Tag Archives: Phil Jackson

The Three That Will Never Be: The Legacies of Scott Brooks, Kendrick Perkins, and Derek Fisher

ibaka perkins durant fisher thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.

For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.

What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.

When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Head coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder won 118-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).

He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season.  When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.

Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.

In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.

The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.

Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.

There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.

As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.

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Scott Brooks: It Might Be Time For A Change

scott brooks durant thunder

If you look at the recent history of the game, every great player who has won a championship needed a championship level coach to push him to the promise land. And by great player, I mean the transcendent players of their generation. In recent memory, those players have been Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Each of these players needed to go, not only through adversity, but also through a coaching change before they led a team to the championship. Tim Duncan should also be included in the list, but he has played for the same coach his entire career while racking up 4 titles in the process.

Kevin Durant, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is paving his path towards being a transcendent player. He is on his way to winning his 1st MVP, has won 4 scoring titles before the age of 26, and leads a team that has been a championship contender for the past three season. He has a top 10 player by his side in Russell Westbrook, a versatile big man that can block shots and hit mid range jumpers in Serge Ibaka, and a great 6th man in Reggie Jackson. With all this at Durant’s disposal, why is it that the Thunder are struggling with their first round opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies?

The answers to that question are like pieces of a puzzle. When you analyze everything, you’ll see that many factors are contributing to the Thunder’s struggles in the first round. First off, Memphis is not your run of the mill 7th seed. The Grizzlies struggled out the gate due to Marc Gasol’s knee injury, but finished the season on a 33-13 tear that brought them up to the 7th seed. Without Gasol’s injury, this team probably finishes in the top 5 in the Western Conference. The next factor is that Memphis is built for the playoffs. They are a half-court oriented offense with one of the best defenses the league has to offer. And, their core is playoff-tested and has been together for at least 4 seasons. But these factors are more a microcosm of who the Grizzlies are.

It’s what the Thunder are doing (or not doing) that is affecting them in this series. Oklahoma City is a team that can play a variety of ways, but they’re at their best when they are running in transition and causing havoc in the paint through penetration. But those things tend to get muddled in the playoffs. Teams protect the ball more and defenses make it  a point to protect the paint. Less turnovers means less transition opportunities. More defenders in the paint means less avenues to get to the basket. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Grizzlies are great at two things: protecting the ball and defending the paint.

scott brooks westbrook thunder

But with players as dynamic as Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Jackson, the Thunder should not be struggling as bad as they are in this series. Part of that could be attributed to bad luck as both Durant and Westbrook seem to be in shooting funks. Part of that could be the Grizzlies’ defense, which packs the paint and dares you to beat them with perimeter shots, of which the Thunder aren’t making. But a lot of the Thunder’s problem has to do with scheming (or lack thereof), and that falls squarely on Scott Brooks.

Unfortunately, this has always been the knock on Brooks. The lack of an offensive system rarely rears it’s head for the Thunder, except when the transition faucet is turned off, the paint is packed, and the shots aren’t falling. It’s understandable that you would have an iso-oriented system when your two best players thrive in isolation situations. But it’s also important to have a system in place when the defense keys in on those two players. And that’s what is severely lacking for the Thunder in this series.

It’s almost asinine that Brooks, with the weapons he has at his disposal and the amount of time he’s had those weapons, would never have created a fail-safe offensive system that would play, not only to the strengths of his stars, but also to the strength of the role players around them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN tweeted during Game 3, “Grizzlies know all of OKC’s plays. When the 1st option is taken away the Thunder often just shut down their offense.” If anything, last season should have been a sign that the team needs an offensive system outside of superstar iso-plays. When Westbrook went down, it should have signaled to Brooks that a change was needed in order to prevent what happened in last season’s playoffs. Instead, with Durant and Westbrook both in tow, it seems as if Brooks has defaulted even deeper into superstar isolation mode.

