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Offseason Whiteboard: Why Popularity Outshines Sam Presti, The Bill Simmons Effect, & The Media's Eye for Houston

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The Rockets are contenders while the Thunder took a huge gamble. Or so the narrative goes...

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https://www.si.com/nba/2016/10/21/houston-rockets-james-harden-mike-dantoni-nba-preview

This summer has been a complete madhouse for the NBA, and if you stay off Twitter for more than 30 minutes, you are guaranteed to miss something significant. I feel as if I’m walking through an eerie “hall of mirrors” at a summer NBA amusement park, and inside each mirror are the apparitions of outlandish scenarios that are starting to materialize right in from of me and transform from irrational to genuine.

Two of the largest shock waves or apparitions I saw come to life in the league involved two teams in the west with a checkered past—the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Days before free agency was set to begin, Daryl Morey sent Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and a 2018 1st round pick to the LA Clippers for Chris Paul. Sam Presti sent Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Paul George. Although I’ll argue Sam’s move was better, both are game changers. Sam Presti and Daryl Morey see Golden State on top of a mountain with an abundance of gold and trophies, but both chose to unsheathe their swords and aim to climb the mountain and challenge them—not stay content.

These two teams setting their aim at Golden State have a deep rooted history. The Harden Trade, Sam Presti vs. Daryl Morey GM debate (ESPN ranked Morey 4th and Presti 9th this year), The Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook incident in the 2013 playoffs (which for perspective was the ONLY year OKC won 60 games), (stat padding) Russell Westbrook vs. (analytical Picasso) James Harden MVP race, and the 2017 playoffs when Houston beat the Thunder 4-1. I’m sure after this season there will be another data point to enter into this list of conflicts, because I believe OKC and Houston are heading for a collision course for the number two seed in the western conference, and unlike everyone else I believe the Thunder will outperform Houston.

Although both teams have been exceedingly active this off season in adding new talent and shipping off previous players from their rosters, the common tongue spoken throughout the league is that Houston is still the superior team, and maybe if things turn right for the Thunder they could get as high as the fourth seed. Downplaying Oklahoma City is an aspect of the Thunder franchise that I believe most fans have grown accustom too, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever detailed why Houston and Daryl Morey, a franchise that hasn’t accomplished as much as the Thunder, is getting the benefit of the doubt over Sam Presti and the Thunder. I have a few theories as to why this belief is so prevalent amongst media members and fans.

Most commentators and media members are defaulting to Houston as the second or third seed in the west or discussing them within top five teams in the league, which may not be unfair or untrue, but they never seem to seriously mention the new combo in the west—Russell Westbrook and Paul George—which I believe has more to do with off the court influences than strictly their rosters and product on the floor. So why do most people think Morey is the better general manager and that Houston is better assembled than the Thunder?

In my opinion, the Houston partisanship starts and ends with the vast difference between Sam Presti and Daryl Morey’s approach to basketball and the media.

Let’s avoid kicking the can down the street, pick it up, and crush it with both feet; Thunder fans have a distaste for the Houston Rockets—which all commenced with the Harden Trade on October 28th 2012. At this point, it’s in our blood, and there are a multitude of reasons for it. Although a part of us hold this against James Harden, Daryl Morey, and the Houston Rockets, the media still holds it over Sam’s head, and it will forever be lodged within the back of their minds. I still don’t think Bill Simmons has the capability to talk about OKC without bringing it up—even five years later.

After years of being in basketball limbo, Daryl Morey’s acquisition of James Harden put the Rockets back on the map and Thunder fans will permanently hold that subconscious prejudice against the franchise and their analytical leader—mostly for that reason. Our loss was their gain. It will forever be a footnote in the history of the Thunder inked in red, most likely by Bill Simmons with a large sharpie marker, unless Presti is able to bring a championship to OKC. Maybe then, and only then, he will be able to transcend his greatest mistake and he won’t be known as the guy who traded James Harden.

Almost everyone in the league associates Sam Presti as a great GM in the NBA, but there will always be that stain on his resume, whereas, Morey has never made a mistake of that magnitude but hasn’t had the collection of success and needle moving moves Presti has on his resume. Sam also operates in the third smallest NBA market that does not have the ability to attract free agents, whereas Morey is operating within a top 10 market with no state income tax. The proverbial “downfall” of Sam Presti came at the expense of the “amplification” of Daryl Morey. Bill Simmons won’t forget it, and he most certainly won’t allow his audience to forget either. So why is everyone giving Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets the credit of having a better team and winning the off season? I've got a few off court theories.

