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Fixing the Utah Jazz

Ben Dowsett looks at what the Utah Jazz can do to take the next step in their development.

Ben Dowsett

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Set against the backdrop of Kobe Bryant’s final NBA appearance, an event that more closely resembled a circus than a basketball game, the ending to another Utah Jazz season felt extremely surreal. It wasn’t just the hysterics of the moment, though watching a legend cap off a splendid career with a whirlwind come-from-behind performance as players, fans and referees alike temporarily forgot the traditional framework of basketball only heightened the strangeness. There was something more, though, a sense of abruptness most close to this team are unaccustomed to in recent years.

The players were informed just before tip that a Houston Rockets win had sealed their elimination, a fact that made subsequent events possible (sorry, Lakers fans, but that game goes a lot differently if the Jazz are playing for anything). At the same time, it put a sudden stop to a playoff chase that not even a week prior had seemed like nearly a sure thing.

Utah’s outside-looking-in finish naturally inspired disappointment, and with reason. This team had higher goals entering the season. A few costly missteps down the stretch could have meant the difference between playoff games and an early vacation.

However, little has changed in the team’s long-term outlook. Their future fortunes never hinged on a few games here or there within a single season. A thorough front office has already begun the process of looking back, assessing and finally moving forward; let’s do the same from an outside standpoint.

Progress

“It’s hard to say we’re disappointed when your point differential is better, your record is better,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “To a man, all of our players improved individually.”

Lindsey went on to say that everyone with the team really was disappointed in the final result – it may have seemed contradictory, but really just represents his approach. One can bemoan falling short of a particular benchmark without crushing the underlying process, and that’s what’s happening here.

A series of badly timed injuries are a good lens through which to view this line of thought. That the Jazz improved in defensive efficiency from 12th overall last year to seventh this year is good on the surface, but feels much more impressive when considering that their three most important defensive players from last season (Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum) each missed significant time, with Exum sitting out the entire campaign. Evolved sixth man Alec Burks also missed three months. By way of final tally, four of Utah’s projected top six rotation players as of a year ago today missed a quarter of the season or more, with overlap in certain cases that only exacerbated things.

To whatever degree these bits of bad luck contributed to the team’s final standing, the time for that analysis has already passed. What’s done is done. The process-driven side, though, can pick positive nuggets from even the worst of situations.

Utah eked out roughly a league average offense for the second consecutive year. That won’t be enough for their eventual aspirations, but given all context involved it seems like a small win. The Jazz started a foreign rookie at point guard for most of the year, and endured periods where their frontcourt rotation was comprised of Jeff Withey, Trevor Booker and another rookie in Trey Lyles. Depth was a major concern, but was never quite able to fully submarine the team’s attack.

Lyles might be the clearest silver lining, another on a quickly growing list of young players who rapidly improved under Quin Snyder. Lost on both ends in November as a rookie who didn’t even play the same position in college, Lyles was thrust into a larger role than expected as Favors and Gobert missed overlapped time in December and January, coming out the other side with a more refined game than virtually anyone could have predicted. He finished the year as a 38 percent three-point shooter, and even more importantly developed a pump-and-go driving game to supplement it.

Lyles is already looking like a future key for this team, with a versatile skill set that could allow them to flip between “big” and “small” identities instantly, and he’ll create a talent overload in the frontcourt in a hurry if his development maintains this pace.

Fellow rookie Raul Neto was another clear success, handling the starting job at the point admirably for the first chunk of the season before continuing to succeed in a backup role after Shelvin Mack was acquired at the trade deadline. Neto quickly bucked a non-shooter reputation from overseas, finishing just decimals behind Burks as the team’s most accurate three-point shooter on a steady diet of catch-and-shoot looks, and was a consistent and engaged defender despite being undersized. His penchant for canning ridiculous, high-difficulty looks became the stuff of Jazz Twitter legend by midseason.

Mack’s addition and relative success lessened Neto’s role, but an assumption that Mack is permanently ahead on the depth chart is premature heading into the summer with Exum returning. Both will get a chance to compete for minutes behind or even alongside the Aussie.

