Much like the NHL, the National Basketball Association continues to delight night after night this season. I haven’t had a chance to dive into it on the site yet, and I wanted to take a slightly different approach than the usual. Meaning, while the Warriors might be approaching the best team of all time (other than the 60’s Celtic teams, that’s not really fair in a modern light) and Blake Griffin punching trainers may change the landscape of the Western Conference, I’m not going to look too heavily into that here. With the All-Star game coming up this weekend, we enter the halfway point, and the time where we can start assessing teams and players definitively for the season. That said, without further adieu, here are 3 underrated huge stories of the 2015-16 season to date.
The OKC Thunder Might Be The Second Best Team In Basketball
All the talk this year has been circling around the big two Western Conference teams (Warriors and Spurs) or the Cavs. Before the season, the betting odds for the Thunder winning the title was a sneaky good bet, in terms of value for dollar. The overall feeling, however, was this: yes, Westbrook is one of the best guards in the league and a true gamer. Yes, Durant is back from injury and he’s looking for something to prove. Yes, Scott Brooks is gone, and a new coach could finally launch the Thunder to that championship that has alluded them in the past 5 or so years. HOWEVER, it was clear after last year that Westbrook cannot carry the team solely by himself, even with putting up incredible numbers. Durant is back, but let’s see him go on a healthy stretch before we get ahead of ourselves. The coach may be new, but Billy Donovan is unproven in the NBA. He may have been a great college coach, but the numbers would show that that rarely translates to in season success.
With that in mind, let’s look at Westbrook’s numbers this year. He’s holding a very respectable line at 25-8-10.5 (points-rebounds-assists per 36 minutes, roughly one game), and when you look at the leaderboard stat wise, he’s near the top for a good chunk of the offensive ones. A deeper look at his stats, his PER (player efficiency rating, a way to look at an individual’s impact on a game) is a whopping 28.6 so far this year. To put into perspective, average is around 15, and if you hit 30 after a season, there’s a good chance you could be the MVP. His number is only behind Steph Curry in terms of regular starters. In addition, Durant is putting up a similar line; albeit with better 3 point shooting and all around better scoring. His PER is .4 below Westbrook. If this continues, that is astounding. To have both those guys on the floor together? If I were a team in the playoffs in the West, yeah I’ll pass.
Ok, let’s get out of the stats. Sure, those guys are great, but who else is on that team. Specifically, who’s going to play defense? That’s an easy one, Serge Ibaka. Honestly, you cannot get a better compliment to two superstars than Ibaka. An overall stud who will crash the boards and just be a pest on defense. This year is looking to be his best in terms of rebounds and blocks. Also, stats show that Russell is no slouch himself defensively. Yes, he occasionally plays defense flailing around like a fish out of water, but he’s doing something right there, currently leading the league in steals. On top of all that, Steven Adams is a quality center defensive wise, and is a nice compliment to Ibaka offensively. He’s all around solid; not a star, but a solid player on a contender. You take those guys, add in a solid bench with guys like Enes Kanter (horrible contract but offensively productive), Cameron Payne who’s looking to be developing into quite a guard under Russ, and the potential for great games from Anthony Morrow/Andre Roberson/DJ Augustin, and you have a potential champ. That said, they have to get through the Warriors, and Donovan, while not a horrible coach, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. They’ll be an interesting team to watch going forward and for me, the best story of the year.
Brad Stevens, Next Gregg Popovich?
Since trading away the big 3 that lead to the most recent Celtics titles in Pierce, Garnett, and Allen; followed only by the departure of Rajon Rondo, it’s been clear that the Celtics are in a rebuild. GM Danny Ainge has a stockpile of picks, looking for that mega deal (could it be Boogie? Kevin Love? Blake? Probably none of the above but it’s on the table), and a collection of role players on a roster that fans can find something to love in. That said, this team on paper doesn’t look like a playoff team. Other than Isiah Thomas (all-star) and Jae Crowder (should actually be the all-star), this team is missing a number 1 or 2 guy necessary for a championship team. That said, they are a near lock for the playoffs, and potentially a top 3 seed. What?
