Footenotes: Nicky Lopez’s Debut, NBA Playoffs, Mailbag

Image Credit: John Sleezer/Kansas City Star

Hello, all. In last week’s edition of Footenotes, we gave a breakdown of NFL free agency, rehashed what was going on throughout the NBA Playoffs and everything in between. This week, we’ve got a lot of great things planned out. Without further ado, let’s jump in.

Nicky Lopez’s Debut

It didn’t take nearly as long as expected, but Royals’ top prospect and potential second baseman of the future, Nicky Lopez, is being called up and will likely make his debut with the MLB club on Tuesday. Whit Merrifield will assume regular duties in right field for the foreseeable future, a move he signed off on himself.

Lopez is a contact-oriented hitter with solid speed along the base paths and a smooth glove. A fifth-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, the former Creighton Bluejay hit .353 in AAA this season. While it was expected his call-up would have to wait until later in 2019 — at the earliest — Lopez is the epitome of what the Kansas City Royals have been doing for the last several years.

Although he doesn’t have much to offer at the plate in terms of power, Lopez’s play style will fit in perfectly with what general manager Dayton Moore has been trying to do ever since coming into his role. With a very high floor as a prospect Lopez won’t turn into a superstar at the MLB level. But he doesn’t need to. Being a solid, everyday second baseman is more than enough. Expect to see Lopez and Adalberto Mondesí up the middle for years to come in Kansas City.

NBA Playoffs

And then there were four. The NBA’s Conference Finals have been set. In the East, the young and hungry Milwaukee Bucks will square off against the dangerous Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night. Out West, the Golden State Warriors host the underdog story of the postseason, the Portland Trail Blazers, for Game 1 on Tuesday evening.

Milwaukee has been playing at another level this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate and very well could walk away with the award when it is announced towards the end of the NBA league year. With a solid supporting cast featuring players such as Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, Mike Budenholzer’s squad can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone.

On the other hand, Kawhi Leonard has quite possibly been the best player on the court this entire postseason. That was put on display when he hit a buzzer-beater in Game 7 to send the Philadelphia 76ers home and end their season. While Kyle Lowry has been underwhelming as a No. 2 option for the Raptors, Leonard makes them a threat when he’s at the top of his game. I’m going to stick with Milwaukee in this series, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Toronto advanced to the NBA Finals.

Golden State vs. Portland is a pretty easy series to pick. While I am a big fan of what Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been able to accomplish thus far, they are no match for the perennial juggernaut that is the Warriors. Kevin Durant’s status for this series doesn’t bear quite as much significance as most may think. The Warriors’ net rating and overall team play with Stephen Curry on the floor and without Durant speaks for itself.

Golden State should be able to handle this series in 6 games at the most. Portland has a couple of great players, but not having center Jusuf Nurkic is going to hurt. Should Durant or DeMarcus Cousins return for the Dubs, 6 games may be pretty generous. Expect to see GS in the Finals for a fifth-straight season.

Mailbag

1. Do you think the Sixers fire Brett Brown after that loss? Does he deserve to be fired due to his overall performance over the last few years or no?

Since this question was initially asked, it has been reported that Brown will indeed return to coach the 76ers next season. Losing in the second round of back-to-back postseasons and posting similar regular season records in each of them, Brown’s seat will certainly be hot next year. He’s been given a long leash because he stayed through “The Process,” but that experiment may face a crossroads if Philadelphia is watching the Conference Finals from home again in 2020.

2. James Harden vs. KD… best player in the game? How will Cousins impact the WCF?

Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first. Should Demarcus Cousins return for any portion of the Western Conference Finals against Portland, it’ll be interesting to see how Steve Kerr implements him back into the offense. Likely not in the best of shape to begin with and battling back from injuries for what feels like forever, Cousins is a clear negative on the defensive end. His movement is limited compared to what it used to be on offense. With that said, the mere threat of him touching the ball commands some defensive attention. That’ll be something to keep an eye on if/when he returns.

For me, it’s extremely difficult to rank the best players in the game. That does for any sport, but certainly in basketball the most. Everyone values something different and evaluates players on a different scale. There’s a clear tier of elite NBA talent, with superstars such as LeBron James, Curry, Durant, Harden, etc. occupying spots. I’ll do my best to rank them.

At the top of it all, I’ve got to stick with LeBron. This may sound like a cop out, but I have a feeling “The King” will come back as determined as ever next season after the longest offseason he’s had in years. All-time greats usually don’t miss the playoffs in the middle of their prime. James knows that. He’ll be back with a vengeance in 2019-20.

After that, I’m going to go with the duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry as my 2/3 guys. The order doesn’t matter. Antetokounmpo gets the edge on defense by an unbelievably wide margin but Curry’s historic impact and ability to elevate the rest of his team cannot be ignored. Both players are truly magnificent.

Rounding out my top 5, I’ve got Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. KD would certainly be higher if he were the sole leader on his team and if it weren’t proven Golden State’s offense is historically good even without him on the court. With that said, he is as talented as any player in NBA history and can lock down the opposition’s best player when he wants to. Leonard’s play this postseason has cemented his status as one of the game’s best and had he never been injured in San Antonio, I think he would be in talks for the best player in the league.

After that, Harden and Anthony Davis probably close out my top tier or two of NBA players. Harden’s ability to score is impossible to ignore and he has made tremendous strides on the defensive end. With that said, his lack of efficiency at times throughout the postseason concerns me and his isolation-heavy style isn’t conducive to winning championships. Davis was involved in a lot of drama this year and although he doesn’t carry his team like some other stars are capable of, he is too talented and puts up too great of numbers to not be in a top 7-or-so list.

3. Has Kawhi proven himself this year, not considering the 76ers series? Where does he stand in terms of having a complete game (offense and defense)?

I touched on this in the last question, but Leonard has been nothing short of phenomenal this year. Toronto is significantly worse with him off the court and despite his defense not quite being as lethal as it once was, it still rivals nearly anyone in the NBA. At 27, he should just be entering his prime and could challenge for the title of best player in the league over the next few years.

4. Why is everyone talking down on Kyrie like he’s bad when he had nobody helping him?

For what it’s worth, I think Kyrie Irving deserves a large chunk of the criticism he’s received over the last few weeks. After having a fantastic Game 1 against Milwaukee, Irving shot 30% from the field for the rest of the series. That’s beyond bad. What makes matters worse is he averaged nearly 21 field goal attempts over the course of those four games. He’s still a great player overall but his performance down the stretch of the postseason and his questionable comments throughout this year in Boston should raise the question: Is Kyrie Irving able to be the best player on a championship-level team?

Jayson Tatum averaged 12 PPG on 36.4% shooting against the Bucks. Gordon Hayward was just as bad. You have a point about the help, but it was only partially the problem. Jaylen Brown was surprisingly productive, converting on nearly 47 percent of his field goal attempts and averaging 16 points per game in the series. Al Horford posted very similar numbers. It was a disappointing series for the entire team overall, but there were a few bright spots.

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