Fernando Castro & Bobby Amarant
With the All-Star weekend in the rear view mirror, the final third of the NBA season will be underway. There have been a few popular predictions made at the beginning of the season that have come to fruition. CP3 and the Rockets have lit up the league. Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo have not had an easy road as a top team in the west, due to their offensive styles. They have climbed to the fifth seed now, but were well out of the playoff picture for the first third of the season. Powered by Embiid and Simmons, our Philadelphia Sixers are in eastern conference playoff contention for the first time in half a decade. But what are the majority of NBA fans absolutely wrong about? Here are the hottest takes about the NBA as of the 2018 All-Star break.
Portland will blow it up.
Despite making the playoffs in a tough western conference the last five years, the Blazers have been stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity. Even with an undeniable star in Damian Lillard, who is entering his prime at age 27, the Blazers’ ceiling is painfully set, and that ceiling has been manufactured by overpaid players who define the Blazers as mediocre. Over the next 3 years, Portland will be paying an average of $39.3 million/yr combined to Meyers Leonard, and former Sixers first round picks Evan Turned and Maurice Harkless. CJ McCollum, who many claim to be a powerful force in the backcourt along with Lillard, has been doing as much to harm Rip City as help. His 21.7 points per game seem impressive on the surface level; however, counting stats don’t encompass the detriment of keeping CJ on the court. McCollum is a dreadful defender, posting a -1.3 DBPM (Defensive Box Plus Minus) this season and a DBPM of -1.8 for his career. Additionally, his OBPM (Offensive Box Plus Minus) is the third worst among all 20 PPG scorers at 1.8. Even by the eye test, McCollum often fails to run offensive sets in favor of wasting time trying to isolate before forcing bad passes and disrupting the flow of the game. Coupling his misleading production with his $106 million guaranteed until 2021 and the Blazers have yet another bad contract on their hands. The Blazers have enjoyed a run for contention in the Western conference these past few years, including a series clinching game winner, and eliminating teams like the Rockets and Clippers in the first round of western conference playoffs. However, the success they enjoyed in the regular season and first round will always lie in the shadow of their defeats in the later stages. In the last three NBA postseasons, the Blazers have won a single playoff series, and been eliminated in no more than five games in all others. Although Lillard has proven to be an explosive offensive player, the Blazers just haven’t had enough to defeat the top tiered teams in the Western conference, mainly the Spurs and Warriors. After a painful sweep by Golden State in the first round of the playoffs last year, the Blazers will go for one final playoff run to cap their season, which will likely end the same. As the Western conference has proven time and time again, good isn’t good enough, and if the Blazers plan to win an NBA championship, it’s best to start from scratch, which would begin by dumping their bad contracts, trading Lillard and McCollum to teams projected to draft high that want to win sooner. Teams such as the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, or Utah Jazz that have both a young star and expendable young assets and picks fit the bill for trade partners for either backcourt member.
Kyrie Irving is overrated.
The Boston Celtics sit near the top of the Eastern conference with the Raptors at the #2 seed. They are, by the standards of Phil Jackson, a “great” team, winning 40 games before losing 20. Their major free agency pick up this past summer, Gordon Hayward, has played a grand total of five minutes this season, after succumbing to a leg injury in Boston’s season opener. Despite the adversity that the C’s have faced this season, they still went on a 16 game win streak, and are poised to make a deep playoff run. Filling in the shoes of former C’s guard Isaiah Thomas is former Cavalier point guard and NBA champion Kyrie Irving, which was a part of a blockbuster move between the two teams to swap the guards following their Eastern conference final bout this past postseason. At face value, Irving’s stats, the Celtics win total, and the Cavalier’s performance in comparison have all lent credence to his value as a player, and have even lead to him being in discussion of regular season MVP this year. Despite all the hype and fanfare surrounding the scorer, Kyrie Irving is not the star everybody believes him to be. Allow us to preface this by saying: Kyrie Irving is a very, very good NBA player. Almost any team would be happy to add the former Cavalier as a heavily used option in their offense. The main problem with Kyrie is that, while running an offense, he fails to open up the floor for his teammates. While his ball handling abilities are arguably the best in the league, crossovers do not win games. Kyrie is a poor playmaker in terms of finding his teammates, despite being an excellent isolation scorer. By the eye test alone, Kyrie often puts his head down and runs out a large portion of the shot clock before attempting a low percentage shot. Irving has improved on defense and at passing since his move to Boston, but it seems more likely that this is a product of improved coaching and defensive schemes with the very impressive Brad Stevens at the helm as opposed to Tyronn Lue. In fact, in the same offense, Isaiah Thomas was almost unequivocally a better player with the Celtics last season than Kyrie is now. Thomas has higher PPG, APG, AST%, OBPM, BPM, PER, WS/48, VORP, and TS% on only a slightly higher usage than Irving. While Thomas averaged less than one assist more than Irving in comparison, the assist percentage is more telling, which Thomas averaged a 32.5% last season while Irving was at 29%. Obviously, Isaiah Thomas has fallen off with his injuries and is not currently a better player than Kyrie Irving, but Kyrie is not the revelation that some fans believe he is for the Celtics. The reality is that Kyrie is a high usage, high output isolation shooting guard, not point guard, without other major dimensions to his game. For those who consider Kyrie to be in the MVP conversation, it’s time to flatten your expectations. Don’t believe us? Watch the Celtics in the postseason, and see what happens when Irving doesn’t have an absolute floor general in Lebron James to default to when things go south.
