The NBA regular season is less than two weeks from completion. The race for the playoffs, lottery picks, and MVP award are all at full speed coming into the last lap. Alex Schubauer and Brian Hall get together to discuss all of those things in this final, regular season edition of the SOTLA.
Brian: Alex, there are about two weeks left in what has been one of the wildest NBA regular seasons that I can remember in quite some time. We’ve got playoff seeds cooking, teams tanking left and right, and arguably the best MVP race anybody has ever seen. I think it’s safe to say that this NBA season has been dope.
Alex: As someone who has obsessively followed the NBA from opening night through the Finals for years now, it seems as though more people have followed the league closely from start to finish this year than I ever remember. I’m glad so many people have come along on the ride, and it’s safe to say this season has earned the extra attention.
Brian: I’d like to jump right into the playoff picture if that’s ok, simply because both conferences are so interesting from top to bottom. Looking out West, the Warriors have gotten over their being Durant-less enough to take back the top seed over the Spurs by a few games. But San Antonio and the Rockets are right there, it seems like, and while the Jazz are floundering a bit down the stretch, they also look like an impressive team coming into the playoffs. Looking at that top four, what interests you the most?
Alex: The Jazz/Clippers first round series should be a fun one, but not as important in the long term. I’m mostly looking into who will be hot at the right time about a month from now. Golden State will be re-working Durant into the system when he (presumably) returns and the Spurs are such a steady presence that you never really see them as getting “hot.” So most interesting to me is Houston, who I believe could beat any team in a 7-game series if they make a certain percentage of their threes. How they look heading into the postseason should show us if that’s possible or not.
Above them in the standings, how do you see the fight for the top seed shaking out?
Brian: I agree with what you said in that the Spurs are always a team that competes for the top, but never really gets white hot and goes on unfathomable runs. And I think Golden State has righted the ship in Durant’s absence and they should be much better off going into the playoffs than some people thought a month ago. My main concern for San Antonio and Houston come playoff time is that to get to Golden State, they’ll presumably have to get past the other at some point. I see a Houston/San Antonio series being long, brutal, and fun as hell. Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden, Pop vs. D’antoni, Texas vs. Texas. I wonder if either team would have enough left in the tank to regroup and take on the Warriors in another brutal series. But if it’s any team, like you said, it’s Houston. Their outside shooting makes them a threat to beat anybody, and watching Golden State try to stop them when they’re just firing up threes from all over the place could be wildly fun.
In the bottom half of the west, you’ve got one team that looks legit, and three that look like they won’t be cut out for the playoffs very long. Do you think the Clippers can get fully healthy and stay that way, enough to beat the Jazz and maybe make some noise in the later rounds of the playoffs?
Alex: Yeah, the bottom three seeds would all be interesting stories, but not cut out for a full series. An OKC/Houston first round would probably be short, but intense and enjoyable nonetheless. As for the Clippers, I would have them as favorites over the Jazz even without home court advantage, but not by a lot. There’s just no easy answer with them. If healthy, a caveat that has to be made, I still believe they’re capable of pretty much anything. They just haven’t proven it yet, and there’s no reason to trust them until they do. A first round win leads to a second round bout with the Warriors and it’s tough to see a path to victory there, but as long as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are there I just can’t rule out something strange happening.
You want to go to the other coast? That side of the playoff bracket isn’t quite as interesting, but there’s plenty to look forward to.
Brian: Yeah I was going to say, we should probably talk about the East just because Cleveland is forcing us to at this point. The Cavs have played such poor defense that they’ve actually lost the top seed to the Celtics, and they just got torched by John Wall the other night. While the bottom half of the conference is still a bit of a dumpster fire, do the Cavs’ struggles and the rise of the Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors warrant us to doubt them and LeBron’s finals appearance streak at this point?
Alex: There aren’t any serious doubts from me at this point, as LeBron teams seem to go through something like this every year. It’s just a little later than usual this season, and injuries haven’t helped. But there are questions to be sure. Washington playing at full force could be as big a challenge to Cleveland’s athleticism there is. Boston is interesting, but I couldn’t see them making noise in a head-to-head; there are still gaps in their roster that the Cavs could exploit. While LeBron & Co. absolutely have things to shore up, their first round series against whatever lower-tier team is always a kind of spring training for the playoffs. They don’t really care about seedings either, so unless or until I see the same issues they have now in a playoff series, I’m not too concerned for them.
That being said, a second round matchup against the revamped Raptors is in play as well. Do you see them or anyone seriously challenging Cleveland?
Brian: Yeah, Toronto is interesting. On the one hand, they playing stellar defense and DeRozan has played lights out with Kyle Lowry out with a wrist injury, but getting Lowry back right during playoff time could be problematic. On paper, it makes sense for Toronto to stand a better chance with him in, but having to get a guy back after an extended period against a team, or rather one player, that’s been unbeatable in your conference playoffs for six years? I just don’t know if that will work out well for Toronto, in the end. And I think that between Washington and Boston, I’d be more worried about the Wizards if I’m a Cavs fan. But honestly, no team sticks out as a serious, “They will beat Cleveland if the Cavs can’t figure their issues out” type of team yet. In another year, when LeBron is a little older, the Celtics have a lottery pick on their roster, and the Wizards and Raptors get to try to fill a couple more holes, than maybe. But right now I’m still not convinced that this conference is anybody’s by LeBron’s this season.
But outside of the playoffs, there’s not a race to win. But to lose. Teams that are tanking for lottery picks are almost more fun for me to watch at the end of the season just to see how far they’ll go to get a better pick. Looking ahead at the lottery and draft, what interests you the most as a possible scenario to come from all of that?
