How Westbrook became the Kanye West of the NBA

How Westbrook became the Kanye West of the NBA

By Ryan Stiver (@ryanMstives)

There have only ever been three, “Oh shit, game-changer” type moments in my entire life:

  • When my current girlfriend led me on a cat-and-mouse game to get her phone number so I could call her again.
  • The moment Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” music video played before basketball practice one morning in 8th grade — on MTV no less!
  • Witnessing Russell Westbrook play basketball.

Now, no one needs to hear the story about how the girlfriend leads me on a wild-goose-chase for ten digits, it is the latter two topics and the parallelism between them that are important. Here it’s, “How Westbrook became the Kanye West of the NBA.”

There, of course, are the easy examples of them both having their own clothing line or being top-five in their respected fields, but there is more than that, these two men are not just talented, rich celebrities — they are enigmas. They are Brodie and Yeezus, singular names that only certain greats can achieve (Prince, Oprah, Cher). They stand alone upon a plateau of greatness that only particular people can achieve.

Like butterflies emerging from a Louis Vuitton-stitched cocoon, the two men burst onto the scene having spent their formative years learning from men perceived to be superior to them at their craft. This time spent in the backseat — the shadows — learning from those around them, prepared them for the journey ahead as they yearned for an opportunity to break through.

Westbrook is full of a braggadocios attitude, a theatrical man, unafraid of his irrationality of being the greatness he strives for. That sounds an awful lot like a young boy from the suburbs of Chicago who once penned, “I found bravery in my bravado.” They both played second-banana to two people considered objectively better (Jay-Z and Durant respectively) before striking out on their own to show how much they’d learned while riding shotgun.

Tidbits here and there were the building blocks of their individual brick road to greatness. Some examples include Common’s “The Food,” or Talib Kweli’s “Get By” remix, (which of course, was produced by West). They were Westbrook’s 2011 and 2012 seasons where he averaged 23 points, five rebounds and four assists per game, following it up with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists the following year.

These were the pods dropped into the earth set to bloom into something magical, something beyond the realm of our understanding of hip-hop or how basketball was to be played. They changed the game. These two men were altering the landscape of the worlds around them with nothing but their own sheer will to succeed on their quest to become the greatest of all time.

We had seen the glimpse of greatness from both men before their masterpieces came to the forefront of the cultural consciousness. Westbrook’s Finals appearance against a strong Miami team was his “Late Registration” moment. It was his leap up and into superstardom that showed the world what he would be capable of as his career progressed. It was the sophomoric attempt that led to a truly unforgettable outcome.

Coming off the loss of that Finals, Westbrook — like West — would ride right on the cusp of G.O.A.T. levels, but never quite reaching that level. Both men driven by pure rage and artistry, an ego that needed to be freed.

In 2010, Kanye would release his magnum opus, the masterpiece upon which the Church of Yeezus was built — the chief cornerstone. If “Late Registration” was Brodie’s Miami Final, then “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is his triple-double season.

Much like West after the now infamous “Swift” incident at the awards show, basketball heads waited with baited breath to see how Westbrook would come back. No one knew for sure what he was going to be capable of, but fans knew it would be special and landscape-changing. That was exactly what happened.

Now we wait to see what happens going forward. Does Brodie go and make his equivalent of “YEEZUS”, the year where he goes full swag-mode entirely relying on his own ability, despite having the resources around to become part of the cultural zeitgeist? Or will Westbrook skip this phase and become more self-aware? Will he realize that his peak has come and now it is time to influence not only those around him but those coming up behind him, much like “The Life of Pablo” did for Kanye?

Does Brodie come into the 2018 season knowing full-well he has hit the pantheon of greatness in the current NBA and decide that it is now time to take a leadership role, to escort a younger generation of players on their own journey or does he decide he still has more in the tank to do it all himself?

No single person or example can answer these questions, we all just know that witnessing the rise of both these men has been nothing short of spectacular. West and Westbrook are a no-holds-barred, do everything with an Oak-sized tree chip on your shoulder and outperform, “because we are the best” mentality. It may not always be true for the both of them — but it sure is amazing to witness.


