Welcome to the latest edition of “Friday Ball,” a weekly column released on Friday’s with brief thoughts on three of the top headlines from the past week in the NBA. We’ll tip off by handing out some season-ending superlatives, and then segue into a solution to the NBA’s resting problem.
Season Superlatives: Russell Westbrook might not be the MVP, but he’s certainly the MOP
The tightest MVP race in years continues to wage on as the regular season draws to a close. And as we’ve seen often in MLB’s recent MVP races (why can’t the Angels just be good so Mike Trout can win the MVP with ease every year?), I think that the main reasons why this is such a complicated debate comes down to the true definition of value as well as narrative. For example, as I pointed out in the previous edition of Friday Ball, LeBron James’ value has trumped Kawhi Leonard’s this season by a mile. But in terms of narrative, Leonard may ultimately receive more votes than James, largely because the ‘Cavs have been unimpressive in the regular season (by their standards) while Leonard’s Spurs project to win upwards of 60 games.
Moreover, a similar conundrum applies to the two favorites in the race, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook has a great chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in decades: Average a triple-double. If he doesn’t win, that would roughly equate to not giving a player the MVP in baseball despite winning the triple crown. Harden, however, has comparable stats to Westbrook and has a stronger narrative working for him. While Westbrook’s Thunder are performing like pundits expected, Harden’s Rockets have surprisingly ascended to become one of the four best teams in basketball. Plus, he’s been more efficient than the sometimes-maligned Westbrook, who shoots more than anybody else in the NBA.
But I want to brush aside the MVP-talk. Instead, I want to award some season-ending superlatives, seeing as the playoff field is largely settled. Hopefully this first award, in particular, will provide clarity to the MVP race, as well.
Most Outstanding Player: Russell Westbrook
The first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson has unequivocally been the league’s most outstanding player this season. Sure, Westbrook shoots a lot. But who else on the Thunder can really help keep them afloat? Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter…that’s about it, and to say that Adams is impactful on the offensive end is even a stretch. Plus, in terms of efficiency, if you’re going to knock Westbrook, you better critique all-timers like Kobe Bryant as well. Yet even that criticism only goes so far because professional sports, like most businesses, are bottom-line industries. And Westbrook’s bottom-line says the following: 31.2 ppg, 10.4 apg, and 10.5 rpg. Remember: He’s also a 6’3″ guard; not some large, freak of nature. In short, Westbrook edges out James Harden as the NBA’s most outstanding player in 2016-17.
Most Clutch: Isaiah Thomas
Boston’s star guard has come through when the Celtics have needed him most on numerous occasions, as evidenced by the fact that he leads all players in fourth quarter scoring this season. But I suppose the best way to explain why Thomas earns this superlative is to just watch some of these highlights:
Young player who took the biggest leap to stardom: Nikola Jokic
After a relatively quiet rookie season, the twenty-two year-old Jokic has piloted Denver into the playoff-picture in only his second year. And with the versatile big-man, who is 8th among all NBA players in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) this season, leading the way, the prolific Nuggets (they’re third in the NBA in points per game) have become an intriguing team sooner than expected.
Biggest surprise: Miami ripping off 24 wins in their last 30 games to land in playoff picture
Yes, this has happened. The post-Wade Heat were once 11-30 and jostling for standings position with the Nets and 76ers. Now they’re likely to make the playoffs thanks to heroic play from the likes of Dion Waiters. Go figure.
Player most likely to dominate in the playoffs: LeBron James
This is the equivalent of the “most likely to become president” superlative. And you almost always know that it’s going to go to that do-it-all kid who takes seven AP’s, captains cross-country, and wins district honors for the debate team. Some things never change.
Class clown: Phil Jackson
The Knicks have been a disaster, both on the court and off it. And if I were to attribute blame to one person in particular, it’s certainly the “Zen Master.” Jackson’s in his third full season as the Knicks’ GM. New York’s record since Jackson took over on March 14, 2014: 87-164 (.346). Coincidentally, that also coincides with his record as a coach/general manager without one of the NBA’s seven greatest players on his team. But an even bigger surprise is how Jackson has fueled a media firestorm revolving around his desire to trade Carmelo. You’re in your third year with the Knicks, Phil. Take some responsibility. Or at least act professionally.
Cutest Couple: Serge Ibaka and Robin Lopez
Oh, woop, nevermind!
A relatively easy solution to the NBA’s resting problem
In the wake of the NBA’s second consecutive Saturday primetime game being marred by notable absences (first all the Warriors sat out against the Spurs, and then last weekend, the Cavs rested LeBron and Kyrie against the Clippers), many solutions have been floated around. I found FS1’s Nick Wright’s idea, in particular, to be particularly intriguing: He suggested that home-court in the playoffs should be decided by head-to-head regular season records. That would deter the Warriors and Spurs, for instance, from resting their stars when they play against each other out of fear they might lose home-court in a potential playoff meeting. Of course, I don’t actually see this idea coming to fruition–I just found it intriguing.
I have a more feasible idea, though. The NBA should allow teams to rest a maximum of one player per game. Boom. Problem solved. Sure, games are less interesting whenever someone of LeBron or Steph Curry’s caliber are inactive. But this solution would no longer allow all of Cleveland or Golden State’s key players to rest during nationally-televised games. Plus, this still gives coaches freedom to manage their own player’s affairs. After all, commissioner Adam Silver surely understands that NBA teams have the right to value health in the postseason over relatively inconsequential regular season games.
At least if only one player is allowed to rest per game, the quality of the product would largely be maintained, especially when compared to the level of play displayed in those aforementioned Saturday primetime games.
A thank you note to DeMar DeRozan
Note: It would be most effective to read this brief tribute aloud while imitating Ben Affleck’s husky Boston accent from The Town.
Dear DeMar (de-Mah),
Thank you. Not the way I planned it, but you saved me the other night. My bet on your Raptors (rahp-TAH’s) looked like it was in the drain. No way they’re coming back from a fifteen-point fourth quarter deficit, I thought to myself. But then I remembered (rah-mem-BAHD) they have you, de-Mah. I don’t know how you do it. You can’t shoot a lick from downtown, but man you know other ways to score the basketball (DeRozan finished with 42 points, including 13 in the fourth and overtime to beat the Bulls).
Life isn’t about what you win sometimes, but what you didn’t lose. Thanks again, de-Mah, for preventing me from losing a small fortune the other night. And I know I’ll bet on you again.
This side or the other (oth-AH).