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NBA Sunday: Current And Future NBA Players Shine At EuroBasket

Buddy Grizzard evaluates several current and future NBA players performing at EuroBasket 2017.

Buddy Grizzard

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EuroBasket 2017 is packed with past, present and future NBA talent, and that talent has been on full display as the tournament enters the knockout stage. Here we’ll check in on some of the top performers currently on NBA rosters, as well as a couple of the top players outside the NBA.

Goran Dragic

Dragic is fifth in scoring (21.2) and third in total points (127) at EuroBasket. However, he has shot just 46 percent overall (28th) and 31.8 percent from three (76th). His all-around contributions included 3.6 rebounds per game, ranking 17th among guards. His five assists per game are good for 14th and 1.8 steals tied for ninth. Dragic is the seventh most efficient player in the tournament according to FIBA’s overall efficiency stat.

Slovenia was fortunate to survive an off game from Dragic in the quarterfinals against Ukraine as he shot just 2-for-12 for five points with four rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes. Despite the struggles, Slovenia advances to the round of eight and Dragic will have a chance to close the tournament on a more positive note. Slovenia will face Kristaps Porzingis and Latvia in the round of eight on Tuesday.

Dennis Schroder

Dennis Schroder is EuroBasket 2017’s leader in points per game (23.2) and total points (139), but he hasn’t been supremely efficient. His 46.9 percent field goal shooting ranks well down the list at 25th, while his wayward three-pointer has connected only 33.3 percent of the time, ranking 68th. His 5.2 assists per game and 1.8 steals both tied for ninth, and he rated 13th per FIBA’s efficiency stat.

While Schroder has shown some of the same defensive lapses throughout the tournament that marred his 2016-17 NBA season, he clearly wanted it in yesterday’s round of 16 elimination game against France. Schroder dove on the floor for loose balls and consistently beat the French to 50-50 balls. Nobody could stay in front of him — not Evan Fournier and certainly not the unfortunate Boris Diaw, who got stuck defending him on several switches.

Schroder was able to find seams, pull multiple defenders into the paint and either finish through them or find teammates for dump-off passes. During one memorable sequence in the comeback win for Germany, Schroder got a steal and saved it to Robin Benzing. Schroder received a return pass and drew Diaw to the basket before setting up Daniel Theis to posterize him.

Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis is second in total points for the tournament (131) and third in points per game (21.8). He continues to show the range that makes his ceiling so high, hitting 44 percent on threes, which ranks 28th. However, you would have liked to see something greater than 5.7 rebounds per game. Porzingis does lead the tournament with two blocks per game, showing the rare combination of outside shooting and rim protection that makes him such a special player. FIBA rates Porzingis as the fourth most efficient player in the tournament.

Porzingis dropped 19 points, including two of three three-pointers and six rebounds to lead Latvia past Montenegro earlier today in the round of 16. That sets up Tuesday’s round of eight contest with Dragic and Slovenia.

Bojan Bogdanovic

Bojan Bogdanovic is seventh in field goal percentage (56.4) and three-point percentage (55.6) and is one of the tournament’s most efficient scorers. The Pacers’ free agent signing is fourth with 21.4 points per game and tied with Marco Belinelli for sixth with 107 total points. He’s also fifth among guards in rebounding at five per game. FIBA ranks Bogdanovice eighth in efficiency. However, at only one assist per game, Bojan ties for 152nd. Bogdanovic and Croatia tip off against Russia today in the round of 16.

Lauri Markkanen

There have been hugely encouraging signs for Bulls fans with supremely efficient scoring from rookie Lauri Markkanen. His 19.5 points per game are seventh in the tournament while he ranks 11th in field goal percentage. His 117 total points at EuroBasket ranked a hugely-impressive fourth following Finland’s elimination at the hands of Italy in the round of 16. At 53.3 percent field goal shooting, Markkanen is one of only four NBA players in the tournament’s top 12. He also shot 47.8 percent from three, ranking 17th. His 5.7 rebounds per game tied him for a respectable 22nd and he rated 14th in efficiency according to FIBA. Markkanen didn’t do anything at EuroBasket to quiet those who doubt his ability to defend at an NBA level, but his impressive showing is a great sign for Chicago.

Alexey Shved

One player we’ll mention that is not NBA-bound is Russian Alexey Shved, who departed CSKA Moscow for the Timberwolves in 2012, but was traded three times in three NBA seasons. Shved signed a three-year deal with Khimki Moscow in 2015 and is second in points per game for EuroBasket (23) and fifth in total points (115). He’s the only player among the tournament’s top eight scorers that is not currently under contract with an NBA team. However, his 43.4 percent field goal shooting hasn’t blown anyone away. On the plus side, he has hit 40.4 percent of his threes and ranked seventh with 5.6 assists per game. He also tied for eighth in efficiency. Shved faces Bojan Bogdanovic and Croatia today in the round of 16.

