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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 11/17

Basketball Insiders releases our first MVP rankings of the 2016-17 NBA season.

Oliver Maroney

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While it’s still very early in the 2016-17 NBA season, we’re starting to get an idea of which players belong in the initial MVP discussion. Some are the superstars who are always mentioned in these conversations, while others are a bit more surprising.

Each week, Basketball Insiders is going to look at the MVP race’s top 10 candidates. Check back each Thursday to see how your favorite player stacks up against competitors across the league. Here are our first MVP rankings of the season:

1. James Harden

This offseason, Patrick Beverley told Basketball Insiders that he expected James Harden to “win MVP and lead us to the Finals.”

Some laughed at the quote, but the Harden critics are pretty silent right now. Coming off a dismal 2015-16 campaign, the Rockets went out and added a new coach in Mike D’Antoni along with two key rotation players in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Not to mention, Harden restructured his contract and shifted to the point guard position. That’s a lot of change in one summer, and it would’ve been understandable if it took time for Harden to adjust.

Instead, he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Through 11 games, Harden is averaging 28.7 points, 12.6 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He’s been more efficient too, shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from behind the arc. With Harden off the court, the Rockets are scoring 88.4 points per 100 possessions. But with Harden, they’re scoring 113 points per 100 possessions. That’s a massive difference and demonstrates just how valuable Harden is to this team.

While Houston is only 7-5, they’ve played a difficult schedule – with eight of their first 12 games on the road. This could be an indicator that their record will improve once the schedule softens up. At this point, Harden’s monster numbers give him the edge over his peers.

2. LeBron James

After the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship, James reclaimed his spot as the best player in the world. Even so, we still seem to take his greatness for granted. The Cavs are 9-2 and look like a team that could be ready to play in the Finals tomorrow. While all of the talk this season is surrounding the Golden State Warriors, James is continuing to dominate and another Finals appearance seems very likely.

Currently, James is averaging 23.4 points, 9.6 assists and 8.9 rebounds. Aside from the statistics, he’s the player with the best combination of size, defense, athleticism and playmaking in the league.

While James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he’s still the main reason for the Cavs’ success. Ultimately, James becoming MVP won’t come down to his own statistics. Everyone knows he’s one of the best in the league and he can physically do whatever he wants. The Cavaliers’ record likely decides James’ MVP fate. He’s always going to be in the MVP conversation, but this year his candidacy is reliant on how his team does rather than his (seemingly imminent) individual success.

3. Chris Paul

The Clippers have the best record in the NBA and arguably the best point guard in the league. Possessing the longest standing “Big Three,” it’s hard to determine who’s most valuable between Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. However, Paul’s on-court presence and leadership along with his efficient passing and shooting make him the most viable candidate of the three.

Currently, Paul is averaging 18.3 points, 8.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds through 12 games. While 18 points might not jump off the stat sheet like some other numbers on this list, Paul is leading the league in player efficiency rating (31.5), steals (3.1), defensive rating (91) and win shares (3). He’s also second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.76 and third in offensive rating (131.7). Couple his leadership with his production all over the court and the argument for Paul is pretty easy to make.

If the Clippers and Paul can maintain this level of play, he has a strong case.

4. Russell Westbrook

While Westbrook has continued to post excellent numbers, his team’s record has come back down to Earth. After starting the season at 6-1, they’ve now evened out at 7-5. But you can’t deny his statistics are amazing and he’s extremely valuable to the Thunder. He’s almost averaging a triple-double, posting 31.8 points, 9.8 assists and 9.5 rebounds per game. Along with this, he’s been more efficient this year, shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three (five percent better than last year).

In order for Westbrook to really be in contention for MVP, he’ll have to vault Oklahoma City into a high playoff spot, which is going to be difficult. Without Kevin Durant, he can put up bigger stats, but if he can’t get Oklahoma City into the playoffs, he isn’t in this conversation. However, if OKC exceeds expectations, he’ll be the odds-on favorite for MVP.

5. DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan has started the season better than anyone expected. Previously known as an inefficient scorer on a good Raptors team, DeRozan has looked like a different player this year.  Currently averaging 33.3 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting, DeRozan has become a premier one-on-one scorer. Even with his lack of three-point shooting, he’s making a higher percentage of his overall shots and scoring with ease with mid-range shots and finishes at the rim. And, most importantly, he has Toronto playing pretty well at 7-4.

