As of Wednesday, the regular season is over. That means it's time to press pause on whatever MVP argument you are having, look around, and take a deep breath. The playoffs are coming. To celebrate, and to help prepare, here are the 10 players I'm most interested in watching over the next few weeks and months.
Coming into this season, everyone knew this was the year that could make or break George's future in Indiana. Larry Bird knew it, too; it's why he fired Frank Vogel and looked to reinvent the team with Jeff Teague and Thad Young arriving over the summer. But none of it's really worked. George pops up with an openly miserable quote every few weeks. In February there was a "dark cloud" hanging over the team. By March he said the team had no "winning pride" and wasn't pissed off enough, although, I don't know, Paul George seems like he's pissed off enough.
On the bright side: after grinding through this frustrating year for the first five months, he's been hitting 50% of his shots since March 1. In April, he averaged 33 points and 7.6 rebounds as the Pacers closed the season with five straight wins to force their way into the playoffs. The final six weeks is probably not enough to make an All-NBA team (and allow the Pacers to pay him an extra $40 million with an extension this summer), but it's been a good reminder that George is one of the 10 best players in the entire world when he's locked in. If he were on the Celtics, for example, it would've made the entire playoffs more interesting.
So let's see how this first round matchup goes. The Cavs are a mess, but they're still the Cavs. LeBron's team is the standard that every other team can measure itself against. How far away will the Pacers look, and how will it shape what Paul George pushes for this summer?
Basketball fans and writers were doing a funny rhetorical dance down the stretch this year. On the one hand, there was the MVP race, and I'm pretty sure all of our MVP explanations were legally required to remind you that "every candidate is deserving, there are no wrong answers."
At the same time... Steph Curry finished the year lighting the whole league on fire. He won 66 games. Over the final month, he went and blew out every MVP candidate on their home floor. And after three years, Golden State looks as invincible as ever. So I don't know. Whoever we choose as the 2017 MVP, maybe there is a wrong answer?
Steph shouldn't actually win. I get it. But it's something to keep in mind as the playoffs unfold. Integrating Durant all over again could complicate Curry's newfound rhythm, and doing it in the playoffs adds a degree of difficulty that leaves just enough room for you to convince yourself they're vulnerable. Likewise, as we saw last year, health can change everything.
But if the Warriors pull this off and make it look as easy, the credit goes to the point guard who sacrificed his game and ego to add a sidekick, then remembered how to be arrogant when his team needed him to be dominant. Who knows what the next chapter will be in the playoffs, but no player has dealt with more skepticism and backlash over the past two years. Most of it was pretty inexplicable, and some of it came from the biggest superstars the league has. If Curry is as historically great as he appears, we are due for a response.
James Harden (and Russell Westbrook)
I don't have anything especially creative to say about Harden or Westbrook at this point—blame a tidal wave of MVP takes over the past two weeks—but this will be delightful to watch. At the moment, Westbrook looks like he's got the edge in MVP voting. But then Harden will go and win their first-round series, and that will guarantee that all of our loud, combative, overly personal MVP arguments will continue until the end of time. That makes me happy.
Between the two of them, Harden's more interesting in the playoffs. There's not much mystery left to what Russ does well. As I've written elsewhere, his game is low-key counterproductive in a team context, but he's incredible enough to make it work for everyone anyway. That only goes so far, though. Westbrook's history in the playoffs suggests that he is capable of costing his team as many games as he wins. As for this season, the Thunder are 21–24 against above .500 teams, which isn't terribly inspiring heading toward the playoffs.
So, the other side of the spectrum: how far can Harden's game take his team? I voted for Westbrook as my MVP, in part because I'm not convinced that Harden's actually got Houston that much closer to a title than OKC. That could be wrong. Then again, for all the hand-wringing over the Thunder's ceiling, Houston's only 20–23 against above .500 teams.
Likewise, if Westbrook's playoff history is uneven, Harden's has been even worse. He was flat-out benched against the Clippers two years ago, he melted down against Portland the year before, and he fell apart in the Finals for OKC. It's not to say he's overrated, or soft, or anything else—I don't know if the Harden skepticism has ever been totally fair. But we're still waiting for him to silence it. This spring will be his best chance yet.
So let's talk Cavs skepticism. Obviously, it's always a bad idea to bet against LeBron James. But what about betting against Kyrie Irving? His numbers have been fantastic—25.2 points per game, 5.8 assists, 47% shooting, 40% from three—but his defense remains horrendous. His effort comes and goes. He's mercurial in the best sense of the word (Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, Game 7 three to win it), but also the worst (occasionally selfish, often aloof, honest-to-God flat-earther).
More importantly, if you think about who Cleveland has been all season long, it's been Kyrie who personifies the Cavs, not LeBron. That would scare me if I were a Cavs fan.
Of course, if I were a Cavs fan, I might have also tattooed Kyrie's stats against Steph Curry across my back, and I'd definitely laugh at anyone who's stupid enough to doubt them in the East. Maybe all the concerns are overblown. But for the record, LeBron can only do so much. If you want a barometer for this team over the next two months, look at his sidekick.
Tony Parker is too old to be the primary creator against the league's elite teams in a seven-game series. We've seen it play out for two postseasons in a row, and he's only gotten older. Patty Mills can help, and Kawhi Leonard's offense has grown by leaps and bounds just in the past 12 months, but the Spurs will need another creator to thrive in these playoffs. Can it be Manu?
Also, is this the last year of Manu? "I never said I was retiring," he said this week. "I get this question maybe 40 times a season now. I never said I wasn't or I was. I just wait and see."
