With the advent of real, actual NBA preseason basketball, fans get to flip their calendars to the 2017-2018 season and start gearing up for one of the more anticipated campaigns of the last decade. As always, at Knicks at Night, we look ahead and break down the upcoming year, not by the quality of each team’s roster, but by how entertaining each should be to watch on a nightly basis. With nearly half the league’s All-Stars changing homes over the summer, there’s a lot more variability in these rankings and a lot of exciting, new situations to monitor. There’s never been a better time to plunk down that 100 bucks or so for the league’s premier subscription service, but also never a harder time choosing who to watch on a given night. To help answer that question… here are your Fourth Annual League Pass Watchability Rankings!
This might be the year Kawhi Leonard wins his first MVP award. He’s gotten almost freakishly better every year adding lockdown, claw-like defense, to 40% 3 point shooting, to now unstoppable isolation scoring. Zaza’s aggressive close-out in game 1 of the Western Conference Finals robbed us of an all-time playoff series showdown against Kevin Durant (and potentially an even more epic contest against the King in the Finals), but there’s no escaping the fact that this most recent iteration of Kawhi had already proven he could carry his team through the gauntlet of the West. And now, even after spending the offseason smiling a little more than we might expect him to, I fully expect him to come back with yet another move in his book.
The Spurs will need it from him. After a brief flirtation with Chris Paul – a move that would have required them to drastically overhaul their roster by trading Tony Parker and elbowing Pau Gasol into declining his player option – San Antonio opted to pretty much return the same exact roster with renewed contracts for Gasol and Patty Mills. They did roll the dice on a two year deal for Rudy Gay, who should be hungry to prove he can still contribute to winning basketball before chasing one more big contract, but largely the front office is comfortable with where this team is. And, while the basketball cognoscenti may not think that that place is close enough to challenge Golden State, the Spurs must have felt differently after a 20 point halftime lead in Game 1 and in how absolutely livid Poppovich was after losing his best player for the series.
As shockingly effective as Tony Parker was during the Spurs’ first round tilt against Memphis, I’m very curious to see how the team looks without him as he rehabs from a torn quad. Patty Mills thoroughly outplayed Parker last year and should be an explosive off-ball scoring option to complement Kawhi’s ISO-game. Not only that, but the injury should open up more minutes for Manu’s crafty playmaking or Dejounte Murray’s brand of hyperathleticism. The Spurs should pretty much sleepwalk to 60 wins at this point, but their ceiling in the playoffs could be higher playing one of these two, especially if Poppovich ever relents to a little smallball with Gay and Danny Green in the lineup and Kawhi at the four. Hell, if the team had managed to hold onto free agent Johnathan Simmons, they could have had their own version of the line-up of death to throw at the Warriors, downsizing all the way to Leonard at center.
You may have noticed I’ve yet to mention Lamarcus Aldridge. As San Antonio’s unfortunately billed “second star” Aldridge pretty much disappeared for stretches in the playoffs last year, and has started to look significantly overpaid at his current figures. His refusal to play to play center, or Poppovich’s refusal to downgrade him to center, has forced the offense to operate more through the post and the mid-range, which has made Aldridge’s inability to shoot 3s even more cramping for Kawhi’s drives to the basket. Not only that but it seems as if Aldridge had almost mentally checked out by the end of last year. He was reportedly disgruntled down the stretch of the season, requesting a trade and almost vanishing from the offense entirely as Leonard took on a more and more massive role.
That increased role was what made the Spurs somewhat of an anomaly last season (well, for them at least). For a team commonly thought of for the dissecting ball movement that brought down Lebron’s Heat in the Finals, San Antonio was pretty much a one man show. And while we’re running out of words to describe the kind of insane efficiency Leonard showcased, the fact is that he was pretty much putting his head down to bully his way to the basket, or pulling up and canning a long two. As he continues to skyrocket towards James’ seat as the best player in the league it’s becoming harder not to marvel at what he’s doing on the court. It’s just not all that much fun to watch.