The Bill Simmons Effect

Everyone knows Bill Simmons, and whether you agree or disagree with his “sports fan point of view" analysis style, hot NBA takes with pop culture references blended in, or his obvious Boston fandom, he is one of the largest voices in the commentary of NBA basketball. One simple way to illustrate my point other than going into depth about Grantland, ESPN podcasts, 30 for 30, NBA Countdown, and The Ringer is to point out Bill has 5.9M followers on Twitter. Need a comparison? Zach Lowe has 561K. Tom Haberstroh? 144K. Marc Stein? 1.1M. Russell Westbrook? 4.5M. Hell, Steven A. Smith only has 3.5M followers. I think you get my point, and whether you think he's fair or outlandish, his reach is enormous, and he has consistently had a bone to pick with Oklahoma City and Sam Presti. It would take a lot of positive Zach Lowe tweets to reach the viewership of one Bill Simmons’ tweet poking fun of the Thunder.

The bone to pick with Oklahoma City is deep rooted and all started the day Clay Bennett moved the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City. It was just recently that I was listening to one of Bill’s podcasts and he admitted that he was still bitter about Seattle not having a franchise and that he took it very hard when it happened. He even laughed and chuckled about how it might influence the way he views Oklahoma City. Trust me, Bill we know. This is from an ESPN article in 2008,

Here's why the Seattle situation should matter to everyone who cares about sports: After being part of the city for 41 years, the Sonics are being stolen away for dubious reasons while every NBA owner and executive allows it to happen, including David Stern, the guy who's supposed to be policing this stuff. I think it's reprehensible to watch someone hijack a franchise away from the people who cared about the team and loved it and nurtured it through the years. It belittles not just the good people of Seattle, but everyone who loves sports and believes it provides a unique and valuable connection for a city, a community, family members and friends.

Honestly, there is nothing wrong with this quote, but Oklahoma City fans need to remember that Simmons still to this day views the Thunder as the team that stole a franchise away from the people of Seattle, and more than likely always will.

What could be the opposite of a general manager that traded James Harden, hasn’t made numerous appearances on Bill’s podcast, and works for the owner that moved the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City? How about a general manager that got his start with the NBA working for the Boston Celtics. Ding, Ding, Ding... That sounds like a winner for Bill.

Daryl Morey began his stint in the NBA working in SVP Operations developing analytical methods to enhance basketball decisions involved in the draft, trades, and free agency for the Boston Celtics. A quick reminder that shouldn’t need to be mentioned, but Bill Simmons bleeds green, and the the words "unbiased" and "Celtics" do not exist together in the life of Bill Simmons. Morey has made numerous appearances on The Grantland Basketball Hour and the Bill Simmons Podcast—which to Bill’s credit, in the new analytical NBA landscape, that is a great guest to befriend and have in your back pocket. Bill speaks highly of Daryl and his basketball analytics, and brings him onto the podcast to let his millions of listeners soak in Morey and his revolutionary ideas on basketball on a national stage. Once again, what is the polar opposite?

Every time Oklahoma City is mentioned on his podcast, he brings up the Harden trade on cue, to repeatedly point out Presti’s largest flaw to his millions of listeners—even five years later. I think that there is a large differential on the way Morey and Sam Presti are portrayed according to Bill Simmons, and with one of the largest reaches in basketball pop culture this will most certainly have an impact and color the way NBA fans and media view the two GM’s and their franchises.

Just this week on episode 251 of the Bill Simmons Podcast, while discussing the status of David Griffin as a GM, Bill had this to say—which I think clearly illustrates my point on how popularity can move the needle on people’s expectations, opinions, and ranking of general managers’s and players.

“Why do we think he was such a great GM? I honestly want to know. I don’t understand it.”

“It bothers me, It’s a little like the “Doc Rivers was a great coach narrative.” That somehow unfolded, and we saw what happened with the Clippers over the last few years where Doc Rivers isn’t a great coach—he’s fine, he’s okay. But it was like, “Doc Rivers is a great coach,” and people were saying that because, you know, a lot of media members love Doc Rivers and he was friends with a lot of people and that gets pushed and pushed and pushed.”

