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NBA PM: Time for a Trade in Orlando?

Is it time for the Orlando Magic to make a trade? Cody Taylor looks at where each player stands.

Cody Taylor

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For the first month of the season, the Orlando Magic had been rolling through their schedule. The team had jumped out to a 19-13 start and were sitting fourth in the standings in the Eastern Conference following their 100-93 win over the Brooklyn Nets on December 30.

Fast forward three weeks later, and the story has been the complete opposite. Through nine games in January, the Magic are 1-8 and they are coming off of last night’s embarrassing home loss to the last-placed Philadelphia 76ers.

For one reason or another, the team just hasn’t performed as well as they previously were. After experiencing several high points thus far this season, last night was by far rock bottom for a team that has playoff aspirations. It’s a reality check that the team may not be as close to competing as initially thought.

With the trade deadline exactly four weeks away, one question should be asked regarding the Magic: is it time for a change?

From now until the February 18 deadline, trade rumors will be surfacing quite a bit. By this point in the season, we know which teams will be buying and we know which teams will be selling.

So, where does Orlando stand? Following that loss to the Sixers, the team is 20-21 and just one game back of eighth place in the East. By no means is the team eliminated from the playoff race. One win could be what’s needed to get the team back on track.

Equally, the season could begin to spiral out of control soon. Among Orlando’s games left before the All-Star break are contests against San Antonio (twice), Atlanta (twice), Boston (twice), Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers.

With the trade deadline looming, here is where each player on the team stands. It should be noted that these updates are merely opinion-based after being around the team for the majority of the season.

Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris

Both players entered the 2015-16 season in the first year of their respective long-term deals. Vucevic’s deal will pay him $48 million over four years, while Harris will earn $64 million over the next four years. Because the team just committed to these players and both guys are now getting paid a higher salary, it seems unlikely either player would be moved before the upcoming trade deadline.

While both players are a significant part of the team’s younger core, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has said in the past that no player on the team is untouchable. However, in the case of Vucevic and Harris, it would likely take a huge offer for the team to move either of them.

Elfrid Payton

Payton could be as close to untouchable as it gets on the Magic. It would take a huge deal in order to pry Payton away, and is there a team out there that wants him that bad? Likely not.

Payton has become one of the most valuable players to the Magic this season. He’s proven this season to be just as valuable on the defensive end as he is on the offensive end. He recently missed four games earlier this month with a couple of sprained ankles, and the team went just 1-3 in his absence. Payton has the tools to become a special player in the NBA, and figures to be a huge part of the Magic’s future.

Evan Fournier

It seems as though there could be a point within the next year or so that the Magic will have to decide if they want to keep both Fournier and Victor Oladipo. Both players are shooting guards and both will be seeking long-term deals. Fournier will be a restricted free agent this summer, while Oladipo will be a restricted free agent the following summer.

As far as Fournier goes this year, it’s possible that a team would trade for him in order to have him as a restricted free agent under their watch this summer. That’s what the Phoenix Suns did last year by acquiring Brandon Knight and re-signing him over the summer when he was restricted. It’s also possible that any team overly intrigued in Fournier could just make him an offer this summer if they feel the Magic won’t want to match it. It remains to be seen if Fournier will stay with Orlando long-term, as he could be moved or he could be out of Orlando’s price range this summer.

Victor Oladipo

Oladipo’s trade value likely is as low as it’s ever been. A knee sprain has kept him out of the Magic’s past two games, and he has been listed as questionable for tomorrow’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. Outside of the injury, Oladipo has had an up-and-down season to this point. He began the season as a starter, but was moved to the bench at the end of November and has remained there for the most part.

He started five games prior to suffering the knee injury in place of Elfrid Payton, and was playing some of his best basketball of the season. But, even with his improved play as a starter during that five-game stretch, the team posted just a 1-4 record. The Magic are 13-7 this season when Oladipo comes off of the bench, compared to just 6-11 when he starts. He’s currently posting career-lows in points (13.5), assists (4.0), steals (1.3) and field goal percentage (40.5 percent). Given his injury and inconsistent season, Oladipo likely isn’t going anywhere.

Aaron Gordon

This seems to be the part of the roster where anything could happen. Gordon played just 47 games during his rookie season after suffering a broken foot. He’s almost eclipsed that mark this year, and has made some improvements. Gordon can be a change-of-pace player that can come into games and give the Magic a spark when needed.

It’s clear that he still has work to put in and is a work in progress. The Magic just used a very high draft pick on Gordon last year so they clearly value him. However, if the right deal came along, it’s possible Gordon could be had. He could be an attractive piece in a package deal that could land a notable player in Orlando. He was the team’s fourth overall pick in 2014, so it would still take a lot for the Magic to part ways with Gordon.

