Jeff Van Gundy was right. He usually is, or appears to be. “The Warriors will dominate,” he says. “I don’t see it going past five games.” On this day, just before the start of the NBA Finals, the tiny diplomat in his heart makes an appearance — “Cleveland’s a great team led by a great coach and a great player, and Kyrie Irving’s unguardable” — but the truth is what it is and must be told without reserve. His truths are always spoken thus.
Eleven years into his broadcasting career at ESPN, Van Gundy’s mouth remains spring-loaded, much to the amusement of co-commentators Mike Breen and Mark Jackson. These finals were no exception. “I don’t know about this, but Rihanna just walked in front of me — are you kidding me?!” he said in game one, as the male population of Earth cheered him on. (The two have a history.)
But when it comes to basketball, the longtime Knicks and Rockets coach is that rare breed, a sincere skeptic, which is just a believer twice over. “Does Jeff say some quirky things?” Breen has said. “Absolutely. And does he go on rants? No question. But he does them for the love of the game, because he thinks the game could be better.” Van Gundy gave us his unambiguous thoughts on the MVP (to be announced tonight in the first-ever NBA Awards at 9 on TNT), the fortunes of the Celtics, and whether anyone can seriously challenge Golden State anytime soon.
Who’s your pick for MVP?
It’s a regular season award so I think there’s a lot of guys — there’s five guys. The three that were nominated [Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard] then James and [Boston’s Isaiah] Thomas. It’s not a who’s the best player award, it’s who’s the best player in this one season, and I think the three that were nominated were the right three. I think you could make a compelling case for all of them. I didn’t have a vote. I choose not to vote because I don’t think media should vote. But if I had to vote, I would have voted Harden.
What do you think happened with Harden’s performance in that last game, when they lost to the Spurs?
Some things are inexplicable. Harden played poorly, but he had a lot of help with the Rockets that night, playing poorly. So much has been talked about with Harden, and lets some of the other Rockets off the hook. Obviously to get beat by 40, at home, against a decimated roster, is something that can’t be explained.
What about Harden’s defense?
Everybody talks about Harden’s defense, but most of the great scorers in our league other than Kawhi Leonard conserve energy on defense. James obviously is a great defender when he turns it up, in the playoffs. But I’ve always chuckled at it: OK, we’re gonna pick on Harden and his defense? Well, I think you could look at Westbrook’s defense, you could look at Karl-Anthony Towns’s defense — I’m just naming some scorers. Name me other great scorers. Whoever you’re gonna name — Carmelo Anthony, Wade. There’s not many guys who have the energy level to be a guy with a huge offensive burden and you’re also going to assign to the best player. Plus a lot of these guys are a little bit older. This idea that it’s Harden and Harden alone who as a great scorer sometimes has an up and down interest in defense I think is being unfair to him and letting others off the hook.
Flopping in general seems to be a problem, and he seems to do it an inordinate amount.
The way they call the games on those type of calls where a guy reaches in and you just flail to draw a foul—again, it’s not just Harden, it’s the whole league. If it’s not an epidemic, it’s a pandemic at least. It’s a bad look. Some people call it smart basketball. To me, it’s a bad play. I think the league has to take a look at how they want to call these plays, because as long as you continue to give those calls to offensive players, they’d be dumb not to use the rules and the interpretation to their greatest advantage. My whole key is, it’s not incumbent on the players. It’s incumbent on the league to tell its officials these are not to be called. Err on the side of caution versus erring on side of giving guys calls.
Do you think they’ll take action?
Well, the league has tried to do a better job with the defensive flopping, now I hope they do the same thing with offensive flopping. It’s brutal to watch.
What’d you think of Westbrook’s year?
As limited as [the Thunder] are on offense, I would have never thought their team could ever accomplish win-wise what they did. This is a guy who put up these monster numbers with below average NBA offensive talent surrounding him. Now, those other guys do some great things. They’re terrific screen setters, great rebounders. But they don’t have range shooting to spread the floor, so Westbrook doesn’t have the operating space like Harden has, or like Kawhi Leonard has. So what he was able to accomplish, and the number of wins they got, is a remarkable year for him. I think he and Billy Donovan deserve the lion’s share of the credit. I think Billy was overlooked in the coach of the year award mentions. Most time coaches share in the credit when a player has a remarkable year. Mike D’Antoni shared in the credit with Harden, Gregg Popovich shared in the credit with Kawhi Leonard, Brad Stevens shared in the credit with Isaiah Thomas. But when it comes to Billy Donovan, he never gets any credit for the great year that Westbrook had.
Speaking of Stevens and Thomas, how close are the Celtics? Or any other team in the East?
In the next ten years, you would think James would slow down. Obviously, I’m saying that facetiously, but I’ve seen no hint of him slowing down in the playoffs. Now listen, Cleveland’s “care factor” in the regular season was below average this year. I think the fear for other coaches is they really can turn it on and off. Not all teams can, but they’ve certainly proved that they can and they did it this year. Boston isn’t really close right now. Get a [good] first pick and a great player in free agency then you are close and you may surpass them. Danny Ainge has done a phenomenal job in putting them in position to be a great team for a long period of time.
What about in the West? Will anyone compete with the Warriors any time soon?
No. Nope. If they’re healthy I just don’t see it. This is how great I think Golden State is. San Antonio is second best in the league win-wise. To me, Golden State has the biggest talent advantage between the number one team and the number two team in my time in the NBA [since 1989]. The talent advantage they play with each and every night has never been higher.