(Photo Courtesy of Rant Sports)
With NBA All-Star Weekend underway, it seemed as good a time as any to get re-acquainted with The Butter Lamb’s resident NBA experts, Jimmy Abbott and Jim Doyle. The Butter Lamb posed ten questions in regards to what has happened thus far, and what could happen over the remainder of the season. Check out what each had to say below.
1. We’re well over the halfway point into the season and two surprising teams (Atlanta and Golden State) sit atop the standings in each conference. Can both teams sustain the success they’ve had to date? And are they legitimate contenders to win the title?
Abbott: Atlanta is awesome.
Zach Lowe loved them last year, and their 75/1 odds to win the title jumped out at me early this year, but I didn’t have nearly enough money at the time (I’m now VERY wealthy) to hedge my bet round-by-round in the playoffs. Now that they’ve essentially locked up a top two seed, the hedge money necessary is much lower and I am ruing the day I decided against it.
They’ve worked hard to become the “Spurs East” and have competent shooting at every position and ELITE shooting at two positions with Korver and Horford. All of their rotation players know exactly what they’re job is, and they’re all selfless in making the extra pass. Korver’s defender can never ever help off of him. As a result pick and roll on his side of the floor is going to have great spacing. If Korver’s in the weakside corner, than his guy can’t bump the big rolling on the pick roll, which normally where the help comes from. Teague and Schroder are both blurs and crafty finishers, and Millsap and Horford can hit the jumper or make the extra pass to shooters in the pick and roll. DeMarre Carroll is basically found money at this point and even Kent “Bazed God” Bazemore is getting in on the mix.
Golden State is awesome as well, and even if you nitpick it’s hard to find a blemish on them. They have so much length and like-sized players that they can switch almost any pick, and Curry has really improved as a defender allowing Klay Thompson to guard wing players. Obviously, they’re success is going to depend on Bogut’s health, which is always a question, and they very well could lose to the Thunder in the first round. That’s just how the West is. Also their bench units when Curry sits do struggle a bit. Barbosa and Livingston are both fun and get the job done in their own ways, but when paired with Iguodala and Draymond Green their outfit gets a bit bricky. Curry and Thompson will both play 40 minutes a night in the playoffs though, so as long as they can withstand those small stretches they should be fine.
Doyle: Atlanta and Golden State certainly have shocked the league this year. It was quite obvious that both of the squads would be in the playoffs, but I am sure very few predicted the success they have displayed throughout the first half of the season. I believe both of these teams can keep this pace going as they race to clinch home court advantage. However, I fear that relying on jump shooters for an entire season can be risky. If any team were to slip up and not be number one in their conference come May, it will be Golden State. 82 games is a long season and legs get tired, even if it’s the young “Splash Brothers.”
I don’t anticipate either squad falling apart or losing their identity and firmly believe that both teams could be a serious threat for a title run as they are stellar at home, while still very respectable on the road. That being said, I do worry more about Golden State come playoff time should they have to face a 6-7-8 seed in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, or Phoenix. I will say it right now; these teams will not square off in the finals, as great as it would be for the league.
2. Much has been made of the depth of playoff caliber teams in the Western Conference, and rightfully so. By my count there are 10 teams (GS, MEM, HOU, POR, LAC, DAL, SA, PHX, NO, and OKC) with very realistic chances of grabbing a spot. Who makes up the top-eight come season’s end?
Abbott: As much as it pains me to say it, I could see Dallas slipping out of the top-eight, but I doubt Rick Carlisle lets that happen because he’s too good of a coach. They’re bench is considerably weaker since the Rondo trade and their offense has slipped a bit (though they have been a better rebounding/defensive team). Rondo has a so-called “extra-gear” in the playoffs, but teams just aren’t going to guard him off the ball come April, which hurts their normally impeccable spacing. The Monta Ellis pick and roll with either Dirk or Chandler is their best offense, and Rondo handling the ball limits that.
