PopGates had four of our writers look back at the season that was:
Compared to other NBA season’s how would you grade 16-17? On-court product and entertainment value?
Jonah Hall: As a teacher, I’m keenly aware of how grading can become arbitrary. The difference between an A- and a B+ is often negligible, but people love grades, so here we go…
89.9 (Round up to an A-)
Isaiah Thomas in the 4th Quarter has been appointment viewing 9 times out of 10. Nobody gets 10 points in a shorter span of real-time except Westbrook.
In terms of league-wide trends, the movement toward threes and spacing has become ubiquitous. In general, I love the ball movement and the flow. When it’s working, its the game at its most egalitarian, where the open corner three becomes the ideal. When it’s not working, it looks like the Celtics in the first half against Cleveland last week. When half of a team’s shots are from beyond the arc, you need to make at least 35% and/or get to the foul line. When you can’t do either, the misses start to deflate a crowd. After six straight bricks from deep, people get antsy and players get tight. Neither are helpful for shooting. In big games, with less-experienced teams, players get even tighter.
Remember the 60-win Hawks from 2015? One could argue injuries doomed them, but one could also argue that Kyle Korver couldn’t possibly keep up his impact against top-tier defenses. Playoff defenses take away options. A less than 100% effective Korver left Atlanta with too many Millsap post-ups and Teague isolations.
It’s much easier to win in the regular season by simply taking the analytic offensive route. Taking wide-open threes after bending defenses works well against the leakier defenses of the Association. It takes a supreme talent, like LeBron, Steph, Westbrook or Harden to get similarly open looks in May.
Back to the question of entertainment value: When every team starts attempting the same tactics, it can be hard to sustain the entertainment factor. Variety is necessary over 82 games. Memphis’ might not play the most entertaining basketball over 82 games, but they present a unique challenge for opponents. Milwaukee’s length (especially after Middleton returned which balanced the floor and added versatility) makes then a unique matchup. It’s entertaining to see these teams because of the way they force opponents to adjust.
Noah Perkins: Art is subjective.
There were hoop junkies who probably thought the 2004-2005 season was 82 games of unrivaled basketball bliss. These of course are the people who prayed to Vitaly Potapenko: the Ukrainian God of drop-steps and vodka.
But, they as I, have the right to their opinion.
The greatest season in NBA history is unquestionably the 95-96 season: Shaq was still on the Magic; offense still ran through a bevy of dominant bigs; Shawn Kemp was at his zenith; the Sonics were in the Finals; and ‘Big Nasty’ and ‘Big Country’ were both rookies with so much potential in front of them.
Nineteen ninety-five-ninety-six this season was not.
The lack of post-players is troubling; the Knicks are a joke; the manufactured media storylines of interpersonal drama are absurd – and are only getting exacerbated by the cesspool of independent publications (I know, the irony isn’t lost on me).
Still, this season wasn’t without its’ charm: The Greek Freak is a jumpshot away from being the next transcendent player; Russ and Harden were the ultimate examples of David with the slingshot; the Celtics are as likable a team as any since the 2012-13 Warriors; and the actual basketball was pretty good.
So good in fact I’d rather watch a regular season game between the Celtics and any top-tier team than almost all Sunday night programming – including premium channels.
The Walking Dead has turned to shit. Taboo is just plain weird, and as PopGates’ co-founder Scott Cinatl recently told me “nobody likes Better Call Saul.”
The only two exceptions are Rick and Morty and Game of Thrones.
If I am going to give the season a grade on a bell curve against every season since the Celtics introduced the modern super team in 2007-08, I’d give it an A-.
Austin Murphy: A season’s value is inherently tied to the interest-level for fans of all teams. 20 games through the season, my Lakers had a .500 record and were exciting to watch offensively. Even though we fell off a proverbial cliff, there were still plenty of reasons to keep watching games (growth, rookies, etc.). For the league as a whole, more competitive seasons mean more fans will tune in, and I’m of the opinion that more contenders now makes for a better year than a dominant season by last year’s Warriors. A more competitive MVP race works the same way, as fans of the Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, and Cavs all hope that their best players are honored as such at season’s end.
This season has paled, compared to previous years, when it comes to defense (which in turn gives rise to more scoring and triple-doubles). There have also been some off-the-court, unrelated distractions to detract from the collective season, but in general I feel like this year has been pretty solid and consistent. I give it an A-minus pending the playoffs, where hopefully we’ll see a bunch of great first round series like 2014.
Taylor Griffin: A-. This season was one of the more exciting seasons that I can remember. If you love juicy stat lines, this season was the GOAT. Russ averaging a triple-double, Second-year guys dropping 70 points, Isaiah Thomas taking games over in the fourth; this season was pretty incredible from an entertainment standpoint.
