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The Corner Three

NBA Nerd Heaven

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook did something that many found surprising, by renegotiating his contract and tacking on an extra two years to his stay in Oklahoma City. The only thing is, if you have followed Westbrook's career at all and knew anything about his personality, him staying in OKC even after Kevin Durant betrayed him, shouldn't be a shock at all.

Despite the various reports about Westbrook packing his bags and getting ready to head elsewhere, Russell's competitiveness and will to win was never going to let him jump ship. This guy is as loyal as they come and loves a challenge, so even if his team is going to stink, there is no way in hell Westbrook would ever leave just because the Thunder may no longer be a title contender. He is simply too competitive to do that. 

Unlike Durant, rather than throwing in the towel and admitting that his team isn't good enough, Russ is inviting this challenge. He would rather be on the worst team in the league, but do it while playing at an intensity level that only Russell Westbrook knows, instead of giving up and joining a superteam. Westbrook never backs down from a fight and him signing this extension is a message to the collective NBA world that he is nothing like his former teammate. 

Westbrook is insane, so even if it doesn't make sense to stay in a situation where it is going to be unbelievably difficult to win, just remember that Russ doesn't care about what makes sense. He is unlike anything we have ever seen, not only in NBA, but sports in general. Remember the time he played an entire basketball game with a dent in his head?

So now that Westbrook is back, Sam Presti and his front office can stop worrying about potentially losing two of the best 5 players in the league in the same offseason. The pressure now shifts to Billy Donovan and the coaching staff, as they now have to try and figure out how to win games without a huge chunk of their core from last season. Rebuilding is not an option with Westbrook on your team. A player of his caliber needs to be in win now mode, so Billy Donovan needs to deliver results. 

But even with Westbrook on the squad for the foreseeable future, is this Thunder team any good? Are they even a playoff team in the cramped Western Conference? 

Even after losing a large chunk of last season's team, a heck of a lot of talent remains. Surrounding Westbrook, they've got a star in the making with Steven Adams, an incredibly talented big man in Enes Kanter, a defensive stopper in Andre Roberson and the young, athletic Victor Oladipo making up their new core group of players. Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis, are taking the departed Durant, Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters' roster spots and while they aren't nearly as talented, they are all at least serviceable players that all fill roles.

While this squad no longer has the immense star power it once has, talent isn't the thing that I would worry about if I were a Thunder fan. I would be worried that without Durant, Ibaka and Waiters, OKC's puzzle pieces probably don't fit together.

Remember the core that I described earlier of Westbrook, Adams, Kanter, Roberson and Oladipo? Well, those 5 players combined to make just 241 three-pointers last season, which is a hair less than 60% of the triples that Stephen Curry drained during his last campaign. Westbrook, Roberson and Oladipo, who combined to make 231 of those threes, made just 29.6%, 31.1% and 34.8% of their attempts respectively. So their five core players, who may end up playing crunch-time together, can't even remotely space the floor as a unit.

This may not have been a problem in the 90s, but it certainly is in the year 2016. There's a very good reason why no other team in the league's core five players all can't space the floor. Defenses are smarter now and they will murder an OKC group consisting of Russ, Adams, Kanter, Roberson and Oladipo. Other teams will give the Tony Allen treatment to the four men standing off-ball and clog the paint on every drive, post-up and pick and roll. 

OKC's key and most heavily relied upon sets will be hurt most. A majority of Thunder possessions either resulted in a simple 1-5 pick and roll with no prior motion or a stagnant isolation. While they don't sound complicated, both need spacing to live. On a Westbrook-Adams pick and roll, teams will now bring help defenders over with ease, without the threat of Kevin Durant getting a wide open three. Instead, the opposition will be more than happy that kick-outs to open threes, will result in bricklaying from Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. A once deadly combination could now become obsolete without competent spacing.

A simple Westbrook isolation, will be cramped in the same way, as help defenders will clog the paint and urge Westbrook to dish to any of his problematic shooters.

This lack of spacing issue came close to hurting the Thunder last season, as even during the 2015-16 term, the Thunder roster was clogged with minus shooters. But Donovan was able to squeeze enough shooting into every lineup he trotted out, with a combination Durant, Ibaka and Waiters at just about every point of every game. Last season, according to NBAwowy, OKC played just a little over 200 minutes without Durant, Ibaka or Waiters on the floor, out of a total of over 4800. Meanwhile, out of those 200 minutes without Durant, Ibaka or Waiters, just 5 came with a group that had Westbrook, Adams, Kanter and Roberson on the floor at the same time. With these stats, there is very clear evidence that Donovan wanted no part of a spacing issue and was obviously aware that his team relied heavily on the shooting that his now absent trio brought to the table.

