CO-WRITTEN BY LOUIE SNYDER, BRADEN WAGLE, AUSTIN WODOCK, JAKOB ROSATI, AND CHI OKARE
With the regular season over, it’s time to look back at this crazy regular season. Five writers all discuss this season as well as look towards the playoffs.
Photo Credit: Bleacher Report
What was the biggest story of this NBA season?
Louie: Dwayne Wade and Dirk was a great story, but it stole the story of the league Brooklyn Nets. The Nets have somehow turned around a team with no resources around them, no major FA signings, and no draft picks. They struggled early, but went 33-22 over the past 55 games, and were one of the best teams in the NBA with a legit shot to beat the 76ers in round 1. Wade and Dirk deserved to be celebrated as two of the games best, but they stole the story from a deserving Nets squad.
Braden: Rookie of the Year, the MVP race (we will discuss later), the Lakers collapse, the Clippers future, Anthony Davis trade, Carmelo’s banishment, the Bucks and Nuggets rise, Jimmy Butler saga, Celtics Chemistry and many more. There are so many good options; as a Miami Heat fan and a long time Dwyane Wade fan I have to go with Dwayne Wade’s Last Dance. Wade was one of the NBA’s best. He was a class act that did as much off the court in the community and for players in the league as he did on the floor. He was a major factor along with Chris Paul and LeBron James in making the NBA the players league it is today. Wade also was unselfish, never being the highest paid player on Miami in his prime, sacrificing dollars and spotlight for LeBron and Bosh. He is a 3x champion, 1x scoring leader, and one of the best leaders/closers of all time. Even in his final season, he was arguably the best player on the Miami Heat. Wade left a legacy greater than any player could dream of when entering the league. Seeing the amount of respect from other players during the season emphasized that matter.
Austin: The Lakers. Oh my god, are they a train wreck. They made Keeping Up with the Kardashians look like a Disney Jr. show this year with all the drama, in-fighting and underachieving going on. Lebron is on the verge of hurting his legacy with the way he didn’t lead the young Lakers team to even the 8 seed in the west. Magic Johnson abruptly quit before telling his boss or literally anyone in the organization in one of the more bizarre sports stories I can remember and Rob Pelinka is on the verge of losing his job for his complete incompetence.
Jakob: I’m going to roll with the Brooklyn Nets here to differentiate. What they have accomplished this season and how they have rebounded from arguably the worst trade in NBA history is astonishing. They sit at 6 in the East as they prepare to face off with a 76ers team who still has a lot of question marks. D’Angelo Russell (go Buckeyes), in my opinion, is the front runner for Most Improved Player as he has had a career year averaging 21.1 points, 7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. Russell has truly been a feel-good story and the future of the Nets is illustrious with all the cap space they posses too. Kenny Atkinson also deserves a ton of credit, bringing the best out of his young squad in Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Spencer Dinwiddie.
Chi: The celebration of the legendary careers of Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. One of the things the NBA has done extremely well, especially over the past few years, is allowing time to recognize the true greats of the game when it is their time to move on. With Dwyane Wade’s #OneLastDance, to the celebration of Dirk’s career even though he didn’t formally announce his retirement until his last home game, the league has facilitated a season-long celebration of these two. Letting these guys go from arena to arena and actually get to see what they mean to basketball fans everywhere, has been a special and emotional journey and is a great model for other sports of how they should handle a “retirement tour” for the legends of the game. The NBA will not be the same without these two, they embodied an entire era of basketball for around two decades, and they will always be appreciated.
Who is your MVP?
Louie: 32-straight 30 point games… James Harden had a season that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Harden joined ELITE company averaging over 35 points per game,
including greats like MJ and Kobe. People might not like him going to the line, but it’s one of the most efficient ways to score. Harden could be a 4x MVP right now, but he definitely will be back-to-back.
Braden: 36.1 points per game. 7.5 assists per game. 6.6 rebounds per game. 2.03 Steals per game. Finishing 4th in a loaded West with Paul and Capela being hurt. 57, I will repeat, 57 30-point games. Those are just some of the highlights from James Harden’s season. He has already been robbed of the MVP twice (2015 when he won the players MVP, but the media gave it to Steph and 2017 when Russell Westbrook won), he can’t be robbed a third time.
Austin: James Harden. The Beard played some of the best offensive basketball of all time, averaging 36 points per game along with nearly 8 assists. Oh and he chipped in 57(!) 30 point games this season ranking only behind Michael Jordan for the most in a season. Harden drug the Rockets roster through Chris Paul’s injuries and overall roster underachievement all the way to the 4 seed in the west and potentially a sleeper finals pick.