In a League driven by storylines, what was the best for you?
Jonah Hall: Westbrook and Harden have been incredibly entertaining this year, helping keep the NBA afloat during the post All-Star break slog-days of February and March.
Over the first few months, the Rockets were one of the better stories. After the playoff success of 2015, and the Dwight debacle of last season, it was refreshing to see Harden unleashed as a point guard, surrounded by 25-foot marksmen.
Joel Embiid’s arrival was impressive and must have been gratifying for the Sixers faithful. Covington’s two-way play has gradually raised hopes further for Philly’s 2017-18 hopes. How will Simmons and the future top 5 pick blend in with Embiid, Saric, Covington? Health, as always, remains the first question.
Over the last few months, its been wonderful to see Rudy Gobert and Giannis start to dominate. Both Utah and Milwaukee are defensive-minded teams that have enought punch to make things interesting in the first round, and possibly advance.
Austin Murphy: Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors. One of these three teams is going to the NBA Finals this year. We’ve only seen four teams total play for a championship in the last four years; it’s time for a change.
Noah Perkins: The talk of triple-doubles became an exercise in tedium every morning as I visited my favorite corners of the Internet – all due respect to Russ, who was an incredible component of why this season was so good.
Without question the Celtics were the seasons’ best storyline: their best player is 5’8”; their best rebounder is 6’1”. They are like a position-less mid-major that is racking up a stupid amount of wins in the best basketball league on Earth.
Taylor Griffin: Kawhi Leonard’s development into a bonafide superstar. His improvement on the offensive end singlehandedly kept the Spurs in contention for the top seed, without even hardly breaking a smile all season.
What about the worst storyline?
Noah Perkins: Jason Whitlock put it best earlier in the year when he called the NBA a sideshow league.
The on-court product takes a backseat to all of these manufactured interpersonal beefs – Melo and Phil; Cousins and Karl; KD and Russ.
The mainstream media runs off of gossip and feuds making it difficult as a fan by pushing a nightly high-school cafeteria themed soap opera.
This is mostly LeBron’s fault – starting with the decision.
The absolute worst was the KD and Russ stuff – we get it, Westbrook doesn’t like KD, but lets not pretend this is Magic Bird. For this to be Magic and Bird, Westbrook would have to have talent equal to the Warriors around him.
Jonah Hall: The saga continues with Phil and the Knicks. I have nothing to add, other than I’m tired of Kazoo-related headlines, and it’s time every NBA writer referred to them as the Kazoos.
Taylor Griffin: The Carmelo-Knicks drama. The Knicks spent another season being irrelevant, and had to come up with ways to stay in the media. Carmelo Anthony trade rumors, Phil Jackson comments, Charles Oakley fighting everyone, LOL.
Austin Murphy: The Hawks are one of the NBA’s oldest franchises, and I want them to be relevant, but for the life of me I can’t tell what they’re trying to accomplish.
They lost Horford and replaced him with a past-his-prime Dwight. Ok, I can understand that – trying to salvage a competitive roster just two years removed from the Eastern Conference Finals. But why, for the love of God, would you trade your best shooter to the top team in the east in the middle of the season? Are you trying to compete or trying to tank? Because from what it sounds like, according to Paul Millsap, the team actually thinks they’ll make some noise in the playoffs. But if that’s the case, why trade Korver when your team was still top 4 in the east? I guess, like Forrest Gump’s mama said, “Sometimes people do things…that just don’t make no sense.” SMH.
What if__happened this season?
Austin Murphy: I wish the Grizzlies would give up the ghost and just fade into the lottery. Grindhouse is dead, and despite Mike Conley’s admirable, gritty, never-die spirit, no one wants to pay to watch Memphis slow the game to a standstill in the first round of the playoffs. Those 43/44 wins, should they commit to a tank, could have gone to either Minnesota or New Orleans – two teams that boast players that people actually want to pay to see in the playoffs. And don’t even get me started on the decision to avoid the lottery in a season when there are at least five legitimate draftees who can all score and play the 2. But I guess Chandler Parsons, Andrew Harrison, and Tony Allen shooting a combined 27% from downtown is just too enticing to give up on.
Jonah Hall: 82 games. The Jump just did a segment on this. I’ve been on this for a few years. The science is clear about back-to-backs and increased injury. Teams are smarter than ever about resting their players. Fans are paying for 41 home games (45 if you include the forced preseason tickets that come with season ticket plans). The NBA brass wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Business-minded folks enjoy dismissing the concept of reducing the number of games out of hand, but it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as 58 or even 66 games to improve the NBA as a whole. If the preseason was shortened by another week, and the season length was reduced to 72, only a handful of back-to-backs would be necessary.
