Hustler roundtable: NBA Playoffs edition


John Russell

Photo courtesy of John Russell/Vanderbilt University

On Saturday, one of sport’s most popular and culturally relevant two-month marathons begins: the NBA Playoffs. A number of record-breaking individual performers will attempt to translate their success to long series against teams that have days, even weeks, to game plan, as 14 teams will try to knock off the two clear favorites in each conference. As Grammy award-winning artist Pitbull would say, the Hustler sports staff is ready for the Playoffs (yeahhhh).

Max Schneider, sports reporter: This NBA season was all about the MVP race between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and those two have completely distracted basketball fans around the country from the truth, and that is the fact that in a league with 30 teams, the finals has been set since July 4 when Kevin Durant agreed to sign with the Golden State Warriors. They have also distracted fans from the fact that the real Most Valuable Player every single time he steps on the floor is LeBron James.

In his 14th season, LeBron had one of his best years of his career, averaging 26-9-9 on 55 percent shooting, making him the only player in NBA history to do so. He’s also averaging a career high in rebounds and assists at age 32. Oh, and when he doesn’t play, the “stacked” Cleveland Cavaliers are 0-8.

While Westbrook and Harden battle it out in the West to see who gets to lose to the Spurs in the second round, LeBron will be cruising through the East, not because it’s necessarily weaker, but because he makes it look like it is every single year. And this one will be no different. The Cavs might be struggling heading into the playoffs, but when more than half of the teams in the league make the playoffs, the first round or two are really warmups for the real test.

Look for this season to culminate in another fantastic series between the Cavs and Warriors, and if the Cavs repeat, it will push King James over the threshold, and declare him the greatest player in the history of basketball. But for now, keep leaving him out of the MVP conversation.

Max Herz, sports reporter: Everyone knows the Warriors made the biggest splash of the 2016 offseason with the signing that would push the team with the best regular-season record in NBA history back to championship glory. The perfect complement to superstars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, this new acquisition missed some key games with the Warriors down the stretch due to circumstances out of his control, but he’s back for the playoffs and ready to prove that all the offseason hype was worth it.

I’m talking, of course, about former Vanderbilt Commodore, reigning NBA D-League Player of the Month, and soon-to-be NBA Finals MVP Damian Jones. DJones would never blow a 3-1 lead. Warriors over Celtics in the Finals.

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Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: For the third straight year, we’re set for what should be a great group of second-round matchups. While last year featured a pair of all-time series in the final two rounds, the Miami-Toronto and Oklahoma City-San Antonio slugfests also produced great drama early on. Toronto-Cleveland (assuming #BucksIn6 doesn’t end up being a thing) will pit the clear two best teams in the East, while a Houston-San Antonio series could produce NBA Finals-level basketball just a couple of weeks into the postseason.

If you’re a basketball fan who doesn’t watch the NBA regular season, that’s understandable. But if you aren’t watching the NBA playoffs from the second round on, you’re missing (by far) the best basketball in the world.

Cutler Klein, Assistant Sports Editor: Go Knicks *sobs uncontrollably*

Elias Ukule, sports reporter: There are multiple story lines in both conferences heading into the playoffs. The East has a Celtics team that has risen to relevance after years on the fringes since their Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce era going up against a dysfunctional Bulls team that managed to pull it together just enough to squeeze into that last playoff spot. A young and athletic Bucks team led by Jason Kidd on the sidelines and the Greek Freak on the court should trouble a Raptors team that has come back to life after the acquisition of defensive toughness in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. And in Scott Brooks’ first year as Washington head coach, the Wizards, who have mustered an incredible turnaround since their dismal start led by their star-studded backcourt, will face an Atlanta team that has managed to stay afloat despite losing four of its five starters that won 60 games two seasons ago. And oh. Almost forgot. There is this team called the Cavaliers, and they have this player named Lebron, who has been to the finals six straight times going against a team he faced regularly in the conference finals in his Miami days, the Indiana Pacers led by Paul George, though they have fallen quite a bit since then.