It’s either that, or those two superstars aren’t trusting their teammates, which leads them to take it upon themselves to try and save the day. Whether Brooks is heeding both players to look for teammates more or not, this still goes back to Brooks. If isolation ball isn’t working, get onto your superstars and tell them to run the offense. Oh yeah, I forgot. There is no offense. Ibaka, one of the best release valves in the league and probably the best target for a pick and roll outside of Durant and Westbrook is getting completely frozen out of the offense in the fourth quarter and overtime. Jackson, who up until Game 4, was struggling mightily, was basically benched for games 2 and 3. Brooks could have and should have incorporated those two into the offense even more, especially in Games 2 and 3. Instead, the Grizzlies defenders keyed in on the superstar duo and made it extremely difficult for them to get into their sets, let alone get off a good shot.

durant collison allen gasol randolph grizzlies thunder

The other transcendent players I talked about in the opening had to endure coaching changes that brought about success. Michael Jordan went from Doug Collins to Phil Jackson. Kobe Bryant went from Kurt Rambis to Phil Jackson for his first three championships and from Rudy Tomjanovich to Phil Jackson for his next two championships. LeBron James went from Mike Brown to Erik Spoelstra for his two championships. The one constant between these two coaches is that they had an offensive system to fall back on. They had great players, but also a system that helped them out offensively if the opponent was exclusively targeting the star player. Jackson had the triangle offense and Spoelstra has a system that spaces the floor for James, Wade, and Bosh to operate.

It’s especially frustrating when you compare Brooks to Spoelstra. Both are young coaches in their first head coaching gigs who were basically gift-wrapped super-teams. Spoelstra found a way to develop a system that played to the strengths of all his players. Meanwhile, Brooks is still relying on the greatness of a couple players to get him out of jams. Westbrook and Durant are good enough to win you enough games to stay employed.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Brooks is a bad coach. He’s done a great job in developing the talent OKC was loaded with over the years. He’s done a great job managing egos and developing the culture the Thunder are now known for. But as an X’s and O’s coach, I think Brooks has hit his ceiling. Just like players eventually reach a point where they no longer improve, I think Brooks has gotten to that point with this team. I’ve always said that Brooks is a great coach to lead us to the mountain and maybe even to get us halfway up the mountain, but it will take another coach to get us over the mountain. If Durant and Westbrook are ever to get over the hump, they may have to do it with another coach at the helm. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve experienced too much of Brooks to think otherwise.

Thunder Halftime Report: 2013-14 Edition

durant fisher thunder

Forty one down, forty one more to go. The first half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has played out like a full season. From injuries, to returns, to reinjuries, to MVP pushes, it has been a roll coaster of emotion that has run the gamut. Through it all, the Thunder have found a way to win 31 games and remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Here are 10 thoughts from the first half of the season:

10. The Western Conference is head and shoulders above the Eastern Conference in terms of competitiveness.

The Western Conference features 10 teams at .500 or above, while the Eastern Conference, until recently, only had 3 teams with that same win percentage range. Within the past week, three teams have joined the fray in the Eastern Conference with records of 20-20. The fact still remains, though: there’s an ocean sized gulf in the competitive balance between the two conferences. While Indiana and Miami are the crème de la crème of the EC, the West has at least 6 suitors for the top spot.

I have no doubt the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers will be a great 7-game affair. But the amount of work that both of those teams have to put in to get to that point will pale in comparison to the battles that will be waged in every single round of the Western Conference playoffs. While that makes for a battle tested representative from the West, it also makes for a tired or injured representative that has survived a war of attrition. Something to watch for as we move on.

9. Scott Brooks needs to be considered for Coach of the Year.

Coach of the Year is usually given to the coach whose team unexpectedly excels despite what the prognosticators predicted in the preseason. If that is the case, then this award will come down to a battle between Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns or Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers. When Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have only combined for 3 COY awards between them, you know this is a fresh-face award. And that does not bode well for Brooks’ candidacy.

brooks jackson thunder

But consider this, the Thunder are tied for the 3rd best record in the league, while missing a top-10 player for about half the season so far. When Russell Westbrook was in the line-up, the Thunder had the best record in the league during that stretch. And the Thunder have had to incorporate new young players into the rotation that did not garner heavy minutes last season. The balance and willingness to adapt that Brooks has shown throughout the season makes this his best coaching job to date, and one that I think garners consideration for COY.

8. Serge Ibaka has been the glue that has held this team together.

Through all the changes that have occurred this season, the only constant has been Serge Ibaka. From Westbrook to Reggie Jackson to the young bench’s emergence to Kevin Durant’s dominance, the one factor that usually determines a Thunder victory is how well Ibaka plays. In games in which he has a double double, the Thunder are 14-3. In games where Ibaka scores 16 or more, the Thunder are 16-2.  It’s as simple as this: if Ibaka plays well, the Thunder usually win. And he’s been playing a lot more consistently this season. He’s gotten smarter defensively and is concentrating more on positioning than on chasing every shots that comes into the lane. His play has been solid enough this season to garner a real look at him making the All-Star game.

