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Cheap Seats: Next Year’s NBA MVP

Who will win next season’s NBA MVP award? Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weigh in.

Basketball Insiders



Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant took home this year’s Most Valuable Player award, totaling 1,232 points, including 119 of 125 first-place votes. The runner-up, LeBron James, had just 891 points and six first-place votes. James had won the MVP trophy for the last two years, and four times in the last five seasons.

Who will win next season’s MVP award? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weighed in:

LeBron James

James finished second in the MVP voting this year behind Kevin Durant. Durant and James both had fantastic seasons; Durant scored at a remarkable clip and stepped up big time in Russell Westbrook’s absence, while LeBron was his usual dominant self scoring, passing, rebounding and defending at an elite level. Look for LeBron to come out hungry next year and make strong case to bring home his fifth MVP award.

James will first have decide whether or not he wants to remain a member of the Miami HEAT. Along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, James has an early termination option on his contract that, if exercised, would make him an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It would be a surprising a move if LeBron did decide to take his talents elsewhere, especially considering his success with the HEAT, but you never know.

On the court this year LeBron was his usual exceptional self. He averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals a night. He shot a jaw dropping 62.2% on two-point shots, an absolutely incredible number for a player who spends a fair amount of time handling the ball and out on the perimeter. He is truly in a class of his own in that regard. When you take a look at other players who finished with a similar field goal percentage from two, they are all big men who tend to camp around the rim, Andre Drummond shot 62.5%, Tyson Chandler shot 59.5% and Dwight Howard shot 59.4%. Also, those guys all took significantly fewer shots per game than the 17.6 attempts LeBron was putting up; Howard was the “closest” to James with 11.3 attempts per game. The improvement James has made in his field goal percentage is hard to believe, since as a rookie he shot 41.7%. He has improved that number every year but one (in 2005-06 he shot 48% from the field, and that dipped to 47.6% in 2006-07) and this season he shot 56.7% from the field. This is a testament to the hard work James puts in every offseason and his commitment to getting better. You would have to imagine that he would plateau and level off at some point like most guys tend to do, but LeBron is not most players so don’t be surprised if his field goal percentage inches closer to 60% next year.

What really separate’s James from other great players is his ability to impact a game in so many different ways. You would think a guy that scores at the rate LeBron does is a shoot-first type player, but maybe to a fault LeBron isn’t. He is one of the best passers ever for a player of his size and is often mentioned in the same breath as greats like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson in terms of his ability to share the sugar.

Not only is James an incredibly skilled passer, he does a great job helping out on the glass, averaging over seven rebounds a game for his career. When you compare his stats historically against some of the greats, LeBron not only measures up but stands out. Among all players who have averaged over 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, no player shot a higher field goal percentage than LeBron this year. Coming in second? LeBron in 2012-13. These are remarkable numbers and it gives you a sense of how special a player LeBron really is. We really are in the presence of one best players to ever take the hardwood.

LeBron continues to show why he is the best player on the planet. His desire to be great fuels him every offseason and he will inevitably come back an even better player in 2014-15 after a having another few months to fine tune his game, a very scary thought for the rest of the league. Defensively he has the ability to cover multiple spots and compared to Durant has the edge on that end. It will certainly be another close race between the two and with Blake Griffin improving, he may be in the mix as well. In terms of overall impact on the game there is really no equal to James. It’s the obvious pick but barring injury James should be considered the favorite to bring home the MVP award in 2014-15.

– John Zitzler

Blake Griffin

Kevin Durant was recently voted the NBA’s MVP after two years of LeBron James winning the award. Durant earned the award by carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the second-best record in the Western Conference as Russell Westbrook battled through multiple knee surgeries. However, Durant will face stiff competition next season from someone other than James. Considering his improvement this season, strong work ethic and overall skillset, Blake Griffin has as good of a chance as anyone to win MVP next season.

Griffin had a breakout season this year, finishing third in MVP balloting behind Durant and James. He averaged 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and got to the free throw line 8.4 times a game, where he shot 71.5 percent (up from 66 percent last season). In addition, he shot 52.8 percent from the field and improved his midrange jump shot significantly. Yet, these numbers seem somewhat mundane when compared to Durant, who averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists a game, and shot 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In addition, Durant got to the free throw line 9.9 times a game and shot 87.3 percent.

However, there are several reasons to believe that Griffin will build off the momentum he generated this season and come back even better next season. First, Griffin is one of the hardest working players in the league. For several seasons now Griffin has worked with shooting guru Bob Thate, who told the Orange County Register in April 2013, “When he becomes a face-up guy and takes the shot that’s there, he’ll be incredible. When you look at Blake and LeBron James, they’re equal in physical gifts. In time they’ll be the best two players in the league every year.” This may seem far-fetched, but Thate works more with Griffin than anyone, and even told Clippers’ broadcaster Mike Smith that he believes Griffin will be one the best shooters in the league at some point. Not one of the best shooting big men, but one of the best shooters in the league overall.