The problem is, that now without KD, Serge and Waiters, Donovan will have to look at using groupings that he barely played last year. Groupings that as I have mentioned, he didn't play for a reason. Those spacing issues that I detailed, instead of just being an issue for a couple of minutes every game, they now become concerns for the whole ball game. If this is the case, I highly doubt the Thunder will have a chance at making the playoffs or imposing any sort of will on the outcome of the season.

Billy Donovan may have to play guys like Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Morrow (37% and 38% from deep last season respectively), to even have a show at spacing the floor. And since the Thunder have so few of these players, Ilyasova and Morrow might end up having to play starter-level minutes. But then the problem for Donovan becomes that you have players like Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Morrow on the floor, who give up whatever they add shooting-wise in every other aspect of their games. 

Defensively, the Thunder will likely be solid, but will suffer from the length they have lost in Durant and Ibaka. Oklahoma City's defense was quite often fundamentally unsound. Their rotations were sometimes off, their positioning was out of place a bit too much, but their length was able cover up these shortcomings. By losing four arms of their rim barricade, the Thunder defense will suffer. 

OKC's athleticism has also taken a hit by losing Ibaka and Durant, which will hurt their switchability defensively -- a key component in their three wins against Golden State in the Conference Finals. Instead, the Thunder will now be running larger, slower-footed lineups that could get killed by smaller lineups.

The Thunder have obviously taken a hit this offseason and won't be the same team. But even with a talented roster, 

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest myth in the NBA today, is that when Derrick Rose is healthy, he can still produce the superb performances that caused the world to fall in love with him during his dazzling 2010-11 campaign. 

I used to be a Derrick Rose believer. Every season since Rose was flattened with a torn ACL against the Sixers back in 2012, I've foolishly thought that the only thing holding Rose back was his injury luck. I used to think that Rose still had the 2011 version of himself ready to breakout at any moment. But now, I know the truth and it's something that every Knicks fan that wants to believe Rose can lead them deep into the playoffs needs to know. 

Most fans have fallen into the trap of believing that only injuries are holding Rose back and that he just needs to be set free of the shackles of his wobbly knees in order to rediscover his form. But this opinion is short-sighted, over used and doesn't make enough sense for me to truly believe it. The phrase 'if he's healthy' must have been uttered 10 billion times this offseason in relation to Rose. However, a more accurate way of putting it would be 'if he has a time machine'. 

The truth is, Rose's injury luck isn't the thing that is holding him back. Last season, he proved it as he had a healthy season by his standards. Rose played 66 of the 82 games in the Bulls' season and didn't suffer any major injuries. His body still endured a lot of minor, niggling injuries that kept him sidelined for nearly a fifth of the season, but for the most part, Rose was healthy. In fact, the 2016 season saw Rose play the most games he had since 2011. 

Despite his reasonably healthy season, Rose was absolutely dreadful. He looked completely out of touch with the sport and didn't look like a natural basketball player at all. Last season, he registered the lowest points per game average of his career (excluding his 10 game 2014 season), had an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.74, made just 42.7% of his field goal attempts and 29% of his three-point shots. The advanced stats don't show his 2016 campaign any love either, he somehow managed to produce a negative offensive and defensive box plus/minus (which landed himself a -3.3 box plus/minus overall) as well as securing a -0.7 value over replacement player. To add on, his Bulls were nearly 5 points better per 100 possessions without Rose on the floor. 

If you look at ESPN's real plus/minus stats, it looks even worse. Out of the 81 point guards listed, Rose ranks last in RPM wins with a -1.53 score (for reference, Steph Curry scored a 21.1 in that same statistic). He then ranked 77th out of the 81 point guards in RPM as a whole, with a -4.27 rating, only ahead of Shabazz Napier, Ty Lawson, Mo Williams and rookie Terry Rozier. 

So just to summarize, in his healthiest season since 2011, Derrick Rose was arguably the worst point guard in the entire league. 

While I don't think it's his injury luck that has Rose in the state that he is in, to me, it's obviously what the injuries have done to his body, not necessarily what they could do in the future. As I watched Rose last season, I kept getting the feeling that he had no idea how far his body had deteriorated. Rose attempted to pull off those same crossovers that his 2011 self used, he was still attacking the rim in the same way and was still trying to maneuver his body, as if nothing had happened to it. But after a torn ACL and after tearing his right meniscus twice, his body clearly isn't built to play like his former self. It seemed to me like Rose thought he was powering along in a Ferrari, when in actual fact, he was piddling through the streets of Chicago in a Camry.

