Kevin Durant is not coming to New York City. Neither is LeBron James. Consequently, the Knicks are not going to be transformed into a legitimate championship contender this summer.
Consider for a second just how far the Knicks (who have averaged 28 wins per season over the last three years) are from approaching even the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Think about the enormous gap between the Knicks and the Toronto Raptors, for instance. Then remember how the Raptors were simply outclassed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. And over the first two games in the NBA Finals, we have watched the defending-champion Golden State Warriors absolutely dominate those same Cavs.
The logical corollary here is that the Knicks are not simply one piece away from contender status. As a result, Phil Jackson and Steve Mills should take a big picture approach to the 2016 offseason. In short, target only “value” contracts. The worst-case scenario is not failing to significantly upgrade the roster this summer. No, the worst-case scenario would be overpaying marginal talent and inefficiently committing cap space that will hamstring the franchise in the future.
Thus, maxing out Mike Conley would be a mistake. Ditto for Dwight Howard.
As I have written previously, the Knicks are not going to win a title with Carmelo Anthony as their best player. If and when the Knicks are great again, it will be with a roster built around Kristaps Porzingis. Thus, searching for a quick fix this summer makes little long-term sense. Due to the salary cap spike (the salary cap FLOOR will be north of $82 million), there is going to be a ton of teams with money chasing a limited number of players. The Knicks’ best course of action would be shopping shrewdly this summer and saving their allowance money for next July, when the greatest point guard crop in free agency history hits the open market.
Nonetheless, even without signing one of the elite, top-tier players, Phil Jackson can craftily construct a foundation that puts New York back on the road to relevancy. And make no mistake, the Knicks need to improve their guard play if they want to improve next season and going forward.
With that in mind, here’s a realistic wish list of free agent guards for the Knicks to consider:
Matthew Dellavedova, 25, Restricted free agent:
The Knicks need a defensive-minded point guard in the worst way. Jose Calderon got cooked on a consistent basis last season, leaving the Knicks’ backline defenders exposed and often out-of-position and/or in foul trouble. Improving their perimeter defense is simply a prerequisite if New York hopes to improve. The Knicks could also use an infusion of aggressiveness/nastiness, which Delly also brings to the table. In addition, he’s an underrated long-distance shooter. Dellavedova was one of just 10 players in the NBA last season to attempt at least 200 three-pointers and shoot 41 percent or better from the behind the arc. At just 25 years old, he’s entering the prime of his career.
Seth Curry, 25, Restricted free agent:
It’s always dangerous to get too excited about relatively meaningless games played late in a lost season, but Steph’s younger brother showed some intriguing upside for Sacramento in April. Over the final 10 games of the 2015-16 season, Curry averaged 15.5 points and 4.1 assists per contest, while shooting 47.4 percent from the floor, 49.2 percent from three-point territory and 90 percent from the free-throw stripe. His last name alone may bump up his sticker price, but he’s the type of young shooter the Knicks should consider investing in.
Ty Lawson, 28, Unrestricted free agent:
Just two short seasons ago, Lawson was one of only three players in the entire league to average at least 15 points and nine assists per game (Chris Paul and John Wall were the other two). However, his career and personal life bottomed out last year. His off-court transgressions (two DUI’s) and his remarkably poor play on the court mean he’ll be a major gamble for any team that signs him this summer. For a Knicks team that likely needs to get lucky somewhere along the line, would Phil Jackson consider rolling the dice? In theory, he’d be an excellent fit in new coach Jeff Hornacek’s up-tempo offense. The downside is obvious, and Phil may be particularly hesitant considering he’s made bringing in ‘high character’ players a priority.
Courtney Lee, 30, Unrestricted free agent:
Lee is a versatile, effective defender who can also knock down threes (38.4 percent for his career). Three-and-D wings – as Lee recently referred to himself in this Basketball Insiders article – are extremely valuable in today’s NBA. If the Knicks can get him at the right price, he’d be a solid, necessary upgrade.
Lance Stephenson, 25, Team Option:
Like Ty Lawson, the downside is immense, as it could be argued that an NYC homecoming might be the worst possible destination for the Brooklyn native. That said, assuming the Grizzlies don’t pick up his $9.4 million option, Stephenson could provide solid bang for the buck if he gets his act together. It looked like ‘Born Ready’ might be on the verge of flaming out of the NBA after wearing out his welcome first in Charlotte and then with the Clippers. However, Stephenson played surprisingly well for the desperate and injury-ravaged Grizzlies after being dealt to Memphis. He averaged 14.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in the 26 contests he played in as a member of the Grizzlies.
