In between marveling at Russell Westbrook's MVP candidacy and the Oklahoma City Thunder's enduring dalliance with relevance following Kevin Durant's departure, we should probably find some time to worry about the team's future.
Because it's hazy, at best.
The Thunder's 126-121 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night was a billboard for all that's right and wrong, for all that is and will never be.
On the one hand, Westbrook dropped 58 points on 39 shots to go with nine assists, and Oklahoma City lost. On the other, Westbrook dropped a career-high 58 points. The Thunder are still six games over .500 and playoff-bound mere months after losing a top-five player for nothing.
This, in a nutshell, is Westbrook's MVP case. And it's seldom presented in a gray area. You're either floored by his value to Oklahoma City and quest to average a triple-double, or you're downplaying his candidacy to prop up James Harden, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.
Westbrook has no trouble keeping pace with his perceived peers when the measure is strictly limited to his importance to the Thunder. They go from being plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions with him to minus-11.5 without him—a 14.2-point swing in the wrong direction that stands out among the NBA's top 10 MVP hopefuls, as determined by Basketball Reference's Maurice Podoloff Trophy tracker:
|Net Rating Differential for Top MVP Candidates|
|Player||Team Net Rating With||Team Net Rating Without||Difference|
Stephen Curry—which, wow—and James are the only ones who dwarf Westbrook's on-off value. That matters. It's not everything, but it matters.
It was Oklahoma City's stints without Westbrook that helped Portland win Tuesday's game:
Westbrook's shot totals and usage are at times hysterically high. He goes through protracted stretches of poor decision-making. He settles for bad looks early in the shot clock when there could be better ones available later. He missed two key attempts on one possession late in Tuesday's fourth quarter.
He is not perfect.
But he is everything to the Thunder.
And that's perfectly fine right now—a borderline feel-good story under the circumstances. But it won't be long before this changes and reality sets in.
The Thunder have fallen to seventh place in the Western Conference, putting them on course for a first-round date with the San Antonio Spurs—a series they have no chance of winning. There's time to make up the one-game gap separating them from the sixth-place Memphis Grizzlies, but anything more is out of the question.
That No. 6 seed might even be out of reach. Oklahoma City's next two games come versus San Antonio and the Utah Jazz. A one-game deficit could become three with 16 left to play by March 14's matchup at the Brooklyn Nets.
On top of all this, Westbrook, in all likelihood, won't be crowned MVP. Historically, winning impacts the results, and the Thunder aren't good enough. Only one of the 37 MVPs in the three-point era (Moses Malone of the 1981-82 Houston Rockets) played for a team that won less than 60 percent of its games. Oklahoma City is on track for 45 victories—respectable, sure, but Westbrook would still hail from the squad with the lowest winning percentage of this bunch.
Whatever, though, right? You live with 45 wins and a first-round exit after losing Durant. You embrace it. But then you start to wonder about what comes next, about where you go from here.
There is no clear path toward noticeable improvement. The Thunder have more than $111.5 million in guaranteed commitments for 2017-18 if, as expected, they exercise Jerami Grant's team option. Cap holds on Taj Gibson ($13.4 million), Andre Roberson ($5.5 million) and this year's first-round pick (estimated $1.5 million) carry that number well past $130 million, and blow by next season's projected $122 million luxury tax.
This, mind you, is before Gibson and Roberson (restricted) put pen to paper on new deals. The latter's contract alone will force the bottom line to balloon even more.
How do you justify going that deep into the tax for what is, as of now, the No. 7 seed? Especially when Westbrook's own future (player option for 2018-19) is kind of, sort of up in the air?
Some combination of Roberson, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott and Domantas Sabonis will improve. Maybe Oklahoma City hits on Alex Abrines and this June's first-rounder. Enes Kanter's mammoth deal can be dumped if Gibson proves to be cheaper or Sabonis renders him expendable.
A lot of things can happen. But the Thunder are getting an impossibly good version of Westbrook now, and their ceiling is the roof maybe sixth place in the West.
And so, they're left to grapple with something more concerning than Westbrook's MVP chase: a future uncomfortably similar, if not identical, to the present.
Dirk Is Immortal
The Dallas Mavericks slammed the Los Angeles Lakers, 122-111. They have won five of their last six games. They are two games back of the West's final playoff spot. The Denver Nuggets should be worried. Blah, blah, blah.
Dirk Nowitzki is now a member of the 30,000-point club. Nothing else matters—particularly when he made history with a classic fadeaway(ish) shot:
Full-grown adults cried:
Beers were opened:
The national debt may have been wiped clean. I don't know. This moment was that life-changing.
Nowitzki was on fire from the jump. He scored the Mavericks' first eight points and drilled his first six shots, pumping in 18 points in the first quarter alone. He needed just 20 points to reach the milestone, but he finished with 25—on 9-of-13 shooting, no less—because he is freaking Dirk.
As it turns out, the company he now keeps is pretty good:
The fifth-place Wilt Chamberlain isn't safe. His lead is 1,414 points, and Nowitzki is going to play next season, because he has to, because he's immortal, because no one who has been this good for this long can be anything else.
Fifth place, here he comes.
Phew! Phoenix Avoids a Scare
Someone must have shown the final score of the Mavericks-Lakers game to the Phoenix Suns. They erased a 22-point lead, jumped ahead by 11, but then ended up losing by four.
The tank is safe.
Every loss matters, even if the Suns are content to defer the bottom-two records to the Brooklyn Nets and Lakers. They have the league's third-worst mark now, but less than three games stand between them and the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. Both the Sacramento Kings (4.5 games ahead) and New York Knicks (five games ahead) are wild cards as well, because they're the Kings and the Knicks.
Washington, meanwhile, is now within one game of the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed—a big deal with the second-place Boston Celtics forever banged up.
John Wall (25 points, 14 assists) and Bradley Beal (27 points) were heroes Tuesday night, but they weren't the only ones. The Wizards received huge contributions from second-stringers Bojan Bogdanovic (29 points) and...wait for it...keep waiting...almost there...Ian Mahinmi (15 points, nine rebounds, seven steals).
We haven't even reached the biggest developments from this one.
Two new rivalries were born in Phoenix. There was 5'10" Tyler Ulis vs. 7'0" Jason Smith:
And then there was the Suns Gorilla vs. Random Loose Item:
Tuesday's Final Scores
- Trails Blazers 126, Thunder 121
- Mavericks 122, Lakers 111
- Wizards 131, Suns 127
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on March 8. Team salary information via Basketball Insiders. Draft-pick commitments and additional salary information from RealGM.