Anyone who watches ESPN’s “First Take” knows Skip Bayless’ daily diatribe on Russell Westbrook. Bayless slams Westbrook every chance he gets, pointing out Westbrook’s shortcomings as a point guard and how he is curbing Kevin Durant’s greatness.
Bayless is right about one thing, and that is Westbrook is not a true point guard. What Bayless misses completely is the fact that Westbrook is a unique talent who can’t be boxed into a position. He is more of a hybrid, someone who can play point but not necessarily trapped into that role.
If Bayless was coaching Oklahoma City, he would have Westbrook bring up the ball, hand it to Durant, and get out of the way. This completely wastes Westbrook’s special talent. He’s at his best when he doesn’t have restrictions. Curtailing him would be like owning a Ferrari and letting it sit in the garage.
Westbrook plays with raw emotion and, even though his exuberance leads to mistakes, it is the very reason why he’s such a difficult cover.
Oklahoma City got a preview of what life would be like without Westbrook during the 2013 Western Conference playoffs. Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee in the first round against Houston and missed the second-round matchup against Memphis.
Without their All-Star guard, the Thunder were eliminated by the Grizzlies in five games despite Durant’s superhuman numbers in the series that saw him average 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
“Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a [John] Stockton or a Mo Cheeks (former Thunder assistant coach),” Durant said during the 2011 NBA Finals. “There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either. We need him to play the way he plays.”
Westbrook’s impact on the court can’t be measured by mere statistics. He is the emotional leader of the Thunder, and his absence definitely altered the entire playoff picture. With him in the lineup, OKC is a championship contender. Without him, the Thunder won’t make it past the second round.
OneManFastBreak.net examines the teams in the Northwest Division and where they’ll finish:
1-OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Durant and the Thunder will have to wait until until December to have Westbrook back on the court after he suffered a setback in his rehabilitation process. He is expected to miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to alleviate swelling in his right knee. This means the spotlight shifts to third-year guard Reggie Jackson. He showed some flashes of brilliance in the Memphis series, and even if Westbrook returns Jackson could see increased playing time and be a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. This could be a make-or-break season for Serge Ibaka. The 6-10 forward must become more than just a defensive force and expand his game on offense. Last season Ibaka improved his scoring average by four points (13.2 points), but he did most of his damage from the outside. Ibaka must develop a back-to-the-basket attack and not settle for jumpers. So far during the preseason, Ibaka has shown an improved jump hook and has been more aggressive in the paint. If Ibaka can move up his scoring average around 17-18 points, the Thunder will be the best team in the West and a sure bet to reach the NBA Finals.
To say that the Nuggets are undergoing a facelift would be a huge understatement. Head coach George Karl is gone. General manager Masai Ujiri is now in Toronto. And Andre Iguodala, the key piece in the Carmelo Anthony trade, left for Golden State. Tim Connelly, who worked in the front office in Washington and New Orleans, takes over for Ujiri and former Indiana Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw tries to fill in the big shoes left by Karl. Shaw has been passed over numerous times for other coaching jobs, so he’s out to prove to everyone in the league that he’s more than qualified to be the head man. Shaw will rely heavily on a few holders from the Karl regime: Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller, and JaVale McGee. Gallinari was initially thought to be lost until February after ACL surgery, but now it’s possible he could return in December. Gallo’s comeback can’t come soon enough, especially with the loss of Iguodala. McGee is expected to be the starter at center, and if he ever stops contributing to Shaqtin’ A Fool segments he could actually be a top-10 center.
3-PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
If there’s a team in need of some good luck, it’s the Trail Blazers. The team is still reeling from the Greg Oden and Brandon Roy setbacks. Oden was supposed to be the face of the franchise for the next 10-15 years after he was chosen No. 1 overall in 2007. Roy was the Rookie of the Year in 2007 and well on his way to being a fixture at All-Star games until his knees fell apart. Last season, the Blazers hit the jackpot with Damian Lillard. The sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft exploded out of the gates and went on to win Rookie of the Year without much of a challenge. So far, Lillard is as healthy as he can be. That’s the good news. The bad news is the same can’t be said about 2013 draft pick C.J. McCollum. The highly regarded rookie broke a bone in his left foot in practice — a similar injury he suffered while at Lehigh — five days into training camp, and no timetable is set for his return. Sound familiar? The Blazers have been here before, sadly, and hopefully McCollum will be able to overcome this latest injury and not take a similar path taken by Oden and Roy. For three consecutive seasons, LaMarcus Aldridge has averaged 21 points and nine rebounds. Aldridge is so consistently he’s taken for granted and doesn’t get the recognition he richly deserves.
Flip Saunders knows how it feels to be in the playoffs as a member of the T-Wolves because he was there the last time it happened. Saunders was hired by team owner Glen Taylor to run the basketball operations, and he’ll be ready to don his coaching suit on the first sign of trouble. Saunders’ presence in the front office and his long history with Taylor can’t be good for Rick Adelman. All the pieces are in place for Minnesota to have a good season. All the pieces have to do is stay healthy. Kevin Love missed 64 games last season because of a broken right hand, and Minnesota fell apart when he went down. When healthy, Love is regarded as one of the best power forwards in the game. In the two seasons prior to his injury Love averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds. Those numbers earned him a four-year, $60-million contract extension. Ricky Rubio enters his third NBA season and appears to be fully recovered from an ACL injury he suffered in 2012. Rubio is arguably the best passer since Magic Johnson, and those who question that statement needs to watch more T-Wolves games. Rubio is an absolute wizard with a ball in his hands. He loves to set up his teammates, and his teammates love him for it. Rubio’s jump shot, on the other hand, is still a work in progress.
Tyrone Corbin graduated from the Jerry Sloan school of coaching, naturally he takes an old-school approach when it comes to his team. The Jazz may not have the most talented roster but they are disciplined and hard-nosed. Whether it’s Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap or Enes Kanter or Derrick Favors, the Jazz select players who fit their system. Jefferson (now with Charlotte) and Millsap (Atlanta) are no longer with the team, but their replacements are more than capable of filling their big shoes. Kanter may not be as good as Jefferson offensively, but he’s a better defender and equally good on the boards. Favors is a huge upgrade over Millsap. The fifth-year pro averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in 23 minutes. Given starter minutes, Favors should be a double-double machine. Gordon Hayward is the only returning player who averaged double digits in scoring last season. Hayward is a decent starting small forward in the NBA, but he’s not what you would consider a No. 1 scoring option. The Jazz were hoping first-round draft pick Trey Burke would be that top scoring option, but his season has been derailed by a broken right index finger that would keep him out 8-12 weeks.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.