Culture of Hoops

The State of the NBA, Part 2

If you missed Sonny Giuliano and Dalton Baggett’s State of the NBA, Part 1, just click here.

Dalton BaggettSonny I’m glad you asked me about how I’ve enjoyed the season so far. To be honest, I think I watched drastically less basketball this year than last. Now, that’s not a direct reflection of how I felt about the league overall, there were just some extenuating circumstances (Like some traveling around the country and being without cable for a few months). I do think, however, that I have enjoyed watching basketball slightly less this year. I was super into the Warriors last year and watching what they were doing historically. Hell, it was even alright watching the Cavs overcome a 3-1 series deficit. With KD on the Warriors now, the storylines all just seem slightly diluted. Sure we’ve gotten to see Russell Westbrook evolve into his final form (This is both a Pokémon AND a Dragon Ball Z reference, I know Sonny has trouble with childhood pop culture references) but even that isn’t as fun as it could be.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to sports, and the NBA specifically, is the overall pettiness level of the league. Sure, the Thunder/Warriors matchups are full of pettiness, but then they aren’t even a little competitive and it ruins the fun. I would’ve much rather watched another playoffs with Russ and KD together, coming back for revenge.

There are a lot of young guys that have been fun to watch, but they just haven’t matured enough in their immaturity. Does that make sense? Did I answer your question?

Sonny GiulianoYes it makes sense, and yes you answered my question, but it hurts my feelings. 🙁

DB: Well, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but that’s just how it was for me this season. I seem to hurt your feelings a lot. You’re a very sensitive boy, and I’ll try to keep that in mind from here on out.

We should probably discuss something else.

SG: The good news is there are soooooooo many other things we can talk about because in my fifteen or so years of watching basketball virtually every night of the week, this has been the most fun and interesting season I can remember, and I find it legitimately troubling that you haven’t been as locked in this year. You’re a smart(ish) kid; if you really took the time to do so, you would be able to see the big picture and identify that this season is all kinds of spectacular, but you’re still too busy watching Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z or some other kind of Japanese Anime Porn.

You said we should discuss something else … look at all of these things we can discuss:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo just finished in the Top 20 in the league in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and that makes him the first player IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL to do that. Giannis created the Top Είκοσι Κουιντέτο Λέσχη. That’s Greek for “Top Twenty Quintet Club” and until someone besides the Greek Freak has a membership to that club, it keeps a Greek name.
  • Isaiah Thomas became the most prolific under-six-foot scorer in NBA history, and his 4th quarter scoring binges have become a part of Boston sports folklore. Also, this is only the second time in recent NBA history that a team’s best player slightly resembles/embodies their mascot. The other time was the five year stretch where Chris Bosh was the best player in Toronto.
  • Nine years after leaving the Phoenix Suns, Mike D’Antoni found basketball nirvana in Houston with the analytic-friendly and up-tempo Rockets.
  • Those “boring” Spurs winning 60 plus games yet again thanks to Pop’s genius and Kawhi Leonard‘s continued two-way brilliance.
  • Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Unicorn revolution.
  • The trade of DeMarcus Cousins, which came just minutes after the NBA All-Star Game and hours after Vlade Divac said with conviction that the Kings weren’t trading Cousins.
  • The biggest looming draft lottery since 2003.
  • The “Can the Cavs even make it out of the Eastern Conference?” chatter that will make everyone feel really silly in early June.
  • The Carmelo Anthony/Phil Jackson mid-season Cold War, which will come to a loud and messy end this Summer when Carmelo waives his No Trade Clause and finally ends up a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.
  • Miami’s borderline improbable 13-game winning streak that started when their record was 11-30.
  • The triumphant return of Charles Barkley to my good graces after he said he would kill Skip Bayless on live television if he were ever terminally ill. Anyone who jokingly or seriously threatens Skip Bayless with violence is cool with me. You know that saying, “A enemy of my enemy is my friend” … that’s what is happening here.
  • Damian Lillard‘s You Really Snubbed Me for All-Star Game Again? revenge tour (he’s averaged 30 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists per game since late February).
  • Devin Booker‘s 70 point game and all of the other wacky box scores we’ve seen this year.

