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NBA Saturday: Midseason Surprises/Disappointments

Jesse Blancarte takes a look at some of the surprises and disappointments of the first half of the season.

Jesse Blancarte

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It’s All-Star Weekend, which means it’s a good time to take stock of the NBA season up to this point. We enter each season with predictions of what will happen, who the breakout players will be, which teams will turn the corner and make the postseason and which teams will be the real contenders, among other things.

Many times we are right and many times we are wrong. However, that’s what makes the NBA, and sports in general, so much fun. Each season there are players and teams that beat the odds and exceed our collective expectations, while others fall well short of expectations. If everything always played out the way we predict, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the games each night.

Here, we take a look at some of the teams and players that have been pleasant surprises and disappointments roughly 50 games into the regular season.

Surprises:

Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis’ Quick Start 

Everyone expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to select Karl Anthony-Towns with the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was viewed as a versatile, multi-talented big man with athleticism and huge upside. What few expected was that Towns would quickly establish himself as not just one of the best prospects in the league, but one of the best overall centers. Anthony-Towns has shown an incredibly well-developed game so far this season. He can score around the rim, off the dribble and shoot the three-ball and has shown better defensive instinct and impact than we tend to see from players his age. We knew Anthony-Towns would be good, we just didn’t know he would be this good, this quickly.

Right behind Towns is Kristaps Porzingis. The New York Knicks took Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 Draft, which (unsurprisingly) drew boos from a majority of Knicks fans in attendance. It was soon after reported that Carmelo Anthony was upset that the Knicks picked a player that many predicted would need several seasons of NBA experience to become a regular contributor (a report that Anthony later denied). However, it didn’t take long for Porzingis to shatter those predictions and turn those boos into thunderous praise. Porzingis has shown an incredibly well-rounded game for a player his age and size and is now the cornerstone player for the Knicks, which no one anticipated to happen so soon, Carmelo included.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors –

The Toronto Raptors were, and have been one of the few teams that is hard to gauge. The Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Washington Wizards in a sweep and seemed capped as a pretender rather than a contender moving forward. But the Raptors are playing at a high level and proving their doubters wrong.

They added defensive-oriented players in the offseason like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, who have each helped solidify the Raptors’ defense (though Carroll has been out for some time with a knee injury).

These acquisitions have helped, but the biggest reason the Raptors are 35-17, second in the Eastern Conference and just three games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the improvement of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Lowry lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and as a result has hit another level of play this season. Through 52 games, Lowry is averaging a career-high 21 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and a career-high 39.2 percent from three-point range.

DeRozan didn’t drop a dramatic amount of weight like Lowry, but it seems as though he spent a lot of time working on the finer aspects of his game. While he has always been an effective volume-scorer, DeRozan has been somewhat limited as an offensive player throughout his career because of his inability to shoot the three-ball consistently. However, this season he has been very efficient as a pick-and-roll ball handler, constantly picking defenses apart with drives to the rim, pull-up midrange jumpers and passes to teammates for open shots.

Both Lowry and DeRozan were named co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month for the month of January and were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The Raptors are exceeding our collective expectations so far this season, and there is no bigger reason than the stellar play of their starting backcourt.

C.J. McCollum’s Rise 

When LaMarcus Aldridge decided to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, Portland general manager Neil Olshey made the decision to break up his roster and bring in young talent to put around star point guard Damian Lillard.

With Aldridge gone, Lillard was set to be the face of the franchise and its one and only established star player. However, C.J. McCollum, who never averaged more than 15.7 minutes per game through his first two season in the NBA, took on a bigger role early this season and has made the most of it so far. Through 52 games this season, McCollum is averaging 20.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from beyond the arc.

McCollum impressed with a strong performance in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Memphis Grizzlies. But even with that performance and a bigger role, not many expected McCollum to be quite this good. Similar to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers are beating expectations this season and most of that has to do with the terrific play of McCollum.

Will Barton’s Improvement 

The Portland Trail Blazers were looking to make a splash in the playoffs last season and traded for veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo to help with that. The Trail Blazers sent Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, a lottery-protected first-round pick and Will Barton to the Denver Nuggets for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee.

Unfortunately, Afflalo never found his stride in Portland, struggled with injuries and signed with the New York Knicks as an unrestricted free agent after the season. Barton, through 30 games with Portland last season, was averaging 3.0 points, 1.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance. He was set to hit restricted free agency after the season, and so Portland decided to move on from the young shooting guard, which is surely a decision Olshey wishes he could take back.

This season, Barton is averaging 15.5 points, 2.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.

Barton is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and will compete in the Dunk Contest tonight. Additionally, the Nuggets were able to lock up Barton last offseason to a three-year deal worth $10.6 million, which is an absolute steal.

Philadelphia 76ers Abandon “The Process”

Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has tanked the last few seasons in an effort to rebuild his team through the draft. He has purposely stayed out of free agency, cycled through young fringe players in search of hidden gems and did little to hide the fact that he simply was not interested in winning regular season games. Through it all, the mantra was “Trust The Process.”

