The 2017 NBA playoffs are 10 days old. Let’s honor the top performers so far:
Most Valuable Player of the First Round: LeBron James
Nearly 50 percent of the more than 16,000 voters on a Ringer Twitter poll said LeBron James would be MVP if the first week of the playoffs were taken into consideration:
All it took to swing the public sentiment away from Mr. Triple-Double to King James was one week of the postseason basketball. LeBron will likely end up fourth on most ballots. The MVP is a regular-season award and it looks like Russell Westbrook will win it. But nearly half of voters in our informal poll choosing LeBron speaks to how his postseason performance is a reminder of his pure brilliance. We know he’s the most valuable player — just watch his Game 3 against the Pacers. He scored 41 points, with 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, and passed Kobe Bryant to move into third place on the NBA’s postseason scoring list.
The Cavs trailed Indy by 26 points in the first half, and then LeBron happened. I was watching the game with my dad, and throughout the second half we couldn’t stop laughing as a natural reaction to LeBron’s virtuosity. We’ve all seen LeBron pull a Greg Jennings and put his team on his back — this time he did it with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench in the fourth quarter. I don’t want to spend too much time on LeBron’s greatness. I wrote about that last week, but just know, this is how I feel:
LeBron and the Cavs swept the Pacers. They got it done a little differently than past LeBron teams have, both in his first stint with Cleveland and his time in Miami. James Harden is the conductor of a progressive orchestra in Houston, and LeBron has heard the music. He’s now overseeing a Moreyball-influenced attack in Cleveland. During their Game 3 comeback, all of the Cavs’ points came in the restricted area, beyond the arc, or at the foul line — aside from a single jumper by Channing Frye where his foot was on the line.
Cleveland scored 70 in the second half of Game 3. James’s assists led to 19 points. For the series, he averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and nine assists. Everything is running through him over his 43.8 minutes per game. Game 4 was close, at least according to the scoreboard, and James had to finish off the Pacers with a go-ahead 3 late in the game.
“He said he wanted to close these guys out,” Cavs head coach Ty Lue said after the game. “He knows how important the rest is waiting for next series. We had to play him and he played great again.” James didn’t need to play much defense in the first round, as was the case all season. But LeBron did flip the switch temporarily when he needed to.
LeBron’s performance thus far hasn’t changed how I would’ve voted for MVP. But it has supported why I had him second on my ballot, behind Harden. Many voters will have him fourth. LeBron is the best offensive player in the league. He makes his teammates better simply by being on the floor, and when the ball is in his hands, no one is a more devastating scorer, and his passing ability is unmatched at his size. When he wants to, he can be one of the league’s premier defenders. It’s only a matter of time before LeBron turns it on and the rest of the team follows.
Defensive Player of the First Round: Draymond Green
This block by Draymond Green defines the Warriors-Blazers series:
Green is to defense as LeBron is to offense. The Blazers have a dynamic attack, but even when it seems like they have the advantage — like a two-on-one fast break — the Warriors have the ability to pull the rug out from under them. Green already has 14 blocks this postseason, but more impressive than anything else is his precise help defense:
Green starts the possession on Evan Turner, helps on Moe Harkless, switches onto Jusuf Nurkic, closes out and contains C.J. McCollum, then switches onto Damian Lillard and heavily contests a 3. Even by advanced statistical measures — deflections or loose balls gathered — this goes down as a zero in the box score for Draymond. This sequence is probably more impressive than his breakaway block on Noah Vonleh. Green should be the Defensive Player of the Year for the regular season, and not a lot has changed this postseason. If anything, he’s been better.
“Get That Money” Player of the First Round: Joe Ingles
Rudy Gobert got hurt on the first possession of Utah’s first postseason appearance since 2012. The resilient Jazz won Game 1, and they’ve stayed competitive since, largely due to Joe Ingles.
This play happened just seconds after Gobert got hurt. (Look in the top right corner of the screen and you can actually see Gobert hobbling off the floor.) The Jazz’s defensive savior, Ingles, chases J.J. Redick through a maze of screens. This has happened time and time again over the series. Ingles has kept Redick in check, sticking like glue, pestering him like an annoying little brother.
