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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



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: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue

The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.

Buddy Grizzard



The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.

The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.

“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.

Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.

“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”

There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.

Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.

“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”

Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.

“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”

While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.

In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.

After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.

The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.

With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.

What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.

For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.

“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”

On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.

“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”

With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.

Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”

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A Breakout Season for Joe Harris

Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.

David Yapkowitz



The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.

Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.

During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.

After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.

“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”

Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.

In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.

“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”

Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.

He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.

“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”

When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.

However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.

“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 3/20/18

With most of the major NBA draft prospects eliminated from March Madness, things in the mock draft world are starting to get interesting.

Steve Kyler



A Lot of Mock Movement

With the race to the bottom in full swing in the NBA and the field of 64 in college basketball whittled down to a very sweet sixteen, there has been considerable talk in NBA circles about the impending 2018 NBA Draft class. There seems to be a more consistent view of the top 15 to 20 prospects, but there still seems to be a lack of a firm pecking order. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton seems like to the prohibitive favorite to go number one overall, but its far from a lock.

It’s important to note that these weekly Mock Draft will start to take on more of a “team driven” shape as we get closer to the mid-May NBA Combine in Chicago and more importantly once the draft order gets set. Until then, we’ll continue to drop our views of the draft class each Tuesday, until we reach May when we’ll drop the weekly Consensus Mock drafts, giving you four different views of the draft all the way to the final decisions in late June.

Here is this week’s Mock Draft:

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections and based on the standings today would convey to Philadelphia.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick is top-five protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects –

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