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Sean Beckwith: Catching (NBA playoff) fever

With the end of the NBA season a month or so out, have you caught postseason fever? It spreads quicker than corona and is just as hard to shake.

OK, did I hit my COVID-19 quota to qualify for a column this week? Yes? Good because I’m going to zig while my opinion brethren zag into a serious health threat that has taken over the internet.

Normally, Ben Welch and I go back and forth over NBA issues, but the state of the Wizards has relegated his 2019-20 NBA fandom to 2K pipe dreams. (Plus, we write a bi-weekly column for the Aspen Times Weekly that you should check out if you haven’t been. And, judging by the numbers, you have not.)

All right, let’s get to the takes.

Mike Malone needs to unleash his players

If Denver wants to be taken seriously as a contender and not just a great regular season team, Mike Malone needs to learn how maximize his talent. Gary Harris has gotten worse, Michael Porter Jr. looks like a lengthy house project that Malone doesn’t have time for, Jamal Murray seems like he’s plateaued despite being only 23, and it’s not even an argument that Nikola Jokic has physical, shall we say, limitations.

He looks like he’s a couple gibanicas away from bumping bellies with Big Baby Davis in the Big Three. It has to frustrate the hell out of outdoor-obsessed Coloradans that he hates cardio, aka the state’s pastime. If he made the physical commitment in the same way that a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo does, he could be an MVP, too.

Asking Malone to implement Pat Riley-type work ethic with Jokic, hone Murray and Porter’s potential like Steve Kerr, and get Gregg Popovich-esque consistency out of Harris is a big ask, but the Nuggets have talent that could make them a powerhouse in the West and, potentially, a Finals contender.

To me, Denver feels like they’re a Mark Jackson-to-Kerr move away from making the leap. It’s unclear if another Kerr is out there but a Nick Nurse might be. I’m sure there are coaches salivating at the chance to coach the likes of Jokic, Murray, Harris, Porter, etc. Malone had/has the opportunity to experiment/develop during a down year in the West and so far has been content with complacency.

Zo to Zion a ‘Space Jam’ version of Stockton to Malone

I’ll start this off by saying that comparing Lonzo Ball to John Stockton is blasphemy considering the amount of polish and efficiency Short Shorts from Spokane brought to the NBA. However, Lonzo only played one season of college and spent a couple years in purgatory as the savior of an ill-run Lakers organization. Now that he’s ascended to assist heaven (and out of LA) with one of the best finishers we’ve ever seen, he’s made strides, specifically shooting, to round out his game.

Zion isn’t LeBron or Durant or even Karl Malone. He’s a Shaq-type specimen who runs the floor and finishes alley-oops as if they possessed the power of Mario mushrooms. The guy’s court awareness and knowledge of the game as far as passing, sealing, cutting and low-post finishing are something that’s been lacking in big men during the surge of small ball.

I don’t want to drool too much over a teenager but holy hell the guy is stronger than 99% of the league with the footwork of Fred Flintstone.

But back to Lonzo. He has the feel for the game that could turn the unenviable position of balancing touches between Brandon Ingram — who the Pelicans should definitely re-sign — and Zion into an embarrassment of buckets. If New Orleans, and it’s a big if, can create the organizational stability seen in Utah under Jerry Sloan needed to make Zo to Zion part of the NBA vernacular like Stockton to Malone was, the team’s potential is incredible. And when you add in a walking mismatch/bucket in Ingram, that’s a level the Jazz never quite attained talent wise.

NBA’s incubation season

Outside of a few trades, injuries and the Kobe Bryant tragedy, this season hasn’t been particularly memorable because of all the offseason movement and, unfortunately, injuries. We were supposed to get a vintage Steph Curry season and then he got hurt. If there is such a thing as a vintage Kyrie season, we lost that to injuries and general contempt for teammates. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, two players who routinely make their teams title contenders, were out before the crazy offseason began.

The aspect of player movement that NBA fans overlooked, mostly because they were having seizures brought on by half the league switching teams, is that fan bases need time to develop attachments to players. If Kawhi Leonard opted to defend the title in Toronto, he would’ve been an MVP candidate because writers hate voting players for back-to-back MVPs (See MVP race, 2019-20).

But next year — when the Lakers/Clippers and Boston/Philly rivalries are a season older, the Warriors and Nets are healthy, young (Memphis/New Orleans/Dallas) and newly formed (Miami/Houston) teams solidify and hopefully the Wizards (Wall) and Blazers (Nurkic, Collins, Hood) are revived — the quality of story lines will be all-consuming the way offseason story lines are only temporarily. Well, I hope this was a welcome, albeit temporary, relief from the strain. If not, don’t turn the page.

Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at sbeckwith@aspentimes.com.


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