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Triple Zeros: Playoff P is in Full Effect

Triple Zeros

Playoff P is in Full Effect

This episode of Triple Zeros starts off with Friday’s exciting NBA Playoff Game 6s between the 76ers and Hawks in the East and the Clippers and Jazz in the West. That leads to talk about properly appreciating Paul George and Donovan Mitchell for their efforts. Things shift to the weekend’s pair of Game 7s (Bucks-Nets on Saturday and Hawks-Sixers on Sunday) before switching over to the NFL.

That’s when things go back to a story about the city of Las Vegas having to go into emergency funds for the second time to make payments on the Raiders stadium. Also, why Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes sharing the Madden 22 cover is weak, Le’Veon Bell vs. Andy Reid, and more!

Anchor | Apple

Be sure to follow on Facebook and Twitter (@JoshGBuck, @3ZerosPod, @ClockerSports) today!

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Looking at the NBA MVP Race and Its Many Faces

There are many faces, old and new, vying to take home the NBA MVP award this season. Whether or not they will win is a matter of perception just as much as it is on their performances. Whoever gets it will have earned it because the caveat of it being “in the bubble” is no longer an issue. The return of fans has brought some atmosphere back to games; just ask the Lakers.

Last year’s (and the year prior, for that matter) winner, Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t likely to make it three-straight. His numbers are down almost across the board, most notably from deep and at the free-throw line. Both were areas of concern he was making strides in.

So Clocker Sports is taking a look at the top candidates for NBA MVP so far. We’ll go into the case being made in their favor, and take a look into why voters might hesitate to select them.

The Many Faces of the 2021 NBA MVP Race

1. Kevin Durant

Just a couple of months ago this space was used to make a case for Kevin Durant to win the defunct ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ award. Based solely on off-season workouts and pick-up game footage, it was clear Durant would be returning at least close to the level of play he enjoyed pre-Achilles injury. Just 17 games into the season and Durant is putting up numbers close to his MVP-winning 2013-14 campaign.

Durant has the Brooklyn Nets as the current three-seed in the East despite starting 5-5 to begin the season. His 30.8 PPG is second in the NBA and the second-best mark of his career. He’s shooting better than 53 percent from the floor, again the second-best mark of his career, and hitting a career-high 45 percent of his triples. Durant’s averaging 32.2 points, 7.8 boards, and 5.4 assists per contest in his last 11 games.

The only argument one could make against him is his supporting cast in James Harden and Kyrie Irving is second to none. We’ve seen in the past how having a stellar teammate or two can detract from your efforts in the eyes of voters and fans. But consider Irving’s flakiness or Harden’s defensive issues and ask yourself if Brooklyn, who was the seventh seed last year, would be in the position they’re in without Durant.

2. LeBron James

You’ve heard all the narratives. 36-years old, washed, etc. All have been used to describe LeBron James in recent years just to have him go out and show why those assessments were misguided. Last season he helped bring the Los Angeles Lakers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and their first championship since 2010.

We thought James would ease into the season considering, well, his reaction to the quick turnaround and the sentiments of teammates. While he isn’t leading the league in assists, he’s still leading his team in that category, scoring, and is second on the Lakers (third place in the West) in rebounds. Not bad for an over-the-hill, washed, superstar, huh? Only the foolhardy bought into that narrative.

James got dinged in the MVP race last year and voiced his displeasure. He’ll likely have to do so again because, while Anthony Davis isn’t having the MVP-type season we predicted early on, he’s still a perennial All-NBAer and arguably top-five in the Association. Perhaps the dip in Davis’ numbers can actually be used to boost the argument for James as MVP.

3. Joel Embiid

The best player on the best team in the East, Joel Embiid is having his best season since the 2018-19 campaign, of not his career. Averaging a personal-best 28.6 points and 1.2 steals per game, he’s also knocking down shots at career-best clips slashing .549/.423/.843 and a .588 eFG%. He and Tobias Harris have enjoyed Doc Rivers’ arrival on an individual level the most.