Phoenix’s schedule gets brutal down the stretch and I just don’t like Monty Williams so I doubt New Orleans can jump anybody. The playoffs without Westbrook would be a disgrace and it’s not a world I want to live in. I think the Thunder turn it on after the All-Star break and we’re treated to the greatest 1 vs. 8 series of all time in GSW vs. OKC.
Doyle: As just mentioned, even the bottom of the West is dangerous. Defending champion San Antonio sits near the bottom at seven, while Oklahoma City can’t even play their way in at the moment. Injuries may be the most crucial variable in the marathon that is the Western Conference. For this reason, my absolute locks to make the playoffs in the West are:
– Golden State
– San Antonio
This leaves us with two remaining spots. With Blake Griffin out and the Clippers looking worse than ever on defense, they do not look like a safe bet. Phoenix is loaded at guard, but they’ve played poorly within the conference and on the road. The injury bug has bitten Oklahoma City as defending MVP Kevin Durant has been slowed down this season. Meanwhile another team looks to sneak in with an MVP of their own in New Orleans.
While I’d love to see Phoenix and New Orleans make it, I cannot bet against Doc Rivers not getting his team motivated and coached up enough to reach the playoffs. I don’t like Matt Barnes or Austin Rivers, their two weakest assets in my opinion, but with CP3 and Doc, this team has to make the playoffs or something will change. Similarly, I cannot count out OKC especially with Russell Westbrook playing as well as he is with or without KD. If OKC misses the postseason, it is because KD or Westbrook will further injure themselves. But if both are healthy and they fail to reach the playoffs, Brooks must get fired. New Orleans just misses (an entire division hasn’t made the playoffs since Central Division in the 2006 playoffs) and Phoenix settles for tenth.
3. Though not as deep as the West, the East does possess multiple interesting teams that could prove capable of matching up with the best of the West. Who are the true contenders in the East? And who are the pretenders?
Abbott: Chicago is a huge question mark and it sounds like the power struggle between Thibs and management might be getting to Harbaugh-ian levels. Cleveland is starting to figure it out, and any team with LeBron in the East should be considered a contender. Mozgov and their two wing upgrades (J.R. and Shumpert) have helped a lot. Unfortunately that has meant considerably less Joe Harris minutes for the lady Cavs fans. Toronto has a special place in my heart and Lowry will keep them in every game, but it’s hard to live off pull up jumpers and they’ve been reluctant to play Valunciunas in crunch time. Washington looks to be well rounded and Pierce should win them a game or two. Milwaukee is super fun, even after their bout of injuries and whatever happened to Larry Sanders. I also didn’t think O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless would evolve into savvy bench contributors, but they have. Ultimately I think the Bucks are probably a year or two away. Atlanta is really good, and we’ll see how scheme fares in playoffs against teams that have two weeks of scouting on them.
Doyle: The Eastern Conference is so much more respectable than last season. By my count, there are five serious teams that could cause some damage. From strongest to weakest (currently) I would rank them Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and Cleveland.
Atlanta has proved they can ball with the Western Conference and Chicago can play defense with the best of them. I love the addition of Pau Gasol and believe these two teams present the most immediate threats to Western Conference teams. Toronto has been solid, Cleveland is finding their way, and Washington remains near the top of their division. As these teams currently stand, I don’t think Cleveland would matchup very well against any top tier team, especially in a series. They do not have many players with playoff experience on their roster and there is clearly tension in the locker room as several new personalities attempt to mesh. I do like Washington and Toronto’s odds a bit more, but part of me thinks they cannot get it done come late May. I love that Milwaukee is hanging in there as they have many young talents, but they are obvious pretenders along with Charlotte and Miami.
I would only feel comfortable betting on Atlanta or Chicago in a series against a Western Conference squad. Come playoff time though, I’m certain Cleveland will be more of a force and grab more attention.
4. Though the Warriors and Hawks have grabbed a significant share of the spotlight over the past month, the Cleveland Cavaliers have ripped off 14 victories in a 16-game stretch. Why have the Cavs been able to turn it around lately? Can you envision them getting to the Finals?