Other bits of progress were clearly evident as the year wore on, particularly the team defense; the Jazz were third for league-wide defensive efficiency after the All-Star break, and second in this category from the moment both Favors and Gobert returned from their respective injuries in late January. Sophomore Rodney Hood had ups and downs, but put lingering foot issues behind him to play 79 games on the year and establish himself as a go-to offensive option. Star Gordon Hayward may not have made any big leap numbers wise, but he showed a noticeable defensive improvement without lowering the nightly burden he carried on the other end.

So many areas are incomplete, but tracking real progress made is easy. Snyder is still learning himself, something he frequently alluded to, and falling just short of the postseason will instill a greater sense of urgency in all parties involved next year.

Roadblocks

Regardless of their final spot in the standings, a few major issues persisted throughout the season and stand in the way of the heights this team hopes to reach. A look at a few of the most relevant:

  • Crunch time play

The Jazz’s point differential was more in line with a 46-win team than the 40 we saw, and the chief culprit for the gap was a season-long struggle to close big games. Utah was outscored by a gross 17.8 points per-100-possessions during the final five minutes of regulation or overtime with the score within five (NBA.com’s most-used definition for “crunch time”), worse than any team in the league other than sad sacks Philadelphia and Phoenix. Team defensive rebounding, normally a strength, was likewise 28th during these high-leverage minutes, which contributed in large part to a massive gap between the team’s standard defensive expectation and the reality during crunch time. Much of it tied back to a team-wide lack of readiness for the way the game changes in these big moments.

“The way the game is played at the end of a game is different. It’s a lot more physical,” Snyder said. “There [are] screens that sometimes aren’t legal in the first quarter that become more legal in the fourth quarter. Hopefully [we can] help our players understand that the game has shifted, that there’s a point in the game where it is unique, and for us to raise our concentration, our physicality and our competitiveness to respond to that. I don’t think we were able to do that on the level that we liked.”

Snyder’s year was fascinating on the whole from a rotation and game management standpoint, and nowhere is that more crystallized than in his decisions down the stretch of close games. The injuries obviously threw things out of whack to a large degree, but a careful eye could spot some interesting trends even during healthy periods – particularly pertaining to the “frontcourt of the future” in Gobert and Favors.

The Jazz have embraced a big identity spurred by those two even as the league around them goes in the other direction, but Snyder’s seeming lack of confidence in the pairing to close tight games could throw this somewhat into question. Gobert played in barely half the team’s crunch minutes following the All-Star break, and Favors wasn’t too far ahead of him as Snyder appeared to prefer one of Lyles or Booker alongside a revolving Gobert-Favors door.

The decision is made more curious by the realization that, from a relative standpoint, the duo did a perfectly good job when they did see the court together down the stretch. Data from Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow using slightly different time and score thresholds (final six minutes, score within 10 at any point to more closely match typical rotational patterns) reveals that the two were nearly neutral on a per-possession basis. That’s a huge step up from the atrocious figure the Jazz posted as a team, and a mark that would have seen them easily make the playoffs if it were applied across the balance of their crunch time minutes on the year.

It’s not that simple, of course, but the issue certainly casts light on what could be a big personnel situation down the line. Even if there are times where it was the right move, Snyder’s reluctance to stick with the team’s stated identity raises questions; he often directly referenced matching up to smaller opponents while explaining the decisions. If at least one of the team’s three best players simply can’t be on the floor during many of their biggest moments, is that identity flawed? Is that really the best allocation of team resources in the long term?

The Jazz aren’t panicking in this or any other regard, but it’s worth monitoring – and, if one sees continued issues on the horizon, quietly considering options to assess the situation. In any case, their play down the stretch is a top, stated priority in the offseason.

  • Depth

The various injuries really exposed this one, but it would have been an issue regardless. Exum’s ACL tear in July left Utah thin at the point for the entire year, and while each of Mack, Neto and Trey Burke had their moments, the position was a consistent source of weakness relative to competition.

The same things happened on the wings and in the frontcourt, though to lesser and more temporary degrees. Burks’ absence forced real minutes onto Joe Ingles and Chris Johnson, the former of whom is a solid situational veteran and the latter of whom isn’t currently an NBA rotation player. One could certainly question whether upgrades on at least Johnson were possible at some point along the line, whether earlier in the year or at trade deadline or buyout season. Guys like Jeff Withey and Lyles did well in expanded roles while Favors and Gobert were down.

