State of the League Address – Offense, Fringe Teams, and the Real MVP

Brian and Alex discuss the current state of the NBA as we head into the all-star break, and evaluate some of the more prominent talking points the league has to offer.

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The NBA is nearing the All-Star break, which seems as good a time as any to take a look at what’s happening around the league and take stock of where we’re at. We’ve got lots of high-powered offenses, several teams on the cusp of being playoff-worthy, and some strong individual performances that are worth mentioning. Join Alex Schubauer and I as we discuss such topics. And by “join” I mean read this conversation that we had on a Google Doc this past weekend.

Brian: Alex, we’re almost to the All-Star break, and a lot of NBA things are happening.

Alex: It’s that wonderful time of year where every fan with a favorite player or team gets to be angry about the All-Star selections, whether it’s justified or not. I love it.

Brian: All-Star selections are a good place to start for us, because one thing I think we should talk about is the influx of offense and offensive performances happening in the league, many of which by players who will be playing in the ASG. There’s been a lot of reporting done on the number of 50-point games this season, as well as the amount of triple-doubles happening, and just pure offensive numbers by individuals and teams overall. There’s a lot to digest here in terms of basketball, but I’ll ask this: do you think this is good for the game?

Alex: Yes! Absolutely! This is really fun! I understand there are few grumps left who are grumbling about how defense doesn’t matter anymore or whatever, and that’s fine. We could argue about how dang difficult it is to defend these days and many defenses are incredibly talented and innovative, but that’s for another time. In short, this is as fun as the league has ever been. The point of basketball is to put the ball in the hoop, and people are doing that in ways we’ve never seen before. People like that, including me. Hopefully including you, too.

Brian: Oh, without question. I agree that the league is the most fun it’s been in a long time, and I don’t necessarily think that we’re seeing an outbreak of bad defense either. The problem is most of the great defense is being played on teams that are also playing great offense. When those two things are stacked side-by-side, the thing you’re going to notice and remember is the offensive performance every time, because like you said, the game is about putting the ball in the hoop. There are some teams, like Charlotte, who can win by playing really defensively and, in some people’s’ opinions, “ugly” basketball, but that’s not really as memorable as a team like Golden State or Cleveland dropping 120 in a night.

And speaking of those two teams, we’ve got a very clear top of the pantheon of the NBA right now, but if you look toward the bottom of the playoff standings on both sides, there are a lot of interesting fringe-teams sitting there. I’m curious to know your thoughts on some of those units, who you like, who you don’t, and who you think is legit.

Alex: Speaking of Charlotte, I actually enjoy watching them play very much. Keep in mind I am a crazy person when it comes to the NBA, but still. Kemba is a beast, anyone can agree with me on that. Out West, the Grizzlies grinding their way to the playoffs despite injuries and the ravages of time will never get old to me. There’s almost no way they’re winning a playoff series, but I don’t care one bit. It may be a sweep, but Memphis will make you work for it. I have so much respect for those guys. They’re ancient, but the two most interesting young teams to me are the Jazz, who are kind of surprisingly but not totally surprisingly legitimate contenders, and the Timberwolves, who are just disappointing beyond measure.Yet they’re not that far off from the totally-gettable 8th seed. The second half will be fascinating. Who are you watching?

Brian: I’ve been entranced by Philadelphia as of late. There’s something so loveable about the way that Joel Embiid has embraced that team and that city, and how he can say things like that the 76ers are on the verge of a playoff spot, and you almost believe it despite where this franchise has been for the last decade. I too have been disappointed by the Timberwolves, but like you, I don’t see them as too far out from the 8th seed in the West, which is really something when you look at that conference. I think I still like them more than the Bucks, who a lot of people are in love with despite still lurking around the 10 seed in the East (Antetokounmpo’s greatness notwithstanding), but I’m not sure that they’ll ever compete with top-tier franchises like the Spurs or Warriors.

