Another season is in the books, and the playoffs are a tip off away. Like any season, 2013-14 was defined by good and bad play and terrible refereeing. Though the high points were high, the low points were myriad, which means its probably as good a time as any to try and answer that famous question brought up by Laker legend and NBA logo model Jerry West during an appearance on ESPN's Scott Van Pelt show: Does the NBA suck?
With the exceptions of Miami, Indiana, and Chicago, the Eastern Conference is a boneyard of talent, populated by once-great geriatrics like Paul Pierce and (at just 31) Amar'e Stoudemire, solid role players in starring roles (think: Al Horford), and low-ceiling lottery picks (John Wall). And have you seen the Knicks? As part-time Detroit Piston and full-time zombie Kyle Singler would say: "Grp."
But what about the Western Conference? It has pummeled the East at a historic pace and, over the past ten years, its in-conference competitiveness has remained relatively stable, with a difference of about seven games between a five-seed and the bubble team that doesn't get in. The problem isn't a lack of competition, the problem is that the competition isn't as good as it used to be.
So maybe West is right. Maybe the NBA has a serious deficit in overall ability. And maybe the problem is that these 20-year-olds just aren't ready and the defense is shoddy and the league doesn't let anyone play physical anymore. Here's the thing: Who cares? This year's NBA has more dynamic teams than any season in recent history. The brick-and-mortar dullness of the Malone-Stockton-era Jazz is nowhere to be found and young guns like Steph Curry, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin have all somehow – almost impossibly – gotten a lot better. With a few knotty exceptions, their teams have improved with them and adopted a bit of show-time boldness. There's always a chance that fans will see something that inspires awe and that is the best reason to watch sports in the first place.
Here are six more reasons to watch the playoffs. It's about to get wild.
Russell Westbrook Is a Liability
Since Russell Westbrook put on an Oklahoma City uniform in 2008, there's been a debate: Are Kevin Durant and the Thunder better with or without him in the starting lineup? Westbrook is the boy who refuses to grow up. Now, five years into his career, his shtick has worn thin. This year, with a bum knee limiting him to just 46 games, the debate seems to be resolved. Or in any case, it should be. As Durant grew into his role this year as both a ball handler and scorer, the team went on a 15-2 run as K-Dog took advantage of six more field goal attempts per game. Westbrook was out of the way.
That's not to say Westbrook doesn't have a certain appeal. He's probably the most physically gifted point guard in the league. But his decision-making frequently rivals that of similarly-skilled 13 year-flameout Stephon Marbury, who used to decide before he crossed half court whether he would shoot it himself or pass, regardless of the options the defense presented. Westbrook's second game back, against the Clippers, offered a perfect example of the problems with his play. With three minutes left, the Thunder were up three. Then Westbrook entered the game and started bouncing around the court like a deranged pinball. He clanged an 18-footer to put him at three of 12 shooting for the game. With 35 seconds to go, he fired a three off the far side of the backboard. Durant didn't get another look, and the Thunder ultimately lost by eight.
But it's not just about poor or too-frequent shot attempts. With Westbrook at the helm, the offense itself is moribund for long stretches. Unless he heaves one in the first few seconds of the possession, he'll dribble relentlessly (probably in circles) leaving a helpless Durant shuffling his feet behind the three-point arc. When he eventually flies toward the hoop, fans will wonder if he'll maintain control of himself. Even his assists seem to enforce a collective paralysis: the pointless dribbling routine, narrowly saved by a cross-court that leaves the recipient fighting the shot clock.
Apologists call him "high-energy," but the man is spastic. Other sports flaks, citing his tendencies toward both excellence and ineptitude, reach for "mercurial." The word is "foolish" and no one knows that better than Kevin Durant.
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