2017 Trade Season Suns-Specific Thoughts

It’s trade season, which means Suns’ fans want to get rid of anyone on the roster old enough to rent a car. But what should we think about this team? How do we approach trade season?

If you missed my earlier article on understanding the NBA trade season, click the link to check it out and become a more educated NBA fan.

Here we’ll discuss the landscape of this Suns team and how they should proceed with the trade deadline creeping up on us this Thursday (February 23rd at 3:00 pm ET).

Makeup of the Team

Coach Earl Watson’s 2016-2017 Suns’ squad can easily be separated into three distinct age groups:

  • The young’ens- Dragan Bender (19), Derrick Jones Jr. (20), Marquese Chriss (20), Devin Booker (20), Tyler Ulis (21), TJ Warren (23), Alex Len (23), Alan Williams (24)
  • The in-betweeners- Brandon Knight (25), Eric Bledsoe (27)
  • The grizzled vets- P.J. Tucker (31), Jared Dudley (31), Leandro Barbosa (34) and Tyson Chandler (34)

Note: I’m not counting Ronnie Price, who is basically just a coach.

Hmm, I wonder why they are losing? Especially, when their veterans weren’t even really ever close to a top player on any team they’ve been on. It’s certainly difficult to win in the NBA when, not too long ago, 36 percent of your team couldn’t legally drink and only 3 players have more than 6 years of NBA experience under their belt (Dudley, Barbosa, Chandler).

How to rebuild

That just means that this team is in the midst of a rebuild. Every team (maybe the Spurs excluded) goes through this period. The way to get out of a perpetual rebuild is to draft carefully (and get lucky), as well as mold your youngsters into either a part of your core or valuable assets to trade — if they don’t wind up fitting your style of play or timeline.

It’s my philosophy that young teams need veterans to teach them how to play basketball – the right way – teaching them how to win. Helping them understand how to love and embrace the grind and have the proper outlook on playing a professional sport. While the physical maturity of these young players is pretty straight forward, the mental portion of their development is not. It’s an oversimplification to say, “just throw them out there and they’ll get better” throwing out any semblance of nuance, precision or context.

Yes, playing time is a way to get used to the speed and physicality of the pro game, but especially in their rookie year, a lot of the maturity is getting comfortable playing basketball as a career. It’s the travel, handling THAT much money, being yelled at, becoming responsible, and on the court understanding your role and your responsibilities. Those are taught in practice and not wholly while the bright lights are shining.

What is likely to happen and not happen

Fan favorites Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa will probably not be moved (unless they need to be included in a big trade) because general manager Ryan McDonough JUST brought in these prototypical vet presences this offseason to help coach Watson instill his famed “family” culture in the lockeroom.

In the time between the departure of Steve Nash and the emergence of Devin Booker, multiple Dan Majerle hustle-award-winner P.J. Tucker came from overseas to be the heart and soul of several Suns teams. He always got rebounds he shouldn’t have been able to nab, dove for loose balls, developed his shot and vocally led this team. Unfortunately, with T.J. Warren right there on the depth chart, Tucker eating into his minutes, combined with the fact that Warren has the higher ceiling, and that Tucker’s skill set and contract make him the perfect addition to a contender, the chances are high that Tucker will be dealt by the time the trade deadline rolls around.

The same is sort of true of Tyson Chandler. He was brought in for two reasons.

One, he was signed to hopefully seal the LaMarcus Aldridge free agency decision in the summer of 2015. Secondly, he was here in Phoenix to mentor Alex Len in particular, but the entire Suns as well (as one of the only two current Suns’ players to win a title – along with Barbosa who won his ring in 2015 with Golden State).

Chandler can still rebound with the best of them. His 11.4 boards per game put him in a tie for 8th in rebounds, while playing less minutes per game than anyone ahead of him, and his fourth-highest mark in this department during his 16-year career. He can still play decent interior defense and can be the vocal leader and defensive anchor for a team that actually has playoff or championship aspirations.

Both objectives have sort of been accomplished. The Chandler signing nearly sealed the Aldridge free agency, but sometimes you just can’t really compete with the San Antonio Spurs pedigree. Also, he has mentored Len, who is certainly blooming and has that “tap-out” rebounding skill DOWN PAT. Chandler will be a great addition to a team and the Suns will see what they can get back for him – paving the way for Len to bloom even further. The flash we saw from Alan Williams makes this all even easier. We’ll always have Chandler’s thrilling put-back slams to remember him by.