While the Eastern conference isn’t much to write home about, especially with a declining Bulls (slight), Hawks (slight), and Wizards (MASSIVE), it’s not as bad as it’s been in recent years. Teams like Charlotte, Detroit, and even New York are on an uptick, and always put up a fight every night. Those teams are different though. They have one, if not more, potential or actual Superstars, Kemba and Big Al in CHA, Drummond in DET, and Melo and Porzingis (aka The Zinger, aka The Latvian Gangbanger, aka the reason that 10 year old Knick fan cried at the draft). Boston doesn’t have that, but they are easily the best of that bunch. The reason? Brad Stevens is a crazy good coach.
Take a look at Stevens. Not really what you’d expect in terms of a basketball genius. It’s also not as easily identifiable as guys like Popovich in San Antonio or even Phil Jackson with the 90s Bulls and 2000s Lakers. Pop is a master at ball movement and player upkeep, Jackson invented “The Triangle” (also had MJ, can’t give him too much credit for those teams). Here’s what Stevens does best: he coaches a strong fundamental defensive core and manages to get players that would be on the bench on a better team in shockingly good positions to score offensively. My favorite example: Kelly Olynyk. He’s a really good role player, a center who can come in and give you stable minutes when you rest your big guns. Somehow, Stevens has him constantly threatening offensively. On an average coached team, Olynyk would struggle against the more physical dudes. With Stevens, he’s occasionally a force. Unlike many other coaches, Stevens gameplans with what his players are, shining a spotlight on their strengths and hiding their weaknesses. When Boston gets a superstar, it’ll be interesting to see how Stevens adapts. Will he be like Pop with Robinson/Duncan, or will it be more of a *insert Sacramento Kings coach here* and Boogie Cousins.
We Know Kobe’s Retiring, But What About Tim Duncan
It’s no secret that the LA Lakers are a shadow of the force they were ten years ago. A big problem from the start of the year was the the presence of Kobe. I’m not going to go into his actual play; when I say presence, I mean more of their inability to rebuild with him on the roster. They really need to focus on developing their young, and potentially dangerous, players in Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell. When Kobe announced his retirement, the season became his farewell tour. We are wishing one of the best players of all time goodbye. That said, we also could be watching the final season of THE best Power Forward ever: Time Duncan.
Just like the entirety of his career, Duncan is quietly being solid. In a league full of boisterous stars, it’s rare that we get a quiet all timer like Duncan. To me, he’s more like a hockey great, a la Gretzky. A Basketball comparison? Get ready Boston faithful, you’re about to punch me in the mouth. He reminds me a little of Bill Russell (even more painful for Boston fans, YOU ALMOST HAD DUNCAN, YOU MISSED BY ONE PICK). Listen, there’s no doubt that Russell is in the top 3 of best players ever (only behind MJ, arguments for Kareem or Wilt can be made in being above Russell; those arguments would be wrong), and he revolutionized Basketball in a highly racially tensioned 1950s and 60s NBA. That said, no one has lead teams consistently to greatness for such a long period of time other than him, Kareem, and, you guessed it, Tim Duncan. Duncan controlled games with monsters like Shaq, played with few true all stars but won championships consistently, and has been one of the best in the league from day one.
This year we are seeing glimpses of decline. He’s obviously slowing down at 39, but he’s still giving solid production when he’s playing. You just watch the games this year and can feel it’s getting to be his time. I’m all for Kobe getting accolades, but Duncan deserves it just as much, if not more so if he were to retire. Kobe was/is one of the all time best, but Duncan is a timeless, transcendent, top 5 all timer. The reason this isn’t a huge story: it’s still unclear if this is his last year. It would be uncharacteristic of Duncan to announce retirement mid season. He’s a classic blue collar guy; he comes in, does his job amazingly, then clocks out after the season to rest and get ready for the next day (or season). He wouldn’t consciously cause a distraction for his team mid season, and I say consciously because a season ending injury could change that, but even then I’d be shocked.
And there you have it, my top 3 stories everyone isn’t necessarily talking about. The NBA landscape hasn’t been this well rounded in a while, and, much like the current NHL, it’s the perfect time to become a fan.