Tom Bogert, CBS Local Sports
For the more pessimistic variety of NBA fans, Kevin Durant singing with the Golden State Warriors effectively emasculated the competitive balance of most basketball until June. Those under that mental framework would believe that it also condensed the season to about two weeks, or however long the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors punched until one toppled over.
Optimists would lump into the ‘you never know’ storyline, something that’s been confirmed with Durant’s recent knee injury, but for many, there were two superpowers and nothing else mattered until the finals. Some care only for sorting a champion for the season, and that championship pool seemed shrunk to two. Of 28 ESPN NBA experts asked, 27 of them chose either the Warriors or Cavaliers as their prognostication for NBA champion. Not particularly optimal for league parity.
But there is so, so much more to an NBA season than one team lifting a trophy. There’s an abundance of different narratives, player narratives, swings, streaks, nightly brilliance and nightly involuntary humor. Much great has come from the 2016-17 season. So what if the finals seems destined to complete the Golden State-Cleveland trilogy; the sequel gave us one of the best series in recent finals memory last year. I’d love to see the next iteration of that story.
Until then, and even until the playoffs as a whole, there’s no shortage of things to look forward to. Even if seven of eight playoff teams are all but guaranteed in the West and the general lackluster playoff forecast of the East as long as LeBron James still has all of his limbs in tact. So here are four things to get excited about.
The aforementioned free-for-all for the 8th seed in the West
Okay, so the big prize to whoever wins this race is the right to be the sacrificial lamb for either the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs and delaying their offseason by likely a maximum five games. But still. Between the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, one of them will be in the playoffs and each has a redeeming quality.
Obviously the Pelicans are desperately trying to win and get into the playoffs. Poor Boogie Cousins is finding himself in Sacramento 2.0, in that Not-Tanking-But-Not-Good-Either range of just outside of the eighth seed. It’s purgatory. But getting Cousins and Anthony Davis in the playoffs would be a nice little bonus for fans. It certainly wouldn’t be the worst 8th seed to watch.
We’ve already seen what type of excitement Dame Lillard can cause in the playoffs and the answer to “Do you want more Dirk Nowitzki?” is never, ever no. For Denver, Nikola Jokic is the recipient of chatter and adulation across diehard followers of the league. A little national television exposure would be welcomed.
The MVP race
Last year, Steph Curry unanimously won MVP. He played on statistically the greatest regular season basketball team to ever complete an NBA season and him lifting the trophy seemed determined fairly early in the season.
This season is the antithesis of that. James Harden is efficiently delivering deranged numbers for a great team while Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double all season. LeBron is LeBron; he never gets enough regular season credit because we’ve grown accustomed to 27-8-7 every single night as if it’s mundane. Kawhi Leonard has taken his offense to the next, elite level this season while being a human dream killer on defense. And Durant would’ve gotten on the ballot had he stayed healthy all season.
But most assume that it’s essentially down to Harden and Westbrook now, which is plenty fine. Harden is tied for second in the league in scoring at 29.2 per game, only trailing Westbrook’s 31.7, and doing so while attempting six less shots a night. He’s also leading the league in assists with 11.2 per game. The numbers each put up on a nightly basis is mind boggling. There isn’t a stat sheet that I wouldn’t believe if told either did.
“What was that, Harden scored 57, had 26 assists and 10 rebounds that he chased in the last few minutes? Cool. And Westbrook had 62 and 18 rebounds? That’s nice.”
But speaking of Westbrook…
Russell Westbrook’s Trust Issues Revenge Tour
We need to be more thankful for what’s been going on in Oklahoma City all season. But we also need to have more sympathy for his teammates. Imagine that basketball existence? “Stand here, watch Russ go about his business. If by some generous happenstance he throws you the ball, you BETTER not miss. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember the last time you attempted a shot or even felt what shape the ball was, but hit it.”
Former second overall pick Victor Oladipo is more than a nice complementary piece, as is Steven Adams, but they’ve been treated as if they’re learning to get their driving permit. Even is Westbrook is sitting in the passenger seat letting them drive, he still has a wheel and brakes.
While it may be tough on Westbrook’s teammates, it’s fantastic for the fans. He’s must watch tv on any given night. His “feud” with Durant, that the media desperately wants to be a thing, is still fun. When he gave us a taste on Durant’s return to town, it was tremendous. We didn’t even care they were losing by a hundred points.
Westbrook’s Thunder will likely finish somewhere between 5th and 7th in the West and likely be out in the first round. At any rate, this last month will be fun as Westbrook chases the triple-double history. Imagine if he goes into the final game averaging 9.9 rebounds or 9.9 assists? There’s a 100% chance he’ll know the exact number of assists to chase or rebounds to fight over. And it’ll be glorious.
Jockeying for seeding in each conference
Once Durant got injured and the Warriors starting spinning out, the first seed out West was suddenly up for grabs again with San Antonio hot on their heels. Houston is essentially “stuck” in third, as if that’s a bad spot to be locked into, but fourth through seventh is fluid. From Utah in fourth to Memphis in seventh, with the Clippers and Thunder between, they are separated by three games in the loss column. Certainly not insurmountable.
Similarly in the East, the top seed is open after most assuming it’d just be handed to Cleveland. Then J.R. Smith got hurt and– wait. Let’s sit on that a second. J.R. Smith getting injured on one of the top teams in the league is a thing that matters for their success. I already love 2017.
Anyway. More importantly than Smith, Kevin Love had been sidelined a while. Andrew Bogut was able to give Dan Gilbert an expensive 58 seconds before breaking his leg, now their grip on the East isn’t such a stranglehold. Boston has a chance to catch them, though they haven’t grasped the opportunity well thus far. They’re still just three back in the loss column, so hope can’t be abandoned.
Washington and Toronto are elbowing each other to look to finish third and (hopefully) prolong their beheading from Cleveland until the Conference Finals should they navigate the first two rounds successfully. But the last two years has had a painful lack of competitiveness for any series Cleveland is in, so our hopes aren’t too high here.
The bottom of the East isn’t fun like the West. Unless, of course, you want to get excited about any one of the painfully average bunch that’ll finish from fifth to tenth.
If that’s the case, then you’re in the top percentile of optimism and have wasted your time reading about these reasons to be excited for the next month of basketball because you certainly already had motivation in excess.