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Russell Westbrook: The Art of War

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“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art Of War

When Kevin Durant announced to the globe that he was turning his back on the only franchise he’d known, the speculation began immediately. The question was not if, but when Russell Westbrook would follow — either Thunder general manager Sam Presti would move the five time all star for whatever he could, or Oklahoma would wave goodbye to the last of its relevance when Russell headed off for greener pastures of free agency in 2018.

But Russell Westbrook, as he’s done his whole career, shocked the world. Exactly a month after Durant’s infamous Player’s Tribune article, here was Westbrook, beaming from ear-to-ear, signing up for two more years in Thunder blue and white.

In the darkest hour of the transplanted franchise, Westbrook was the rock, the hope that fans could cling to. It was widely thought that while Durant was Oklahoma City’s best player, it was Westbrook that was the heart and soul of the team; the very thought of losing both was too much to bear.

Loyalty is something I stand by,” explained Westbrook after signing the extension, the inference pounding loud and clear.

And even those who weren’t Thunder fans, the thought of Westbrook, angry and unfettered, rampaging across the league was a decadent delight. We’d seen his onslaught while Durant was sidelined two years ago; what dizzying heights would the combustible guard touch this season?

“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.” ~ Sun Tzu

By the fourth game of the season, the league was already on notice: Westbrook overpowered the Phoenix Suns with a 51 point triple double; more insane than the 51-13-10 was the 44 shots it took Russ to get there.

Who the hell takes 44 shots?

How the hell can you get your mind around a 50 point triple double?

Russell Westbrook did. Never before has the league seen anything like him.

And now here he is, fourth quarter, staring down the mighty Clippers. Los Angeles were a well oiled machine; the Thunder a cadre of mismatched parts. But as the game winds down, Westbrook turns up: he drains jumper after cold-blooded pull up jumper in the final minutes to snatch a victory in Los Angeles. His final line is a microcosm: his 35 points led all scorers, but he jacked up seven threes, missing them all. Every one of his 6 rebounds and 5 assists were vital, just as his many of his 10 turnovers were the result of cringe inducing gaffes. But the Thunder won, running their record to 4-0.

Westbrook was the lone commander, and the Thunder faithful needed him to win, so they won.

Welcome to the Westbrook experience.

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” ~ Sun Tzu

The scowl hasn’t left his brow.

It’s never easy, right?

6-1 became 8-6. The cheers turn to murmurs. The feel good story became a somber reality.

Doesn’t make anyone better.

Not a true point guard.

Too wild.

Look at his efficiency.

For the past eight years, Westbrook has absorbed the slings and arrows from critics. This year, it’s no different.

But it IS different.

It’s no secret that OKC had its problems late in games last year; as the head of the snake, Westbrook took the brunt of the criticism. This season, he’s flipped that trend. Through 19 games, Westbrook is leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 10, pouring in a full third of his 31 points per game in the final frame. And while the first 36 minutes of the game are a mystery box (he’s a 43.5% shooter for his career, making a paltry 30.3% from downtown), he’s been locked in during winning time: Westbrook is shooting 47%, including 40.5% from three.

But it’s more than just numbers. It’s the roar from the throat of the Chesapeake Energy Arena when he bulls through the lane and finishes over a seven footer. It’s the crackling energy that builds as he rockets down court, a one man fast break, attacking the rim with blood in his eye and bad intentions. It’s the thrill of knowing he can clank three pointers all night, but have the guts to stare down his defender and drill their soul out as the clock winds down, as he did against the Wizards and again versus the Hawks.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” ~ Sun Tzu

8-6 has become 14-8, and game by game, the growth of players like Victor Oladipo and Joffrey Lauvergne is readily apparent. A mark of a contender is a top 10 offense and defense; over the last 10 games, the Thunder stand 10th in offensive rating (107.1) and 9th in defensive rating (102.9). It’d be foolish to label this year’s team as contenders, but simply fitting that profile has to be a point of pride for OKC.

In the age of analytics, where player tracking data and shot charts can break the game down to the millisecond, Westbrook’s voraciously high octane, high volume style is an anachronism, a blur of an homage to Iverson and Kobe with the fro. No one else plays so hard, so fast, so relentlessly. Westbrook is first or second in the league in shots per game, turnovers, assists, free throw attempts, assist percentage, player efficiency, and, of course, triple doubles. The 6’4” point guard is 7th in total rebounds, grabbing more per game than Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Demarcus Cousins.

Hmmmm.

Can he maintain this breakneck pace? Will Westbrook’s body stand up to the punishment of 82 games? History says no, that no mere mortal can push their engine into the red non-stop without consequence. The enormity of the numbers Westbrook puts up nightly — 31 points, 10.9 rebounds, 11 assists, 5.6 turnovers — would be ESPN headline worthy for anyone else in the league for one game. The fact that he’s doing it nightly is hard to wrap one’s head around.

But watch Westbrook catapult himself skyward and rip a rebound away from Porzingis, or hear the roar as he detonates to the rim with a game-winning left handed dunk, and you start to wonder if he actually IS human.

The flaws don’t hide from plain sight. He’ll routinely take quick jumpers early in the shot clock, or wild forays in the paint that don’t have a prayer, and you’ll wonder what kind of synaptic misfire could lead to such decisions. And some of his turnovers are similarly terribly; while the depth of turnovers isn’t necessarily egregious in light of his enormous usage

But for every bad shot, there’s a handful of uproarious slams or jaw-dropping how did he even finishes through contact. For every pass to the third row, there are laser accurate dimes to his roll man or cross court masterpieces to his shooters. If Steph Curry is a surgeon and Chris Paul is a technician, then Russell Westbrook is a performing artist whose medium is hand grenades and sledgehammers; he’s a contradiction of moving imagery that you either feel in your soul or you just don’t get.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, everything changed on July 4th, 2016. The contender they had spent years honing was now a hardwood memory. James Harden, then Serge Ibaka, then finally, Kevin Durant. One by one, the stars winked out in Oklahoma. Yet, there’s Westbrook, the fiery sun god of the OKC universe, his kinetically charged gravity keeping his squad in orbit, the lone ronin with a homestead worth fighting for.

Trini born, South Carolina raised, James cut the teeth of his NBA fandom on smash-mouth '90s basketball and the brilliance of Sir Michael Jordan. Holas has lived all over the world, from Okinawa, Japan to Cornwall, England, but the fire inside for the NBA has never wavered. He reps the Celtics, but keeps tabs on all 30 teams faithfully. Give James a listen on his sodium-laced podcast The Away Team.

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Editorial

Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Featured Content

Editorial5 months ago

Something Out of Nothing

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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MELO-dy Cool

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