The 2015 NBA playoffs began with two quadruple-headers this weekend and today I’ll focus on some players, trends and situations worth following as the 16 teams are reduced to one champion.
I posted my 2015 NBA playoff predictions the day before the action started.
The playoffs will show who is really ‘most valuable’
The MVP race has inspired much commentary this season. Should the MVP be the best player on the best team, the player who means the most to his team or the player who outperforms all others in a given ‘advanced’ statistical category?
Commentators cannot even agree about which criteria to favour, let alone how to rank the contenders when using a given standard.
So much of the talk about selecting the MVP involves speculation, making assumptions about how various players would perform on different teams with different teammates. How about looking at what really matters?
The MVP should be good enough to lift a reasonably good and reasonably healthy supporting cast into championship contention – and championship contention should not just mean winning a lot of regular season games before making a quick exit from the playoffs.
MVP-calibre players who have at least a decent supporting cast do not tend to lose in the first round of the playoffs very often. Magic Johnson lost in the first round of the playoffs twice in 13 years, first in his injury-shortened second season and then in his comeback season after sitting out for five years.
Michael Jordan started his career with three straight first round losses before the Chicago Bulls surrounded him with some more talent. He never lost in the first round again, though he did miss the playoffs entirely during his second comeback from ages 38-39.
This season, Russell Westbrook did not have enough help to even make the playoffs. Anthony Davis does not have enough help to go very far in the playoffs. However, the other players most often mentioned as MVP candidates – Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Chris Paul – all have good teams. Those players should make deep playoff runs that last unless or until they face one another, but I suspect that neither Harden nor Paul will make it to the Conference Finals.
Watch out for San Antonio and the San Antonio clones
The defending champion San Antonio Spurs started off slowly but then put together a string of blowout wins to move all the way up to second place in the West. A final game loss to New Orleans sent the Spurs down to the sixth seed but the Spurs are healthy just in time and seem poised to make another long post-season run.
Meanwhile, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has two proteges who are making their presence felt on the sidelines. Former San Antonio player Steve Kerr led Golden State to 67 wins, while former San Antonio assistant coach Mike Budenholzer guided the Atlanta Hawks to 60 wins.
The San Antonio way appears to be that there is no one San Antonio way. Over the years, depending on their personnel and the match-ups, the Spurs have been a post-up team, a drive and kick team, a methodical team and an uptempo team.
Popovich, like four-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Belichick, figures out the best way for his team to play, as opposed to forcing his players to fit in with a predetermined system. Kerr and Budenholzer have taken the same approach with their respective teams.
The Conference Finals round could be dominated by San Antonio-themed subplots
Chris Paul needs to do more or be talked about less
Isiah Thomas was drafted by an awful Detroit team but within a few years the Pistons stood atop the NBA. Thomas-led teams bested Larry Bird’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Magic Johnson’s Lakers in playoff series en route to winning back-to-back championships.
Chris Paul has, according to some people, been an MVP candidate since at least 2008. Paul has yet to reach the Conference Finals even once. He is not facing Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. He is paired with another MVP-calibre player.
If Paul is as valuable as the ‘advanced’ numbers have been saying he is for years then he needs to show it when it matters most.
There are many exciting subplots to the NBA playoffs but the three listed above will be particularly interesting to follow.