Give And Go: Buy or sell the Blazers as contenders, Paul George’s MVP candidacy, more
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Buying or selling on some of the league’s hot-button issues. (All stats and records are through Dec. 4.)
1. The Trail Blazers are contenders to win the Western Conference.
Ben Golliver: Buying. I think they are contenders, but I wouldn’t bet on them to finish the season on top.
Watching the Blazers up close over the last month has been a special experience. This group gets along better than any Blazers team in recent memory, and the players’ collective skills are a very, very good fit for coach Terry Stotts’ systems on both ends. They have a way of making the game look easy and they’ve rarely panicked, and those characteristics are crucial for aspiring contenders.
My chief concern with Portland is that any injury to its starting unit will carry drastic ramifications. The Blazers are a bit of a Jenga tower, given how heavily they rely on their first five of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, and the available replacements all represent dramatic drop-offs. Take away one of the Blazers’ starting big men and they potentially drop to a bottom-five defensive team. Take away one of their starting perimeter players — all of whom can shoot — and the offense will suffer in terms of cohesion, floor-stretching and confidence.
Portland’s starters have logged 368 minutes together; the team’s next most-used lineup has played just 49 minutes together, per NBA.com. That starting group enjoys an excellent net rating of plus-9.0, but the results get fairly ugly pretty quickly whenever Aldridge or Lillard is removed from the picture. All five of Portland’s starters enjoy individual positive net ratings, while Joel Freeland is the only reserve in the rotation with a positive net rating (Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson are all in the red). That depth drop-off is going to catch up quickly if and when even minor injuries occur, and I think it will be enough to keep Portland out of the No. 1 spot with a deep group of competitors that includes the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Rockets.
Rob Mahoney: Buying. At this point, I don’t see how we could reasonably disqualify them. The Blazers have notched emphatic wins over the Spurs, Warriors, Pacers and Thunder, boast a top-three offense and have been tolerable enough defensively to challenge for a top-five spot in pace-adjusted point differential. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt with tough shots and careful execution, all pulled off with such consistency that it seems ridiculous to attempt to explain them away. Portland deserves credit for scorching expectations with a 16-3 start.
Where we need to draw the line, for the moment, is in expecting the Blazers to contend for anything beyond the best record in the West. Impressive though they might be, the Blazers face a stiffer burden of proof in terms of championship viability, particularly in a conference with so many unrealized contenders. San Antonio is a cut above at the moment, with Oklahoma City not far behind. Beyond that pair, the Clippers, Rockets and Warriors all loom as potential title threats, albeit in currently incomplete form. Each among them needs better health and further development, but a title challenge is within their range of possibilities.
I’m not quite ready to lump the Blazers in with that group just yet, even though they, too, are a talented team with much left to prove. The higher standards of postseason success make Portland’s iffy defense seem more like a liability. Things could change if the Blazers lock in to take more away from their opponents, but right now they seem a bit too vulnerable on that end with limited means for transformational improvement.
2. Paul George is the biggest threat to LeBron James’ MVP reign.
Mahoney: Buying. I say this with full acknowledgement that George is not the second-best player in the NBA, nor is he especially close. But the biggest obstacle to James’ locking up his third straight MVP (and his fifth in six years) is narrative, and the Pacers’ forward may be the most fitting protagonist.
Consider George’s credentials: He’s in the midst of a jaw-dropping career year, having cleared the gap between worthy All-Star and unquestionable franchise talent; he’s expanded his do-it-all game in superstar fashion, namely by hitting difficult shots and creating more effectively off the dribble; his leap came just months after re-upping with a small-market team on a huge contract extension and challenging James in the Eastern Conference finals; behind George, the Pacers (17-2) have sprinted to the best record in the league — a few paces better than the defending champs.
Even that combination won’t likely be enough for George to actually win the MVP, as James has reached a sustained level of excellence where even George’s outstanding season should be of little consequence. The Pacers’ star has narrowed the gap to a degree that few expected so soon. But between James and George are still wide margins in scoring potency, playmaking versatility, help defense, offensive influence and driving ability, at the least. The award belongs to James, barring some unpredictable turn. Yet if there’s going to be any challenge it all, it will need to come from a candidate with the narrative fuel that George has in ample stock.
