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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 11/28/17

As the NBA gets set for their second full month of play, the cream is beginning to rise to the top in the MVP race.

Dennis Chambers

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Another leg of the season has come and gone. Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and teams are getting set to hit their second full month of the season. With that comes a bit of separation and clarity when ranking the league’s MVP candidates.

Here at Basketball Insiders, our last installment of the MVP Watchlist saw some changes from its first rendition. This time around, a juggling of names at the top, and a newcomer on a rising team are the changes.

Instead of letting the suspense build any further, let’s get into it.

  1. Joel Embiid

By now, everyone knows Joel Embiid’s story. From missing his first two seasons because of injury to having his third season — which quickly become magical — cut short due to another injury, Embiid is finally getting an extended chance to make an impact on the court for the Philadelphia 76ers.

On the surface, Embiid’s numbers are impressive: 22.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game.

But dig a little deeper and Embiid’s real presence can be seen on this upstart Sixers team. When Embiid is on the court, the team’s offensive rating is 109.2, compared to their opponents’, which is 101.3 as the towering big man guards the paint.

As soon as Embiid takes a seat on the bench (or lays down beside it) the story changes. The Sixers’ offensive rating drops to 102.5 while their opponent’s soars to 110.8.

Embiid’s carefree personality off the court and on social media builds the persona of a kid just having fun with the game. But when he’s on the court, Embiid is all business.

His two-way impact has his young Sixers team at 11-8 on the season, with impressive wins over the likes of the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and Detroit Pistons — not to mention Embiid’s ridiculous 46-15-7-7 line against the Los Angeles Lakers.

If Philadelphia wants to get to the playoffs and make any type of noise, it’ll be on the back of their 7-foot-2 center.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving continues his post-LeBron tour with winning at all costs.

The Boston Celtics hold the best record in the entire league at 18-4, and Irving has been the perfect embodiment of the Mamba Mentality throughout it all.

Being the main catalyst of the Celtics’ offense, Irving has come up the most when his team is in crunch time. In 13 games, Irving has found himself in league designated “clutch” time. While in these moments, almost nobody in the NBA has performed the standards Irving has. The 6-foot-3 point guard is shooting a ridiculous 61.5 percent from the field in these scenarios.

While Boston won’t win games in many more 16-game streaks like the one they had ended last Wednesday, they still figure to win pretty regularly. Maybe Irving doesn’t have what it takes yet to dethrone the Cavaliers in May, especially without Gordon Hayward, but so far this year he’s proving his decision to step into his own limelight was well worth it.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

After holding down the top spot in the first two installments in this MVP watchlist, Giannis Antetokounmpo slides down to No. 4 this time.

With a mix of jaw-dropping performances from his competition and a bit of slowed production on his end, the Greek Freak doesn’t look to be in line for his wire-to-wire MVP season like it seemed he would be at first glance.

While still producing incredible averages (29.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game), Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been winning as many games as they would have hoped. Sitting at just 9-9 so far, it’s still very early, but a team that made the playoffs last season, with an MVP candidate at the helm, should be asserting their dominance a bit more. That, for the most part, explains Antetokounmpo’s drop in this ranking.

However, with 64 games left on Milwaukee’s schedule, it’s obviously still very much in play that Antetokounmpo will claim the first MVP trophy of his career. But as of right now, he’s going to have to make up some ground on the guys in front of him.

  1. Steph Curry

Even with all of the firepower that surrounds him, Steph Curry still proves to be the engine that makes the Golden State Warriors go.

The addition of Kevin Durant will likely keep Curry from actually winning this award, as we’ve noted here before, but that doesn’t downplay the impact Curry’s been having this season.

On both sides of the ball, something that often been criticized of Curry, the Warriors are taking a step back when he hits the bench. Not only does Golden State’s offensive rating plummet 12.8 points, but the opponent’s offensive rating actually sees a 4.6 point spike when Curry takes a seat.

The scoring and initiating will always be the focal point when it comes to talking about Curry, and rightfully so. But so far this season, it appears that the Warriors’ point guard is having a positive impact defensively as well.

Golden State should have no problem rolling to another Finals appearance this year, but even with their star-studded cast, don’t forget who the most vital piece is right now.

  1. LeBron James

In year 15, LeBron James is somehow having a career year.

James is shooting a career-best from the field, a career best from three-point land, averaging the most points and blocks per game since 2009-10, and is shooting 62.2 percent in clutch scenarios.

Not to mention, after a rough start to the year, he has the Cavaliers in the midst of an eight-game winning streak and has seemingly worked out the kinks to his team’s defensive woes (at least enough to make a difference).

All the while, James, and the Cavs are missing Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose — their starting and backup point guards — to injury.

After a decade and a half of pure dominance, it seems like James is doing anything but slowing down. With the departure of Irving, should the Cavs find a way to dominate this regular season when it’s all said and done behind a career year from James, it will be hard to award anyone but the King with the MVP crown.

At this rate, James may want to start clearing a little space on his mantle for a potential 5th MVP trophy.

  1. James Harden

After a long list of impressive candidates, no player is coming close to James Harden so far this season.

The Beard leads the league in both scoring and assists right now, all while Chris Paul has been sidelined for most of the season. In Mike D’Antoni’s hyperspeed offense, Harden appears to be the perfect fit.

Along with shooting a career high from beyond the arc, Harden also is posting his best defensive rating since 2014-15. His spiked two-way play is helping the Houston Rockets look like the best threat to the Warriors since the Golden State dynasty began its run.

Even with Paul coming back into the mix, Harden’s stamp on this MVP race is made. If anything, Harden may even see his scoring numbers increase with another capable playmaker and secondary scoring option on the court with him.

After an MVP-worthy season last year, Harden seems poised to get his this time around.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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