The Westbrook Situation

domingo, 23 de octubre de 2011

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During and after last season’s playoffs, Russell Westbrook received a lot of criticism. He was accused of playing selfishly and not deferring enough to Kevin Durant. Many singled out his play as one of the main reasons why the Thunder lost some postseason games and ended up being eliminated by Dallas. Some took it a step further and said he should be traded.

In response to this, several NBA writers defended him, saying that his mistakes were due to his young age and lack of experience at his position, and that the Thunder would be crazy to trade him. According to them, all he needed was time to mature as a point guard.

The truth is, Westbrook did play selfishly and he did take too many bad shots. He disrupted the offense at key moments of games. In some plays in which a pass was obviously the right thing to do, he shot the ball himself. All this hurt the Thunder’s chances, and while his play wasn’t the only reason they lost, it certainly was among the most important ones.

As I said before, some people have guaranteed that he will not play like that forever, and that he only needs experience as a point guard to correct those issues, but there’s no reason to be sure of that. There has been a fair share of NBA players that have played selfishly throughout their whole careers. Why couldn’t Westbrook be one of them? Why should we assume that he will change? Contrary to popular opinion, he has already proved he is capable of playing like a point guard should. He did it in the regular season by averaging over 8 assists per game. He never stopped being a shoot-first PG, but that didn’t prevent him from getting his teammates involved or letting Durant be the focal point of the offense. As he gets more experience, he might be able to further improve his passing abilities, but that is not the problem. He has the ability. He just doesn’t seem to have the willingness to be a team player at all times. It looks like he feels that in important games or moments, he needs to take over offensively. That would explain why he played that way in the playoffs, but not in the regular season.

If Westbrook is not willing to change his style of play, the team might be better off trading him if the right offer comes along. If he just needed to improve his point guard skills, as they say, then it wouldn’t make any sense to trade him, but he needs to change his mindset, and that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, if it ever does. The Thunder can’t afford to have one of their stars hindering their chances every postseason. If they do choose to explore trade options, though, they should be careful, as trading Westbrook without getting a good enough return would be worse than keeping him.

Another option would be to find a different head coach with more offensive knowledge who would tell Westbrook not to hog the ball in crunch time and at the same time improve the team’s late game offensive repertoire. That coach would have to be a good fit for the team though, and Russell might not listen to him either, so it wouldn’t be a guaranteed solution to the problem.

Since there isn’t any one move that would solve the problem for sure, the Oklahoma City front office needs to consider all its options. They shouldn’t decide against trading him or making a coaching change yet, but after the lockout ends, they need to take some time to evaluate their options and see whether or not it is smart to make a change of some kind. However, if they can’t find a good trade or a better coach for the team, their young, potential-laden team might lose out on a chance to win multiple championships, all because of a star point guard with a selfish style of play.

How far could the Jazz have gone?

viernes, 7 de octubre de 2011

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The Utah Jazz had a very disappointing season. Most people, including the team’s players, expected at least a playoff spot, and some even expected a top 4 seed. Instead, they wound up losing their longtime coach, their franchise player, and not making the playoffs.

The Jazz were very unfortunate, and if some things had been different, they would’ve had a chance to go deep in the playoffs. Most people wouldn’t agree with me, but looking at all the circumstances that affected the Jazz 2010-2011 season, it seems to me like that was a legitimate possibility.

The real reason why the Jazz never really had sustained success, even with Deron Williams, was their offensive issues. Those affected the team’s motivation, and frustrated several players, including, of course, the team’s star and leader, Williams. That situation had a negative effect on the Jazz defense, which unlike others such as Boston’s or Chicago’s, didn’t have an ironclad system and relied heavily on each player giving his best effort on every possession.

The causes of Utah’s offensive problems were diverse, and they changed as the season advanced. At first, the main causes were the unfamiliarity with the team’s new players, the fact that Deron Williams hadn’t found his long-range shot yet and Al Jefferson’s knee injury, which he later admitted was still affecting his play at that point.

After that, D-Will was able to find his shot, and the team’s players began to get more and more used to each other, but Al was not 100% healthy yet. The team’s play was improving, but the offense was starting to suffer from starting SG Raja Bell’s lack of production. He wasn’t making three pointers consistently, and his defense wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past, but Coach Jerry Sloan kept playing him for over 30 minutes a game. This reduced the team’s spacing on offense, which was extremely important for Sloan’s offensive system to work. Every night, the team started a lineup that included only one player who could make three pointers on a consistent basis, and that was Deron Williams. When he injured his wrist, that number was reduced to zero. On a system that needs shooters to have opposing defenders’ attention in order to free up space for easy shots in the paint, this was a big problem. Teams began to pack the paint against the Jazz, and there was nothing they could do about it. Other teams’ defenders cheated on Utah’s shooters because they were not a big threat to make long range shots. This made the offense stagnant, frustrated the team and reduced the players’ motivation. Even with all of this, Jerry Sloan didn’t make many changes in the lineup. Raja Bell’s playing time was a lot more than it should have been for a long time, and Gordon Hayward had to wait too long to be given a chance to show his skills and, most importantly, his ability to make three pointers. Jerry Sloan is one of the best basketball coaches of all time, but he made some very important mistakes that in a way led to the situation that caused his resignation. But even with all of that, the Jazz probably would have been able to salvage their season if only Deron Williams had been healthy. For one thing, that would have kept an efficient, consistent shooter in the starting lineup, and would have prevented the team’s offensive issues and frustration from getting that bad. It also would’ve allowed the team to improve substantially towards the end of the season.

