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