The Magic won’t make the playoffs. For at least five more years.
In the landscape of the National Basketball association, a lot can change in five years. Five years ago was 2013. In 2013, Dwyane Wade was the second best player on the best team in the league. Stephen Curry had made his first appearance in the NBA playoffs with the Golden State Warriors. A team of Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol made it to the Western conference finals. The whole league was waiting for Derrick Rose to return from his ACL tear, in belief that he would return and continue being the MVP level player he was for the seasons before. Draymond Green was a second round pick who averaged 13 minutes a game. Things can change a lot for NBA teams in five years. But not for the Magic, we believe. Orlando’s problems mostly boil down to an incompetent front office. With a major overhaul in that department, we would eat our words and have higher expectations for them. The fact of the matter is that the Magic have no idea what they are doing. Trading now-All-Star Victor Oladipo for a half-year rental of Serge Ibaka and Terrence Ross is panning out to be a bad move, along with giving Bismack Biyombo and Evan Fournier $17 million per year each for mediocre production. The Magic are making moves that scream mediocrity, yet they can’t even reach that, as they are still one of the worst teams in the NBA, if not the worst. Their one bright light as of now is Aaron Gordon, a good player who is about to be paid like a great one due to his production on a terrible team. The Magic have drafted quite badly as well, as seen with Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja. Even when they do draft a good player such as Victor Oladipo or Domantas Sabonis, they trade them away for mediocre returns. Orlando’s front office is incompetent and until there is an overhaul, expect nothing to change with them.
The Raptors will make the NBA finals.
The last NBA finals to not have featured Lebron James was in 2010. It seems like Lebron’s teams march to the NBA finals. Like the terminator, they do not blitz through the regular season or the eastern conference, but they get to the finals, slowly, but surely. This year, however, things will change. Who will be representing the eastern conference in the 2018 finals instead, you may ask? The Toronto Raptors. Despite all the struggles they’ve had in the past postseasons, despite sweeps they’ve received in the eastern conference playoffs, despite the losses they’ve taken from the Cavaliers, despite what history says, the Raptors will beat the Cleveland Cavaliers four times before Cleveland beat them four times in May, and the reason is simple. Demar DeRozan. The immediate counterarguments to this position are all spouted repeatedly; “The Cavaliers are coasting!” or “Just wait for the Trash Bros to show up in the playoffs!” are shouted from the streets at even a suggestion of the Raptors making the finals. This year, however, DeMar DeRozan has been playing like a man on a mission while improving several facets of his game. His numbers do not seem improved on the surface, having lost almost four points per game from last season down from 27.3. Despite this, DeRozan is taking (and making) more threes than he ever has, shooting at a 33% clip that forces teams to respect his shot and improve offensive spacing in the lane for Toronto. Additionally, DeRozan’s AST% has skyrocketed by a 5% increase, displaying his development as a playmaker and passer on the Raptors. He’s having career peek stats in true shooting %, win shares per 48 minutes, offensive box plus/minus, defensive box plus/minus, and box plus/minus. The last three stats help paint a picture of DeRozan’s impact on the game. Kyle Lowry has seen a dip in production along with a questionable All-Star selection, but the depth of the Raptors makes up for it. The Raptors are the first team in NBA history to have 11 players averaging over 6 PPG, and this comes as no fluke. Players like Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Jakob Poeltl have been huge this season for a Toronto team with almost no holes in their bench or starting lineup. This is a bench that could go toe to toe with several starting lineups and embarrass them. Against teams like Cleveland, who even after the trade deadline, seriously lack depth in their rotation, Toronto’s bench could be an X-factor. Don’t be surprised if the “Trash Bros” come back with a vengeance this year and take the playoffs by storm.