Obviously, you can't blame Rose for his injuries. Without them, who knows where Rose would be today? Would he have turned into what Russell Westbroook is today? Would he be the second coming of Jordan, that Bulls fans hoped he would be? Unfortunately, injuries are apart of sport and instead of hoping his knees will strengthen up again, D-Rose needs to adjust his game to suit his new, fragile body. 

In 2016, Rose struggled mightily with his body. He was pulling out all the moves that were getting him buckets back in 2011, but his body has decayed to the point where even at his healthiest, he simply can't finish like he used to anymore. Rose thinks he can still use his ultra-athletic moves to barrel into the lane, spin through three defenders and throw down a two-handed jam, but his body doesn't allow him to do that. He doesn't get the lift that his former self did, he doesn't bolt past defenders like before, everything that made him great in 2011, is gone and if he likes it or not, he needs to adjust his game to find a style that he can use his decayed body with. 

His problem last season wasn't that he wasn't playing like he was in the past, the problem was that he was trying to. Instead of taking more jump shots and not putting as much pressure on his body, Rose took around the same percentage of shots from 3 feet and in during the 2015-16 season as he did in 2011, but converted 10% less of the time, showing how much he relied on his athleticism to get those shots off. Meanwhile, Rose only attempted 33% of his field goals from outside of 16 feet, whereas, throughout his career, he has taken 40% of his field goal attempts from out there. It should go without saying, that as you get closer to the rim, you rely more on your athleticism to get shots off, so why on earth is Rose acting like nothing has happened to his body? His body and athleticism have declined so much that last season, he dunked one whole time. 

Even though it won't be easy for Derrick Rose to do, he needs to drastically alter his game. Playing like nothing has happened to him is never going to get him back into All-Star form, but playing as a more conservative point guard might. Although Rose made his name as an athletic specimen, he needs to know what his strengths are at this point in his career. And for me at least, they look nothing like the ones that he had 5 long years ago.

The Derrick Rose of old is dead, but a new one could be reborn if Rose is willing to change the style of game that made him a household name. 

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer of 2012, the Orlando Magic committed to a long-term rebuild, by trading away Dwight Howard -- the face of their franchise for the past eight seasons. Instead of dealing him for more established stars, like Andrew Bynum or Brook Lopez (both of whom were offered), they made it clear that they wanted to build their new look team at their own pace. They weren't going to commit themselves to any big contracts, they were willing to bottom out for a bit and gather in draft picks and young talent. They had a plan in place, they weren't obsessed with winning, Rob Hennigan and his staff were fine with being bad as long as it delivered success in the future.

After the 2016 offseason, it is unclear where Hennigan's plan from four years ago lies. It is probably hidden somewhere deep in the ruins of the Tobias Harris and Serge Ibaka trades that now have them without a direction. 

The thing is, up until the past year, I thought Hennigan and the Magic were nailing their rebuild. In the 2013, '14 and '15 drafts, the Magic managed to snag Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. Four great picks that with the right development, could create a perfect young core that would be able to play together. With all of them possessing contrasting skill-sets, in the right environment they probably would have worked as a core. 

Because of this, Hennigan was the anti-Sam Hinkie in terms of drafting. Rather than drafting based on the asset he was acquiring, he was drafting with purpose. Hennigan was grabbing players that could form a team right away, without too much shuffling of the deck. 

Hennigan didn't only nail the draft, but he was hitting on almost all of his trades. He turned the dead weight, ageing portion of their squad into pieces that could grow with their core. They flipped J.J. Redick -- who they knew probably wouldn't re-sign in the offseason -- for Tobias Harris, a player that nobody knew about and a player that was an afterthought in the trade. They turned Arron Afflalo's expiring deal into Evan Fournier, who has blossomed into a $17 million per year player, while Afflalo has bounced from team to team. Hell, even in the Dwight Howard trade, they poached Nikola Vucevic off the 76ers, even though he averaged just 5 points and 5 rebounds per game. In his time with the Magic, he has been a borderline All-Star every season.

But for some reason, over the past 12 months, Rob Hennigan has gone away from everything that made the first three years of his rebuild brilliant. Rather than just staying the course, collecting their draft lottery winnings each season and waiting a year or two more before attempting to make their leap up the Eastern Conference hierarchy, it seems that Hennigan has tried to expedite the rebuilding process. Needless to say, it has failed...miserably.