DB: Ok, Ok, yet again you’ve made your point loud and clear. Maybe I should’ve paid more attention this year, hindsight is 20/20, right?

I’d like to respond to a couple things you said above though. First off, I’m not even going to address your “Japanese Anime Porn” comment, I’d rather not stoop to your level. Second, I was already sad I didn’t get to watch more Giannis this year, but now thanks to you I’m legitimately depressed I missed his season of initiation into the Top Είκοσι Κουιντέτο Λέσχη. Let’s never change the name. It’s too perfect.

Your Isaiah Thomas/Chris Bosh factoid is actually one of the funniest jokes you’ve ever made, and almost as interesting as the fact that Larry Bird is literally turning into some type of Human-bird hybrid in his old age.

This list you’ve presented has done a fantastic job of making me feel silly for not watching more basketball this year, so I commend you for that.

Oh, and I forgot: The Spurs are still boring.

Alright, now that we have that out of the way and despite all you’ve mentioned, there are more pressing and culturally important topics we need to get to. For instance, pineapple on pizza, yay or nay?

I’m just kidding, can we please, please, please talk about this whole MVP thing?

SG: I’m cool with talking about the MVP race. But I’m not cool with Pineapple on Pizza.

DB: Good, but can we not do the whole boring conversation with statisitcs and analytics? Sure that’s good for endless loops of SportsCenter, but we need MORE, Sonny, MORE. Lucky for you, I have an idea. I’m going to present some questions and scenarios to which your answers will lead us to our MVP of the league. (Questions based on the assumption MVP is going to Russell Westbrook or James Harden.)

1: Imagine this: You’re playing pickup basketball on an outdoor court and one of the guys on your team yells out “AND ONE” after he goes to the basket. Once you’ve kicked him off the team you look over to the guys on the bleachers and see Russell Westbrook and James Harden sitting next to each other. Who do you pick up?

2: An evil overlord is trying to destroy planet Earth. For some reason known only to our evil overlord, his devastating ‘World Crusher’ as he calls it has only one weakness: A basketball hoop attached, that when dunked on ferociously enough causes the machine to self-destruct. Who do you call on to save the human race?

3: Ok, you put together a rooftop party in New York City and you’re having a great time when you decide you need something to really make you the badass of this little shindig of yours. A lightbulb goes off, “I’ve got it!” You think. You yell to the group of people partying on the rooftop across the street “Hey! Someone toss me a beer!” Not only do you need this pass to be perfect, you need it to make you look good. Who do you want making the rooftop party assist?

4: You’ve recently had a bad breakup. You’re finally over the “eat an entire jar of peanut butter while binge watching Gilmore Girls” phase (Or am I the only one who deals with sadness that way?) On your first night out on the town, you see your ex hanging out across the bar. Keeping in mind this was a bad breakup, who do you want as your wingman to throw the perfect amount of shade at your ex for the rest of the evening?

SG: Yeah, those are some rather unusual questions; ones you definitely wouldn’t hear on SportsCenter or even any of those stupid shows where a white guy and a black guy scream at each other while a pretty girl sits between with a “I’m smarter than both of these idiots” look on her face. I give you credit for being original and creative, and I give everyone who has sit alongside Skip Bayless over the last ten years even more credit for not stabbing him in his stupid head repeatedly with a pen before the second commercial break. I wouldn’t be able to take it.

I see where you are going with those questions though. Russ is your MVP, and he’s the obvious choice over James Harden in all of those questions except question number three, where you could go either way, or just choose LeBron James, but I know that isn’t your style.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, but when I am attempting to fill out my MVP ballot, I too look at four questions to narrow down my choice for Most Valuable Player. If there is any dispute or internal turmoil as to who should be higher on my ballot when I’m filling it out (i.e. if the choice isn’t abundantly clear), I pit the two players against each other and see who scores better based on the following four questions:

1: Who had the best statistical season?

2: Who is the better all-around player in the league?

3: Twenty years from now, who will be the player you remember most from this season?

