There’s three days left in the NBA regular season and before we get wrapped up in playoff coverage later this week, there’s some hardware to be handed out. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary today will focus on an MVP, an All-Star team, some honorable mentions and a Coach of the Year. Then we’ll wrap it up with a few things to keep an eye on the last few days of the season in the joust for seeding position. We’ll also look back on TheSportsNotebook’s preseason picks regarding each team’s Over/Under number on the win props and see how far off base I was.
I won’t waste time building up drama in sorting out who should be the MVP. LeBron James posted the following numbers…
*Shot 57 percent from the floor
*Shot 41 percent from three-point range
LeBron did all this while leading a team that underwent a personality transformation. When Miami failed to get any kind of production from their assortment of centers, head coach Erik Spoelstra made the decision to open it up and essentially play centerless—Chris Bosh nominally holds the position, but he’s still a power forward and can step outside.
Spoelstra’s decision paid big dividends and LeBron was the reason why. The point totals themselves aren’t staggering—at least not in the context of this discussion, where at least four other players are comparable, if not better. The rebounding is good. What’s most impressive are the assist numbers. LeBron is more than just the brightest star in the league. He’s the star that can involve everyone else in the offense.
Thus we have an elite star at the pinnacle of his career, for whom a complete strategic shift in the team’s approach was made, and then responded by leading that team to 64 wins (with two games left) and a run at league history in winning 27 in a row. I know saying that LeBron is a runaway MVP choice does not qualify as a bold prediction, but it’s always worth doing due diligence to make sure the mainstream opinion is the correct one. In this case, it’s right on. Give LeBron his fourth MVP award.
THE REST OF THE ALL-STARS
We’ll fill out TheSportsNotebook’s All-Star team with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony joining LeBron on the frontcourt, with James Harden and Stephen Curry making up the backcourt. Here’s the relevant numbers…
*Shoots 51 percent from the floor
*Shoots 41 percent from three-point range
*Shoots 45 percent from the floor
*Shoots 38 percentage from three-point range
*Shoots 44 percent from the floor
*Shoots 38 percent from three-point range
*Shoots 45 percent from the floor
*Shoots 45 percent from three-point range
I’m going to take up Curry’s cause first, because I suspect choosing him would be the most controversial. First off, a true All-Star team needs a true point guard—we can’t just pick five small forwards and call it an All-Star team. Curry’s assist numbers put him in that discussion and the shooting percentages put him over the top. Not only does he have the best three-point shooting percentage of any of the five All-Stars—or any other player we’ll discuss in this article, he does it while shooting eight treys per game. To maintain an elite percentage (and 45% is elite from behind the arc) while operating at high volume is extremely difficult to do, and Curry has done it.
The percentage/volume thing is why I’m tolerant of Anthony’s sub-40 percentage shooting the trey. The shot is a core part of the New York offense and Anthony attempts six per game. His percentage is good enough to justify that volume, although it’s low enough to remove him as a credible challenger for the MVP award and also to put him behind Durant if we got into ranking these players 1 thru 5.
Durant managed to slide below the radar this year, at least after the Heat took off on their win streak and San Antonio moved to the top of the Western Conference. But not only are the Oklahoma City star’s numbers impeccable, his team is up to 59 wins, back atop the West and will almost certainly clear the 60-win barrier. Durant had an MVP-caliber season, if not for the year James put together. Frankly, I think Durant should have won the award last year.
It was remarked in some circles that the results of the 2012 NBA Finals made all of us who promoted Durant look silly. Not so. The MVP award—or the All-Star team or any other award we pick here—is strictly about the regular season. It’s not about trying to handicap who will win the playoffs. And the results of the Finals no more make me back off picking Durant in ’12, then a Heat failure would lead to a mea culpa for picking LeBron. If you want the playoffs to count in picking the MVP, that’s fine, but then let’s wait until the dust is settled to do the choosing. That’s not the way it’s done, so we ought not to turn the MVP vote into a handicapping exercise.
KEY PLAYERS OFF THE BENCH
You can argue that this All-Star team is somewhat incomplete because it lacks a true post player. I personally think LeBron can handle that role, and the success of his team showed that you can win with forwards into today’s NBA. But that doesn’t mean a natural back-to-the-basket player and rebounder is passé. We still need someone, and we also need a third guard. With that in mind, let’s salute Golden State’s David Lee and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
*Shoots 44 percent from the floor
*Shoots 32 percent from behind the arc
Lee gets the nod over Dwight Howard. The Laker center had the numbers (17 points/12 rbg), but that is a slightly lower scorer average than Lee, and I don’t know if you heard, but Howard had some chemistry issues with his new teammates in Los Angeles. Shame on ESPN for letting the story of Laker dysfunction get under the radar this year. (I trust sarcasm comes through online).
Another Laker, even more notable, is passed over the backup guard spot. I’m not holding Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury against him because he played more than enough to qualify for this regular season conversation. What I am holding against Bryant is his constant jacking up of three-pointers (five per game) even though he hits just 32 percent. Simple math tells you that 33 percent is the minimum you need to shoot from behind the arc for it to be an efficient option. And please don’t tell me that the rules somehow don’t apply to Kobe because of his clutch skills. I might buy that in the last couple minutes of a game, but we’re talking about a player that takes a lot of long-range bombs he has no business unleashing.
Thus, the door is open for Westbrook, who is a better distributor and almost as good a scorer. You will note he’s got the same 32 percent three-point shot that I just panned Kobe for. And that’s why he lost out to Curry for the first spot. But he doesn’t shoot it quite as often as Kobe. Furthermore, Bryant has to lose points for the same reason Howard did—somebody has to be responsible for the soap opera that was the Lakers. How does the team’s biggest star escape accountability?