72 works well because each team would play 2 games against non-conference opponents and 3 against in-conference foes. Fewer nights of resting the NBA’s best and slightly more health heading into the playoffs.
People who follow the Association closely realize that “schedule losses” have been baked in for decades, but when teams are still playing 3 games in 4 nights, with cross-country travel exacerbating the lack of rest, and when defenses are more agressive than ever, something’s gotta give.
The science is clear: players get hurt when their bodies haven’t had time to recover. The subtraction of five home games per team would be a small short-term financial price to pay. Logistically, it would have to be done during the next collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap would likely have to reduced by 10%, as owners would fight the loss of 12% of home dates.
The idea of scarcity is helpful to keep in mind. The more time in between games, the more time to rest and anticipate the next game, not to mention the impact on playoff seeding would start to heat up at the 55 game-mark instead of the 65-70 game barometer we see today.
Noah Perkins: I’m going to say something that is going to be dismissed as poppycock infused hogwash.
I really wish Yi Jianlian hadn’t been cut by the Lakers in preseason.
Yi was in the league from 2007-2012, he played garbage defense but was good for 8 points a game.
He’s older and craftier now, and his game as a stretch four has more of a place in the NBA in 2017 than it did in 2007.
He also looked damn good in the 2016 Olympics, dropping 25 on Team USA and 20 on Serbia.
It’s a small footnote, but a guy who belongs in the NBA and isn’t is, well, Robert DeNiro said it best in A Bronx Tale “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Taylor Griffin: I wish the Wolves would have been as good as people thought they were going to be. With a bit of a late season push, they just came up a little short at the end of the year. Towns is an absolute beast, and it would have been fun to see him in the playoffs.
Did Demarcus and Anthony Davis play out the way you thought it would?
Austin Murphy: First off, I’ve never been a fan of midseason acquisitions. Rarely does it give you the practice time to incorporate everyone and unite the team as a whole, and the only real example in recent years of it leading to a championship the same season is 2004 with Rasheed Wallace and the Pistons (but at least then Detroit was already contending and had established a culture). The Pelicans are injury-riddled and probably whiffed with Alvin Gentry as head coach.
If we give them an entire year to play together, I’m sure they will find a way to coexist and thrive, but we also need to give them a supporting cast better than Tim Frazier and Solomon Hill. Tack on the fact that the media is going to continue to blame Boogie for anything that goes wrong, and next year will probably be wasted by December when pundits start calling for Cousins to be traded yet again.
Quite frankly, I love the idea of a team in New Orleans, but the Pelicans are going nowhere fast. If guys like LeBron, Wade, Durant, Bosh, Paul, and Anthony can be excused for departing their initial “forlorn” franchises for greener pastures, there’s no reason we need to pretend that Anthony Davis wants to keep playing for a perennial lottery team with no chance of winning a title in the next five years. The Brow needs to take his talents somewhere else as soon as possible – hopefully in 2021 when his contract is up.
Jonah Hall: As soon as the pressure was off, and they were basically out of the running for 8th, everyone started to settle in and figure it out. The questions of Jrue Holiday’s free-agency lingers. This team desperately needs a legit 3-and-D wing, like Khris Middleton or Jae Crowder.
Noah Perkins: I value post-play above all. Boogie is the best center on planet Earth – I very much enjoy watching him play.
But, really, is it any surprise that the Pelicans missed the playoffs?
What in Boogie’s career had given any indication that this would work? They started playing well after the playoffs were a mathematical impossibility – classic Boogie.
Taylor Griffin: I thought it would be a little more fun than it played out. Cousins’ injuries played a part in them not really finding a true rhythm on the court.
Toss Up: Bigger D-Bag George Karl or Phil Jackson?
Noah Perkins: Well, old white men saying grossly offensive things, and making sweeping generalizations about brown people is en-vogue right now.
This would be a coin-flip except George Karl is out of the league, so it’s a case of out of sight out of mind. As we speak Phil is probably defecating on a Willis Reed jersey, and plotting on how to move the Knicks to Long Island.
Jonah Hall: That’s a tough one. I listened to Karl interviewed by Zach Lowe and I came away thinking that he just isn’t that cerebral a basketball mind. He has coached forever, likes to tell stories, and wanted to make some money and get his older-generation NBA frustrations out. It’s not all that different from Charles Barkley, who has a nightly audience for his bloviating.
