The great debate throughout much of the second half of this NBA season has centered on the MVP race, even though, on an individual standpoint, it's been Russell Westbrook's award all season.
Is it Russell Westbrook (yes), who became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season, while dragging an otherwise completely sketchy OKC roster into the playoffs?
Is it James Harden (any other year, certainly), who swung over to point guard by decree of new Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, and whose numbers are eerily similar to Westbrook's.
Is it Kawhi Leonard (only if you go by "best candidate on best team," except the Spurs aren't the best team because the Warriors are, and it can't be a Warrior because Kevin Durant missed too many games and Steph Curry had too many struggles to live up to his last two seasons).
Honestly, if we're talking "valuable," I'd rather it be LeBron James than Harden, under the theory of "how bad would this team be if the player wasn't there." I think the Rockets are the best team without their star, therefore making him less "valuable" in the confusing rhetoric of the award that, throughout all sports, should be called "Most Outstanding Player" because value is such a subjective term.
It's Westbrook in my book, although I'm starting to get the suspicion that the voting won't turn out this way. And regardless, the NBA has decided to string out the announcment even further this year, with all the major awards being given out on June 26 - provided the NBA offices aren't leakier than the White House.
That said, our first-round matchups are here, and here's what I see:
(1) Celtics vs. (8) Bulls: This could get weird. First of all, note that the #1 seed isn't Cleveland. The Cavs were a .500 team over their last 46 games, so the Celtics have the top seed, against a Bulls team that got better after they lost Dwyane Wade, amid rumors of serious antipathy and trade rumors around star guard Jimmy Butler. Isaiah Thomas is a horrific defender but he'll run circles around Rajon Rondo, who can't in turn punish him on the other end. The Bulls may have some physical advantages, but not so much on the cumulative skill end of things. Celtics in 6.
(2) Cavaliers vs. (7) Pacers: Paul George has had a fine season in Indiana, and certainly, the return of Lance Stephenson gives another player for the Pacers to annoy LeBron James with (perhaps by blowing in his ear.....Google that for a few great memes). I think the most trouble the Cavs will have is up front, with Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner having a decent chance of outplaying Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson for a couple of games. Cleveland doesn't (or at least hasn't) defended well at all this season, but still, I figure they'll find a way to muddle things up. I don't expect the games to be terrifically easy or aesthetic but I've got....Cavs in 5.
(3) Raptors vs. (6) Bucks: Many figured the Raptors would be the team to step up and come closest to challenging the Cavs' fait accompli run to the East title, but the Celtics went and leapfrogged both of them. Toronto maintains its two terrific playmakers in the backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who net nearly 50 points per game between them - and now have a solid stretch-4 and defender in mid-season pickup Serge Ibaka. The Raptors Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a full-fledged superstar, and teammate Jabari Parker was right behind him, before a second ACL tear ended his season. This might be a wash with Parker in the lineup, but instead....Raptors in 5.
(4) Wizards vs. (5) Hawks: Numerically, this should be the closest matchup, but I feel it's nowhere near that. The Wizards are the four seed, but just two games worse than the Cavs and Raptors. They've got a dynamic backcourt in Brad Beal and John Wall, an emerging all-around threat in Otto Porter, and six double-figure scorers. The Hawks got back into things after not trading virtual cornerstone Paul Millsap, but they don't have a star-level guy anywhere near the level of Wall. This is the only series I tempted to pick as a sweep, but I'll go Wiz in 5.
(1) Warriors vs. (8) Trailblazers: You'd think the Warriors had a precipitous dropoff from their 2015-16 regular season. And, they did lose five of seven games at one point in February and March, around the loss of Kevin Durant to a knee injury. Of course, they closed with 15 wins in their final 16 games - only three of which were with Durant back in the lineup. This was an entertaining matchup in last year's second round, with the Blazers fighting hard, though losing in five games. Guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will be revved up to take on one of the few combos better than them, but the uncertainty around Jusuf Nurkic's leg injury and return temper the size advantage Portland could have exploited. Warriors in 5.
(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies: If last season felt like a last hurrah with Tim Duncan retiring, this one was a transformation to Leonard as a two-way mega-star. He's by far the top option on the Spurs, who went through a scary time with #2 option LaMarcus Aldridge and the recurrence of a heart condition. I might be tempted for an upset against a younger team, and I still think Mike Conley, who's trying his best to live up to his $153 million contract, will give the Spurs' guards fits. Ultimately, though, I think Pops steers the ship to another first-round victory. Spurs in 6.
(3) Rockets vs. (6) Thunder: After all that talk about Westbrook up top, here's the part where I point out that his team's going to lose. I won't say I'm confident about it, and I think the Rockets' wide-open style will give the Thunder a much better chance than they would have against a half-court team. If things ever do break down (which I doubt Harden and Westbrook will allow), the Thunder have a notable size advantage that could play into offensive rebounding and post scoring opportunities. All-in-all though, I'll take the shooting skills of Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to take Houston in a barn-burner. Rockets in 7.
(4) Clippers vs. (5) Jazz: With Carmelo Anthony rumors floating around one would think it'd be tough for the Clippers to stand pat if their vaunted Big 4 of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick whiffed on a deep run in their fourth attempt as as unit. The Jazz are also in a bit of a bind as they judge whether they can pay up for rising star forward Gordon Hayward. Jordan and Rudy Gobert both eat up a lot of space in the middle, and Utah's good enough to steal a game or two, but I don't think the Clippers let this one slide by. Clippers in 6.