Welcome to the first edition of “Friday Ball,” a weekly column released every Friday with brief thoughts on the top three headlines from the past week in the NBA. We’ll tip off with my thoughts on the NBA’s hottest MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard’s MVP case continues to (wrongly) build
Winners of nine of their previous ten games, the San Antonio Spurs now sit just two games behind the Golden State Warriors for first place in the Western Conference. And if the Spurs ultimately overtake the Warriors for the number one seed, many will credit Kawhi Leonard. Undoubtedly San Antonio’s best player, the twenty-five year-old has played his way into the MVP race over the last month, with his standout moment coming this past week when he drained a three to give the Spurs a late lead over the Rockets. He then blocked a go-ahead attempt from James Harden on Houston’s subsequent possession to seal the victory.
If San Antonio overtakes Golden State, Leonard is likely to win the MVP. For starters, he is deserving. Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA on both ends of the floor, as evidenced by the fact that he’s averaging 26.3 points per game, ranks 6th in defensive win shares, and is 2nd overall in player efficiency rating. Plus, it helps that many people are starting to poke holes in Russell Westbrook’s MVP credentials, given how his numbers are inflated by high shot and usage totals. The Spurs are also well-ahead of James Harden’s Rockets, so Leonard may very well receive a nod over Harden on that basis alone.
However, Leonard shouldn’t win MVP this season because–and get ready for this hot take–LeBron James should. Here’s the thing with Leonard: He hasn’t been nearly as valuable as James has this year. When Leonard is on the floor, the Spurs possess a plus/minus per game of 9.3. Take Leonard off the floor and that figure drops to 6.3. That’s noteworthy, but not overly significant. James, on the other hand…well, let’s just say that he’s a very integral to Cleveland’s success. With James on the floor, the Cavs have a +/- of 9.0. So he’s essentially as valuable as Leonard in that respective. But with James off the floor, Cleveland’s +/- is a pathetic -7.8.
That disparity is too great to overlook. James, as you could argue he is every season, has been the most valuable player in the NBA in 2016-17. He once again projects to lead Cleveland to the Eastern Conference’s best record despite his team dealing with injuries to players such as Kevin Love. More importantly, the Cavs would have no chance to make a deep playoff run without the King. I hate to say this because I think Leonard is a terrific player, but San Antonio would still be doing fine without him. In short, LeBron > Kawhi.
Celtics defeat Warriors on road for second consecutive year
Does this result say more about Boston or Golden State?
After a rough two-game stretch that included a brutal defeat at the buzzer to the lowly Suns and then a double-digit loss to the Clippers, the Celtics got back on track Wednesday night with a 99-86 win over the West-leading Warriors at Oracle. Credit Boston for bouncing back. They were outstanding in the fourth quarter when it looked as if Golden State was ready to pull away after entering the final frame with a lead. Boston visibly out-hustled the Warriors, as evidenced by their four offensive rebounds in the final five minutes, en route to holding Steph Curry and company to just 12 points in the fourth.
But the real story is that Golden State may be in trouble. To be clear, before I go any further, I’m certainly not ready to make a knee-jerk reaction and say the Warriors are doomed based on their poor stretch of play (2-3 record with a -1.4 point differential per game) since Kevin Durant’s injury. After all, this team still largely resembles the squad that was one game away from winning a second consecutive title last June.
There are still causes of concern, though, largely because the Warriors are slumping at exactly the wrong time. As mentioned, San Antonio is surging, and given the uncertainty surrounding Durant’s knee injury, Golden State could be in trouble if they lose the one seed. Even though the Warriors have stated that Durant will be reevaluated before the end of the regular season, it’s important to make a distinction between reevaluate and return. With regard to the latter, there is no indication that Durant will a) return any time soon and b) regain his elite form once he does come back.
So, say Golden State does drop to the two seed: Will they be able to advance past, in all likelihood, both Houston and San Antonio, all while Steve Kerr incorporates a potentially less-than-100-percent Durant back into the lineup? I’d say it’s 60/40 that they don’t, particularly based on their recent struggles.
Moreover, looking ahead to a potential (or, some might argue, inevitable) Finals rubber match against Cleveland, numerous problems abound. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson haven’t been as consistent since Durant entered the fold, as both have seen their field goal and three-point percentages dip in 2016-17. In addition, their supporting cast outside of their stars isn’t nearly as deep as it was over the past two seasons, when they had guys such as Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa, and Andrew Bogut. Plus, I doubt Durant will provide the Warriors with enough of a defensive presence after suffering such a significant knee injury. Remember: Durant’s grade-two knee sprain is an even worse diagnosis than Curry’s grade-one sprain that hobbled him throughout last year’s playoffs. In that case, how will the Warriors defend LeBron, Kyrie, and the rest of the Cavs’ attack?
It’s still premature to write Golden State off as a title contender. But as evidenced by their latest showing against the Celtics, as well as their recent stretch of play, concerns abound for the preseason’s consensus title favorite come mid-May.
Time to sell Boogie Cousins stock
I laughed when recalling these headlines yesterday. Skip Bayless: “The Kings made the worst trade in NBA history.” Some guy from The New York Post: “DeMarcus Cousins Trade Shock Creates Warriors’ Biggest Threat.”
New Orleans is 2-6 since acquiring Cousins. One of those wins, I might add, came without Cousins (it also happened to be New Orleans’ first 20+ point victory since mid-January). So they’re actually 1-6 with Cousins, with the one win coming against those mighty Lakers who are trying so desperately to win games these days. And to add to their misery, the Pelicans’ average margin of defeat in those six losses is a crisp 11 points: It’s not like they’re even providing much resistance.
Sure, I was one of the many who thought that acquiring “Boogie” was a great move by New Orleans. While I certainly wasn’t in the “they can upset Golden State!” camp, I still thought they would improve enough to make the playoffs. However, at least I, along with many others, can take solace in the fact that absolutely no one could’ve expected the Pelicans to get significantly worse after this trade.
Given this surprising development, I have three takeaways. First, on a slightly unrelated note, Skip Bayless, who made the statement above, has pretty much lost all credibility in my book. It’s just…enough is enough with his “hot” takes. Second, Kings general manager Vlade Divac is not an idiot. Cousins is a cancer, and it’s even more clear now that Sacramento made the right decision by trading Cousins, regardless of the return netted in the trade, because he is clearly not a franchise player.
Lastly, and most notably, Cousins is simply not a very good basketball player. Forget the numbers: Good players help their teams win games. Cousins hurts his team’s chances. Sacramento never sniffed the playoffs during his six-and-a-half year tenure. Now New Orleans has managed to get worse. Moreover, and I recall having this argument with a friend earlier this year after I watched Cousins’ Kings lose to the Celtics, Cousins has very little skill for someone who many claim to be a top-10, or at least a top-15, player. He’s essentially just a big freak of nature who has always had license to bully his way through people in the post. He’s certainly no James Harden or Kyrie Irving in terms of pure basketball talent.
Bill Parcells once said “you are what your record says you are.” In Cousins’ case, you are what your trade value says you are. The former Kentucky product is about as good as a package that includes an injury-riddled Tyreke Evans, a projected lottery bust in Buddy Hield, and a couple draft picks. In other words, he is certainly not even remotely a star player in the NBA–let alone a superstar.