Abbott: LeBron is back. And yes, because they have LeBron.
Doyle: The Cavaliers have shown success lately despite my lack of confidence in them come crunch time. LeBron James is the main catalyst of the “turnaround” quite certainly; he is the best player and playmaker in the world. Kyrie came out of a funk going off for 55 against Portland in late January, and Kevin Love showcased himself against the Lakers (a team he will always be linked to return to). Maybe LeBron causing scenes in the media has taken the heat off of everyone else and allowed them to relax, but I believed this team would float around .500 until everyone became more comfortable with one another. Timofey Mozgov was a solid addition and may have allowed Kevin Love to become his former self. With the paint locked up on defense and everyone, including head coach David Blatt fitting in more, the Cavs look like the team many expected them to be. They better be ready for the challenge come playoffs or be prepared to take some serious heat from the media.
5. Several teams at the bottom of the standings have already effectively eliminated themselves from playoff contention. Is there any hope (be it through their current roster situation, their cap space for pending free agents, or through the upcoming draft) for the immediate and long-term future of any of the league’s current “cellar dwellers?”
Abbott: The Lakers are praying to finish in the bottom five so they can keep their draft pick (if they don’t it goes to Phoenix which would be AWESOME). They’ll have cap space, presumably a top five pick, a healthy Julius Randle, and Los Angeles weather to offer free agents. The Knicks will never be good as long as Derek Fisher is their coach. Minnesota has a nice young nucleus, but good luck in the West. Orlando and Boston seem to have put together decent batches of young players, and Boston in particular has a shitload of picks, but I’m not sure what either of their end games really are at the moment. The Kings are just a mess. Utah looks to have three keepers in Hayward, Favors and Gobert, and it will be interesting to see what they do with Enes Kanter at the deadline. Someone is going to pay him this summer. The Burke/Burks/Exum backcourt has a ton of question marks, but they’re all still very young.
Doyle: New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Los Angeles (Lakers) are all horrendous. Orlando is pretty awful too, but considering the previous four teams mentioned, they’re far better off.
The Knicks seem most likely to be picking atop the draft (if the lottery abides), as Carmelo will reportedly shut it down after All Star Weekend. There also continue to be heavy rumors of an Amare Stoudemire buy-out. Regardless as to whether that happens, the current roster exemplifies the numerous poor decisions made by management. In particular the Melo trade discarded a process that had built some talent and youth on their roster (Wilson Chandler, Gallinari, Mozgov, but not fat Felton).
The Lakers and Knicks each could end up with the top pick, and presumably cash that in on Jahlil Okafor, but that wouldn’t make either team immediately better, as they’d still have no real parts outside of one (entitled) offensive star. Neither of these clubs has anything going for them besides the constant speculation of a big name signing in free agency due to the size of their market.
Philadelphia and Minnesota are in much better positions for a rebuild as they already have some young players performing well on their roster. Philly should be set in the frontcourt with big men Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, while Michael Carter-Williams runs the point. Other than that, I can probably only name two other players on their current roster.
Minnesota is loaded at the wings and has Pekovic, who is a refrigerator of a human being. Both Philly and Minnesota will be bad for a few years, but unlike the Knicks and Lakers, these teams already have something to build upon. However, Philly and Minnesota cannot exactly draw big names via free agency like LA and NY could. Either way, all of these teams are going to be bad for a few seasons. Minnesota has to hope the West falls apart a bit while the other teams just need to keep on building. Phil Jackson will likely try the hardest, but I think he fails.
6. Anthony Davis currently has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) that would stand as an all-time record in league history. If Davis manages to keep this up, is he worthy of being the league’s MVP? If he’s not, who else deserves to be in the conversation?
Abbott: Davis is hands down the best defender of the possible MVP candidates (Curry, Harden, LeBron) but if they miss the playoffs it’s going to be difficult to see him winning. If I had to guess, I think Steph Curry ends up with it.
