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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Feb. 15

With three players vying for the lead, Basketball Insiders releases its fourth MVP rankings of the 2020-21 season.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical NBA season, fans normally see one true favorite around this point in the season, and that player typically goes on to win. However, as we have all seen, this is no normal NBA season. On a nightly basis, fans are being treated to several players that have legitimate cases for the award. Without further ado, let’s see how some of the top dogs in the NBA have fared over the last two weeks.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 2)

Embiid has had a career-defining February, evidenced by his 33.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game while shooting 54.1 percent overall, 38.9 percent from downtown and 88.2 percent from the free-throw line. That kind of performance, coupled with the fact that the 76ers sit atop the Eastern Conference, has Embiid at the front of the MVP pack.

That said, the margin between Embiid and the two players below him on this ladder is razor-thin. He has the opportunity to push himself even further ahead of the others on this list, however, with a pivotal matchup with Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz soon to come.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 3)

The most common theme one will hear when James’ name comes up this season is, ‘‘How is he doing this at age 36?’’ That’s a very valid question, as James has averaged 25.5 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists per game along with some of the best shooting splits of his career.

Since the last update to Basketball Insiders’ ladder, James has put up several noteworthy performances, including a 28-point triple-double in an overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a 33-point showing in an overtime win over the Detroit Pistons. James should have an opportunity to build on his MVP case even further now that co-star Anthony Davis is set to miss time with an Achilles aggravation, as well.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 1)

Jokic falling to three is not an indictment of his recent play, as he’s been absolutely stellar. Instead, it’s a testament to just how tightly knit this MVP race is, as he, Embiid and James are all capable of taking the top slot any given week.

Since the last ladder, Jokic’s Denver Nuggets have gone 3-3, but of no fault to Jokic. Jokic put up a 50-point bomb in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. However, the Nuggets are seemingly on the way up and just defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, with Jokic turning in a 23-point, 16-rebound and 10-assist performance.

4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Previous: 4)

Normally, Durant would drop a spot or two in the ladder for missing three games, but the Brooklyn Nets went 1-2 and were outscored by a total margin of 17 points in his absence. Upon his return, the Nets proceeded to drub the Golden State Warriors by 17.

It isn’t often that a player has one of their best statistical seasons just one year removed from an Achilles injury, but that’s exactly what Durant is doing, as he is now up to 29 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.4 blocks per game on 52.4 percent shooting from the field, 43.4 percent from three and 86.9 percent from the charity stripe.

Durant is probably a step behind the top three on this ladder, but don’t discount him from the race; Durant’s numbers are otherworldly.

5. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (Previous: 5)

In the wake of Paul George’s absence, Leonard pushed the Los Angeles Clippers to back-to-back wins with a 36-point outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves and a 33-point showing against the Chicago Bulls. Now, Leonard is averaging 29 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 52.4 percent shooting in the month of February.

With George expected to return soon, it will be interesting to see if either member of the duo can remain in the MVP race. The Clippers have a ridiculously difficult upcoming schedule, with matchups against the Miami HEAT, the Nets and two straight games against the Jazz.

6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: Not Ranked)

There are plenty of players worth mentioning that are in the MVP race. Giannis Antetokounmpo is fresh off a triple-double, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are heating up and the Jazz is torching the league under the leadership of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, along with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jordan Clarkson.

However, Stephen Curry earns the sixth slot on our ladder this week, as his performances along with the fact that the Warriors are firmly in the playoff picture are not being discussed enough.

In February, Curry is averaging a stunning 36.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game on well over a 50/40/90 shooting split. During that same stretch, Curry is shooting 47.8 percent from three on 13.1 attempts per game.

Furthermore, Curry is propelled by his 57-point performance against the Mavericks, a 40-point performance against the Orlando Magic and his team’s 31-point thrashing of Dallas in a separate game. If Curry can keep this up, he’ll easily jump higher on this ladder.

With the trade deadline approaching, fans are getting to see teams’ true colors, separating pretenders from contenders, which is sure to lead to some heated debates. Be sure to check out Basketball Insiders’ next MVP ladder in two weeks!

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies

LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.

Quinn Davis

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With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.

The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.

Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.

He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.

Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.

Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.

Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.

Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.

The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.

When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.

Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.

Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.

Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.

Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.

Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.

But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.

Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.

Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.

Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.

While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.

Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.

Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.

Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.

There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.

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NBA

Has the NBA Passed Andre Drummond By?

Andre Drummond is being held out by the Clevland Cavaliers while they look for a trade, but does anyone want Drummond? And can he help a good team compete for an NBA Championship?

Zach Dupont

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The NBA has seen a revival of the center position over the past few seasons. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have become front-runners for MVP, Rudy Gobert is anchoring the defense of the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz and Anthony Davis co-led the Los Angeles Lakers to last year’s NBA title.

Not among those centers is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond, who is currently being held out of games while the Cavs look for a trade to move him out of town.

