ESPN NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson discussed the start of the 2016-17 NBA season in a media conference call this afternoon.
ESPN’s blockbuster opening week of the NBA season will be highlighted by two prime-time doubleheaders (Wednesday, Friday) and superstars LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in action. On Wednesday, Oct. 26, the Oklahoma City Thunder will visit the Philadelphia 76ers at 8 p.m. on ESPN (Van Gundy on commentary), followed by the Houston Rockets visiting the Los Angeles Lakers at 10:30 p.m. (Jackson on commentary). For more information on ESPN’s NBA coverage, visit ESPN Media Zone.
Q. So many people are saying that we’re already looking at round three of Warriors versus Cavaliers. What do you see that could get in the way of that, and are there any teams that you feel can challenge those two?
MARK JACKSON: I think obviously those two teams are the clear favorites in the east and the west. That being said, I don’t think that it’s a foregone conclusion that you can pencil them both in. I think they’re favorites, like I said, but they are a team that have improved and have added to a successful year last year and also the experience of the success that they have had last year. So there are some dangerous teams that are more than capable of advancing and winning it.
Now, it’s going to take a heck of a lot to beat either one of those teams, but I do feel like there’s a reason that we play the season, and the one Jeff and I always talk about are injuries. They can happen to anybody. They are the two favorites but they are certainly two teams that are beatable.
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I would agree with Mark. I just think injury is the one thing that could get in the way. I think Cleveland is even a bigger favorite out east than Golden State is out west. And that’s remarkable.
I saw in Vegas, they only have them as a 29 percent to have a chance to have a rematch, which I was shocked at. I would put my money there.
Q. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the Knicks are the more interesting team this year, but do you think they will be a significantly better team?
VAN GUNDY: Again, I think injury has a lot to do with it. They put big money into players who have had significant injuries in Noah and Rose. So I think how they bounce back and play, and how many games they play, is going to be significant. But I do think they are a playoff team if they can remain healthy.
I love the addition of Courtney Lee. I think he’s a good glue player. So I think their starting lineup is very formidable. Their depth is a work-in-progress. And I think they will have a big factor in how they perform.
JACKSON: To answer your question, I believe, like Jeff, that they are a playoff team. They should be. They have upgraded their talent. I think Jeff Hornacek is an outstanding coach who is going to do a very good job for those guys.
And I think you add Noah, you add Rose, you add Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, healthy after last year coming back from injury; but I think overall, on paper, that they should be a playoff team and there’s a reason to be excited in the New York area.
Q. In Oklahoma, in the post Kevin Durant era, what do you see as realistic for them this season and what do you think is the key for them succeeding without Durant?
JACKSON: Well, I think they are still a very good basketball team. They have a superstar in Russell Westbrook. I think they did a super job of picking up Oladipo, who is athletic; scoring a two guard who plays with passion and loves the game and competes the a high level.
Obviously the depth in the front court, they are a team that has a legitimate chance. It’s about staying healthy, first-class organization, but I really expect to to see them battling for one of the top seeds in the west and having a chance like they had when those guys came to that organization.
VAN GUNDY: I think this is the second major body blow they have taken to their talent level, first Harden and then Durant. It’s really, really difficult to overcome.
I think Westbrook will have a great year. I’ll be interested to see who Billy chooses to surround him with; do they have enough perimeter shooting with the loss of Ibaka at the four spot and Durant. Those forwards could give Westbrook room. How does Robertson now fit in, because he could play like the slasher that he is with more shooting on the floor. But they have great front court rebounding strength, and Westbrook. Those are their two biggest strengths and they are going to have to play tremendous defense, and if they win 45-plus games this year, it will be a heck of an accomplishment for them. I think they are a playoff team, but you can’t underestimate the body blow that losing Durant is.
Q. How do you think the Rockets shape up this year in terms of whether they will be able to make a run into the playoffs, and what their chances are if and when they are able to get there.
VAN GUNDY: I think they are going to win between 45- and 50-some, low 50s. I think they are going to be an absolute juggernaut on offense. You put Harden into pick-and-rolls, with the shooting that they have added, it’s going to be very difficult to guard them.
Now the shooting they have added in Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon has also been injury-plagued. So just like a lot of teams, when you start counting guys who have been injured, if they stay healthy, that could be problematic. But I think they are going to have a very, very nice bounce-back year.
