A Third MVP Candidate Rising?
The NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy is almost always a topic of protracted discussion among sports fans. Sometimes there is one player who is so dominant that there is little room for discussion, but over the last couple of seasons it has really come down to just two names: Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Miami HEAT forward LeBron James. There is another player, however, who is making an awfully strong case that he should be in that conversation.
Last season, the Houston Rockets made their triumphant return to postseason play, winning 11 more games than they had the previous season due largely to the contributions of trade acquisition James Harden. Harden took the NBA by storm last season, proving himself to be the best shooting guard in the game, but he was not mentioned in the MVP discussion because Durant’s Thunder and James’ HEAT were among the best teams in the NBA. Of course, both Durant and James had All-Star teammates to aid their cause, which was not true of Harden.
Over the summer, Rockets GM Daryl Morey pulled out all the stops in an effort to get Harden the elite help he needed, and he was successful in landing Dwight Howard, the top free agent on the market. With Howard in place to help shoulder some of the load, Harden has flourished. A foot injury slowed him somewhat over the first half of the season, though he played through it, but since the All-Star break Harden has been as good as any other player in the NBA, including James and Durant.
Prior to the All-Star break, Harden averaged 23.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the line and 33 percent from behind the three-point arc. Since the break, he has been even better, pouring in 26.8 points to go with 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 49 percent overall and 44 percent from three.
More importantly, after barely squeaking into the playoffs last season, Harden’s Rockets are now a top-four team in the West and must be seen as possible contenders.
The MVP in the NBA is most likely to be a former teammate of Harden’s. Durant is having a season for the ages, and has kept the Thunder at or near the top of the league even when playing without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. James will also be a strong candidate, and his dominance on both ends of the court is one of the primary reasons the HEAT are expected to repeat as NBA champions. Still, Harden has pushed the Rockets back into contention, and his nightly contributions should at least get him into the discussion when the time comes to vote for MVP.
Here are some facts that show just how impressive Harden has been this season:
Harden leads all NBA shooting guards in points per game, player efficiency rating, win shares and clutch scoring.
Along with James, Harden is the only other player in the NBA on pace to finish the 2013-14 season with averages of at least 24.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.50 steals.
Harden is the only player in Rockets history to win Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks within a single season.
Harden became just the fourth player since the NBA started tracking steals in 1973-74 to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals in a game, joining NBA legends Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
Harden is the only other Rockets player besides Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to record at least 40 points, eight assists and three steals in a game since 1985-86.
Harden is so efficient at getting to the free throw line that he made NBA history by becoming the first player ever to register 27 points on two or fewer field goals made.
Harden became just the third player to score at least 3,000 points in his first 120 games played with the Rockets, joining Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes and two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady.
Harden became the first Houston player to score at least 37 points in three consecutive games since Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon did it back in 1994-95.
Harden tied for the most first-quarter points in Rockets history with 22 at Sacramento (2/25/14).
Harden finished a career-best 22-of-25 from the stripe, tying the Rockets single-game record for free throws made set by Sleepy Floyd, who went 22-of-27 vs. Golden State (2/3/91).
Should Harden be in the MVP conversation? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.
Is the East in Play?
For most of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Eastern Conference has been a two-team race. The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT have been cutting through their peers like a hot knife through butter, making a re-match of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals seem inevitable. More recently, however, the East has gotten more interesting, and there might be cause for the Pacers and HEAT to re-think their quick trip through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
As dominant as Miami has been for much of the season, over the last few weeks they have looked very beatable. They have won just five of their 11 games in March, and while some of those losses were to very good teams in San Antonio and Houston, they have also coughed up some against non-playoff teams like Denver and Boston. Granted, LeBron James didn’t play in the loss to Boston, but the HEAT should be able to clean up the lottery-bound Celtics even without James. Miami is 18th in the NBA in scoring during March, averaging just 102.2 points per game; they have also slipped to 11th in the league in opponent’s point per game, yielding 103.9 per contest.
Is the trend we’re seeing from Miami an indication that they are not prepared to defend their second consecutive championship? That might be premature to say. The HEAT have shown an ability to simply turn it on when they need to and take care of most opposing teams easily. Still, they are not peaking at the right time, as we see the San Antonio Spurs doing in the West. It’s possible that Miami could be vulnerable come playoff time.
The Pacers aren’t faring much better, and if it weren’t for Miami’s struggles they would likely be out of the East’s top spot. Indiana has lost nearly one-third of their losses for the entire season in the last 10 games, and they have really been struggling since they made a bold move at the trade deadline.
Danny Granger was little more than a highly-paid cheerleader for Indiana as they made their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. When he finally returned to the court this season, he was a shadow of the player who lead Indiana back to prominence in the East. When the Pacers had a chance to land a young talent with potential in Evan Turner, it made sense to add another weapon to their second unit. Lavoy Allen also came over in the deal, and the Pacers also added Andrew Bynum after he was dismissed by the Chicago Bulls.
Unfortunately, Turner has struggled to transition his game from the lottery-bound 76ers to the championship-hopeful Pacers. The move to Indiana changed his role from at-will shooter and starter to reserve who has to pick his spots. As a result, he’s averaging just 8.5 points per game and struggling to fit into the winning culture. The addition of Bynum initially yielded positive results in terms of the box score, but the overall play of the team is not better when Bynum is on the court. He has never been a player who put the team first or impressed anyone with his work ethic, and on top of that his arrival sends a mixed message to starter Roy Hibbert, who is known to be somewhat fragile emotionally. Also, Bynum is now out indefinitely as he deals with swelling and pain in his knee. It’s not hard to see how a very controlled, culture-based team like Indiana is struggling to integrate these new pieces and regain their form.
Is there really reason for concern for the two teams that have been the East’s elite from the opening tip of the 2013-14 season? Certainly not in the first round, but if the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or perhaps the Brooklyn Nets get hot the second round, things could get very interesting.
NBA Chat with Bill Ingram
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Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.