4: How well did the players team do in relation to realistic expectations?

Harden’s numbers were 95% as good as Westbrook’s; Russ wasn’t an overwhelming winner in that category, even with the Triple Double record now on his resume. As for Question Two, I’d again give Russ the slight edge over Harden, but that could all be just based on personal preference. If someone were to try to tell me that Harden was a better all-around player than Russell Westbrook I don’t think I would be inclined to argue with them. I have better things to do with my time … Like work on the next edition of my mailbag column Sonny Says! I’m still accepting questions! Send them to my Twitter, Facebook, Email or leave them in the comments right here!

Where Russ really separated himself from Harden is in Question Three. This was indisputably the year of Russell Westbrook. Harden’s fans and defenders will say that this was a narrative driven by the media, but it was warranted. Russ willed a team that lost Kevin Durant in the offseason to legitimate relevance this year, and he carried the Thunder to so many improbable wins during the regular season that his crunchtime heroics are somehow a stronger argument for MVP case than Triple Doubles are. Just check this out:

I mean, that video is one minute long and we have seven clutch shots there. That didn’t even include this …

Or this …

Or this …

Or this …

Or this (RIP Clint Capela) …

Y’all get the point, right?

DB: Well you’re right, Russ is my MVP, and I’m glad we agree on this most important topic. It’s actually funny because in their Thunder days together I really hated Russell Westbrook and really loved 6th man James Harden. Now I despise James Harden and would give a kidney to Russell. The NBA is great like that isn’t it?

I didn’t want to get too much into the statistics, and your plethora of videos was evidence enough for me, but I’d like to bring up one more thing. James Harden made his comments about wins needing to be considered when trying to pick an MVP, and that’s dumb in my opinion, but also kind of works against him. The best statistic I’ve seen for this whole debate is that the Thunder are 33-9 when Russell gets a triple double. 33-9, Sonny. That means that when Russell Westbrook stuffs his stat sheet, they win games. Without him going supernova every night, they are subpar. That means Russell is singlehandedly destroying the phrase “There is no ‘I’ in team.” Russell Westbrook spells that word ‘Teim.’

Russell Westbrook is the MVP.

Anywho, maybe we should finish up with a little playoff talk. Are you mentally preparing yourself for the Cavs to get swept in the finals, or….

SG: Honestly, I’ve been mentally prepared for it once Kevin Durant signed with Golden State on July 3rd. At that point, the Warriors became such a prohibitive favorite to win the NBA Title that I knew it would take an act of God for the Cavaliers to contend with a healthy Dubs teim over a seven game series. Here’s the good news: LeBron’s legacy is in tact, he already beat the 73-win Dubs last year, and if the Cavs make it to the NBA Finals again, it will be LeBron’s seventh straight NBA Finals appearance. Only Bill Russell and all of those other dudes on the Celtics in the 60’s have matched that, and if we’re looking at the modern NBA, or the NBA since the league merged with the ABA, no other player has been to more than four straight NBA Finals. LeBron is on a level all by himself.

But yeah, the Playoffs start in two days and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Some people say the postseason runs too long, but I personally don’t mind having meaningful basketball on television every single night for almost two straight months. It worries me that some people (you included) might check out and decide that the Playoffs aren’t worth watching since most people feel like it’s a foregone conclusion that Golden State is just going to eventually steamroll Cleveland in the Finals.

I’d like to reiterate something that I said in Part 1 of this back and forth … The league is in the best place it has been since the time we were born. That, for those of y’all who don’t know Dalton or myself personally, was 1992. In 25 years, this is the deepest and most talent rich the NBA has been. If you at all consider yourself a fan of basketball you need to allow this to register in your brain so you don’t miss out on the next two months.

I don’t want you to hurt me anymore Dalton. I request that you be locked in during the Playoffs. Take time away from your Pikachu’s and Jigglypuff’s to take an extended look at some of rarely seen young up-and-comers with equally unique names like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Admire the greatness of the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James, Gregg Popovich, Russell Westbrook and all of the other all-time greats as they continue to build on their already remarkable legacies. Sit back and enjoy the greatest sport in the world.

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