Also, I’ve been really interested with the Bulls, but more from a perspective of “oh man will they ever figure out how to be good again”. I feel so, so bad for Jimmy Butler and having to play with like, the most washed starting lineup in the league apart from maybe the Knicks. He deserves better. But of all of the teams fighting for the 7-8 seeds in both conferences, who do you think sneaks into the playoffs when all is said and done?

Alex: Not Chicago. I was down on this team from the start and the organization as a whole is a mess. Milwaukee has been much better than I expected while missing Khris Middleton, and if he comes back after the All-Star break close to full strength I think they nab that eighth seed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit wins just enough, either. They had one of the most competitive sweeps against Cleveland last spring, I’m sure they’d like another shot.

The West is a total crapshoot, given the dramatic drop-off from the assured top seven seeds to the lowly eighth. I won’t even venture a guess, but personally I’d most like it to be either the Pelicans or Kings. Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins are having two of the best seasons from big men in years, and it’d be a shame if neither of them saw the postseason. Sacramento seeing home playoff games in their new stadium after all the years of suffering would be cool, too.

Let’s hear your predictions.

Brian: Yeah, I’m not really high on the Bulls in the East either. Things are going from bad to worse there, and they’re trending in the wrong direction at this point in the season. I could also see the Pistons winning just enough to sneak in, but I think I like the Bucks as more of a sure thing. They’ve been playing well without Middleton, like you said, and I think that as some of these other teams start to fade down the stretch in the second half they’ll slide into a spot. I’ll also say the 76ers because it would be so much fun to see that happen, more so than a mediocre Bulls or Pistons team making it in.

Out West, I’m with you that the steep drop-off around the 7-8 seed down makes it hard to guess, but honestly, I think I like the Trailblazers more than the Kings or Pelicans. It sucks, because like you said, Boogie and the Brow both deserve to see postseason play, but the reality is their rosters just aren’t as suited for it as Portland, despite how much worse the Trailblazers are than a season ago. But any of this could change at the drop of a hat down in the bottom-half of that conference; it’s just so different than the upper tier with the Warriors, Rockets, and Thunder.

And speaking of those teams, two of them have two players having arguably the best seasons in a long time, so much so that they’re in a dead heat for the MVP race thus far. Who do you like between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and do you think Harden getting an ASG starting spot over Russ might sway some MVP voters down the road?

Alex: The media voted both as starters, it was the fan vote that carried Curry to a starting spot, so I don’t think the media that vote on MVP will care that much. Even among media, I think it’s pretty much a dead heat between these and most likely it will come down to their respective teams’ place in the final standings.

For me, I’m giving the edge to Harden. For right now, at least. He’s turning the ball over slightly less and Houston’s offense is a bit more efficient. Those things help, but the main reason is how much better he’s made his team compared to the expectations. I think most people expected Russ to carry OKC to where they are now, a middle seed that’s comfortably over .500. We didn’t expect him to average a triple double of course, (something that can’t be ignored in this race) but the end result isn’t all that surprising.

No one knew what to make of the Rockets after last season’s collapse and the hiring of Mike D’Antoni. It wasn’t crazy to think that the team wouldn’t defend well enough to win half their games. Instead they’re sitting only behind Golden State and San Antonio in the standings. It’s an incredible achievement, and I think as the team’s leader, Harden deserves the MVP. Do you disagree?

Brian: Not at all, actually. I’ve been really high on Russ all season, but it’s so hard to argue against what Harden and the Rockets have done. I agree that it’s going to be close all season, but like you said, with his slightly better efficiency and the expectations the team had coming in, I think Harden has the edge there. And that isn’t to say he doesn’t deserve it either! I’m just trying to prepare myself to live in a world where a player averages a triple-double in the NBA and isn’t the MVP. But we’re both in agreement that Russ isn’t quite as valuable as Harden, and I think the voters will feel the same. But it’ll be fun to watch in the second half of the season for sure.

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