Jakob: I’ll keep this one short. It is going to be Giannis. The NBA MVP is a hype award and Giannis is having a career year on the best team in the NBA, which is a new contender with a new coach. While solidifying himself as a cornerstone in this league he has been a force all around. I don’t need to share his numbers and ramble about his athleticism because he has been that big this season. It is between Harden and Giannis, but I don’t think they will give Harden back-to-back awards, seeing most of his numbers were inflated as he was missing his two best teammates the majority of the year. Giannis has been an iron man and the hype and popularity surrounding him will give him the edge in the end.
Chi: This year, for the second half of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has snuck up on, and in some people’s minds, passed James Harden to lead the MVP Race. Part of this is Giannis’ great play over this stretch, while part of it is also the Bucks’ excellent season (60-22, best record in the league) while the Rockets (53-29, 4 seed in West) have been good also, but not outstanding. Although many people have said Giannis has surpassed him, I personally will still take James Harden to win his second MVP in a row. He has averaged 36.8 points a game along with 7.5 assists, numbers which have never been put up in the history of the league (Basketball Reference). And although people do not like the way he plays, drawing a lot of fouls and manipulating the refs to his advantage, in an era where efficiency is key, he is putting up his numbers very efficiently, shooting 44% from the field, 36.8% from deep, and 88% from the line on 11 attempts per game. He gets my MVP vote this year.
Photo Credit: Nets Republic
Which team surprised or disappointed you the most this season?
Louie: This is going to sound odd, but the Portland Trail Blazers. I know they always finish well, but I don’t understand how in the west. They have Damian Lillard one of the most underrated players in the west, but how do the Blazers do so much better than the pelicans with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, much less the Thunder or Rockets. The Blazers surprise me every year by getting a top-four seed in possibly the toughest conference in NBA history. I predicted an eight seed that came out a three seed.
Braden: The Lakers are the easy answer, but I had them as a seven seed so not THAT crazy that they would miss. I saw the Clippers as a playoff team from the start of the season as well. For me, I have to go with the Brooklyn Nets. I had them 14th in the East going 25-57. The Nets have been one the best teams in the second half of the season and have turned it around without having draft picks. Russell has a chance to be a scoring machine for the next decade and help rebuild a franchise devoid of talent.
Austin: The Lakers. Lebron James was able to drag average to bad Cavs rosters to the finals in his last 2 years in Cleveland and the expectation was that he would be able to take the young, but promising Lakers to at least the playoffs this year. Funny how things don’t go as planned when an organization is run like company on the verge of an unnecessary implosion.
Jakob: The Los Angeles Clippers. I already wrote about the Clippers playoff berth which you can read here. I am a Clippers fan and I think this is one of the most shocking things I have seen in my NBA fandom, even more shocking than the Lakers shortcomings. I would have put my life savings down that the Clippers wouldn’t have secured a playoff spot before the Thunder, Jazz, and Spurs. They traded away their best player in Tobias Harris after he hit a game-winning buzzer beater and got BETTER? They have created a young core and saved money in the process while stockpiling draft picks. Their pitch to any free agent this summer (they have enough cap space for two big ones) can literally be you are the piece that will send us to the Finals and it isn’t even bull crap. They have an underdog, grind hard mentality, something many NBA teams lack and seem to all love playing for each other. They will probably get waxed by the Warriors but hey, this season has been amazing. Doc Rivers deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year as this team of players who most casual sports fans couldn’t even name outside of Lou Williams has exceeded all expectations. Steve Ballmer is the best thing that has ever happened to the Clips and the future may be looking brighter for them than their co-tenants.
Chi: The Indiana Pacers. A team that looked to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference, and a sleeper Finals pick, when Victor Oladipo goes down with a season ending injury, you expect a team to pack it up, blame bad luck, and focus on next season. Not this year’s Pacers. They held their own after the injury, got contributions from many players, their defense stepped up in a big way, and still hold home court going into the Playoffs. All credit goes to this surrounding cast- especially Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Cory Joseph, and coach Nate McMillan for holding the group together through this Oladipo injury. This is a team that I would not want to play in the postseason, and I think they have the potential to turn some heads.
Photo Credit: NBA.com
What 5-8 seed has the best chance of advancing through the first round?
