Posted by: James Seaman on February 10th, 2012The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of the Utah Jazz.
Friday night, when the Jazz welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder to EnergySolutions Arena, Utah will get a close look at the team it must chase—and hopefully one day catch—in the coming years. OKC employs the fifth youngest roster in the NBA, a frightening thought considering the Thunder own the league’s best record at 20-5. As Bruce Willis says in Die Hard, “We got some bad-@#% perpetrators and they’re here to stay.”
Just how good is Oklahoma City? They score—3rd in the league at 101.2 PPG and 3rd in field goal percentage at 47.2%, rolling with the NBA’s only pair of top ten scorers in Kevin Durant (3rd at 27.3 PPG) and Russell Westbrook (8th at 22.3 PPG). They defend—7th lowest opponent field goal percentage at 42.7%, spurred by Serge Ibaka, the league’s 3rd best shot-blocker at 2.68 swats per contest, and Westbrook, the league’s 5th best thief at 2 steals a night. And they rebound—7th in the league at 43.2 boards a game and 5th in rebounding differential (+2.0).
In addition to Durant and Westbrook, James Harden contributes an efficient 16.8 points in 31.2 minutes per game off the bench. Largely, though, OKC’s success will depend on how far its two stars can carry the team. Durant and Westbrook are both just 23 years old (Harden is actually only 22) and, perhaps most importantly, both signed major contract extensions in the last year and a half, committing to stay in Oklahoma City. Durant and Westbrook will play together for the foreseeable future, and they’ll continue getting better.
How much better? Shaq and Kobe good? They won three straight titles. Jordan and Pippen good? They won three straight titles, twice. No one will ever argue that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were anything but two of the most dominant forces in NBA history and, together, they ruled basketball during a three-year reign of terror that made Robespierre look like a humanitarian. But when ego eclipsed even winning, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers broke up. Of course, that dynasty will always seem less pure than others because Shaq outgrew Orlando just a year after reaching the Finals while a 17-year-old Kobe made it clear on Draft Day, 1996, that he belonged somewhere bigger than Charlotte. In other words, the Lakers benefitted from their reputation and the glitz of Hollywood rather than shrewd scouting. The willingness of Durant and Westbrook to carry the banner for small-market Oklahoma City almost makes them the anti Shaq and Kobe.
What about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? Can Durant and Westbrook be that good? Some analysts worry about Russell Westbrook’s immaturity and poor decision-making. He already blew-up on Durant this year (a shouting match during the Memphis game in late December), and his struggles in last season’s Western Conference Finals have been well-documented (shooting 36-100).
But Pippen had his share of tribulations—remember the migraine headache that kept him out of Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, the most important game of his or Jordan’s career up to that point? Or how about when Pippen refused to play the last seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals because Phil Jackson drew up the game-winning shot for Toni Kukoc? In some ways, it’s amazing Pippen lived those moments down. I guess that’s what six championship rings will do for you.
Aside from a shared craziness, Russell and Scottie have other similarities. Like Westbrook today, Pippen made a habit of getting his hands on the ball defensively. The Central Arkansas product led the league in steals in 1995 and his career average of 2.0 matches Westbrook’s rate for this season. But Pippen was ultimately a better defender because his length (6’ 7”) simply created too many problems for opposing offenses. Pippen’s ten All-Defensive Team selections (eight times a first-teamer) make him one of the best stoppers in NBA history and measurably better than Westbrook on the defensive end. At the same time, Pippen never scored as many points as Westbrook averages this year (22.3). He came close in 1994 (22.0), but that was the year Jordan rode the bus for the Birmingham Barons. Westbrook scores prolifically even as Durant does his thing.
While Pippen played a different position than Westbrook, he assumed the same sidekick role that Russell currently fills. The big question may be whether Westbrook remains happy to play that part. Pippen didn’t make waves (unless Toni Kukoc was getting the ball) and shined in the supporting actor role as brightly as any player in NBA history. Westbrook must accept his role and develop the maturity and mental toughness necessary to raise his game—and the Thunder’s title hopes—to the Pippen Level.
At the top of the ticket, Kevin Durant isn’t Michael Jordan, but he’s also not trying to be. Jordan personified cool, from his impeccable fashion to his Nike ads with Mars Blackmon (played by Spike Lee).
Durant? He plays in a Midwest cow town, announces his contract extension with one sentence on Twitter (as opposed to, I don’t know, having a one-hour special on ESPN like someone we wish we didn’t know), and wears a backpack to press conferences.
It’s like Durant is trying to be uncool. He’s the hipster of basketball. But can he lift Oklahoma City to the dizzying heights where Michael Jordan carried the Bulls? Physically, the two have significant differences, some of which benefit Durant—like being 6’ 9” with impossibly long arms, able to extend over any defender. Durant also has the lightning-quick release that would allow him to get off a shot in a phone booth. While I seriously doubt Wilt Chamberlain’s absurd record of 100 points in a game will ever fall, Durant has the best chance of any current player. When he’s hot, Durant can score from any spot on the floor and he does so seemingly with ease.
The real question is whether Kevin Durant can be to the Thunder what Michael Jordan was to the Bulls—all things, when needed. Durant doesn’t defend like Mike. Jordan landed on the All-Defensive First Team nine times and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. While everyone remembers the shot over Bryon Russell to win the 1998 Finals, consider that Jordan set that up by stealing the ball from Karl Malone along the baseline on Utah’s preceding possession. Malone had his back to the basket on the low block as Hornacek cleared that side of the floor (presumably bringing Jordan with him). But Jordan faked the pursuit, turned back and stripped the ball from the Mailman who thought Jordan had left him to go one-on-one with Dennis Rodman. This is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart:
Jordan set up his own winning shot with a defensive play that required anticipation and tremendous intelligence. Those mental capabilities are part of what separated Michael Jordan from everyone else. Can Kevin Durant become that type of player, one who relies on intelligence and shrewdness as much as physical gifts?
Jordan—and Pippen to a lesser extent—also summoned the will to win even in the most grueling circumstances. Consider Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana. Jordan and Pippen combined for 21 boards, helping the Bulls outrebound a bigger and beefier Indiana team that featured Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, and Rick Smits. Jordan and Pippen controlled the air space around the basket in that desperate Game 7 struggle because they had to do so in order to win. In the same spirit, Jordan played 80 or more games in 11 of his 15 NBA seasons (including as a 39-year-old with Washington in 2002-03). In his second run with the Bulls, Jordan didn’t miss a single game over a 3-year span, despite Chicago playing more contests than any team in the league because they battled deeper into the playoffs than anyone.
Westbrook seems to have the physical toughness to sustain that type of drive—he hasn’t missed a single game in his NBA career. Durant played all 82 games in 2009-2010 and hasn’t missed one yet this year. But the kids have a long way to go in order to enter a real discussion with Jordan and Pippen. There’s winning that first title, of course, something MJ didn’t do until age 27. But the tougher task came in rekindling the fire year after year, game after game, to win another title and then yet another after the Bulls had already reached the apex. “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” as Liam Neeson asks in Batman Begins. That’s the sort of intangible stuff—heart and moral fiber, killer instinct and intestinal fortitude—that we won’t know, can’t know, about these two until Durant and Westbrook get further along the road.
Friday night we’ll see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a moment in time, a snapshot taken amid what may become a pair of epic basketball life stories, intertwined. It’s also a great chance for Jazz fans to see what we’re up against, not just this season, but for years to come.
Get at me on Twitter @JSeaman34_31
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