Welcome to the first issue of Sports Roundup. This series will offer analysis of professional sports from members of the Chronicle Sports staff.
With the NBA playoffs in full swing, two panel members answer pressing questions about the first round of the playoffs and take a quick look toward the future of the league.
Who’s winning it all?
As much as I hate to say it, the Rockets. If the Warriors were fully healthy, I would pick them, but Stephen Curry has missed 6 weeks and it is unclear if these warriors could even beat the rolling Pelicans without him. Assuming that they do, I’m doubtful that the generational floor general will be able to return to his 2-time MVP form. As talented as Curry is, the lack of continuity to end his season will likely affect both his rhythm and physical form. As we saw in the 2015 finals, a damaged Curry doesn’t bode well for the Warriors, as that version of Curry is susceptible to being locked down by Kevin Love.
Without Curry, the Warriors will not be able to match the firepower of the Rockets. As we’ve seen all season, Mike D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into an ultra-efficient squad that maximizes James Harden, Chris Paul, and their surrounding cast. They basically run three plays that opposing teams have had no answers for all year: Pick and Roll, Harden Iso, Harden drive and kick out. Unless the 30-year old Curry makes a miraculous recovery, the Rockets will demolish whatever team makes it out of the Eastern Conference scrum in 5 games.
Blander Rodriguez: If Stephen Curry does not return to early season form when he comes back from injury, the Raptors will win the NBA finals. The Warriors are the most unstoppable team in the league when Curry is in the floor, but if his injury lingers throughout the playoffs, the likely finals representative for the Western Conference will be the Rockets. In the East, Lebron is for the first time not the favorite to go to the finals, the Celtics are depleted by injuries and the 76ers are too young and inexperienced to go to the finals. This leaves the door wide open for Toronto to win the East. The Raptors will beat the Rockets in the finals because not only did they beat Houston in both of their regular season meetings, but Toronto’s supporting cast and bench are much better than that of the Rockets. While the backcourt combo of Chris Paul and James Harden is more talented than Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, Harden will be overwhelmed by elite paint protector Serge Ibaka and defensive anchor Jakob Poeltl. Raptors in 6.
That said, my colleague Aaron Park has the Sixers going all the way. I don’t know about that.
Who’s your MVP?
Blander Rodriguez: For me it’s James Harden, and it’s not even close. He is the best isolation player that the league has seen in the last decade. He frequently beats defenders off the dribble, and if they crash as he goes to the basket, he simply kicks out to one of Houston’s many capable three-point shooters. He has made art forms out of Euro-stepping past defenses and drawing fouls, and that’s not even mentioning his lethal pull-up jumper from both behind the arc and from mid-range. Think a tall Kyrie Irving with better court vision. Not only has his offensive dominance continued, but both his win shares and defensive efficiency have gone up since last year. The knock on Harden has always been that he cannot play defense, but this year, he has solidified his defense and made himself into a much more complete basketball player. Harden led the Rockets to the league’s best record and with the Warriors being riddled by injury, the time is opportune for a title.
The modern NBA is dominated by shifty guards who can do it all. Teams with the best backcourt duos tend to do the best in the playoffs. Which backcourt duo has been the best thus far in the postseason?
Chris Paul and James Harden
To me, this one is easy but it comes with a caveat: Stephen Curry does not return to his early season form when he comes back from injury. Harden and Paul are arguably the two best fits for offensive guru Mike D’Antoni’s offensive scheme. They both operate extremely well with the ball in their hands, both as shot creators and passers. Whenever the Rockets are on offense, they have an elite playmaker, ball handler, and scorer on the floor. When Paul and Harden are on the court together, it is unfair for the opposition. However, Paul gives something the Rockets desperately need; an All-NBA level defender who can shut down a team’s best guard for the duration of a game. The only backcourt in the NBA that gives Harden and Paul a run for their money is Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry needs to stay healthy for this backcourt to be effective, but when he is, he and Klay can change the tone of a game. They can put their team from being down two to being up seven in under a minute and it comes as no surprise. On paper, the Rockets have the most efficient and effective backcourt in the NBA, but Curry and Thompson bring that “it” factor that is so necessary for the playoffs.
Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of this postseason was the Red-hot Pelican’s sweep of the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers simply had no answers for Holiday as he powered his way through guards and wings alike on the offensive end and more importantly, put the clamps on Damian Lillard on the defensive end. “Big Game Dame” was stifled when Holiday was guarding him. Scoring only 18.5ppg. A far cry from the 26.9 ppg he averaged in the regular season. As far as Holiday was concerned, “Dame Time” could stay in the regular season. Holiday may not be flashy like his contemporary counterparts, but his style of play translates to wins, and he has launched himself into the public eye as a clear top-10 point guard. That $126 Million contract isn’t looking too ridiculous now.
“Playoff P” may not be real but “Playoff Rondo” most certainly is. His regular season issues are well documented. His headstrong nature has led him to clash with many different coaches and teammates in the past few years and he has been bounced around the league. But when April comes around, Rondo changes. His focus intensifies, he becomes a leader. Rondo has looked every bit like a 12 year veteran putting it all together. A certified film-fiend, Rondo appeared to know every offensive and defensive scheme the Blazers were running, at times before Blazers players themselves even knew. Head coach Alvin Gentry handed Rondo the reins to the team on the court and it has paid dividends. Combine Rondo’s obsessive preparation with a superior understanding of the game, and you get an assistant coach on the floor running plays and dishing dimes.