Phil is probably more annoying because he has the holier-than-thou attitude. I have no doubt Phil is a master motivator, but he has no business continuing as a GM at this point.
Austin Murphy: I’m definitely not the most unbiased person to comment on this as a Lakers fan. Phil led us to five championships, after all. But the one thing I can definitively point to is that Phil has never flamed anyone personally the way Karl did by bringing up Carmelo’s lack of a father figure. That’s just plain wrong. Regardless of how badly Phil’s stint as the Knicks’ president has gone, he has never gone after a player for anything that wasn’t basketball-related.
The one commonality between both situations, however, is the presence of Carmelo Anthony. Regardless of Karl’s personal attack, the Nuggets peaked in 2009 in the Western Conference Finals and never returned to that level because Anthony refuses to change his game to suit or prioritize team success. The same thing is happening in New York. Melo is a selfish black hole, and I will bet $5000 that he never wins a championship as a number one option.
As for Karl, the guy has proven to be petty and hard to play for. His time with the Kings and Boogie Cousins recently further solidifies this, and I sincerely hope that he never coaches in the NBA again and stays stuck at 1,999 wins for eternity.
Taylor Griffin: George Karl, just because he is completely out of the NBA picture now, and still trying to find ways to make himself look like an idiot.
Toss up: Russ or Harden?
Austin Murphy: I’m bitter, because I made a concerted effort to make sure I was watching when Westbrook broke the record with his 42nd triple-double of the season. First, he comes up an assist short against Memphis. Then he did it again against Phoenix. I was unable to watch the Nuggets game live due to a prior engagement, and he proceeds to not only break the record, but he also crushes Denver’s playoff hopes while dropping his third 50/10/10 triple-double of the season…and capped it all off with the best game-winner of the 2016-17 season.
Russell is your MVP. Someday people are going to wake up to the fact that team success depends entirely too much on a reliable supporting cast for stars, and guys like Kareem in 1976 and Rose in 2011 wholly deserved their awards given their impact on the game and importance to their teams.
About a month ago, I was completely content with either Brodie or the Beard winning the MVP, but I’m officially casting my vote for Westbrook. You can’t break a record and accomplish a feat not done in 60 years and not be recognized as the best player this season. Imagine if Bonds hadn’t won the MVP after hitting 73 HR’s or if LT had been snubbed in 2006 when he broke the TD’s record. People would have been outraged. Granted, those two didn’t have a guy in close second as well-deserving as Harden.
Nevertheless, Russell’s ability to carry a team this bad to 46+ wins after losing Durant is but another feather in his belt or notch in his cap and one of many reasons why he is your 2017 NBA MVP. This first round series between the Rockets and Thunder will certainly be worth watching.
Noah Perkins: MVP is determined by some archaic formula taking into account stats, record, teammates and narrative.
The Rockets and Thunder both are playoff teams, with comparable supporting casts. Westbrook has slightly better numbers and a far more compelling narrative.
Forget about the numbers for a second – the Thunder lost KD and still won damn near 50 games.
And then remember the numbers and think about the Thunder being 33-9 when Russ has a triple double.
Value – in clutch situations Russ has a higher true shooting percentage and the absolutely bonkers Player Impact Estimate of 40 percent.
Jonah Hall: Probably Westbrook, but the case could easily be made for Harden, Kawhi, and LeBron. The fact that OKC is 33-9 when Westbrook gets a triple double shows the value of those who claim the stat-stuffing inflation should give Harden an edge. We are constantly obsessed with ranking. I get that its fun, but lets not pretend to find a neat conclusion to the question of who is most valuable.
Taylor Griffin: I’ve gone back and forth all season on this, but I just can’t bring myself to not pick Russell Westbrook. What a season.
Do you still not care who Devin Booker is?
Noah Perkins: Devin Booker is 20 – meaning he is more than likely an insufferable dude who spends way too much time on Twitch and Snapchat. He also plays in Phoenix, which is only a small step above Albuquerque. I didn’t care who Devin Booker was before he stat-stuffed in a meaningless game that ended in a loss. I still don’t care who Devin Booker is.
Booker is a good player, but c’mon, the Suns are a terrible team and they lost. Jae Crowder put it best on Instagram ““NEVER SEEN SO MANY GUYS HAPPY AFTER AN ‘L,’”
Austin Murphy: I didn’t like him when he was at Kentucky because he was part of that class with the Harrison twins whom I knew were overrated from the start. I still don’t really care for him because he just looks like a poor-man’s Klay Thompson. But at least Thompson is recognized as a top-tier perimeter defender. Booker just likes to shoot.
