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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 11/14/17

After one month of the 2017-18 NBA season, which players are staking their claim as the league’s MVP?

Dennis Chambers

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Almost one month after the start of the 2017-18 season, the NBA is already full of surprises and storylines to last us all the way until June. Luckily, however, basketball fans still get nightly entertainment for the next since months.

Since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player award race here at Basketball Insiders, some things have changed. When the first list dropped, just two weeks had passed in this new season, and some early big-time performances catapulted a few players into the initial watch list. With under two weeks in the books, some consistency has formed for a few candidates, while a few newcomers find themselves smack dab in the middle of the race now.

Until the season really begins to settle in, you can expect the race or MVP to have some warranted fluctuation. Once the stars get into their groove though, the cream will most likely rise to the top.

With all of that said, let’s check in on our second edition of the MVP watch list.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Just five minutes into his brand new stint as a Boston Celtic, Kyrie Irving lost his most talented teammate, Gordon Hayward, to a season-ending injury.

In a new city, with new teammates, a new coach, and learning chemistry on the fly, all Irving has done is lead the Celtics to a league-best 12-2 record.

After suffering a facial fracture last Friday night, Irving did sit out of Boston’s win Sunday against the Toronto Raptors. But in order for the Celtics to keep up their torrid pace of bodying opponents, they’ll need their star point guard.

When Irving isn’t on the court for Boston, their offensive rating goes down, their assist percentage goes down, and their turnover percentage goes up. While Irving isn’t averaging career-highs across the board, he’s making the right plays and drawing attention from defenses so that players like Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum can flourish.

A month into the new era of his career, Irving is proving that he can be much more than LeBron James’ sidekick.

  1. Kevin Durant

Year two of the Kevin Durant experiment in Golden State seems to be working out just fine.

The Warriors are 11-3 and look as dominant as ever. When the likes of Durant and Steph Curry are on the same team, it may be hard for either player to actually win the MVP award, but that doesn’t negate their performance in pursuit of it.

Durant makes a 14-point difference in the Warriors’ offensive rating when he’s on the court, an insane number (yet somehow still not the best on the team). He’s currently shooting a career-high 44 percent from beyond the arc, too, adding, even more firepower to an already blazing arsenal possessed by Durant and his teammates.

So long as the Warriors keep winning and Durant keeps scoring efforts in the high 20’s, coupled with his near eight rebounds a night, the 6-foot-10 wing will constantly be in the MVP discussion. However, winning may be a more difficult task just due to this supporting cast.

  1. LeBron James

The start to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season has been less than ideal. At just 7-7 through the one month mark of the year, legitimate questions are arising about how long the Cavs can keep their stranglehold on the Eastern Conference.

Despite all of the obvious problems with the roster and their effort, though, LeBron James is literally dragging his team into competition. No matter how much dead weight he can appear to be carrying at times.

In year 15 of his Hall of Fame career, James is averaging 28.1 points, 8.8 assists, and 7.6 rebounds a night. He’s shooting a career-high 80 percent from the free-throw line and posting an absurd 66 true shooting percentage. James is playing the most minutes per night since his first season with the Miami HEAT, and in order for his team to win games, it looks like it’ll have to stay that way.

While the first month of James’ life after Kyrie Irving hasn’t gone as well as planned for his team, his personal stats are looking better than ever. All with over 41,000 career minutes already under his belt.

If the Cavaliers have any shot at reaching a fourth straight NBA Finals, it’ll be because James turned in his fifth career MVP season.

  1. Steph Curry

Just like Durant, Steph Curry has planted himself right in the thick of the MVP race after the first month of the season.

While both players are incredibly crucial to Golden State’s success, Curry has been arguably more important thus far. Remember that ridiculous 14-point swing Durant adds to the Warriors’ offensive rating? Curry’s is 21 points.

After initially debuting at No. 2 on this list, Curry does drop a spot, though. Despite his nightly brilliance for his defending champion ballclub, the teammates that Curry has alongside him in battle each night will eventually cost him in the long run for this award.

But, again, just like with Durant, that doesn’t negate the absurd impact Curry has on his team’s offensive dominance. It just likely will get overshadowed by a player doing similar things with less high-profile teammates.

  1. James Harden

Kyrie Irving wasn’t the only superstar guard who lost an All-Star teammate early in the season.

James Harden had his buddy Chris Paul in the backcourt with him for all of one game, and all Harden has done since then is average 30 points, 10 assists, nearly five rebounds and shoot 39 percent from deep for the Houston Rockets.

All of that has equated beautifully to an 11-3 record and atop the Western Conference, jostling with Golden State for position among the West’s elite teams.

After losing out on last year’s MVP award to Russell Westbrook and his triple-double barrage, Harden looks poised to earn his own hardware this season. Even with Paul slated to return Thursday against the Phoenix Suns, Harden will still surely shoulder the load moving forward until his all-star teammate gets reacclimated to the Houston offense.

The 28-year-old bearded superstar continues his excellence as the main distributor in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, without sacrificing his scoring output. Even with Paul sharing the rock with him upon his return, Harden’s hot start and thirst for an MVP trophy should keep his numbers and impact right where they need to be as the season advances.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Not yet has anyone supplanted the Greek Freak in his quest for the title of league’s Most Valuable Player.