The other player that has been paraded around the league as available to be dealt is Brandon Knight. However, rumors are that he certainly isn’t coveted, but we’ll see when teams get desperate on Thursday. He is currently one of the worst players in the real plus-minus metric that tracks how well a team does when a player is on the floor versus on the bench. It is certainly an eyebrow-raising stat, but not a nail in the coffin for his career.

Knight is a good player, but oftentimes seems to squander a possession when the Suns can least afford it. He has been on the trading block as it seems Phoenix may finally be past the years-long era of the two (or three) point guard system as Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker return the Suns to a traditional backcourt. Knight is playing a decent sixth-man role, but probably wants to be starting – he just can’t and shouldn’t in Phoenix. He’ll find his niche on some team and flourish there. His value is waning, and while on the one hand his skill set is valuable, the tape and the numbers don’t lie. But if McDonough was able to get a first-round pick out of a sandbagging Markieff Morris, he can probably do okay with a smart, hard-working player with the skill set that Knight possesses.

Bledsoe and Len

It’s frustrating to hear others discuss Bledsoe on the same level as any of those previous players like Tucker, Chandler, Knight. He’s better than them. None of them were/ever will be a top three player on a championship team – but Bledsoe definitely could. It doesn’t matter if he “doesn’t fit their timeline” There isn’t some caveat in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement saying that a team is only eligible to win a championship if their 3 best players are all within 4 years of each other, or something like that. Roles change. For a few years, one player is the best while the other two support him, then another player steps up, while another takes a step back. It’s how the NBA works.

If Bledsoe is dealt as the odd-man out of this Suns’ core, he should bring back more than these other players, which is a testament to the wonderful job (in general) GM Ryan McDonough has done as Bledsoe was traded to Phoenix for practically nothing (and actually if you think about it, Jared Dudley is back with Phoenix, so Bledsoe was basically acquired for a second-rounder).

The rest of the players are in the aforementioned young’ens group and are also all on their rookie contracts, so, unless they are filler for some trade that nets the Suns a superstar, they should all be staying in the Valley of the Sun for the time being.

Alex Len is the closest to his rookie contract being up as he is a restricted free agent this upcoming summer. That means that if anyone offers him a contract, the Suns have the ability to match it. With his increasingly aggressive, fluid, and impressive play and the way the salary cap is booming, I’d say he’ll stay in Phoenix.

So, let’s see what happens as the Suns’ trade season heats up.

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NBA Trade Season Primer

We are in the doldrums of the season when some teams have found their rhythm, some have collapsed, players are tired and contenders lose random games to cellar-dwellers. However, as we aren’t yet to the NBA trade deadline… that means it’s NBA trade season!

In this time, speculations are thrown around. Players’ agents and teams alike, leak rumors to boost trade value, while teams are just trying to grind out wins on brutal road back-to-backs, dealing with illnesses, injuries, fatigue, travel and winter weather.

There are some things to keep in mind in this whirlwind of speculation, reports, and the like.

Know terms and how the process works

First of all, know that, in all probability, the big deals won’t happen until those final 20 minutes before the trade deadline, which is February 23rd 3:00 pm ET this year (right after the All-Star break on February 17-19 in New Orleans, Louisiana). There may be some smaller deals that go down in the days prior to the trade deadline, but as the desperation increases as the deadline draws nearer, both sides of negotiations can benefit, so it doesn’t do anyone much good to engage in serious trade talks earlier.

But that won’t stop fans from speculating and trying to rig up ESPN’s trade machine to spit out a trade that nets their favorite team two All-Stars in exchange for a bloated, old contract or two!

Related: there is a significant difference between getting a trade to work in the trade machine and for it to work in real life. Think of trade machine as the bare minimum. It just lets you know if that particular swap is possible or legal, and says nothing if it is probable.

It is important to inject some nuance when you hear reporting around trades and educate yourself so you don’t get your hopes up… or get too depressed when you hear your team may trade for a player that you despise.

