Roundtable: “The Best”

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LeBron James
Credit Nick Wass/Associated Press

In sports,  we’re enamored with “The Best.” We want the best players on our team to play to the best of their abilities to produce the best results for our squad. So for this Roundtable discussion, we gathered several of our writers to answer a few questions in regards to some “The Best” scenarios in the NBA. Our participants for this roundtable are:

1. Presuming the Cavaliers get there, who is the best bet to meet them in the Eastern Conference Finals?

Kirkland: I really liked their game with Boston a little over a week ago and even though we don’t want to place too much stock into a regular season game, Boston has all of the tools to give Lebron & Co. a series. Isaiah Thomas is a fringe MVP candidate and along with Jae Crowder and Al Horford, they have one of the more solid three-man punches in basketball. I think the Celtics can push for a six-game series against the Cavaliers.

John-Baptiste: My initial thought here is the Toronto Raptors. They have all the right tools (in the starting five) to get the job done. However, if the current standings remain the same, they should meet Cleveland in the second round. There goes my theory. So my official pick is the Celtics. The Celtics are just a tad deeper than the Wizards, and in the playoffs you’ll need the ability to spell your stars a couple of minutes in spurts. There’s a good chance this potential series goes seven, with home court advantage being key!

Allan: I am going to have to say the Boston Celtics. If the playoffs were today, Toronto would play the Cavaliers in the second round, so my initial thought of Toronto making it to the Eastern Conference Finals would just not happen as Cleveland would be likely to advance. If Boston does face off against Cleveland, it will be fun to watch the guard match up between Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. With Thomas heading the team and Jae Crowder and Al Horford alongside, there is no telling what Boston can do. I think that at the very least they will be able to give Cleveland a run for six games.

King: I am gonna say that the Wizards get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Seeing the Wizards when they are at full strength is what NBA fans have been waiting for. Bradley Beal was banged up through much of his young career, but he has managed to stay healthy this year and we are now seeing how well he and John Wall compliment each other. Players such as Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter Jr. provide their own niche to this team that, when all is clicking, they are hard to beat.

Assuming the standings stay the same going into the playoffs, the Wizards will face off against the Pistons in the first round which should be easy work for them. Again, assuming they can beat the Pistons fairly quickly, they will get some rest before their next match-up, which will most likely be the Celtics. That Celtics/Wizards series will be tightly contested, however in my opinion in a six or seven game series the Wizards outlast the Celtics due to the high level of play of Wall and Beal.

Boyer: I’m going to peg the Washington Wizards as the favorite to clash with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, but I’m also enrolling in John-Baptiste’s camp that whoever can snag homecourt between the Wizards and Boston Celtics should be painted as the favorite in that series. I do trust the postseason success of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Scott Brooks more than that of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Brad Stevens, who have yet to emerge victorious in their two first round playoff series as a trio, but with a veteran like Al Horford now in the fold, and youngsters such as Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier contributing, their first round fortunes should be destined to change. What they do in the playoffs after that may determine what roster shifting they do this offseason. 

Horford’s tendency to vanish in big moments does scare me though, because the Celtics will need an offensive safety valve when teams really start to hone in Thomas. Can Horford deliver in crunch-time for Boston? That may prove to be the difference between a second round exit and the Celtics’ first Conference Finals appearance since the Big Three era. 

2. Presuming they get there, who is the best bet to meet the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals?

Kirkland: San Antonio without question. Kawhi Leonard will be First Team All-NBA and could easily be argued for MVP though he will not get it. He is very capable offensively, but not many do on the other end of the floor what he can. The Spurs of course are loaded with stingy veterans and LaMarcus Aldridge remains, in my opinion, the most talented low-post scorer in the league not named DeMarcus Cousins. Their second unit doesn’t suffer a great drop-off behind the leadership of Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili, and depending on Kevin Durant’s health I’m not even sure if the Spurs would be a true underdog in the series.

John-Baptiste: Phew! This one is a toughie. Again, assuming the standings remain the same, I SLIGHTLY lean towards the Rockets. The theory here is that the Rockets can keep up the pace with the Warriors lethal shooting. Of course you can’t out-Warrior the Warriors, but the Rockets will be playing their game. There won’t be any adjustments of style because this is what they do on a nightly basis. An honorable mention must be made to the Spurs seeing as Kawhi put on an epic comeback performance to defeat the Rockets on March 6. However, I can’t rely on the inconsistent LaMarcus Aldridge/Pau Gasol frontcourt to produce in those crucial games.

