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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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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