this part of the saga will end in fewer than two months.
Then, the bigger questions about Davis’ future will kick into high gear.
CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker just started a basketball game alongside Stephen Curry, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The NBA’s biggest stars came to his city. World-class entertainers performed throughout the weekend.
“It was amazing, man,” Walker said. “It was amazing.”
Walker will start his next game on the same court, but it’ll be alongside Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller. Walker’s 27-30 Hornets will face the Wizards in a battle for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Most celebrities will have long cleared out.
Walker remains as the face of the Hornets, a role he has embraced despite the franchise’s mediocrity. When his name emerged in trade talks last year, he said he’d be “devastated” to get dealt. He has made Charlotte his home and was so delighted to play host for yesterday’s All-Star game and all the accompanying festivities.
His reality here otherwise has been markedly different. In his eight seasons with the Hornets, he has never had an All-Star teammate. Not a single one.
Here’s every player in NBA history who played his first eight seasons without an All-Star teammate (seasons, including partial, with each team in parentheses):
Of that list, just Walker, David Lee, Elton Brand, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glen Rice became All-Stars in their first eight seasons. Walker’s three All-Star appearances lead the group.
Just three of those players – Walker, Andris Biedrins (Warriors) and Adonal Foyle (Warriors) – spent that entire time with only one team.
So, obviously Walker is the only player in NBA history with a first eight seasons like this – All-Star himself, one team, no All-Star teammates.
I asked Walker whether he felt playing with another star was a missing piece of his career.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said, pausing as if he were truly contemplating then shaking his head and shrugging. “I don’t know.”
If Walker wants to play with other stars, he’ll have an opportunity this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Some teams pursuing Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson will strike out. There will be opportunities for Walker to land with better teams. The Bronx native has pooh–poohed the Knicks, but there are many other possible destinations.
There’s something to be said about staying in Charlotte, too. Walker is probably already the greatest player in Hornets history, and another contract with them could cinch it. For a player who’s relatively underpaid, a five-year max-contract projected to be worth $190 million could be quite appealing. Walker could continue to stand alone in a league where stars frequently switch teams and join forces. That probably won’t lead to championships, but that isn’t the only way to define success.
“He’s made this franchise relevant,” LeBron James said.
Still, that has translated to only two playoff appearances for Walker, both first-round losses. Charlotte landed in the lottery the last two years and has a 55% chance to return there this season, according to 538. The Hornets are capped out with unappealing contracts, so significant progress soon seems unlikely.
But with All-Star Weekend behind him, the last All-Star left in Charlotte is focused on a stretch run with the Hornets.
“That’s what we do,” Walker said. “We play basketball. And for us, if we really want to make a push, we’ve just got to be locked in. So, I’ll try to my best to get some rest, recover a little bit from this weekend and keep it going.”
CHARLOTTE – Giannis Antetokounmpo walked into his post-All-Star press conference, held the door open for two of his brothers then pulled two chairs from behind the backdrop.
“We’ll make this family-oriented,” Antetokounmpo as he unfolded the chairs and placed them at the podium.
Antetokounmpo couldn’t play with his brothers in the actual All-Star game, but he came as close as he could to making that family-oriented, too. Antetokounmpo has stressed camaraderie within the Bucks, and he and Milwaukee teammate Khris Middleton surged together last night.
Antetokounmpo (38 points) and Middleton (20 points) combined for 58 points – the second-most ever by teammates in an All-Star game. The record is 60 points by former Heat teammates LeBron James (36 points) and Dwyane Wade (24 points) in the 2012 All-Star game.
At one point last night, Antetokounmpo and Middleton were outscoring LeBron’s entire team, 28-26. Antetokounmpo and Middleton each assisted each other a couple times, as Middleton acclimated quickly in his first All-Star game. But they cooled off just enough to miss on the teammate record.
Here’s every pair of teammates to score at least 50 combined points in the All-Star game: