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Gauging a Transformational DPOY Race

Ben Dowsett breaks down this year’s Defensive Player of the Year Race

Ben Dowsett

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The ever-changing dynamics of the NBA can at times be reflected in the league’s award recipients. Steve Nash’s back-to-back MVPs a decade ago were the first from a “true” point guard since the days of Magic Johnson, and in part set the table for a game increasingly dependent on elite ball-handlers, spacing and shooting. Mike D’Antoni’s selection as Coach of the Year in the same time period sent up many of the same smoke signals, with a recognition that his new brand of basketball was a success. Bird, Magic and Jordan broke a three-decade run of nearly uninterrupted dominance from big men in MVP voting in the late 80s and early 90s, in part beginning to usher the league from the post-heavy days of old to what it’s eventually become a few decades later.

Kawhi Leonard’s selection as Defensive Player of the Year last season was of the same mold. Leonard was the first perimeter player to win the award since Ron Artest in 2004, and only Gary Payton in 1996 joins them as non-bigs to win in the past two decades. The selection, along with second-place finisher Draymond Green, in some ways signaled a recognition that as offense has evolved, elite defense has done the same.

And with Leonard and Green now locked in what’s really a two horse race for the hardware this time around, the point is becoming clearer: The days where only treetops near the basket could make the most significant defensive impact are likely behind us.

True post behemoths have been mostly phased out of the game, and a majority of the league’s top offensive weapons are now ball-dominant perimeter operators – just five of the top 30 players in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus this season are big men, and one is uber-hybrid Green. And while bigs at the rim and inside the paint remain vital, there’s naturally been more emphasis placed on individuals capable of checking guards and wings as a result. Guys like Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler would have been great in any era, but have all likely found more notoriety than they may have a couple decades ago because of how well they can match up with the LeBrons, Durants and Carmelos of the world (along with each other, of course).

Green best represents the other growing trend: Versatility is paramount. As probably the most malleable defender in the game, Draymond’s presence frees his Warriors to assume a variety of forms around him while employing more switching and re-switching than any other defense in the league. There might not be five players in the NBA you’d be truly uncomfortable with Green checking, at least for a few seconds at a time – from jitterbug point guards to seven-foot post monsters, Green’s strength, length and mobility combination makes him a shutdown man regardless.

Choosing between the two for this season is mostly an exercise in subjectivity to one degree or another. Defensive Plus-Minus figures have Green second overall and Leonard sixth, but the gap between them is pretty negligible. Both have teammates also among the elites for this defensive value added category – Tim Duncan is first overall and Andrew Bogut is third. Both play 25 minutes a game or less, though, while their Leonard and Green are well into the 30s.

Leonard isn’t without versatility of his own, even if it might not be quite as extreme as Green’s. You can count on one hand the number of primary perimeter ball-handlers Kawhi isn’t the best one-on-one option in the league against – excepting perhaps Stephen Curry or someone like Damian Lillard, the quick-release type who also have the handle to separate from Leonard long enough to get a shot off, he’d be the best choice against nearly any player from the point to the small forward position.

There’s no area defensively where Leonard lacks. He isn’t quite Tony Allen’s ilk as a pure ball-denial specialist, but his work away from the rock is superb, particularly his screen navigation – if a shooter like, say, J.J. Redick starts burning the Spurs up with off-ball action, Kawhi can switch onto him and snuff that out. He’s one of the best rebounders in the league among small forwards, even as his overall percentage here has dropped a bit this season with the Spurs adding size down low.

He’s the best on-ball perimeter defender to this eye since at least Scottie Pippen, and maybe ever. His combination of mirroring opponent action and perhaps the best hands for his size in the entire league are devastating to any penetrator unlucky enough to see Leonard in front of them. On the rare occasion you get a step on him, know the play is far from over.

 

He jumps passing lanes a beat faster than most guys, and if those mitts get on the ball, it’s his.

 

He has the quicks and smarts to angle off even the speediest guards in the league, and the strength and length to man up on the block with guys like LeBron, Durant and Melo. That Leonard has maintained his remarkable level despite a much heavier burden on the offensive end of the ball this year makes the performance all the more amazing.

His case is hurt somewhat by the level of dominance the Spurs display defensively even when he doesn’t play, though this phenomenon is overstated in some circles. His DRPM score reveals as much, as it helps balance out on and off court numbers with relevant teammate and opponent context, and even the raw numbers don’t really support the theory – San Antonio allows over five more points per-100-possessions without Leonard than with him on the court, a sample which could represent a 15-spot gap in league-wide team rankings if inserted in the right place. The fact that the Spurs would still be the league’s best defense using only non-Leonard minutes is relevant, but not enough to topple his case when one considers that with him, they’re among the stingiest units of all time.

Green has no such issues with on/off metrics; the 13.1 points per-100 the Warriors sacrifice defensively when he leaves the court are among the most in recent history for a high-volume player. Opponents shoot 42 percent from the field when Green plays, but nearly 48 percent when he hits the bench. Some of it has to do with limited personnel behind him on the depth chart, but regardless, Green’s absence defensively is felt by his team as much as any other player in the game.

The adaptability is his chief calling card, along with an energy level and motor that are virtually unrivaled. It takes an enormous amount of physical exertion to play Draymond’s style, particularly minutes at center which have become even more common with Festus Ezeli sidelined to injury since late January. Green’s distance covered on the defensive end ranks in the top five among big men and in the league’s overall top 50, per SportVU data, a remarkable pairing alongside the amount of time he spends banging with seven-footers down low.

This strength on the interior is perhaps the most physically spectacular part of Green’s defensive game. His low center of gravity at 6’7 is one of his greatest weapons, used to muscle up on guys who at first glance seem likely to bowl him over. Watch him hold his ground against Derrick Favors, giving hardly an inch to a much bigger guy who, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, recently set the P3 clinic’s all-time record for force generated pushing sideways off one leg.

Making a final choice between the two likely comes down to which variables one weights more heavily. To this eye, Leonard holds the slight edge by virtue of his team’s historical level of greatness in the field in question – the Warriors’ fifth-ranked defense is closer to the 20th-place Knicks than to the Spurs at the time of this writing. Green is easily more versatile, but Leonard is perhaps just the slightest bit more dominant in his marginally narrower areas of operation. Anyone going with Green can’t be faulted in any way.

Whatever your preference, Leonard and Green are helping break the mold of elite defenders. Size and length remain paramount factors, but as the game has moved in new directions, specialists with additional skill sets have begun to rise to the top along with the game’s best rim protectors and shot blockers. Whether their candidacies beget a stronger push in this direction within basketball’s collective consciousness remains to be seen, but they’ve put the shift in motion.

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

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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