In late February-early March, Al Jefferson’s knee fully healed, and for the first time in the season he was 100% healthy. Around that time, Raja Bell and Andrei Kirilenko got injured, opening a spot for Gordon Hayward. With Deron there, Hayward’s insertion in the starting lineup, coupled with Al Jefferson’s noticeably improved play (due to his healing) would have solved the Jazz offensive problems, and with Jerry Sloan at the helm, the team might have gone pretty far in the playoffs. With a healthy Williams and an effective Hayward, the team would’ve had enough shooting, and that, in turn, would have further improved Al Jefferson’s efficiency down low.

The Jazz offense could’ve become one of the best in the league from that point on, and the morale lift would’ve gotten the defense back to being around the league average. That would have given the Jazz a great offense and a good enough defense, similar to the Spurs and Nuggets, but with a star that can make clutch plays in crunch time. And, given the number of offensive weapons the Jazz had, that could’ve been enough to reach the Conference Finals, and maybe even the NBA Finals. That may seem like a crazy thought, but I think it would have been possible. In my opinion, there were three main reasons why the Thunder lost to the Mavericks. The first one was Scot Brooks’ lack of creativity on offense, especially in crunch time. The second one was Russell Westbrook’s selfish plays at critical points in several games. If he had made the right, obvious choice in most of those situations, the Thunder might have won one, or even two more games. The third one was Kendrick Perkins’ ineffectiveness on both ends due to him not being 100% healthy. Jerry Sloan is one of the best offensive coaches the NBA has ever had, and I don’t think it can be argued that he has more than enough creativity to make effective half-court plays at any point in a game. No one in that Jazz team would have played in such a selfish and hard-headed way, especially if the offense was working. The Jazz’s frontcourt might or might not have been completely healthy by that point, but there are still clear advantages the Jazz would have had over the Thunder had they reached the WCF. They probably would have lost to the Mavericks anyway, but they might have given them a tougher fight.

I say all of this to emphasize the potential the Jazz had and how far they could have gone if their best player hadn’t gotten injured. And while some might say that a late-season improvement wouldn’t have been enough for the Jazz to go that far, I think the Memphis Grizzlies are proof that it is possible, and if they had Rudy Gay in that series vs. OKC, I believe they would have gone as far as I think the Jazz could have gone. Utah had a legit chance to become part of the NBA’s elite, but a few unfortunate events prevented that from happening and turned them into a lottery team. 

The Lakers are not going away

miércoles, 5 de octubre de 2011

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Since the Lakers lost to the Mavericks in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, many doubts have been raised about them, their drive, their ability, and their future. Many have suggested that they need to trade one or more of their core players, that they’re too old, and that they can’t win again.

I believe none of that is true.

This Lakers’ team is very capable of winning more championships, or at least one more. The main issues that caused their loss to the Mavericks won’t necessarily exist in the future.
In my opinion, the main reason why the Lakers lost was Gasol’s horrible performance, which he admitted was caused by off the court personal problems. If those problems can be fixed, I don’t see a reason why Gasol can’t go back to being his usual self, and that player is at least a top 5 big man in the NBA.

Many people criticized Kobe, who wasn’t healthy, for not being as productive and clutch as in the past, but he was much closer to his usual production than Gasol, the team’s 2nd best player, was to his. Gasol’s struggles, paired with Kobe’s physical limitations, made it difficult for the Lakers to score. That affected the team’s motivation, which wasn’t that good to begin with. The team’s lack of motivation affected their play on defense, and without a good enough offense or defense, they couldn’t handle the Mavericks. That’s why they were swept. If Kobe had been healthier and Gasol had not been struggling, the Lakers would’ve won that series. Of course, Dirk was unstoppable, and it probably would’ve taken seven games for the Lakers to beat Dallas, but they were the better team. The main reason why the Mavericks scored that much is the fact that the Lakers were not defending the way they were capable of. Dallas is a great offensive team, but they shouldn’t get as much credit as they have gotten.  They didn’t figure out the Lakers’ defense. They took advantage of the Lakers’ defensive issues. The Lakers might not have been capable of stopping, or even slowing Dirk, but they were capable of slowing everybody else, and they didn’t. That’s why I believe that, in different circumstances, they would have won. That is also what makes me think they can win another championship.

If by next season’s playoffs Kobe and Gasol are healthy enough and don’t have any off-court issues bothering them, and most of the team (especially Bynum) is also healthy, the Lakers will have a very good chance at winning another championship. Their team is still capable of beating anyone in a seven game series and with Mike Brown at the helm, their defense should go back to being one of the best. As of right now, there’s no reason to believe that, barring more injuries, the Lakers will get back to being the dominant team they have been in past playoffs.