The Hoops 101 Pop Quiz: May 2016
1. (At the time of writing this) We're 4 games through both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. Which of the "final four" teams is most likely to win the NBA Championship?
A: C. Thunder. With each passing game, our opinion has naturally shifted on this. After Cleveland dominated Toronto in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals and Golden State dropped Game 1 of their series with OKC, we thought the Cavs were gaining prime playoff momentum to establish themselves as the championship favorites. Then Golden State took care of business in Game 2 and we said to ourselves, “okay, looks like the Warriors have settled down now. They’ll go to OKC, win a game or two and will still be in the driver’s seat to win it all.” Fast forward through Games 3 and 4 in both conferences and now Toronto has grinded their way back into the series with the Cavs and the Warriors are shockingly on the ropes against OKC.
After the Cavs beat the Raptors in Game 2 to reach 10-0 to start the playoffs, we truly believed that they were becoming THE team to beat of the last four remaining in the playoffs. The Big Three were playing well, they looked absolutely unstoppable against their Eastern Conference opponents, and you could see their confidence growing. We knew the Warriors were going to be in a dogfight with OKC and Steph doesn’t seem to be at 100% with the various injuries he’s experienced over the last few weeks. That would leave the Warriors vulnerable even if they did get past the Thunder. And let’s remember, an extremely shorthanded Cavs team took the Warriors to 6 games in last year's NBA Finals and were up 2-1 in that series. With them being healthy and presumably cruising through the Eastern Conference playoffs, they would be the odds-on favorite headed into the Finals.
But alas, we (and the world) jumped to conclusions. The Raptors are growing up before our very eyes, demonstrating true playoff toughness by rebounding from two blowout losses to win Game 3 and pull out a tough win in Game 4. The Game 4 win was absolutely impressive as Toronto was able to match the Cavs making their first 11 shots of the fourth quarter by making clutch shots of their own and doing enough defensively to get that victory. As for OKC...did anyone see this coming? Their size is giving the Warriors fits on defense and in rebounding. Now, they stand with a 3-1 series lead. Having said all that and considering where we are right now, we truly believe the Thunder are now most likely to win the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Back in 2011 as the Mavs were making their march to the NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki had raised his game to another level and was playing with such intensity that at some point, you got the feeling that it was his year. His desire for a ring was elevating his play and he was absolutely going to will Dallas to a championship. The feeling we had watching Dirk in 2011 is the same one we have right now seeing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They are LOCKED IN. They've learned how to close games and are better about getting their teammates involved. There’s just this sense that after beating the Spurs and now, taking it to the Warriors (the two teams considered the best in the NBA throughout the regular season), OKC is destined to get over the hump and win their first title.
Fill in the Blank
2. This year's true NBA MVP was ______________.
A: Steph Curry (in spite of what some say). A few weeks ago when the NBA awarded Steph with the league’s regular season MVP award, reporters asked LeBron for his reaction to Steph receiving it. LeBron said Steph certainly deserved the hardware based on his stats and his team's success this year. However, he also commented that we should be mindful how we define the “valuable” in Most Valuable Player. This conversation has been had for many years. When awarding the regular season MVP trophy, what criteria should we be looking at to define who is the most valuable to his team in a given season? One line of thought has been to give it to the best player on the season’s best time. Some say that even in spite of a player’s stat line or even a team’s record, we should be giving the award to the player who is truly worth the most to his ball club. In other words, if that player was removed his squad, the team wouldn’t be in contention for anything.
That’s why a lot of people feel, as great as Steph is, LeBron is truly the real MVP of the NBA. These people recall that in LeBron's first go around with the Cavs, the team achieved a 61-21 record in 2010 and the year after he left, the team went just 19-63. Take away LeBron from the present-day Cavs and many believe that even with Kyrie and Kevin Love, Cleveland is a borderline playoff team at best. Flip it over to the Warriors and we see that they are still capable of playing extremely well without Steph because of how deep they are. Golden State would still probably be a 4 to 6 seed in the West without Curry because of all the weapons they have and how they space the floor.
But there’s more than one way to assess a player’s value to his team. Yes, there are players like LeBron, Shaq, David Robinson, etc. who completely change the trajectory of a losing team by themselves. What they’ve contributed in their primes was able to take teams from 20-30 wins to 50-60 wins and true contenders within the league. And then there are players who elevate good or very good teams to championship teams. You may recall in the 1993-94 season when Michael Jordan was in his first retirement from basketball, the Chicago Bulls sill went 55-27….yes….55-27 behind Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong and Toni Kukoc. Still a very good team without MJ. And just like people said with Steph this year, some probably wondered how much Mike actually elevated that team compared to other superstars like David Robinson or Hakeem Olajuwon whose teams would have been lost without them.
Well, the proof of MJ and Steph's value is in the championships. In spite of what the Bulls did in 93-94, they got knocked out in the second round of the playoffs that year. Players like Jordan and Steph have been able to elevate good teams to teams who win titles. On the backs of their virtuoso performances in the clutch and their will to win, they are able to take teams to the highest level of achievement in the NBA. So when we assess MVP candidates, I think we not only need to think about which players transform bad teams into competitive ones with championship aspirations, but we also need understand the value of players who can make a good team into a championship-winning team. Step Curry’s body of work on the Warriors this season is a perfect example of the latter.
True or False
3. The NBA should change its draft lottery system T F
A: False. The whole reason the NBA instituted the lottery system in 1985 was to discourage teams from tanking. Now even though the Philadelphia 76ers have seemingly been playing to lose the last few seasons, their disastrous records year-after-year gave them no guarantee of getting the first or second picks in any of the recent drafts. Sure, they’ve had the best or near the best chance, percentage-wise, to score these picks but the nature of the lottery never made it a certainty. This year is the first time in its history that the pre-lottery percentages translated into the actual draft order. That’s the first time in 32 LOTTERIES that has happened. There will be teams who will continue to try and tank their way to the No. 1 pick, but unlike the NFL, the draft lottery has established a control to help prevent tanking teams from grabbing the top prospect prize. Should the lottery percentages be tweaked? Maybe...but overall, the lottery is doing its intended job: making sure that even if certain organizations have conspired to put a losing product out on the court, they have no guarantees of getting the best or one of the top two or three players in the draft.