Doyle: Anthony Davis is a freak and needs to be in the MVP discussion. He is blowing Hall of Famers’ numbers out of the water right now, and I believe he should be the MVP if this pace continues. Check out this Hoopshype article and look at Davis’s numbers against guys like Shaq, Barkley, Duncan, Garnett, and Moses Malone.
Davis has a few competent players on his team, but c’mon. This guy is great and he has shown how much better he has gotten. He killed it in USA’s run in FIBA World Cup over the summer, and he has put on considerable muscle and weight three years into his career. And wait! He’s only 21! Not that these things should factor in to the MVP race, but this has been a few years coming. Davis will likely own the league by the time he is 25, but he deserves an MVP now. To hold his own like this in the West is remarkable, and if the Pelicans reach the playoffs, he’s a lock. For now, he should be in the running near the top.
Harden has got to be the most obvious choice (he hasn’t put up less than 30 a game in like ever) followed by Curry. I’d diminish Curry a bit because of Klay Thompson’s presence. I think it’s hard to say you’re the MVP when your partner in the backcourt drops 37 in a quarter. The Hawks and Grizz play too much of a team game to have one clear MVP, but Marc Gasol is deserving of being in the discussion.
7. I can’t remember a time in recent memory when the NBA had so many talented point guards throughout the league. Humor me for a minute. Who are your top-five point guards in the league today?
Abbott: It’s really hard to narrow it down, but my favorites to watch, in order, are Westbrook, Lowry, Lillard, Curry and Austin Rivers. I’m just kidding about Rivers, and I’d probably slot in Conley as the fifth, but boy is Wall fun to watch too. And the same can be said about the three out in Phoenix (Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas) as well. Even D.J. Augustin has a soft spot in my heart.
Doyle: Ok, this one is the hardest question of the bunch, and probably harder than any physics equation or essay I’ve encountered to this point in my life.
The best point guards in the NBA CURRENTLY, AS OF THIS SEASON, have got to be: 1. Steph Curry 2. Russell Westbrook 3. John Wall 4. Kyrie Irving 5. Damian Lillard.
Curry is the best with Westbrook a close second. John Wall edges out Kyrie because he has been solid all season, while Lillard sneaks on because of the success he shares with his team. I hate to leave him off, but I had to snub Kyle Lowry. He is the most underrated point guard in the league, more so than Jeff Teague or Mike Conley. These three names, Chris Paul and Ty Lawson mark the next tier of point guards based on this season’s performance.
8. What team and what player have been the biggest surprises for you so far this season?
Abbott: I think Milwaukee has been a pleasant surprise even after injuries to Kendall Marshall, Jabari and Larry Sanders’ sabbatical. Jason Kidd, though diabolical, is a very good coach and made a smart move getting away from the lifeless Nets. The Bucks have a ton of similarly sized players, and I’m pretty sure Khris Middleton, John Henson and the Greek Freak don’t have torsos. They’re entirely arms and legs. They can switch a lot of picks and protect the rim with their length and athleticism. Brandon Knight is also better than I thought. He still struggles as a full time PG making the right reads and reading the court on the pick and roll, but he is very fast and can shoot off the bounce.
The biggest surprise in terms of players has got to be Jimmy Butler. He’s come down to Earth a little bit since his unsustainable hot start, but he’s still second in the league in free throws attempted and free throws made. He bet on himself this summer, and he looks pretty smart for doing that as somebody is going to max him out. He also rented out a house with no cable or internet for the summer to force himself to work out and play more basketball, which may be the most disciplined thing I’ve ever heard a professional basketball player do.
Doyle: Golden State and Atlanta are the two obvious surprises. Both are strong teams, definitely playoff material, but I would not have expected Kerr to have his team in this form so early in the year. Additionally, Mike Budenholzer has replicated the San Antonio way quite successfully.
