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NBA AM: MIP Favorites Signal Changing Trends

Top candidates for Most Improved Player signal changing league perception, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett



You hear a lot about leaps in the NBA, and it makes sense. Every summer is a chance for guys to add new skills and conditioning, and a season that spans half the year offers plenty of opportunities for organic growth. The best guys get way, way better over their first few years in the league; the ones who don’t lag behind.

Not every leap is created equal, of course. There are too many factors involved. Certain broad patterns have appeared over the years, sure – point guards tend to take a year or two longer in many cases; four-year college guys don’t typically leap as much as blue-chip freshmen; bigs who can’t block shots when they get in the league rarely develop those skills later on.

The Most Improved Player award is a fascinating look at these leaps, and the league’s general perception of them. C.J. McCollum, last year’s winner, is a perfect example of one of the most common templates: A slightly “forced” leap where a guy sees a huge expansion in role that drives up his traditional statistics (to be clear, McCollum’s ability to markedly improve his efficiency on such an increased burden was incredibly impressive, and absolutely warranted the award).

There are others, too. Goran Dragic’s MIP hardware for the 2013-14 season was in part a nod to that late point guard development we occasionally see – he won in his sixth season, already at the age of 27. There are late-draft gems who simply force their way into the picture, like Jimmy Butler the following year. The occasional high lottery pick takes it home, like Kevin Love in his third season, though voters tend to shy away from guys like this who are “expected” to make these leaps.

There’s one particular category of leap, though, that feels under-represented within the recent history of the award: The leap from good/great to elite/borderline star.

It’s an imprecise science, of course, but many around the league will tell you this is the “hardest” leap of all, and simple logic and arithmetic might agree – fewer guys make this leap than most others, by definition. Love is the closest we’ve seen to a good example here in a decade or more; the most recent before that was probably Tracy McGrady in 2000-01 (sorry, Gilbert Arenas fans). We can pick a nit about the definitions of terms like “star” here or there, but the theme is apparent.

There could be a shift in motion, though.

It may have begun earlier, but some of the first signs came last year, when Stephen Curry and Draymond Green – the former the reigning MVP, the latter a breakout star from the previous season – both finished in the top seven for MIP voting (Curry was fourth, Green was seventh). Media voting didn’t end up reflecting it, but there was serious support behind each of their candidacies, especially among analytically inclined folks. Curry, in particular, was almost historically unique among guys who finished so high.

Fast forward to this year, and it’s possible nearly all the primary candidates will fit the bill to some degree. There’s still a lack of general consensus behind the presumed wide frontrunner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but maybe that’s precisely because of the lack of more traditional candidates – and it’s possible several of the slots behind Giannis could also go to more established players than we’d expect. In no particular order besides the guy at the top, let’s take a look at this new breed of MIP candidate and what they might mean for the league’s collective perception of “leaps.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis is in some pretty rarified historical air as far as the Most Improved Player award goes. He was third last year, a deserving finish after what would qualify as a perfectly fine leap season for nearly all NBA players. Assuming no big surprises this year, he should finish on the podium again, and that’s a lot rarer.

The only other guys since 2000 to pull off that particular feat? Kevin Durant and Steve Nash. Decent company.

Antetokounmpo still struggles with consistency and his jump shot, but he’s a force of nature when he’s locked in – and completely unstoppable when the J is falling. He’s shooting an obscene 71 percent at the rim on a ton of attempts, and drawing free throws at easily the highest per-possession rate of his career. In maybe his most impressive feat, he’s taken on a huge rise in usage while his turnover percentage has dropped – it’s now gone down every year he’s been in the league as his percentage of team possessions used has gone in the opposite direction.

His other big leap has come on the defensive end, where ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric rates him among the league’s 40 most impactful players. What’s scary is, he’s still putting it all together on that end – he’ll still space out or lose a simple assignment from time to time, and he isn’t engaged quite often enough. But he’s just so physically dominant, and so comfortable in his body at this point in his career. He makes up for as many lapses as any non-LeBron player in the league.

The Bucks could probably cement his title here if they sneak into the playoffs, and there’s a good chance the hardware is his regardless.

Rudy Gobert

We covered much of Gobert’s overall rise to stardom earlier this year in this space, and he’s probably been even better on balance since then. He missed his first game of the entire year last week, a shellacking at the hands of the Thunder that exposed the degree to which the Jazz miss him – not only defensively, but on the other end as well.

Gobert has become one of the most impactful screeners in the game, sitting second in the NBA in screen assists. His gravitational pull on perimeter defenders as he rolls to the rim was visibly missing against Oklahoma City, as was drastically improved timing that’s quietly among the best in the league for guys his size. He’s leading the NBA in True Shooting Percentage, blocking shots at a higher rate than any other guy in the league and continuing to dominate defensively even in more small Jazz lineups than ever before. He should finish no lower than second for Defensive Player of the Year, and the discerning voter could have him in the same territory for MIP as well.

Nikola Jokic

It feels crazy that this guy is only in his second year. Jokic had the efficiency metrics of a borderline star as a rookie, and now he’s in bona fide star territory. His combination of passing and shooting has basically never been duplicated by anyone else his size, and he’s barely 22. Surround him with shooters, and there simply is no good answer for guarding him.

Jokic is still a miserable defender, part of the reason he’s likely a hair short of the first two guys to this eye. He swipes at everything and doesn’t move his feet nearly well enough, something that could be an issue for his entire career. He’s also only sitting on about 27 minutes a night, partially due to a weird early-season stretch where coach Mike Malone tried to incorporate both him and Jusuf Nurkic.

Most guys still have another couple levels to hit when they’re this age, and that should scare the rest of the league.

Bradley Beal

Beal has been a trendy pick to win this one in the past, and some might say his top-three draft slot disqualifies him. That’s fine.

But Beal is another variation of the great-to-elite jumps: Some of his rise in acclaim is probably due to better health than we’ve come to expect, yes, but that partially obscures the fact that he’s simply been way better this year. This isn’t a big rise in role – he’s shooting a bit more often, but his overall usage hasn’t moved much.

Instead, Beal has streamlined his game, shooting a higher percentage of his shots from deep and at the rim than ever before. He’s cut down on some of his more careless turnovers, appearing more consistently sharp both with and without the ball. Any little bits of hesitation from beyond the arc are gone; if he’s got daylight, that sucker is going up, and it’s splashing down over 40 percent of the time again.

Beal and teammate Otto Porter could steal a vote or two from each other here, and the field is wide open enough behind Antetokounmpo that it could make a real difference. Both guys deserve consideration, though, and Beal’s performance feels a bit more under-the-radar.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.


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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler



Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton



He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz



It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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