Over half of the first-round series in this year’s NBA playoffs are already over, while every other matchup features at least one team that is just a single win away from joining Cleveland, Atlanta, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Golden State in the Conference Semifinals.
That’s more than enough for us to have a sense of which players have been the best of the postseason so far. Despite a slow start, there have been some pretty big moments in the first round and more competitive series than we thought there were going to be after Games 1 and 2.
Here’s a look at the NBA playoffs’ best players through the first round:
The All-Playoffs First Team (Round 1)
Guard: Paul George, Indiana Pacers – Even though his team is down 3-2 heading into a must-win Game 6 on Friday night, George arguably has been the league’s postseason MVP through five games. He’s pouring in a league-leading 28.8 points per game (up 5.7 points from his regular-season average) while also hauling in rebounds (six per game) and dishing out assists (4.6 per game) with gusto and helping to hold two All-Star Raptors guards to series shooting percentages that just barely scratch 30 percent. His team has been inconsistent in closing out games all season, but Indiana’s woes are the furthest thing from George’s fault.
Guard: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder – Mark Cuban doesn’t think Russell Westbrook is a superstar, and Kevin Durant thinks that Mark Cuban is an idiot. Cuban’s not an idiot, of course, but Westbrook is currently one of the top three or four players in the entire NBA and continued to prove it in a huge first-round series against Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks. In that series, Westbrook averaged a first-round-leading 11.2 assists per game to go along with 26 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 1.6 SPG, all of which combine for one of the most elite stat lines of the playoffs so far. He’s been electric, angry and effective, which means the San Antonio Spurs aren’t going to have it easy against OKC in the second round.
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder – Westbrook’s MVP teammate hasn’t been any less devastating, scoring 26 PPG of his own in that first-round series against Dallas. His 6.4 RPG and 3.2 APG also placed him among the league leaders and absolutely among the leaders at his position. Durant and Westbrook put on a clinic in the first round, emerging as two of the league’s top-five postseason scorers up to this point.
Frontcourt: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers – It’s been easy to forget about The King in the first round, especially considering how quickly and quietly his Cavs dispatched the upstart Detroit Pistons. However, he’s been just as good as he always is in the postseason – scoring 22.8 PPG, hauling in nine RPG, swiping away 1.75 steals and dishing out 6.8 APG, all of which place him among the top 11 players in the league in each category. Interestingly, those 22.8 PPG are a career playoff low, but that hasn’t made him any less effective. There’s a reason things have been so wide open for Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving so far, and James is most of it.
Frontcourt: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs – Watching Leonard and Durant go head-to-head in the second round is going to be one of the more entertaining one-on-one matchups of the entire postseason, not only because of Durant’s offensive prowess but because of Leonard’s award-winning defense. Those skills were on display in San Antonio’s first-round sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies, with Leonard averaging 2.75 SPG (most in the league) and 2.75 BPG (fourth in the league) and generally doing all of the amazing defensive things he does that don’t show up in the stat book. The fact that he still had the energy to lead the team with 21.5 PPG speaks volumes as to just how good this young man has been so far in the playoffs.
All-Playoffs Second Team (Round 1)
Guard: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers – While Irving is a pain in the rear end to guard at any point in the season, he’s been especially good in the postseason, scoring 27.5 PPG (second among all players) and knocking down an impressive 47.1 percent of his three-pointers in the first-round sweep of the Pistons. Hitting that high a percentage of shots is doubly impressive when one considers that he’s hitting four of them per game, second only to J.R. Smith in that category. We all know that when Irving’s confidence is high, he’s a tough guy to slow down, so if he carries this momentum into the next series and beyond, the Cavaliers are going to be exactly as dangerous as we always thought they’d be.
Guard: James Harden, Houston Rockets – So far the only player mentioned here to have been eliminated from the postseason, Harden has been too good individually to be ignored – even though his Rockets were eliminated by the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors in just five games. At the moment, Harden ranks third in the league in postseason points per game with 26.6 and assists per game with 7.6, as well third among guards in rebounds with 5.2 per game. His game-winner in Game 3 gives him a boost as well, which is a fair tie-breaker when other guards like Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Portland’s Damian Lillard could have taken this spot, instead.
Frontcourt: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors – Without Stephen Curry for essentially the entire first round, the talented and deep Warriors still managed to handle the Rockets in just five games, in large part because Green held down the fort so respectably. He didn’t score a ton (his 13.2 PPG actually is lower than last year’s playoff scoring average of 13.7 PPG), but he still offered up elite defense and rebounding (his 9.6 RPG were seventh-most of anyone in the first-round), while dishing out 6.6 dimes per game and shooting almost 40 percent from deep. Plus, this is the year when the Warriors are represented in some fashion for every award possible, even hypothetical ones like these that don’t even come with a trophy.
Frontcourt: Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers – Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been the poster kiddos for Portland’s incredible first-round surge, but Plumlee has been playing some of the best basketball of his young career in a role that has seen him emerge as one of the league’s elite postseason big men. Plumlee is third among all players in rebounds with 13 per game through the first five contests, but it’s his unfathomable six assists per game – a huge percent increase over his regular season assist output – that really earns him recognition here. Those silly assist numbers put him ahead of Goran Dragic, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas this postseason and that, added to a respectable 7.8 points per game and those massive rebound numbers, makes him one of the playoffs’ best big men so far.
Frontcourt: DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers – It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Jordan is leading the postseason in blocks (3.2 BPG) and rebounds (15.6 RPG) because those are the types of things that he always does. But both of those numbers are actually higher than his regular season totals of 13.8 RPG and 2.3 BPG, so while his scoring and field goal percentage has dropped in the playoffs, he’s still putting up the elite numbers in other ways. With Blake Griffin out, they should stay that way for as long as the Clippers remain in the playoffs.
Also receiving votes: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers; Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets; Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers; Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks; Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to expect most of these players to keep up the good work in round two, it’s all but a certainty that at least a few of them will not make it to the Conference Semis. At that point, these teams will have to change, but for now these have been the league’s elite in the first round, with very little opportunity remaining to skew things too dramatically.
Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17
Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.
It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.
Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.
Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.
By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.
Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.
Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.
His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.
While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)
While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.
Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.
Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.
Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.
The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.
Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.
While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.
It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.
Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.
So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.
NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17
Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.
A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.
Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.
The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.
A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.
The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.
This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.
There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.
As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.
So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.
Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:
The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.
The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
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