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Head-to-Head: NBA’s Most Improved Player

Between Jimmy Butler, Evan Fournier and Klay Thompson, the race for Most Improved Player is heating up.

Yannis Koutroupis



While there are only a couple weeks of the 2014-15 NBA regular season in the books so far, the field for the Most Improved Player award is already starting to come together. We asked our 2014 intern class who are now featured writers to pick who stands out as the most deserving for the award to them so far:

The Bulls entered this season with high expectations. The addition of Pau Gasol paired with the return of Derrick Rose, to an already talented group led by Joakim Noah, have them as one of the favorites in the East. Unfortunately for the Bulls, both Rose and Gasol have already missed time due to injury. Despite having to play shorthanded, the Bulls have managed to get off to an encouraging start, sitting at 8-5 through their first 13 games. One reasons for the team’s success has been the emergence of guard Jimmy Butler. After starting in 67 games this past year it’s no secret how important Butler is to the Bulls’ rotation. Not only did he start in 67 games, but played over 38 minutes per game in those starts. In terms of minutes played so far this season it’s been more of the same for Butler, again averaging just over 38 minutes a night. While his role hasn’t changed much, his production in that role certainly has.

Early on it’s hard to argue that any player has looked more improved than Butler. He has become more assertive on the offensive end; his usage rate of 22 percent is 5.2 percent higher than that of last year. Butler is leading the Bulls in field goal attempts through the first 13 games of the season as well.

Often times when a player takes on a bigger role offensively their efficiency takes a dip, however this has not been the case with Butler. Last season, his first as a full-time starter, Butler shot just 39.7 percent from the field and was particularly bad from three point range, shooting 28.3 percent. His lack of success from deep didn’t stop Butler from jacking up 3.6 attempts per game on average during the 2013-14 season. This year has been a different story. Butler has been much more aggressive attacking the rim and his attempts from three are down. His improved shot selection has done wonders for his field goal percentage. Thus far he is shooting a career best 49.7 percent from the field despite his increase in usage.

Butler has developed into one of the Bulls’ first options offensively. He has excelled in the mid-post, using his strong frame to overpower smaller guards. His ability to knock down mid-range shots, combined with the fact that he has become one of the better finishers in the game, making Butler a nightmare cover for opposing guards in that mid-post area. He has improved his scoring numbers dramatically from a season ago, averaging a team best 20.4 points per game.

Another product of Butler’s improved shot selection is his increase in free throw attempts. This has played a major role in his scoring boost. Butler is one of the league leaders in free throws taken at 7.1 per game, which is up more than two a game from his attempts at the line last season. More importantly he is knocking down 79.5 percent of those shots from the stripe.

While his scoring may be the most noticeable improvement in Butler’s game, he has stepped it up in other areas also. For a guard Butler does a terrific job rebounding the ball. He is off to a career best start this season averaging 6.2 rebounds per game. In addition to his work on the glass, he has been sharing the ball effectively, to the tune of 3.5 assists per night.

When you factor this all together it’s no surprise to see Butler’s PER well above the league average, and well above his career average, at 21.6. He has been arguably the Bulls most important player to date this season. Any way you look at it, it’s clear that Butler has made significant strides as a player.

– John Zitzler

Draft night 2014 for the Orlando Magic was supposed to go in a much different direction than it really did. The team was “supposed” to draft Australian point guard Dante Exum with the fourth overall pick and then take sharp shooter Nik Stauskas at No. 12. A trade involving the team’s leading scorer in Arron Afflalo was certainly not in the cards, or at least Magic fans thought. But that’s exactly what happened on June 26.

The Magic traded away Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets just hours before the draft in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick which would be used to take Iowa guard Devyn Marble. The move was especially interesting because Afflalo was coming off of his best season as a pro and many believed the Magic could have gotten much more in the trade. The team then used the fourth overall pick to draft forward Aaron Gordon and acquired point guard Elfrid Payton from the Philadelphia 76ers with the 12th pick.

Following the trade that brought in Fournier, many were skeptical how it would all come together. After losing two good scorers over the summer in Afflalo and Jameer Nelson, questions were flying about who would be able to score for the Magic. Fournier arrived to Orlando averaging only about seven points a game during his two seasons in Denver and the two draft picks in Gordon and Payton were decent scorers in college, but concerns were raised on whether they’d be able to score immediately on a consistent basis at the NBA level.