Andrew Nicholson

Nicholson’s time with the Magic has been spotty. During his first two years with the team, he played in nearly every game; last season, he played in just 40 games. He saw a bigger role under head coach Scott Skiles last month, but now appears to be out of the rotation again. Nicholson doesn’t figure to be a part of the Magic’s long-term plans, and is likely being shopped.

He can be a restricted free agent this summer if the Magic make him a qualifying offer. Once they make him that offer, he counts against the team’s cap space, so they may not opt to do that since he doesn’t appear to be a part of their future plans. Nicholson has shown some flashes this season that he can still be a viable option off of the bench. So, if the Magic can flip him to a team in need of bench depth for a draft pick or contributor, they likely take that deal.

Channing Frye

Frye has been frequently mentioned as one Magic player that could be had. Entering the season, his price tag was reported to be fairly low. But, when the team made the move to bring Oladipo off of the bench, Frye became a starter. And he was a viable starter for the Magic. He provided the team with floor spacing, which opened things up for other players. During the month of December, Frye shot 47 percent from three-point range.

January has been a different story. In nine games this month, Frye has shot just 16 percent from three. Since his struggles, the trade talks could intensify with the trade deadline just a month away. Frye is owed just under $16 million over the next two years, so the Magic could look to dump his contract in order to spend it on younger players. Equally, Frye’s $8 million salary could look good for a team in need of another scoring option for a playoff run.

Jason Smith

Smith has been very solid this season for the Magic. He’s given the team productive minutes off of the bench. He’s known to be a grit-and-grind type of player and has played extremely hard this season. He signed over the summer on a one-year deal worth $4.3 million deal and could be an attractive option to a contender looking for frontcourt depth or to a team looking to shed some cap space this summer. Given that Smith has been one of the team’s better bench options, it would seem likely that it would take an attractive deal for the team to trade him.

C.J. Watson

One of the biggest offseason signings for the Magic was Watson. They valued his veteran leadership in that backup point guard spot behind Payton and thought he could help the team. The team tried to sign and trade for Watson prior to this season, but were unable to strike a deal. The two finally came together over the summer, signing a three-year deal worth $15 million. He’s a guy that they like and want to be a part of the team.

A calf injury has limited Watson this season to just eight games played, and his return to the floor is not yet known. He was said to be improving, but recently suffered a setback. Given his uncertainty with the injury, Watson has no trade value for the Magic. It was likely that he may not have been a trade option if we has healthy.

Mario Hezonja

The injuries to Payton and Oladipo opened up some playing time for Hezonja recently. He had played under 13 minutes per game through the end of December, but is now averaging about 18 minutes per game in January. He was the team’s fifth overall pick in last year’s draft and remains a work in progress.

He’s shown flashes thus far of the type of player that he can be. He can shoot and drive the hole, but his defense and decision-making needs further work. It’s seem highly unlikely Hezonja is traded as the Magic knew he would be a player that would need time to develop when they drafted him.

Shabazz Napier

Napier was acquired over the offseason in a cost-cutting move by the Miami HEAT. The terms of the deal included the Magic sending Miami a second-round pick, but it’s highly protected and will likely never have to be surrendered. So, the Magic acquired Napier for basically nothing. The team exercised its option on Napier, keeping him under contract through next season.

The Magic have been looking for a backup point guard given the injury to Watson, and so far they haven’t had any luck finding that player. Napier had a role with the team in November, but has since fallen out of the rotation. He could be a player to keep an eye on that gets packaged in a bigger deal.

Dewayne Dedmon and Devyn Marble

Each of these players don’t figure to be a part of the team’s future. Dedmon and Marble are guaranteed through this season. Dedmon can be a restricted free agent this summer, while Marble’s deal for next season is non-guaranteed. They could be used as filler pieces as well. It’s worth noting that recent 10-day signee Keith Appling cannot be traded.

*****

It’s clear that the Magic are still an elite player away from seriously competing. It would take a large package of players and likely picks for Orlando to land that kind of player. Free agency could be the best bet for the team to bring in a star player, and perhaps the team would want to trade away some unnecessary contracts to make that happen.

As things stand today, they’re looking at about $30 million in cap space, figuring in a projected $90 million cap next season. That number could change depending on how they handle their upcoming free agents (Fournier, Nicholson, Smith, Dedmon). The team will need to shed some salary in order to bring in a max-level player, so they could be active in the coming weeks.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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G-League

NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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