Louie: The Thunder have the best chance, but that could be me underrated the Blazers AGAIN. So I also believe Jazz, Spurs, and Nets all have reasonable chances to advance. The Spurs are an elite home team and the Nuggets are built a lot like the 2013 Hawks who struggled in the playoffs. The 76ers are a team that has not proven it themselves in the playoffs, and the Nets have been hot lately and DeAngelo Russell and Co. are 2-2 against them on the year. The Jazz have one of the best defenses in the league and if they can get a slow pace against the rockets and win the pace battle, it will get ugly.
Braden: Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have the talent. They have Paul George who has been to the ECF and gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James for seven games. Russ is overrated, but can still match up with Damian Lillard. The Thunder should have the tools to advance.
Austin: Spurs. For no reason other than the fact that Gregg Popovich works magic each and every year. This is probably the second least talented Spurs team of my lifetime, only behind last year’s team excluding the injured Kawhi Leonard. However, Pop has the Spurs back in the playoffs again, extending a streak that goes back to before the dawn of time and their first-round matchup with the young Denver Nuggets looks like a matchup ripe for an upset. The Spurs have experience and old-school guile while the majority Nuggets core is experiencing being a playoff favorite for the first time. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Spurs sneak through into the second round.
Jakob: I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will upset (I don’t even know if this is actually considered an upset) the Portland Trail Blazers. I think OKC has a better overall roster and better stars. I love Damian Lillard and CJ but the gruesome injury to Jusuf Nurkić is killer. Now Meyers Leonard is going to have to carry the anchor in the paint and I have a feeling Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are going to have a field day. PG and Russ will be able to match up well with Dame and CJ and the role players on OKC should be able to overpower Portland’s. Portland literally tried to lose last night to Sacramento, playing only 6 players, meaning they didn’t want OKC. They pulled a 28-point comeback out of nowhere and ended up sealing their fate with a win. Utah would have been ideal but that isn’t who they got. I think OKC will send Dame home early once again.
Chi: Pacers. As I stated above, the Pacers are a team that I would not want to play this postseason, even without star Victor Oladipo. But for me, this pick is more about the poor season the Celtics are having than it is about the successes of the Pacers. They have underachieved all year, and for a team that thrived last year without star guard Kyrie Irving, and almost went to the Finals, they have taken a massive step back this season and have played far below the sum of their parts. Blame for this can fall on players, Brad Stevens, or whoever, but it is clear something is wrong with this team. And now with news that defensive superstar Marcus Smart will be out likely the first two rounds of the playoffs, I think this matchup is ripe for an upset.
Photo Credit: SlamDunk
What will the NBA Finals matchup be?
Louie: Rockets vs Raptors. The Rockets have been close the past two years and the Warriors seem more vulnerable now. Much like Braden, I believe this is the Rockets year with Clint Capela switch defense. Playing the Warriors a round earlier should be better for Houston as Harden’s wear and Paul’s health should be better than after another series. In the East, the Raptors will make it for one reason: Playoff Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi is one of the games best in the playoffs. He was great in the Spurs helping lead the old men past a great Heat team. He also went toe to toe with KD and Harden in the playoffs and beat them both until KD joined GS. Kawhi isn’t LeBron, but has a chance to dominate the East this year like he is.
Braden: Of course everyone has the Warriors. They are the easy pick, and honestly, I think they are just as likely as anyone. Just as likely… meaning there is someone I think has the same odds. That would be the Rockets. The Rockets have the perfect matchup as seen in this article. Since I believe the there is an equal chance, I’ll say the Rockets make it just to make it interesting. Read the article for all the reasoning. From the East, I will still take Boston. Making it Rockets vs Celtics. The Celtics just lost Marcus Smart and contrary to Chi, I believe this is addition by subtraction. The Celtics have been better when missing one or two of the role players, giving a few more shots to everyone else. Add that Marcus Smart is the least efficient and I think Celtics have a great shot. I won’t put money on the non-shooting stars Ben Simmons and Giannis, so it comes down to the Raptors and Celtics for me. I trust Brad Stevens (might just be stubborn that I picked Celtics to start the year).
Austin: Warriors vs Raptors. So long as the Warriors have 5 former all-stars and two of the five best players in the NBA on their roster there is no reason they shouldn’t be in the finals. The Raptors, on the other hand, will have to battle through a talented top half of the East with the Bucks, 76ers, and Celtics all possessing the type of talent that can make it to the NBA Finals. However, the Raptors have Kawhi Leonard and his experience as a Finals MVP leading the way. Coupled with Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol the Raptors have the two-way firepower to make their way through the East and into the Finals.