Allan: I would love to see the Rockets face-off against the Warriors, but do they have enough to beat the Spurs in a seven-game series? I think that the Rockets have enough firepower to beat the Spurs, but the Spurs also feel that they are better than Golden State. I would have the Rockets upsetting the Spurs in the semi-finals, but if that is the case, I am just not sure they could continue that momentum vs. Golden State. Houston can make it to the Conference Finals, but their luck would eventually stop there.

King: The Spurs have to be the favorite to face-off against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. With the under-the-radar MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and the veteran experience that surrounds this roster, it is hard to bet against them. They currently sit only half a game back from taking over the Warriors for the No. 1 overall seed and if they do they will have that much of an easier path to the Western Conference Finals.

Kawhi Leonard
Getty Images

Boyer: San Antonio Spurs. Picture this: Golden State continues to falter in the absence of Kevin Durant and the Spurs supplant them for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. Kawhi Leonard, despite garnering a favorable amount of consideration for MVP is snubbed in lieu of James Harden and cyborg Leonard eyes the Spurs’ second round matchup with the Houston Rockets to transform into the Terminator, determined to prove to the entire basketball universe they made a mistake in their assessment of the Most Valuable Player. Scary stuff for Houston.

No, but in all seriousness I trust the two-way steadiness, depth and coaching of the Spurs more than I do the Rockets, and boasting home court only beefs up their case to slide their way into the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets are a really good team that always seems to play the Spurs well, but the playoff Spurs are a different beast, and one I don’t think the Rockets are ready to conquer quite yet.

*LaMarcus Aldridge is out indefinitely due to a heart arrhythmia.

3. Which one of these teams has the best future going forward: Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, or Philadelphia 76ers?

Kirkland: You have to love Los Angeles because I think they have fewer questions than the other two teams. One of the most important questions, point guard, is answered in earnest behind D’Angelo Russell. Minnesota and Philly still need definitive floor generals and that is an important issue in this point guard driven league. A lot of people will say Philadelphia will make the playoffs first and that may be right due to them playing in the East. However, I like the Lakers and their young assets better for the long haul. Brandon Ingram will be a multi-time All-Star before we are all said and done.

John-Baptiste: Easily the Los Angeles Lakers. The best ability is availability, and the Sixers haven’t been able to stay healthy for YEARS. Joel Embiid is out for the remainder of this season, and Ben Simmons has yet to play, both due to health concerns. The Timberwolves just lost Zach LaVine due to injury and we’re not sure what he’ll look like upon his return. The Lakers have a talented young core and should be headed to the lottery for a good pick. The new front office should light a fire under the young core and lead them in the right direction. With Luke handling the on-court egos, things are looking up from what appeared to be in shambles.

Allan: The Philadelphia 76ers. I would argue that the Lakers, even though they seem to be the most stable with a top-three pick most likely coming this season, have a mess of a front office. People believe that free agents would just come to Los Angeles no matter what, but has that happened over the past three years? I think that the turmoil between siblings is a bad problem to have. For the 76ers, even though they have injury issues, it is not about this year. They have the option to swap picks with the Kings in the upcoming NBA Draft, and get the Lakers’ pick next year if the Lakers pick falls in the top-three this time around. The Sixers could potentially have five top-ten selections on their roster by the end of the 2018 Draft. It is crazy to think that this could happen because we have not even tapped into free agency yet. If the #PROCESS continues to show improvement with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and others coming in the future, who is to say free agents would not want to join a rising team in the Eastern Conference?

D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

King: My answer depends on the lottery selection. If the Lakers finish in the top-three and are able to keep their draft pick then I will say that the Lakers are in the best position going forward. Assuming they get either Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz with their selection, then one of them can join a young talented back-court with D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson — who are already established in the organization. Clarkson would be the back-up in this scenario and depth for these young Lakers is needed. When Magic Johnson joined the Lakers as president of basketball operations he was correct in saying that this team is a superstar away from contending with teams like the Warriors in the West and the Cavaliers in the East. The one position that seems to be eluding the Lakers is center. The minute they can get that position established then they will be back playing in the postseason.

Boyer: Philadelphia 76ers. Despite the rash of injury, the Sixers’ youngsters have the most upside out of these trio of teams, and you cannot discount the prospect of them getting Los Angeles’ pick this season, which is sured to be conveyed in 2018 if it remains in the top-three in this year. Dario Saric has proved that he can flat out hoop, and they’ve got underrated complementary pieces in TJ McConnell and Robert Covington. Their front office reeks of shade, but hopefully that doesn’t eclipse the bright on-court product that could be for Philadelphia. 

