Key questions about ESPN twin bill
In a battle between teams headed in opposite directions, the West-leading Spurs take on the struggling Jazz (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), followed by the Nuggets visiting the red-hot Warriors (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Our 5-on-5 crew weighs in on the doubleheader.
1. When will the Jazz return to the playoffs?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: 2017 at the soonest. The high-rent neighborhood in the Western Conference is a densely populated place. Meanwhile, the Jazz's peer class among the aspirational teams is pretty competitive. Phoenix looks like it's bypassing rock bottom. New Orleans and Sacramento have superstar big men in the making. Denver seems to have a floor. The Lakers are the Lakers. That's a lot of leap-froggin' for a team that's still in the discovery phase of team-building.
Matt Cianfrone, Roundball Mining Co.: 2015-2016.The supporting pieces seem to be there in Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Trey Burke but the Jazz are missing the main guy. If they can find him in this season's lottery, or even a complementary piece to push Hayward to that role, a playoff return doesn't seem farther off than a year or two of jelling.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: 2016, and that's not a knock on their talent. The West is stacked with several teams built to be successful for quite a while, so the Jazz will likely have to wait for their young talent to mature some. I'm hedging my bets a bit and assuming they'll be able to retain the services of Gordon Hayward, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. Utah has immense cap flexibility but faces a familiar argument in that it is difficult to lure free agents, so it'll likely have to engineer some trades to bring in the type of vets the Jazz need to supplement their outstanding young core.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Maybe surprisingly, I don't think they're that far off. Utah has several talented young pieces in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward. A promising swingman from the 2014 draft and added depth on the bench could propel the Jazz to the postseason next season. The big if comes with the Jazz re-signing Hayward this offseason, though.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Three seasons. Their massive collection of high draft picks has disappointed so far, but I still believe in the talent of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. That pair, along with rookie Trey Burke, should thrive under the right coach. Perhaps they need another veteran player to goose the growing process, but I like how the Jazz have approached the future. They know they aren't wooing free agents, so the (sound) plan is to lean heavily on the draft.
2. How many seasons do the Spurs have left as an elite-level team?
Arnovitz: You really want to play that game? The current core plus Kawhi Leonard has at least this season and 2014-15. Then, just when we think the jig is up, a Spurs late first-rounder will blossom into an All-Star. The Spurs will still need to make a surprise splash on the free-agent market, but among the superstars looking for a home over the next couple of years, I'll bet one won't be able to say no to Gregg Popovich's pitch. So the answer is, "Until further notice." In fact, go stitch that on a few rally towels.
Cianfrone: Two. My guess is next season is it for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. While the Spurs will still be good behind Tony Parker and the system in place, the losses of Tim and Manu, and possibly Pop with them, will be enough to end the consistent run at the top of the conference.
Elhassan: We ask this question every year, and every year we get it wrong. Tim Duncan has a player option for next season, and Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner will be unrestricted free agents this summer, while Kawhi Leonard is eligible for a rookie extension. Other than that, everyone else is under contract for at least another season, so it stands to reason that they'll continue to be a well-oiled machine until at least 2016.
McNeill: We can debate what exactly "elite" is until the cows come home, but in all likelihood next season is the last run with this particular group. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are under contract through 2014-15 and it's near impossible to see all three re-signing. Maybe they won't be contenders next season, but that will be the last run of the Spurs as we've known them.
Strauss: Two, including this season. I figure it ends when Duncan's contract is up next season. What they're doing right now feels like some sort of magic trick. The narrative was that Kawhi Leonard needed a breakout season to keep this thing going. Instead, he's been pretty much the same guy as Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw vaulted the Spurs higher. It's incredible that the seven-win 2012 Bobcats cut Diaw, who's now a vital player on a title contender.
3. How will the Andre Miller saga end for the Nuggets?
Arnovitz: Miller might be an irritant to the Nuggets and he's likely played his last game in Denver. But have you ever heard a big man who's played with Miller wax poetic on his vision? Someone who needs a little depth at the point will offer up a second-rounder and some filler and the Nuggets will sigh and say yes.
Cianfrone: With Andre in another uniform. Miller clearly doesn't fit Denver's plans going forward, and with the amount of teams that have shown interest I can't imagine the Nuggets missing a chance for even a little bit of much-needed cap relief as they reshape their roster under Brian Shaw's vision.
