Around the Rim

By Josh Eberley #41

Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome to Around the Rim.

Think of Around the Rim as your local politicians would like for you to think of town hall, a safe forum for all voices in the basketball universe to be heard. A stable roundtable, fluctuating in both voices heard and trendy issues.

We are proudly now on edition 16. You can find the previous edition here. As promised, the roundtable will run every Tuesday, with new questions and new voices each week. If you have a question you’d like answered by the panel, tweet @JoshEberley or @HOOPmag and check back each week to see who hopped on for the current edition.

This week we are fortunate to have six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:

Mark Karantzoulis: Bulls HQ, writer

Sandy Mui: Nothin’ But Nets, site expert

Eric Nehm: ESPN Milwaukee, writer

Chris Parker: King James Brings The Land a Crown, author

Jeff Siegel: The Step Back, writer

Justin Salkin: HoopsCritic, associate editor

 

Spending just the briefest of moments on the Madness that occurs in March, which college player has impressed you most in the tournament?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Karantzoulis: Created by his own performances or that of his father on national TV, all of the hype over the last month has centered around UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

Considered to be one of the top two point guards in the 2017 draft class, Ball has certainly been the highest profile prospect running around in the tournament. However, after being thoroughly outplayed in a marquee matchup against Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, it would’ve be an easy mistake to assume Fox was the more touted prospect.

It’s difficult to overlook Fox for the performance of the tournament to date. Scoring 39 points and leading the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, all while dismantling Ball and the UCLA defense in the process, is big time.

In a point guard heavy draft, it will be interesting to see if Fox’s career game has any impact on the draft order at all. Ball may still be the more fancied prospect, but with one game, Fox increased his draft stock and his given NBA franchises something to think about.

Mui: My dad has talked way too much about Oregon, so it has to be Tyler Dorsey. Of course, Oregon deserves to be the talk of the town, after they clinched a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 1939. And Dorsey has played a huge part in Oregon’s success, whether it’s his insane long shots, drives to the basket, or perhaps most importantly, his game-winning three-pointer against Rhode Island to send Oregon to the Sweet 16.

Nehm: I know I’m not the only one, but I am totally enamored with Lonzo Ball. And yes, I know that De’Aaron Fox exposed some of his weaknesses and his questionable jumpshot could totally kill him at the NBA level, but I just can’t help it. Ball does so many things that I love. I was drawn in by the incredible floor vision and some flashy passes, but totally blown away by the way that he controls a game and dictates tempo. For the most part, he determines the rules of engagement and that is wildly impressive for a freshman point guard. I’ve seen a number of college guards put on impressive scoring displays or make crazy athletic plays, but taking control of games through point guard play feels pretty rare to me.

Parker: I’ve been busy with other non-basketball projects and I really haven’t watched the tourney much the last couple years. To be honest, the whole one-and-done thing has diminished college basketball for me and made it even harder to essentially root for new laundry each year. But I do try to pay attention to guys’ trajectories and the amount of talk about guys before and after. The fellows I’m increasingly curious about (beyond De’Aaron Fox) are Miles Bridges and Jayson Tatum. But with the top of draft mostly filled with freshmen it’s hard for me to get much feel for how these guys might grow and develop (beyond Fultz, who looks like a superstar in the making).

Siegel: He’s a bit further down the draft board, but I love what I’ve seen from Kansas point guard Frank Mason during the tournament. His size is his most limiting factor, but he could turn into a solid point guard in the NBA with his ability to run pick-and-roll and space the floor. Teams already can’t go under on him, he’s tenacious going to the rim, and is willing to take and make big shots. I like his patience in pick-and-roll when he gets trapped and he sees the floor well for a guy his size, though I worry about how he’ll handle that at the next level, where guys are a lot bigger and faster than in college.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Salkin: De’Aaron Fox. Fox has been consistent throughout the latter half of the college season, and his 39 point game against UCLA, in which he thoroughly outclassed Lonzo Ball in a victory, was an all timer of a performance. That UCLA beat Kentucky earlier this year made the game even more impressive. The Wildcats may have lost in the Elite 8, but Fox’s performance stands out.  I always caution against overreacting to the NCAA Tournament as far as prospects are concerned. With so many games, workouts, showcases, and interviews and intel in the sample, an over reliance on one or two games to judge the next decade can be dangerous. But Fox did not hurt his stock that much is certain.