Their strange, sudden win-now approach started to take shape with the incredibly odd trade of Tobias Harris. At the time, I defended this trade, but that was a moronic stance. For unknown reasons (some have speculated that it had something to do with a power play within the front office, from former coach Scott Skiles, but I'm unconvinced by that rumor), the Magic decided that it would be a wise decision to trade Harris, who turned 24 just a week ago and is nowhere near his ceiling, for two expiring deals.  

Generally, when you trade for expiring deals, you are moving for them to create cap space in the offseason. However, not only could the Magic have just moved him in the offseason into a team's cap space, to at least get a better feel of the 23/24 year old you want to trade away, but they traded someone that had his long-term deal signed under the old cap. In this cap climate, Harris's $16 million per year deal is ridiculously cheap and as the cap continues to rise, will be a very valuable asset going forward. Especially when you consider that the talent-less Timofey Mozgov now earns the same amount of money as Detroit's forward. Trading someone on a highway robbery contract, to create cap space in a market where you can't even grab a bench warming big man for $16 million, is perhaps the worst move Rob Hennigan has ever made.  

Not only this, but if the Magic were truly trading Harris to clear cap space, they got a rather lousy return on the cap space they cleared out. The guy that Hennigan chose to replace Harris's spot in the team and on the payroll, was Jeff Green, on a one year, $15 million deal. Yep, that makes sense. To summarize, the Magic traded away a 24 year old who hadn't reached his ceiling, to create cap space, so they could sign Jeff Green to a one year deal. That wouldn't be acceptable even if Jeff Green was good.

While the Harris trade is indefensible at best, the Serge Ibaka trade might make even less sense. At the time it was announced though, it looked better than it does now. 

The prospect of having Serge Ibaka and Aaron Gordon playing in the same frontcourt was music to any basketball fan's ears. Playing small with Ibaka at center and Gordon at power forward, would give the Magic two big men that can shoot, block shots, switch on pick and roll and do an abundance of other stuff on the basketball court. Gordon and Ibaka are two big men that you absolutely want in the 21st century. 

The price of Victor Oladipo and a lottery pick is a high price to pay for a guy whose contract is expiring. But unlike the Harris trade, the Magic got very talented compensation in Ibaka in exchange for their budding star. It's easy to forget, but Ibaka has been an All-Star snub for like the past 4 years now, has finished in the top three in Defensive Player of the Year voting twice and has been a member of the All-Defensive first team three times in his career. 

But then they had to screw it all up in free agency, by signing Bismack Biyombo to a near $70 million deal over the next 4 seasons. Biymobo gives them a loaded frontcourt rotation of four big men that could all start, in a league that is increasingly moving to lineups with only one big or no bigs at all. 

It seems that they didn't even factor in Aaron Gordon at all when dreaming up the Ibaka trade and Biyombo signing either. Gordon is their best bet at getting a star player and he needs to play big man minutes. As a wing, his athleticism is less of an advantage because perimeter players these days are already as uber-athletic as Gordon. Plus, his lack of a consistent jump shot will be exploited infinitely more as a wing than a big in the NBA.

From a basketball point of view, where is the logic in having Biyombo, Vucevic, Ibaka and Gordon on the roster?

Then from an economical point of view, Biz and Vooch will earn nearly $30 million per season over the next three years. Plus, this offseason, they will probably have to give Ibaka the max, considering both the package they gave up for him and the free agency market of today. It is conceivable that by this time next season, they could be paying three big men, who they can't play at the same time, nearly $60 million per season, which is way over half their cap space, even with the expected jump in the cap accounted for.

I think it can be safely assumed at this point, that Rob Hennigan has completely diverted away from the original plan he and his franchise put in place at the start of this rebuild.  He has sped up the rebuilding process to ten times the pace that it was before, traded away parts of his young core that he previously wanted to build around, so he could grab ageing pieces at the tail-end of their prime and filled their roster to the brim with gigantic contracts. 

So now that the Magic have headed down a path that they were previously avoiding, where does this path lead them? Do they actually have any building blocks on this team now that Harris and Oladipo are gone? Aaron Gordon is being played out of position, Hezonja is unproven and Evan Fournier doesn't possess enough dazzling upside to be certain that you can build around him. You are left with a team that is neither here, nor there, but unlike the team they had before these moves, they don't have young talent and upside to count on for the future. 

I used to love this Magic team. I loved the way they were rebuilding. But now, they have fallen into a win-now mentality trap that they may prove to be inescapable.

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