Beckwith: NBA copy desk correspondence: All-Star break takes

The only love affair that will be broached in this special Valentine’s Day NBA correspondence spectacular is Ben Welch’s on-again, off-again infatuation with Bradley Beal. Welcome to the midseason special where we’ll touch on the Denver Nuggets, calibrate our preseason MVP and rookie of the year picks and, hopefully, limit the Washington (former) Bullets talk.

Last time we talked about the Nuggets they didn’t have a point guard, and with the trade of Emmanuel Mudiay, it seems they still don’t and are doubling down on the Gary Harris/Jamal Murray backcourt. The playoffs seem like a realistic goal as Denver only has to beat out either the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans or Los Angeles Clippers for a spot. Paul Milsap is tentatively scheduled to come back in early- to mid-March, so assuming they get in, is there a team in the top three — Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs — that they could conceivably give a run to? Or is it another apathetic first round exit?

Ben Welch: I would say thank you for having me back, but the last time I appeared in these hallowed inches an angry tourist confronted us on Kleenex Corner. You said it happened all the time.

Just kidding; the best thing about tourists is that we’re faster than all of them. And also poorer.

Anyway, the race for the 5 through 8 seeds in the Western Conference is tighter than expected about halfway through the season. The Nuggets should feel comfortable in being able to fend off at least two of the three teams you mentioned, as well as the other team in that category: your, uh, Portland Trail Blazers.

I think the San Antonio Spurs may hit the proverbial iceberg in the playoffs this year, especially with Kawhi Leonard’s injury being a point of consternation among the organization, and could be upset in the first round. I only say “upset” because the Spurs have been perennial contenders since before I was tall enough to dunk, so I’m hoping that those fans can be sad for once.

And to Bradley “Real Deal” Beal, I’m sorry that I tweet at you in frustration. But please, make the late-game free throws. (@bwelch1990)

The big trades at the deadline this year were the Cleveland Lebron Jameses sending half their roster for every player on the market. Are the Cavaliers back? Will Isaiah Thomas prosper in L.A.? Isn’t he like, 60? Oh, that’s Isiah Thomas. Nevermind.

Sean Beckwith: Wow. A lot to unpack here. I guess since you skipped the “What top three team could Denver give a run to?” and “Will it be another lackluster playoff exit?” portions of the question, I’ll just go ahead and assume your answers are “No” and “Yes.” That is unless you think the iceberg the Spurs are headed toward is actually Mount Nikola Jokic.

The West is worse this year after injuries and/or trades sunk the New Orleans Pelicans (Get well soon, Boogie Cousins) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Goodbye, Blake Griffin). That just means teams are vying for the 7 and 8 seeds, a.k.a. Golden State and Houston’s sacrificial lambs.

As for your questions, there’s no reason to discuss the L.A. Lakers even with the addition of a still-injured Isaiah Thomas. We can talk Lebron James and his new band of merry misfits, though. My pick for MVP unfortunately fell by the wayside when his team adopted a “fell by the wayside” approach to defense, which led to the overhaul. The Cavs coming out of the East is the NBA version of the New England Patriots coming out of the AFC, so until I see otherwise, I’m going with King James.

Speaking of James, James Harden will be your MVP. I believe your pick was the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (if he can develop a jump shot). Well that didn’t happen and, despite being one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA, the Greek Freak will have to settle for first team All NBA. Do you want to change your MVP pick or just continue to talk about the King James conference?

BW: Hey, I’m not Skip Bayless over here. More like Skip Payless. I’m fully confident in the Nuggets’ ability to roll into a favorable postseason matchup with San Antonio, but you can’t sleep on the Utah Jazz, winners of 10 straight, charging into a late seed. The Pelicans, currently in eighth, are starting (former Washington Wizard) Emeka Okafor at center, which means all hope is lost and Anthony Davis’ time would be better spent designing an edgy new unibrow schematic for next year.