On a surface level, Drummond’s numbers are quite impressive. This year, Drummond is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, his rebounds per game mark is even good enough for second in the NBA, trailing just Clint Capela’s 13.9 rebounds per game. It’s not as if these numbers are an outlier for Drummond either; Drummond has averaged at least 15 points and 13 rebounds per game since his 2017-18 season. Drummond has been dominant on the boards his entire career averaging at least 13 rebounds per game every year of his career after his rookie season. Drummond also manages to secure a lot of blocks and steals, averaging more than 1.1 of each per game every season since 2015-16.  

But on deeper inspection, Drummond’s gaudy numbers begin to falter. Despite Drummond putting up more than 17 points per game, he isn’t doing it efficiently enough to justify taking as many shots per game as he currently does. Drummond’s field goal percentage of 47.4 percent isn’t an alarming number, but Drummond has taken 288 of his 380 field goal attempts from within five feet of the rim. Drummond has only taken 21 field goal attempts from more than 10 feet away from the rim all season, per NBA.com.

With this information, it’s no surprise that Drummond has a less than stellar true shooting of 50 percent, well below league average. To make matters worse, Drummond is a player who needs the ball in his hand to put up big scoring numbers. Drummond currently has a usage rate of 30 percent, the 16th highest number in the NBA, higher than players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic. Drummond is also one of just two centers in the top 20 in usage percentage in the NBA, the only other center in the top 20 is Joel Embiid. Drummond also provides very little as a playmaker, holding an assist to turnover ratio of .79, averaging 2.6 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game. 

Drummond has been in the NBA for nine seasons now and has only made the playoffs twice, and both were first-round sweeps with the Detroit Pistons. Drummond has never played for a real contender, and a significant reason why is because of his style of play. There isn’t room for a high-usage, low-efficiency center with questionable defensive effort on teams trying to compete for an NBA title. It’s not because of Drummond’s position, it’s because his style of basketball isn’t conducive to productive scoring in the modern NBA.

But all hope is not lost for Drummond; it’s just going to take a rebuild of who he is as a player. Every good NBA team still needs productive big men, but the role these teams are looking for differs from what Drummond has been doing his entire career. These teams need big men to provide sufficient defense and rebounding, specifically in matchups against the NBA’s best bigs come playoff time. That’s what Drummond will have to do to be able to have a shot at a ring. The good news for him is that he possesses the skills to make that happen for himself.

Drummond is still among the NBA’s best in grabbing rebounds, and while that provides limited value on the defensive end, it does have a lot of value on the offensive boards. Drummond is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage at 15 percent and fourth in offensive rebounds per game at 4.0. Drummond is also capable of providing a team with rim protection and solid defense from the center position. At 6-foot-11 and 280 lbs. Drummond has the frame that not many have to compete physically against star bigs like Jokic, Embiid and Davis. Drummond has also made the Cavaliers’ defense slightly better when on the court, holding a defensive rating of 113.2 compared to Cleveland’s team rating of 114.4, per NBA.com. Drummond also has no issue collecting blocks and steals, maintaining a steal percentage of 2.7 and a block percentage of 3.7, both respectable marks.   

There aren’t any good NBA teams looking for the player Drummond currently is, but there are plenty looking for the player Drummond is capable of being. The Brooklyn Nets have needed depth at center since trading away Jarrett Allen, and the Clippers could use depth at center behind Ivica Zubac, to name a few. Drummond doesn’t need to be traded to another non-contender and continue to put up empty scoring numbers because if he does that, Drummond’s shot at a ring will continue to fade.  

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NBA

NBA Daily: Will We See The Real Andre Drummond?

Now that Andre Drummond is on the verge of switching teams again, Matt John looks into if he could thrive in a lesser role wherever he ends up.

Matt John

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Andre Drummond is available. Repeat. Andre Drummond, the two-time All-Star, four-time rebounding champ, walking double-double and ball-swatter, is available. Not just available. Available for cheap.

Cheap in the sense that you wouldn’t have to give up a whole lot of assets outside of matching salaries to get him. You probably won’t do much better for such a low price. Who wouldn’t want someone who averages 17 points, 13 rebounds, almost three assists, and at least one block and one steal a game for pennies on the dollar?

The only reason why the Cleveland Cavaliers are getting rid of him is that they got the younger, more effective big in Jarrett Allen who fits their timeline like a glove. The Land wasn’t big enough for both Allen and Drummond from the start, so the latter’s exodus seemed unavoidable.

But what will hang over both his and Cleveland’s heads is that when they got him for spare parts last year, which signified what his value truly was to NBA teams. Now, asking for spare parts in return for Andre Drummond might be too optimistic when this situation is done and over with.