Golliver: Selling. I consider myself a strong Paul George advocate, but the biggest threat to LeBron James is a complacent LeBron James or an injured LeBron James. So far, to no one’s surprise, we’ve seen only incredible LeBron James, the guy who again ranks No. 1 in Player Efficiency Rating, like clockwork, and who is shooting 60/47/80 during Miami’s 14-4 start. That type of efficiency trifecta is unprecedented in NBA history, and surely James will slide at some point. But the simple fact that he’s doing something this year that he has never done before makes him the runaway MVP favorite, especially with Miami placing near the top of the standings again.
Past that, George still has a ways to go to catch Kevin Durant and Chris Paul on the pecking order. Sure, Indiana’s forward has narrowed the gap with a strong start (24.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 39.4 percent three-point shooting), and his top-tier defense makes him really appealing as a two-way candidate. As good as he is, Durant and Paul have him beat by quite a bit when it comes to indispensability. If you wiped those three players from the planet, I would expect Roy Hibbert and company to have the best shot at remaining a title contender, rendering George as one really awesome piece of a multi-piece puzzle. The Thunder would crumple if Durant were to disappear, and while the Clippers could make do with Darren Collison as their starting point guard for a while, they would be a one-and-done team in the playoffs if Paul isn’t directing traffic on both ends.
I will tack on this asterisk: George has a conceivable path to unseating James. The Pacers must finish with the best record in the East (preferably in the entire NBA); George must maintain his status as their leading scorer and remain among the elite in advanced numbers (he’s No. 9 in PER); James must have a “run of the mill” amazing season rather than a “reaching new heights” amazing season; and the pack of Western Conference MVP candidates (Durant, Paul, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge) must lack a clear favorite. If all of those things happen, George could squeak this out a la Derrick Rose in 2011. That’s a lot of ifs.
Next page: Spurs’ staying power, East’s third-best team and Wolves’ chances
3. The Spurs are better than they were last season.
Golliver: Selling. My palette isn’t quite as sophisticated as the one belonging to Gregg Popovich, wine connoisseur. I’m not sure I can distinguish between the 2012-13 Spurs vintage and the 2013-14 Spurs vintage in any dramatic way. Both teams were/are exceptional, both teams were/are capable of winning an NBA title, both teams were/are leaps and bounds more sophisticated than a vast majority of the other teams in the NBA, and both teams were/are built and run in such a way that health-related adversity can be managed effectively.
Right now, the Spurs’ point differential is better than last season’s, their offense boasts the same ranking (No. 7) and their defense is up slightly (from No. 3 to No. 2). They’ve achieved that high standing, and a 15-3 record, despite a slow shooting start from Tim Duncan (44.4 percent), a very slow outside-shooting start from Kawhi Leonard (22.7 percent from three-point range), a somewhat quiet first month from Danny Green and ongoing age-related consistency concerns with Manu Ginobili.
The most impressive thing about this year’s Spurs team is that they have racked up such a great record with only one player (Tony Parker) playing more than 30 minutes per night and no players playing more than 32 minutes. Compare that to last year’s Spurs, who had three players above 30 minutes. Or, to this year’s Thunder, who have three above 33 minutes. Or, to this year’s Pacers, who have five above 30 minutes and three above 33 minutes. Or, to this year’s Blazers, who have five players above 30 minutes and four players above 35 minutes. I’m not sure if that extra rest — relative to the (younger) competition — means that this year’s Spurs team is better than last year’s, but the wide minutes disbursement is surely going to prove helpful in April, May and possibly June.
Mahoney: Buying. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about Duncan, per se, but his career-worst scoring and field-goal percentage coupled with a dwindling rebounding rate aren’t exactly positive indicators. Something has been off with Duncan, and that alone makes me hesitate in declaring this Spurs team better than the near-champion squad from a season ago.
Still, the fact that San Antonio has been this good with Duncan in lesser form is reason enough to think that even better things could lie ahead. That this is even a question at all is a testament to what the Spurs have been able to accomplish. As Ben noted above, the Spurs have had to grapple with a flurry of other complicating factors atop Duncan’s struggles, and yet they’ve generally been no worse for wear. The mitigating positives? Tiago Splitter has been outstanding defensively and even more productive on a per-minute basis than we’d come to expect. Boris Diaw has been a more assertive scorer than ever and managed to improve his shooting (from 54 to 57 percent) while doubling his scoring average. Marco Belinelli plays as if he has always been a Spur, or at least always meant to be one; he’s Gary Neal and then some, better equipped to create off the dribble, white-hot from three-point range and more engaged defensively.
