Author: Connor Yahn

The case for Russell Westbrook

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden have undoubtedly separated themselves from the rest of the NBA this season. Although Harden has been fantasitc, Westbrook deserves to win MVP because his play has been historic.

Westbrook eclipsed the great Oscar Robertson’s 55-year old single-season triple-double record of 41. For context, Michael Jordan only notched 28 triple-doubles in his entire illustrious career. In addition, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the entire season, posting over 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds per night. He played so unbelievably well this season that if he recorded a 30-10-10 night, his averages for points, rebounds and assists would actually decline. Westbrook also took home the league’s scoring title for the second time in his career, edging Harden by about two points per game. While Harden performed exceptionally after transitioning to point guard, dramatically improving his defense and posting over 20 triple-doubles of his own, his numbers simply cannot rival Westbrook’s.

After Kevin Durant’s offseason departure for the Golden State Warriors, analysts pegged the Thunder as a lottery team and claimed they would fail to make the postseason for just the second time in the last seven years. However, OKC has posted a record well above .500 and will be the sixth-seed in the cutthroat Western Conference, thanks primarily to Westbrook carrying the team on his shoulders.

Granted, Oklahoma City will be traveling to open the postseason at Harden’s Houston Rockets, who hold the third spot in the Western Conference. In Westbrook’s defense, Harden possesses many more weapons around him. After losing Durant over the summer, the Thunder fielded a much less talented roster than in recent years, featuring Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams as the core pieces around Westbrook. OKC lacks outside shooting and other viable scoring options, making Westbrook’s season that much more remarkable considering opposing teams only had to focus on him each night. Therefore, Westbrook is worth more to his team than Harden because of the disparity in the quality of their respective supporting casts.

Without Westbrook, the Thunder would undoubtedly find themselves in the bowels of the Western Conference standings and likely with top five positioning in the draft lottery. If the Rockets were without Harden, they wouldn’t be nearly as good, but they possess talent beyond him that would likely net them at least a low playoff seed. Regardless of who wins this award, both performed exceptionally all season, and it will be exciting to watch them square off in the first round of the playoffs.

yahn1@stolaf.edu

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Kaepernick still unsigned

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick still finds himself without a job in the NFL a month after the free agency period began. Many other notable free agents are still looking for work, but none has gen- erated more controversy in his job search than Kaepernick. The dual-threat quarterback became a polarizing figure this fall after repeat- edly kneeling during the national anthem before games – this protest drew the ire of many football fans across the country in addition to a bright, scrutinizing media spotlight. Although Kaepernick is not considered an elite NFL quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, he tossed 16 touchdowns in 12 games last sea- son on an otherwise atrocious 49ers team. His total QBR ranked 23rd in the league last season, higher than Eli Manning, rookie Carson Wentz and former MVP Cam Newton.

Based on pure numbers, Kaepernick deserves a spot on an active NFL roster. He may no longer possess the dynamic talent that led the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2013, but Kaepernick certainly maintains enough talent to be a qual- ity backup at a minimum. In a league deprived of quality quarterbacks, one would think that he would be signed immediately. However, numerous factors play a role in the world of NFL free agency. In this case, the media atten- tion that Kaepernick would generate presents an intimidating and unattractive barrier that has historically frightened teams away from poten- tial free agents.

When discussing polarizing NFL players, Tim Tebow, Ray Rice and Johnny Manziel come to mind. The one similarity in each case was the intense media coverage that they attracted. Whether the coverage was negative or positive did not matter to NFL front offices – in each example, front offices concluded that the media attention would be too great a distraction in the locker room to justify signing a mediocre player. Teams would rather sign a free agent with less talent that could fit better in the locker room and produce comparable, even lesser results. This makes particular sense when sign- ing a backup quarterback such as Kaepernick, a position that ideally draws as little attention as possible. The NFL already draws immense media scrutiny – organizations don’t want to enlarge the target on their backs, and they cer- tainly don’t want that controversy to come from athletes that sit on the bench more often than not.