JACKSON: I totally agree. See them as a playoff team. See them as a problem to defend on the offensive end. Thought it was a great move putting the ball in the hands of James Harden and because of that, he would be my pick for MVP of the league because obviously he can score, he’s an exceptional passer, and I think adding those shooters around him, their numbers will be off the charts. But they are a much improved team and certainly a playoff team in my opinion.
Q. What do you see as the Heat’s future with the official ending of the big three and do you think they have it lined up to recover in a few years?
JACKSON: When you start off with Pat Riley and the Heat organization, the culture is already there. They compete at a high level. So I expect them to still be fighting for a playoff spot in the east and have a legitimate chance because of the way that they get after it and the culture that has been instilled in there for quite a long time.
They are certainly going to miss Chris Bosh and what he does and what he brings to the table. They are going to miss a guy like Luol Deng, and what he brings on a daily basis and obviously they miss Dwyane Wade.
It’s going to be a question of searching for an identity, who they are going to trust when it matters most and the games are on the line. But one thing you do know with that team, they are going to play hard and they are going to defend at a high level.
VAN GUNDY: And I agree with Mark about the defense and the effort level that they will expend on a nightly basis. You have Whiteside as an elite shot blocker, and you have Erik Spoelstra who is an elite coach. And you surround them with a bunch of hard-playing, younger players, they are going to get after you. And it’s not going to be easy.
Offensively, where they get their point production, I think will be their challenge. But I do believe they will be fighting for a playoff spot. I think Miami has proven that they have had a couple of down years in the Riley era, followed by a quick ascension. It’s a place players want to play. They have a Hall of Fame coach in Erik Spoelstra, and they have, you know, demonstrated time and again, that they can make moves to put themselves in the position to get the players.
Q. You’re looking at the standings now, everybody is 0-0 and you’ve got 82 games, and it’s not like the NFL where if you’re 0-6, 0-7, you’re already counted out. Do you tend to see that media and fans and players overreact if a team starts off slow, especially like a Durant going to a new team, and Dwight Howard, instead of giving them time to build, they are already writing them off if they are 6-6 or 6-10. Do you see that as a knee-jerk reaction?
VAN GUNDY: Listen, I don’t start the Warriors at 0-0. I start them at 82-0, and whatever, the few games that they lose, we’ll just like, you know, mark it down as they go along.
This idea that it will take awhile for — I disagree with that. Great players like Durant, they can fit into any team. You know, they know how to play. The players he’s going to play with know how to play. Listen, I think they are going to — I think I saw — I know I’m into Vegas now, but somebody predicted, I think the investigation line is 62 and I’m like, how could that team lose 20 games, if they are interested and healthy.
I think they have a legitimate chance to break the record. I think they have a legitimate chance to win, you know, break the hallmark record of 33 in a row. I think they are going to get on multiple runs, even not playing guys huge minutes. I just think they are going to be overwhelming talent-wise.
So anyway, I don’t think you need to worry about them. But I think in general, like the thing that you’re talking about as far as overreaction, you always have to look at the schedule back-to-backs, home/road split, who you’re playing.
But I think a good start is underrated in the NBA. It gives you a cushion to play with, and if you take on an injury, it allows you to play with that cushion and be ahead of the curve.
JACKSON: And I agree with the answer as far as guys fitting in individually to new systems. I think you can certainly overreact, and I think what Coach said is 100 percent correct when you look at the schedule, who you’re playing; are they home games, are they road games. Because realistically, you can start off a West Coast trip playing the spurs and the Warriors and OKC and different teams like that, and there’s no need to panic. I think it’s more than enough time for individuals to fit in. I think that’s an excuse in my history as far as coaching and also playing and being a fan. Great players find a way to fit in and understand the systems. It’s not rocket science.
Q. Locally people think the Timberwolves can make a big jump into the playoffs. I don’t personally see that, but if you can give us your thoughts on them and also, if there’s any underrated or under-talked-about storylines you see that should be discussed this season.
JACKSON: Obviously a home run hire in Thibs and what he brings to the table. I have the Minnesota Timberwolves making the playoffs. I thought Sam Mitchell did a very good job lost year of building a culture and having them compete and getting success from his young players and I think Thibs is going to build on it.
They defend at a high level. They are very talented. They are very deep. Forgive me for not knowing the big kid from overseas, comes off the bench; absolute skills. I watched him the other night and can flat out play. And obviously Thibs is a winner.
So I expect success from that team from top to bottom. They are loaded talent-wise and they are going to defend at a high level and compete at a high level.