TRIBUTE TO A PAIR OF VETERANS
Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade would make a heckuva backcourt, and each had All-Star caliber season when they were on the court. But they each missed some time with injuries—not a lot, as each has played in 68 games coming into Monday. But the debate over these spots is tight and the slightest margin makes the difference. That’s why Paul and Wade missed out, but they each had the numbers…
*Shot 48 percent from the floor
*Shot 34 percent from behind the arc
*Shot 52 percent from behind the floor
*Shot 25 percent from behind the arc
Even though Wade only shot 25 percent from trey range, he only tried an average of one per game. Kobe, take note.
COACH OF THE YEAR
I’ve got five candidates that worthy of being mentioned. Here’s their credentials…
George Karl (Denver)
*Takes a team without a true star and leads them to a 55-25 record in the superior conference
*As of today, would beat out a more star-laden team in the Los Angeles Clippers for seed position
Frank Vogel (Indiana)
*Played the season essentially without his biggest star in Danny Granger. Still has 49 wins as of today and a #3 seed clinched.
*Pacers played defense as well, if not better, than any team in the league.
Erik Spoelstra (Miami)
*As noted above, recast his team’s strategy in favor of an unorthodox approach and blew away the East.
*Wrapped up the NBA’s best record in spite of having a team notorious for its lack of focus in drudge moments.
Mark Jackson (Golden State)
*Turned around a losing culture and produced a playoff spot in the superior conference.
*A mix of aging stars and no-name role players and still has second-best record in the West
*His pithy in-game interviews are a long-awaited rebuke to the networks for inflicting this useless idiocy on their audience.
I’m tempted give Popovich the honor just in light of that last sarcastic point (if you haven’t seen his in-game interviews, he gives one-word mocking answers). But I believe the nod goes to Karl. What gives him the edge is that he has to ply his craft in the tough Western Conference—he’d probably win 60 in the East.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS
The Eastern Conference is basically set. We know Miami-Milwaukee and New York-Boston are going to be playoff matchups, and we know Indiana and Brooklyn are going to have homecourt advantage. Atlanta and Chicago will be their opponents. Right now the Hawks are #5 (sending them to Brooklyn) and the Bulls are #6. A game separates the two teams, but that there’s not much difference in quality of first-round matchup. To the extent there is a difference, you’d probably rather be in the 6-hole, since you’re opposite Miami in the draw.
There’s more on the line out west. Oklahoma City has to close out the top seed, though both they and the Spurs are locked into the 1-2 spots. Denver, Memphis and the LA Clippers are packed within a game of each other. The Clips and Grizzlies are each 54-26 and if neither catches Denver, homecourt advantage in their 4-5 matchup is still at stake.
Houston and Golden State are knotted at the 6-7 spots, and that has some significance, since it would preferable to play Denver (or whomever is the 3-seed) as opposed to being seventh and having to play San Antonio or Oklahoma City. And the Lakers hold a one-game lead over Utah for the final playoff spot, but the Jazz hold the tiebreaker. ESPN has its fingers crossed that their season-ending Rockets-Lakers telecast on Wednesday will have meaning for both teams.
REVISITING THE WIN PROPS
Just prior to the regular season, I did separate previews for the Eastern and Western Conference and offered predictions on each team’s win props, with the exception of the Celtics. They’re my favorite team and I always weasel out of a pick on my own team. Of the remaining 29 teams, 22 have clinched their fate, either Over or Under, and I stand 14-8 on those teams. Here’s how they break down, with the preseason win number and my pick in parentheses.
CORRECT PICKS (14)
Philadelphia (47, Under)
Atlanta (43, Over)
Cleveland (31.5, Under)
Washington (28.5, Over)
Charlotte (18.5, Over)
LA Lakers (58, Under)
Memphis (49, Over)
LA Clippers (49.5, Over)
Denver (51.5, Over)
Golden State (36.5, Over)
Minnesota (38.5, Under)
Houston (28, Over)
New Orleans (26, Over)
Sacramento (31, Under)
Miami (61.5, Under)
New York (45.5, Under)
Brooklyn (46, Under)
Detroit (32, Over)
Chicago (47, Over)
Orlando (24.5, Over)
San Antonio (55.5, Under)
Phoenix (33, Over)
Here are the seven teams still on the board and what has to happen with regard to my pick. Each team has two games remaining…
Utah (44, Under)
Portland (33, Over)
–The Jazz are on 42 wins, so I just need them to lose once more. The Blazers are sitting right on 33 wins, so they need to squeeze out one more win.
NEED ONE GAME
Milwaukee (37.5, Over)
Oklahoma City (60.5, Under)
–I need the Bucks to win once and the Thunder to lose once, but that’s going to be tough. Milwaukee’s got nothing to play for, while OkC has homecourt advantage on the line and two easy games ahead. I’m bracing for losses on both of these picks.
NEED TO SWEEP
Indiana (50.5, Over)
Toronto (33.5, Over)
Dallas (41.5, Over)
–Here again, we have teams with nothing to play for. Indiana certainly will want to rest players. As for the Raptors and the Mavericks we might look at it another way—what have they done to suggest you should ever count on them winning two straight.
Thus, I suspect my record will be pretty average when all is said and done, probably with about 16 or so teams right out of 29. I’ll always take going over .500, but it shows how the Vegas number pulls everyone to the midpoint, one way or another.