It’s that time of year again; the time of year when coaches get fired, fingers start pointing and NBA fans and media alike start assigning blame and second-guessing management. It’s time of year when teams that thought they were contenders find out they’re not, and someone has to pay for that revelation.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are not yet out of the running for this year’s championship, yet as they prepare for today’s Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals after being easily brushed aside by the San Antonio Spurs in the first two games, there is blood in the water and the sharks are already circling.
The easiest person to blame, and the primary target of amateur analysts across the country, is none other than All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. It’s easy to see why, too, since anyone watching the Thunder play can see how many bad shots he chucks toward the basket as open teammates stand around wondering what they have to do to get the ball. Yes, Westbrook has made some incredible, eye-popping plays this postseason, including dramatic four-point plays and steals that rescued his team from certain defeat. It’s worth asking, however, if the Thunder would have needed such drastic last-minute heroics if the ball had moved around a bit more and if more players had been involved in the offense?
Of course, there’s also the fact that the Thunder played a stretch of games without Westbrook while he nursed a sore knee and replacement Reggie Jackson guided the team to a 19-6 record (including a win over the defending champion Miami HEAT) while playing like a true playmaker at the point guard position. When Westbrook returned and much of the ball movement stopped, the Thunder lost three straight and five of their first eight with Jackson back on the bench. There is a strong case to be made that the Thunder should trade Westbrook to a team with a lottery pick in this summer’s stacked draft pool and move forward with another young stud to groom alongside Durant.
All of this talk goes away, of course, if the Thunder can get back into this series with Serge Ibaka back in the lineup today. The Thunder have been backed into corners quite a few times this postseason and yet found ways to advance. The Spurs are their biggest challenge to date, and it’s a stretch to see them coming back even with Ibaka in the mix, but it’s not over ’til it’s over.
If OKC comes back to win this series and advances to the NBA Finals, all of Westbrooks critics will suddenly forget they ever doubted him as they fork over the $100 for a jersey with his name stitched across the back.
If they don’t, expect the calls for Westbrook’s head to become quite shrill, indeed, and justifiably so.
The Coaching Dilemma for Lakers, Knicks
There are no brighter spotlights in the world of basketball than the ones shining on the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. If the NBA, as a league, could have its wish the next great rivalry would be the Lakers and the Knicks and the two teams would meet in the Finals for the next decade. The media frenzy would be second only to the Super Bowl and the interest level in the league and the playoffs would reach all-time highs.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few road blocks standing between both the Lakers and the Knicks and the postseason, much less contention, and those road blocks are also taking a toll on the teams’ respective coaching searches.
Neither the Lakers nor the Knicks are appealing destinations for prospective head coaching candidates, not as far as established head coaches go. A head coach who is concerned about his reputation and his career win-loss record would think twice before taking on a team that looks poised to lose and many games as the Lakers and Knicks are likely to lose next season while also weathering the storm from media and fans who relentlessly attack the head coach when their team – no matter how poorly constructed – loses night after night.
Not saying there won’t be interested parties, but anyone who thinks Luke Walton or Mike Dunleavy is going to lead some team to their next era of dominant contention should have their head examined.
The challenge for the next coach of the Lakers and Knicks extends beyond the basketball court, however. Both teams needs a coach who can sell a vision of winning that is not readily apparent when you look at their respective rosters. Frankly, you could give either of them the top five free agents among the guys who are actually going to leave their current teams and still not have a playoff team. The next head coach has to be able to convince key players to buy into what the team could be two years from now, not just what they are now. That’s not an easy task.
Rest assured, the Knicks and Lakers will find coaches, and Derek Fisher and Byron Scott make a great deal of sense in New York and LA, respectively. At least those guys have been around the NBA long enough to understand what they’re in for and handle it with poise and perspective. There’s a lot of losing to be done yet in both of the NBA’s premier markets, and that prospect makes the coaching hire a great deal more difficult than it would be otherwise.
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