The NBA landscape has changed a lot these past few years.
Perhaps the most influential change that has impacted the NBA landscape is the rise of ‘player empowerment’. Gone are the days of players sticking with their teams through thick and thin. Long gone are the days of the Tim Duncans and Dirk Nowitzkis.
On the topic of power forwards, the NBA’s best power forward, Anthony Davis is the most recent example of a player forcing an exit from a ‘small market team’, a New Orleans, to a ‘large market team’, a Los Angeles.
When discussing small markets and large markets and player entrepreneurship, it is easy to lose sight of the basketball itself.
The upcoming playoff matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers is one of the most intriguing matchups in recent playoff history.
Keeping the discussion off the court, both franchises are based in small markets. The lush forests of Portland and traditional cornfields of Oklahoma are in stark contrast to the city of Angels, Los Angeles and tech-utopia silicon valley in San Francisco. However, both the Trail Blazers and Thunder are attempting to go against the grain of the modern NBA. These teams are built on grit, toughness and up most of all, unwavering, unforgiving loyalty.
The parallels are most apparent between the Blazers and the Thunder at the point-guard position. Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard are two of the top five point-guards in the NBA. Both play with a chip on their shoulder the size of a boulder, but most importantly, both have shown unwavering loyalty to their franchises and their cities.
On the court, the conversation around these two teams rebound back to the point-guard position. This season Dame Lillard has played to a level that places him at fourth on Bill Simmons’ top five MVP candidates.
This season, Lillard is averaging 25.8 points per game (ppg) on 44% shooting along with 6.9 assists per game. On the flip side, Westbrook has continued his streak of finishing the season averaging a triple double, 22 ppg, 10.7 assists and 11.1 rebounds. Thanks to the bedding in of fellow All-Star Paul George, the emergence of Jerami Grant as a consistent three-point shooter and the ever present Steven Adams in the paint, Westbrook is averaging his highest ever assist total and his passing has been better than ever.
Previous match-ups between these two teams in the 2018/19 regular season have been filled with pace, power and passion. A certain type of raw intensity similar to a playoff atmosphere.
Tensions between Westbrook and Lillard tend to rise during these meet ups, with Westbrook letting Lillard know that he’s been “busting that ass for years” on the court in January. Tensions between the teams rise probably due to the fact that these two players are so similar. They are their teams, so when either the Blazers lose or the Thunder lose, it’s like parts of Westbrook and Lillard are personally affected.
Not only are the teams’ seasons on the line. This playoff series will have a huge impact on the legacies of both Westbrook and Lillard. Both players have the ghosts of previous playoff runs to exorcise. The first-round exits of both teams in pathetic fashion last year will only bolster the arguments of those against small market teams. It’s time for Lillard and Westbrook to step up and prove to the wider NBA that they can get it done when it truly matters.
Whatever the final result of this play-off series ends up being, one thing is for sure, Westbrook and Lillard will be going all out. Not only for themselves, their legacies or their teams. But for their cities and their people.