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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

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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

NBA AM: Most Likely All-Star Snubs

Damian Lillard seems to top the All-Star snub list every season. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

Joel Brigham

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This year the NBA has famously decided to mix up the way the All-Star rosters work, while rather infamously deciding against televising the draft that will organize those players into teams, but even as some things change, some things remain the same.

Just like every year, there will be snubs when the All-Star reserves are announced on Tuesday night. Oh, there will be snubs.

The starters already have been selected, chosen by a combination of fan votes, media votes and player votes, the latter of which were taken so seriously that Summer League legend Jack Cooley even earned a single nomination from one especially ornery player voter.

For those that missed the starters, they include LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid from the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and James Harden from the Western Conference.

That leaves seven more reserves from each conference and way more deserving players than that from which to choose. These will be selected by the coaches, per tradition, but it’s anybody’s guess who ends up making the team. There absolutely are going to be some massive snubs this year, so let’s take a quick look at the most likely candidates to earn roster spots this winter, as well as who that might leave out of this year’s event in Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference

Let’s start with the “sure things,” which almost certainly will include with Indian Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Not only is he putting up a career-best 24/5/4 line, but he’s also averaging two steals per night for an Indiana team that currently lives in the playoff picture despite dismal expectations. That’s almost entirely because of Oladipo.

In the frontcourt, there was plenty of healthy debate when Embiid was voted the starter over Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, so there’s a very good chance that those two guys find their way to the roster, as well.

Kevin Love, who also is having a monster statistical season, seems like the most obvious third frontcourt guy, but his defense stinks and the Cavs haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of two All-Stars. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris both are having borderline All-Star seasons for a borderline playoff team, but they are the closest contenders to stealing away that third frontcourt reserve slot from Love.

Beyond that, Bradley Beal or John Wall likely will be the “other” guard reserve, but choosing which one is dicey. Wall’s the four-time All-Star, but Beal arguably is having the better year and has been snubbed for this event entirely too many times already. It doesn’t seem likely that both guys will make the team.

The wild cards could be that “other” Wizards guard among Beal and Wall, one of those two Pistons players, Miami’s Goran Dragic (they are fourth in the conference, rather surprisingly), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, or Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.

What seems most probable is that Oladipo and Beal earn the Eastern Conference reserve slots, with Horford, Porzingis and Love earning the backup frontcourt positions. Lowry and Wall feel most likely as reserves.

That means the most likely Eastern Conference snubs will be: Goran Dragic, Ben Simmons, Andre Drummod, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.

The level of controversy with this group feels fairly low, though if Dragic or Drummond were to make the team over Wall or Love, the conversation would be a lot feistier.

The Western Conference

Choosing the reserve guards in the Western Conference is a no-brainer. It will be MVP candidates Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, which immediately means that if Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Paul George are not named as Wild Card players, they will be left off of the team. That’s about as “yikes” as “yikes” gets.

The battle for the frontcourt spots are going to be no less brutal, even with Kawhi Leonard effectively out of consideration having missed so much time at the beginning of the season. The Spurs will have an All-Star anyway, though, which makes LaMarcus Aldridge all but a lock.

Towns, who is averaging a 20/12 with over two assists and 1.5 blocks per game on one of the West’s top teams, also feels likely to get in. That means Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are the two guys expected to battle over that last frontcourt spot, and both deserve real consideration. Green’s importance is less obvious to this Warriors team with Durant on the roster, but he’s no less essential even if his offensive numbers are down. Jokic, meanwhile, has kept Denver in the playoff hunt even without Paul Millsap, and is the best passing big man in the game.

The most likely scenario in terms of Western Conference reserves has Butler and Westbrook getting voted in at guard, Aldridge, Towns and Green voted in as frontcourt players, and Thompson and Lillard voted in as the wild cards.

That means the most likely Western Conference snubs will be: Chris Paul, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic.

Paul has missed 17 games this season, which is just too many when there are so many other great guards from which to choose, and George’s usage has dropped massively in Oklahoma City. As for Jokic, somebody has to get snubbed, and the other reasonable possibility is that he be named a wild card player at the expense of Lillard, and no NBA fan should have to see that happen yet again.

The 2018 NBA All-Star Reserves will be announced at 7:00 p.m. EST on January 23 on TNT.

Tune in Tuesday night to see which players will make the team, and which will inevitably be snubbed.