For instance, every general manager (GM) or president of basketball operations of every single of the 30 teams HAS to be open to hearing a trade proposal from another GM. It’s just a bad idea to not listen. If they don’t listen, they could miss out on a big opportunity, which would be devastating, especially if that information got leaked outside the organization.

On the flipside, just because something is being reported, doesn’t mean it’s credible – check the source. Ask yourself, is this reporter reliable? Oftentimes, even if you’ve established a reporter as a trustworthy source, they can hear a rumor and pass it along after confirming it and it could quite easily end up being nothing.

If you hear a player “linked” to a team, it could be an agent just leaking that information to up the price on his client in a bidding war. It may not even be blatant lying, just a GM picked up the phone, listened to a pitch on a trade from another GM, then he decided to turn it down, until more information surfaces, they can say that player was linked to that team.

Additionally, understand that many of the trades that happen are ones that were unreported counter-offers to other trades proposals. Also, simply, many of the actual trades that get completed, were just not leaked… which is one factor as to why they got done.

There is a difference between a player being shopped, available, off-limits and actually off-limits.

If a player is being shopped, a GM is calling around saying, “What do you think of this player, is there some scenario where you would trade for him?”

Making a player available means the GM is open to hearing reasonable trade offers for a player. This is normally true for most role players, and not announced too much.

Each team (except for a couple bad ones) have a player or two who are “untouchable” and wouldn’t be traded… or at least that’s how it’s postured. There are really only a handful of players that are truly untouchable with a GM willing to part with anyone in any lower talent tier for one of these elite players at a moments notice. At the top, these transcendently-talented players have slightly different skill sets, and them being on one team versus another is due to personal preference, circumstances, and fit. They won’t change teams as superstars are practically never traded for each other.

Understand your biases

When discussing trades, know that people generally tend to overvalue “their” players and the role they have on the team and undervalue the other players. Players’ value can fluctuate over the course of a season, and aren’t static from team to team (for instance, a high-character veteran on a young team is more highly valued than that same player on a championship contender). Obviously an oversimplification, but the point still stands. Value is relative in the NBA.

How trades work

Really, trades in the NBA are all about relative value, where each franchise is in the hierarchy, and talent evaluation and forecasting. It’s all about finding a win-win arrangement otherwise it’s difficult to get a deal done (unless you’re working with the Kings or the Knicks then try whatever you want).

To create a trade scenario that might actually work you have to take into account many factors. For instance, what assets does “my” team have that the other team’s GM would want? Is the team a contender and needs veteran players? Do you have any? Things like that. Look for the fit.

Typically an NBA team is in one of four phases:

  1. Contender who needs to keep their core while adding role players, and keeping their tax bill down
  2. Sub-contender who needs another fringe star to take them to the next level
  3. Team on the rise who needs time to mature talent, find identity (they want flexibility and assets)
  4. Team who is rebuilding who typically wants players on rookie contracts and lots and lots of draft picks

Just some things to think about as trade season heats up.

Durant Doesn’t Make the Warriors Invincible – Just Reveals Different Problems

Recently, you’ve probably heard the term “smallball” in reference to the NBA. Particularly with Golden State’s recent success — culminating in a record-setting 73-win season — the NBA’s “smallball” revolution has become a talking point in basketball circles as an integral part of their success.

You heard how hard it was for opposing defenses to account for the ethereal shooting of the all-star backcourt of Klay Thompson – and oh by the way  — the reigning MVP Stephen Curry, a generationally superb shooting talent, potentially the best of all time. Alongside Harrison Barnes and substituting former All-star Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut, the fearsome “Death Lineup” was born.

Simply put, the versatility on both sides of the ball that having interchangeable positions (i.e. positionless basketball) afforded the Warriors made them practically unstoppable.

Don’t believe me and think it was all anecdotal? Look at the numbers.

Death Lineup Domination

Golden State’s starting lineup was more than respectable at +13.2 points per 100 possessions, but nothing compared to the Death Lineup’s absolutely ridiculous +44.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Golden State Death Lineup was the third-most utilized rotation over the course of the season, often used to finish off opponents in close games – which were few and far between. The second-most common lineup was injury-related and inserted Brandon Rush in at small forward (Iguodala had missed 17 games, while Barnes missed 16 and came off the bench in seven others).

