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Memphis Grizzlies 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Basketball Insiders

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The Memphis Grizzlies were decimated by injuries last season. That isn’t being overly dramatic; over the course of the season, the Grizzlies shuffled through an NBA record 28 players. We should acknowledge what an incredible achievement it was for last season’s team to make it to the playoffs despite losing its top players to injury. Of those 28 players, 10 will return this upcoming season and the majority of them are recognizable veterans who can make a real impact.

The problem is that the Western Conference continues to be dominated by the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Los Angeles Clippers. The Grizzlies have a team that is designed to win now, but after years of falling short in the postseason, the core is past their respective prime and is more likely to regress than make an internal leap that will bridge the gap between them and the teams at the top of the conference. The Grizzlies will likely be a tough opponent on any given night, but there is also a ceiling to what they can achieve this season.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Memphis Grizzlies.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Memphis opened up their wallet and invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars this summer in free agency deals to Mile Conley and Chandler Parsons – two guys never selected to an All-Star team in 14 combined professional seasons. But don’t get it twisted: Conley and Parsons are proven veteran producers that won’t back down from a challenge. The Grizzlies have reached the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and this veteran-laden unit is built for another run in 2017.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

The Grizzlies certainly spent like they want to contend for a championship, doling out just shy of a quarter of a billion dollars to bring aboard Chandler Parsons and keep Mike Conley in town. This roster really is starting to look its age, though, and could be due for a small step backward rather than a step forward. Still, they’re huge, incredibly experienced and practically unguardable for the ever-increasing number of NBA teams looking to play small ball. These guys are still bruisers, and they’re still one of the toughest defensive teams in the league. David Fizdale should have some fun with this roster in his first year as head coach, as it looks like the Grizzlies, though built unconventionally for today’s NBA, still will be a force in the Western Conference in 2016-2017.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

It’s much easier to rationalize the Grizzlies paying Mike Conley a maximum contract than it is Chandler Parsons. Parsons is a nice player, though, and he will likely help the Grizzlies win a few more games this season. As has been the case since the days of Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies are a team whose collective strength exceeds the perceived value of their individual pieces. The main question for this bunch will be whether or not they are able to stay healthy. An absence from Marc Gasol or Mike Conley for any long stretch of time could doom them. It seems that the Grizzlies were a legitimate championship contender in the not so distant past, but unfortunately for them, I think the window has closed a bit. They seem to be one of the teams that are stuck in the middle the same way the Atlanta Hawks were with Joe Johnson. In the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies should be able to compete with the likes of the Dallas Mavericks for the second seed, though that’s not saying much since the two teams each finished with 42 wins last season. On paper, I think that the Mavericks have done more to improve themselves than the Grizzlies have, but if the Grizzlies can stay healthy, they’ll battle. Tough call to make but I think I’d sooner bet on Harrison Barnes thriving in Dallas than I would the Grizzlies keeping their aging bodies in good health all season long, so I’ll take the Grizzlies as my third favorite in the division.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The grit-and-grind Grizzlies are still here, but are adding a new piece in Chandler Parsons. Parsons is a nice player, though I would not have given him a max contract. Parson had a “minor hybrid” microfracture operation on his knee in May of 2015, which would have made me think more than twice about offering a four-year, $94.8 million contract. Having said that, if Parsons can stay healthy and provide three-point shooting and consistent defensive effort, he should help the Grizzlies bounce back into the mix in the Western Conference. But considering the team’s collective age, their recent struggles with injuries and the fact that Dave Joerger is now in Sacramento lead me to believe they will have an up-and-down season.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

I wasn’t crazy about the addition of Chandler Parsons. I’m not a big fan of Parsons’ game and I don’t think he’s the kind of player who puts a team over the top and into contention. It’ll be interesting to see what impact David Fizdale has as the team’s new head coach. I was a big fan of what he did with the Miami HEAT, but there’s always an adjustment period when a guy becomes a head coach for the first time. If Memphis can stay healthy, they have a solid group that should be able to win a lot of regular season and be a tough out in the playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine this team being a legitimate contender since they’re a notch below elite squads like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Marc Gasol

Gasol suffered a broken right foot in February and has been recovering ever since. Fortunately, the 31-year-old will reportedly be cleared to play by the time training camp starts. When healthy, Gasol is one of the most well-rounded centers in the NBA. He has the size and footwork to clear space and get off his slow but accurate jumper. He can back opponents down in the post, spin either direction effectively and can lean back to get off an almost unguardable turnaround jumper. Additionally, Gasol is a very good passer and unselfish player, which means the Grizzlies can run their offense through him. Most centers these days work mostly out of the pick-and-roll, but Gasol is a throwback kind of center who can get his shot off at will and can also find open shots for his teammates.

Top Defensive Player: Mike Conley

There are a lot of good options to choose from here, but we are giving top defensive player to point guard Mike Conley. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Conley has never been selected as an All-Star and doesn’t make flashy plays. Conley is one of the most underrated points guards in the league (though he’s not being paid like that anymore), and is much better as a defender than many assume. Conley is an intelligent defender and works extremely hard to slow down his opponents. Whether fighting over screens, funneling opponents to his weak side defender or jumping a passing lane, Conley makes life difficult for opposing point guards on a nightly basis, which is very important considering how many dominant guards there are in today’s NBA.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

No question Conley is the Grizzlies’ best playmaker. He may not average double digits in assists each night, but he is a selfless player and a pass first point guard. Conley has continually improved over the years at playing at a pace that lulls his defenders to sleep temporarily, giving him the opportunity to blow by his defender, draw in weak side defenders and find an open teammate for a wide open shot. Conley’s game isn’t flashy, but it’s effective.