It’s a continuation of last year’s playoffs when Embiid put up 30.0 PPG (a career-high) and 12.3 RPG. Over his last eight games, Embiid is putting up 33.3 PPG and 10.5 RPG. More importantly, the Philadelphia 76ers are 8-0 in those games and 1-2 without him in that span. Philly lost the other two games he’s missed this season as well; not so uncertain evidence.

As always with The Process, it could come down to health. Embiid missed all of his first two seasons as a pro and has yet to appear in more than 64 games, though to be fair, that was his mark in 2019, and the pandemic shut down the season last year. If Embiid can stay on the floor, he has a legitimate shot at being the first center to win the MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.

4. Nikola Jokic

The Joker is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Maurice Podoloff trophy, thanks in part to his 47-point outburst against the Utah Jazz the other night. Nikola Jokic, much like Embiid before him is experiencing a banner year. He’s sitting with career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. This, unlike Embiid, is an improvement upon last year’s playoff performance.

Jokic has scored fewer than 20 points just four times this season, and in two of those outings, he had 19 points. He’s only failed to grab double-digit boards four times as well. In three of those performances, he had nine rebounds while he had eight in the other. No player has more 19-plus point, 10-plus board double-doubles than Jokic this season. We haven’t even addressed his passing of which he has nine games with double-figure dishes.  He also has five triple-doubles; tied with Luka Doncic for the lead.

Of course, we can’t let it all be rainbows and puppies. Some of the issues that may come up in the discussion in regards to Joker must be addressed. We cannot ignore that his career scoring year comes with a career-high in usage and shot attempts. Denver was also the three-seed last year and sits at fourth currently. That’s is the smallest of regressions but it must be noted. The Nuggets are getting better production from non-Jokic and Jamal Murray pieces, too. Will that hurt him when the vote comes?

5. The Field

The rest of the list gets kind of cluttered with some decent cases, but not many strong ones. Giannis’ case is the strongest. The reigning back-to-back winner is having a down year, yes. But we know how he goes, so go the Milwaukee Bucks. And for all the picking apart of his game, he still has the Bucks sitting second in the East. Not bad for a guy who can only run and jump.

Paul George has gotten a lot of love for his “redemption” season. Many will overlook his numbers simply because it’s happening in the regular season. ‘Playoff P’ is the guy we all want to see. But he has a bigger problem: Kawhi Leonard. Not only is Leonard ahead of George in PPG, but he’s also ahead in FG% while only slightly trailing in 3P%, rebounds, and assists. This isn’t saying George isn’t having a great year. Just remember who he plays with.

You’ll get calls for Davis to get consideration but, ya know, LeBron. Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers are 11-9 right now. That ain’t getting it done. Doncic was a preseason favorite but Dallas is 9-13 and he has struggled from deep this season. Still, he has as good of a shot as anyone listed at getting back into the thick of the race. That’ll require some more wins and the Mavericks are fresh off a six-game slide.

With Friends Like James Harden, Who Needs Enemies?

Polarizing is a word that fittingly describes the kind of player James Harden is. Some view his style of play as innovative and unique; a skill set he has honed through practicing tough shots and understanding the rule book. Others would call it a detriment to the game. An abuse of poorly written and unevenly called rules. The amount of discussion coming from either side, though, shows just how high of a profile Harden has.

News broke on Wednesday that the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards had agreed to swap star point guards. Russell Westbrook to Washington and John Wall to Houston. It’s been reported that Harden and Wall have worked out and played in open runs together for some time now. The move has received all sorts of reactions, just like anything else Harden does.

Harden Running Out of Friends to Help Him

Okay, But Why?

Some say this is a move designed to keep Harden interested in staying in Houston. Recent attempts to get over the hump in the postseason have all fallen short. We can go back to the Dwight Howard experiment but let’s instead focus on Chris Paul’s time in H-Town. There was much consternation about how they would coexist being as ball-dominant as they are. They worked well enough for folks to hypothesize that if Paul doesn’t get hurt the Rockets might make some noise.

Well, Paul got shipped out after two seasons. One of which they lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in seven games. Injuries had always been a part of Paul’s history so an injury possibly derailing a playoff run is plausible. When Harden told reporters after they got bounced in 2018 that he knew what had to be done, the writing was on the wall.