It is hard to imagine Griffin as a top shooter in the league, until you hear quotes from newcomers J.J. Redick and Doc Rivers, who have said they were caught off guard by how dedicated and diligent Griffin is with his workout routines. Jamal Crawford even described Griffin as the “hardest worker” on the team. In addition, Griffin takes elite care of his body, working with trainer Robbie Davis, who earlier this year told Bleacher Report, “He has an incredible understanding of his body now… He’s educated himself on how to train properly, eat properly and recover properly. He’s more knowledgeable than any other athlete I’ve had.” At just age 25, Griffin displays the same work ethic that made Karl Malone one of the best power forwards of all time. Entering the NBA, Malone was an average shooter, but continued to improve and eventually became one of the most dominant power forwards of all time. It is not hard to imagine Griffin following the same career arc. If Griffin manages to further improve his shooting, he will truly become unstoppable on offense, and will open up more opportunities for him to set up his teammates, which he is already very good at.

Also, much of Griffin’s improvement this season comes from being a moving piece within Rivers and Alvin Gentry’s offense. Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro, Griffin was used primarily as a screener for Chris Paul. It was up to Paul to improvise after the screen to score himself, generate an open shot for Griffin or pass the ball out to the perimeter and reset. The other major set was simply isolating Griffin in the post and spreading the other four players out on the opposite end of the court. These sets were effective because of the individual talents of Paul and Griffin, rather than the effectiveness of the sets themselves.

Now, Griffin is often the beneficiary of teammates running backdoor screens for him, and pin-downs that often end up with Griffin receiving the ball against one defender on the elbows or one-on-one with deep position under the basket. Teams can no longer run aggressive traps at Griffin in the post, or during pick and rolls because there is so much movement being generated from other players like Redick, Crawford, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Defenses can still take away certain options, such as packing in defenders in the paint and forcing Griffin to shoot a midrange jumper or make a play for teammates, but the point is that the offense is not predictable anymore, which makes Griffin even more dangerous.

Lastly, this was Doc’s first year with the Clippers, and the team spent the better part of the season learning how to play within his system. It stands to reason that next season, with more familiarity with the system and one another, Griffin will be even more effective. He has found a balance between attacking the basket in transition, positing up opposing big men, rolling to the basket off of pick and rolls with Paul, and setting up teammates like Jordan for easy scores at the rim. It will be interesting to see what other niches Griffin can find next season, and how his game will improve overall. This includes the defensive side of the ball as well. Griffin will never be an elite defensive player like James, but under Rivers’ structured, disciplined defensive system, Griffin can continue to improve as a team defender. The improvement from his rookie season to this season is apparent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Durant may still have the edge next season because of his unbelievable ability to score the ball, and LeBron will have a say in the matter as well, as he is currently the best overall player on the planet. However, with his work ethic, improving skill set, elite athleticism and increased familiarity with Rivers’ system, Griffin will make it tough for Durant and James.

– Jesse Blancarte

Kevin Durant

As the reigning Most Valuable Player, it wouldn’t be entirely crazy to think that Durant could do it again. This season, Durant proved that he was finally able to get over the hump of three second-place finishes in the MVP race by winning his first award. Now that he finally won the trophy, he should be the favorite heading into next season to repeat as MVP.

Durant is so much more than an individual basketball player. He plays for his teammates and for the opportunity to win a championship. During Durant’s MVP speech on Tuesday, he spent the majority of the time thanking his teammates and singling them out individually for putting him in the position to win the award.

Durant is not influenced by off-court ventures; he is a basketball player, as teammate Nick Collison said. “Some guys come into the league and have these ideas about what they want to do off the court — to be businessmen and all that,” Collison wrote in a piece for Sports Illustrated. “Kevin was all about basketball. He was most comfortable in the gym. He just loved to play ball.”

Durant won the award this season after averaging a career-high 32 points per game. His 32 points were over four-and-a-half more than Carmelo Anthony’s 27.4 points per game, and nearly five more points than LeBron James’ 27.1 points per game. Standing at 6’9, Durant presents a challenge for teams night in and night out. His ability to handle the ball is well-documented and that skill makes him one of the most unique players in league history. It’s not even that Durant can handle the ball well for a player his size, its that Durant can handle the ball and make everyone miss. A perfect example is the move Durant put on Jared Dudley in Game 3 on Friday night.

Even when Durant is having an off night, he is still making his teammates better. Collison broke it down and said that by just having him on the court, defenses are drastically changed. On any given play there is one player defending Durant, another shifting over on help defense and three other guys all watching him. If one of those levels of defense breaks down, Durant will find the open man cutting toward the basketball or for the open shot.

Durant has made tremendous strides in becoming a better overall player. In his early years Durant battled on the defensive side of the ball with his skinny frame, but has since worked at getting better and he has closed the gap with James as the NBA’s most elite player. Durant is using added muscle, quickness, long arms and seven years of experience in the league in helping his transformation on defense. Critics in the past have said that James was so far superior over Durant because of his ability to play on both sides of the ball, but it appears that those critics are now acknowledging Durant’s presence in the conversation.

– Cody Taylor


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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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