DeRozan is showing how efficient he can be in the mid-range, even with a player defending him. His ability to create his own shot is one of the best in the NBA and might be the closest thing to Kobe Bryant we’ve seen. If he continues leading this team to a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference, we can expect him to continue to get love in the MVP race.

6. Kawhi Leonard

Last year’s MVP runner-up, Leonard has once again shown that he can be the Spurs’ go-to scorer while remaining extremely efficient and tenacious on defense. There’s no question that Leonard’s humble attitude and quiet confidence make him extremely likable. It’s easy to root for an unselfish guy who puts his team first, just wants to win and leads by example (especially when taking over games). The Spurs sit at 9-3 on the season and a lot of that is due to Leonard’s outstanding execution on both offense and defense.

Leonard is averaging 25 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 45.3 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three and 95.4 percent from the free throw line. His efficiency on offense and elite defense make him a nightmare for opposing coaches.

7. Damian Lillard

Lillard has been excellent through 12 games, averaging 29.8 points, five rebounds and 4.6 assists. But the difference-maker is his leadership. When discussing Lillard’s impact, fellow Blazers guard C.J. McCollum told Basketball Insiders: “His versatility and ability to lead everyone while staying true to who he is and what he stands for is special. Obviously, he’s a great player, but he hasn’t let success change his foundation and that’s what makes him who he is.”

Lillard has improved vastly from last year. Along with the noticeable scoring increase, he’s also shooting the ball more efficiently. Lillard is taking almost the same amount of shots as last year, but he is averaging five more points and shooting five percent higher from the field.

He’s creating more opportunities for teammates, spacing the floor better and, perhaps most important, driving to the paint like an NBA superstar should. His ability to get to the charity stripe is an addition to his game that we hadn’t fully seen. He’s now ranked fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts and averages 3.3 more attempts per game than last year.

Like Westbrook, Lillard will need some help from his teammates and a very good record to win the MVP award. But if Lillard continues to put up monstrous numbers while keeping his efficiency up, he could certainly be in the running.

8. Kemba Walker

Walker is another point guard who’s off to a great start. His team sits a 7-3 and he’s clearly Charlotte’s number-one option. Shooting 49.1 percent from the field and averaging 25.8 points per game, Kemba is not only scoring, but he’s also been terrific on defense. He’s averaging 1.9 steals on a team that’s allowing under 100 points per game. The Hornets rank fourth in defensive rating, an improvement over last season despite losing some key rotation players over the summer. A lot of the credit should be given to Walker as he’s held all opposing point guards to under 20 points per game.

Walker and the Hornets are off to a tremendous start. If they can continue to stay in the top three or four teams in the Eastern Conference, anticipate seeing Walker in this conversation throughout the season.

9. Kevin Durant (and Stephen Curry)

It’s strange to think of Durant or Curry being ninth in any sort of ranking. But because of Golden State’s struggles early on, it’s hard to rank him above players who have done more with less or have a better record thus far. Because Durant plays with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, it’s hard to separate how “valuable” he is to his team. Of course, Durant’s averaging 27.9 points, eight rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks with his incredible efficiency. But his teammate Curry averages the same amount of points per game.

Every night, either one (or both) could step up for Golden State, and that’s why neither player will likely win the award. By teaming up, they have a great shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy together, but they’ll take MVP votes away from each other. Either way, Durant and Curry will be in this conversation as long Golden State continues to win.

10. Blake Griffin

Griffin has been the unsung hero for the Clippers this season. After coming back from injury, many questioned whether he could get back to dominating the power forward position. His mid-range game looks extremely polished and he has been physically imposing in the post, making him hard to defend. On the other side of the ball, his defense has also been impressive. The Clippers are playing like the best team in the league and a big reason for that is Griffin’s revitalization.

Currently, Griffin is averaging 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, four assists and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 48.4 percent from the field. He’s continuing to improve as a player while helping this Clippers team to an NBA-best 10-2 record. But, as is the case with the Warriors, the fact that L.A. has two MVP candidates in Paul and Griffin likely hurts each individual’s odds of actually winning the award. Still, Griffin deserves a ton of credit for producing at such a high level in a strong bounce-back campaign.

 

Oliver Maroney is an NBA writer for Basketball Insiders. He is based in Portland and covers the league as a whole.

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.

A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.

Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three boxes checked off.

“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”

During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.

Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.

From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?

“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”

Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even aspects outside of his offensive ability.

“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”

Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to be “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.

A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.

“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”

VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.

“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.

“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”

However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”

Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.

But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”

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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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