Since we’re keeping score on our predictions from the last time we “gazed into the NBA crystal ball,” I’ll admit that Giannis Antetokounmpo likely won’t be in the MVP consideration this year, but that’s not due to poor individual performance as he’s having a stellar season averaging 28 points, 10 rebounds and almost 5 assists per game. The Bucks’ curious midseason firing of head coach Jason Kidd could leave Milwaukee searching for its identity going into the offseason, but with a healthy Greek Freak, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton, they’re still not a team I would want to face in the playoffs, but that’s mostly because I can’t play against NBA-level competition.

I was on the mark with my rookie of the year choice, however. My namesake Ben Simmons is having a grown-man’s year for the Philadelphia 76ers, averaging 16-7-7 while fellow preseason ROY contenders Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball languish with injuries and overall lack of basic basketball fundamentals. Simmons also is shooting better than 50 percent from the field, and he’s just 21 years old. When I was 21, I was shooting worse than that from the beer pong table.

With the trade deadline passed and free agent veterans trying to sign with contenders like a game of musical nursing homes, what dramatics could happen with the rest of the season? Are any teams poised to make any surprise runs or drop-offs? What is the likelihood Kevin Durant will be kidnapped between now and the Finals?

SB: I was excited for the new All-Star Game format until the NBA decided to keep the captains’ — Steph Curry and Lebron James — picks secret. While I believe Simmons will win rookie of the year, he could get some push from dark horse candidate Donovan Mitchell of the surging Jazz. Unlike Simmons, Mitchell (19-3-3) regularly takes and makes 3s. Simmons treats 3s like you treat double-blacks; only on occasion and with terrible results (0 for 10 on the season). It would be one thing if Simmons played small forward in the ’80s when 3s were a novelty, but not in 2018 when they’re life blood.

However, it’s time for postseason picks. I need conference finals teams, finals teams and NBA champion.

Here are mine:

Western Conference Finals: Warriors vs. Rockets

Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors

NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers, Part 4 (To be fair, “Rocky IV” wasn’t terrible.)

NBA champions: Warriors (Barring someone kidnapping Durant)

BW: The other disappointment with this year’s All-Star Game is that a number of players on LeBron’s squad were injured after the selections: Kristaps Porzingis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love. The novelty of hand-picked teams isn’t as thrilling when half the roster is being uploaded after the fact. I hardly expect the game to be a more competitive contest under the new format than in years past, but I look forward to seeing the uncontested 3-pointers fly like when playing a match with the All-Time Celtics team in NBA 2K18.

Also, I’m not sure how someone who favors Gent’s Ridge (an effortless single-diamond) over Jackpot (a laborious double-black that’s pretty easy — for me) has the gonads to insult my snowboarding abilities. I guess if you don’t try the harder stuff you never have to worry about being defeated by it, which is why Floyd Mayweather will never crossover to MMA for a rematch with Conor McGregor.

Anyway, rankings time: “Rocky II,” “Rocky,” “Rocky IV,” “Rocky VI” then “Rocky III.” I’m not even going to consider “Rocky V” canon and I have no regrets over throwing that burned disc away.

I don’t want to make any Trumpian pleas that if someone was planning on kidnapping Durant to, well, you know, but the stars do look aligned for the Warriors and Cavaliers to meet again. However, nobody ever made money by taking the safe bets, so I’m going to predict that the Indiana Pacers will defeat the Boston Celtics in the East and the Oklahoma City Thunder will overcome the Rockets in the West. The Thunder will be crowned NBA champions, but the real winner will be all of us.

SB: Picking the Pacers in the finals is like opting for a wide-open mogul run over steep-and-deep trees. Ben, this is why you’re largely considered my protege; second in predictions, second down the mountain and second billing on my column. Enjoy the rest of the NBA season and, if Welch learns a little respect, we’ll be back around playoff time for a preview and picks.

Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Email him at Ben Welch is the production manager at The Aspen Times. He can be found on Fanny Hill or at