Folks… we’re back. One Olympics, dozens of free agency moves, and no less than a billion “The Warriors Blew A 3-1 Lead In The NBA Finals” jokes later, actual NBA basketball is back in our lives. Over the next week on What’s The Action dotcom I’ll be bringing you those fire NBA takes and prognostications. We’ll talk Durant and the Warriors. We’ll talk Lebron and the Cavs. We’ll talk Wolves and Celtics and Bulls and Clippers. We’ll talk Westbrook and Harden, Kawhi and Dame, Davis and Boogie, and of course, the blessing that is JR Smith. And yes, we’ll talk Knicks. So much Knicks. So much Kristaps, so much Melo, so much D-Rose. More Knicks than you can possibly consume. But guess what, you’ll consume it nonetheless because you love basketball as much as I do. And from now until the Cavs and Knicks tip at 8:00pm on Tuesday, October 25th, I’m gonna do everything I can to get you ready for the 2016-17 NBA Season. This is The What’s The Action NBA Preview. Let’s hoop.
I love hyperbole.
I think anyone that enjoys or writes about sports for a living does too. We love to romanticize the game… to embellish the importance of a moment… to prognosticate wildly on the potential of athletes, teams, and events alike. Shit, that sentence alone was hyperbole of my love for hyperbole. Which… I guess… kind of validates my love for hyperbole, right? Whatever.
All the hyperbole that comes with sports – it’s almost always unfounded. Game sevens rarely live up to their billing. Retirement ceremonies are never as special as they appear to be. The best teams never truly reach their potential. Big plays and big moments seem to come and go from your memory like a fart in the wind.
Nothing ever lives up to the hype.
And that’s our own fault. We hyperbolize and romanticize… we embellish and prognosticate… we write outrageously pretentious prose like these last few paragraphs… all until our expectations have built to levels so exceedingly high that we consider anything short of athletic perfection a letdown.
Sports–the players, the teams, the games, the moments, the events–are about 90% letdown and 9% as expected. Only on those rare occasions… that 1% of the time… are we lucky enough to see something that exceeds our wildest expectations.
Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 season is part of the 1%.
Russell Westbrook is in a position to do things we’ve never seen from a professional athlete this season.
This Russ season is like the Large Haldron Collider come to life.
On one end you have the athletic force the likes of which we’ve never seen. A fiery, wirey, physical specimen who at times appears to be a different species. He’s the embodiment of rage in human form on the basketball court. An uncontainable fireball shooting up and down the hardwood at maximum capacity… bursting past defenders in the open court, flying through opponents toward the hoop… skying for rebounds and diving for loose balls and causing mayhem unlike anyone we’ve seen at that position–if not any position–in the history of organized basketball.
On the other end, you have the rage brought upon by the saga of Kevin Durant. The anger at watching him bolt town before the job was done. The resentment of having accepted the brunt of blame for the pair’s failures for all these years, only to watch the one who’s escaped so much of that blame flee town to chase a title with the team that stood in your way. The starting point of Russ’s in-game emotion, the style in which he already played, was this competitive resentment we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan. Now we’ve added on a level of spiteful motivation in the form of revenge that no superstar in this sport or any other had the chance to expereince. No other superstar has been dumped like Russ just was.
And starting next week, we’ll watch those two ends collide.
Russell Westbrook is going to do things on a court that we’ve never seen before, both good and bad. A 50% usage rate is in play. 35 points per game is in play. A season long quadruple double of points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers is in play. The first on-court homicide in NBA history is in play.
There’s no limit to what he might do.
Will it result in victories? Probably not. No one player has ever carried his team the way Russ will attempt to this season.
There’s still talent around him, yes. Victor Oladipo has the tools to be a dynamic off-ball guard next to Russ. Steven Adams is already a stud at 24 – a legitimate force in the pick-and-roll and as good a defensive center as you’ll find in the league. Andre Roberson showed promise in the playoffs and could really expand his game in an increased role. Kanter is still an efficient scorer in the post. And while Domantas Sabonis isn’t the player his dad was, he’s got all the tools to be a high-quality big man in this league. (I just want to get it out there now – I’m a YUUUUGE Domantas Sabonis guy)
This team will still crash the hell out of the offensive glass with Adams, Kanter, and Sabonis and turn a TON of Russ’s bad misses into second chance points. They led the league in that by a WIDE margin last year, and that number will only go up. And fueled by a collective desire to prove Durant and the rest of the league wrong, it’s not hard to imagine them playing this whole season with the same defensive intensity they displayed in the playoffs last year. Just, you know, not as well as they did with Durant and Ibaka.
There’s every reason to believe they can still make the playoffs and potentially push 50 wins, despite the 43.5 total Vegas has set for them (What’s The Action Over/Unders blog coming Monday).
It really just comes down to Russ.
Without Durant in 2014, Russ led OKC on a pace equivalent to somewhere in that 44-45 win range — a number that would probably leave them on the outside looking in. He went bonkers during that stretch, posting 35-15-10 games at around a 40% usage rate. That didn’t translate to success.
Will he learn from that? Will he adjust his game to best fit the team’s season long goals? Or will he be so hell-bent on spiting Durant that his focus is solely on murdering everyone in his path, teammates be damned.
Jordan and Kobe have said Russ reminds them the most of themselves of any current player. The hyper-competitiveness has a significant amount to do with that. But more than that, it’s their belief that playing the style they want to play is what gives their team the best chance to win. I hate Kobe, I’ll bash Kobe all day. But calling him a ballhog isn’t really the right way to frame it. His decision to shoot 40+ times was fueled by the belief that it gives his team the best chance to win, not by wanting pad his own stats.
Russ is the same way. He’s going to do what he wants to do because he thinks that gives the Thunder the best chance to win. He thought and played that way while Durant was there, and it’s why he took so much of the blame when things went wrong. With Durant out of the picture, it’s easy to imagine that will only intensify.
If Russ can learn to control that desire the way Kobe learned to for his last two rings (before he went into full “I’m just gonna do me and pad my stats” mode after 2010)… to play smart, ball-movement-oriented basketball and utilize his teammates and let them help him, the Thunder have a chance to win 50 games and truly contend in the West. (Well, contend for the chance to lose to Golden State in the Conference Finals, but you get my point). If he can direct all the rage into that, they’ll be successful. If not, they’ll barely win 40 games and miss the playoffs.
No matter which path he chooses, the one certainty is that he’s going to scorch the earth. He’s going to play with more competitive fire and homicidal resentment than we’ve ever seen on a basketball court. He’s going to kill everyone in his path this season. And goddammit that’s gonna be fun to watch.