As is the case with Draymond, a lot of what Ingles does won’t show up in the box score. Ingles not only contests Redick’s shots, he’s neutralized Redick from even shooting. Redick is one of the greatest 3-point shooters ever, and he’s attempted just eight triples in three games. “I thought Joe Ingles had a great defensive game tonight,” Doc Rivers said last week. “If you look at his numbers offensively they don’t look that great, but I thought he was a difference-maker.”
Teams will evaluate Ingles the same way when he hits restricted free agency this summer. They’ll look at the numbers and see he’s an effective 3-point shooter, at 44.1 percent, and a reliable distributor with 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But most importantly, they’ll look beyond at his versatile defense. He can defend guards and forwards, and he plays hard. Ingles will turn 30 in October, which could end up being the start of the prime of his career once he gets paid this offseason.
Sixth Man of the First Round: Andre Iguodala
With all due respect to JaVale McGee, Greg Monroe, and Joe Johnson, Andre Iguodala is the league’s best sixth man. When it comes to being a glue guy, he is the Elmer’s bull — a player who can fill different roles and responsibilities on both ends.
In the Blazers series, he’s effectively defended Lillard and McCollum, and locked down complementary players like Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner. He led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio among qualified players by a wide margin this season, and he has 13 assists to only a pair of turnovers in the playoffs. Iguodala doesn’t score a lot of points, but the ones he does are loud:
The Warriors are a team flooded with superstars, but Iguodala is indispensable.
Dunk of the First Round: John Wall
I can’t get over this play. The dude turbos by the entire Atlanta defense, seamlessly goes behind the back, and yams it with his left hand. Kudos to Kent Bazemore for even attempting to block the shot. You can’t stop Wall in transition. He’s scoring a blistering 1.8 points per possession on transition shot attempts, per Synergy, which leads everyone.
Through three games, Wall is averaging 31 points and 10 assists with a freaking 59.8 effective field goal percentage. He has become the player Wizards fans always thought he would be.
Most Improved Player of the Round: Dennis Schröder
A word about John Wall’s victim, Dennis Schröder. After Game 2, Schröder said, “He’s talking. And I like it, you know? … I was talking shit too.” Schröder has walked the talk. He averaged 17.9 points and 6.3 assists in 31.5 minutes per game this regular season, which has jumped to 25 points and eight assists in three playoff games.
Small sample size be damned, Schröder is showing why the Hawks signed him to a four-year, $70 million extension and dumped Jeff Teague. We lost Playoff Rondo this round, but the German point guard is a decent replacement. He’s long, he plays with a chip, and he can get to where he wants on the court. His game is still unrefined and his shot, like Rondo, sometimes falls apart. But the Hawks are getting what they paid for and more this postseason, and at 23 years old, the best has yet to come.
Rookie of the First Round: Taurean Prince
This play sums up the Taurean Prince experience:
Prince draws inspiration from Kawhi Leonard by hustling back on defense and stealing the ball from Otto Porter Jr., and then channels Mike Conley with the right-handed floater. Plays like this are nothing new for the rookie. Prince was a hustling maniac at Baylor. He’s the type of guy who makes winning plays, like taking charges and diving for loose balls. The floater was a cool new quirk of his game, and unusual for a muscular, 6-foot-8 forward. The question was how much he’d improve his shot selection. In college, he’d sometimes turn on Hero Mode, but he’s not there there yet in the pro game.
Atlanta is a perfect development environment for him. Mike Budenholzer runs a modern motion offense that preaches ball movement, and Prince has had to earn minutes. He’s improved steadily over the course of the season, and now he’s a playoff starter. Prince has played 90 total minutes in three games, and is averaging 14 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 4-of-7 on triples and playing his typical high-intensity defense.
Prince typically defends wings like Porter and Kelly Oubre, but he’s also spent time on John Wall. The important thing for a rookie is to make sound rotations, and he’s done that well. In the clip above, the Hawks defense is out of sorts, but Prince rapidly closes Markieff Morris off the line, who then misses after taking a lower-percentage dribble-jumper. If the Hawks come back in the series and beat the Wizards, they’ll need Prince to keep this up. Tougher matchups loom in the coming rounds.