Kaepernick’s extended job search confirms that NFL general managers don’t believe he can perform at an elite level anymore and isn’t worth the further distractions involved.

After Rice’s domestic violence incident in 2014, albeit a far more blatant, violent offense than Kaepernick’s protest, teams chose not to sign him because they did not want an aging running back that had his best years behind him, not necessarily solely because of his charges. This can be seen in the case of former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was suspended the entire 2014 season as a result of assault charges. Mixon, however, will likely be selected in the upcoming NFL draft – ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. stated that Mixon is poten- tially the best running back talent in a strong draft class despite the cloud of media cover- age. A common adage in the NFL states that if Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, they would diagnose cannibalism simply as an eating disorder. If a player possesses elite talent, he will find a home in the league regardless of controversial aspects of his character.

The harsh reality for Kaepernick is that teams don’t see further potential in a once-dynamic dual-threat quarterback past his prime. They look at him and see a player who creates immense locker room distractions that can- not be amended with strong performances, immensely diminishing his value. Fans have cried foul, arguing that teams refuse to sign Kaepernick in simple spite of his protest, but this conspiracy theory overly dramatizes the situation. He may become a quality backup quarterback somewhere, but for most teams his mediocre stat line simply isn’t worth the trouble.

yahn1@stolaf.edu

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March Madness preview

March Madness has arrived again, this year bringing with it heightened excitement and unpredictability thanks to plenty of championship contenders and potential thrilling upsets. Most seasons, the crop of realistic title hopefuls is relatively limited, but this March there is no clear-cut favorite. The most turbulent, infamously difficult-to-predict postseason of the year is more wide open than ever, leaving the nation’s best teams and humble underdogs with comparable championship aspirations. The excitement is palpable.

Defending champion Villanova University enters as the number one overall seed looking to make its way through a brutal East Region and repeat, with the majority of its talent from a year ago remaining intact. The Big East’s leading scorer Josh Hart and last season’s championship game hero Kris Jenkins return hungry for the school’s third title. However, an already difficult path to the championship is only made more difficult by having a target painted on its back as last year’s victor.

Duke comes into the tournament as the hottest team in the country after winning four games in as many days to capture the ACC tournament crown. Its late-season surge can be credited to the recent emergence of freshman phenoms Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Tatum led the Blue Devils in scoring in each game of the ACC tournament, with Giles contributing off the bench. Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen will also need to perform if Duke hopes to stay hot and capture a sixth championship crown.

It’s impossible to mention Duke without talking about its historic rival and last year’s runner-up, University of North Carolina, who returns as the number one seed of the of the South Region seeking revenge for a heartbreaking buzzer-beater defeat. Four of five starters returned for 2017 including talented juniors Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, a duo that has combined to average 32.9 points per game, headlining a Tar Heel team that’s as deep as it is talented.

In the West Region, Gonzaga Universty and University of Arizona hold the top two seeds – both of these historic programs possess realistic expectations of a Final Four appearance. Gonzaga managed as impressive a season as any, defeating six teams in the top 25 to finish with a 32-1 record, yet it is flying under the radar after a late-season upset loss to Brigham Young University. Arizona features a strong roster once again this year, led by Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen. The Wildcats are coming fresh off of a Pac-12 tournament title after outpacing the explosive offenses of University of California – Los Angeles and University of Oregon.

Both those West Coast teams are two of the most talked about contenders in the field due to their acclaimed stars. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball could potentially be the first pick of the NBA draft, while Oregon’s Dillon Brooks has performed sensationally in crunch time, landing two buzzer beaters to defeat UCLA and Cal earlier this year. However, injuries sustained during the Pac-12 Tournament may prove costly – Ball injured his hand in the semifinals against Arizona, and the Bruins struggled without him. Oregon’s Chris Boucher, a key defensive piece and three-point shooter, tore his ACL against Arizona and will not be available during March Madness.

