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NBA Daily: Most Improved Player Watch — 11/22/2019

A month into the season, the field is beginning to separate for the Most Improved Player Award. Quinn Davis takes a look at the players that would be at the top of the race if the season ended today.

Quinn Davis

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In today’s NBA, the offseason is almost as exciting as the regular season and playoffs. There is Free Agency, of course, but outside of the normal player movement storylines, there is also the neverending cycle of workout videos and hype generation.

Every summer brings footage of players dominating an LA Fitness gym or of a previously paint-bound player draining threes with a trainer. Most times, these grainy videos tell us nothing other than that NBA players sans NBA competition are always going to look amazing — because they’re just really freaking good at basketball.

Sometimes, though, these videos and subsequent social media hype can foreshadow a leap year. Sometimes, it turns out they did add some range or a better repertoire of post moves.

A month into the season, here are the players that have made a leap so far. Unlike two weeks ago, this Most Improved Watch will include more than five players. With so many players looking better than ever, there will be a few lumped together to make sure no one is forgotten. Here we go..

Luka Doncic/Trae Young

After not making this list two weeks ago, both of these second-year dynamos have forced their way into the Most Improved conversation. While it’s rare for players of their pedigree to win due to an expectation of improvement, both of the leaps that Young and Doncic have taken are nearly unprecedented.

Doncic has been incredible. He has blossomed into an MVP candidate quicker than anyone has expected. His raw averages of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists would be the best ever for a player his age. His assist rate of 49.1 percent is the second-highest number in the league.

Even after a few games of hot shooting, his three-point shooting has not significantly improved. He is only up to 35 percent after hitting 34 percent of those shots a year ago. His finishing at the rim has taken a big jump, however, up to 72 percent in that area after finishing 61 percent of those shots in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass.

Doncic exists in the LeBron James category of players who are excellent scorers despite being better at another aspect of the game. Doncic’s true genius has been his ability to manipulate defenses and consistently make the right pass. He has become one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA.

This brings us to Young, who has also excelled offensively in the pick-and-roll. While Young is not quite on the plane that Doncic is, he has been a vital part of the Hawks’ solid start to the season. Youngs averages of nearly 27 points and 9 assists would be a much bigger storyline in a Doncic-less league.

For more on Young, take a look at Basketball Insiders’ column from last week about his impressive start.

Andrew Wiggins/Brandon Ingram

Here we have the category of former high draft picks that were almost written off, but might be finally taking the leap. Both of these players failed to meet their lofty expectations but have had very promising starts to this season.

Wiggins, the number one overall pick in 2014, has come slightly down to Earth after a hot start, but he is still on track for his best season. He is averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists while achieving a 52 percent effective field goal percentage, the highest of his career.

Maybe the most impressive improvement in Wiggins’ game has been his passing. His assist percentage of 17.6 percent is by far his best, and his turnover rate of 6.6 percent is his lowest, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Timberwolves’ offense has been 7 points per 100 possessions better with Wiggins on the court than with him off, per Cleaning the Glass. If he keeps up his improved passing and efficiency, he will be a viable candidate as the season goes on.

Ingram, the second overall pick in 2016, has been even better. In his new role on the Pelicans, he is averaging 25 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. His biggest improvement has been in his three-point shooting. He is hitting 45 percent of his three-point attempts, up from 33 percent a year ago.

That number is likely unsustainable. Ingram is not putting up a huge volume of threes, albeit more than last year, and his long mid-range percentage is relatively unchanged from last season. It’s likely that Ingram regresses as the season goes on, but it’s reasonable to think that he will settle closer to 40 percent, an impressive number.

Like Wiggins, Ingram has improved his passing. His assist percentage is higher than it’s ever been while his turnover percentage has remained constant. Ingram has more space to operate playing alongside a true point guard in Jrue Holiday, and he has taken advantage. If he continues to shoot at an elite level, he will be in consideration for Most Improved come April.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Why does Gilgeous-Alexander get his own section ahead of Doncic and Young? Simple, the expectations for the former were not as lofty as those for the latter. Gilgeous-Alexander, a late lottery pick, was not expected to immediately take a leap like he has this season, and therefore should receive more consideration for Most Improved.

Gilgeous-Alexander has nearly doubled his scoring from last season and is hitting a higher percentage of his three-point attempts at a much higher volume. His overall efficiency is actually slightly lower than last season, but this is more than made up for by the increased usage.

Under the tutelage of Chris Paul, he has improved his ability to maneuver on offense and manipulate players around him. He also knows how to use his length and size at guard to shoot over and around smaller players when going to the rim.

Like a lot of the players on this list, Gilgeous-Alexander got off to a hot shooting start which inflated his numbers a bit. He has since regressed, but the other areas he has improved and his increased usage should keep him in this conversation.

Pascal Siakam

Siakam’s rate of improvement over his first three years in the league has been unprecedented. After winning the award a season ago, he has only made an even bigger leap. It can be argued that going from borderline All-Star to superstar is harder than jumping from bench player to borderline All-Star.

His three-point shooting has come back to Earth a bit after a scorching start. He is still averaging 25 points a game and controlling the Raptors’ offense. The team craters when he sits, going from a plus-11.4 net rating with him playing to a minus-6.0 net with him sitting, per Cleaning the Glass.

His defense is on the level of his offense, if not better. He can guard 1-4 well, and the team has a similar drop in defensive rating whenever he takes a rest. He has almost single-handedly made the Raptors a threat in the East after many expected the conference to be a two-team race.

For the record, it is highly unlikely he wins this award. Voters will be wary of giving someone Most Improved for the second year in a row. That said, if he continues to play at an absurd level that was unfathomable for him just two years ago, he will always get a mention in this space.

Devonte’ Graham

The leading candidate for this award remains Graham. As noted before, the seemingly out of nowhere jump from rookie project to quality point guard is what will get the most attention and deservedly so.

At the last check-in for this award, Graham was the Hornets’ sixth man and contending for that award as well. Now, coach James Borrego has made the decision to move him into the starting lineup.

Graham is still averaging 18 points and 7 assists while being lights out from three. His pull-up in transition is deadly and he uses it to punish defenders anytime they take even a small step backward.

The Hornets are operating at a minus-20 net rating when Graham sits and a minus-1.7 rating when he plays, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the worst team in the league to a slightly below-average one.

Outside of the impressive shooting, his command of the floor has been a revelation. He is using his gravity to find shooters and create open looks like a veteran. He has been a bright spot for a Hornets team that is in the very early stages of rebuilding and he should be a fixture in the Most Improved conversation.

There you have it, the leading candidates for the Most Improved Player. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to track this award and the others.

Notable Mentions: Jonathan Isaac, Malcolm Brogdon, Bam Adebayo, Jabari Parker, DeAndre Bembry, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, Frank Ntilkina and Furkan Korkmaz

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NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto

After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.

Drew Maresca

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The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.

Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).

But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.

Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.

But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.

But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.

There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.

There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.

Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.

As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.

All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.

All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.

Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?

Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.

Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.

And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres

It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.

Douglas Farmer

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Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.

And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.

“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”

Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.

“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”

Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.

He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”

That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.

Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.

Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.

“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”

If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”

It might not have been a joke.

Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.

“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”

That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.

If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.

The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.

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Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.

Jordan Hicks

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Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.

Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.

Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.

No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)

This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?

Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.

LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.

With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.

No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)

On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.

While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.

The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.

No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)

By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.

The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.

What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.

The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.

No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)

You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.

They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.

The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.

Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)

The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.

The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.

Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.

All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.

But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?

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