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”?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.