Lindsey was frank in his end-of-season media availability, noting that improving depth was another top priority.

  • Turnovers

The Jazz coughed the ball up at the fourth-highest rate in the league, a number that only got worse with Mack’s arrival at the break. A simple lack of ball-handling talent contributed in a big way, and it seems fair to assume that Snyder’s relatively simplistic offensive scheme deserves some blame as well. Decision-making probably covered the rest – on too many occasions, Jazzmen inflicted their own wounds with poor judgement and a tendency to dig themselves into a hole by doing too much (or too little) with the ball.

As both Snyder and Lindsey noted postmortem, the effects here weren’t only felt on the offensive side of the ball – Utah’s defense suffered as a result of all the transition opportunities they gave up through killer live-ball turnovers, and could have been even better than seventh in the league otherwise.

  • Transition Play

If defensive transition as a result of turnovers was a warning light, the team’s own ability to generate these sorts of free points was a huge neon sign. Masked slightly to the casual fan by their slow pace and middling opponent turnover numbers, Utah’s unwillingness to push in transition extended well beyond reasonable excuses and was likely their largest tactical issue this season.

A good proxy for measuring a team’s “aggression” on the break is looking at the percentage of shots they attempt within five to seven seconds directly following a forced turnover or a defensive rebound – easily the two most common preceding events to fast breaks. Per Nylon Calculus data, the average NBA team in 2015-16 attempted a shot within seven seconds about 43 percent of the time following a defensive rebound.

The Jazz, though? They weren’t even at 25 percent as of the final week of the season, far and away the lowest in the NBA. The next-lowest team in this regard was Dallas, who still pushed the ball nearly 33 percent of the time. Simply attempting and making these shots at league average rates would have added nearly half a point to Utah’s season-long per-100-possession offensive rating.

It was much of the same following turnovers, where the Jazz were 23rd in aggression by this same metric. Per inpredictable.com, only the Spurs averaged longer possessions following opposing cough-ups than Utah. The theme is clear: The Jazz were incredibly hesitant to push advantages in transition.

Even when they did muster up the courage, the execution was frequently lacking. Timing seemed to be a big issue, with a two-on-one or three-on-one break blown by elementary level decision-making seemingly every night. Bad three-point shooters peeled away from layups for low-percentage prayers from beyond the arc; many Jazz players simply seemed confused about which lanes to run in. Guys made fancy plays when simplicity would do. Hayward, easily the wing on this team who’s most capable of absorbing a physical style, developed a maddening tendency to eschew even minor contact at the rim in favor of tougher mid-range pullups.

For a team lacking offensive punch in the halfcourt for obvious reasons, this simply isn’t acceptable. The Jazz badly need these easy points, particularly if they stick to their big, defensive identity moving forward. Execution on chances taken is one fixable element, but convincing guys to be aggressive and pursue the opportunities in the first place needs to be a big emphasis for Snyder.

Eyes Forward

The Jazz now move into the next stage of their multi-year project. An unprecedented cap environment is the backdrop for the most pivotal summer for the franchise in at least a half-decade, after which a season with the highest expectations since the Jerry Sloan days will be upon them.

Team brass is open to all potential summer avenues, and will be aggressive from the start. Utah’s first-round pick, presumed 12th again barring some major lottery luck, would be on the table for the right deal along with all three of their second-rounders. The Jazz’s outlook on team-building is a shorter one now; with the grunt work of assembling a core mostly finished, the details and margins come into focus.

A common concern in some circles is the displacement of current pieces. Upgrading talent naturally means reducing or eliminating someone else’s role, and some struggle with this idea for a Jazz team with a young, talented starting five all ostensibly in place already.

The NBA is cyclical, though, and it’s easy to forget that the team has dealt with significant re-shuffling as recently as this season, and mostly come through it unscathed. Utah added four new names from last season’s squad in Neto, Lyles, Withey and Mack, and all four played real on-court roles at one point or another. The Jazz value the continuity they’ve fostered with this core, but won’t let fear of the future – whether in the form of role changes or eventual money concerns – stop them from addressing the now.

