Basketball is back. Across the world, true fans have a renewed sense of hope, as well as a fuller, more meaningful purpose. True love is a beautiful thing. And what is it to love the game but to appreciate the artistic fusion of athleticism and skill, individual prowess and a team’s cohesive chemistry that is NBA play? It’s hard to remember better all-around play from the entire league “” tanking efforts have stalled and most teams are trying to win (more or less), the league’s top talents are healthier than ever before and positionless, free-flowing offense is becoming more and more of a staple while we simultaneously witness the resurgence of the importance of quality big men.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing in this young season is the pleasantly shocking mortality which the Golden State Warriors have revealed. As I’m writing, they’re 5-2, and while there’s no legitimate reason to think that they will be a top contender in April, the widespread fear that Durant/Curry (whose name goes first?) and company would waltz unscathed into the next five Larry O’Brien trophies now appears to have been prematurely pessimistic. Defensively they’re vulnerable underneath, as Zaza Pachulia turned out to be a much lighter anchor than Andrew Bogut was, and the bench does not seem to have the same energy without sparkplug extraordinaires Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights. In addition, the age-old saying, “There’s only one ball,” has proven more significant than Warriors’ stars admitted in the preseason, Numbers to consider: Klay Thompson, 21 percent on three pointers (3P percent), averaging 17 points per game (PPG) compared with 43 3P-percent and 23 PPG last year. Draymond Green, 21 3P-percent and 9 PPG, compared with 39 3P-percent and 14 PPG last year. Interestingly, Kevin Durant is the only member of the Big 4 whose numbers have improved, while Steph’s numbers have remained relatively the same as last year’s. Fans will wonder whether or not this trend is significant with regards to ongoing team relationships, and whether or not it can even continue.
As enjoyable as it is to attempt to dissect the Warriors’ on-court malfunctions, celebrating failure leaves something to be desired. Instead, let’s talk about the most awesome part of the first few weeks “” the MVP race. (Disclaimer: LeBron should win every year. He’s proven time and time again to be on a level of his own, as he is simply able to affect the outcome of a basketball game in more ways than any man ever has. His winning depends solely on voter honesty and mood. The following analysis is expectant of voter prejudice, and therefore all who I name are vying for an award that dislikes LeBron).
Before the games began, popular talk revolved around Russell Westbrook, and for good reason. Unshackled, however cruelly, from Durant, many expected the point guard to explode in a lovely mess of statistics, but no one could predict the balance of positive and negative. Indeed, he’s currently putting up 33 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists per game at surprisingly efficient rates “” 44 percent from the field (FG-percent) and 41 3P-percent. With an open court and a free conscience, Westbrook has thrived and is undoubtedly the award’s early favorite, especially with the Thunder’s record of 5-1. Considering the under-the-radar yet solid assistance he’s received from the rising stud, New Zealander Steven Adams, plus newcomer Victor Oladipo’s bound-to-improve 15 PPG on 40 FG-percent and a top 5 team defense, there’s no objective reason to expect the Thunder’s success to taper off. If they win 48 games and finish with a top 5 seed in the Western Conference, Westbrook is the MVP.
The secondary battle, should Westbrook’s efficiency numbers decline, is among hometown hero Kawhi Leonard, my hero James Harden and poor Anthony Davis.
More often than I care to consider, I stare out the nearest window and sigh longingly, disgruntled with a basketball reality that permits the San Antonio Spurs to do things with team members and a basketball that no other organization is able to match, or even come close to matching. For centuries, they have been the perfect expression of the sport philosophy “a sum of their parts,” receiving maximum capacity from otherwise helpless castoffs such as Danny Green, Jonathan Simmons and Kyle Anderson. Yet in this game, even President Popovich recognizes the need for a transcendent talent if one wishes to ensure the team’s greatness. Exit Timothy Theodore Duncan, enter Kawhi. “The Claw,” as he’s affectionately called (although I think we can do better), is already back-to-back defensive player of the year, and it’s safe to say there is no one remotely close to being remotely close to as stifling a one-on-one defender. Watching the long-armed, emotionless, corn-rowed monster, one can only imagine the nightmares opposing wings have the night prior to a game against the “team that doesn’t beat itself.” He absolutely manhandles the child he chooses to torture on a frighteningly consistent basis. Unfortunately, his offensive capabilities are improving at a seemingly exponential rate. He’s averaging 26 PPG at a 48 FG-percent, demonstrating more court awareness, patience and confidence, along with a deadly mid-range game and some quality moves around the basket. If Westbrook can’t maintain, and the next man I’m going to talk about doesn’t deliver in full, Leonard will cement his status as a first-tier superstar with an MVP.
That next man is James Harden. The Bearded One tops the league in offensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and offensive plus/minus. That’s right. When it comes to singular offensive talent, Harden’s preeminence is increasingly clear. Although he’s currently fourth in PPG, it’s hard to imagine Demar DeRozan sustaining 34 PPG. Once DeRozan inevitably falls, and the Rockets continue to gel under Coach D’antoni, it is quite possible The Bearded One surpasses Westbrook and Damian Lillard in PPG, and when that’s paired with a league-leading 12 assists per game (APG), MVP voters may have no choice but to give him his reward. The Rockets need to start winning soon to give Harden a fair shot, which means that other players need to step up offensively as the team embraces the gunslinger mindset that has given D’antoni success in the past. If D’antoni’s vision of an offensive utopia comes to fruition and Harden becomes the first player since Nate Archibald to lead the league in points and assists, he has an excellent shot.
Finally, there’s Anthony Davis. Arguably the most physically gifted basketball player on the planet, Davis’ numbers of 30 PPG, 12 RPG and six combined blocks and steals per game, are mind-boggling. The lanky big has looked unstoppable at times when he’s in attack mode, and defensively he remains the upgraded version of Ben Wallace. If he stays healthy, his end of the season statistics will be nothing short of miraculous. However, that’s a big if, and the Pelicans suck, so he probably won’t have a shot at the award so long as his squad only wins 30 or so games. Poor Anthony.
The MVP race is shaping up to be a doozy. There’s a real chance Westbrook is the first man to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson, Harden the first to lead the league in points and assists since Archibald and for Davis to put up the most complete stat-line since the beginning of time. If their teams don’t deliver, defensive savant Leonard is the best bet to upset LeBron. Durant may garner some votes, but a victory looks unlikely, especially if the Warriors aren’t the best team in their conference. Since I don’t understand betting odds, we’ll do percentages.
Westbrook: 33 percent
James: 25 percent (who knows)
Leonard: 20 percent
Harden: 15 percent
Davis: 5 percent
Curry/Durant: 2 percent
Long live Los Rockets!