The NBA playoffs are here, and as is often the case at this time of year, there are many tough questions to be answered. With that in mind, The Crossover put together an esteemed panel of NBA legends and media members to lend their expertise and shed some light on the postseason.
Among the topics: The NBA's heated MVP race (and upcoming awards show on June 26), the biggest threats to the Warriors and Cavaliers, and the most vulnerable team in the postseason.
The participants: SI senior writer Lee Jenkins, Hall of Fame member David Robinson, TNT analyst Grant Hill, NBA global ambassador (and We Are Family Foundation Humanitarian Award winner) Dikembe Mutombo and ESPN’s Amin Elhassan.
Without further ado, let's get to the questions.
How do you feel about the NBA hosting its first award show after the season?
Lee Jenkins, SI senior writer: The debates are so heated right now, especially over MVP, and I think you take away some of that buzz waiting two months to reveal the winners. The NBA already generates more attention on individual awards than any other major sport, and perhaps that should be expected, given the glut of stars. I understand why the league wants to build a TV show around it, capitalizing on that attention, highlighting those stars, and bridging the gap between the draft and free agency.
David Robinson, Spurs legend and two-time champion: I personally like it. I like the focus on the playoffs and winning, rather than individual achievements. There’s a time and place for that. Right now there’s a time and place for coming together, for winning together, for winning championships. When I won MVP, our announcement was right before our Western Conference finals and the Houston fans were thinking that HakeemOlajuwon should have won it, and it probably just added that element that didn’t need to be added. … As if he needed any more motivation.
Grant Hill, Seven-time All-Star: I really don’t have an issue with the awards being pushed back. I think this is an exciting time of the year, as we ramp things up, as we head into the postseason. And so the league delaying that might actually be a good thing in the long run.
Dikembe Mutombo, four-time Defensive Player of the Year: I think it’s good for the NBA to have an award show where no one knows who is going to win until they get there. I don’t see why it should be a problem with the way it will go this off-season. It adds great excitement, something they people get to look forward to.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN NBA Insider: Traditionally, you have that build up where Sixth Man of the Year gets awarded, then Most Improved, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP being kind of the last of those awards. It will be a little awkward because we’ll still be speculating on who’s what, but it’s not going to change who people vote for.
Who is your MVP for the 2016–17 season?
Jenkins: I’ve been all Harden all season because I’ve never seen a player lift an entire offense in as many ways. The points he is producing, either by himself or for others, should really make him MVP. But I’ve been swayed in the past few weeks, and I get the feeling I’m not alone, by the sense that this season will live on because of Westbrook. I know the triple-double fascination can go overboard, but it’s like if an outfielder hit .400 or a quarterback threw 50 touchdown passes. They’d be MVP. Westbrook has done something that was considered impossible, or at least improbable, so while the best player on the No. 6 seed doesn’t normally merit consideration, this seems like the time for an exception to the rule.
Robinson: [Laughs] Personally, I love what Kawhi Leonard has done. I think Kawhi is a monster on both sides of the court. You lose a legend in Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich uses 25 lineups and you still win 61 games. I believe that Kawhi has demonstrated such dominance on both sides of the floor, and he’s a quiet guy, he’s not going to thump his chest. But personally, I get to watch him everyday, which is cool. I have to say, what Westbrook has done is also legendary, when you do something that hasn’t been done in 40 years, you have to stand up and give that guy a hand.
Hill: Russell Westbrook, what he has done, his team being a No. 6 seed, I don’t think people expected them to be in the postseason. But how he has averaged a triple double has been a main storyline all season. It’s remarkable and not something I thought I’d see ever again, and I think he’s very well deserving of being this year’s MVP.
Mutombo: As an NBA employee, I think I’ll hold my vote. We have two great basketball players who illustrate something we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s going to be interesting to see whether James Harden or Russell Westbrook pull out. I’ve never seen anyone get triple doubles the way Westbrook does. I’m happy for them, and I’m happy for the NBA.
Elhassan: I’ve gone back and forth on this a lot, but I feel like Russell Westbrook, what’s he’s done I didn’t think anyone would do in my lifetime. I didn’t think it was possible, and he did it with a fair amount of efficiency to it and, most importantly, when he actually achieved a triple double they won games. There are ways to inflate ones numbers. But this league has been around for 70 years and the opportunity to stat pad has been around for decades—only two have completed this feat. On degree of difficulty alone, I got to give it to Westbrook.
Do the Cavaliers have real cause for concern?
