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Head to Head: Third-Best NBA Player?

After LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who is the NBA’s third-best player? Basketball Insiders writers weigh in.

Basketball Insiders

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LeBron James and Kevin Durant are widely regarded as the top two players in the NBA today. But who is the third-best player in the league? We asked Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan, Moke Hamilton and Eric Pincus to weigh in:

Chris Paul

Determining the third-best player in the NBA after LeBron James and Kevin Durant is one of the more vexing exercises in the NBA right now. When I ranked the league’s top 10 players back in March, number three was the one I struggled with the most. Eventually, I settled on Chris Paul. That article ranked players by tiers, and the only two players in the second tier were Paul and Kevin Love.

Since then, Paul has done nothing to lose that spot. Despite struggling through a hamstring injury in the series against Golden State, he managed a much higher playoff PER than Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin, the playoff participants in the next tier below him.

Paul also authored one of the best games in playoff history in Game 1 against Oklahoma City. In that game he had 32 points on only 14 shots, going 8-9 on threes with 10 assists and only two turnovers in a mere 27:44. He added seven hockey assists as well, notable because the league leader (Paul himself) averaged a mere 2.2 per game in the regular season. Overall during the playoffs, Paul created 31.3 points per 48 minutes with his assists alone. His greatness was further confirmed by the fact that the Clippers fell apart whenever he left the court.

The only other contender for this spot right now in my eyes is a player who ultimately bested Paul and the Clippers in round two, Russell Westbrook. Back in March, I ranked Westbrook ninth as he had recently returned from a third surgery on his right knee in less than a year. But I added this caveat: After a few more weeks to get back into it, this may appear too low for the UCLA product.

That indeed is what happened. Among realistic contenders for this third spot, Westbrook has the highest playoff PER at 24.9. For reference, James is at a historically great 31.1, a number bested by only 10 individual player seasons in NBA history. Three belong to James himself, the others to Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. This is even more remarkable considering James did it against three top-10 defenses during the regular season, including the Pacers’ top-ranked unit. James’ 31.1 would be the ninth-best single-season playoff PER of all-time. By contrast, Durant checks in with a Tony Allen-addled 23 PER. Oh, and a little perspective for Kobe Bryant fans: Bryant’s best single-season playoff PER ranks 77th all-time. His second-best playoff PER ranks 142nd all-time.

Westbrook is averaging 24.6 points per 36 minutes, offensive rebounding 8.2 percent of OKC misses (a lower end power forward level), and contributing massive clutch plays including three key steals in games with under a minute remaining and draining all three free throws to tie Game 5 against the Clippers late.

For those who claim Westbrook shoots too much, he does lead the playoffs in usage percentage, but is second among players with more than seven games played by assisting on an estimated 40.5 percent of Thunder baskets when he is on the floor. And the Thunder offense has collapsed without him, scoring 19.4 less points per 100 possessions when he sits. This is in part due to Scott Brooks’ puzzling habit of sitting both Westbrook and Durant at the same time, which should never happen in the playoffs.

Despite Westbrook’s wonderful playoffs, Paul has the edge based on his superior last few regular seasons. But given Paul’s advancing age for a player who relies on quickness more than most, we could well have a new third-best player in the league next year. Love, Westbrook and Anthony Davis would seem the most likely candidates to get there.

– Nate Duncan

Blake Griffin

LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the top two individual players in the NBA. Third on the list isn’t quite as clear, but Los Angeles Clippers Blake Griffin emerged this past season as a true candidate.

Griffin has always been more than just a dunker.  While he may be the league’s most explosive player at the basket, Griffin’s all-around game improved under head coach Doc Rivers.

His 24.1 points a game this past year was a career-high.  He improved one of his greatest weaknesses, free-throw shooting, to 71.5 percent — a dramatic step up from 52.1 percent in his second season.

Los Angeles is fortunate to have two MVP candidates on the roster, but Griffin truly emerged when Chris Paul sat out 18 games with a shoulder injury.  Paul might be a top point guard, and in consideration for the NBA’s third-best player, but Griffin carried the Clippers to a 12-6 record while Paul was on the mend.

That’s a 55-win pace.  The Clippers won 57, bowing out in the second round to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Griffin improved his face-up jumper just enough to force teams to guard him slightly closer, giving the All-Star forward additional room to attack the basket in the post and off the dribble.

Armed with the experience and knowledge that he can carry his team, Griffin will only improve next season.

With a few roster tweaks, and no Donald Sterling drama taking away from the product on the floor, the Clippers should be a contender next season.

– Eric Pincus

Anthony Davis

If it’s not Chris Paul and it’s not Blake Griffin, who then is the player for which a case can be built that he is the league’s third best player behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James?

It would have to be a player who impacts both sides of the basketball court, so Joakim Noah (more of a defensive stalwart) and James Harden (an offensive maestro) are difficult to make a case for. The same can be said for Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry.

After their flaming out against the Miami HEAT and his overall ineffectiveness during the most critical times of their season, Paul George is not making my list. I’ll wholly cut against the grain and go with one of the more seemingly impactful youngsters this league has seen perhaps since James entered the league back in 2003.

Anthony Davis, I’m looking at you.

Is Davis the third-best player in the NBA? Clearly, whether or not that is true depends on how an individual defines the term “best,” as it is a superlative that is wholly subjective. But objectively speaking, it is difficult to argue with what Davis has already shown after playing just 131 career games.

This past season, en route to being named an NBA All-Star in just his second year, Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. From the beginning, with his impeccable timing, he was expected to make meaningful contributions on the defensive end, but it is his offensive repertoire that has caught the entire league by surprise.

Athleticism aside, Davis has shown a better-than-advertised ability to put the ball on the floor and create mid-range and low-post opportunities for himself. He is a good catch-and-shoot player out to up to 18 feet and has been so good, so quickly.

Although a 34-48 win record is not worthy of accolades, that the New Orleans Pelicans played a gross majority of the season without key contributors Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson among others and happen to be playing in the NBA’s Southwest Division means something. The Southwest Division was the only division in the entire league that had three teams win 50 games. And the Dallas Mavericks—who ended up sneaking into the playoffs out West as the eighth seed—won 49 games.

As for Davis, the sky truly is the limit. Although one could argue that Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or even Dirk Nowitzki are still “better” players than Davis, and although many may prefer any of the aforementioned veterans for one game, I have seen enough from Davis to give the second-year player the anointment of being the third-best player in the league, as controversial as that may be.

In part, it is due not only to what he has already shown as a professional, but also where we believe he will end up when its all said and done. For most young NBA stars, the third year is the charm. As Davis completes his second year in the NBA and we think about his junior year down in New Orleans, I can certainly say that the only other two players I would rather have on my roster, especially for the long haul, are Durant and James.

– Moke Hamilton

Who do you think is the third-best player in the NBA? Leave a comment below.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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