The 22-year-old all-around superstar is willing the Milwaukee Bucks to victory every chance he gets. Despite just a 7-6 record in the early goings of this season, Antetokounmpo makes the Bucks a legitimate threat to hang with whoever they face on a nightly basis.

His averages are still ridiculous: 31.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists a night. But what Antetokounmpo does on the defensive end is what can really save the Bucks moving forward, especially now that they have Eric Bledsoe to shoulder some of the load on the offensive end.

When Antetokounmpo isn’t on the court, opposing team’s are posting a 120.6 offensive rating. When he is on the court, though? That rating drops all the way to 105.7 for his Milwaukee unit. Having the ability to stick every position on the court will do that for a player and his team.

It’s still very early in the season, but so far, Antetokounmpo is doing the best he can to keep his wire-to-wire MVP campaign intact.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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NBA Daily: Will Philadelphia Struggle From Downtown?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have enough outside shooting talent to spread the floor on the offensive end? Jordan Hicks takes a look.

Jordan Hicks

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It’s only been one game, and this could likely be an overreaction, but will the Philadelphia 76ers struggle this season from beyond-the-arc? With the departure of two highly capable shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, it might not be insane to say this could turn into a large problem throughout the season.

Last season for the 76ers, Belinelli finished 38.5 percent from three and Ilyasova finished at 36.1 percent. While neither of those percentages is staggering, both sit above the league average, and those players shoot and make threes at a consistent pace. Neither player was necessarily streaky from downtown, so you knew what to expect from them on a nightly basis.

What the two players brought more than anything was gravity. Each game, teams had to strategically plan how to stop them from making three-point shots. Players had to maintain certain spots on the floor defensively, which in turn left offensive players in advantageous positions. Losing both Belinelli and Ilyasova allows defenses to suck in closer to the paint so they can better defend Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at what they do best – attack the rim.

This is precisely what the Boston Celtics did to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and the final score definitely told the tale. The Celtics ended up winning, 105-87. Boston is a talented squad, and playing at the TD Garden is never an easy task, but the 76ers are too good to lose by high double-digits.

Apart from Boston’s stellar defense, Philadelphia’s mark from the perimeter paints a clear picture of what they might struggle with throughout the season. They finished 5-for-26, good for 19.7 percent.

It’s not like they don’t have any help from three. Robert Covington led the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season and J.J. Redick shot a scorching career 41.5 percent from deep. Their third option from three is likely Dario Saric, who finished last season at 39.3 percent. But after those three the drop-off is significant. Embiid might come in next, and he shot a poor 30.8 percent last season.

By the end of the season, the top three scorers for Philadelphia could likely be Simmons, Embiid and last year’s first-round pick, Markelle Fultz. Not one of those players can shoot the three consistently, certainly not at an efficient mark. Simmons and Fultz have never even made a three-point field goal in their young careers.

All three of those players have the ability to score efficiently around the rim, and they’ll likely get their buckets. But with fewer players on the roster to worry about as a deep threat, teams will mirror Boston’s success and crowd the paint.

If Brett Brown continues to play Saric, Covington and Redick in limited minutes – they played just eight minutes together on Tuesday – most of their lineups will only ever feature two above average three-point shooters. This can begin to get highly problematic for the 76ers as the season progresses. As previously mentioned, teams will just stuff the area around the hoop with great rim protectors and only worry about crashing the boards when mid-range jumpers clank off the basket.

Teams that had the most success last season, à la the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, had at minimum three high-level deep threats on the floor at all times. This allowed them to spread the offense, keep defenses guessing and find an open shooter after throwing the ball around from player to player or cutting to the basket. With the fact that multiple shooters on the court can spread out the defense and essentially keep them on their toes, all it takes is an intelligent cut or a crafty pass to find someone open at the rim. If teams don’t have enough efficient shooters on the floor, defenses can just suck in and stop players going to the hoop.

But when there are three or more plus shooters on the court, defenders have a really difficult decision to make. Do you try and play help defense by attempting to stop the shot at the rim? This can leave your opponent open for an easy three. Will help defense get there in time to defend the three? Maybe, but then another quick pass can find another open shooter. So do you stay on your man? Sure, but then you give up an easy basket at the rim.

That last paragraph was elementary. Most teams and fans understand this concept. The importance of efficient shooters in today’s league is at an all-time high. The 76ers have a very talented, young team. Simmons and Embiid are a phenomenal duo to build around. But their lack of players that hold any sort of gravity from three-point land could really give them struggles.

Alas, we are only one game into the season. A handful of teams have yet to play, so there is still plenty of basketball to be had. The 76ers are still monstrous on defense and can obviously generate baskets on the offensive end. Thanks in part to Simmons, they are one of the most electric teams in transition, and can often score with ease around the hoop.

Are the 76ers a playoff team? That’s essentially a lock. Can they go deep in the playoffs? It certainly appears so. But in order for them to make a legitimate run to the Finals, they’ll need to find more efficiency from the three-point line. Not simply because they could use those points, but because they need that spacing for their offense to function at an elite level.

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