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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 1/6/17

Who are the top candidates for this season’s MVP award? See if your favorite player is in the mix.

Oliver Maroney

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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?

 

stocknochanges457. Stephen Curry (Last Week: 7)

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.
stocknochanges45 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.

 

stockdown455. Kawhi Leonard (Last Week: 4)

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.

 

stockdown45 4. Kevin Durant (Last Week: 3)

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.

 

stockup45 3. LeBron James (Last Week: 5)

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.
stocknochanges45 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.

 

stocknochanges451. James Harden (Last Week: 1)

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.

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: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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