Jakob: Warriors vs Bucks. The Warriors will go the Finals. Change my mind. I was skeptical of Milwaukee at first but I think they have a decent shot. The argument against that is if you give a good coach time to prepare for Giannis defensively, he will be able to be shut down. I don’t know if that’s true anymore because the Bucks have a strong team outside of Giannis, you can’t focus on just him. Giannis has never won a playoff series and I think he is here to prove the doubters wrong by changing that. They have the easiest path to the ECF with the inconsistent Pistons and toxic chemistry ridden Celtics or injured Pacers. All they have to do is play like they have all year and I think they have a somewhat easy crack at the Finals. Kyle Lowry will disappear in April as he always does, Marc Gasol is turning 95 this year, and it is hard to believe Kawhi will be able to carry them to the big dance. As I said earlier, I think the 76ers have question marks. I was thinking about choosing them but Jimmy Butler just hasn’t been Jimmy, Joel Embiid’s health is a concern, Ben Simmons focus is in question, and I don’t think Tobias is THAT guy. We will see how it all plays out. I think the East will be a blood bath but I think Milwaukee has the best chance.
Chi: Warriors vs Raptors. This current Warriors dynasty is one I have the type of respect for that I had for the Cavs in the East the past few years: I will not pick them to lose in the West until I see it happen. I think that the Warriors might have some trouble with a Nuggets or Rockets, whichever they meet up with first, but as they always do, they will turn it on when it is needed most. As for the East, I think the Raptors have the best chance to make it out. The past few years, they have been somewhat of a Lebron joke- they have historical seasons for their franchise, win a bunch of regular season games, talk about how they are ready for the LeBron challenge, then finally meet up with him and are dismissed quickly. However, with their recent moves- Kawhi, Marc Gasol, and a very underrated move that they made in acquiring Danny Green along with the Kawhi trade, along with the amazing season that Pascal Siakam is having, I think the Raptors will be the team representing the East this year.
Bonus Question: Which team(s) that missed the playoffs this season will make it next year?
Louie: LeBron won’t miss the playoffs twice. The Lakers are the easy pick and will make it next year. They will get better this offseason, hopefully with another superstar. The young players will get better. LeBron won’t get hurt. The West is tough, but with LeBron healthy in his second season, and a few reinforcements the Lakers won’t be missing the playoffs again.
Austin: The Mavericks. Luka Doncic is my favorite player in the NBA so this pick is probably a little biased, but I think the Mavs will take a big leap going to next year. The expected health and resigning of Kristaps Porzingis only makes a Mavs playoff appearance more likely. Pairing two guys who can get their own shot and set up their teammates with a solid roster of shooters and defenders should be enough to propel the Mavs to at least the 8 seed in the West.
Braden: To start I agree with the Mavericks and the Lakers. LeBron won’t miss twice, Luka and Kristaps have a great chance. The battle between them and the Kings to make the playoffs will be interesting as well as determining who will miss the playoffs. The pick that I will add is the Atlanta Hawks. John Collins, Trae Young, then a top three pick and the Mavericks pick if its not top 5. Atlanta is a big enough market to lure stars especially if RJ Barrett’s driving ability and Trae Young shooting ability are together, adding a few more minor pieces could push them over the edge on a weaker Eastern Conference.
Jakob: It is between the Lakers and Knicks for me, but the Knicks success rides on the lottery and free agency, no guarantees. I think the Lakers have to or a media onslaught is upon them. They are the Lakers, after all, they have been god awful the past 6 years and still get talked about more than half of the good teams. They got LeBron James and then Magic Johnson dipped out after one bad season with him. They only won 2 more games than they did last year. I know the injury bug hit them bad this year, but their record wasn’t that great with LeBron on the floor. If the Lakers miss the playoffs again, LeBron’s career will start to be looked at differently as will Jeanie Buss’ ability to manage (the criticism is already beginning for her). If LeBron never wins as a Laker it will hurt not only his basketball career but his Hollywood career seeing most of the people he would be working with are most likely Lakers fans. Something sounds funky about LeBron James and Elgin Baylor vs LeBron, Shaq, Kober, Magic, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, and Jerry West.
Chi: The Lakers. You simply have to think that LeBron and the Lakers will be able to acquire a marquee free agent this summer. Be it the favorite- Anthony Davis, or a Kawhi Leonard, or even a Klay Thompson possibility, I think they will be able to pick up someone who can help take more of the load off LeBron’s shoulders for next season. Also, people can’t forget that these Lakers were a 4-seed before James’ groin injury which derailed their season. Barring another injury next year you will see the Lakers in the postseason.