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Westbrook Key to Oklahoma City Finding Its Winning Way

In order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to get back on track, Russell Westbrook needs to return to his MVP form.

Dennis Chambers

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The first three weeks of the 2017-18 season haven’t gone exactly to plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After general manager Sam Presti pulled a couple of heist-caliber moves for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this past offseason, the Thunder entered this season poised to stake their claim as the top challenger to the Golden State Warriors’ throne. Pairing George and Anthony alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook would surely lead Oklahoma City back to their days of true contention.

Not so fast.

Instead of early season dominance, the Thunder entered Friday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers at 4-7, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the lowest of which coming at the hands of the Sacramento Kings.

Following a loss to the Kings — which preceded a loss to the Denver Nuggets — Westbrook voiced his lack of concern for the Thunder’s slow start, shouldering much of the blame himself.

“I’m not worried,” Westbrook said. “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”

If you take a look at the raw numbers for Oklahoma City’s new big three, prior to Friday night’s game and Paul George’s explosion, across the board everything seems to be fairly even between the three star players. Each player’s shot attempts per game are separated by a few tenths of a point. Westbrook and George had scored 214 points going into Friday night; Anthony had 229. By all accounts, each player looks more than willing to try and get their new star teammates the ball.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem for the Thunder.

In order for this basketball love triangle to work in Oklahoma City, Westbrook needs to go back to playing his MVP-caliber game and asserting himself as the clear alpha dog on this team.

Now, that’s not to say that he shouldn’t cater to the strengths of his new teammates. He absolutely should. But coming off one of the most historic seasons in NBA history, Westbrook looks like a shell of his dominant self this year, and it’s hurting the team.

Perhaps it’s just an adjustment period to playing with new guys. Or perhaps Westbrook wants to be more accommodating and welcoming to George and Anthony as they try to find their place on what is already established as Westbrook’s team. It’s even possible Westbrook doesn’t want his play-style to push away two more star players as it already had done with Kevin Durant. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that in the early returns of this season, it’s not working.

Yes, Westbrook and Durant weren’t alway a match made in heaven on the court. But they were their most dangerous when Russ was just being Russ. In Durant’s last run with the Thunder, a run that many conveniently forget was just one win away from reaching the Finals, Westbrook put up his jaw-dropping all-around numbers in the postseason playing alongside arguably the NBA’s second best player.

Throughout those 18 games, Westbrook averaged 26 points, 11 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and nearly 22 shots a night. Those numbers helped put pressure on the 73-win Golden State Warriors and pushed them all the way to the brink of elimination.

Thus far in 2017-18 season, Westbrook’s scoring numbers have taken a noticeable dip. Again, with the influx of new talent, that’s to be expected to a degree. However, it’s the main source of the Thunder’s losing problem. At just 19.7 points per game, Westbrook is on pace for his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season in the league. His 17.7 shots per night would also be his lowest figure since 2013-14 which was plagued by injury.

Oklahoma City is Westbrook’s town. The Thunder are Westbrook’s team. While we seem to be fully engulfed in the sharing-is-caring, superteam era of basketball, their still needs to be a pack leader. The Warriors are Steph Curry’s team. Yes, Durant is the better player and showed up as the Final’s MVP, but all things run through Curry. It’s his culture and his team. Same should go for Westbrook. Of course, let your all-star teammates shine in their moments, like George’s 42-point outburst Friday night, but maintain always that you’re the alpha dog.

It sounds archaic, and maybe a little too much like a macho man mentality, but it’s worked for Westbrook in the past, and that’s clearly his identity. He’s the homegrown superstar who didn’t fly the coup like Durant. He’s sticking around to do right by the team, and the city.

The best way to keep star players like George and Anthony from leaving too is by winning. Walking away from a contending situation is a hard thing to do. And unless something miraculous happens, those two won’t have the opportunity to go join a 73-win team like Durant did. Oklahoma City could be their best shot at a title. In order for that to become a reality, Westbrook needs to refind his MVP-form and assert himself as the guy for the Thunder.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers

The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.

In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.

“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”

What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.

Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.

Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.

Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.

Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future

Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.

Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”

Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.

There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.

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Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago

After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.

Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.

Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.

But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.

Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.

For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.

So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.

It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.

His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.

Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.

That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.

Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.

Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.

Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.

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NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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