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Q&A: Aaron Gordon on Magic’s Moves, Playoff Goal

Aaron Gordon discusses his offseason training, 2016-17 expectations, Orlando’s moves and more.

Alex Kennedy

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It’s hard to believe that Orlando Magic forward is Aaron Gordon is only 20 years old. Yes, the player who wowed the nation in February’s NBA incredible dunk contest isn’t old enough to legally order a beer.

Gordon has done quite well since becoming the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, especially when considering much of his play came as a teenager against full-grown men. This success is in large part due to his freakish athleticism, but also because of his high basketball IQ, intense work ethic and terrific motor. For us mere mortals, it can be exhausting to just watch Gordon constantly hustle on defense, burst out into transition and dunk over anyone who stands in his way.

Some physical specimens who defy gravity may be tempted to coast off of these gifts or take a play off every now and then. Not Gordon. His ability to impact the game in many different ways is what most impresses people around the NBA. Gordon’s per-100-possession averages of 19.3 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks show that he makes his presence felt all over the court.

Last season, there were some growing pains and mistakes that young players sometimes make – particularly those who play with reckless abandon at times. However, Gordon did well when given significant playing time. He averaged 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 0.8 steals in 23.9 minutes per game. In the 37 games he started, his averages climbed to 11.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.9 steals in 28.6 minutes.

But it’s clear that, barring something catastrophic, Gordon’s best basketball is ahead of him. Because he’s still so young and has played relatively few minutes in his first two seasons, his upside is what has most people understandably excited.

Combine Gordon’s seemingly unlimited potential with a desire to be great and intense work ethic, and it’s obvious why many are predicting that this upcoming campaign could be a breakout year for the Magic forward. He’ll likely see more minutes in his third season, his defense-first mentality fits with new head coach Frank Vogel’s overall philosophy and he should benefit from Orlando playing a more up-tempo offense. Also, his comfort level and confidence have never been higher.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Gordon to discuss his offseason training, expectations for next season, Orlando’s playoff goal, the Magic’s busy summer and much more.

Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason and what has your training regimen been like?

Aaron Gordon: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it. (laughs) Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”

Kennedy: Many people are predicting that this could be a breakout year for you. Do you expect that to be the case?

Gordon: “I think when you say ‘breakout,’ most people think of statistics and how well you play. To me, a breakout year means the level of fun and joy that I receive from the game. And yes, I think this year I’ll be much more joyful when I play, much happier when I play. I think I’ll be much more confident in my play. If those three things lead to a breakout year, then yeah, I believe that I’m ready.”

Kennedy: You’re only 20 years old. That’s hard to believe since you’re entering your third NBA season and you’re very mature, but how much more room do you feel you have to grow? What do you think your ultimate ceiling is?

Gordon: “It’s really hard to say. It really is. I think if I continue to work diligently and I’m smart about it… One of my problems is that I work a little bit too hard and come game time, my body isn’t ready. This year, I was able to take [time] off and make sure my body was ready for 82 games. If I stay healthy… When I stay healthy and when I stay in the present, I think my potential is limitless. I basically get to decide how great I can be.”

Kennedy: One thing I find interesting is that you work with mental skills coach Graham Betchart on mindfulness training and you’ve been doing it since you were a kid. You guys even formed an organization and app called Lucid. I know you do things like breathing exercises, meditation, visualization, positive affirmations and things like that. How much has that benefited your game?

Gordon: “I started working with Graham when I was going from eighth grade to ninth grade. I was basically going from being a big fish in a little pond to being a little fish in a big pond. I knew that I needed something to help my game and continue to keep me on the right track. Graham introduced this to me at 13 years old and from then on, the ball was just rolling. I think it’s helped me a tremendous amount. We use basketball as a medium, but we just talk about life. He’s also helped me with situations in my life that have nothing to do with basketball. We talk about money, materialistic things, existential things – some things that normal basketball players may not talk about with their sports psychologist. He’s become a mentor for me. He’s helped me see that there’s more to life than just basketball and I’m eternally grateful for that.”

(For more on Betchart’s mental skills training and his work with NBA players like Gordon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons and Andrew Wiggins, check back for my article later this week.)

Kennedy: Whenever prospects are going through the draft process, people ask them which players they study and things like that. But having played in the NBA for two years, you’ve been able to take some things from players after going up against them and it’s easier to emulate guys. Are there any players that have influenced your game after playing against them?

Gordon: “Yeah, a little bit, definitely. I love looking at guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant and LeBron James – how he commands the game. I like to the see the greats in my area, the big wings who are also kind of guard-like distributors too. Those guys are really fun to watch for me. I love watching their film, and it helps me lock in to what I need to do for my team.”