Evan Fournier, 23, Restricted free agent:
Fournier is one of the more talented and promising young guards set to hit the open market this summer. Last season, Fournier was one of just six NBA players to shot above 46 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the charity stripe. In a league that is placing more and more of a premium on shooting, he’s obviously a valuable commodity. As a result, the Magic have intimated they will match anything that even resembles a reasonable offer. Thus, the Knicks would have to overpay to pry him for Orlando, which likely means his name should be scratched from this list.
Eric Gordon, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
Would Gordon be willing to sign a short-term “make good contract?” It might actually make sense for both parties. Such a deal would give Gordon a chance to prove that he can stay healthy (he hasn’t played more than 64 games since his rookie season in 2008-09) and then cash in with a long-term deal the following summer. For the Knicks, it would limit the investment required to purchase a risky stock.
Jeremy Lin, 28, Player Option:
He’s the type of guard the Knicks need (a penetrating point guard who can wreak havoc by getting into the paint), but too many burnt bridges between Lin and the organization makes it highly unlikely Linsanity would return to MSG. (The smart money says Lin ends up across the river in Brooklyn playing for new Nets coach Kenny Atkinson).
Tyler Johnson, 24, Restricted free agent:
Johnson had been playing surprisingly well for Miami (13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per-36 minutes) before a shoulder injury curtailed his season. He’s a solid shooter from distance, and possesses the quickness and handles to get to the front of the rim. In addition, Johnson is a gritty, plus-defender. Due to the Arenas Provision, the most teams can offer him is a salary starting at $5.6 million. If I’m the Knicks, I pony up and force the HEAT to match.
Brandon Jennings, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
Speaking about the point guard position at his introductory press conference, Jeff Hornacek said, “We have a young player that’s obviously inexperienced after his first year. He’ll get better and better. Jose [Calderon] is kind of later in his career. If we can find a middle guy to bridge those two guys, it would be good. There’s a lot of guys out there.” Jennings would seem fit that mold. He’s also shown an affinity for NYC throughout his career. Coming off a shortened campaign due to a significant Achilles injury, would Jennings be willing to sign a short deal to prove he is healthy and can still be productive?
Kent Bazemore, 26, Unrestricted free agent:
Bazemore successfully made the leap from fringe/role player to certified starter this past season, and will reap the rewards this summer. He competes and contributes on both ends of the floor and would slot in well on the wing, next to Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis in New York, but his strong play may have priced him out of the “value” range. Again, it is important to remember that the skyrocketing salary floor is going to force even the league’s most spendthrift organizations to dole out more than $82 million in guaranteed salary next season. That means a player like Bazemore will likely get offers starting at around $16 million a year.
Allen Crabbe, 24, Restricted free agent:
Crabbe played a total of just 783 minutes in his first two NBA seasons combined, but logged over 2,100 effective minutes for the Blazers in 2015-16. The numbers don’t jump out at you (10.3 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game and a 12.2 PER), but he just turned 24 years old and is a versatile athlete that may be scratching the surface of his potential. The Blazers have the right to match any offer; what kind of contract would it take to scare them off?
Evan Turner, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
The former number two overall pick had been relatively disappointing since entering the league, but seemed to turn the corner a bit and played the best ball of his career last season in Boston. He posted a career-high 13.6 PER, coupled with a 51.3 True Shooting percentage. His game isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but he often finds ways to chip in on both offense and defense. Still, it requires a leap of faith to assume he won’t revert back to the inefficient and frustrating player he was for the majority of NBA tenure. He’s been linked to the Knicks recently, but it sounds like the most likely scenario is a return to Beantown.
Jordan Clarkson, 24, Restricted free agent:
Clarkson would be an ideal fit in many ways – a young, athletic guard with considerable upside. However, because he is subject to the Arenas Provision, it is extremely unlikely that the Lakers let him leave L.A.
E’Twaun Moore, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
If you are looking to add guard depth to round out your roster without breaking the bank, Moore is the type of player you look at. He carved out a valuable role in the Bulls’ rotation last season, thanks in large part to his remarkable accuracy from behind-the-arc — Moore shot 45.2 percent from three-point range last season. However, it should be noted that Moore’s previous career-best mark was 37.8 percent back in 2011-12.
Other potential targets: Joe Johnson, D.J. Augustin, Jamal Crawford, Gerald Henderson, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Martin, Randy Foye and Leandro Barbosa.
Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings
Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.
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.
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?
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.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.