Seems like we say this every year, but this Toronto Raptors team is different. How far do they go?
Blander Rodriguez: They have a legitimate shot to win it all. LeBron is vulnerable for the first time since his days in Miami and the Raptors seem like the most clear choice to take his place, having played their best regular season in franchise history. They are very offensively balanced, with five players averaging double digit scoring. Their bench runs deep, and interior defender Serge Ibaka and seven-footer Jonas Valanciunas are built for a deep playoff run. They have young talent in the likes of Norman Powell and Fred Van Vleet. As long as they stay healthy and continue to dominate both offensively and defensively, they will go to the finals.
Who will be the NBA’s best player in 5 years?
Blander Rodriguez: This is a very difficult question simply because of all of the options. The NBA is loaded with young talent. The best young stars in basketball right now are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl Anthony-Towns, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Devin Booker, and Kristap Porzingis.
Five years from now, Anthony Davis will be 30, and Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving will be 31. Giannis and Embiid are the best players in the NBA under 25 years old, so I see them as being the players that emerge from that group. Seeing that the face of the league has not been a big man since Shaquille O’Neal, I find it unlikely that Davis will be able to keep up his current level of production into his 30’s. He will still be very good, most likely a top five player in the league, but players over 6’10” tend to age sooner than guards and small forwards. In addition to being a seven-footer, Embiid has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, having played just 94 regular season games in his first two seasons. Given Kawhi’s current contract limbo and seeming immaturity in his bizarre feud with the Spurs, the safe bet is either Kyrie Irving or Giannis Antetokounmpo. My pick is Giannis because he seems to be the perfect candidate as an all-around player with an otherworldly athleticism that can replace LeBron as “The King”.
Which Ball brother will have the greatest (NBA?) career?
Yam: As much as I love LiAnGelo and LaMelo, I don’t think they have the talent that Lonzo has. While Lonzo has showcased his talent on all levels of play, Gelo and Melo remain largely unproven with nothing to show for their talent except for Father Ball’s notoriously brash comments. Yes, Melo has countless Youtube compilations of him draining threes from long range, but they are typically uncontested. Furthermore, upon closer inspection of Melo’s game from archived Vytautas Prienu games, one can see that Melo barely plays defense, isn’t a facilitator, and often doesn’t even run.
Meanwhile, Gelo has a solid jumper but isn’t athletic enough for the modern NBA. He plays little defense and his 6’5” 216-pound frame leaves him too slow to play against guards and too small to handle ultra-athletic wings. Gelo’s only hope is to somehow grows physically stronger and drastically improves his defensive game to become a player in the mold of the Houston Rockets’ PJ Tucker
Blander-Rodriguez: Lonzo Ball’s season was in one word, disappointing. The number two overall pick in last year’s draft averaged just 10.7 points per game and shot 30.5% from three point land. For a player who sold themselves as a long range threat, that is underwhelming to say the least. However, there is reason to be optimistic. He is a good passer and an excellent rebounder for a point guard. Given his promise and athleticism, I would not write him off as a successful NBA career starter as long as his offensive game continues to develop.
LiAngelo has no chance at an NBA career. With only two rounds in the NBA draft, no team will select a 6’5” 216-pound player who cannot put the ball on the floor, is a poor playmaker and doesn’t play defense. He and LaVar need to be realistic about his future. He will either have a shot at an international career or a lifetime in the G-League. Teams will tolerate LaVar’s antics when it comes to Lonzo and Melo, but Gelo is simply not talented enough to be worth the risk.
On the other hand, LaMelo has far more upside. His range is ridiculous, and what people so often overlook, he has always played against older players. He played varsity as a high school freshman and is now playing professional basketball as a 16 year old. Even if it is in Lithuania, it is no small feat. Although it has gone mostly unreported, Melo has grown to 6’5”, which is a great height for a point guard. Video of him surfaced performing a windmill dunk, proving that his athleticism is real. He is an above-average playmaker with ridiculous range. Unlike Lonzo, his shooting form is decent and it translates into a shot that is very hard to defend. As long as father LaVar doesn’t make any relatively unpredictable moves (which shouldn’t be counted out) and Melo tightens up defensively, he has the capability to be an NBA star.
I say this respectfully, but it is foolish to write Lonzo off as a disappointment simply by looking at his scoring and three-point shooting averages. Doing so is just ignoring the rest of the game of basketball. Lonzo is different from the score-first point guards that dominate the league. He is a pass-first playmaker with great IQ and feel for the game. He simply isn’t a scoring point guard. However, his 7.2 Assists and 6.9 rebounds per game places him top ten in both categories among point guards. Furthermore, Lonzo makes his teammates better. His exceptional passing ability and feel for the game translate to him being a floor general who elevates those around him. That in and of itself makes him a valuable asset to the Lakers. His scoring numbers are low, but Lonzo has shown flashes of scoring potential. And remember: He is only a rookie. Playing in Los Angeles coupled with the outlandish remarks his father often makes has placed Lonzo in a position where everything he does is placed under a microscope, every mistake magnified. The composure he has shown in the face of all this scrutiny speaks volumes of his maturity and is a good sign for the future. He has years before his prime and it’s far too early to write him off. For reference, a 2012 Bleacherreport article listed Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook as two players who will “Never reach their potential”. Give the man some time.