Marco Belinelli

The new Atlanta Hawk is ninth in scoring (17.8) and tied for sixth in total points (107). His 51.1 percent three-point shooting ranks 10th at EuroBasket and he joins Bojan Bogdanovic as the only other NBA player in the top 10. Unfortunately, his 43 percent overall field goal shooting ranks all the way down at 39th. His 2.8 rebounds per game were also decent for a guard, and his 2.2 steals per game ranked fourth. Belinelli led the way with 22 points, four rebounds, and two assists to move Italy past Markkanen and Finland in the round of 16. Italy will face Bogdan Bogdanovic and Serbia Wednesday in the round of eight.

Pau Gasol

Spain’s mainstay is 15th in scoring (16.8) and ninth in field goal percentage (53.7) for the tournament. He’s also hit threes at a 44.4 percent clip, good for 26th, while his 8.8 rebounds per game rank fourth. Gasol also ranked third in FIBA’s overall efficiency stat. Spain, the prohibitive favorites to win EuroBasket, tip off later today against Turkey in the round of 16.

Evan Fournier

Fournier is 17th in scoring (15.8) and tenth in total points (95) on 47.7 percent field goal shooting, which ranks 23rd. Fournier hit 37 percent of his threes, which was good for an unimpressive 52nd. He did contribute 1.5 steals per game, which tied for 16th. Fournier erupted for 27 points, including three of eight three-pointers against Germany, but it wasn’t enough to stop Schroder’s national team from coming back to advance to face the Spain-Turkey winner.

Mindaugas Kuzminskas

At 19th in scoring (15.3) and tied for 13th in total points (92), Kuzminskas also connected on 36.4 percent of his threes. The New York Knick led Lithuania in the round of 16 with 20 points, but it wasn’t enough as Greece eliminated them to advance to advance to face the Russia-Croatia winner.

Dario Saric

Croatia’s Dario Saric is 21st in scoring (15.2) and his field goal shooting (43.9 percent, 36th in the tournament) and three point shooting (31.3 percent, 78th) have not impressed. He ranked in the top 10 in rebounding, however (7.4, tied for ninth). His 1.2 blocks per game tie him for fifth, and he was tied for second in double-doubles with three. His all-around performance was good enough for 19th in efficiency per FIBA’s metric. Russia awaits later today in the round of 16.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

Bogdan has shot just 44.7 percent from the field, ranking a tepid 32nd. The recipient of the largest rookie contract in NBA history — thanks to countryman and Kings GM Vlade Divac — shot just 29.3 percent on three pointers, ranking 87th. His 3.6 rebounds per game ranked 16th among players listed as guards. The saving grace for his tournament is that his 5.2 assists per game tied for ninth and his 1.6 steals rated 13th. Somehow, despite his shooting struggles, FIBA ranks him in the top 10 in efficiency. Bogdanovic led the way with 17 points and six assists as Serbia dominated Hungary in the round of 16. Serbia advances to face Italy on Wednesday.

Cedi Osman

The Cavaliers’ new utility wing is 17th in total points with 88 and an impressive 11th in points per game (17.6). However, he’s shot just 40 percent, which ties him for 45th. He did show some range with 36.7 percent three-point shooting and contributed a respectable 5.2 rebounds, which ranked 30th. Also showing his all-around game, Osman ranked 28th with 1.8 assists per game and tied for fifth with two steals. FIBA ranked Osman 12th in efficiency. He’ll have his work cut out for him today as Turkey received an unfavorable draw and must face Spain to open the round of 16.

Luka Doncic

The projected high lottery pick in next summer’s draft has shot just 41.8 percent for the tournament, ranking 41st. Perhaps most impressively, Doncic has pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game, which ranks eighth among all players but first among players listed as guards by FIBA. He also rated 17th in efficiency. Overshadowed for much of the tournament by Dragic, Doncic showed up when Slovenia needed him. He had 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists as Dragic struggled from the field, helping Slovenia reach the round of eight.

Doncic is a multi-talented player who will be tracked by NBA draft prognosticators through next summer. With Slovenia still alive, along with most of the players on this list, EuroBasket 2017 continues to provide an early fix for NBA junkies yearning for training camp to start in a few short weeks. Dragic has been perhaps the tournament’s most outstanding player, but Schroder is nipping at his heels. If Spain gets past Turkey today, it will set Schroder up for his biggest test against a Spain roster packed with NBA talent.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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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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