There has been so many 50-plus point games and incredible individual performances this year. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are obviously filling the stat sheet, but there are other players putting up producing at an extremely high level as well.
The list of potential candidates has diminished a bit, so the race has gotten tighter. We’ve kept the list at seven candidates for now. But 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) as we hone in on the legitimate candidates.
Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. Did your favorite player make the cut?
Through 36 games, Curry is averaging 24.2 points on 16.9 field goal attempts. These numbers aren’t jumping off the board anymore, but his play still is. His ability to facilitate this offense and find open teammates has been vastly underrated this year due to Kevin Durant’s incredible play. He’s averaging his lowest turnover rate since the 2011-12 season. But his shooting has been inconsistent, as he’s averaging the lowest shooting percentage since his rookie year.
Curry has a gift to score at will, but Durant is doing much more at the current moment. However, in the month of January, Curry is starting to find his stride. He’s averaging nearly 29 points per game, almost five points higher than his season average. But he’s still not the Curry we’re used to seeing. Remember, he’s taken a backseat to Durant and he’s done it with it nothing but class. It’s unprecedented for a two-time MVP (and a unanimous one, no less) to have another player come in and take over the franchise. Keep that in mind when you’re talking about Curry. This team will need him as they get closer to the playoffs and he should only get better as the season progresses. This offseason, everyone discussed which player would lose the most out of this marriage. It appears Curry has made the biggest sacrifice so far, but he’s still averaging 24.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds. If that’s him taking a back-seat, imagine what kind of numbers he can post if Golden State can get him more involved and increase his shooting percentages.
6. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (Last Week: 6)
Lowry has taken over the shine in Toronto. His ability to hit the outside shot, coupled with his assist numbers and defensive presence, make him extremely important (and underrated). As statistical and historical data have shown, most MVPs come from a top-two seed. This helps Lowry and DeRozan in their quest for the MVP, as many of the top players this year are lower in the standings. Still, even with that knowledge, they’ve got jump even higher if they really want to be considered for the award. With the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant all leading top-two seeds, the argument to put DeRozan or Lowry over them isn’t strong enough. If DeRozan was continuing his 30-plus point scoring streak with the same efficiency as earlier in the season, he’d have a case potentially. But the problem continues to be that they’re splitting the load. Statistically, they’re not jumping off the charts, and record-wise, while they’re a top-two seed, they have competition that’s greater than them. It’s a tough position, but if they can keep up the pace both individually, and as a team, they’ll certainly be on the outside of the conversation.
Leonard’s team is still winning and that’s good for his stock. The problem we’re starting to see is that his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge is starting to gain some momentum. While Aldridge isn’t gaining momentum in the MVP conversation, he’s performing much better for the Spurs, which seems to be affecting Leonard’s statistics and value. Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the game and has a ton of non-statistical value. But in Leonard’s last 10 games, we’ve seen his numbers drop off. For the season, Leonard averages 24 points, 3.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds. But within the past 10 contests, we’ve seen his statistics drop to 22.6 points, 3.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds. In a smaller, more recent sample size, Leonard is averaging 20.7 points, 3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in the past three games. While this isn’t do or die for arguably the league’s best two-way player, the fact that he’s taken a step back statistically hurts his cause and it’s something to keep an eye on.
Durant lost on Christmas day to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It’s just one game, but that was a statement game for Golden State with all of the basketball world watching. While Durant was still at his best, not winning that game hurt his cause in these rankings. We all know the Warriors can beat any team on any given night, but the fact that he lost the most important regular season game hurt his chances in the short-term. We’ll move on soon enough, but that one stings.
As far as the season goes, Durant has been spectacular. His underrated defensive value and ability to score with such efficiency cements him in this conversation for the long-haul. Golden State seems poised to have the NBA’s best record, but with that comes pressure and scrutiny. Durant has handled everything very well considering the circumstances, but there are some alarming statistics that stand out. In losses, Durant averages 30 points, but in wins, Durant averages 25.2 points. While they’ve only lost a handful of times, people will look at this and question if Golden State needs him scoring more.
He’s firmly in the race, but Golden State’s on-court chemistry and decision-making will need to be addressed and fixed in order for Durant to win this award.
James has shown that he’s still the best player in the league. While he’s not the statistical monster that Westbrook or Harden is, he’s on arguably the best team in the NBA and leading the charge. Since J.R. Smith went down, there were some doubts about how the Cavaliers would respond. James stepped up and took on a greater role offensively averaging two more points and more rebounds. While that doesn’t sound impressive, he’s calmly and quietly averaging 27.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on the best team in the Eastern Conference. As our Alex Kennedy recently wrote, James is (somehow) flying under the radar despite posting monster stats since we take his greatness for granted at this point.
King James is going to be in this conversation throughout the season and if the Thunder or Rockets slip up or if Westbrook or Harden regress, James could be in line for the award.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
The Thunder have lost three in a row and look like they’re falling back down to earth. Still, Westbrook continues to average godly numbers, but if his team isn’t in the top-four or five in the Western Conference, it’ll be hard to justify giving him the award. In the last five games, Westbrook is averaging 30 points on 38 percent shooting, and that’s not good enough for the Thunder to win games. He’ll need to increase his efficiency to get Oklahoma City back on track but in order to do so, who else can help him? As much as we’d like to think winning as a team while individually averaging a triple-double with efficiency is sustainable, it’s hard to see it happening over a full season. The Thunder have an increasingly difficult schedule coming up and with the recent run of losses, it’ll be hard to see Westbrook as the number one candidate in the MVP race.
Harden’s Rockets are still winning. Even without Clint Capela, who was a primary pick-and-roll option on both offense and defense, they still continue to win. Mike D’Antoni deserves some of the credit and Daryl Morey deserves some as well, but Harden’s play has seemingly been the biggest factor. His playmaking and scoring are on another level. In the last 10 games, Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.3 assists and 8.8 rebounds for a team that has won their last six contests. Shooting almost 47 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from behind-the-arc and 90 percent from the charity stripe in the past 10 games, Harden has some of the best efficiency numbers from a high-volume scorer that we’ve seen.
On Dec. 31, Harden and the Rockets played the New York Knicks. Not only did Harden have a career-best game, he made history. He scored 53 points on 53.8 percent shooting (including 56.3 percent behind the arc), while also contributing 17 assists and 16 rebounds. Harden has changed the minds of a lot of NBA fans, becoming a player that has improved mentally, physically and statistically. His leadership looks vastly improved and the once questioned star is now showing his true self. We documented his transformation over the offseason, but I don’t think anyone expected what he’s doing this season.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday night on Basketball Insiders.
NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man
Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.
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.”
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.
NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.
But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.
The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.
So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.
Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up
The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.
The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.
Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.
Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.
Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.
Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.