Elhassan: With a less-than-satisfying trade. Any time your dirty laundry is publicly aired on television, it's tough to recoup true value for an asset. I wrote about one possible deal that might make sense that illustrates the type of haul Denver can expect in return. If Denver is unable to move his contract, expect the Nuggets to negotiate a buyout after the trade deadline, allowing him the freedom to sign with the team of his choosing in exchange for taking less than the guaranteed amount he's owed.
McNeill: I don't see how it can end with any other result than a trade. We see disagreements between veteran players and new coaches from time to time, but rarely with the drastic stalemate of the player not suiting up for an extended period. I can't imagine the lengths both parties would have to go through to smooth things over to the point where Miller plays for the Nuggets again. He'll be dealt.
Strauss: He'll be traded and get into squabbles somewhere else until the end of his contract. Though the league boasts many famous point guards, enough are so injury prone that Miller's services remain of value. As cantankerous as he is, he's sticking around for a while -- just not in Denver.
4. Do the Warriors have the league's best backcourt? If not, who's better?
Arnovitz: No, unless you can point to something Klay Thompson does substantially better than J.J. Redick. Because even if -- and it's a big, big if -- you assign equal weight to Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, Redick is a better overall shooter than Thompson. In the worst 3-point shooting season of his career, Redick still owns a higher true shooting percentage. He's a better defender, a more capable playmaker, more likely to get to the line and his off-ball movement does far more for his team's offense than anything Thompson does when he's not rising and shooting.
Cianfrone: Nope. Give me the Clippers' combo of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. For as great as he is, Steph isn't better than CP3 and Redick has a bit more versatility in his offensive game than Klay, especially as a distributor, and isn't that much worse of a defender. The Warriors' duo probably will get there, though.
Elhassan: I resisted answering in the affirmative, but there aren't that many options! For all the great point guards in the league, there aren't a lot of solid shooting guards. It says a lot when Washington (John Wall and Bradley Beal) and Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic) have legitimate arguments for inclusion. I think a healthy Chris Paul and J.J. Redick are probably the best, but since they AREN'T healthy, Golden State gets my vote.
McNeill: Yes, although I'd like to give a nod of approval to a healthy Chris Paul-J.J. Redick pairing. Thompson and Curry stretch defenses to the break with their dead-eye shooting and general offensive wizardry. And while they're not a great defensive pairing, they do enough in those areas to maintain a healthy net efficiency.
Strauss: They're tops now that Eric Bledsoe's out with an injury and Wesley Matthews is coming back to earth. Still, there's a massive production gap between Curry and Thompson. Thompson's a solid defender, but he doesn't provide much on offense besides the 3-point shooting. The Splash Brothers are more like distant cousins in terms of their output on that end of the court.
5. If the Spurs and Warriors meet in the playoffs, who wins the series?
Arnovitz: The Spurs win, but it's a seven-game classic between the conscience of the league and the unconscionable. San Antonio can play at Golden State's pace, move the defense around and maintain the discipline required to guard the W's on the perimeter. But the Warriors will win two games alone by making shots the Spurs will cede, a third game on the integrity of their defense, then the last one is up for grabs. Experience matters.
Cianfrone: Warriors. The difference between this season and last season's Warriors is the addition of Andre Iguodala. The ability to put Iggy on Parker, Klay Thompson on Kawhi Leonard and hide Steph Curry on Danny Green will be the difference in a tight seven-game series where one or two stops decides things.
Elhassan: If everyone is healthy, Golden State. I think the Warriors have everything it takes to go deep in the playoffs, with high-IQ players (Andrew Bogut, Iguodala, Curry), excellent individual defenders (Bogut, Iguodala, Green, Festus Ezeli), terrific spacing (Thompson, Curry), a go-to offensive workhorse (David Lee) scoring off the bench (Harrison Barnes) and a truly unguardable star (Curry). They have the ability to throw out a number of versatile lineups that can play big or small, fast or slow; the onus will be on Mark Jackson to not get outcoached by Popov ...
On second thought, I take that back. Spurs.
McNeill: The addition of Andre Iguodala to Golden State makes for an interesting wrinkle to last season's six-game series. All other things being equal, my usual strategy is to look at the top four players on each side. Because of their strengths on both ends of the floor, I give the slight edge to the Spurs.
Strauss: Spurs. Kawhi will shut down Klay (as keeps happening), and Pop will deploy Hack-a-Bogut at the right times. The series will be close, but the Warriors will ultimately get too little on offense to win.