Jenkins: You combine LeBron’s heavy minutes, the team’s wretched defense, advanced age, diminished speed and inconsistent performance, and it’s really hard to assume they’ll just flip that magical switch in the wall at Quicken Loans Arena and wind up back in the Finals. The Cavalier rarely lack for confidence, but they have lost so many games in so many ways, at some point you wonder if they’ll forget how to find the switch at all.
The best thing going for the Cavs is the level of their competition. Their focus remains the Warriors, and if they don’t hit their stride soon, they may sense that the ultimate goal is impossible to reach.
Robinson: Yeah, just watching the media and seeing how they adjust the media, it seems like they have concerns themselves. So if you’re a fan, you’ve got to be worried. Your team is still trying to figure out what’s going on.
Hill: I think the Cavs do. They are the defending champs, and the thing about the postseason, which works in their favor, is that it is a different season. Things slow down, you don’t have back-to-backs, you have a chance to really focus in and lock in on one team, which may help them. But they are essentially limping into the postseason, they have not played their best basketball. I know it’s been a difficult stretch, but they’re capable, and we’ll see how they play in the first round and really assess their chances of repeating.
Mutombo: Nothing is won until the lady comes and she has to sing, and I don’t think that lady has sung yet. There are 16 other teams in the playoffs, and you can make the mistake of looking forward. That’s the mistake people made with the Seattle SuperSonics [in 1994]. They were the No. 1 seed, they were on top of the world and they got knocked out by the Denver Nuggets. It doesn’t matter how many games you win, you have to go into the playoffs and play hard.
Elhassan: Yes, I still think they’re going to win the East, but this will be their toughest playoff route in years. There’s going to be a real toll to be paid in energy expended. A big part of why they were able to prevail last year was because they had energy when the Warriors didn’t. I don’t know if you want to face the Warriors or even the Spurs, for that matter, and be tired. That’s concerning part. Could they lose in the East? I think that’s highly unlikely.
Who is the Warriors' most likely threat in the West?
Jenkins: I’ve been on the Clippers bandwagon for about a decade, but it’s hard to make that case anymore. The Jazz could provide some discomfort, but they can’t keep up offensively over a seven-game series. I’ll go with the Rockets, who would have to replicate the ’11 Mavericks, and make every three-pointer they take for two weeks. But the most realistic challenger, as sad as it is to say, is injury. Unless one of the Warriors four cornerstones gets hurt, they should waltz, even past the Spurs.
Robinson: Watching the Warriors, what can you say? They’ve been the best team; they’re smart, they’re consistent, they’re deep, they’ve got great shooting, they’ve got toughness, experience. If they lose, it’ll be like last year, it’ll be a surprise. The Spurs have been the second-best team, but we still have our challenges. We need to be more consistent, and there are a lot of things we need to do better, especially if we’re going to be able to beat those guys. But I think we’ve got a chance, I think we’re capable of doing it.
Hill: San Antonio, they quietly had a great season again this year. Golden State, if they’re clicking on all cylinders, I think should win the Western Conference. But I think San Antoinio is that one team, with Kawhi Leonard, their bigs Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, if they can play well, can give the Spurs a chance to slow Golden State down and stop them from advancing to the Finals.
Mutombo: Obviously, Houston and San Antonio have had great seasons. You don’t know what Gregg Popovich is going to bring in the playoffs. The Clippers, if they can get themselves going, they could have something special. For some reason, the Western Conference has always been tough to play in. I was fortunate to play 10 years in that conference, and it was always tough.
Elhassan: The Spurs, and then the Rockets are a distance third and no one after the Rockets is even applicable, I don’t think. There are only teams that conceivably win the West, and there’s a big gap between one and two, and then there’s a big gap between two and three.
What team were you surprised to see miss the playoffs?
Jenkins: I’m always surprised that the Pelicans miss the playoffs with Anthony Davis, and more so after they added DeMarcus Cousins. I’m also surprised the Timberwolves didn’t get more of a bump after hiring Tom Thibodeau. But the biggest surprise for me was Detroit, which was trending up last season, and is going to finish tenth with the exact same core. The Pistons employ several talented players in their prime who have been together a while, and they couldn’t keep pace with the Heat.
Robinson: I hate to kind of point out underachievers. I don’t know what was going on in those locker rooms, and why they weren’t performing up to the standard where they maybe could have. I hesitate to even point out people I think may have underachieved. You could probably point at half the teams that didn’t make it.