Top Clutch Player: Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol have hit some game winners over their careers, and the latter gets the nod. Gasol is one of these players who can shed even the fastest, longest and most athletic defenders to get his shot off. Whether it’s DeAndre Jordan or Rudy Gobert trying to keep a hand in his face, Gasol has an array of moves to generate just enough space to get his shot off in any situation. He may not be the most clutch player in the league, but Gasol gives the Grizzlies a chance to hit a last second shot in just about any situation – especially since he can often draw double teams and has the vision and skill to find open teammates.

The Unheralded Player: Brandan Wright

Brandan Wright only managed to play in 12 games last year because of a knee injury that ultimately required season-ending surgery. However, when Wright is healthy, he is a long and active big man that can crash the boards, create extra possessions, move well on defense and partner up in the pick-and-roll effectively. Durability is obviously a concern with Wright, but if he can stay healthy this season, he should offer nice production off the bench. Oh, and he’s a great bargain as he’s set to make just $4.7 million this season and $5.9 million next season.

Top New Addition: Chandler Parsons

Parsons scored a big payday this offseason, signing a max contract with the Grizzlies to take over the starting small forward position. Parsons brings something the Grizzlies have needed more of for several seasons: shooting. He shot an impressive 41.4 percent from distance in 61 games last season with the Mavericks. Parsons is also a capable defender, so he should fit in on that end of the court as well. The big concern with Parsons is his knee injury that required surgery. If he is completely past that injury, this could be a nice signing for the Grizzlies. But if Parsons is hampered by this injury over the course of his contract, this contract will weigh the Grizzlies down and limit their ability to make moves for other players.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike Conley

As previously stated, Conley is one of the most underrated point guards in the league. He competes on both ends of the court and is the engine that makes the Grizzlies go. Gasol and Randolph are instrumental in the post, but Conley is irreplaceable on this team. Let’s all hope we get to see a full, healthy season out of Conley in 2016-17.

2. Zach Randolph

Randolph may not be as dominant in the post as he once was, but he can still make life difficult for opposing defenses. His slow, calculated approach on offense has given opponents headaches for years, along with his physical and underrated defense. However, Randolph is getting up there in age, so while he will still be handful for opponents, we may start to see some slippage from him moving forward

3. Vince Carter

At age 39, Carter is not the player he once was. However, unlike many other former All-Star players, Carter completely embraced limiting his role and finding a niche where he could still be useful over the last few seasons. His three-point shooting can fall off the rails every so often, but he’s one of the few Grizzlies teams have had to consistently respect out to the three-point line over the last few seasons. Whether he can still make a real impact on the court or is looked to simply as a leader in the locker room, Carter has been a key figure in Memphis for some time now.

4. Marc Gasol

As stated above, Gasol is an extremely well-rounded player that makes the Grizzlies better on both sides of the court. His game isn’t flashy, but it sure is effective. He may not be the best center in the league at this point, but he’s still up there with the best of them.

5. Tony Allen

Allen isn’t the premier defender he once was, but when he is motivated, he is still a handful to deal with. At age 34, Allen is also getting up there in age. Injuries have always been a concern with him as well, so he may have to play less minutes than he has in past seasons – especially with Parsons around to help out with the perimeter defense. While Allen may not be the player he once was, he embodies the spirit of this hard-nosed team and is a key part of their collective identity.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Grizzlies were significant spenders this past summer, going under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Chandler Parsons to a four-year, $94.4 million contract – then going over to give Mike Conley a massive five-year, $152.6 million deal. Memphis triggered a hard cap at $117.3 million by acquiring Troy Daniels in a sign and trade from the Charlotte Hornets. With $107 million invested in 13 guaranteed players, the team isn’t close to the upper limit.

Vince Carter’s $4.3 million salary is $2 million guaranteed. Other players fighting for the Grizzlies’ two remaining open roster spots include Tony Wroten, JaMychal Green, D.J. Stephens, Troy Williams and Wayne Selden. Memphis cam get below next year’s $102 million projected salary cap, but not significantly (roughly $7 million). That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jordan Adams and Jarell Martin. While Tony Allen’s contract is eligible to be restructured and extended, the Grizzlies don’t have the necessary cap room.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defense and resiliency. The Grizzlies ranked 19th in the NBA last season in defensive efficiency. That may seem like a poor rating, but considering they were without most of their key players and had to go through 28 different guys throughout the season, we can safely say last season was an aberration. In 2014-15, when the Grizzlies weren’t decimated by injuries, they had the fourth-best defense in the league. While their players are getting older, it’s fair to say this team has a shot at being one of the ten best defenses this upcoming season.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Shooting. Adding Chandler Parsons should help somewhat, but the league continues to put a premium on shooting and the Grizzlies are simply a step behind most other teams in this department. The Grizzlies shot 33.1 percent on the fifth-fewest three-point attempts per game in the league last season. Unless the Grizzlies make some midseason moves to add more shooting, this will likely be another season where Memphis struggles from the three-point line.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can this core truly contend in the Western Conference under a first-year head coach?

The Grizzlies’ front office opened up the checkbook by bringing in Parsons and retaining Conley. In doing so, this team is going all in on this season to compete for a deep playoff run. However, an ongoing rift between the front office and Joerger led to his departure and the hiring of David Fizdale. Fizdale is a long-time assistant with the Miami HEAT who has drawn high praise for his impact in the LeBron James years. Fizdale is well experienced, but getting this team to the next step, which Lionel Hollins and Joerger failed to do, will be a new sort of challenge. If he can integrate Parsons and has better luck with injuries, it’s possible for this team to make some noise in the Western Conference this upcoming season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA

Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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G-League

NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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