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.

Mark Cuban says no Mavericks player will wear No. 24 again in honor of Kobe

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Kobe Bryant never suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, but his impact on the NBA and Mark Cuban is undeniable.

As a tribute to Kobe — who died in a helicopter crash Sunday along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others — the Mavericks’ owner announced that no player will wear No. 24 for the Mavericks again.

Kobe was a nemesis of the Mavericks — back in 2005 he scored 62 points on them in three quarters, outscoring the entire Mavericks’ team’s 61 points — but had earned the respect of their players. And owner. Cuban was part of a league-wide outpouring of both shock and love for Bryant upon the news of his untimely death.

Five Mavericks players have worn No. 24 before: Mark Aguirre (1982-1989), Jim Jackson (1993-1997), Hubert Davis (1998-2001), Pavel Podkolzin (2005-2006), and most recently Richard Jefferson (2015).

He will be the last.

Shaquille O’Neal says he’s ‘SICK’ over losing his brother, Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will always be linked – as champions, as enemies and eventually as friends.

The historically great combination led the Lakers to a threepeat from 2000-2002. Their egos were too large for one team and, eventually, they broke up. But later in life, their bond – built through shared experiences – prevailed over distant grievances.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, O’Neal shared his sorrow:

These photos span 17 years. Bryant and O’Neal went through so much together.

They were just settling into the next phase of their relationship – poking at each other while knowing an underlying affection existed. Disagreements had become more fun than biting.

It’s such a shame their ever-evolving relationship gets undercut so soon.

Michael Jordan: ‘Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe’

Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan
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Kobe Bryant grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. Bryant styled his game after Jordan. Bryant even wanted to sign with Jordan’s Wizards. Though they never became teammates, Bryant still developed a brotherly relationship with Jordan.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, Jordan shared a heartfelt message.

Bryant once said he wanted Jordan or Phil Jackson to present him at the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s unbelievably sad Bryant’s impending induction will come posthumously. But Jordan would be such a fitting speaker about his brother.

Kobe Bryant, daughter die in helicopter crash

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Kobe Bryant, the legendary Laker star who was saluted by LeBron James on Saturday night, has died in a helicopter crash in Southern California.

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northwest of the Staples Center, where Kobe starred as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was both an owner and an active participant, and where he was reportedly headed to coach his daughter’s game.

The crash killed nine people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was aboard the helicopter with Kobe (they were on their way to one of her basketball games, along with a fellow teammate of Gianna’s and her parent).

His death sent waves of sadness and shock around the NBA and beyond.

Bryant starred for 20 years in NBA

Kobe had a 20-year NBA career that will send him to the Hall of Fame (once he becomes eligible). He was a five-time NBA Champion, a 15-time All-NBA player, NBA MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Medalist for Team USA, and a player who influenced a generation who came up after him. His work ethic was legendary and was part of what rubbed off on LeBron and many others.

He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game.

He stepped away from the game and focused on storytelling, which helped him win an Oscar in 2018 for the animated short “Dear Basketball.”

Kobe became synonymous with the Lakers and their brand — the loyalty Kobe generated with his fans was unmatched in the modern NBA.

Kobe’s death came just a day after LeBron passed him for third All-Time in NBA scoring.  LeBron talked about how he had grown up idolizing Kobe and the influence Kobe had on his life. Kobe’s last Tweet was about LeBron and, appropriately, the future of the game.

More details on the crash

From the AP story on his death:

Juan Bonilla of Calabasas said he was working on his roof Sunday morning when he heard a helicopter flying low nearby. He said he thought it was a sheriff’s helicopter on a training mission. He heard nothing amiss with the engine or rotors and said he did not see any mechanical issue with the chopper. It was foggy Sunday morning, but he said visibility didn’t seem to be low at the time of the crash.

Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about an acre (.40 hectares) of dry brush, said Art Marrujo, a dispatch supervisor with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the downed chopper was a Sikorsky S-76.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

“They will look at man, machine and environment,” said Gary C. Robb, an aviation attorney in Kansas City who wrote a textbook on helicopter-crash litigation.

“They will look at the pilot – was there any indication of fatigue, any indication of a training issue?They’ll scour his or her record,” Robb said. “They will look at this helicopter from stem to stern. They will take the engine to the NTSB metallurgical laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and examine it to see if there was something that malfunctioned in flight.”

Investigators will also consider what role might have been played by weather, terrain, radio towers or bird strikes, he said.

Robb said he has handled many cases involving Sikorsky S-76 crashes and regards the machine as having a good reputation.

“It is generally regarded as a good helicopter with a good safety record,” he said, “but parts fail, parts break. Anything can happen.”