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Head to Head: Runner Up in NBA MVP Race?

Who should be the MVP runner up behind Stephen Curry? Ben Dowsett, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton debate.

Basketball Insiders

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Spoiler alert: Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors will win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second straight year. Barring something insane – such as Curry revealing himself to be a robot and therefore making him ineligible to resume playing in the NBA – the award is going to Curry.

That’s because Curry has been ridiculously good this season. The 28-year-old point guard has turned the Warriors into a virtually unbeatable team that has won 62 of 69 games. Meanwhile, he’s topping last year’s ridiculous statistics by averaging a jaw-dropping 30.3 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and two steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range. He broke his own record for most three-pointers in a single season in just 58 games, and his performances have become must-watch TV.

Because the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player award is essentially decided, we wanted to debate the MVP runner up in today’s discussion. Ben Dowsett, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton share their thoughts on the NBA’s next most valuable player after Mr. Curry in today’s Head to Head.

LeBron James

The most interesting part of the 2016 MVP ballot won’t be who finishes first, but rather which runner up slots in behind Stephen Curry. There are three or four viable candidates grouped relatively closely. And while factors beyond Curry, such as voter fatigue and his move toward the “veteran” end of the spectrum, may have muted his overall impact, LeBron James continues to have as good a case as anyone.

To one degree or another, many of the typical requirements for an MVP are present. James is on a team leading its conference in wins, and sits sixth for per-game scoring – two of the most traditional categories many voters look to. A step deeper to one-number metrics puts him in the same elite category; LeBron is fourth for Player Efficiency Rating, fourth in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus and fifth for total Real Plus-Minus.

But it’s possible these broader metrics still undersell his value somewhat. The Cavaliers are a complete mess when he leaves the floor, with a 14.3 points per-100-possessions gap between their performance with and without him on the court – one of the largest in the NBA. LeBron has refined little elements of his game under the radar, including lowering his turnovers to the smallest percentage he’s seen since his pre-Miami days and upping his rebounding – particularly on the defensive glass.

Even tougher to distinguish at times has been his defensive performance which, while it still stagnates from time to time like any offensive superstar, has been at a much higher level than the previous few seasons. James is fifth for Defensive Real Plus-Minus among non-big men, a testament to the value he’s added on this side of the ball even while he’s carrying the same intense burden offensively. He’s more generally focused and has added even more emphasis to captaining a strong group on that end of the court.

James’ ridiculous athletic feats are fewer and further between these days, and the younger generation has certainly closed and even eliminated the gap that existed a few years ago. But in the non-Curry class, there’s still a great argument that no single player is more valuable to a top NBA team than LeBron.

– Ben Dowsett

Kawhi Leonard

Over the last few years, we knew that Kawhi Leonard’s ascent to stardom was inevitable. He had all of the tools – physical and mental – to be a dominant two-way player, a legendary head coach in Gregg Popovich making sure he reached his full potential and a talented group of future Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, etc.) around him to help him develop.

Now, the Leonard era is officially underway.

Two years ago, he surprised everyone when he was the Finals MVP in the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Miami HEAT. Last season, he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he made his first All-Star appearance. Leonard has been improving each season, and the player who hates the spotlight and individual accolades has been receiving more recognition lately – whether he likes it or not.

Before, Leonard was viewed as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming talents. Now, he is officially one of the NBA’s best players.

It’s very possible that Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year again this season, as he remains one of the best perimeter stoppers in the NBA and he shuts down the game’s best scorers on a nightly basis. His excellent instincts, huge hands, 7’3 wingspan, freakish athleticism, high basketball IQ and always-running motor make him a dominant defender. The numbers back this up, as he ranks first in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (5.1) and second in Defensive Rating (95.1). San Antonio has by far the league’s best defense, allowing only 95.6 points per 100 possessions, and Leonard’s play is a huge reason for this.

However, the reason that Leonard is my pick for MVP runner up is that his offensive game is finally catching up with his defensive excellence. This season, in addition to being a shutdown defender, he is leading the Spurs’ offensive attack as well. Leonard is averaging a career-high 20.9 points while shooting an extremely efficient 50.9 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three-point range. When Leonard entered the NBA, scouts criticized his shooting and said it was his biggest weakness. Now, Leonard is knocking down two threes per game and making almost half of his attempts from long range, which demonstrates just how much Leonard has grown as a player in his five NBA seasons.

In addition to scoring 20.9 points per game, he is also averaging 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and one block. He fills the stat sheet every night, and yet he does so many things that don’t show up on the box score that it’s impossible to quantify his impact on the game.

Advanced analytics help show how dominant Leonard has been this season. Among all NBA players, he ranks first in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (9.89) and second in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.282), trailing only Curry. Leonard also ranks third in Win Shares (12.4), fourth in Box Plus/Minus (8.2), sixth in Player Efficiency Rating (25.8), sixth in Value Over Replacement Player (5.5) and eighth in True Shooting Percentage (.619). He has become a well-rounded player who is elite in many facets of the game.

It also helps that the Spurs are currently 59-10; we all know that MVP voters love to select players from top teams. While Curry and the Warriors are an insane 62-7, it’s extremely impressive that San Antonio is just three games behind them in the standings.

The Spurs have turned Leonard into their two-way juggernaut that decimates anything in his path without showing any emotion. And the scariest thing about Kawhi is that he’s only 24 years old, so he’s not even in his prime yet – unlike the 28-year-old Curry or the 31-year-old James. The fact that I can make the case for Leonard as the runner up for MVP right now when he’s only scratching the surface of his potential is why the rest of the NBA should fear him for years to come.

– Alex Kennedy

Kyle Lowry

This is always a fun question and debate. What does it mean to be the Most Valuable Player?

It’s a question that we find ourselves asking every year and this year is no exception. Stephen Curry is probably going to end up winning his second consecutive MVP award at the conclusion of this season, but if we are searching for “other” MVPs, I think I would go the route of at least mentioning Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.

Of course, you can’t argue that Lowry is a better player than Curry or Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James or Kevin Durant or any number of other players in the league, but you could make the argument that he is as valuable to his team. As the Raptors were the discussion of the most recent NBA Sunday, we remind you that the team has improbably entered play on March 20 a mere 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It seems so long ago that Lowry was more renowned for being an injury prone and inconsistent contributor than he was a linchpin on one of the league’s better teams.

Since being nearly traded a few seasons ago, Lowry has become one of the better all-around point guards in the entire league and, with DeMar DeRozan, has helped the Raptors go from an afterthought in the Eastern Conference to a team that has a legitimate opportunity to overthrow LeBron James and his personal reign at the top of the East.

So far this season, Lowry is averaging 22 points, five rebounds and 5.4 assists. He has a Player Efficiency Rating of 23.76 and is coming off of back-to-back All-Star selections.

You can make the argument for any number of players in this discussion, but I’ll cut against the grain and mention Lowry—someone who has improbably risen to the top of the point guard depth chart in the East. Now, let’s see what he has in store for the playoffs.

– Moke Hamilton

Who do you think is the MVP runner up? Is it LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry or someone else? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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