7. Kendrick Perkins currently has more value to this team than Thabo Sefolosha.

For all the chastising that Kendrick Perkins receives from fans and media members alike, he still has value on this team. Is he probably the worst offensive center in the league (starting or not)? Yes. What takes longer to get off the ground: Kendrick Perkins or an 18 wheeler using a manual jack? Probably Perk. But the experience Perkins has as a post defender is invaluable when the opponent has a player like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, or LaMarcus Aldridge. His knowledge of defensive principles in the post also helps the Thunder out. And, well, he’s a hell of a screen setter. Is he worth $8.7 million (and over $9 million next season)? Of course not, but from team hierarchy perspective, Perkins is the guard dog that patrols the Thunder’s house, on and off the court.

sefolosha perkins thunder

Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s main perimeter defender and the anointed “corner 3” guy. Over the past two seasons, that role has worked out great for Sefolosha. He shot over 40% from 3-point territory and was, without question, the best perimeter defender on the team. This season though, his 3-point shooting percentage is down to 31% and his role as a one-on-one defender has started to decline. Also, the drafting of Andre Roberson and the emergence of Jeremy Lamb have given the Thunder options if Sefolosha leaves via free agency this offseason.

6. The team made the right choice in sticking with Jeremy Lamb. 

Heading into the last offseason, the Thunder’s biggest trade asset was guard Jeremy Lamb. Along with the No. 12 pick, the Thunder could have packaged their young asset to move up in the draft. Instead they kept their pick and chose to stay with Lamb. It has proven to be a wise choice. Lamb has provided valuable perimeter shooting to a team severely lacking it, and has been a great glue guy, providing whatever needs to be provided to win.

5. Steven Adams was made to play for this team.

When the Thunder drafted Adams, I envisioned a year full of trips down I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa for the big man. Instead, Adams is probably in the second tier of rookies vying for Rookie of the Year. He brute physicality and footwork have helped him adjust to the pro game a lot quicker than most expected. He has shown flashes of an offensive game (hook shots, a developing mid-range jumper) and leads the league in PEFG (players ejected from game).

steven adams thunder vince carter

He is developing in this teams’ version of Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman. A guy that who raises the ire of other players, but who also remains as cool as the other side of the pillow. He starting to develop a reputation around the league as a dirty player, but, really, he just plays strong. And this generation of player does not like getting physical.

4. When completely healthy, the Thunder are the deepest team in the league. 

The Thunder are constructed to have a little bit of everything. If you need big men, the Thunder can trot out 4 or 5 that get regular minutes. If you need veteran savvy, the Thunder can give you Nick Collison or Derek Fisher regularly. If you need scoring off the bench, I present to you Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. If you need a jack of all trades, here’s Perry Jones. And that’s without even getting into Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook. The Thunder are loaded when the entire team is available. When the starters sit, the bench has the ability to either chip away at deficits or blow the game wide open. If you want small ball, the team can put out 2 or 3 different combinations that are all very effective.

The point of the James Harden trade was to not only have financial flexibility, but also roster flexibility. Instead of having just one combo guard off the bench, you now have a combo guard, a shooting guard, and a developing big man. More parts for less money is always a win in any business.

3. Point guard is the hardest position to learn in basketball.

Combo guards sometimes have the most difficult job in basketball. A pure point guard has to worry about distributing first, then scoring. But a combo guard has to read the situation and determine whether he should pass or shoot. Sounds like the same situation, but there are two totally different mentalities involved. We saw that with Russell Westbrook, who had all the tools to be a combo guard, but had to neuter that a bit to learn how to be a starting point guard in this league.

jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson is learning how to make that transition. Even though he’s in his 3rd season, this is basically his 2nd season of playing. He was thrown into the fire his rookie season with Eric Maynor’s injury, but got sent back to the bench once the team signed Derek Fisher. In his 2nd season, he shuffled between the end of the bench and Tulsa for the first half of the season before finally being given the reins to the bench in the second half of last season. With the Westbrook injury, Jackson has had to commandeer the first team and has done a commendable job. Is he making mistakes? Yes. But he’s also showing signs of “getting it” and will be a valuable asset for the team moving forward.