VAN GUNDY: I see them having a legit chance of making the playoffs. I think they have had such a long non-playoff streak, that I think people can forget what a good basketball town Minnesota and St. Paul are. I mean, when they had it rock being with Garnett, Cassell, Spreewell, it was a hard place to play, and I think that’s what they are heading back towards.
I think echoing Mark’s comments, I think Tom is an incredible basketball coach, and you pair him with a guy who I think is a sure fire Hall of Famer in Karl-Anthony Towns, he would be my long-shot MVP pick this year. I think he’s going to have that great a year.
I think they will be in the hunt. I’m interested; I think they have improved their depth. Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich, you know, things like that, under-the-radar type of moves I think will give their second unit a boost.
Q. Any underwhelming storylines that you see out there this year?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I don’t know if — it would be great if the CBA actually gets taken care of early. That would be a terrific thing for all basketball people. And I think going back to the first question; I think there is somewhat an inevitability of this Cleveland/Warrior meeting in the Finals again, which can sometimes make you overlook how enjoyable the regular season can be, if you love basketball.
I think they will meet in the Finals again, but that doesn’t make the regular season uninteresting to me.
JACKSON: I totally agree with Coach as far as getting a deal done. I think that would be a home run for everybody, and the job the Commissioner has done, the Players Association, I think they have supported one another and are in a good place right now. It would be great to keep the momentum going.
And then the other thing, I think when you look at the Indiana Pacers and the job that Larry Bird has done, improving their talent pool, that’s a dangerous team that’s loaded and has increased their depth and to me that’s a team to watch.
Q. I have a question about the Utah Jazz. As you know they acquired Joe Johnson in the off-season, and I was thinking if you guys think they will make the playoffs this year and have a threat against the Warriors?
VAN GUNDY: I think Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder have put together a really fine basketball team. They added their depth to Boris Diaw, who is a tough matchup; George Hill, terrific combo guard, I think really stabilizes the back court. And then Joe Johnson with Hayward’s injury is going to be pressed into more minutes, and I think in the short term, he can really produce, even at his age.
So they are a deeper team. They are based around defense. I think their struggle will still be at times being able to score down the stretch of tight games but defensively, and depth-wise, they are terrific.
JACKSON: I think the story with Utah is getting healthy and whole. If they are healthy and whole, they are a dangerous team. You look at last year, they played the Warriors exceptionally well because of their depth, their size, their athleticism. A guy that really to me is — not just Hayward but Alec Burks can beat you; and adding George Johnson and George Hill, that’s a team that I would not want to face. They have done an outstanding job, and I would echo what Coach said.
Q. You’re not hiding at all what you’re expecting in the Finals matchup. What excites you about the season, if we know how the story ends, what makes you want to watch the story until we get there?
VAN GUNDY: Myself, I love watching teams develop so for me, like the Timberwolves, the Jazz, I love watching teams like that who maybe have not had the type of success but have — are trying to put it together and are hungry; they are not jaded.
Like I said, Karl-Anthony Towns would be my underdog prediction for MVP. I like watching guys like James Harden play on a nightly basis. And like Mark said, if I had to pick a preseason MVP and put my money on it, it would be he or Westbrook.
I like to watch teams try to have a consistency of effort and energy in the regular season which is mental challenge. I loved what the Warriors did last year, putting forth a great effort to break what I thought was an unbreakable record.
And I thought the media after they lost in the finals took the easy way out and acted like their pursuit of a record six weeks prior somehow had left them vulnerable in the finals. I thought that was a cop out, and I hope they go for more records this career and try to play to a standard of every night greatness.
I just like watching great basketball and I abhor watching low-energy basketball. I like what Adam Silver has done with the back-to-backs, trying to reduce them. I hope he eliminates them at some time in the near future, because the finance, with the prices they pay, deserve to watch high-quality product and not a bunch of tired players running around killing time on the court.
Q. A lot of the conversation today has been around the MVP and recently Lillard came out and said he’s gunning for that award. What do you think as coaches when a player comes out and says that? Does it take away from team goals when a guy comes out and says he’s gunning for an award?
JACKSON: No, he’s a heck of a basketball player and a guy that has every right to believe that he’s in the mix for the MVP at the end of the year.
What you do when you hear a player or see a player say something like that, you automatically take a look at his body of work and everything that he’s done from day one has been about Portland, that team, that franchise, and you can’t question his energy, his effort, his enthusiasm, his goals, have always been team oriented, so no question about it. And on top of that, he’s got a great CD out right now, so I’m all for Damian Lillard.