I honestly believe that Bill Simmons, The TruHoop Podcast, Zach Lowe, and the Sloan MIT conference have been pushing, pushing, pushing Daryl Morey; whereas, if Sam Presti agreed to go onto Bill Simmons’ podcast as much as Morey, I think Bill would lay to bed some of the Harden trade comments, which in turn would cause that subconscious "Harden Trade" stain to Presti’s name to start to dissipate out of his audience as well. There is also another important aspect of determining popularity in the NBA landscape—social media.

Houston & Morey’s Twitter Feed & the MVP Debate

This season’s MVP race was incredible, but also exhausting. Russell Westbrook eventually won the award in a voting landslide, but for much of the season it didn’t look as if it would turn out that way. The most frustrating aspect of the entire ordeal for Thunder fans was the analytical corner, most of which were subscribers to the Morey basketball handbook, who spent the entire season throwing stones at Westbrook. It always seemed to correlate that the largest Westbrook critics fall in line with the fascination of advanced stats and always speak very highly of Daryl Morey.

With Russell Westbrook there will always be a "Yeah, but..."

There's a new analytical society in the NBA now, which to Morey’s credit is largely based on his discovery and ideas of looking at the game of basketball, and this close knit society does not have a favorable opinion of our King of the Prairie — Russell Westbrook. The anti-Westbrook crowd in 2017 lives in advance stats. Have you ever heard someone critique Russell's true shooting percentage? Yeah, Daryl Morey invented that statistic.

*By the Way, Bill Simmons voted for James Harden

Daryl Morey was very active in campaigning for his superstar to win the award this year, and many times took shots at Westbrook in order to promote James Harden.

*By the way Pt. 2, Sam Presti doesn't have a Twitter account.

One of the large critiques on Westbrook this season was that his triple-doubles were just an arbitrary collection of numbers, and he was just stat padding rebounds in order to unlock this unbreakable record. Tom Haberstroh created a TruHoop video breaking down this idea. If you have never seen it, I would recommend you just continue to live your life and avoid Tom all together. Morey didn’t hesitate to pile on to the idea of the Russell rebound theory with this tweet:

The narrative surrounding the total number of wins an MVP candidate should have was also the heavy talk of discussion for Morey on Twitter.

Oh, and don’t forget the shot the Houston Rockets twitter account put out directly following a head to head match up with OKC in March. Following the game, the Rockets trolled Westbrook and the Thunder’s season record, putting out a parody of the cover of Drake’s latest album, “More Life.“ They quickly pilled on to the idea that "triple-doubles are just a number." Daryl, I'm pretty sure true shooting percentage is just as number as well.

Although not many people would admit it, I believe having your GM and Team twitter accounts take shots at an opposing player has a positive effect on a majority of NBA fans. We live in an age where social media dominates the popularity of almost everything—look at the country elected President of the United States. So when we have the Houston or Oklahoma City Thunder debate for popularity in the mind of media members who make their predictions, podcasts, and written word, I believe the lack of Presti's availability and the franchises prevalence on social media causes them to automatically fall second in line behind Houston. Out of sight, out of mind—right? Which brings us to the basketball court, where over the years OKC has consistently proven they are one of the top teams in the NBA, and I believe this year their on court play will push them past the popular Houston Rockets. How do the two teams match up?

On Court: Thunder vs. Houston for the 2017-18 Season

In the west, OKC, Houston, and Minnesota all made a common move this offseason—they traded for superstars in an attempt to take the next step this upcoming season. It's us against those guys in Oakland, and the league isn't backing down. The most recent development that caused me to pick up my old habit of slandering Houston uncontrollably is the chatter around the league that Houston is still a better team than Oklahoma City with all the off season acquisitions considered. I'm here to make a few small points as to why that is incorrect.

We have a very recent sample size to serve as the starting point in this comparison—the 2017 playoffs. The first round series between the two MVP candidates showed us the greatest strength of each team. OKC's was Russell Westbrook, and Houston's was...their second unit. It was a series that the Thunder controlled for a majority of the games, but fell apart every time Russell would go to the bench, especially before the start of the fourth quarter. I think this tweet illustrates this series in a nutshell.

What happened? Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Nene happened. In game two, the two 6th man candidates combined for 43 points—mostly coming once OKC's starters hit the bench. Russell's second leading scorer was Andre Roberson with 12 points—OKC only lost by four points. OKC won game three, but how did Game four shake out?

Houston only brought three players off the bench: respectively, their point production was Nene-28, Gordon-18, and Williams-18, combining for a total of 64 points. Russell's second leading scorer? Steven Adams with 18 points—Thunder only lost by four again.