2. Russell Westbrook’s health is the single most important factor in the Thunder contending for a championship.

That statement is self-explanatory. I don’t care what Russell Westbrook has to do to stay healthy for the remainder of the season. If he has to take every 3rd game off, let’s do it. If he has to be on the “Tim Duncan/Dwayne Wade” rest regiment, I’m down.  Whatever it takes to get this man healthy and ready for the playoffs. Because if he misses any time in the playoffs, the chances of the Thunder advancing drops dramatically.

Russell Westbrook

The team is able to tread water during the regular season because there a ton of factors that don’t exist in the playoffs. The scouting reports are shorter for regular season games. The travel is more daunting during the regular season, which leads to fatigue. But during the playoffs, when a team has days to scout their opponent and there are no back to backs, this is where the team will need Westbrook. Get well Russ!

1. If it wasn’t for the championship resumè, Durant would be considered the best player in the game. 

It’s funny how the narrative in a 41-game stretch can completely change. When the season started, everyone was wondering whether Paul George would overtake Durant for the No.2 spot in the imaginary player ranking that many media members have. Then, when Lebron James came out the gates shooting over 60% from the field, the MVP award was basically handed to him by most media members. But Durant just kept plugging along, doing what he does. Efficient, ruthless, and calculated.

Then when Westbrook went down again after Christmas, many thought the momentum that the Thunder had built up to that point would come crashing down. Rewind back to last season when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Durant knew he needed to step up, and he did. But, I don’t think he trusted his teammates enough to allow them to do the heavy-lifting. Instead of focusing only on scoring, Durant instead became the de facto point guard, the best rebounder, and the best perimeter defender. In the end, that began to affect his stamina, and he found himself completely winded by the middle of the 4th quarter.

This season, though, Durant has trusted his teammates more and the results have spoken for themselves. Ibaka has started to become an extremely reliable mid-range release valve, and a great partner in the pick and roll. The team is rebounding and defending as a whole better. The bench offers more roster flexibility. And the offense, while still stagnant at times, has enough wrinkles to quickly get out of funks.

durant thunder batum trailblazers

But in the end, it’s all about Durant. And his play in January (37 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.9 apg on 52/39/88 splits) has been one for the ages. While MVP’s are not won in January, Durant is just now learning how to dominate, while not interfering in the game plan. He is doing this all within the flow of the game. It’s scary for the league when Durant is probably a season or two away from reaching his prime.

There’s forty more games to go. The Thunder defeated the Portland Trailblazers in raucous fashion to begin their next 41. The season is still a long ways from being over and many things can happen during that time. But, I, for one, am extremely impressed by what I’m witnessing from this team and what the future holds. Here’s to health and 16 more victories after the season.

Westbrook and The Boost

This past week, Russell Westbrook signed with Jordan Brand, after being with Nike for the first 4 years of his career. While Westbrook has carved out his own following of fans, he’s always been known as Kevin Durant’s sidekick. The Robin to Durant’s Batman. This generation’s ultimate second banana. There hasn’t been a sidekick this good since Scottie Pippen. But, Pippen never received the boost in popularity that Westbrook is about to receive.

What qualifies for a sidekick? A sidekick has to be a rookie or a very young player that is brought in after the primary player is established to specifically fill the needs the team is missing. Another qualification is that the pairing has to be together for 5+ seasons. For example, Scottie Pippen was obtained by the Chicago Bulls in a draft day deal, while already having an established superstar in Michael Jordan. Russell Westbrook was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics (Oklahoma City Thunder) after they already had an established young star in Kevin Durant. Anfernee Hardaway almost made it to great sidekick status, but injuries and Shaquille O’Neal’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers negated that possibility. The Lebron James/Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh mash-up wouldn’t qualify as sidekicks because they were all alpha males on their respective teams before they joined forces. Kobe Bryant and the aforementioned O’Neal made a great duo, but they were brought onto the Lakers the same year and often quibbled over who was the alpha male. 