Kennedy: At the 2014 NBA Draft Combine, I remember some reporters were concerned about your lack of a clear-cut position and questioned you about it. You just kept responding, “I’m a basketball player,” and stated you’d play wherever your coach played you. At the time, some viewed you as a “tweener” back when that word was still used. Now, being versatile enough to play multiple positions is extremely valued and viewed as a strength. How has that shift in the league benefitted you?

Gordon: “Oh man, it’s huge. We can play small, we can play big. I can play the two, the three or the four, and it all depends on what my coach sees. He’ll say, ‘Aaron, we have an advantage at the four, go get him.’ The foundation is defense though. If you can’t guard the position, you can’t play the position. I’m able to guard all of those positions so therefore I can play them and it opens things up.”

Kennedy: How confident are you now compared to when you first came into the league? You were a pretty confident guy entering the NBA, but how much more confident and comfortable are you now?

Gordon: “I would say much more. I’ve had two years under my belt. One year, I had to sit out due to injury and only play 47 games. Then, I had a year of playing the entire season. Having both experiences – sitting out and learning versus playing the full season – helped me. I also have three more years of working with Graham Betchart and Lucid. I would say that when I came into the league, I still needed validation. Now, I don’t need any validation. I play for joy and the fun of it. That’s all that I need in my life.”

Kennedy: You were well-known by big NBA fans before last year’s dunk contest, but you became a household name overnight after going head to head with Zach LaVine. How much did your life change after that and did that give you some of that validation you wanted?

Gordon: “Yeah, that was incredible. As a little kid, I’ve always wanted to be part of a dunk contest, and of course I’ve always wanted to be in the NBA dunk contest. I got that opportunity and I did the best that I could.  To me, that was all of the validation that I needed. I set out to achieve a goal and I executed it. After that, people were saying that I’m one of the best dunkers in the NBA. For me, that was amazing and all I needed. I wanted people to see what I saw and, you know, they did. They saw the creativity, the innovation, the joy and how much I love the game come out through my dunks.”

Kennedy: Are you going to do the dunk contest again this year?

Gordon: “I’m not 100 percent sure. I kind of gave a lot in this last one and to be more creative would be difficult. I think I could do it, but I’m not sure if I’m going to.”

Kennedy: You have a new head coach in Frank Vogel. How do you feel you fit in with Coach’s Vogel’s style and what have you guys discussed in terms of what role you’ll play?

Gordon: “I think he wants me to do a whole lot of everything, from defending to distributing to scoring. We’re going to need to score the ball this year and I’m looking to take on a bigger scoring role. Defensively, I want to guard the best player on the other team every night. These are things that I want, but they are also things I want from my teammates. I want them to say, ‘No, I want to guard the best player.’ And we have those type of players. Serge, Bismack, Jeff [Green], EP [Elfrid Payton] are guys who would love to do that. They all want that challenge and I love playing with guys like that. It’s always team-first with me and I’m going to do whatever I can to help my team win.”

Kennedy: The front office brought in a lot of veterans such as Ibaka, Biyombo, Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks. What did you think of the additions? They’re clearly win-now moves.

Gordon: “It’s just exciting to me. I’ve always trusted Rob Hennigan and I’ve always trusted Scott Perry. To me, it validates my trust in them. They made moves that other people couldn’t have made. They were confident, aggressive moves. Now, it’s on us. We’re ready to play. We have the coach, the staff, the players, the organization. We have a foundation of players who have been there and been through the losing, and now it’s time to start winning.”

Kennedy: Clearly, making the playoffs is the goal. Do you feel that this team has what it takes? And if you guys aren’t in the postseason, is that a disappointment?

Gordon: “Oh, of course. Of course. We are a playoff team. I haven’t stepped foot in the gym with everyone yet, but just through our text messages and calls, that’s where everybody’s mindset is at. They’re ready, and I’m ready as well. Really, we have to play present. We need to take each game and play it like it’s our last. If we do that, we’re going to have a very successful season.”

Kennedy: Do you have any Individual goals for next season?

Gordon: “I just want to play confidently and courageously. I’m not all that goal-oriented; I’m more of a process-oriented person. If I play with love and joy, then everything will take care of itself. You’re definitely going to see me playing with a lot of joy and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m ready for it to start right now.”

Kennedy: You just returned from a trip from China. What was that experience like?

Gordon: “China was amazing. Having basketball take me to the other side of the world is still hard for me to comprehend. I went out there and did a lot of clinics for children, which was great. We went to Nike [Rise Academy]. We played in Yao Ming’s charity game, raising $1.5 million for underprivileged kids. We also helped out with a contest called ‘Dunk China’ and put on a little show for everyone. It was great.”

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is 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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