VAN GUNDY: I haven’t listened to the CD. But his greatness as a point guard is unquestioned, and you don’t win MVP if your team doesn’t have success, too.
So I think it is a team-oriented statement. It’s about trying to get himself to play to a high standard and along with that, have his team win at a high level and if they do that, he could well find himself in the mix as an MVP because the offensive talent and the offensive scheme and his backroom partner in McCollum. I mean, listen, it’s dynamic and it’s devastating at times. And so they have done a real good job in Portland in building and Lillard well could be in the MVP discussion.
Q. My question is regarding the Indiana Pacers and their addition of very good players in Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young and Jeff Teague? And how do you think Nate McMillan will handle this team coming in the Eastern Conference, and will they be able to stop LeBron James for his second consecutive finals?
VAN GUNDY: I think Indiana had a great off-season with player additions. I think Teague is a very fine point guard. Young is your prototypical four right now, quick, and athletic. And Al Jefferson gives him somebody in the post — and you know this, being from Charlotte, that’s still highly efficient. There’s not many guys who can score in the post. Jefferson gives him another way against the best defenses to try to exploit his ability to score.
I think player-wise, they did a good job. And listen, I’m on record, I thought — I don’t understand letting Frank Vogel go. I think he was — I think he did an unbelievable job there and I don’t understand the rationale.
But I think Nate MacMillan is an outstanding coach and did a fine job for Frank as an assistant and his Seattle and Portland teams were difficult to play against because he had them playing at a high level of intensity on a nightly basis, and I think he’ll do a fine, fine job.
JACKSON: I already talked about them being a dangerous team because of the reasons that Coach just documented. I think Paul George, coming off the injury, had a great year last year. I expect him to have an even better year this year and be a superstar and lead that team.
And a guy to watch out for is Miles Turner. Young, talented big man who can flat out play. Nate MacMillan, like Coach said, is an established coach that’s had success at different places, and I’m sure it will continue there.
Q. The Celtics have not won a playoff series under Brad Stevens but a lot of them are picking them to reach the Eastern Conference Finals now that they have Al Horford. What do you think of him and where would you rate Stevens among NBA coaches?
VAN GUNDY: One thing I think that’s hard to do is rank NBA coaches. So much of how people perceive you as a coach is based on the talent that you have. I’ve gone against guys who win all the time that I didn’t think were as good as some other guys, who maybe had half the talent but maximized their talent. So I think you have to judge coaches based on the talent they have, not just on the win/loss record.
Brad is a great basketball coach; not good, great. I think he’s proven that during his time in Boston and he’s humble, he’s hard-working and he knows how to help players play to their strengths and stay away from their non-strengths.
The addition of Horford I think is an excellent pickup. I think, you know, there was four teams, Boston was one of them in the east that had 48 wins last year, so there’s a lot of parity after Cleveland. Toronto had a terrific year last year. And so there’s a lot up in the air, and it will be interesting to see who can stay healthy and who can get their games together, because Boston is going to be a tough out.
JACKSON: Again, I agree. Hate to sound like a broken record but totally agree. One thing I don’t do is rank coaches, but what I will say is that Brad Stevens is an outstanding coach who has done an outstanding job in Boston getting recognition for that and it’s well deserved.
They did a great job of adding Horford, a big that brought to the table what they did not have: Defensive, tough, hard-nosed leader, and you can see that early on in the preseason already, and I think it’s only going to be a carryover effect once the season starts. He’ll put them in pick-and-rolls, with Isaiah Thomas, who is as tough as it comes, trying to defend at the point guard position.
I’m not going to jump and say I see them in the Eastern Conference Final. They are more than capable of being there but I think see being bunched up with other teams. It’s going to be about staying healthy and finishing strong but there’s a team that’s more than capable of being there.
Q. There was a report from Woj that came out earlier today that said the NBA and NBA PA were looking to do a new seven-year deal going through 2024. What are your thoughts on that, the negotiations, for both players and the league?
JACKSON: I can’t go into detail as far as the discussion, because I’m not aware of it. It’s different with, all due respect, if you threw out a topic and we can answer it. I don’t want to just go on a rant about something I’m not aware of.
But I think it’s great for everybody involved to get a deal done. They have done an outstanding job since day one and they have built towards this and they have great momentum and to me it would be a home run to continue it.
VAN GUNDY: I don’t really have any more to add because I don’t know what the issues are, except that everybody is making a ton of money: Owners, players and the league. It’s smart not to screw it up.
Media contact: Gianina Thompson at 860-766-7022 or [email protected] (@Gianina_ESPN).