Five NBA All-Star Break Observations

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The NBA season has reached the All-Star break and there are several interesting storylines. The Warriors, replete with superstar Kevin Durant and many others, have emerged as the best team in the league, Russell Westbrook is having a season for the ages, and the Cavaliers have endured a difficult, injury-plagued season in their championship defense.

With the league at the All-Star break, now is as good a time as any to assess the state of affairs in the game and share some thoughts on players and teams. Here are five of my observations on the first half of the season.

A Unicorn Not Named Porzingis

If I were to tell you about a European, second-year big man who is a good passer, rebounder, and three-point shooter, your mind would immediately gravitate toward Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis. Actually, I’ve got something (or someone) even better for you.

At the beginning of this season, Nikola Jokic was not even starting in a crowded backcourt for the Denver Nuggets. However, after Jusuf Nurkic was benched in mid-December, Jokic has emerged as one of the best big men in the game, averaging just over 20 points and 10 rebounds since assuming his starting role. More recently, he dropped 40 points on the Knicks and put down a triple-double in a 22-point win against the Warriors. In the box plus/minus statistic, a metric used to evaluate a player’s contribution to his team, Jokic ranks fourth in the league behind Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Not too shabby.

Sadly, many won’t be able to appreciate Jokic’s contributions unless the Nuggets make the playoffs. Denver is currently in the eighth spot in the West, one and a half games ahead of the Kings for the final playoff spot. And going to the playoffs would likely earn the Nuggets the right to be trampled by the Warriors in the first round. But just going to the playoffs would expose many viewers to Jokic’s diverse skill set, even if his team is wiped out of the playoffs in four games.

Score one for the unicorns.

Scott Brooks, Coach of the Year

That is a phrase you may not have expected to hear after the first three weeks of the season. On November 16th, the Wizards lost at home to the 76ers and fell to 2-8. People may not have been calling for Brooks’ job just yet, but things weren’t looking up in the nation’s capital, either. And then John Wall and Bradley Beal happened.

Wall and Beal combine to average 45 points per game and both are having career years for a Washington team that currently sits in third in the Eastern Conference. Last year, the Wiz were one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA, an outcome that led to the firing of coach Randy Wittman and the hiring of Brooks. Four months into his tenure with Washington, it has become clear that Brooks is the right coach for this team, having gone 32-13 since that devastating loss to Philadelphia.

Not only is Brooks the right coach for the Wizards, he’s the first-half Coach of the Year.

The Jazz Are Taking Care of Business*

Unfortunately, the asterisk must be addressed.

The Utah Jazz are one of the most improved teams in the NBA this season; at their current pace, they would finish the season with 50 wins, a 10-win improvement over last season. But, as I was just saying, we need to take Utah’s success with a small grain of salt.

Consider this: out of their first 57 games, Utah has played 22 of them against teams at .500 or above. In those 22 games, the Jazz are just 8-14. Included in that figure are two losses against the Los Angeles Clippers, the team’s most likely first-round opponent. Granted, the team has gone 27-8 against everyone else in the league, but these struggles are concerning. The fact that the Jazz have struggled against the league’s best teams could be explained in a number of ways; for example, the Western Conference has three of the league’s top four teams record-wise (Houston, Golden State, San Antonio) and Utah is not helped by playing these three teams a combined ten times this season.

This also does not mean that I would want to play Utah in an early-round playoff series if I was in the West. The team has length to burn and Quin Snyder’s bunch also owns the league’s best points per game defense by nearly three points over the second-best team. I’m just pointing out that maybe the hype around their success is just slightly overblown.

Orlando Is Out of Magic

Earlier this week, the Magic finally conceded their disastrous season, trading forward Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. The move had to be made, as any chance the Magic had of making the playoffs would have been as the seventh or eighth seed in the East. The move is likely good for both teams; Ibaka gives the Raptors some needed length and is a definite upgrade over Pascal Siakam at power forward. For the Magic, it starts Act II of the rebuilding process that began with trading Dwight Howard to the Lakers in 2012.

And really, the Magic front office has been absolutely horrendous over the past five years. Some of general manager Rob Hennigan’s greatest hits include, but are not limited to:

  • Trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Oklahoma City for 56 games of Serge Ibaka
  • Hiring Jacque Vaughn as head coach in 2012 (he was fired halfway through the 2014-15 season)
  • Hiring Scott Skiles as head coach in 2015 (he resigned after the season because he had philosophical differences and a deteriorating relationship with the front office)
  • Drafting Mario Hezonja with the fifth pick in the 2015 Draft and passing on Myles Turner, Justise Winslow, and Devin Booker, among others
  • Trading Tobias Harris to the Pistons for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings, neither of whom are still with the team
  • Trading Channing Frye to the Cavaliers for Jared Cunningham and a second-round pick; Cunningham was waived four days later
  • Signing wildly disappointing big man Bismack Biyombo to a 4-year/$70 million contract because of one good month of basketball (A.K.A the Brock Osweiler of NBA contracts)

So things aren’t going too well in Orlando. At least they still have Disney World, because their basketball franchise certainly is not a Magic Kingdom.

