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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 12/22

Which players are still in the MVP race as 2017 approaches? Take a look at our updated rankings.

Oliver Maroney

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As the season nears the half-way point, the MVP race becomes closer and closer. At the same time, as the race becomes tighter, the list of potential candidates diminishes. So we at Basketball Insiders decided to scale our rankings accordingly. Rather than looking at 10 candidates each week, we’ll now hone in on seven. As the season progresses, look for the list to go down to five and potentially three or two (looking at you, James Harden and Russell Westbrook).

Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. Did your player make “the cut”?

 

stocknochanges457. Stephen Curry (Last Week: 7)

Curry has probably been the biggest loser in terms of touches and minutes since Kevin Durant made his decision to sign with Golden State. Since Durant joined the Warriors, Curry is averaging three fewer field goal attempts per game and two fewer makes. His points per game are also down by 6.7 and his efficiency has decreased as well.

Despite all of that, Curry is among the best in the NBA and still has an outside shot at the award. He’s top-10 in scoring and he’s still shooting above 47 percent from the field (better than 70 percent of the top-10 scorers). However, this month he’s averaging just under 20 points per contest and has been inconsistent on both ends of the floor. In fact, the past two games he’s scored just 13.5 points, but has averaged a positive net rating of 20.5. Value is typically demonstrated in many ways and people underestimate Curry’s playmaking ability. He’s taken a hit on points and shot attempts, but he is doing a lot on a team that’s the best in the league.


stocknochanges456. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (Last Week: 6) 

Lowry has undoubtedly been overlooked this season because of DeRozan’s scoring streak early in the season. Lowry has been incredibly consistent on both offense and defense, driving to the rack with confidence and forcing turnovers against some of the best point guards in the league. While both of Toronto’s backcourt players deserve ample credit, it’s still hard to imagine either of them taking home an MVP trophy. Toronto is playing at an incredible level, controlling the game like an Eastern Conference team that could compete with the Cavaliers. Unfortunately, with Westbrook and Harden in the limelight, it’s hard to see Lowry and DeRozan stealing the show.

 

stocknochanges455. LeBron James (Last Week: 5)

James didn’t climb our list, but we may find him ranked higher next week. With key guard J.R. Smith out due to a broken finger for the foreseeable future, James will need to carry even more weight on his shoulders. Smith, who’s averaging 8.6 points and roughly eight field goal attempts per game, will be a crucial loss for the Cavs. His touches and minutes will be dispersed throughout rotation players, but we should expect to see James take a greater role in scoring.

James is averaging 25.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists while playing more minutes per game than the previous two seasons. James is doing it all on a team that’s the best in the Eastern Conference. If there was a knock on James, it’s that he’s turning the ball over more than he ever has (3.84 turnovers per game).

The next big test? Golden State on Christmas day, where we’ll see a rematch of last years’ Finals (and potentially a preview of this year’s).


stocknochanges454. Kawhi Leonard (Last Week: 4)

Leonard has proved many people wrong. He’s become the number one option on a Spurs team that continues to win. Not only has he become extremely effective on offense, he’s still maintaining his Defensive-Player-of-the-Year level play on that end. Currently, Leonard is averaging more minutes (33.4) than any other season in his career. Even though his shooting attempts and percentages have dipped a bit, he’s still shooting above 45 percent from the field and over 37 percent from behind the arc.

Outside of the Houston game on December 20, the previous two games were stellar for Leonard. He had a combined net rating of plus-17 and shot 50 percent from the field. While he only averaged 15.5 points in those two games, his playmaking ability and rebounding were on full display. Against Phoenix, he grabbed 10 boards in only 27 minutes of play.

Leonard has a real shot if Harden and Westbrook (or their teams) start to struggle.


stocknochanges453. Kevin Durant (Last Week: 3)

When will Golden State show signs of vulnerability? Never? This team looks so polished on both sides of the ball and a lot of that is due to Durant. His ability to read defenses, find open teammates and play extremely effective defense separates him from almost any NBA player. Durant now averages 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting the highest percentage of any top-25 scorer (53.9 percent).

As much as you’d like to think Golden State would be just as good without Durant, it’s hard to believe it with his sheer talent. Durant’s added another dimension to this team and Steve Kerr, one of the best coaches in the league, is doing a good job of utilizing Durant’s talent while getting him acclimated at the same time.

Durant is turning the ball over less this season than any year in his NBA career. He’s playing remarkable defense and has shown no signs of dropping off. Durant is right there in this conversation based on his team record and overall value to Golden State.

 

stockdown452. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 1)

How is Westbrook not number one? It’s a close, close race and Westbrook has been nothing short of incredible. But his team has started to show signs of vulnerability, more so than in previous stretches. While he’s still averaging a triple-double, the Thunder have only won two of their last four. In their losses, Westbrook has an assist to turnover ratio of below 2-1. He’s made some costly mistakes late in games (pointing to the Atlanta game earlier this week), but he’s bound to have them. We don’t expect Westbrook to play perfectly when he’s putting up jaw-dropping numbers and helping his team in anyway possible. But as much as that’s true, his productivity and efficiency have taken a hit. Shooting just over 42 percent from the field and a little over 30 percent from behind the arc, Westbrook has had more struggles than in previous outings.

While he’s leading the league in points, and creating opportunities for his teammates, his team hasn’t helped him in key moments. If the Thunder hadn’t lost to the Hawks and Blazers, Westbrook would still be number one. It’s just hard to justify a player who’s team has a below .500 record in the past five games.

 

stockup451. James Harden (Last Week: 2)

Harden’s Rockets are putting together some incredible statistics and performances. Currently, Harden is averaging 27.8 points, 11.7 assists and 8.1 rebounds while stealing the ball 1.4 times per game. We can talk about his excellent offensive play at the point guard position, but his defense has been much improved from a season ago. With less of an imbalance on this team, Harden is posting up career numbers under Mike D’Antoni. His leadership has been clear and obvious on and off the floor, while his teammates are helping him with their consistent shooting. With Clint Capela out four-to-six weeks due to a lower leg injury, Harden will be carrying more of an offensive load. Even so, Harden should be able to keep this team afloat in Capela’s absence.

The Rockets have lost only one of their last nine and are one of the hottest teams in the league. Their defense has gotten better as they are only allowing 104.7 points per game. Considering the fact that they score 113 a game, the point differential is one of the best in the league just behind Golden State, Cleveland, L.A. Clippers and Toronto.

Want more MVP discussion? Check out our latest podcast in which Oliver Maroney and Ben Golliver discuss MVP candidates, biggest surprises and more.

Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday night on Basketball Insiders.

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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