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3 Questions We Can't Believe We're Asking from NBA Playoffs' 1st Round

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 28, 2016

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James looks towards the bench during the second half in Game 4 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Detroit Pistons, Sunday, April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

One thing up front: These are not special-edition NBA playoff hot takes. Think of them more like the questions that, if answered a certain way, could produce hot-take answers.

There's a subtle difference.

If you're as sharp as Chuck Klosterman, you can parlay them into a whole bunch of great essays and an upcoming book called But What If We’re Wrong?. If you’re a deliberately incendiary rabble-rouser, Fox Sports will pay you more than $5 million a year to shout and preen and furrow your brow in performative consternation, as Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch reported Wednesday.

The point is, you can get pretty far trafficking in hot takes if you do it intelligently enough or commit to the bit with sufficient soullessness.

How hot your takes are on the following "somebody had to ask" questions is up to you. I’m just here to get you thinking.

1. Is James Harden a Bigger Problem Than Dwight Howard in Houston?

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 10: Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets are seen against the Indiana Pacers on January 10, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

If you leave enough teams on bad terms, it might be time to look inward. But for Dwight Howard, who can become a free agent this summer and who has the power to exit the Houston Rockets with nearly as much disappointment and ignominy as he did when he jetted from the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, maybe there’s something else at work.

Maybe this is a James Harden problem.

At least as far as the Rockets are concerned, Harden profiles as the more practically significant problem. He followed up a second-place finish in last year’s MVP voting by coming to camp out of shape, rarely defending and offering very little in the leadership department.

It’s entirely possible this is all Howard’s fault, but with D12 primed to walk away via an opt-out clause, Harden is the more permanent worry.

This is some big-picture, team-construction thinking, but if this is the version of Harden that Houston can expect going forward, it’s in trouble. Harden has evolved into the type of player that absolutely has to be the focal point of his team. He’s great when dominating the ball, and with better shooters around him, the Rockets could field a dominant offense. But when the guy who must be the alpha isn’t fully equipped to handle all alpha duties (leading by example, commitment to conditioning, caring about defense), you might have a sub-contending ceiling on your team.

Harden could certainly grow. A season like this one might spur change.

It better.

"Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn," Jason Terry said Wednesday after the Golden State Warriors eliminated the Rockets, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com. "A lesson for [Harden] as a star of a team, you have to deal with certain issues and still be able to be mentally tough to bring your level of play up with your team and get them to where you want them to go."

Harden’s level of play in that elimination game was fine. He scored 35 points and made more than half of his shots. But he sure wasn’t hoisting teammates in the air or inspiring incredible efforts with his mere presence. Stephen Curry, hobbled and on the Warriors bench, did those things.

NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT

Klay Thompson was feeling it last night, and Steph Curry approved! https://t.co/Zl4ad2ZA0p

It’d be hard to find a larger contrast in team harmony than the one evident between Houston and Golden State. And we can fairly trace the discrepancy to each team's star.

It may just be that Howard has demonstrated his lack of leadership often enough that he’s no longer expected to shoulder the burden. But it’s also possible we’ll spend the next few months lambasting Howard for the Rockets' failure unfairly.

Harden, firmly entrenched as the most important figure in Houston, could be the most blameworthy.

 

2. Is Cleveland the New Title Favorite?

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

You have to buy the premise that the Detroit Pistons aren’t terrible for this one to really stick, but that’s not such a hard idea to sell. Head coach Stan Van Gundy knows what he’s doing, Detroit had some talent and everyone involved played pretty hard. As eighth seeds go, the Pistons were respectable.

But the Cleveland Cavaliers rolled them, and they looked particularly focused and cohesive in the process. Coupled with an East bracket that has revealed precisely zero imposing foes in the first round, the Cavs’ comfortable sweep indicates the outcome we’ve suspected for months is imminent.

The Cavaliers are going to coast to the Finals.

What’s different now, though, is their chance to survive that ultimate postseason stage looks a whole lot better than it was a few weeks ago. Curry’s injury changes everything. And though it might not be fatal for the Warriors, there’s no way to argue Golden State is as stable as it was when the best player in the league was healthy.

For Cleveland, that’s a huge deal, as the Cavs handled themselves just fine against the other threats in the West. If LeBron James faces the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals, he’ll do it knowing he beat them in both meetings during the regular season. And if there’s an edge in beating OKC in a previous postseason meeting (the 2012 Finals), James will have that, too.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - FEBRUARY 21: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to drive around Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on February 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs were tougher, but Cleveland at least split the season series with them, taking a decisive 14-point win on Jan. 30.

Based on the way the Warriors took care of the Cavaliers both times they met this season (and factoring in that whole historically great, 73-win thing), it was almost impossible to conceive of Cleveland beating the Dubs in the Finals. Now, with the West landscape shaken and the East looking even softer than we expected, the Cavs could legitimately be termed title favorites.

 

3. Are the Warriors Better Without Curry?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Injured Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench during their game against the Houston Rockets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 27
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

No.

But hey, there are some pretty wild numbers that suggest the Dubs might be just fine as long as the soon-to-be two-time MVP is out!

The lineup that started Golden State’s series-deciding Game 5—featuring Shaun Livingston in Curry's place alongside Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut—averaged 113.2 points per 100 possessions in 57 regular-season minutes together, per NBAWowy.com. That's a tiny sample, but that scoring punch was actually better than the team’s overall offensive rating, which checked in at a league-high 112.5 during the year, per NBA.com.

Golden State’s typical starting lineup with Curry "only" posted an offensive rating of 110.4.

The numbers are even more remarkable on defense.

The lineup featuring Livingston in Curry’s place with the starters allowed just 93.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, which would have topped the league by a considerable margin. The historically stingy San Antonio Spurs allowed 96.6, per NBA.com.

"We know how much (Curry) means to this team," Livingston said Wednesday. "Like I said, we’d rather him be out there, but when he’s not out there, we have to pull together. … But it takes the whole team, both units, and it starts with our defense."

We’re trafficking in small samples with data like this, but everything we’ve seen in the postseason so far suggests the Warriors can still be pretty darn good without Curry—particularly on defense, where, remember, they were tops in the league last season.

Golden State can't be great without Curry, but they can be really, really good.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

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