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NBA Saturday: Westbrook Has Been Incredibly Clutch This Season

Beyond his triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook has been incredibly effective in clutch situations this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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The MVP race continues to stir serious debate amongst fans and those in and around the NBA. However, in this space we are not going to try and compare the top candidates against one another to determine who should win this year’s award. We aren’t going to discuss Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles (aside from congratulating him on becoming the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season on Friday night) or James Harden’s overall incredible work as the quasi-point guard of the Houston Rockets. Rather, we will focus in on just how incredible Westbrook has been in clutch situations this season.

We have some generally accepted thoughts and beliefs about the closing minutes in a tight basketball game. The game slows down, teams generally can shut down an opposing star player more effectively, referees are less likely to call a questionable foul and so on. Westbrook doesn’t care about any of these conventional understandings of late-game situations. Whether the game is seemingly out of reach or right there for the taking, Westbrook plays a hyper-aggressive brand of basketball in clutch situations that forces his opponents to adapt quickly or risk suffering a heartbreaking defeat.

A nice example of this is the Thunder’s 92-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks on March 27. Westbrook posted 37 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. More importantly, he led the Thunder to a furious 14-0 run late in the game, scoring 12 of those 14 points himself, which erased a significant deficit and resulted in a win for Oklahoma City.

“It just happened so fast,” Mavericks center Nerlens Noel said after the game. “They were just playing more aggressive than we were late in the game.”

Thunder center Steven Adams scored two points during that furious comeback but stated that he and his teammates were simply trying to let Westbrook take over the game like he has done so many times this season.

“It was just, like, trying to get out of his way,” Adams said. “And he did the rest, which was awesome.”

Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have played in 39 games this season that involved clutch time play, according to NBA.com. Oklahoma City has gone 24-15 in these games and has a +20.4 net rating, which ranks second overall, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs. In these late-game situations, Westbrook has essentially done what he always does, but on an even higher level.

Westbrook leads the league in usage rate (41.7 percent) this season and carries an incredible workload on offense for the Thunder. However, in clutch situations (commonly understood as when the score is within five points during the last five minutes of a game), Westbrook’s usage rate catapults up to a whopping 62 percent. Westbrook also maintains a 58.3 assist percentage, which means that he is essentially scoring or assisting every made basket for the Thunder in clutch situations. He also is sustaining a 56.4 true shooting percentage in these situations, which is very impressive considering his incredible usage percentage and the fact that opposing defenses know that the ball is always going to be in his hands.

Despite ranking 25th in total clutch minutes played this season, Westbrook leads all players in points (241), made field goals (80) and field goals attempted (181). He is also tied for first in three-pointers attempted (56), tied for second in three-pointers made (18), fifth in free throws made (63), fifth in free throws attempted (74), fifth in rebounds (52), fourth in assists (28­) and tied for second in steals (11).

While some may argue that Westbrook has the ball in his hands too much or that he isn’t incorporating or utilizing his teammates effectively or that this sort of approach may not work in the postseason, the fact is that the Thunder don’t have the personnel or talent that would allow Westbrook to relinquish control in these situations. Oklahoma City is 25th in three-pointers made and 28th in three-point percentage this season and outside of Westbrook and perhaps Victor Oladipo, no one on the team is able to consistently make a play for himself or his teammates. Westbrook has no choice but to have the ball in his hands on every possession and considering the circumstances, it’s incredible that he’s been so successful up to this point in the season.

In fact, Oklahoma City’s numbers in the clutch are a clear representation of how effective Westbrook has been in clutch situations this season. Oklahoma City is scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations while maintaining a 105.03 pace. That offensive rating eclipses the Golden State Warriors’ league-leading 113.3 points per 100 over the course of this season and Oklahoma City’s pace would lead the league as well. This is significant since the game tends to slow down in clutch situations and efficiency, for the most part, tends to decrease as well. But Westbrook is constantly grabbing defensive rebounds, generating steals and pushing the pace in transition to attack scrambling defenses. Not many players or teams do this in late-game situations, but it has served Westbrook and the Thunder well this season.

“The thing that I think is really great for our team, and the thing that any coach wants from his team, is to have a never-say-die attitude and to work and to be relentless and passionate and to play all the way to the final buzzer,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said recently. “[Westbrook] embodies that in every possible way, shape or form it could be. It’s just, he’s got this desire, this drive and he’ll just find a way. Nothing’s too insurmountable to overcome. It’s a great credit to his disposition and competitiveness, and I also think it trickles into our team, especially during timeouts and huddles, because he really encourages and inspires the group.”

Westbrook’s ability to bring his team back in games that are seemingly lost is part of the reason the Thunder’s record isn’t even better in clutch situations. For example, Oklahoma City had almost no chance of winning that game against Dallas on March 27. But Westbrook’s incredible run and the Thunder’s lockdown defense allowed them to win a game that 29 other teams would have likely given up on. The flip side to that is the Thunder often times fall short in these longshot efforts, so their record isn’t quite as impressive as we might expect considering Westbrook’s incredible overall performance in the clutch this season. However, Westbrook shouldn’t be penalized for this, but rather we should applaud the fact that even in dire situations, Westbrook and his teammates seemingly never give up or throw in the towel.

“I just come out and compete every night,” Westbrook said recently. “I just try to find ways to help my team win and always ‘never quit,’ that’s my mentality. Always keep it going.”

Westbrook has his flaws, but it’s hard to impeach his performance in clutch situations this season. Between his incredibly high usage rate, assist rate, scoring efficiency and his unwavering confidence that seems to trickle down to his teammates, Westbrook has been historically effective in the clutch this season. That’s something that should be noted regardless of whether he ends up winning this year’s MVP award.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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