Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/21

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries

For all of the great moments and entertaining storylines that the first seven-eighths of this NBA regular season has brought us, a large number of injuries have been an unwanted stain on the year. The epidemic started right out of the gate, when Gordon Hayward shattered his ankle during the season opener.

The strange cases of Kawhi Leonard and Markelle Fultz, who seem to be dealing more with psychological blocks more than physical shortcomings, have lingered throughout the season. John Wall, Rudy Gobert, and Jimmy Butler have missed large chunks of the season. Both DeMarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis were ruled out in devastating fashion in the midst of career years. Most of the Clippers’ roster seems to have spent time on injured reserve.

Recently, the problem has ramped up even more. The Celtics recently played a game against Washington without Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, and Marcus Smart. Brad Stevens’ guys took the Wall-less Wizards to double overtime despite trotting out a starting lineup of Shane Larkin, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. Some guy named Abdel Nader (might as well have been Ralph Nader) played 24 minutes and scored 10 points in that contest.

Of course, the most impactful series of injuries has taken place in the Bay Area. Steph Curry is currently recovering from his fourth sprained right ankle of the season. Klay Thompson is out with a fractured thumb in his shooting hand. Draymond Green has been banged up for much of the season, and just recently returned from a sore shoulder. Kevin Durant has just been ruled out for two weeks with fractured ribs.

Although it is possible that all four of them are not back fully healthy by playoff time, it appears as though Golden State is locked into the second seed, and Steve Kerr will not rush back his players in order to be rested and ready for the postseason. Golden State, though, is not as deep as in past seasons. Mostly that is due to Andre Iguodala decline, but with Nick Young struggling with his shot, the Warriors currently have no outside shooting outside of the big three. With the way Houston has looked for the entire season, if Golden State does not bring its ‘A’ game, the Rockets will have more than a fighting chance. If any of the big four is absent, the series becomes a toss-up. If that player is Curry or Durant, Houston is, to me, the clear favorite.

The Western Conference Finals is shaping up to be the de facto NBA Finals, and if Houston holds onto the first seed, which, barring something miraculous, will be the case, they will have to like their chances.

It is important to note that in both of their championship runs, Golden State has had tremendous luck with regards to injuries. While Steph Curry did miss a number of games in their run to a Finals loss in 2015 -16, the Warriors have benefitted from the absences of such stars as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Rudy Gobert, and Kawhi Leonard, as well other important role players.

This is not to diminish what Golden State has accomplished. They are in the midst of one of the best four-year runs in NBA history. If fully healthy, they have to be considered the favorites to win a third title in four years. However, this season, injuries may leave the door ajar for another team to take advantage. And that wouldn’t be completely unfair.

Latecomers to the MVP race?

As I wrote in my post last week, James Harden has all but taken home the Most Valuable Player award for this season. To recap: He has finished runner-up in the two of the past three seasons, so the very important MVP narrative is in his favor, he is the best player on the league’s best team, he is putting up eye-popping numbers and has developed into the most unstoppable offensive force in the game. And last week, his put the exclamation mark on the whole thing by humiliating Wesley Johnson into another time dimension.

Although Harden still has the Rockets rolling, two players have at the very least crept into the discussion to who gets to accompany Harden to the useless new NBA Award show (seriously, I am sure that James Harden won’t want to have to sit and listen to jokes one month after choking away a late lead in Game seven of the Western Conference Finals, in Houston, against the Warriors).

Damian Lillard has long felt like he is one of the league’s most disrespected superstars. He had only been an All-Star twice despite averaging 22.4 points and leading the Trail Blazers to the playoffs in four of his five NBA season.

This season, everyone is on notice. After receiving his third All-Star nod, Lillard really took off, as he has put up 29.3 points in the last 30 days while leading his Trail Blazers on a tear that has left them in third place in the crowded Western Conference.

Although there was bound to be much movement between the third and tenth seeds in the West bloodbath, Portland would be one of the last teams I would envision making the jump to third when I wrote my playoff predictions just a few short weeks ago.

Although Portland lost a tough one to Houston, snapping their twelve-game winning streak, this is a team that no one wants to face come playoff time. That is mostly due to Lillard who is shooting the three very well, and can also attack the rim and create for his teammates. Most importantly, Lillard thrives in the big moments and can be counted on to take and make the tough ones down the stretch.

CJ McCollum does not need the ball in order to be effective, making him an ideal backcourt complement to Dame, and Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic are dependable role players. Still, Portland’s offense depends on Lillard. Without’s Harden’s remarkable exploits, Lillard would have a strong case for league MVP, and he should at least have clinched a spot alongside the Beard on the first-team All-NBA (note: this would not be the case if Curry had played closer to a full season). Perhaps no star has changed how they are viewed around the league in any one-month span this season as Lillard has since returning from the festivities in LA.