4. Who is the best closer in the NBA today?

Kirkland: There will be sexier answers but LeBron James is simply the best. I feel like there is a general LeBron fatigue that prevents him from being considered for options like this. LeBron can constantly be counted on down the stretch to both score and make the right passing decisions to keep a defense honest in key moments. As a closer you don’t want the defense to have any idea what will happen next. It is easier to get to guys where you know they are just looking to score. LeBron will also make the plays on the defensive end as well. He just does it all.

John-Baptiste: When I think of closer, I think of: “give him the ball, and get out the way.” This is usually followed by the game-winning score by that player. Therefore, the best closer today is Kawhi Leonard. He’s come into this season with a “Mamba Mentality” and has literally taken over the scoring responsibility for the Spurs. We’ve watched him on numerous occasions this season score the go-ahead basket, further validating his quest for MVP consideration. A close second is James Harden. He literally cannot be guarded between his step-back, euro step, and foul-drawing ability.

Allan: I would have to say LeBron James is the best closer in the NBA today. If you asked me this five years ago, LeBron would not really come to mind. I think that what LeBron did over last season solidified that. He did not have the clutch jumpers to win games at the buzzer, but it was more so the whole Finals series where he had the most clutch moment of his career: The Block. 

King: The best closer in my mind may shock some, but I am going to say Kyrie Irving. It is saying a lot that Irving gets this title, especially when he is on a team with LeBron James who is also known for his closing ability. First evidence of Irving being clutch: look no further than last years Finals. It wasn’t LeBron who was taking the last shot, it was Kyrie. The Cavaliers seem to be getting away from putting the ball in LeBron’s hands at the end of the game and turning to Kyrie. The one-on-one skills and the ability to get to the basket and score or even dish to teammates is an ability that LeBron and Kyrie both share, but in terms of the final shot, I would rather have Kyrie be the one to take it. 

Boyer: Kyrie Irving. There are a number of teams that can give credence to this notion too: Spurs, Blazers, Pistons and the Warriors just to name a few. Irving relishes moments in which the pressure becomes amplified, because it’s a scenario in which he has thrived time and time again. It would be easy to cower away from these clutch instances with the best player in the world on your team, but we’ve seen no deference from Irving when he’s beckoned upon. It almost seems as if LeBron encourages the Cavaliers to initiate crunch-time offense through Irving, which isn’t an indictment of King James, but rather an applause of Uncle Drew’s crunch-time acuity. 

5. Which player in the NBA, 25-years-old or younger, is the best bet to build a franchise around? 

Kirkland: I’m going to go with the hometown (Piscataway, NJ) hero Karl-Anthony Towns here. He is a big who can bang down low and shoot from the perimeter as well. Building a team around a guy like that who can do multiple things is a GM’s dream. The kid is a highly versatile and skilled player with the perfect humble and team building personality that will make guys want to play with him.

John-Baptiste: Karl-Anthony Towns. From what we’ve seen so far, this kid has the total package. He can post-up, shoot the 3, take his defender off the dribble and he can defend. There are certainly others who are honorable mentions (KP & Greek Freak), but as of today he is the most developed in all facets of the game. Pretty polished for such a young talent, and he should only get better. Watch out NBA!

Karl-Anthony Towns
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Allan: It hurts to not say Joel Embiid because I feel that if people saw him this whole season, they would have completely different opinions of him. I will say Karl-Anthony Towns just because of what we have seen thus far. He has shown leadership in only two years in the league, and looks to be at the forefront of players that are bringing big man basketball back to the NBA. Barring anymore health concerns, the same could be said for Joel Embiid. Fans know what they saw in those first 31 games, and that was a special talent that could bring Philadelphia back to prominence.

King: I am going to save people the time and make this easy: Anthony Davis.

Anthony Davis is still at the young age of 23 and has been stuffing the stat sheet all year, averaging 28.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. It is hard to believe in just his fifth season he is a four-time All-Star and has already made the All-NBA First Team once. What makes all of this scary is that he has not even hit his prime yet. The fact that he can dominate at both ends of the floor makes him a franchise staple that you can build around. His skill at both handling the ball and being a capable shooter has defenders up late at night wondering how to limit his impact on the game. Not to mention that he has already led his team to the playoffs, granted they did not win when they got there, but the fact that a player at such a young age is already leading a team into the postseason would make me go all in on adding him to my roster.

Boyer: Karl-Anthony Towns. Out of the current herd of Unicorns in the NBA today (Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic to give some examples,) I believe Towns’ horn will spiral the strongest out of them all. Towns is scoring and rebounding better than Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone did in their sophomore seasons, which is remarkable. Minnesota has clawed their way back into the playoff hunt thanks to Towns’ absurd play of late, and something tells me this level of output will become the norm for the former Kentucky Wildcat. 

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