Houston shocked the world again. They made another trade for what most considered an unmovable contract when they swapped CP3 for Russell Westbrook. After failing to click with the Point God, Harden now had his childhood friend for a running-mate. Unfortunately, Westbrook’s style caused the Rockets to change up their roster. They went with a small-ball approach. The tallest person on the floor for them often standing no taller than 6-foot-7. That ended with a five-game series loss in the second round. Again to the eventual champion, this time in the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, even with Daryl Morey no longer in the fold, the Rockets have swapped unmovable contracts. The move is receiving mixed reviews. Some argue the Rockets won. On top of keeping Harden happy, they get rid of Westbrook whose style isn’t conducive to winning. Others will argue the Wizards won because of the off-the-court issues Wall has had as well as the complicated relationship with (and reaction to the team building around) Bradley Beal. Oh, and Wall, who hasn’t played since the 2018-19 season, is returning from serious injuries including a torn Achilles.

Same Difference

The tale of the tape is quite interesting. Wall is the bigger of the two and has the higher assist average. This is more than a little surprising given Westbrook’s three-year run of averaging a triple-double. But Wall had a three-year stretch where he averaged better than 10 dimes per game. The difference is Wall has never been the kind of shot-seeking scorer that Westbrook is.

Brodie has eight seasons (out of 12) averaging greater than 18 shots per contest. Wall, aptly nicknamed ‘Optimus Dime’, has but one. Westbrook is the more voluminous scorer too, but Wall takes the efficiency advantage everywhere but at the free throw line.

Perhaps ideally, in the mind of Harden and Rockets brass, is that Wall can be a happy medium between Westbrook’s explosiveness (a nice compliment to Harden’s lull-you-to-sleep style) and Paul’s pass-first mentality. That is if he is happy and focused. Going to a competitive situation in Houston after being in the tumultuous one in Washington will help. As will the singing of Demarcus Cousins; a friend of Wall’s going back to their day at the University of Kentucky.

We’re all missing the forest for the trees, though. It doesn’t matter if this will work for the Rockets (it won’t). Nor does it matter who won the trade (the blogosphere). No, what matters here is that Harden has cycled through a fair amount of friends for teammates and hasn’t figured out the right fit yet. At some point the question needs to be asked if building around him is worth it.

The Real Culprit

This isn’t an attack on his playing style, either, outside of his willingness to be complimentary. There aren’t many, if any, situations where Harden would be a second option but he could still benefit from being a better compliment on the floor to his team. Instead of standing in the corner watching the action when off the ball, become a better, more active cutter. Instead of dribbling out the shot clock on every possession, allow yourself to be more of a part of a system that get more guys involved.

Yes, star players are supposed to touch and shoot the ball more. Harden’s 36.3 usage rate in 2019-20 is second only to Michael Jordan’s ‘86-’87 season (38.3) in NBA history. With nowhere close to the hardware as ‘His Airness’, and a history of fading in the postseason, that number could stand to drop even if only a little bit. The last player to win a championship with a usage rate in the 30s was LeBron James in 2012-13 with the Miami Heat. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, two of the most efficient scorers in NBA history, haven’t even done it.

It’s a big deal that the Rockets and Wizards pulled this trade off. We just need to recognize what the real story is here: Harden is the problem, not his teammates. At some point, it is no longer everybody else, it’s you. We are seeing this response to Paul George who is implicated in reports of dysfunction in the Los Angeles Clippers organization and now taking thinly-veiled shots at former coach Doc Rivers.

Harden’s passing of the buck isn’t as blatant as George’s was. But, even with the statements before the CP3 trade, the constant cycling of supporting cast speaks volumes. Talking heads have just overlooked it because the Rockets keep putting together intriguing groups. This time though, with a move that might be best described as lateral, we might be reaching the end of this case study. It’s been theorized that the Wall and Cousins moves are independent of a decision to move Harden, though that seems unlikely.