Clearly, it worked. That lineup would be inserted at times during a game and then – it’s over. Last season if the Warriors got up by 15 points or more, they practically didn’t lose. In fact, that streak even went back 114 games in such instances. If a team let them get up by 15 points, which became a frequent occurrence, they might as well have called the game.

The primary reason the “Death Lineup” works is because of Draymond Green. Despite being 6-7, he’s 230 pounds and is able to defend and rebound with centers taller and larger than he is. Green’s aggressiveness and physicality are why he would be slotted in at the center position as opposed to the slightly taller 6-8 Barnes (who must also be given some credit for defending outside his position occasionally). As the center, Green is also able to drift a bit and play free safety, if you will, since his opponent usually can’t shoot a reliable jumper. That gives Green the ability to help double-team a superstar like LeBron James, or help out at the rim in case an opposing player breaks free of his perimeter defender. Draymond Green is an exceptional type of stretch 4/5, embodying occasional shooting, lateral quickness and physicality on defense — with his playmaking just being the cherry on top. Green is what made Golden State’s famed and feared “Death Lineup” work. That innate flexibility you gain when a collection of your players can switch on defense primarily between the 3, 4 and 5 spots is crucial. Golden State had that with Barnes at the 3, Iguodala at the 4 and Green at the 5. Switch everything!

That’s the beauty and devastation of the Death Lineup — its versatility. Because of Golden State’s defensive aggressiveness and intrinsic physical profiles, they don’t lose any speed or physicality when they switch the pick-and-roll. This helps the Warriors subvert the first couple actions of their opponent’s offense, causing them to panic and make bad decisions or shoot contested shots – the ideal goal of defense at the NBA level.

Enter Kevin Durant.

Enter the former rookie of the year, former MVP, the franchise-altering player with seven all-star games under his belt and more to come. Adding those and a countless assortment of other accolades to his name to an already historic franchise and you have a fearsome squad.

Their starting lineup is probably going to be Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia. Their version of the Death Lineup would simply be replacing Pachulia with Iguodala in a squad that will make the opposition want to leave the arena and get back on the plane.

The Death Lineup that the Warriors roll out there will have five playmakers – that’s SO RARE – including three players with elite range and efficiency from deep for their careers – making them nearly impossible to guard (Curry- 44.4%, Thompson- 45.0%, Durant- 38%).

Basically, they are replacing Barnes (who is a fine player and will get his chance to shine in Dallas) with a taller, heavier player who is a better shooter, playmaker, rebounder and leader. What an upgrade! Just imagine how easy of a time Durant will have with the “gravity” that the unparalleled shooting of Curry and Thompson will have on a defense causing it to crumple like a house of cards – inside a tornado – inside a black hole. It will also make life easier for the Splash Brothers having Durant in the corner or on the wing to kick out to as a release value instead of Barnes.

And on defense, Green can continue to battle down low with the centers, Iguodala can take the best scoring option in the frontcourt, leaving Durant to absolutely overwhelm the remaining (and worst) opposing wing player, play as much help defense as he wants, and save his energy for offense.

Seriously, pretty much one of the three scoring powerhouses is very likely to “go off” each game – maybe even more than one. That’s to say nothing of Green continuing to take advantage as a playmaker and scorer of whichever sub-average defender opposing coaches are coerced into putting on him.

The chances are quite robust that this group could boast the record for both game and season-long splits in net rating by season’s end.

Yet — every team has its Achilles heel. Every team.

Problems for the old Death Lineup

Things changed in the playoffs as the Death Lineup became more necessary and was the most-used lineup, with the starting lineup as a very close second. The Bogut injury during the Finals seems to have pushed the Death Lineup over the starting lineup in terms of frequency of usage. Interestingly, over the entire course of the playoffs, the Death Lineup was -4.3 points per 100 possessions compared to the starting lineup which finished at +6.1 points per 100 possessions.