Hero of the Anti-Hero Ball Team: Kawhi Leonard
Through four games, Kawhi Leonard is averaging 32.5 points with an unreal 65.2 effective field goal percentage. He’s a perfect 40-of-40 from the free throw line. Advanced stats love him: He has a box score plus-minus of 15 and a PER of 39.5.
In Game 1, he tied a career playoff high with 32 points. In Game 2, he set a new career high with 37, and then he topped it again in Game 4 with 43 all while channeling Kobe:
Leonard is a box-score buster. That’s unusual for Spurs teams coached by Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have never been a team that has only one source of offense. Leonard is only the second Spurs player in the Pop era to finish the regular season with a usage rate over 30. (Tony Parker did it in 2008–09.) Now, in the postseason, Leonard has a usage of 32.8. The only time the Spurs won a title with a player posting a usage over 30 was in 2005, when Tim Duncan put the Spurs on his back as they beat the Pistons in seven.
In Game 4, Kawhi’s teammates shot 2-of-20 from 3. They lost in overtime, as the Grizzlies tied up the series 2–2. Kawhi can push San Antonio pretty far, but if history is any indication, they’ll need more from their other players to sustain postseason success.
Rising Star of the First Round: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Bucks are one of the smallest-market teams, so unless you watch a lot of League Pass, you might catch Giannis only a few times a year. There’s a segment of basketball fans who only know vaguely of Giannis. Can you imagine what it’s like for casual basketball fans getting their first dose of the Freak? He can block shots with his elbow:
He can dunk while his foot touches the ground:
I could see Giannis do that freaky stuff all over again for the first time. The Bucks are tied 2–2 with the 3-seed Raptors, largely due to Antetokounmpo. They might not win the series, but Antetokounmpo has officially won our hearts.
Coach of the First Round: David Fizdale
The Spurs-Grizzlies series turned when David Fizdale ripped the officiating after Game 2. “Take that for data” earned Fizdale a $30,000 fine, but it was worth every cent: his players are picking up the tab, it reinvigorated the fan base, and brought the team closer together. “We all were pumped, just playing hard,” Zach Randolph said when asked if Fizdale’s comments gave the team extra juice. Added Vince Carter, “It’s togetherness.” FedExForum, home of the Grizzlies, could’ve been a funeral pyre for games 3 and 4, but it turned into a house party. The Grizz took both games to even the series now headed back to San Antonio.
The motivational speech was a spark, but Fizdale is also holding his own tactically against Gregg Popovich. Memphis is running a heavy dose of pick-and-roll with Mike Conley, and Pau Gasol, David Lee, and LaMarcus Aldridge have had trouble keeping up.
Dewayne Dedmon was out with an illness for Game 4 and he’s the player the Spurs need in this series. No other Spurs big man can defend the pick-and-roll at Dedmon’s level. Assuming Dedmon returns, I’ll be interested to see if the Spurs go small with Dedmon at the 5, and stretch-forward Davis Bertans at the 4. Bertans is no Kawhi, but he at least provides a little more versatility and quickness than Gasol, Lee, and Aldridge. If that happens, watch to see how Fizdale responds. Memphis could stay big and bully the Spurs inside, or they might have to counter by going small themselves.
There’s not a lot the Grizzlies can do to contain Leonard, though Fiz is open to suggestions. With the unexpected absence of Tony Allen, Wayne Selden Jr. and James Ennis III have gotten roasted. But as long as the rest of the team continues neutralizing everyone else on the Spurs, they give the Grizz a chance.
All-NBA Playoff Teams
Here are my first, second, and third All-NBA Playoff teams. We’re ignoring the NBA’s archaic positional designations, and simply going with my five best players for each respective unit.
Mike Conley Jr.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Taurean Prince could face LeBron James in the second round; Prince couldn’t face James until the Eastern Conference finals. It also mistakenly referred to the Raptors as the 2-seed; they are the 3-seed.