Rough Being Friends with James Harden

We saw Harden slapping Paul’s hand away on the sidelines and read the reports that Harden and Westbrook had bumped heads on occasion. These incidents get viewed through the lens of isolated incidents or as the fault of the other guy. Maybe rightfully so, none of the aforementioned teammates were choirboys. But the common denominator, and dominator of the situation, is James Harden. As a player who has been vocal about his scoring accolades, he needs to be a leader and own up to and adjust his ways.

Unless, of course, he truly doesn’t care about winning

Triple Zeros: It’s #NFLTradeSZN!

 
🏈It’s Tua Time
🏈Trade Deadline Ideas
🏀SVG to NO
🏀2K Ratings Takeover
+More!
 
 

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Clocker Sports

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Kawhi Learns Lesson Lebron Learned a Decade Ago

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is learning, the hard way, a lesson that LeBron James had to learn in the same fashion. That lesson is that it’s easy to assemble talent, but far more challenging to build a team. In a Game 7 on Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the postseason’s most consistent performer tried to fly in the face of history but wound up flying too close to the sun.

LeBron’s 2010 Lesson Being Learned By Leonard

Decisions Decisions

We all remember when LeBron sat down for that ESPN special, which was the idea of a fan, by the way. The NBA world watched with bated breath as he, in search of his first championship, took his talents to South Beach. Teaming up with his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they would go on to bring the Heat organization its second and third titles.

Instant success was elusive, though. That first postseason the Heat ran through each of the first three rounds in five games apiece and were third in opponent points per game. But they ran into the buzzsaw Dallas Mavericks, the third-highest scoring team in those playoffs, and fell in six games, cementing the legacy of Dirk Nowitzki and casting another shadow on that of James.

If he couldn’t win with his handpicked team, then would he ever get over the hump? He obviously did, but his 17/8/7 line left a lot to be desired and led to the J.J. Barea memes. James and Leonard would meet in back to back Finals but the 2010 series is where Leonard’s current path, wholly different to this point, has caught up to James’ from a decade ago.

The Same Difference

Kawhi’s legend grew from his defense of James. Even though the latter averaged 26.7/9.3/5.5 the former proved to be a James agitator; much like a bigger (and quieter) DeShawn Stevenson. The result was a Finals MVP in 2014. Leonard would see his scoring jump the following season as he made his first All-Star appearance but the Spurs lost in the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Three years after winning his first championship and Finals MVP, Leonard found himself embroiled in a months-long dispute with the organization that had developed him. The issue at heart, a lingering quad issue, and the organization’s questionable (at best) handling of it. From lost faith in the team medical staff to teammates publicly comparing the severity of their injuries to his.

It all concluded with a blockbuster deal that sent Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. The season they had was storybook, winning 58 games and, ultimately the championship. Leonard earned another Finals MVP as the Raptors downed a Golden State Warriors squad that lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during the series.

Catching the King

Success breeds expectations and this is where Leonard finds himself in James’ shoes of 2010 now in 2020. Leonard’s new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, whom he spurned the Raptors for, were eliminated in seven games by the “year away” Denver Nuggets. Kawhi was as steady as they came, but a supporting cast that was often touted as the deepest in the league frequently left meat on the bone.

In what was Leonard’s quest to match James’ ring total, ended in a flurry missed flailing layups from Montrezl Harrell, short jumpers from Paul George, and Lou Williams’ greatest contribution being highlighting the wings named after him at a strip club. They flashed the greatness we heard about all season but they rarely displayed any consistency outside of Leonard.

He averaged 24.3/8.6/5.9 for the series, having only two games with fewer than 23 points. But he saved his second-worst performance for the worst time. He averaged 31/10/5 against the Mavericks, a team that gave the Clippers enough issues to take notice, in the first round but found himself putting up two games of scoring in the low-teens, including 14 points on 27% shooting in Game 7.

A King’s Lesson

Kawhi may have had a poor performance in Game 7 but he had been carrying his team for the majority of the playoffs up to that point. A dud game was due even if it came in an absolutely awful situation. The bigger issue may have been the lack of cohesion from his squad that cropped all too often.

Head coach Doc Rivers can talk about conditioning being the major factor for L.A. and Harrell about locker room issues but it sure did look like the lulls in scoring and lapses in defense were the results of a team that didn’t play together much in the regular season and lacked a true point guard. It became clear they were an impressive collection of talent but not a top-flight team.

