Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket against the New Orleans Hornets. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
One of the guys really worth watching this year has been Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook. We knew he had game coming out of UCLA, and he's taken it to the next level in his third NBA season.
In a four-game stretch before the Thunder's loss to the Raptors on Friday, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week averaged 32 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
"He has a competitive spirit that we love," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of Westbrook before the Raptors game last week. "He challenges other teams."
Westbrook became OKC's offensive focal point during NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant's two-game absence last week, and Brooks praises his development. "His leadership skills have improved every year."
That Raptors win over the Durant-less Thunder featured Andrea Bargnani's first double-double of the season - 19 games in.
That said, I was wrong last week when I said the Raptors weren't a legitimate playoff contender. Sometimes you forget just how mediocre the Eastern Conference can be. At 8-13 as of Tuesday, the Raps sat in eighth spot in the East. There's no doubt there have been some minor improvements over last year's squad. Call it a mini-Ewing Theory or call it slightly better defence.
Amir Johnson had one of the best games of his career (22 and 16, a sweet putback jam and only two fouls in 39 minutes!) in a loss against the Knicks on Sunday, and I have to say I am getting into his YouTube videos - they are genuinely funnier than most of the stuff Chris Bosh has cranked out.
The Raptors are still however maddeningly inconsistent. After looking good against the Thunder, they promptly lost to New York and then sleepwalked through most of a game in Indiana.
Do the Heat have it figured out?
Winners of five straight after Monday night, the Miami Heat may have turned a corner - putting the Riley watch on hold until another rough stretch.
Going into "The Return" in Cleveland, many fans were trying to will the Cavs to an upset, but you knew LeBron James is still a player who can deliver a statement game. Maybe I put too much stock in him last spring when I believed he would redeem the hideous Game 5 performance against Boston in Game 6, but let's be honest here: Writing him off, as some have tried to do, was mindless.
His 38-point CeeLo to his hometown will now rank on the ever-growing laundry list of painful Cleveland sports moments.
What's the future for the Hornets?
With news that the NBA will purchase controlling interest of the New Orleans Hornets from George Shinn and operate it until a new buyer can be found, it's impossible not to draw comparisons to when Major League Baseball ran the Montreal Expos. And to borrow a phrase from U.S. politics, that was the definition of a lame-duck session.
What's most galling is the Hornets never should have moved to New Orleans in the first place. Even before the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, it was debatable that the city had the population - and more importantly the economy - to support two professional sports teams.
And Shinn didn't leave Charlotte for the traditional reasons teams move. He had simply become so reviled a figure there that fans stayed away because of the owner. It's still difficult to envision them having a long-term future in the Big Easy.
The Hornets are averaging less than 14,000 fans a game this season, despite a good start and having one of the league's top players in Chris Paul (for now). But it's a city that more than five years later is still recovering from a cataclysm, and where the sports pecking order begins and ends with the Super Bowl champion Saints.
It's hard to figure David Stern and the NBA's logic the last decade. New arena or not, you have to question Stern's total complicity with Clay Bennett in moving the Sonics from a sound market in Seattle to a smaller one in Oklahoma City in 2008. This is a league where it seems many of the players only wish to play in one of six major U.S. cities.
Given that fact, alienating mid-level markets in favour of small ones seems comical. It's clear that the bad taste left in Charlotte's mouth by the Hornets has negatively affected the Bobcats and by pulling out of Seattle the NBA left the basketball-friendly Pacific Northwest underserved. (On an unrelated note, if the NHL is so enamoured with U.S. markets - and if they knew what they were doing - they would find a local to build an arena and put a team in Seattle, given there's some history of hockey there and a gaping hole in the sports landscape, with a natural rival up I-5 in Vancouver. Oddly enough, that reminds me of another money-losing NBA city: Memphis, but I digress).
There aren't however, a ton of relocation options for the Hornets. Vegas is still persona non grata three years after the Tim Donaghy fiasco. Kansas City is an unspectacular possibility. Anaheim would mean a third team in the L.A. area.
Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen did suggest the chance of an intriguing possibility Monday: A second team in Chicago. Then again, Stern threw out the word "contraction" in October, although that was first and foremost a bargaining ploy for upcoming NBA labour armageddon.
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