Devin Booker dropped 70! So many great players play for years and never have a game anywhere near as memorable. How special was this game and what’s the best individual performance you witnessed in actual time?

Salkin: Booker’s performance in dropping 70 points was absolutely sensational. I do not care that Earl Watson may have force-fed him, or had his team foul to get extra looks for Booker or that they lost. Scoring 70 in one game is absolutely remarkable.

As for the greatest performance I ever witnessed? I have to go with LeBron James’ 2007 Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron scored the Cavs’ last 25 points to drag the Cavs to a victory. It is easy to forget, but those Pistons had a ring and were a foil for LeBron, having knocked him out of the playoffs the year before. Their defense was exceptional, and then elite defender Tayshaun Prince was his primary cover, but LeBron seemed like he just scored, and scored and scored every time down. He did this while playing point guard and while playing good defense. Whether by drive, dunk, or contested three, LeBron did not miss and would not let the Cavs lose that night. Taking the performance itself together with the magnitude of a Conference Finals Game 5 in a 2-2 series that was the best performance that I have watched.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Karantzoulis: Am I a curmudgeon if I don’t consider Booker scoring 70 points as special? Probably, but I don’t feel like I witnessed something historic, which scoring 70 points certainly is.

Perhaps it was the stop-start nature of the dying moments of the fourth quarter that has shaped my perception of his performance. Booker undoubtedly made some incredible shots, but in real time watching the game, the Phoenix Suns calling timeouts and fouling the Celtics to create extra possessions and more scoring chances for Booker—all while being down double-digits—took away some of the appeal of the feat.

That isn’t to say what Booker did isn’t impressive. Simply having the mental strength and stamina to score 40 points, let alone 70, is monumental, particularly when considering Booker is only 20 years old. But I didn’t walk away from that game gushing over what I saw.

Put it this way: I won’t be looking back as fondly on this performance as I did Kobe Bryant’s 81 points against Toronto in 2006, or the several other 60-point performances he had during his reign in the mid-2000s. It doesn’t compare to Michael Jordan’s 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, or LeBron James scoring 61 points on 33 shots against the Charlotte Bobcats in 2014. Those were legendary performances that meant something, even if Booker had more buckets.

So, yes, I’m a curmudgeon.

Mui: Honestly, this would have been a lot more special if the Suns actually won the game and didn’t pull things like intentionally fouling and calling timeouts to help Devin Booker reach 70 points. Seventy points is still quite a feat to accomplish, but it seemed odd to me that: 1) a player scores 70 points, and his team still loses; and 2) the outlandish performance still calls for celebration after a loss and in the midst of a tanking season. I will give Booker some credit though; that’s one hell of an accomplishment to add to your resume at the age of 20. I know where I’ll be at 20: “mighty good at functioning on only coffee” will be my lone accomplishment.

As for the best individual performance I personally witnessed, that would be Jamal Crawford’s 52 points against the Miami Heat, as a member of the New York Knicks. I rewatch the video on YouTube all the time and pretty much have Mike Breen’s and Walt Frazier’s commentary memorized. That was one heck of a scoring burst—Crawford knocked down 16 straight field goals at one point.

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Nehm: Full disclosure: I was covering the Bucks game while Booker was going off for 70, so I did not actually get to watch the game in real time, but honestly that made the highlights way more impressive to me. Earlier this season, Booker scored 27 points against the Bucks in seven minutes, including 5-of-5 shooting from deep. I expected to see 10 or more threes and a crazy shooting exhibition, but he only hit four threes. This game would have been incredible in any era. He just gave the Celtics buckets and they couldn’t do anything about it. It didn’t matter which of their great perimeter defenders attempted to cover him. They couldn’t stop him.

The best individual performance I watched in actual time is any number of LeBron James’ ridiculous playoff games. I don’t think I can choose between “48 Special,” Game 6 against the Celtics, or any of his crazy Finals performances against the Warriors. They’re all totally incredible, and still to this day, unbelievable.