Other than that, quite honestly, Anthony Davis has surprised me. He was supposed to be the next Tim Duncan and though I’ve said it before I’ll say it again: Anthony Davis will be the next Anthony Davis. Stop comparing this kid to everybody because he very well may become the next prototype for big men in this league. Essentially, he is a larger Kevin Durant. Many of you may know, Davis was raised a guard and had an insane growth spurt during his senior year of high school. He can handle the rock and shoot. And oh yeah he’s nearly seven feet tall, gaining muscle, and owning the league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a treat to watch as the Bucks continue to hang in the East. What a great thing for these young Bucks (shout out G-Unit) to make the playoffs and face off with some of the league’s best while getting valuable experience in their young careers. My only wish is that Parker could be around for this. Parker and Antetokounmpo on opposite wings will be a nightmare.
Lastly, I am quite shocked that Brian Shaw still has a job coaching the Nuggets.
9. With the All-Star Game mere hours away, were there any names you were happy to see included this year? Any snubs you feel were hard done by?
Abbott: With the injury replacements (Korver, Cousins, Lillard) I think everyone is in that should be. Maybe Mike Conley, as he’s been pretty steady all year, but the guards in the west are truly unreal. I’m just happy to see Lowry as a starter.
Doyle: I was thrilled to see Tim Duncan on an All-Star roster, again. It’s pretty great watching your favorite player have continued success at the later stages of his career. People will say, and I agree, that it is easy to root for a winning team, but San Antonio is different. It’s more ethical and moral than just winning. It’s not about the wins or the titles, but the way they were accomplished. Duncan being selected again not only represents himself, but his teammates, organization, and the values San Antonio stands for.
I hate the fan voting because they always choose the obvious guys like Kobe, LeBron, Melo etc., but I love the injury replacements. Glad to see Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard and DeMarcus Cousins work their way onto the roster, and I love the fact that Harden and Thompson will start in the backcourt together. I am sure Mavs fans have a similar sentiment about Dirk as I do Timmy, which must please them seeing the vet get the nod. Obviously there were some glaring snubs that injury replacements turned into a non-issue, but I am most excited for the dunk contest this year. The Greek Freak will dunk from the top of the key and it will surely be a show.
10. Although we’re a long ways away, which two teams get to the Finals, and who is your prediction to win it all?
Abbott: The West is a total crapshoot, but I think OKC gets hot and goes through the toughest path of all time to get to the Finals.
The East might actually be interesting for the first time in ages. A 2 vs. 7, Cavs vs. Miami matchup would be neat. Milwaukee might be able to scare a Washington/Toronto. Maybe even Detroit has a little “We Believe” Warriors in them though I doubt it. Smart money is probably Atlanta for the East, though it’s hard to bet against LeBron. That is if he’s completely dialed in on defense, which he hasn’t been this year so far. Toronto’s crowd for home games is going to be unreal, probably second behind only Golden State’s, so if they could hold on to the second seed that would be huge.
I’ll go with OKC vs. Atlanta, a matchup of the two most polar opposite offenses in the league.
Doyle: Here’s a shot in the dark as to who will reach the Finals, and it may surprise you.
Defending champs San Antonio do not have enough gas in the tank for another deep run so the door has to be open for others. With this in mind, I believe Memphis finally gets there. Memphis has all the parts and has proven themselves in the playoffs before. If they get hot they are dangerous (obviously any hot team is) because they can play in tight games and consistently force stops on the defensive end. Gasol and Randolph are great, but they could really benefit from an acquisition of a bonafide spot-up shooter.
Chicago will make it out of the East, making for a true defensive battle as two strong teams face off. I’m rooting for them in the East, and this would be as good a matchup as any to pick an Eastern Conference team, but I think it’s Memphis’ time.
The Grizzlies pull out a title in a tough six-game series, crowning Gasol Finals MVP along the way.
Then again, I could be wrong. People have counted out the Spurs before, and perhaps me doubting them will produce a back-to-back title for Timmy to walk off into the sunset with.