The Clippers, much like Toronto the year before, had a great record without Leonard. But with early distractions to Williams and Harrell combined with ineffectiveness from his “Robin”. George, in particular, was a disappointment in these playoffs. He averaged 18 points in the Mavs series on 36% shooting (27.5 3P%) before upping it to 21 points on 43% shooting and 38% from deep except he fell back into what has become a meme about him and scored 10 points while shooting 25% in Game 7.

Heavy is the Head

Kawhi’s earlier success this postseason doesn’t absolve him from blame. Scoring 14 points on 27.3% shooting (28.6 3P%) in a win-or-go-home situation is not the stuff superstars are made of. Except that’s exactly what they are made of. We have seen it play out right before our eyes with James in 2010 following a similarly poor showing in the postseason.

Of course, LeBron’s shortfall was in the Finals and Kawhi’s came in just the second round. But, beyond the success each had before, Leonard’s 2020 is shaping up very much like James’ 2010. How he responds will go a long way to solidifying his standings in the NBA. Standings that, right now, should show he (and everyone else in the NBA) is a step below LeBron James. For now he will just have to take solace in knowing. It’s easy to assemble talent but far more difficult to build a team.

NBA Western Conference Playoff Preview

The calendar has turned to March and the madness is about to begin. Yes, that might have been a reference to college basketball but that still doesn’t change for the NBA. Last week I covered the Eastern Conference.

The playoffs bracket in the West is closer in terms of playoff positioning, but the Los Angeles Lakers sit at the top led by all-time great LeBron James. Can we consider LeBron a legend even though he is still active? We can get to that next week when I’ll be diving into some of the more debatable topics this league provides its fans.

Previewing the Western Conference Playoffs

The Front-Runners

The Lakers have a sturdy 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers who many consider the favorite to come out of the West. The Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all separated by 5.5 games. These last few weeks could help win homecourt advantage for certain teams that thrive in there home arena.

Home-court advantage is going to be critical. If Denver gets home court over the Thunder (which would happen if the playoffs started today). Both teams are significantly better at home than on the road. Think about if Oklahoma City stole home-court advantage and was able to win their first-round series. That could change the outlook on the franchise.

The current seventh-seeded Mavericks actually boast a 21-11 road record, so they could play spoiler in a series. Luka Doncic is built for the playoffs. They might lose their first-round series, but there will be fireworks because of the Mavericks averaging 116 PPG, which ranks third in the NBA.

Last, Not Least

The battle for the eighth spot in the west might be the most interesting. The Memphis Grizzlies are sitting with a 3 game lead over the Sacramento Kings.

Other potential suitors for that eighth and coveted spot are the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans. All of these teams sit no more than four games back. The most compelling story is the upstart Pelicans who are led by rookie sensation Zion Williamson. But we have to respect what Memphis has done here. Their schedule after the all-star break was second in difficulty, and with a little over a month to go, they have a solid three-game lead. The Grizzlies are led by another rookie sensation in Ja Morant.

Look at the top-seeded Lakers. They have two of the top-five players in the league. Some are here to argue that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the league and I have no qualms about it. I would be remiss to say that LeBron is still the number one player in the world given his incredible IQ, distribution, and understanding of the game and what needs to be done to win a title.

Still Up There

At this point, we are tired of LeBron and it skews our view on him in terms of greatness. In any best-of-seven series, the Lakers will have an all-time great as the best player on the floor. But will his supporting cast be able to do enough to get him to the finals?

The number-one threat to the Lakers returning the NBA Finals is the Clippers. After an intense six-game series where the upstart Clippers pushed the Warriors to the brink with inspiring play, free-agency ended with them having acquired the defending Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a two-way superstar who could help the Clipper reach the promised land. The Clippers have the star power and defensive prowess to wear the Lakers down and are 2-0 against their cross-town foe.

But this reporter has seen this before. Who remembers when the 2011 Chicago Bulls went against the Lebron James led heat? Yes I know, we have different levels of stars. And Leonard and George are lengthy defenders who can combat LeBron. But when it comes down to it in a best-of-seven, give me LeBron.