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Parker: One of the things that impresses me as much as Devin Booker’s game is Earl Watson’s willingness to make it happen. While there is always plenty of talk about developing young guys, the walk is often less demonstrative. Watson really showed his faith and tried to help make the night as special as possible for Booker. It’s an impressive feat, reminiscent of that nutty Sleepy Floyd quarter or Klay Thompson’s nuclear third quarter against the Pacers two years ago. (Those two fit with Bernard King’s Christmas Day 60-point blowout and James’ 2007 Game 5 in Detroit as most dominant performances I’ve witnessed live.) Plenty of people get hot, but only a handful go “surface of the sun,” making this accomplishment pretty impressive, though people forget that such things used to be more common when the ABA/NBA first merged. It was right when I first started watching basketball, and I also remember watching highlights of David Thompson going for 73 as he tried to take the scoring title. I didn’t remember that George Gervin scored 63 the next night. It bears mentioning that this was done without a three-point line (though also against defenses more willing to give up points). Coaches used to indulge players more in that way, which is interesting because coaches don’t micromanage like they could 15 years ago when some would call the plays every time down. But at same time we don’t have nearly the same level of ball-hogging play which ultimately makes for better watching than endless one-on-one breakdowns. (On the third hand, not enjoying that every NBA team runs similar sets; enjoyed basketball more when there was greater offensive idiosyncrasy.)

Siegel: Not an individual game, but the entire 2001 playoffs from Shaquille O’Neal. I was just getting into the NBA in 2001, but there’s never been an entire stretch of games since then that matches up to the sheer dominance from Shaq that we saw throughout those playoffs. He had multiple 40-20 games and controlled the paint on both ends of the floor throughout the Lakers’ run to the title. He may not go down as the greatest player I’ve ever seen (LeBron’s sustained excellence has already overtaken him in that area, and I’m too young to remember Michael Jordan), but he’s undoubtedly the most fearsome, most impressive player in my years watching the League.

The MVP race is still a fight to the finish. So rather than telling me who the MVP is, tell me which of the four main candidates (Harden, James, Leonard, and Westbrook) is easiest to eliminate from contention and why?

Siegel: Westbrook’s numbers are impressive, but not more so than his colleagues at the top of the League, other than they happen to all cross the magical double-digit mark. That’s not to say that averaging a 30-point triple-double as his team’s lone offense threat isn’t impressive, but Harden is doing essentially the same thing more efficiently and on a better team. Westbrook’s team stands out as the worst of the four, which voters have typically used as a reason to exclude certain guys from the conversation. James is the best player in the game, regardless of who actually wins the award, but he gets graded on a curve that the other guys don’t have to combat; we don’t compare him against the rest of the League, we only compare him against former versions of himself. All four are having phenomenal, MVP-worthy seasons, but Harden and Leonard have separated themselves from Westbrook and James in my mind.

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Salkin: Kawhi Leonard is beyond sensational. And the mild criticism he receives for being a “system” player is absurd, unsophisticated, and unfair. He represents everything you want from a franchise player.

With that being said, however, Leonard is the guy to eliminate here (with LeBron second: this is a two-man race). That is because when deciphering between the top 1-2 percent of NBA players, the margins are small. And the MVP at its core is about value: How valuable are you to your franchise? Fair or not, the Thunder are on pace for 47 wins, when they would perhaps scrounge for 20 without Westbrook. He carries them almost entirely with his offensive ability and that feeds into their defense. OKC is a top-6 team when Russ plays and the League’s worst team when he sits, based on net rating.  The Rockets are on pace for 57 wins and the league’s second best offense, and Harden is also carrying them. The entire D’Antoni scheme in Houston is built around Harden’s ball handling and playmaking. Nearly every basket when he is on the court is created by him, either by score, assist, or ball movement generated by creases and cracks he creates in defenses.

And while LeBron has to lose points in the MVP race for coasting through the season (sure, he is exceptional, but do you remember the last two playoffs? This player is not that player), his slight edge over Leonard comes from the fact that Cleveland craters without him. The Spurs system is their engine, and while Leonard’s greatness enhances it, significantly, it does sustain itself without him, given their 6-1 record when he sits. Leonard is unreal. But he is not quite as impactful as three other players.

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Karantzoulis: It’s difficult to ignore precedents set over years of voting. For the longest time, the number of total wins by a team has heavily contributed to a player’s candidacy. The more wins your team has, the likelihood of winning the award is bolstered.

An unwritten rule exists in MVP voting, stating that a player must be on one of the top team’s in their conference, with 50 or more wins. Time and again, this rule has applied. No better example of this exists than the result of the 2011 award.

