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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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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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