Lou Williams was in the building for game five as well—totaling 22 points off the bench while combating the Thunder’s second leading scorer Jerami Grant's 11 points with a minus 24 net rating. OKC lost by 6 points.

To deal directly with this deficiency, OKC made steps to help stabilize the second unit by bringing in Raymond Felton to help organize and facilitate the Thunder's second unit depth in Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott, and Enes Kanter. Just by adding Felton to replace Semaj and Houston moving on from Lou Williams, Those on/off numbers for Russell Westbrook should drastically improve.

First order of business, Let's all have a loud round of applause for Daryl Morey trading Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley.

Look, I understand this move landed them Chris Paul, but at the same time those two guys had huge impacts in the first round series between Houston and OKC last season. Although Chris Paul is a seven time member of the NBA's first team all defense, Patrick Beverley gives Russell Westbrook massive problems, and is hands down the best Russell defender in the league. According to ESPN stats and info,

“In the five games, Westbrook averaged a triple-double: 37.4 points, 10.8 assists and 11.6 rebounds. But against Beverley, Westbrook was a mere mortal. He shot 7-for-27 with five turnovers for 27 points in the series. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Beverley guarded Westbrook for 38 half-court plays and held him to 0.71 points per play.”

Yes, that is correct, Russell shot 21% from the field when Patrick Beverley was guarding him—41% with anyone else in a Rockets uniform. When it comes to dealing with Russell Westbrook, Houston will miss their first team all defense point guard.

As for the other first team all defense guy, he has shown in large moments that he is not up to the task.

Once again, CP3 has a history of being a pesky defender, but Beverley’s approach has always been detrimental to Westbrook specifically. He gets under his skin and irritates him. CP3 is more traditional in his defensive approach, and often allows more space. CP3 is also another year older—he will turn 33 in May.

By the way, pt.3* I love how everyone is scorching Sam Presti and the OKC organization with the “ha ha Paul George is going to the Lakers in a year” rhetoric, when Daryl Morey did the exact same thing with Paul, but yet somehow Morey’s move is okay? He's a revolutionary. The flak isn’t coming his direction, because he is forward thinking, remember? An NBA Picasso like his point guard.

Speaking of defense...

Paul George is now on the Thunder, and the full time Roberson vs. Harden match-up could be coming to an end.

Andre Roberson is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and this year he was selected to the second team all defensive team. He wasn't selected to the first team because he was not eligible for a guard spot—due to him moving to the small forward position—although he guarded many opposing guards. One opposing guard that he thrived against was James Harden. Over the course of the season, OKC had four matches with the runner-up MVP. Andre Roberson held him to 24-70 shooting in those match ups which translates to a 34% shooting percentage. He held him to 7-31 from three point range—22%.

Harden for the season averaged 44% from the field and 35% from three point range.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, one other player now wearing Thunder blue has caused Harden to stray away from his averages even more—Paul George. Although the sample size is two games smaller, George held James to 8-34 from the field this season—23%. From three point range, James converted a low 3-19 for 15% while playing Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. Compared to his season average, that is 21 percentage points lower than his average from the field, and 20% points lower from behind the arch.

Due to George's ability to match up with James, this should cause more free time for the home grown Andre Roberson, at 6'7, to spend his energy making things difficult for the six foot Chris Paul. Also, because he will not be directly mirroring James' minutes, he can come in while George and Harden are on the bench to anchor the defense on the second unit and guard Eric Gordon; whereas last season, Gordon and Lou Williams feasted on the second unit without Adams or Roberson.

I believe the addition of Paul George, Raymond Felton, and Patrick Patterson for the Thunder is stronger than Chris Paul, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute for Houston. OKC in my opinion got deeper on both sides of the ball with their additions; whereas, I believe Houston sacrificed some of their offensive versatility. Houston will drastically miss Patrick Beverley in May and June, and especially when they take the floor against the Thunder.

There could be a thousand reasons Houston is still the favorite to out perform the Thunder this year in the minds of most of the NBA's media elite, and another thousand reasons on paper why Daryl Morey is widely associated as the better, smarter, and more revolutionary GM, but I believe that these conclusions are largely based on Morey's media availability and popularity, the growth of advance stats, Bill Simmons' endorsement, the James Harden trade, and the lack of visibility of Sam Presti due to his silent low key nature. So Thunder nation, sit back and wait and don't let the Houston favoritism get you blue, as Russell Westbrook once famously said, "We'll see them again."

The regular season can't get here soon enough.

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