Hill: I thought this year, coming off the heels of last year, I thought two teams surprised me: Charlotte and Detroit. Both were in the postseason last year, both have young squads. I thought they would take the next step, but they kind of digressed, which can happen for young ball clubs.
Mutombo: I was thinking Charlotte was going to have a chance even though they made a few changes. They’re a young group that Michael Jordan put together, and they had great chemistry. I thought that they would make the playoffs.
Elhassan: Detroit, I think they’re disappointing. I don’t think they’re that great, but they’re better than clearly being eliminated days before the end of the season. At the very least, they should’ve been one of those teams that made it in or out depending on what happened on the last day. For them to fall apart the way they did was a little surprising.
Who do you view as the most vulnerable playoff team?
Jenkins: There’s no lock atop the East, but the Cavaliers volatility makes them the most vulnerable. After their Big 3, they depend on a handful of wild cards—J.R. the most obvious—who are capable of producing landmark wins and disconcerting losses.
Robinson: I would put us, the Spurs, right there at the top. We’re particularly vulnerable. We’ve been as consistent. Yes, we’ve won a lot of games, but if we want to win this championship, we’re going to have to beat some very good teams. And our consistency level just hasn’t been there, especially on the defensive side.
Outside of Golden State, no one’s exempt. I mean, you look at the Clippers. What are they? You kind of look at them and say these guys should really, really good. But what are they? I don’t know. There are a lot of question marks out there.
Hill: I think Houston, as good of a year as they’ve had meeting everyone’s expectations, James Harden being sensation. Because they play in the Western Conference, they could lose in the first round. They’re paired up against Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook, things tend to slow down a bit, you don’t go up and down at that frenetic pace they’re used to, the officiating they tend to let things go more. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with Houston.
Mutombo: I don’t believe in somebody being stronger than the other. There’s no easy game in the playoffs, there’s not. There’s no game that you can take lightly. I don’t think San Antonio will take Memphis lightly, either. That will be a great series to watch. There’s going to be a lot of posting, a lot of bodies. It’s going to be one of the most physical first-round matchups.
Elhassan: Portland. Basically, whoever is playing the Warriors. It’s great that they made it, but I think a rude awakening is going to be in store for them in the first round. They’re going to be thinking, ‘Why’d we fight so hard to get here?’
What’s one lesson you learned in the playoffs?
Robinson: That everything you do wrong is going to be magnified. In a series, it’s about execution, it’s about consistency, and if you have problems, we’re going to see those problems. So that’s the one thing that stayed with me the most, because you can’t make stuff up in the playoffs. If you didn’t have it in the regular season, somebody is going to find out and exploit. For me, the postseason is really a truth-telling time.
Hill: It’s really about making adjustments. You play a team potentially seven times you really get to understand what they are, what their strengths and their weaknesses are. I think collectively as a group when you can make adjustments and you can adjust on the fly, it gives you the best chance to be successful and to win.
Mutombo: That every second counts, every mistake counts, every point counts, every rebound counts, blocked shots. I thought that if I didn’t get 25 blocks in five games against the SuperSonics, I wouldn’t get the chance to play for the Denver Nuggets against the Utah Jazz in a Game 7 the second round, which was a game that we should have won. It’s about your mental approach, it doesn’t matter how strong you are.
What’s your NBA Finals prediction?
Jenkins: Having said all that about the Cavs, LeBron makes fools every spring out of people who pick teams like the Pacers or the Hawks. I want to pick the Raptors to make it, but the Cavs are tempting.
Robinson: I’ll start this off by tell you my NCAA bracket was really, really ugly. I’m not that guy. I don’t think you’ll be relying on my prediction for anything. But if I go emotional, I’m going to go with my Spurs. If I have to go with my head, I’d say Golden State is the odds-on favorite. And I don’t think the Cavs are a gimme. Obviously, LeBron James is really good and Kyrie Irving has proven to be a monster himself, but some of these young upstarts are doing a good job. I like Boston’s energy, and little Isaiah Thomas has proven he’s not a flash in the pan. He’s a true superstar.
Hill: I think it’s Cleveland-Golden State. Nothing new.
Mutombo: [Laughs] I’m not going to predict anyone. My last prediction caused me a lot of trouble. I wish everyone a great successful. As the NBA global ambassador, I hope everyone does well and I’m going to try to travel as much as I can to watch as many games as I can. I wish all of my former teams good luck. Houston, Atlanta, I wish them good luck.
Elhassan: Warriors-Cavs. Warriors in 5. They were up 3-1 last year. They came as close to winning in five games as you can without actually doing it.