Anthony Davis presents a perhaps even more compelling case. Davis has been great and improving pretty much since the first time he stepped onto an NBA court, but when the Pelicans have needed him most recently, he has upped his game. Ever since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn achilles and everyone wrote the Pelicans playoff chances off, Davis has been downright incredible. His numbers are almost video-game like, as he has put up over 31 points and 12 rebounds per game, and, though they have slowed down a little, the Pelicans are winning some games, too. They are currently tied for fifth in the West. While Lillard’s whole team has gotten hot at the right time, Davis seems to be doing a lot of damage single-handedly.

After flying under the radar for a while, Davis has re-established himself as the league’s best young player (it really freaks me out that the guy only just turned 25 less than two weeks ago). New Orleans doesn’t have the depth to contend in the playoffs, but what Davis has accomplished is remarkable.

Realistically, the writing has been on the wall for the majority of the season. When it’s all said and done, Harden will be the MVP. However, just one month ago it seemed unlikely that Lillard and Davis would be his closest competition. I can’t wait to watch these two show that they have reached elite status by consistently putting on great shows against great opposition come playoff time.

Reverting to Old Ways

The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the season retooled and recharged. They were hungry, and team now had shooters and playmakers surrounding MVP Russell Westbrook. The acquisition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, for what (wrongly) seemed to a unassuming return, made the Thunder a trendy choice the contend for the NBA championship.

However, by altering the lineup, the Thunder also had to revamp the way they played. Last season, the offense was all Russell Westbrook, all the time. He obliterated NBA records for usage as the Thunder offense run solely through him. Now, he had to adapt to players who, while they could be effective off-ball, had grown accustomed to being primary options over the course of their respective careers. The transformation was never going to easy, as Westbrook had played the first seven seasons of his career alongside Kevin Durant and had one one Finals game win to show for it. Now, he had experienced freedom and had to reign himself in for the good of the franchise.

Oklahoma City experienced a bumpy start, but the team teased their potential.They would alter impressive wins and confounding losses. They snapped a four-game losing streak with a 20-point win at Golden State, but also bookended a three-game winning run with losses to Orlando and Brooklyn. They already have two streaks of four or more losses in a row and three instances in which they have won four or more games consecutively.

All three superstars demonstrated their ability to succeed, both as isolation scorers, but also together. However, at times they reverted into your-turn, my-turn, making the plays that they had consistently made while alone last season. Even though Oklahoma City had pushed their way firmly into the playoff picture, they were unable to consistently put together cohesive team performances. It seemed as if only their talent level was keeping them afloat.

Sitting at 37-29 and in a dogfight for their playoff lives, Oklahoma City has reeled off six wins in their best seven games, and it should have been seven in a row, given that they blew a six point lead in the final 24 seconds of their loss to the injury-plagued Celtics. However, during this run, the Thunder seemed to revert back to last season’s strategies. Westbrook collected five straight triple-doubles while twice putting 30 points while George averaged 17 per game and Anthony nine during the win streak. George had two games where he scored below 12 and Carmelo had a pair in single digits. This is not a sustainable blueprint for success going forward.

As I previously mentioned in an earlier post, the Thunder can hide behind Westbrook’s ability to put in full effort every night and pile up wins. After all, they collected 47 last season when Westbrook had far less help. They are on pace to win about 48 this season, which might be enough to grab home court advantage in the first round.

In the playoffs though, this strategy will not work. We’ve seen that movie before. Against Houston or Golden State, the Russell Westbrook show will not suffice. They will need to get George and Anthony their touches, both in isolation and as a part of their offense. When he was acquired this summer, George was touted as the ideal complementary star. He has all the ability to take over games, but doesn’t constantly need the ball in order to be effective. The Thunder offense needs to allow him to showcase that ability.

Westbrook needs to be a threat  off the ball, diving hard to the rim when defenders forget about him. Although strong shooters are usually seen as the ideal off ball threat, LeBron has demonstrated how timely and incisive cutting can get a freak athlete like him or Westbrook eight-to-ten easy points per game. Instead of taking advantage of that ability, Westbrook essentially fades out of the offense once he gives the ball up.

If Oklahoma City can integrate more ball and body movement into their offense, they have a strong enough combination of shooting, slashing, size, and playmaking ability to be a scary team. All year long, they have been dubbed as the team that no one wants to run into in the playoffs because if they ever do figure it out, they will be a tough out.

They seemed to have abandoned complicating their offense in order to ensure playoff positioning. For now, that’s fine. But if Oklahoma City has any hopes of making noise in a month’s time they will have to make adjustments and find a way to incorporate all of their pieces more cohesively.

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