Russell Westbrook is the MVP

Whether you like it or not, Russell Westbrook is having one of the greatest NBA seasons ever.

At the All-Star Break, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 10.5 rebounds, and just over 10 assists per game. At this rate, he would average a triple-double for the season. If that happens, here is the list of players in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a full season:

  1. Oscar Robertson (1961-62)
  2. Russell Westbrook (2016-17)

That’s it. Even more impressively, Westbrook is single-handedly carrying the Thunder to a playoff berth and succeeding without very much help from his supporting cast. It is entirely possible that the Thunder would be in the position of the Los Angeles Lakers or Pheonix Suns if it were not for Westbrook’s heroics. Fun fact: the Thunder’s fifth-leading per game scorer this season is Josh Huestis, who averages exactly seven points per game. Do you want to know why he averages exactly seven points per game? Because he only played in one game this season.

So kudos to Russell Westbrook, for being so great around so much, well, less-than-great. For that alone, he should be the league’s first-half MVP. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about doing something only one person has ever done before.

Have any additional thoughts? Please leave them in the comments section!

The Thunder Fired Scott Brooks, and That’s Wrong

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced that they had fired head coach Scott Brooks after seven season with the team.  In a statement, GM Sam Presti said: “”Therefore, it is very important to state that this decision is not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain.”  However, the Thunder have done all of these things with Brooks at the helm, and and it may be hard do do these things with the uncertainty of bringing in a new head coach.

Over his tenure at the helm of the Thunder, Brooks led the team to a 338-207 record, which comes out to a .620 winning percentage.  In his first season, after taking over for deposed head coach P.J. Carlesimo, Brooks went 22-47 over the course of 69 games.  In the next season, the Thunder won 50 games and were bounced in the first round of the Playoffs; 50 games symbolized a 26-win improvement over the year before.  In 2011, the team made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the Mavericks, who would then become NBA champions.  The next year, Oklahoma City made the NBA finals, losing to the clearly superior Heat in five games.  The next year the team lost in the conference semifinals to the Memphis Grizzlies; in fairness, the team was crippled after a key knee injury to star Russell Westbrook in game 2 of the team’s first round series against the Houston Rockets.  Last year, the team lost to the eventual champion Spurs in 6 games in the conference finals, and this year the team missed the playoffs after a rash of injuries, particularly to key stars Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant.

Two names that have been brought up as replacements fro Brooks are college coaches; UConn’s Kevin Ollie and Florida’s Billy Donovan.  Neither have any NBA head coaching experience (although Donovan almost became coach of the Magic after the 2007 season), but Ollie has a very tight kinship with Kevin Durant.  As an aside, Durant is set to become a free agent after this season.  However, we must ask ourselves an important question of both these people: would they actually take the job?  Donovan makes $3.7 million per year at Florida and Ollie makes up to $3 million per year at UConn.  Why would either leave their cushy environments in college and go to the NBA to deal with the more trying task of dealing with pro players?  They also would have to deal with more blame and scrutiny in the pros than in college, as we just saw with Brooks.  In college, the coaches get none of the blame and all of the credit (this is another article for a later time).

We know what this is all about.  The Thunder have to find a way to keep Durant after next season, with rumors swirling about his future with the team and a potential “homecoming” with the Washington Wizards.  However, how can they keep Durant by firing the coach that he really likes? Said Durant of Brooks after the season: “He made sure everybody was emotionally stable. It was a lot of guys in and out the lineup and he kept everybody together. So that’s what your head coach is supposed to do. We can’t really say nothing about it because he did his job. He kept us together. That’s what the main thing was … So it’s kind of tough. But he did his best job he can do and I’m proud of him.”  Said Russell Westbrook of Brooks:“I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he does behind the scenes. Obviously, a lot of people that’s not in (the practice facility) want him to do other things, want to see other things from him. But as a coach and as a friend, I think he does an amazing job of communicating what he wants out of the players.”   Serge Ibaka also endorsed Brooks and implored the team not to fire him, saying: What has he done? Injuries were not his fault. Why would he go? He has not done anything. He’s not responsible for the injuries. He did his best with the team he had. Would (another) coach do better with a team with so many injuries? What could he possibly do about it? The team is with him. You can’t blame him for what has happened.”

Sure, the Thunder want to evolve, progress and sustain.  But what if evolving, progressing, and sustaining can be done without firing your former coach of the year, one of which your team’s three best players all gave ringing endorsements to?  And what if doing this alienates Durant into leaving the team next summer?  Is that, evolution, progress, and sustainability?

Or is that unrest, insustainability, and going backwards?

Firing one of the best head coaches in the game certainly doesn’t help the team’s chances of evolving, sustaining, and progressing.