To understand the road Westbrook is on, it is important to see what happened to Pippen throughout his career. When Pippen first started college at the University of Central Arkansas, he was a 6’1” walk-on that needed to moonlight as the team’s manager to pay his tuition costs. After 3 more collegiate seasons, a 7 inch growth spurt, and consensus All-NAIA player honors, Pippen was drafted with the 5th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft to the Seattle Supersonics (who subsequently traded him to the Chicago Bulls). The scouting report on him read as follows:

  • 7’4” wingspan and a 41” vertical
  • Strong outside, but needs work inside
  • Not bad driving to the hoop, but doesn’t look to drive
  • Good foul shooter
  • Can make a three
  • Terrific passer at that position
  • Won’t give you much of anything on the offensive glass, and is a so-so defensive rebounder
  • Excellent defensively and a disruptive force in the passing lanes
  • Good ball handler, but commits a ton of turnovers
  • Could start on most teams

Not necessarily the sexiest of scouting reports for someone who would eventually become one of the top 50 players in league history. While Pippen built his legacy on defense, he was also an apt offensive player, becoming the archetype for the point forward position. During his prime (1989-1999), Pippen had per game averages of 19.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks. Not necessarily the offensive prowess that Larry Bird possessed, but with a stat line like that, Pippen should have been heralded as his generation’s defensive Larry Bird. Instead, he was teamed up with arguably the greatest player of any generation in Michael Jordan. There usually isn’t a lot of spotlight left when you are playing with the greatest. Ask 100 people who the lead singer of Aerosmith is, and most will answer Steven Tyler. Ask them who the drummer is, and not many will know the answer.

Pippen’s play on the court should have spurred him to more shoe deals, more advertisement contracts, and more widespread popularity. And yet, when his career was all said and done, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Pippen got everything that was owed to him. There were the stories of how Pippen felt he wasn’t getting paid what he deserved (which he wasn’t). There were the rumors that he felt slighted being outside of the limelight, when he provided so much to the team. While he did have his own shoe line (the PIPs) from Nike, they only lasted about two series. So, needless to say, not many companies bought into Scottie Pippen.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault, though. Most of the blame lies squarely on Pippen. He didn’t have the same tact with the media that Jordan did. He was dismissive and defensive at times with reporters. Then there were the crunch time situations. Those critical times in games that live in lore and become mythologized. It’s not that Pippen didn’t perform well during those times. On the contrary, he performed great during crunch time. But he’s instead remembered for the times he quit on his team in the most critical of moments. There was the time he sat out Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons with a migraine headache. The Bulls eventually lost that game. Probably the most damning, though, was the one where he sat out the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot, instead of Pippen. To make matters worse, Kukoc actually hit the game winner. This one was the most damaging because it came at a time when the Bulls were his team due to Jordan’s hiatus into baseball. When you are known to quit on your team during crucial periods, your popularity takes a big hit.

Which brings us to the best sidekick of this generation, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Like Pippen, Westbrook was not highly decorated coming out of college. Like Pippen, Westbrook was drafted by a team that already had a young star in Kevin Durant. Like Pippen, Westbrook is seen as not being very media friendly. Coincidentally, Durant, much like Jordan, is viewed as a media favorite. And, while not by his own doing, Russell was also involved in a critical game snafu, when Thunder coach Scott Brooks sat an ineffective Westbrook for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conferences Finals.

But, not everything is negative when it comes to Pippen and Westbrook. Both of these players are insanely loyal to their teams and teammates. Pippen had a couple opportunities to seek greener pastures during the championship run, but decided to sign for less to stay with the Bulls. Westbrook could have done the same last season, but decided to sign for the allowable max. Both players are highly competitive, with possible chips on their shoulders from being labeled second bananas. Both players are very team oriented, as evidenced by them sacrificing a little of their own games to coexist with two great players. The good severely outweighs the bad when it comes to Westbrook and Pippen, but the bad usually has more advertising power.

Which is why I found the signing of Westbrook to Jordan brand to be a bit ironic. Not ironic in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it. But ironic in the sense that a move like this will probably propel Westbrook into superstar territory, as far as media exposure goes. Into a territory that Scottie Pippen unfortunately never reached. With an endorsement team that includes Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, and Michael Jordan, himself, Russell Westbrook will have plenty of opportunity to expand his brand. He already has a slogan in place (WhyNot?), and already has a following outside of basketball because of his unique fashion sense. In a way, Jordan is helping this generation’s top sidekick become what his sidekick should have become.