Keep an Eye On

The Nuggets and Rockets are third and fourth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets main question still remains. Do they have the star power to get to the finals? Simple answer. No.

Denver is a good team, don’t me wrong. But right now they would face the Thunder in the first round; no easy out. In the second round, they would face the Clippers. They don’t have the bodies to guard the likes of Leonard and George. The athleticism of the Clippers would be too much.

The Rockets are a gimmicky team trying to beat you by spreading the floor and being unconscious from the three-point line. They have the superstar power to get to the Western Conference Finals but those stars haven’t punched their ticket to finals since 2012. That was when James Harden and Russell Westbrook were with the Thunder.

How It Plays Out

Throughout a seven-game series, the Rockets will be worn down. If they come out of the first round, they’ll be minced meat for either the Lakers or Clippers. The bottom-four teams in the playoffs have young (to a degree), up-and-coming teams that will have their title window soon. Just not quite yet. The Thunder are the surprise of the season.

After trading Westbrook and George, everyone thought the team would tank to hopefully draft their next superstar. That is not the case. Chris Paul and company are having a fantastic season and look to ruffle some feathers in the first round. Utah is a defensive dynamo led by Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, they do not have enough pop to get to the finals. Hopefully, they’ll see Donovan Mitchell pop in the playoffs again. The Jazz are just hoping to advance to the second round.

As for the Mavericks and the Grizzlies, the only thing I want to see is the blossoming of Doncic and Morant. These two young players are on another level, and I hope to see them raise their game in the playoffs. Doncic has been in big moments for nearly a decade and you can tell in his early career he has the makings of being something special. He is currently averaging 28.5 points per game, 8.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds.

One for the Road

Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Trust me I love Zion just as much as the next guy. But Ja has been nothing short of special for this upstart Memphis bunch and a playoff appearance in his rookie season is nothing but a sign of great things to come.

It is March and that can only mean one thing. The basketball world will come into the focus with the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs to follow shortly after. These are all the things I am looking for in this year’s playoffs. If you read last week’s article I chose the Boston Celtics, and for this week. I believe the Lakers will meet them in the NBA Finals, and the winner will be in next week’s article.

If you have anything you want to discuss you can hit me up on twitter @illiniRyan7

NBA Playoff Surprises and Disappointments: Western Conference

Let’s look at the playoff field in the Western Conference, in particular, the most surprising and disappointing playoff teams. The 2018-19 NBA regular season is drawing to a close and the playoffs are essentially here for some teams needing wins at the end of the campaign.

Playoff Winners and Losers in the Western Conference

Pt. 2

Clippers Cutting Up

44. That is how many wins ESPN had the Los Angeles Clippers pegged for (at best) back in October. It was actually an improvement from the 35 wins the sports media giant projected in the summer. Sitting at 47-34, L.A. is getting the last laugh, but if they foresaw the season going this way they are the only ones.

A roster built with bench and injury-prone players has turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Potential 6th-Man of the Year Lou Williams is averaging 20 points and career-highs with 5.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. They have gotten 19.9 points (and 67 games) out of Danilo Gallinari and 16.5 off the bench from Montrezl Harrell. L.A.s top-five scorers are rounded out by rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet.

Los Angeles is fifth in true shooting percentage and eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage. But the elephant in the room is how far can this scrappy group go with no superstar? Especially in an era where true contenders have two and three such players. Whatever the outcome for this team in the postseason, the real target is 2019-20. With space for two max contracts this summer, the Clippers have at least given themselves a shot at a big fish (or two).

Spurs Spurn Offseason

Fifth in offensive efficiency, third in percentage of points from twos, sixth in effective field goal percentage, and second in field goal percentage. All the hallmarks of a Coach Pop-led San Antonio Spurs team. They even made the playoffs to boot; currently the seventh-seed. That seeding could typically be construed as a negative for this organization. But this year was supposed to be vastly different.

