1. Who is a better player right now: Kyrie Irving or Tony Parker?
Chris Manning, RDE co-editor: It’s Tony Parker. Kyrie Irving is a fantastic talent who may one day eclipse Parker (he certainty has the talent to do so) but Parker is a finished product who can do it all, while Irving still has some major chinks in his armor. Quietly, Parker is the best player on the Spurs right now and likely would have been Finals MVP if San Antonio could have pulled it out. He can finish at the hole – something Irving has struggled at this season – and is far better on defense that his Cavaliers contemporary. Most importantly, Parker just does the little things correctly 99.9 percent of the time – His passes are crisp, he works his butt off to get around screens, he doesn’t hold the ball needlessly and so on. Parker makes consistently winning plays, Irving does not. For now, the edge goes to the Frenchman.
Trevor Magnotti, Staff Writer: Tony Parker, and it’s not even close. Kyrie’s great, and probably has more overall ability on a basketball court. However, Parker is the better player right now. Irving has his defensive deficits, as have been painfully made known over the last 2+ seasons. Parker’s much better than Irving right now on that end. Offensively, Irving’s the better outside shooter, but Parker dominates Kyrie in the paint, converting 63 percent at the rim this season. He’s a much better passer as well; in fact, the San Antonio offense in recent seasons has shifted its entire focus to Parker’s elite drive-and-dish ability. Any conversation about who’s better stops there. Parker has been the most underrated MVP candidate in each of the last three seasons. Case closed.
Marlowe Alter, Staff Writer: I know I may not be in the majority, but Tony Parker is the better player right now. ESPN NBA Rank hilariously slotted Parker as the 12th best player in league behind younger, flashier point guards Derrick Rose (9th), Irving (8th), Stephen Curry (6th), Russell Westbrook (5th) and Chris Paul (3rd). I laughed when I saw that ranking. Irving hasn’t played anywhere close to a full season since his high school days, Curry had a breakout year but is always one ankle turn away from missing a chunk of time and Rose missed an entire season recovering from an ACL tear. Why do people continue to overlook Parker and the Spurs? So what he doesn’t have the otherworldly athleticism of Westbrook and Rose, the shooting stroke of Curry, the dazzling ball-handling of Irving or the passing ability and defense of Paul. Forget his veteran savvy, his big game experience and his basketball intelligence. Forget that he put up better numbers than Irving last season and has been fantastic again for the NBA-best 11-1 Spurs. Forget Irving’s early season struggles. Forget it all. Tony Parker is a winner. Sure he has the best coach in the league behind him and possibly the greatest power forward ever beside him, but for the past five-plus seasons, Parker has clearly been the driving force behind a Spurs franchise that has never won less than 50 games since he joined the team as the 28th overall pick in the 2001 draft. An MVP-candidate before he was injured near the end of the season last year, Parker put up career best numbers in many statistical categories but was somehow overlooked yet again by many bloggers and fans. Just on his ability to stay on the floor, I’d take Parker over Irving right now. Irving, while a more talented scorer, is still learning the NBA game on both sides of the ball and most prove he can avoid injury. Irving is clearly an unbelievable talent but I need him to show me some consistently before I can even consider putting him above Parker. Case closed, at least in the mind of one humble basketball fanatic.
2. Who is a tougher matchup for the Cavaliers: Kawhi Leonard or Tim Duncan?
CM: It’s easily Kawhi Leonard. Small forward – by far – is the Cavaliers weakest position. And their best player there thus far – one C.J. Miles – is a minus defender and that’s being generous. And don’t expect either Earl Clark or Alonzo Gee to do any better. Simply put, the Cavaliers do not have a defender capable of matching up with Leonard one-on-one on the wing. Duncan, while still very formidable – could be guarded by Tristan Thompson or Anderson Varejao. And if Andrew Bynum will be available, there’s a good chance the Cavs could use him on Duncan as well. He may not be fully containable on the block, but at least Mike Brown has someone he can task with defending Duncan.
TM: I feel like Kawhi is going to be the harder matchup for the Cavs to deal with. Duncan is great, and will certainly impose his will on the Cavs on both ends. However, from a matchup standpoint, Anderson Varejao can give a good challenge to Duncan, and Tristan Thompson, while at a size disadvantage, will definitely be able to body him up. Kawhi, on the other hand, is a nightmare for the Cavs’ wings. Earl Clark isn’t fast enough to handle Kawhi; Alonzo Gee is way too small to beat Kawhi’s length. Anthony Bennett might be the best matchup for Leonard on paper, but throwing such a solid defensive player on Bennett might not be a good idea. We’re going to see all three battle Kawhi throughout this game, and I’m not sure any of them has success.
MA: Neither player has showed his best in the early going but it hasn’t mattered. Both Duncan and Leonard torched the Cavs in a 119-113 shootout victory last March in San Antonio in a game Parker and Irving missed. Duncan posted a double-double with 30 points and 12 rebounds to go along with five blocks, while Leonard added his own double-double of 24 points and 13 rebounds. Even though Duncan is 37 years old, he presents a difficult matchup for Tristan Thompson and the young Cavs frontline. He has the size and strength advantage to go along with the obvious veteran moxie. Thompson is a better player now than he was last year but he still isn’t in Duncan’s league. Leonard will be hard to stop as well, but at least the Cavs have some size and athleticism to match him with the immortal Alonzo Gee.
3. The Spurs are one of the league’s best defense teams, only allowing 89.6 points per game. How should the Cavaliers attack the San Antonio defense?
CM: With or without Bynum, this is a tricky question. A lot is going to depend on the production of Irving, Waiters and Jarrett Jack. Good three-point shooting from that trio could open up space inside for Thompson and Varejao, but we never if that’s there on a given night until the game starts. The other issue there is that, on the wing, San Antonio has a number of solid defenders. Danny Green, Leonard and Parker should all be able to hold down their spots well. One thing I would like to see the Cavs try: Running a lineup of Irving, Waiters, Miles(or Karasev if Miles is out), Thompson and Bynum(assuming he plays). In this situation, you can use the Spurs own Hammer play to pull Duncan away from the paint and work for corner threes for Miles and Irving. You could also use Bynum as a way to suck in the defense and either A)let him go to work on the block or B) have him distribute. If they can have obtain proper spacing and shoot well from the outside, they might be okay. But that’s a big if.
TM: Honestly, the best way to attack the Spurs defense might be for the guards to get hot from outside. Post-ups are out of the question against Duncan and Tiago Splitter, especially with the way Bynum has struggled with them this season. The Spurs handle the pick-and-roll pretty well too, so the Cavs might struggle with that as well. The Cavs need to pass the ball well and get their shooters open looks to open up the rest of the offense more. Also, the Spurs love to concede mid-range jumpers, so potentially, running plays for Varejao on the elbow might see some success as well.
MA: The Spurs will likely force someone other than Irving to beat them. That means packing the driving lanes and forcing shots from the streaky Dion Waiters and the less talented cavalry of wing players that Mike Brown will trot out. In the team’s meeting in February last year, Irving had his worst shooting performance as a pro, going 2-15 (13.3 percent) from the floor for six points. Irving will have to balance his aggressiveness with making the right play and trust his teammates. If he tries to force things against that defense, it won’t be pretty. But at the same time, Irving is far and away the Cavaliers best player and he must carry some of the scoring load. The key I think will be Waiters. The second-year player must accept the challenge and attack. He cannot fall in love with the enticing long jump shots the Spurs will gladly serve him. It will be a tough task for a reeling team coming off last night’s collapse in New Orleans.