In all, San Antonio has orchestrated the most balanced offense in the league while managing the regular-season toll on players such as Duncan and Ginobili. There’s still plenty for Popovich to scream about on a nightly basis, though only because San Antonio’s offense very much runs by its own standard. Plus, I think there’s more to the Spurs’ defensive success than merely going from No. 3 in defensive efficiency to No. 2; within that jump is a five-point spread, as San Antonio went from allowing 99.2 points per 100 possessions a season ago to 94 this season. The Spurs’ current defensive mark would have led the league in any of the past nine NBA seasons, making their improvement on that end of far greater consequence than moving up a single rung in the rankings.
4. The Wizards are the third-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Mahoney: Selling. There’s only a third-best team in the East because there has to be, but I’d just as soon melt down the bronze medal to make a set of cufflinks or something. If we’re really going to anoint a team for being the least bad, however, I wouldn’t take the Wizards. The Hawks are just too mediocre to concede the spot just yet — too competent defensively and too hardworking offensively. While Atlanta and Washington register nearly identical records and pace-adjusted point differentials, the Hawks seem to be a touch more stable.The Wizards, on the other hand, are hamstrung by the fact that they have only six usable players, one of whom (Bradley Beal) is out with a worrisome stress injury.
I’ll put it this way: I’d be slightly more surprised if the Wizards managed to climb above the .500 hurdle than I would if the Hawks did the same. That may not be worth much, but hey — neither is this particular bit of standing.
Golliver: Selling. This is one of those trick questions from high school where you spend 10 hours trying to deduce the solution only to have the teacher exclaim, “Just kidding! This question has no answer!” If pressed to make a pick, I will take Atlanta over Washington thanks to the Hawks’ slightly better point differential against a slightly tougher schedule. I trust their established core group (Al Horford/Paul Millsap/Jeff Teague) more and they’re just beginning to dust off Lou Williams, a true impact player when healthy. Looking ahead, Atlanta plays six of its next seven games at home, with five of those coming against opponents who are outside the playoff picture. Give it a fortnight and I think there’s a good chance Atlanta has built a cushion between itself and .500.
5. The Timberwolves are a playoff team barring injury.
Mahoney: Selling. Minnesota is a fine, fun team, but finds itself in a pinch with the Nuggets surging and the Blazers crashing the party. While I fully expected Dallas and Minnesota to claim the final two playoff spots in the West beyond the six projected locks (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, the Clippers, Golden State and Memphis), the Wolves’ chances have taken an early hit from their road woes and the emergence of a few better-than-expected playoff contenders. There’s still plenty of time for Minnesota to work out the kinks, and in no way are they out of the running. I just don’t think their chances of locking up one of the few remaining spots is greater than the sum of the possible alternatives.
Let’s rework the playoff math. Assuming the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers and Blazers are safe bets for the postseason, that leaves three berths among eight (!) viable playoff contenders. Among them, the Warriors — who will be bolstered by Andre Iguodala’s return from a hamstring injury — seem the most likely to make the cut. With just two spots remaining, can we really say that the Wolves’ odds of making the playoffs are greater than the probability of the Nuggets, Mavs, Grizzlies (who, through struggles and all, have two fewer losses than Minnesota), Pelicans, Lakers and Suns in some combination filling those final spots?
Golliver: Buying. Barely. Not only is the West stacked but it’s also packed. Just 3½ games separate the No. 4 seed and 13th place, which is where Minnesota is stuck at the moment. I think that placement is a bit deceiving: The Wolves should wind up as either the ninth- or 10th-best team in the West, at worst, as this “perfect health” scenario should see them jump the hot-starting Suns, the disjointed Lakers and the young, Anthony Davis-less (for now) Pelicans by the time April rolls around.
The Wolves are a bit of a point differential darling, as they possess the seventh-best differential overall and fifth best in the West. That puts them above a bunch of the teams they trail in the standings — the Clippers, Warriors, Nuggets, Mavericks, Pelicans, Suns, Lakers and Grizzlies — and they’ve played a schedule that’s well above average in terms of difficulty.
If we grant the Wolves perfect health for the whole season, their final record should be significantly better than their current 9-10 mark. The bottom half of the West is going to be a cutthroat race as always, but it bodes well that Minnesota’s starting five has a nice plus-4.7 net rating together and the team’s offense efficiency (No. 12) and defensive efficiency (No. 10) are above average.