Welcome to the B/R NBA Round Table. Our four lead writers, Bethlehem Shoals, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Holly MacKenzie and Rob Mahoney have answered three questions about the NBA. Read their responses to the questions below and chime in on the conversation.
The Boston Celtics are surging and have somehow remained healthy in a brutally busy season. Are you taking them seriously as title contenders given their playoff experience and defensive gumption?
Shoals: They went to the Finals in 2010, when nothing in the season indicated that they would go that far. Rajon Rondo is a supernatural force, Kevin Garnett has effectively entered his late-career phase, and Pierce and Allen remain very much their old-before-their-times-already selves. They are tough, respected and a great mix of skill and persistence. I wouldn't bet on them, but I wouldn't bet against them, either. If nothing else, they're a team that no one can go into the playoffs expecting to run through. It'll be a bar fight, as Garnett once said. They know that their time is running out, and they're not eager to go down easy.
Strauss: I'm not taking them seriously, while allowing for the chance that they can make the Finals—if that makes sense. Am I buying Avery Bradley as the difference between last year's team and this year's team? It just seems unlikely that an older Boston squad can win one year after getting tossed from the playoffs in a five-game series.
MacKenzie: They're not on my short list of title contenders, but they're also not on my list, if that makes sense. The Celtics have surprised people all season. We keep writing them off as too old, injured, etc., and they keep coming back and making us eat our words. Boston is one of the few teams in the league that does have a psychological hold over opponents. I believe in their hype because it's non-hype; it's just the Celtics doing what they've done since Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were sent to Boston. They've been there, they know what it takes to get there, and they're willing to do whatever they need to do to get there again.
Mahoney: I'm not entirely sold on Boston just yet, particularly because they haven't just been winning games with their defense—they've been winning completely in spite of their offense. The 2008 and 2010 Celtics teams that won and went to the NBA Finals were both above-average offensive units (the 2008 model actually ranked in the league's Top 10 offenses), despite their defense-first reputation, whereas this year's squad has consistently ranked among the worst offenses in the league. Elite defense is a great mechanism for overcoming mediocre offensive production, but when things get this dire—and they certainly have, as Boston has statistically been the seventh-worst offensive team all season, and the fifth-worst since the All-Star break, per NBA.com—it becomes far too difficult for even the most stifling D to make up such an alarming deficit.
The NBA Coach of the Year award often goes to the coach who did the most with the least, in terms of personnel. Is that the right approach? And who really deserves the honor this year?
Shoals: It's usually "Coach of Most Improved Team," which is almost rigged so that coaches can win it as few times as possible, unless they are Larry Brown-like nomads. It makes more sense to give it to coaches of teams that have rebounded, like the Celtics, for instance, since that's proof of tactical smarts, instead of just riding the wave of youth's natural progression (very often, there's a budding superstar or new acquisition involved in a team's improvement.) What's so weird is that the Defensive Player of the Year has no problem giving it to the same person for years on end, and the MVP, despite its unknowable criteria for selection, often ends up with multiple awards for single players. Coach of the Year discriminates against dominant coaches who stay consistent. That's not right. That said, this year, Tom Thibodeau simply has to win it. He may be the smartest coach out there, and he basically did last season's COY-winning performance over again without a healthy Derrick Rose.
Strauss: Popovich. Because he's Popovich.
MacKenzie: NBA awards, in general, drive me a little crazy because I don't think we ever really know how they're supposed to be voted on and whether everyone is using the same criteria. I think the Coach of the Year needs to go to the coach who has done the best job with his squad, even if sometimes it's a team that has more talent than some of the teams with uglier rosters and fewer victories, but a more eye-catching season. While Gregg Popovich has been phenomenal this season, Tom Thibodeau is making Derrick Rose's MVP look less about Rose and more about his coach, with each victory he pulls out of his ever-shifting set of available players (and I love Rose).
Mahoney: Shoals nailed it. Although it takes a certain talent to keep a young, talented roster from tearing itself apart, the fact that we seem to solely reward the coaches of up-and-coming teams is bogus. Coaching is a difficult, cross-platform job that shouldn't be reduced to how many wins were added from last season's record; reward the coach of the rebounding club, the engineer of the unexpectedly prolific offense, the star-whisperer who kept a roster of cool heads or, yes, even the headmaster of a strapping, young team. Just ditch the formula, for now and forever, and make a legitimate argument as to who deserves the award.
I see the award itself going to the winner of a three-man race between the aforementioned Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau, and Doc Rivers—although for thoroughness' sake, I'd also like to throw out the names of Ty Corbin (it's still a wonder that Utah is a likely playoff team) and Monty Williams (who has done the impossible in lighting a fire under a rebuilding club doomed to loss after loss). There's absolutely no wrong answer out of that crop, and if forced to choose one over the others, I'm inclined to pick Rivers; he's shown incredible flexibility over the course of the season, has created a culture in Boston that is downright Popovichian and completely reversed course on a Celtics season that looked to be headed toward disaster.
What single, ongoing narrative will stand out to you as the definitive story of the 2012 NBA season?
Shoals: This is personal, not business, but I am really letdown at the failure of Lob City to turn into the must-watch juggernaut a lot of us had hoped for in the fall. I know, these things are never as good as we dream them to be (like year one of the Heat), but a lot of it has to do with Blake Griffin's sophomore campaign. He just hasn't been the same player, even if the production is there. He's not as fun to watch, doesn't explode with quite the same urgency and was very briefly the heel in a feud with DeMarcus Cousins, which is saying something. Chris Paul returned to the public eye in a major way, and in the playoffs, will further remind people why he's a perennial MVP candidate just by sneezing. Still, I'm not sure the Clippers delivered in the way I wanted them to.
MacKenzie: This won't be the popular choice, but in this shortened season with its crazy, condensed schedule and talk of players hitting walls, the veterans stood out to me. Kobe Bryant playing through torn wrist ligament, concussion, broken nose and still (as of today) leading the league in scoring. Kevin Garnett's resurgence for the Celtics throughout the closing stretch of the season. Ray Allen having the best shooting percentage of his 16-year career from beyond the arc. Steve Nash flirting with another 40/50/90 season. The veterans doing what they've always done, despite pounding schedule and wear and tear, without complaining.
And…I would be remiss if I failed to mention the obvious choice: Linsanity
Mahoney: To me, the 2011-12 season will always be colored by the lockout's aftereffects. Linsanity, Chicago's resilience, Lob City, Dwight Howard's petulance, and every other dominant narrative of the season simply can't disguise the diminished basketball, the brutal schedule and the heightened cost of injuries on a condensed slate. Slightly lesser pro basketball is still better than no pro basketball, but it's sad to see the NBA's squandered potential, particularly at the cost of such a beautiful game. It's been a wild season, but it's hard to escape from the specter of what could have been.