There aren’t a whole lot of teams that have $28.75 million in deadweight contracts or trade exceptions for that matter – the one that the Boston Celtics possess from the Gordon Hayward trade is $250,000 (give or take) lower than Drummond’s current salary, and even if they could match, they’d have to get rid of $5+ million to fit him into their team salary. The ones that do aren’t in dire need of someone like Andre Drummond or would probably rather save what they have for someone better.

But any NBA viewer who’s watched Andre Drummond knows the real issue with acquiring him. His numbers can wow you as much as his winning percentage can put you off. But that red flag has been the monkey on Drummond’s back for quite some time now.

OK, so Andre Drummond is never going to be ‘the guy’ on a championship team, or even be included in a vaunted ‘Big 3’ that the NBA has so heavily popularized. That ship has sailed. The question that remains is if he can be an effective player on a winning team in the NBA. The fact remains that Drummond has minimal playoff experience – eight games total – and zero playoff success to his name. But is that on him?

Let’s go back to the most team success Drummond has ever had as a pro. The best team Drummond ever played for record-wise was the 2015-16 Pistons. They went 44-38, snagged the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and were promptly swept by the LeBron-led Cavaliers. Drummond was not all that great in that series, putting up around 17 points, nine rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game to go with almost 52 percent shooting, according to Basketball-Reference.

But for a player whose harshest criticism centers around his stats being empty calories, the Pistons were demonstrably better when Drummond was on the floor. According to NBA.com, Detroit’s offense scored 8.8 more points per 100 possessions and surrendered 11 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. The Cavaliers may have taken care of business against Drummond and co., but he was doing his part.

It’s worth mentioning that the Pistons gave the Cavaliers a better fight than your typically-swept eighth seed. The point differential between the two over the four games was 5, 17, 10 and 2. Not bad for a team going up against the soon-to-be-crowned champions in the first round.

But that was the furthest Drummond ever went, all back when he was considered the face of the Pistons. The best players surrounding him at that time were Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All of whom were either previously or are currently reliable supporting cast on good teams, but none of them would ever be considered the main ingredient on a championship team.

Five years later, we’ve known for some time now that Drummond isn’t that guy either. However, what we don’t know is what he would look like if his role was relegated to more of a complementary type. When this saga with Cleveland concludes, that’s probably where he’s headed.

If there’s one thing interested suitors should be excited about with the prospect of bringing in Drummond in a smaller role, it’s that we’ve seen players in similar situations as Drummond thrive in it. Take Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins came into this league with expectations that, at this point, he’s never going to fulfill. One could argue that the results make him look like a disappointment while another could counter that point by saying that maybe our expectations were a little too high. In any case, that doesn’t matter now because, in Golden State, he’s had a fresh start, and he’s rolled with it.

In his first full season with the Warriors, we’re not seeing Andrew Wiggins as an All-Star. We’re seeing Andrew Wiggins, the efficient and reliable two-way wing.

Just look at the shooting numbers. An effective field goal percentage of 53.6 percent? A true shooting percentage of 55.7 percent? A three-point shooting percentage of almost 37 percent? All career-highs for Wiggins according to Basketball-Reference. The 17.7 points per game are definitely lower than what we’ve seen in the past from Wiggins, but Golden State never asked for him to be their go-to guy for that.

With more energy at his behest, we’ve also seen Wiggins step it up on the defensive side of the ball that… he might actually be making a case for NBA All-Defense?!

Some guys just need to find the right role for them. Andrew Wiggins has seemingly found who he truly is in Golden State. We shouldn’t care anymore if that means he’s never going to be a star. On the flip side, some guys are just meant to be in a starring role. Gordon Hayward flustered Celtics fans with his inconsistency and indecisiveness because being fourth in the pecking order was not what he was used to nor he was brought on to do in the first place. Now we’re seeing a renaissance from Hayward because Charlotte has tasked him with much more responsibility.

We’ve seen Drummond in a starring role, and from what we’ve seen, even though he can put up bedazzling numbers, his team doesn’t benefit much from what he does on the court. But maybe, just maybe, it might be because they expected too much from him much as we all did with Wiggins.

Now, of course, we need to confront the elephant in the room: Wiggins is a wing while Drummond is a big. Those are two very different positions, especially in the modern NBA. There’s no telling if we’re going to see Drummond make the same adjustment. We’ve seen centers – specifically ones that possess similar skillsets as Drummond – have to adapt to lesser roles, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Hassan Whiteside was one of Miami’s go-to guys before Portland acquired him to be Jusuf Nurkic’s temporary replacement. Now, he’s playing spot minutes as Sacramento’s third center on their depth chart. DeAndre Jordan was a vital cog in Lob City before he went to Dallas and was used as salary filler to acquire Kristaps Porzingis. Now he’s the starting center for one of the worst defenses in the NBA.

When that time arrives, we’ll see if Drummond really is an empty calorie big as his critics have pointed out, or if he’s a product of mediocrity just dying to prove he can contribute to a good team.

Glass half-empty would say it’s the former. Glass half-full would say it’s the latter. But for now, only time can tell.

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