Derrick Rose was phenomenal in his breakout season, posting career highs and singlehandedly carrying the Bulls offense. Buoyed by the league’s best defense, his team went onto win a league-best 62 games. While Rose was individually spectacular, he wasn’t better than Dwight Howard and LeBron James, who finished second and third in voting, respectively.

But if Rose wasn’t better than Howard or James, how could he possibly be voted MVP? Because the Bulls unexpectedly won 10 more games than Howard and the Orlando Magic, and four more games the James’ newly established superteam in Miami.

Parallels exist between the 2011 and 2017. With individual performances being so close, team wins will likely determine the award.

Per FiveThirtyEight, three of the four MVP candidates will be leading their team to the top of the standings: San Antonio are projected to win 63 games and finish second in the West, Houston 56 games and third. Cleveland will sit second in the East with 53 wins. Oklahoma City, however, are projected to slot into the sixth seed out West, winning 47 games.

Has Russell Westbrook been so much better than his contemporaries that we’re now able to cast aside precedent and willing to overlook the differences in team wins? I don’t think so. For that reason, he would be the first player I would eliminate from the race.

While this may not be fair and isn’t necessarily the best way to isolate an individual’s performance, team record has been a determinant for so long and we can’t just ignore its relevance now.

Mui: As much as I love Russell Westbrook (and his number of triple-doubles this season is absolutely insane), he’s the easiest to eliminate out of all these candidates. Unlike all his running mates, he’s the only player who’s on a team below the third seed for the playoffs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently in sixth place in the West, and while that’s probably much farther along than many had pictured the team to be without Kevin Durant, it just doesn’t seem like it’ll be enough for Westbrook to get the nod over the likes of James Harden, LeBron James, or Kawhi Leonard.

Nehm: My response to the last question makes this really difficult, but I have to eliminate LeBron James from the conversation. He is still undoubtedly the best basketball player on Earth. And I don’t know if anyone is even particularly close to taking that distinction from him, but he hasn’t been the league’s Most Valuable Player this season. James has been bonkers this season offensively, averaging career per-game highs in rebounds (8.4) and assists (8.8) to go along with 26.1 points per game. That is totally insane for a 14-year NBA veteran, who just happened to go to the last six NBA Finals. Unfortunately, the game of basketball also requires you to play defense and that is something James just hasn’t done this season. He may turn it on during the postseason and the Cavaliers may figure it out defensively, but James has shown little interest in helping out on that side of the floor this season.

Parker: Matt Moore wrote a terrific column on how Leonard’s numbers were worse for many teammates when he was on the floor. While initially counter-intuitive, the December piece showed how Leonard’s man sat in the corner weakside pulling him out of the play and neutralizing his defense. This ability to neutralize his defense sets the Spur wing on a lower shelf, since so much of his stardom is linked to his ability as a two-way player. It’s not that he’s any less of a good player, but that the weakness of his mates diminishes its value to the team and in the race, given his dramatically more limited ability to create offense for others.

Has tanking ever been this blatant? The Suns and Lakers are shelving healthy veterans. Firstly, does this bother you? Secondly, can tanking go too far and if so where do you draw the line?

Parker: The tanking issue is verging on indefensible. When Sacramento sits Kosta Koufos, Tyreke Evans, Ty Lawson and Ben McLemore on a week when they only play two games, we’ve pushed “rest” beyond the breaking point. The Lakers would generally be a little more defensible if it weren’t tied to the fact that they’re trying improve their chances of squeezing into their top-3 lottery protection. I don’t mind the Suns, who started Tyson Chandler for two-thirds of the season before promoting young big Alex Len full time, plus Bledsoe’s injury history makes shutting him down more defensible than signing Mozgov and Deng to those contracts in the first place. This was the very reason why the odds were initially even throughout the lottery. You start favoring the worst team too much and the incentive for tanking increases exponentially. On the “negative” side, great teams can get great players with middling picks and just get lucky. Remember that Kyrie Irving came not from the Cleveland’s own pick, but the Clippers’ pick during a swap of Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to Clippers for Baron Davis and a first round pick, which had a less than 3 percent chance of winning lottery. I think we’ve reached the stage where we have to stop tilting to help the worst teams (since they’ll only continue to game the system) and demand they do a better job with their teams by significantly reducing the odds for the worst teams. This puts more pressure on ownership and management to improve their product and not sandbag, and honestly, that’s where it belongs.

