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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.

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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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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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