Alex: I know no one else cares, but as a Magic fan I need the Lakers to land outside the top three which ensures they send their 2019 1st pick to Orlando. Sorry, just have to point that out.
Brian: As a quick aside, what with you being a Magic fan: I ran two mock lotteries earlier today and the Magic landed the top pick both times. I just thought you should know.
Alex: Orlando has a strong history of landing top picks, it’s what keeps me going in these dark times. There’s a scenario where the Magic jump into that top spot, which knocks the Lakers to fourth and they lose this year’s pick and the 2019 one. A guy can dream. But as for realistic scenarios, it’s really just a race for that fourth spot between Orlando, New York, Philadelphia and Sacramento right now. Each of these teams are terrible, but LA and Phoenix have tanking down to an art form there’s just no catching them. But that fourth spot gives you a few extra ping pong balls, and thus some more hope of jumping up a few spots. The last few weeks of the season are like the world’s longest and saddest math problem.
Anything there there interest you? I don’t know much about the next draft class yet, could you illuminate me on what players could be going where?
Brian: Just about every mock draft has Markelle Fultz going first overall to Boston, just because of his sheer ability to score, along with his body-type and skillsets as a point guard that make him a virtual lock, but I’m not convinced. I actually think I like Lonzo Ball to the Celtics more, given their current mold. You’ve already got a scoring point guard that loves to take over a game, why not supply him with a point guard that can shoot, especially from deep, and is willing to pass the ball and make the better basketball play? And regardless of who they take, if the Lakers land at two, they’d likely take the other of the two that isn’t taken by Boston, despite already having a couple of point guards that see heavy minutes and are honestly pretty good. So I guess I’m hoping to see somebody that isn’t one of those two teams crash the top two and steal somebody. I’d love to see the Suns or even the Knicks sneak in and take one of the two premier point guards just to shake things up. Or, of course, a team could always throw a wrench in things too. Maybe the Lakers don’t go with a point guard and go with, say, Josh Jackson from Kansas. Then who gets Ball or Fultz? This class is crazy deep, and I more than anything want to see what some of the teams on the fringe of the lottery will try to do to move up and get their man, if they feel like they need to.
Sort of related: Looking at the lottery teams right now, who would you most want to land a pick that drastically improves their team throughout next season?
Alex: Who the Knicks want to grow up alongside Porzingis will be interesting, but the dysfunction there really tempers any excitement there could be about that. Minnesota has interesting choices about whether to round out their young core with another rookie or trade a high pick in a deep draft for something that can help more right away. But they should be in the playoffs next year either way, I think Phoenix is way more interesting in this discussion. Like the Lakers, they really don’t need another backcourt player. Devin Booker is amazing enough to score 70 points in a game at age 20 and Eric Bledsoe is a premier point guard. Do they take Josh Jackson? Do they take a point guard and just make it work, or trade someone they already have? I think another impact player could give this team a real leap. What lottery situation are you anticipating?
Brian: If the Suns land high, I could absolutely see them taking a stab at Jackson from Kansas or Jonathan Isaac from Florida State. Both players could prevent a logjam in the backcourt as well as be that impact player you’re talking about that could round out their roster. I’d very much like that. Another team I’m watching is the 76ers, if only to see if they can ever being their roster together, get everyone healthy, and start making noise. I would love to see Embiid, Simmons, and say a De’Aaron Fox or a Malik Monk to grow up together and wreck havoc on the East. But, more realistically, I’d like to see either New York or Orlando get somebody they can build around (and in New York’s case, alongside Porzingis). I really just want the East to be more complete beyond the four-seed, and I’d be happy with one of those two teams filling that gap, even if it might take a while or never happen at all.
Briefly, before we wrap up here though, I wanted to ask you: is you MVP choice the same? You recently released something on how Russ shouldn’t win the MVP, and I was curious if you still felt that way. And if not him, then it has to be Harden, right?
Alex: Yes, I have Harden right now. This is very tough and Russ is super close, although Kawhi keeps creeping up. Quietly, as only he can. (As we typed this the Spurs beat the Cavs 103-74, by the way.) I don’t know how much things can change in the next two weeks, but I expect Harden to be my final choice. Bring us home, Brian. I know you disagree with me. Let’s hear it.
Brian: I only disagree so far as I think we have different criteria for an NBA MVP, which makes sense since this award doesn’t really have any set criteria in the first place. And while I understand your reasoning, the way I look at it, and how I explained it on the Weekly BS earlier this week, is like this: I look at a team with an MVP candidate, and then remove him from the equation and try to think about how the team would be without him throughout the season. It’s not nearly as definitive as looking at stats or numbers, but I feel like part of being the most valuable is understanding what a team would be like without that player. Looking at the Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder, I think the Thunder are the worst of the three without their superstar. Without Russ, I doubt the Thunder even make the playoffs out West. Houston can still shoot, even if Harden is remarkable and clearly the focal point of the offense, and I love Kawhi and think he’s underrated, but like we established earlier, it’s the Spurs – would they really be that much worse off without Kawhi? Maybe, but I just think that Russ being the sheer driving force that keeps OKC afloat is worth a lot. I’m also very biased.
Any thoughts on that, or anything else before we close this out and wait for the playoffs?
Alex: We could go forever on the MVP discussion, but I’ll spare everyone for now. I just want to say that this is the best time of the year. Now that college basketball is done, the real postseason basketball can begin. I’m excited.
Brian: 1000% agree.