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NBA Daily: Rockets Might Be Formidable Challenge For Warriors

If nothing else, the Rockets gave everyone, including the Warriors, something to think about by beating the champs.

Moke Hamilton

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For those that had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of the Houston Rockets, Saturday afternoon’s win over the Golden State Warriors should serve as a bit of a wakeup call.

Sure, championships aren’t won in mid-January, but by virtue of the win, the Rockets won their season series against the Warriors, 2-1.

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season—the year the Warriors won the first of three consecutive Western Conference Finals—they’ve lost a season series to just one other team: the San Antonio Spurs.

A review of the tape suggests that those that believe that Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are truly the team that has the best shot of beating the Warriors is founded in some fact. In the last three seasons, the Warriors have lost a total of 39 games.

In total, during that span, seven teams have failed to beat the Warriors even once, while 12 teams have beaten them one time. Four teams have beaten the Warriors twice and only the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them thrice.

The Spurs, though, have managed to beat the Warriors five times, with Popovich leading his team to a 2-1 regular season series win over the Warriors during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

It’s safe to say that they have been the only team worthy of calling themselves anything near a worthy adversary to Stephen Curry and company.

At least, that was the case until Saturday night.

* * * * * *

With all due respect to Michael Jordan, if the Warriors win the NBA Finals this season, they can legitimately claim to be the best team in NBA history.

Two titles in three years is nothing to sneeze at, but the claim holds no weight whatsoever without ever having won two in a row, especially when scores of other teams have been able to accomplish the feat.

Aside from the two championships, the Warriors can claim the best regular season record in the league’s history and the distinction of being the only team to ever win 67 or more games for three consecutive seasons.

It is true that the Warriors have been almost invincible since the 2014-15 season, but things have changed now that Chris Paul has joined forces with James Harden.

This season, the Mike D’Antoni coached team ranks 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over last season’s rank of 18th.

With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute, they have four defensive stalwarts, one of whom (Ariza) who wasn’t able to suit up due to being suspended.

At the end of the day, beating a team in the regular season doesn’t really count for much, especially when you consider the greatest irony: in each of the seasons the Spurs beat the Warriors in their season series, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The obvious asterisk there is that the Warriors didn’t play the Spurs in the 2015 NBA Playoffs and only managed to sweep them once the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard in 2017.

Still, beating the defending champs in any game, much less a season series, has got to feel good. Whether they want to admit it or not, Saturday’s game against the Warriors was one that the Rockets wanted to get, that’s probably why Mike D’Antoni opted to reinsert James Harden into the game after he surpassed his 30-minute playing restriction.

In the end, Harden logged 35 minutes and ended up making what was the game’s clinching three-pointer.

Poetic, indeed.

* * * * * *

With the season a little more than halfway over, the Warriors still appear to be head and shoulders above those competing for their throne. Of the other contenders, the Rockets and Boston Celtics, at least for now, appear most formidable.

At the end of the day, what the Warriors have to fear more than anything is their own arrogance. As a unit, the team believes that it’s the best at playing small ball and that no other team can beat them as their own game. While that may be true, there have been a few instances over the past few years where that belief has ended up costing them.

What the Warriors seem to struggle with is understanding that not every possession can be played the same way, and as some possessions become more and more valuable, it would be wise for the team to play more conservatively and traditionally.

For example, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving made one of the most incredible shots we’ve ever seen, but it was Stephen Curry who helped leave the door open for the Cavs with a pitiful final five minutes of the game.

Among the worst atrocities he committed was an ill-advised turnover that came as a result of an off target behind the back pass to Klay Thompson. In such a situation, any second grader could have and would have known that a simple bounce pass to the flashing Thompson would have sufficed.

Steve Kerr’s message to his team, though, is to play like themselves and not overthink their execution.

While that’s fair, it does at least leave room to wonder if the Warriors will have the humility to play conservatively when the game is on the line.

Curry himself admitted to playing too aggressively and making poor reads and decisions down the stretch versus the Rockets. The team passed up wide-open two-point shots for three-pointers that didn’t fall, and those botched opportunities played a direct role in causing the loss.

Fortunately, for the Warriors, not much was at stake, but their performance and decision-making in those tight minutes leave us to wonder what will happen if and when they find themselves in another tight moment or two…

And by virtue of the Rockets becoming just the second team to take a season series from the Warriors since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, we can also fairly wonder whether they truly have what it takes to take down the Golden Goliath.

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NBA

G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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