The Magic made some moves over the offseason to help with scoring, including signing Channing Frye and Ben Gordon – two players that have proven the ability to shoot the three ball. After adding those two shooters, the team’s projected lineup looked like it could feature Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye, Maurice Harkless, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Training camp injuries to Frye and Oladipo forced Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn to use different lineups throughout the preseason and experiment with different rotations. Ultimately, Frye only missed the team’s regular season opener, but a facial fracture to Oladipo forced Vaughn to call upon the newly acquired Fournier to start in Oladipo’s place at shooting guard.

So far this season, Fournier has made the most out of his opportunity and is running away with the shooting guard job. Fournier is currently third on the Magic in scoring with 17.3 points per game, which is more than double what he averaged last season in Denver when he scored 8.4 points per game. Fournier’s numbers are up across the board as his field goal percentage is up to 48 percent (compared to 42 percent last season), three-point percentage is up to nearly 51 percent (from 37 percent) and his is playing time is about 15 minutes more per game at 34. When Oladipo came back to the starting lineup from his injury, Fournier’s hot start forced Vaughn to keep him in the lineup and ultimately sent Payton to the bench.

Fournier has proven to be a player to count on as one of the team’s top scorers on a nightly basis. Fournier’s 50.9 percent from three-point range is currently tied for fourth in the league and the team as a whole ranks second in the league in three-point percentage after finishing 19th last season. Fournier recently missed a game due to a heel injury and his absence was greatly missed. During that game against the Clippers, the Magic shot just 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. The offense seemed to have little movement and it was clear that Fournier wasn’t out there playing. Considering that Fournier came to Orlando as a relatively unknown player, he has become a pleasant surprise for the Magic.

It’s safe to say that analysts and fans across the league are starting to take notice of this young team. Slowly but surely, the team is beginning to earn more respect each game. Before the team took on the Clippers earlier this week, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers called Vucevic the best player in the league that no one has heard of before. In a recent roundtable discussion on, one writer gave Fournier the same distinction and added that Fournier is “providing better shooting and production than Denver is getting from Afflalo,” which only makes Magic general manager Rob Hennigan look even better for executing that trade back on June 26. While it’s certainly too early to start handing out awards, if Fournier and the Magic continue to be in the hunt Fournier could find himself among those in the running for the Most Improved Player Award.

– Cody Taylor

Last offseason, the Golden State Warriors were presented with a tough decision. The question was whether they should offer shooting guard Klay Thompson to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love.

The Warriors ultimately resisted and held onto Thompson. It wasn’t an obvious choice. Love is one of the most productive big men in the league, and Thompson was up for a contract extension (which eventually was agreed to at four-years, $69 million). So far, it looks like the Warriors made the right call.

After playing for the USA National Team that won gold at the FIBA World Cup Tournament, Thompson looks like a new player. He was already considered by many to be the best two-way shooting guard in the NBA, and now that claim seems more valid than ever (at least until James Harden becomes an impact defensive player).

In the Warriors home opener, Thompson scorched the Los Angeles Lakers for 41 points on 14-of-18 shooting from the field. In doing so, Thompson became the first player to score 40-plus points on 75 percent-or-better from the field since Paul Pierce in 2012.

Last season, per 36 minutes, Thompson averaged 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals and shot 41.7 percent from beyond-the-arc. This season, per 36 minutes, Thompson is averaging 25.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and is shooting a blistering 44.6 percent from beyond-the-arc (on 7.3 attempts per game).

The biggest indicator that Thompson has evolved as a player is his aggressiveness and playmaking. Last season, Thompson only shot 2.3 free throws per game, whereas this season he is taking 6.3 free throw attempts per game (also note that he is shooting a career high 87.5 percent from the line). This is a huge jump and shows that Thompson is now comfortable taking the ball off the dribble and attacking the basket. This is especially valuable for the Warriors since opponents have to close out extremely hard on Thompson when he sets up to shoot a three-pointer, which means when he drives to the rim, the opposing team has to rotate, which opens up his teammates on the perimeter (which partially explains his increase in assists per game).

Thompson was already one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and arguably the second best three-point shooter behind teammate Stephen Curry. Now, Thompson is a complete player that can knock down shots, setup teammates for easy baskets and lockdown opposing wings. Maybe the Warriors should have traded Thompson for Love. But through the first few weeks of the season, Thompson is making Warriors general manager Bob Meyers look awfully smart.

– Jesse Blancarte

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.


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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors

The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.

Moke Hamilton



The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.

Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.

Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.

Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.

Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.

Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.

Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.

There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.

At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.

We may be seeing that now.

En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have.  In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.

As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.

Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.

We’ll find out in short order.

* * * * * *

As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.

Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.

On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.

A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?

With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.

Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.

While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.

For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.

Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.

Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.

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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers



After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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