The 70 points in wowing, but the Suns still lost. Kobe’s 81 came in the flow of the game, in the midst of the comeback, and the Lakers needed every single point to win that contest. Booker was gifted at least 10-12 points at the end of the fourth just from unnecessary fouls and free throws.
I’ll tip my cap because 70 is astounding, and everyone who has reached that total before is a legend, but I’m not sold that Booker is going to be anything better than a chucker. Besides, Tony Delk, Corey Brewer, and Terrence Ross also scored 50 once and look at their careers. Show me some W’s, Devin, and show me some D and I might come around.
Jonah Hall: I saw the whole game from a Celtics fans perspective. Booker in that proverbial zone and it was contagious. The problem was, it came against a Celtics team without Avery Bradley, in a game the Suns basically were happy to lose, and he dropped 26 or 28 of those points in the fourth quarter, after the Suns were down 20 and the game never really got close enough to raise the stakes. At the same time, Booker should be recognized as a deadly shooter who can now score off the bounce with ease. Booker and C.J. McCollum are two of the underappreciated scorers in the game.
Taylor Griffin: Scoring 70 points is no joke. But you were getting your butt kicked the entire game and still ended up losing by double digits? I can’t really respect it.
Are we in for another Cavs Warriors Finals?
Taylor Griffin: The Spurs are always a threat to make a finals run. There is just no denying Popovich and that organization, especially at the level Kawhi Leonard is playing at right now. Can they get pas they Warriors? Yes. But will they? I’m not sold. The Warriors were the best team all season long.
I would give it at 95% chance that its Warriors-Cavs come time for the Finals. There was chatter that the Celtics would de-throne the Cavs in the East, and then LeBron and Co. put that chatter into a box and threw it off a cliff when they dominated Boston last week.
Jonah Hall: The Warriors will win the West, but they will get worn down by either the Clippers or Jazz, and then worn down further by San Antonio. By the time they face the Cavs in June, maybe we’ll have a genuine sense of Durant’s health. Until then, they’ll get by simply with sticking him in the corner as the best stretch-four in history. Rebounding will be Golden State’s biggest concern. Who the hell knows with Cleveland? They seem bored and shot-happy, relying so rarely on their defense, but then shutting the Celtics down completely a week ago.
Noah Perkins: So badly do I want a Spurs Celtics Finals. But, the long and short answer is no, it’s not going to happen – The Cavs and Warriors is as certain as death and taxes.
Austin Murphy: Last year was the perfect season to prove that history and records aren’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen or play out. Nevertheless, I am supremely confident that the Cavaliers are far from invincible and perhaps at their weakest during LeBron’s second stint. The team relies on guys like Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Deron Williams for depth; these are three players that aren’t remotely close to being consistent contributors on either end of the floor at this stage of their careers.
To nearly secure the #1 seed*, the Cavs took care of the Celtics during their most recent head-to-head, but I’d argue that the homecourt advantage isn’t going to decide the Eastern Conference Finals should these two teams meet there. Both teams have relatively even home and away records, so these first two rounds of the playoffs will more accurately suggest who makes it out of the east.
*I also wrote this paragraph last week, before the Cavs shit the bed in consecutive games against the Hawks. That #1 seed isn’t nearly as clear cut anymore.
Like I suggested before, the Wizards and Raptors are two other teams I like for potentially upsetting the Cavs. All three of Washington, Toronto, and Boston have the talent at guard to give Irving, Smith, Williams, and Korver fits defensively. The Eastern Conference playoffs are really going to come down to how much baggage LeBron is forced to carry. He’s still the best player in the world when he commits to it, but he is also human.
As for the Warriors/Spurs situation out west, the Thunder’s run last year deprived us of potentially the best Western Conference Finals in history (given their win totals). This year Kawhi has evolved into an MVP candidate, and he has the all-around game to carry the Spurs through at least one if not two rounds of the playoffs.
The greatest predictor is going to be how quickly and effectively the Warriors are able to reincorporate Durant in his return from injury. The first round should offer extra time for this to occur, and a potential second round match-up with either the Jazz or Clippers should be a breeze for the team that boasts the most dominant three-year stretch in NBA history. If KD comes back strong and hungry, Golden State could challenge the 2001 Lakers’ mark of 11-0 in the Western Conference playoffs (the first round, of course, is best-of-seven now).
Should both teams reach the Western Conference Finals, I expect that the Warriors will still have the upper hand. San Antonio’s best shot would be if Durant is still plagued by injury or if Draymond has foul/technical/suspension troubles. If both are at full strength, my pick would still be Golden State in six. Tony Parker is just too old to have a realistic shot at stopping our reigning MVP in Stephen Curry.