Now to the West. After their blockbuster acquisition of Kevin Durant to pair arguably the second best player in the world with the third to have a chance to beat a certain Mr. James, the Golden State Warriors will face a dangerous Blazers side who, led by their killer back court, rallied behind the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic to clinch the No. 8 seed. The always-relevant-as-long-as-Popovich-breathes Spurs, led by “The Claw,” have managed to win 60 games once again and will face the grit and grind of Memphis. After wrestling for home court until the very last game of the regular season, the Clippers and the Jazz go into the playoffs with very different mindsets. For the Jazz, this is just the beginning, having a run to build on in future years after the emergence of Hayward as a star. But for the Clippers, this might represent a last chance to win with this core in tact since Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick might all be free agents come summer. And who can forget the mouth-watering matchup of the two leading MVP candidates. James Harden, now a point guard, is leading an offensive revolution, with his Houston team redefining what can be done from downtown with the license of seven-seconds-or-less Mike D’Antoni. Russell Westbrook has singlehandedly willed his team into the playoffs by rewriting the history books after averaging a triple double for the season and posting a triple double in 42 games, over half of the 82 in the regular season.

Of all these teams though, only two will matter come June. Lebron James is, well, Lebron James, and he will carry his Cavaliers team to a third straight finals appearance. No one out East is good enough to challenge them despite their defensive frailties. Even without adding Durant, the big-three in the Bay Area would be favorites to go to the finals, but with his addition, they just make the game unfair. Although San Antonio, with their reliable system and regular-season showing against the Warriors, and the Rockets, with their remodeled offense, might cause some trouble, it still won’t prevent a third straight meeting between the Dubs and the Cavs, a great rivalry in the making. In the end, the Warriors will sweep aside the Cavaliers 4-1 as the Spurs did to James’ Heat in 2014, despite his huge numbers. I just think the Cavs have shown too many weaknesses to just flip the switch against a team this good. Besides, the hunger in Cleveland to end the title drought and for Lebron to fulfill “the promise” is gone.

Torben Ginsberg, sports reporter: There are so many potential storylines and exciting matchups in these playoffs that I’m starting to lose track. Even in a year when the Finals matchup seemed predetermined from Day 1, the NBA has managed to provide us with the most entertaining and compelling regular season in recent memory. As a result, we head into the playoffs with plenty of thrilling questions that need answers. Is this the year that LeBron finally falls to a challenger from the East? Will Houston’s offensive prowess translate to postseason success? Will the new pseudo-contenders Washington and Utah make deep playoff runs? Can anyone really challenge Golden State?

Even with so much going on, however, there is really only one thing that I can’t stop thinking about: Playoff Russ. This man, Russell Westbrook, has just wrapped up one of the most individually transcendent seasons we have ever seen, making the extraordinary seem ordinary on a nightly basis. He averaged a triple double…What??? Even with all the excessive media coverage, this historic feat has still gone under-appreciated. I think he will win MVP and, with apologies to Harden and Kawhi Leonard, I think he deserves it.

But there is a better scenario than Westbrook winning MVP. The better scenario is the voters giving the award to Harden. “Why is this better?” you ask. Picture this: James Harden is being handed the MVP trophy in front of a sell-out crowd before Game 5 in Houston. The Rockets are up 3-1 in the series, and by all accounts seem ready to finish things that night at home…only suddenly they run into a fire-breathing dragon with revenge on his mind. Mark my words: if Russell Westbrook is forced to watch in person the MVP trophy being given to someone else, all hell will break loose. I don’t even know what to expect. Is a 60-20-20 line in play? 100 points in a game? 200??? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I’m excited and a little scared to find out.

[Editor’s note: NBA awards for this year will actually be announced June 26 on TNT rather than mid-Playoffs, which is the only reason the NBA should need to scrap this new plan now.]