Whether this is the end or not, Ginobili's the wild card for San Antonio. He's a human knuckleball off the bench, and he's just creative enough to give the Spurs offense the variety it takes to thrive in the playoffs. I don't have high hopes for Tony Parker, or Patty Mills, or Kyle Anderson, or ... Honestly, I don't have high hopes of anyone taking down the Warriors. But it would be nice if San Antonio could make it interesting, and a minor Ginobili renaissance would make that outcome a lot more realistic. We'll see; in the meantime, watch him throw the ball through Noah Vonleh's legs, and remember that he's been doing stuff like this since George Bush was President.
If anyone wants to believe in the Wizards this spring, the best argument is that they have two superstars who are much better than the rest of the league realizes. Jonh Wall is a fringe MVP candidate, and he's the reason the Wizards will have a chance in every game they play this spring. And then Bradley Beal is the reason they can actually win.
It's very difficult for anyone to be truly underrated in the NBA Twitter era, but I think Beal qualifies. If the whole league acknowledges that he's officially good now, most people don't think of him as a player who can swing entire games. But since the All-Star break, he's averaging 24.8 points per game on 49.8% shooting, with 40% from three on seven attempts per game.
John Wall is a one-man offensive set for the Wizards, and he's been unbelievable. He's got the Brandon Jennings MVP vote, and he's the most important player to the Wiz. But in the same way Wall creates assists out of thin air, Beal generates buckets. That second skill becomes twice as valuable at the end of close playoff games, and the next few weeks will be a chance for Beal to enter an entirely different category as a player.
Weird year for the Clippers. Six months ago they started the year blowing teams off the court, and every single basketball outlet ran their "Are The Clippers for Real?" articles. That was about two weeks before they got destroyed by the Warriors (again), and answered the question for everyone. Since then there have been injuries to Blake and CP3, and they've actually weathered the storms pretty nicely (51 wins), but it's almost like everyone around basketball has agreed not to acknowledge it. Nobody has the energy to talk themselves into the Clippers anymore. It's not even clear if the Clippers do.
Anyway, Griffin is a free agent this summer, and here's what he's saying about it: “I’ve loved my time here, absolutely. … But my main focus right now is the season. I said this before the season, I’m not doing the whole free agency talk. I’m not talking about any decision I can’t make right now.”
All of which is to say: If there's a chance Lob City is on the brink of a breakup, how good is Blake Griffin in 2017? Some people will tell you he's now more earthbound than ever, there's a new injury every year, and his track record in the playoffs remains spotty. Others will say that he's crazy efficient as a midrange scorer, one of the best big man creators in the league, and capable of carrying an offense almost by himself.
As he hits free agency, teams around the league will have to decide which version to believe. There's a chance he could leave L.A. and create a new title contender, but there's also a chance he could leave L.A. and become another city's version of Amare-on-the-Knicks. Let's see if the Jazz series helps settle this.
Speaking of which ...
I hear you, putting Gordon Hayward on any "most interesting" list is probably a stretch. Hayward is good. He's productive. He's efficient. And all of this feint praise comes while Rudy Gobert, his teammate, has turned into a full-on 8-foot monster this year, capable of swallowing offenses whole, buzzing around the perimeter harassing guards, and then shutting down the paint for hours at a time.
But Hayward's on this list because, like Griffin, it's hard to say how good he is now, or how valuable he might be in free agency. For example, if a team could sign Hayward outright or trade for Paul George, what's the choice? Obviously, it helps to save assets and sign a star, but at $130 million, is Hayward good enough to produce on George's level?
Or, go back to Utah and confine this to the next two weeks. Is this Jazz team good enough to convince Hayward to invest another five years in what they're building? Can they hang with a good-but-not-great Clippers team? And how much will Hayward help decide the answer there? The defense will be there regardless, but they need Hayward to help create on offense, and especially to close. How Hayward plays could go a long way toward determining whether he stays. So, see: more interesting than he seems.
"I don't know how to win the playoffs yet," Isaiah Thomas said at All-Star Weekend a few months ago. "I'm trying to figure it out. I've been in the playoffs twice, this is my sixth year. Two first-round exits. But I'm figuring it out slowly. Like I said, I don't know what it takes, but experience is the best teacher."
The Celtics are the top seed in the East, and Isaiah has never had a better chance to figure out the playoffs. Meanwhile, Boston has all kinds of questions to answer for the future—look at the Hayward and George sections—but the biggest question of all is whether to commit $200 million to Isaiah in a little less than 18 months. How good can a team be if he's their best player? Can a team survive with someone who's that limited on defense? Is he good enough to justify going all-in for the next few years? Honestly, I don't have a ton of confidence answering of those questions with a yes. But then, I also don't have confidence betting against Isaiah Thomas.
The Raptors are the biggest wild card in the entire playoff field. It's not at all inconceivable for them to beat the Cavs and make a run to the Finals. Or, as close Raptors observers are careful to note, they could absolutely lose to the Bucks. We just haven't seen very much of a healthy, post-trade deadline Raptors team, so it's tough to gauge who we're really talking about here.
To that end, I can't wait to watch Kyle Lowry with the new-and-improved version of this team. He's been battling nagging injuries throughout the past two Toronto playoff runs, and now he might actually be healthy. He'll certainly be rested. After remaining among the league leaders in minutes for most of the year, the injury in March forced Raptors coach Dwane Casey to sit him down for the stretch run. Maybe a broken wrist saved his legs?
We'll see. I'm a Raptors believer, and I'm a Lowry believer. Toronto has never had more weapons on both sides of the floor, and they can throw different lineups at teams depending on the matchup. If Lowry can get rolling, this can get fun.