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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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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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