Well, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apparently lost patience for Hinkie’s process and coordinated with Philadelphia ownership to bring in someone that could help the franchise speed up the process. The team brought in Jerry Colangelo, who hasn’t made sweeping changes yet, but who seems poised to start making moves to get Philadelphia back to a level of competitiveness that they’ve purposely avoided for years.

Disappointments:

New Orleans Pelicans Injuries and Ineffective Play

The New Orleans Pelicans went 45-37 last season and squeezed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the final playoff seed with a win over the San Antonio Spurs on the last day of the regular season. The Pelicans lost in the first-round to the Golden State Warriors, but looked to be on the upswing, especially with Anthony Davis looking like he would be a perennial MVP candidate each season moving forward.

The Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be the new head coach last offseason. This hiring had a lot of people excited since Gentry was credited with running the Warriors’ up-tempo offense, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense a few seasons back, which has been one of the best in the league stemming back to Gentry’s tenure. Many predicted that adding Gentry’s up-tempo offense would boost the Pelicans’ play this season, especially that of Davis.

However, injuries and inconsistency have submarined the Pelicans this season. Davis has been in and out of the lineup throughout the season, Tyreke Evans is out for the season with a knee injury and Eric Gordon is again sidelined with an injury. Additionally, Quincy Pondexter never fully recovered from his knee injury from last offseason and will sit out this entire season as well.

The Pelicans have managed to beat some of the better teams in the league this season, but too often they lose to teams they should have the edge on. The Pelicans are currently 20-33 and are 6.5 games back from the eighth seeded Utah Jazz. As things currently stand, it looks like this year’s Pelicans will miss the playoffs and fall short of every expectation we had for them entering this season.

Milwaukee Bucks’ Regression 

The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the biggest surprise teams from last season. After going 15-67 in the 2013-14 season, the Bucks went 41-41 last season behind the strength of their defense (rated second best in the NBA) and pushed the Chicago Bulls in an exciting first-round matchup. 

With Jabari Parker returning from injury, the addition of Greg Monroe and the continuing development of other core players like Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson, many expected the Bucks to take another step forward this season. However, the Bucks have regressed significantly this season and are now ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The trade that sent out Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams continues to look like a huge mistake and the team is collectively struggling with a lack of three-point shooting and spacing on offense.

The Bucks are now rumored to be looking to shake up the roster and even Greg Monroe is reportedly available. The Bucks still have a strong core of young talent and Khris Middleton in particular has been a bright spot for the team this season. But at 22-32 and ranked 13th in the East, there’s no doubt that this team has been one of the most disappointing so far this season.

Phoenix Suns’ Turmoil

There weren’t over-the-top expectations for the Phoenix Suns entering this season. However, since trading Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons and signing Tyson Chandler in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, things have fallen apart rather quickly in Phoenix.

Markieff Morris has been disgruntled since his brother was traded, has been inconsistent all season and only started showing any signs of life after former head coach Jeff Hornacek was fired. He also recently got into an argument with teammate Archie Goodwin during a recent game in which both players shoved each other. Chandler looks pretty washed up and his contract runs for several seasons after this one. Rising point guard Eric Bledsoe is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for yet another torn meniscus. T.J. Warren is out for the season after breaking his foot. The only real bright spot for Phoenix run now is the impressive all-around play of rookie Devin Booker.

There is still talent in Phoenix, but after so many botched transactions, internal strife and injuries, this has been a disastrous season so far for the Suns.

Blake Griffin Fight and Injury 

Blake Griffin started off this season playing as well as just about anyone not named Stephen Curry. He was hitting his midrange jumper, showing improvements in almost all facets of his game and was even improving defensively.

However, Griffin was sidelined in late December with a quad tendon injury that was to keep him on the bench for several weeks. Then, when Griffin was on the cusp of returning, he got into a fight with Clippers’ assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, who is a good friend of Griffin.

Griffin ended up breaking his hand, which required two surgeries and will keep him sidelined for several more weeks. It’s disappointing when a player is injured during a game or in practice, but it’s even more so when a player brings about the injury through poor decision making off the court, as is the case with Griffin here. The Clippers already had an uphill battle to climb with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors dominating the Western Conference and with Griffin’s status unclear for the playoffs, he has jeopardized the Clippers’ chances of making a deep run in the postseason.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Injuries –

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist underwent surgery last October to repair a torn labrum he suffered during a preseason game. It was believed that Kidd-Gilchrist would miss the season because of the injury, or would be out until the last few weeks of the season at best. But Kidd-Gilchrist pleasantly surprised everyone by managing to return to action roughly two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, roughly two weeks after making his return, Kidd-Gilchrist reinjured the same shoulder that sidelined him earlier in the season. Subsequent testing revealed that he tore his labrum in his right shoulder and is now out indefinitely.

Kidd-Gilchrist played well through seven games, averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance. Kidd-Gilchrist brought his defensive prowess and overall versatility to a Hornets team that is currently 27-26 and fighting hard to hold on to the eighth seed in the East. He will be reevaluated after the All-Star break and will decide whether to rehab the injury, or undergo surgery.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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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