Siegel: Late-season tanking doesn’t bother me at all. Given the current incentive structure of the League, it’s the way for teams to try to improve their draft position, which is in their best interests long-term, especially in the case of the Lakers. If a team was acting outside of their own best long-term interests in a short-sighted attempts to be competitive at the end of a season in which they’ve already been eliminated from contention, wouldn’t that be much worse for that team and its fans? If the Lakers won enough games and had to hand their pick over to Philadelphia, then had to send their 2019 pick to Orlando, all because they went the misguided, “virtuous” route at the end of this season, that could set their franchise back years. I think the fans can understand a few months of bad basketball in exchange for shaving years off the Lakers’ path back to contention.

Tanking goes too far when players and coaches are directly trying to lose games on the floor, as opposed to the current landscape, where front offices shut down certain guys or decide to field wholly uncompetitive teams for the entire season in order to get another crack at the top of the draft.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Salkin: Tanking created more headlines when Sam Hinkie was running the Sixers than it does now. However, it is more pervasive than ever. The Suns have sat Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Tyson Chandler, and have been open about their reasons. The Lakers have shut down Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for similar reasons.

Tanking does not bother me. With the rules as they are, it makes sense. And there is no alternative that does not create more problems than it solves. Different lottery odds? That will not stop tanking and would only change the inflection point at which it becomes more advisable. No draft? You cannot have a system where the best free agents and best draftees choose to go to half the teams, while the other half are both not desirous for name talent, and for college talent. Think about the Nets now: imagine 13 similarly situated franchises.

Given all of that, I am fine with tanking. However, the League does ultimately have to serve its paying customers, and if tanking is compromising interest, a line should be drawn. The place to draw it is the healthy shutting down of players. Players like Bledsoe clearly deserve to, and should, play, when healthy: the occasional rest day is one thing, but the full shut down is quite another matter. Their careers are at stake, fan enjoyment is at stake, and, yes, the integrity of the sport is at stake.

Tanking is fine. But everyone would benefit from limits on “shutting down” uninjured players.

Karantzoulis: I’ve never had a problem with a team for tanking. In fact, I applaud any team willing to test the boundaries for the betterment of the franchise. Teams weren’t the ones who created the systemic dynamic that enables tanking to existing, the league did. So if anger needs to be aimed at someone for enabling such behavior, point it towards the league office, who incentivize and reward clubs playing for losses.

Exploiting the rules set by the league isn’t breaking them, so it doesn’t bother me. In some cases, it’s the right thing to do.

Should the Los Angeles Lakers really be trying to win every game they can, thus jeopardizing losing their 2017 first-round pick, which will convey to Philadelphia if it falls outside of top-three? Of course not. If they did and lost out on the opportunity of drafting a franchise-changing talent in June, we’d be mocking the Lakers for winning meaningless games.

We can’t have it both ways. If the right decision for the Lakers is to tank, we can’t condemn them for doing so. It should be that simple. If we have a problem with that equation, then wholesale systemic changes are required. Disincentive tanking and the issue will diminish. If change is required, rather than sending in a member of the Colangelo family to run a front office, fix the system before condemning franchises as cheats.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Mui: Tanking is never pretty to watch, but it’s been rather ridiculous this season with the Suns and Lakers. Of course, it bothers me when teams are blatantly resting players, as if the action of tanking wasn’t already embarrassing enough. In that sense, that’s tanking “gone too far,” and the line should be drawn at intentionally shelving healthy players. I’d understand limited minutes, and it will already take minimal effort to lose games, so intentionally not using certain players only makes tanking teams more of a laughingstock.

Nehm: I’m not really bothered by it. Every organization should feel empowered to go about trying to win basketball games however they see fit. If you want to tank, go for it. Tank as hard as you want. Your team cannot become a serious contender without a superstar, so if you think that’s the best way to go about finding a great player, go for it. Just remember that all top picks are not created equal and, well, you just might end up picking the wrong guy with your Top 3 pick. And I don’t think it is for me to decide if tanking can go too far. I think any organization will get a clear message from their fans when they have crossed the line.

Finally, what’s the matchup you want to see most in the playoffs outside of Cleveland-Golden State and why?

