Chris Broussard is one of ESPN's lead basketball reporters, and he'll be reporting from the Thunder/Pelicans game tonight on ESPN. He was gracious enough to give us some of his time, so we picked his brain about the Thunder and the rest of their Western Conference foes this season.
There's a lot of talk about a changing of the guard for some of the league's best players, specifically guys like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis being tabbed as successors to either the best player (LeBron James) or best at their position (Chris Paul). Do you think the younger stars are already supplanting the established top tier of the league's talent?
Pretty much, yes. I think Steph Curry is the best point guard in the league, so I think he has taken that role over from Chris Paul. I think Russell Westbrook would be the second best, right behind Steph, and some people might even put Westbrook ahead of Steph. I believe that Steph Curry is now challenging LeBron James as the best player in the world.
As of November 18th, we'll stick with LeBron James as the best player in the world. He's probably the only player in the league, along with maybe Kevin Durant, who you can put on any team and they are certainly a playoff team and in most cases they would be a contender. But if Golden State wins another championship, then I think we have to say that Steph Curry is the best player in the world and has passed LeBron James.
Yes, LeBron is a better defender than Steph. But when you look at the best player in the world, you're looking at how they impact the game. It's not just about skill. Shaquille O'Neal was never the most skilled player in the league, but he was the best player in the league for several years because he had the greatest impact on the game. Steph Curry's impact on the game is phenomenal. It's as high right now as LeBron James'.
His shooting ability totally changes everything for the opponent. Combine that with the rest of his offensive ability, and he looks like he's on his way to becoming a historically great player. I'll stick with LeBron as the number one guy right now, but Steph Curry is number 2 in my book and right on LeBron's heels. You might even call him 1a.
If you count the return of Durant, the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, and Rockets all added significant pieces to try and challenge the Warriors this season, who mostly stood pat with their roster. Do you think any of those teams have a realistic shot at stopping the killing machine in Golden State?
I believe Oklahoma City and San Antonio could. The three teams in the West at the top tier are Golden State, OKC, and San Antonio. I would not be surprised if any of those three teams won the West. The Clippers would be a notch below those three. Right now you have to say Golden State is still the favorite.
San Antonio's interesting because they're doing it a little bit differently. About six years ago Gregg Popovich changed the Spurs from being a defensive-oriented team that played through Tim Duncan in the post to more of an offensive-minded team that played off of Tony Parker's dribble penetration to become a terrific three-point shooting team. Now with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, and with Kawhi Leonard becoming their best player, they are going back to being more of a defensive-minded team. Offensively they aren't taking as many threes as they used to, and they're scoring a little more from the post and midrange. They're still effective, though. That's one of the great strengths of Gregg Popovich--he adopts to his roster to win.
Oklahoma City, assuming Kevin Durant gets returns and remains healthy, has a shot to win the West, and even win it all. You've got two legitimate MVP candidates who are top-5 players in the league, and a nice supporting cast around them. They're only 6-5, but Durant has missed several games. They're also still adjusting, not playing the way Billy Donavan wants yet. He wants to move the basketball from side to side a lot more than they are at this point, and they're not where they want to be defensively. I expect to see continued improvement from OKC.
Are any additional moves likely from the West's elite clubs trying to close the gap to Golden State before the trade deadline?
It's still early. As we watch to see what happens over the next month, month and a half, these teams will see what they need to do try to challenge Golden State. If you're the Thunder or the Spurs, you can never have enough three-point shooting, especially the way Golden State lights up the scoreboard. Defensively, both teams are solid, both teams are big, so shooting is the only additions they'll look for.
College coaches jumping into NBA head gigs don't have a high success rate historically, but the Bulls and Thunder have entrusted their contenders with Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donavan (and the Thunder were interested in Kevin Ollie before that). Do you see a trend in organizations being more open to these hires, and aside from better rosters, do you think Hoiberg or Donavan have any qualities that will help them buck the trend and coach their teams deep into the playoffs or even to a title?
The trend started changing with Brad Stevens in Boston. He was the first coach recently to come from college and have success. I think all three of these guys received benefits that should help them have success. Stevens doesn't have the roster that the other two have, but he got security with a long-term deal. With that security and less pressure, he's proven to be a very good coach.
Hoiberg knows the NBA very well. He was a player, and worked in the front office in the NBA, so I think that helps him. A lot of college coaches that made the jump—Lon Kruger, Mike Montgomery, guys like that—didn't play in the league or have experience in the league like Hoiberg.
For Billy Donavan, he's certainly got the support of his front office and, like you said, a tremendous roster. Now, it's a tough situation for both of them because they have to have a lot of success. If Donavan doesn't get at least to the conference finals, and some people might say the Finals, that might be deemed a failure. If you don't get to the conference finals and play a tough six or seven games, it could be viewed as a failure, and that's on the low end of expectations.
For Chicago, you have to get at least to the conference finals. Nobody necessarily expects them to beat Cleveland, but they are expected to beat the Milwaukees, the Detroits, the Washingtons, the Indianas, all of these other teams in the tier below Cleveland in the East.
What we call success for those two coaches is relative. Winning 55 games and going to the second round is not a success for Hoiberg or Donavan. They have to go deep. That's going to be a tough chore for both of them, and we'll have to wait and see how far they end up before deciding whether they had a successful season.
Kevin McHale was just fired in Houston with a Western Conference Finals appearance being undercut by a slow regular season start. Some coaches survive through the pressure of important seasons that get off to a shaky start, like David Blatt did in Cleveland last year. You mentioned that Donavan has the support of the Thunder front office—will he keep that much leeway if the Thunder keep struggling?
I don't think a firing will happen because I don't think the team will really struggle badly. Oklahoma City is not bothered by the 6-5 start. They've had the injury to Kevin Durant, and they’re adjusting to the new system with Billy Donavan. If at the All-Star Break they're just slightly above .500, you'll have a problem, because they do have to worry about Kevin Durant possibly leaving [in free agency this summer], beyond just competing for a championship this year. I don't expect it to be the case, but if teams struggle that badly, that's when the coaching seats get a bit hot. It's very rare in the NBA that you see a coach fired in his first year, so I think it would take something largely unrealistic for Donavan or Hoiberg not make it through the season. The star players would have to turn on them and just insist that he's not the guy for their team, or the team would have to play really poorly and be around .500 or worse at the All-Star break for a firing to even be considered.