Part of this was due to the quality of the opponents in the playoffs, Curry being injured during their series against both the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers where the Death Lineup would have dominated and padded their overall playoff stats. The Oklahoma City Thunder were able to overcome Death thanks to their athleticism and length, causing it to not be as effective. The Cavaliers were able to overcome it, basically, based on the sheer determination and talent of James and some other players coming up big in key moments. No matter how much you switch, when James wants to drive and get to the lane, he’s going to. With the Green suspension, Bogut injury and Curry not at full-strength, the Warriors couldn’t hold on to a 3-1 lead as Kyrie Irving delivered big throughout the Finals.

One major liability of the Death Lineup was rebounding. During the season, in terms of offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, they were -1.4 percent worse in both categories per 100 possessions. The starting lineup with a legitimate center was +0.6 in both categories.

For example, the Warriors were going to have trouble in the rebounding department when they faced the number one offensive rebounding team in the 2015-16 regular season. In their matchup with the Thunder (31.1 offensive rebounding percentage), the bigs (Adams and Ibaka) averaged 3.1 and 2.1 offensive rebounds per game — a step up from their averages of 2.7 and 1.8 respectively. Enes Kanter was on his way to doing the same if his horrendous defense hadn’t kept him off the court too much (since these numbers are on a per-game basis). However, the rebounding differential isn’t enough of a deterrent to avoid going small in key spots.

While rebounding seemingly won’t be as much of a problem for the new-look Death Lineup (as the long “6-10” Durant over the course of his career, averages 2.4 more rebounds per game than Barnes), there will be several other issues.

Again favorites, but with different questions

With the new-look Warriors, the hype is real (which is saying something), though they are still reeling from the trophy being clutched from their grasp after a 3-1 lead. In 2015-16, the Warriors relied on their depth to keep fourth quarter leads as the starters laughed and relaxed on the bench. That is no longer going to be a strength to start the year. Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Brandon Rush are all gone. That’s a lot of depth.

Of course Kevin Durant, along with the ancient and ring-chasing David West and Zaza Pachulia are the main additions and some draft picks. The bench will not be as strong or reliable as it was last year, and only time will tell if that will significantly impact the Warriors come April. It shouldn’t affect them much in the regular season as they play many inferior opponents where their superior talent will overwhelm. They should be on track for near 70 wins again.

However, they may need to at times stagger Durant and Iguodala with Curry and Thompson (or some combination) so that the second unit has more playmaking and scoring than just Shaun Livingston.

Another potential issue is chemistry. There seem to be two nuances to chemistry. A more apt term for one side of the coin is cohesion and the question is: will the second unit be able to have enough to be effective. The other, more popular, side is egos. Two MVPs still in their primes – along with two other current all-stars – on the same roster, in fact, in the same lineup. The tension comes as there is only one ball. Is there enough shots? Whose team is it? Even though the players probably don’t care much these questions, they will be swirling, especially if the team falters.

Durant picked Golden State, so he thinks they can make it work. All signs even point to them making it work. But this is the NBA and nothing is certain. For instance, didn’t you think it was a no-brainer and merely a mental exercise prior to June that the Warriors would win the championship?

While the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and how that will play out is one of the most interesting stories of 2016-17, it certainly isn’t a given that it will go well. The severe lack of experienced AND athletic depth is concerning, there are several high-profile players on the same team which can cause issues, and until it works out – it hasn’t.

Introducing Solar Insights

Hello everyone!

My name is Eric Saar and after graduating with honors from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and working as a sportswriter for both FanSided and Basketball Insiders, I’m currently freelancing and have created this site to give my thoughts and analysis on trends around the National Basketball Association with a particular focus on the Phoenix Suns.

This site is my attempt to continue to hone my research, analysis, and prediction skills in the whole NBA realm. Some of you know me and hopefully, you’ll continue to follow my work. For those of you who don’t, I hope you enjoy what you read and hear. To get a feel for my perspective on basketball, check out my Twitter feed at @Eric_Saar.

Check out my articles that will be posted both about the Phoenix Suns specifically, and also some about the NBA in general. The podcast will have a variety of NBA writers stop by and we’ll discuss the topics of the day (pardon the audio quality for the first few episodes).

I really hope you love the site and please spread the word!

Thanks and have a great day!