Kansas holds the top spot in the Midwest Region, and it is overwhelmingly favored to return to the Final Four. The Jayhawks captured their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title this year under the guidance of Head Coach Bill Self, the shape of consistency, and they are seeking their second title under their historically successful coach.

While all these teams have legitimate shots at cutting down the nets in early April, they still have to win in March – upsets are what draw people to the tournament, making this arguably the most surprising postseason tournament in sports. Underdogs are bound to come from nowhere and make surprising stories of their own, bringing countless title hopes of the higher seeds to a screeching halt. My advice: sit back and enjoy the madness.

yahn1@stolaf.edu

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All-Stars fail to entertain

NBA All-Star Weekend, usually a mid-season highlight for basketball enthusiasts, came and went from Feb. 17-19 but you’d be forgiven for not tuning in. This year’s gathering of the world’s greatest basketball players shot itself in the foot by utterly failing to live up to the hype, a concerning trend during the recent past that is turning one of basketball’s greatest spectacles into a bore.

Maybe we were just spoiled by last year’s incredible slam dunk contest between Aaron Gordon and Zach Lavine, but this year’s event felt like a huge disappointment regardless. It all starts with the participants – of course last year’s runner-up Aaron Gordon deserved a shot at the crown again. In the eyes of many, the judges robbed Gordon of the title last season, electing to give it to Lavine for the second consecutive year and setting up a dramatic showdown between the two, just the kind of rivalry needed to generate intrigue. However, with Lavine eliminated from participation after suffering a torn ACL just before the All-Star break, there was no chance for a three-peat and the hotly anticipated rematch.

This was already a shame, but the NBA should have done a much better job of replacing Lavine. Sure, DeAndre Jordan has some star power to bring to the table, but Derrick Jones Jr. and Glenn Robinson III certainly do not. Jones is a rookie who has spent a large portion of the season in the D-League, and Robinson comes off the bench for the Indiana Pacers scoring a measly 6.2 points per game, a career-high average that fails to attract an audience. Gone are the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins squaring off in epic slam dunk contests in the ’80s. Now the contest features bench players that aren’t highly regarded by even their own organizations’ fans.

If the contest is going to be consistently great, then stars need to fill out the lineup. Fans would clamor to see the likes of Lebron James and Russell Westbrook compete head-to-head, and emerging stars like Andrew Wiggins, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo would draw an excited crowd for years to come. Right now, that spectacle isn’t just lacking, it’s nearly disappeared entirely. The lack of star power is diminishing the buzz around what used to be such a fun display of showmanship.

The most glaring issue of All-Star Weekend revealed itself quite early on Sunday evening during the main event, an absolute joke of a contest. Over the past few seasons, the game has become less competitive due to the lack of stakes. Back in 2001, the final score was a reasonable 111-110. In 2006, the result was 122-120 – an inflated sum, but still along the parameters of a typical basketball game. This year, the final score was a whopping 192-182. There was simply no defense being played, no heart to suggest that the athletes actually cared. Half-court shots were taken at will in the middle of quarters, and Anthony Davis cherry-picked his way to 52 points, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s individual record for most points scored in a single All-Star game, eventually being awarded the All-Star MVP. The level of nonchalance is approaching NFL Pro Bowl levels of embarrassment.

The game doesn’t count and the players want to have fun, but fans treasure this weekend, and the quality of basketball needs to improve if the All-Star game is to maintain that aura of excitement. That could mean the league intervening by adding stakes to the game. The MLB All-Star Game used to determine home-field advantage in the World Series – a similar policy in the NBA could invite passion and meaning to the contest. It may be entertaining to see these elite athletes throw down creative dunks, but a 48-minute layup line will quickly discourage fans from tuning in. Whether the players take it upon themselves to improve the overall quality of their play or the league institutes rules that make the game more meaningful, something has to change. This year’s contest was a joke, and nobody’s laughing.

yahn1@stolaf.edu

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