Nehm: As someone who spends a lot of time writing and talking about the Bucks, I’m fascinated by a number of their matchups, but getting to see Antetokounmpo go head-to-head with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers seems like a wonderful learning experience for the Bucks’ budding superstar. (I’m sure Bucks fans hope that meeting would occur in the second round though.) Since I hit the Cavaliers with the first one, I might as well get the Warriors with the next one. I desperately want to see Rockets-Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets already got the Warriors once this season (132-127 double-OT victory) and I’m curious to see if they can do it again. The Warriors obviously have the advantage defensively, but, along with Cleveland, Houston may be the only team that can actually score with Golden State. Even if the series doesn’t go seven games, I would love to see a few shootouts between the League’s two highest-powered offenses.

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Parker: It would probably pale in comparison to last year’s epic rematch, but it’d be difficult not to want to see something of a reprise of the Lakers-Celtics Finals grudge matches from the eighties. My concern is that things like that never turn out as good as they seem in concept. It’s like Bob Dylan, where someone asked why he randomly appeared on an episode of Dharma & Greg. The Bard said, “There have been things that there was every reason for me to do it and it was never satisfying. There was absolutely no reason for me to do this, so I figured ‘why not?’” With that in mind, I suspect that Spurs-Cavs would be the more enjoyable matchup. But I’d still rather see a tiebreaking third go-round.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Siegel: In the East: Washington-Boston. Those games have been everything we could ask for during the regular season, with great individual matchups, a genuine dislike for one another, and a good chance for the only seven-game series in the Eastern Conference that people will actually want to watch.

In the West: Houston-San Antonio. I love this Houston team and want to see them up against both of the best teams in their conference, but especially Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Harden-Leonard would be an all-time heavyweight matchup for seven games with the added bonus of the callback to the Olajuwon-Robinson games of the mid-90s, especially if one of the two takes the MVP trophy before the series begins.

Salkin: Jazz-Clippers or Thunder-Clippers.

It seems like an annual occurrence that the Clippers’ mental makeup is questioned. And often, the hysteria seems overblown, driven more by the desire for fan interest (trades and big name player movement are fun!) than by substance (why would the Clippers deal Blake Griffin for spare parts).

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

That said, the Clippers will win less games this year than any other since the CP3 trade, and this year feels different. In each playoff run to date, the Clippers lost to a team with proven playoff chops, or lost after a series of unfortunate events. In each case, there was legitimate reason for optimism in some respect. From 2012-2014, losses came to the proven Spurs, Grizzlies, and Thunder. The 2015 loss to the Rockets stung, but the Clippers beat the Spurs the round before, and could take positives from their 3-1 lead. The 2016 loss to the Blazers? Injuries are an excuse there.

However, this year could be different. The Clippers may face a Jazz team that, while talented, has no playoff pedigree whatsoever as a group. They also may face a Thunder team that, sans Durant, is perceived as a “Russ will go nova but they’re a round-one speed bump” bunch.

Given the lack of pedigree in Utah and the perception that OKC is not a true playoff threat, a loss at full strength to either of them, unlike the playoff hardened foes of the past (or injuries of the past) could be the true impetus that causes the Clippers to break apart at the seams. Past losses to known entities and a loss with Paul and Griffin out caused a “let’s run this back” mentality. But a loss to teams that have not earned quite the same respect is different. With Paul, Griffin and Redick hitting free agency this offseason, a Clippers loss could finally cause that always hyped, never occurring roster to blow up.

Jazz-Clippers or Thunder-Clippers in round 1 is not a topic now. But it could become the most important playoff series before the Finals.

Karantzoulis: We didn’t get to see it last season, but I’m hopeful of a nail-biting seven-game series between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

There’s just so much to work with in this series: A matchup of the League’s best offense (Warriors) and defense (Spurs). Both teams are top-five in offensive and defensive rating, led by arguably the best two coaches in the League. They’re both on pace to win 60 or more games, the only teams with a realistic chance to do so this season. Should Kawhi Leonard be named this season’s MVP, the last three winners will all be on the court in this series. The only downside to this series is that it can’t be a Finals matchup, which would only add to the grandeur of the event. It’s the simple and most obvious answer, but it’s also the best.

Mui: I’d really like to see the matchup between the Cavs and the Raptors. Down-to-the-wire games are always the most exciting ones for me, and all three of the regular season games between both teams were decided by a margin of four points or less. Plus, on the East’s end, it’ll be interesting to see whether there’s a team that’s good enough to dethrone the Cavs. While the Raptors aren’t one of my favorite teams, they are still a very respectable team. I’ve respected their position in the last few seasons and I have silently been rooting for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.