Lindsey’s admission last week that two larger moves featuring multiple draft picks and a “major salary slot” were agreed upon but never consummated (for reasons unknown) at the deadline is reflective of his group’s attitude here. Competition for roles is never a bad thing, so long as everyone is on board with the group’s mission. The Jazz won’t hesitate to pull the trigger this summer for the right piece.

Salary considerations are in play as well, particularly for Gobert. The Stifle Tower is eligible to begin negotiations with the Jazz for his rookie extension, and could ink a deal that wouldn’t kick in until the beginning of the 2017-18 season if both sides were to reach an agreement before October 31.

How they choose to approach things here will be interesting, especially under this exploding cap. Gobert’s cap hold (a figure that counts against a team’s cap number as a placeholder even once a player’s contract has expired, unless the team renounces his rights) in the summer of 2017 is a measly $5.3 million, meaning he won’t clog up their books to any large degree if they wait on an extension. It’s a risk, but if the Jazz were fully convinced Rudy was on board and willing to play ball, they could table things this year and save his extension for next summer, allowing them to spend up to the ludicrous $107 million (projected) cap before signing Gobert over the top of that using Bird rights.

All signs to this point indicate that Gobert is all-in with the team, but risks remain. A leap next season could see his asking price rise, and the Jazz could end up wishing they’d locked him up to a more team-friendly deal when they had the chance. Leaving him with any chance at all of hitting the open market could create a situation similar to Gordon Hayward’s a few years ago with Charlotte – the Jazz lost a year of team control on Gordon’s deal due to a poison pill Charlotte included in their offer sheet, and similar things could happen with Gobert. His worth in a vacuum is another topic altogether, and where any real or rumored deals place him relative to his peers will be interesting to track.

Burke is also eligible to begin rookie extension conversations, but these seem far less likely to produce a deal. Burke was relegated to third point guard duties and barely played following Mack’s acquisition, and it’s been clear for some time that he desires a larger role. Burke has handled a tough situation with nothing but class and professionalism, and some of the negative insinuations made against both him and his representation are simply flat-out false. He’s also become a better basketball player, though whether he has any positive trade value at this point is uncertain. Regardless, it looks as though his time in Utah is drawing to a close. It would be a surprise if he played another game in a Jazz uniform.

In between the draft and these negotiation deadlines lies another summer of international play, with multiple Jazzmen once again potentially involved. Neto is presumed set to play for his home country of Brazil, something he’s done in the past, and while Hayward is a big long shot to make the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics, he’d certainly play if he was included. Lyles would likely play for Canada if they qualified, but that’s under a 50 percent proposition currently.

Gobert and Exum are more interesting cases, the latter in particular. It’s not lost on anyone that Dante’s major injury came during a friendly for the Australian national team, and while blaming them in any way is obviously silly, there are real concerns to allowing his first competitive basketball since then to come outside a Jazz environment. Gobert’s is an issue more of long-term fatigue than anything else, something Lindsey addressed at length. Rudy has indicated he’d like to play in Rio if France qualifies, but that he’ll likely sit out of the qualification itself. Le Bleu will need to win a bit of a strangely-organized tournament with six teams involved, and will be favorites as long as they bring most of their typical roster outside Gobert – though that’s no guarantee. Canada is also involved in this six-team tournament, meaning only one of Gobert or Lyles, at most (and possibly neither), will end up playing in Rio.

There are specific rules for these FIBA-NBA interactions, and the Jazz cannot legally block any player with an independent bill of health who chooses to play for his country. Lindsey and his team would never put back-channel pressure on guys to sit, something it’s fair to assume a few other teams might consider.

At the same time, though, they know that these players’ development comes from the Jazz, and only the Jazz. Exum in particular isn’t gaining a whole lot by standing in the corner watching other guys run the point, his typical role under Australian coach Andrej Lemanis in the past. Gobert came to camp exhausted last year after a rigorous summer with the French team, and while the Rio timetable is friendlier, the Jazz are fully aware he’s had precious little time to rest his body in the last couple years. No one within the organization would do anything to stop them from playing if they’re healthy and willing, but no one is spilling any tears if their next competitive basketball comes during preseason play with Utah.


With a unique year in the rear view, a vital time for the Utah Jazz franchise approaches. The next 16 months will go a long way to determining the fate of the team’s current iteration, and of management’s long developmental view. No pressure, guys.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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G-League

NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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