NBA Fact or Fiction: Lakers’ disastrous season will tarnish LeBron’s legacy; MVP coming down to tight two-man race
We’re down to about a month left in the NBA regular season. There’s plenty of drama still to come, and no shortage of speculation for how that drama will turn out.
Let’s sort the facts from the fiction in the upcoming dramas.
MVP will come down to tight two-man race between Giannis and Harden
FICTION: Yes, it will be a down-to-the-wire race – but there will be a third player in the race. His name is Paul George.
The case for James Harden is a pretty easy one to make: He’s putting up historic scoring numbers, and for a team that’s suddenly (finally?) ascendant in the West. So is the case for Giannis Antetokounmpo: He’s the best player for the best team. The case for George is a little more nuanced, but if he finishes the season with similar stats that he put up in March — 35 points per game, shooting 38.6 percent from 3 on 14 (!) attempts per game, with 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals — he may get it.
The case for George has to do with how much better the Thunder are when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off. When he’s on the court, the Thunder outscore their opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions; when he’s off the court, they are outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions. That differential of nearly 20 points per 100 possessions is the largest for any NBA player.
Without George, the Thunder may not even be a playoff team. With him, they got a shot at the two-seed in the West. That’s the definition of valuable.
Zion Williamson will be hands-down No. 1 pick come June
FACT: Well, duh. If you remove the context, this could potentially be a three-man race, including Williamson, his Duke teammate R.J. Barrett and Murray State’s explosive point guard Ja Morant. But you can’t remove the context with Zion. He’s already become that rare collegiate athlete who is a household name — heck, who is recognizable by only his first name. He’s a type of player the NBA has never seen: The size of a defensive lineman with the hops of Michael Jordan. He’s developed a formidable set of offensive skills, surpassing the “just an athlete” label some once put on him. And he’s a dynamic personality. Ticket sales matter to teams. So does the echo chamber that is the NBA Draft. And so does relevance — you don’t think a team that becomes enamored with Barrett over Zion as a prospect will note that Zion will get a lottery team boatloads more national television exposure than any other rookie?
Trae Young will pass Luka Doncic in Rookie of the Year race
FICTION: Doncic will run away with it, even with Young’s recent surge (not to mention plenty of other stellar rookies making their case: Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III). When I saw Young had surpassed Doncic on both our weekly and NBA.com’s most recent rookie ladder, I could only disagree. No way, man. Young has been awesome lately. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 7.7 assists on the season, and since Jan. 26, Young has upped that to 24.3 points per game on 41.6 percent 3-point shooting while averaging 8.8 assists per game. Travis Schlenk got the player he was hoping for. And yet Doncic has been in another tier: He’s averaging 21.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists while shooting 34.8 percent from 3. More than that, the youngsters looks like he belongs, playing with the swagger of a 10-year vet.
This has been a bumper crop of rookies. But Doncic should be the unanimous winner for this award.
The 3-point revolution and fast-paced revolution will keep growing
FACT: You better believe the twin revolutions will continue. NBA teams this season are averaging more than 100 possessions per 48 minutes for the first time since the 1988-89 season. And teams are averaging nearly 32 3-point attempts per game, three more than a year ago and double the league average from the 2005-06 season. Maybe every NBA team won’t be like the Houston Rockets, who are taking more than half of their shots from 3 this season. But perhaps five years from now that will be the norm. The rule emphasis of this past offseason only sped this up. Adam Silver knows that offense sells.
If Lakers miss playoffs, LeBron’s legacy will be tarnished from this disaster of a season
FACT: If the Lakers miss the playoffs — and that “if” is quickly becoming a “when” — some believe that LeBron’s legacy will escape unharmed from this dumpster fire. I’m calling B.S. Will LeBron, no matter what he does in the rest of his career, be remembered as one of the top two greatest basketball players of all time? Absolutely. That part of his legacy is secured. And that’s an impressive legacy — the second most impressive in NBA history. But LeBron has always wanted to surpass Michael Jordan. The fact that in his first season switching from the Eastern Conference to the tougher Western Conference ended in him missing the playoffs will be one more piece of evidence for the Jordan-Will-Never-Be-Surpassed crowd. The GOAT case for LeBron would be greatly enhanced by winning a title with the most illustrious franchise in the sport. But how much will trying and failing to win a title with the Lakers hurt his case?
We will know by end of regular season which East team is best positioned to reach Finals
FICTION: The Milwaukee Bucks have been the best team in the Eastern Conference — no, the best team in the NBA — all season long. But with a lack of playoff success on this roster (and in the coaching chair), do we really believe in this team? Right now, I’d pick either the Bucks or the Toronto Raptors — a switchy, versatile, deep team that feels built for the playoffs — to win the East. (Frankly, I think both of those teams could cause problems for the Warriors in the Finals.) But the East is a total crapshoot. I’d be just as surprised if the Boston Celtics lose in the first round as if they won the whole damn thing — as in, not at all surprised. The Philadelphia 76ers might not have depth, but they have the best starting lineup in the East. There’s simply no favorite in the East. That side of the playoff bracket is going to be fun, fun, fun.