Trading Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) for Demar DeRozan (and Jakob Poeltl) was obviously not looked at as an upgrade. And to be clear, it has not been. They are scoring more this year (111.7 PPG) than 2016 (103.4) and 2017 (105.6), the last two seasons with a healthy Kawhi. But that output has them ranked 17th this season as opposed to 10th in ’16 and 13th in ’17. Defensively they are allowing 110.2 PPG, good for 12th in the NBA. They allowed 92.9 (1st) and 99.4 (2nd) points per game in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

San Antonio’s defensive numbers taking a hit sans Leonard was always the expectation, but DeRozan has been much more than a consolation prize. While his 21.3 points per game are down from last season, that is still above his career average. Additionally, he is averaging career-highs in assists (6.2), defensive rebounds (5.3), and total rebounds (6) per game. He and LaMarcus Aldridge (21-9-2-1) present a very underrated draw for whatever opponent they ultimately face. That is especially true if they do indeed take on the young, second-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round.

Thunder Struck

Russell Westbrook (23-11-10) is averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season. Paul George (28-8-4) spent much of the year being rightfully touted as an MVP candidate. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season and ninth time since moving from Seattle. And yet there is as much uncertainty as ever regarding how far this team can actually go in the playoffs. Who they face in the first round will likely play a huge part in that.

OKC has raised their scoring from 107.4 (12th) last year to 114.3 (8th), but they are 19th in field goal percentage. The only playoff team with a worse effective field goal percentage (and true shooting percentage) is the Detroit Pistons. No playoff teams are shooting a worse percentage from three-point range and they are the third-worst free-throw shooting team. No player personifies the nature of the Thunder season than Westbrook. Despite the gaudy stat line, he is shooting 42.5% from the floor and 28.6% from three while hitting only 65.7% of his free throws.
George is also….culpable in the Thunder looking more like a pretender than contender. Somewhat. ‘Blame’ is definitely too strong of a word, but OKC is 8-9 since his shoulder injury. Their current three-game win streak only almost offsets the four-game skid they hit in March when they went 6-10 for the month. The Thunder would square off against the Houston Rockets if the playoffs started today. If they continue to shoot so poorly from deep and the charity stripe, they are certainly looking at a third-consecutive first-round exit.

Trail Ablaze

The Portland Trailblazers are having their best season since 2014-15 at 51-29 and fourth in the West. They are sixth in scoring and 10th in true shooting percentage. Damian Lillard (25-6-4) is the picture of consistency and C.J. McCollum (21-4-3) has provided his usual support, despite missing 10 games with a knee injury. The dynamic duo, however, is not what had many excited about this iteration of the Blazers.
Jusuf Nurkic, aka the Bosnian Beast, was having a career year before suffering a gruesome leg injury. It is a big blow for Nurkic (15-10-3) who also had to bow out of last year’s postseason with an injury. Portland still has the likes of Enes Kanter, Myers Leonard, and Zach Collins to man the pivot, but therein lies the rub. The Blazers will be able to replace the points, but Nurkic was their only rim-protector. Kanter is a great rebounder and contributes on offense (12.7 PPG since joining the Blazers). But he is often the butt of jokes about his defensive (li)abilities. Leonard and Collins are also offensive guys on the court for their scoring.  All three lack Nurkic’s presence down low defensively.
Portland was undoubtedly looking to shake the stigma that they cannot get to the NBA Finals. Three first-round exits mixed in with only two appearances in the second round over the past five years is a high hurdle to overcome. And the Blazers have never been known as a defensive powerhouse. They also still lack that dynamic wing player to alleviate the burden on the devastating one-two punch of Lillard and McCollum. They were poised to be more physical and dominant on the boards with Nurkic and Kanter. Now they are who we thought they were, and it is difficult to see them going any deeper into the postseason than in years past.

Still Playing in the Western Conference

All of these teams are in the playoffs so one could argue that this is nitpicking. Except these are crucial to any success they might have. Sure some are out of team control, but that will not take away the sting of impending early exits if they are unable to correct the issues they face. Perhaps it is all moot since the entire basketball universe expects the Golden State Warriors to three-peat. But on the off-chance that we do crown a new NBA champion, it is approaching far-fetched to think it would be one of the teams listed above.