This week, Basketball Insiders’ staff will be ranking the teams in each of the NBA’s divisions, starting with the Pacific today. While this is generally the time of year when folks tend to get up in arms about perceived slights and misjudgments about their team or new acquisitions, the reality is that all anyone can at this point is establish a predictive pecking order based on the limited information that is available.
Anytime the defending conference champions somehow turn around and land the summer’s prize free-agent addition, that makes deciding the division’s top team a bit easier. However, it also forces other front offices to adjust their approach for the near future as they compete with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. While some teams within the division are trying to finally break through and at least reach the next plateau along the general NBA ladder of success, others are showing great promise on the horizon and seem to have the potential to speed their development process along somewhat sooner than expected if certain players produce. Here is our look at the Pacific Division:
#5 – Los Angeles Lakers (17-65 last season)
Key Additions: Brandon Ingram (yet to sign), Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac, hired head coach Luke Walton and staff
Key Subtractions: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Robert Sacre (unsigned), Ryan Kelly (unsigned), parted ways with former head coach Byron Scott and staff
Fans of the team may not like to see them in this spot once again as we head into the season, but it will be important to remember what newly hired head coach Luke Walton told Shaquille O’Neal on The Big Podcast With Shaq just a few weeks ago: “The expectations, to me, aren’t going to be wins and losses, right now at least. It’s about having an edge when you play. It’s about competing every single time on offense and defense. It’s about playing the right way.”
Walton was speaking as much to an understandably rabid fan base as he was to his players with that message. He went on to specify more direct goals for certain players and about setting a new foundation for the future, but he also knows that has to happen in conjunction with folks being able to limit expectations on the team’s winning percentage for another season or two. For example, say everything goes well and the Lakers win as many as 12-15 additional games in 2016-17 – a feat that would be remarkable. That would still put their win total in the high 20s or low 30s in a conference that isn’t getting any easier to compete within. Walton knows that even with all the promise and intrigue of a young core that features the last two No. 2 picks of the NBA draft in Brandon Ingram (2016) and D’Angelo Russell (2015) to go along with the recently re-signed Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., it is going to take some time to not only teach and implement his preferred style of play and overall basketball philosophy, but to also continue preparing such an inexperienced mix for what it truly means to be a successful professional at this level.
They’re headed in the right direction, so after a few seasons of essentially having to “hope” for losses due to the protected draft picks, you might as well allow yourself to enjoy the process of watching a young and talented core develop without the burden of unrealistic expectations.
#4 – Phoenix Suns (23-59 last season)
Key Additions: Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, removed interim tag from head coach Earl Watson
Key Subtractions: Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price, Chase Budinger
Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight might be the veteran leaders of the team, but there’s at least a chance second-year guard Devin Booker eventually proves to be the team’s best player if he takes the next step in his development and improves upon what was an impressive rookie season. Bledsoe and Knight should still be main contributors if healthy, but the Suns appear poised to focus on a core that could potentially center around Booker, Bender, Chriss and even the reportedly (finally) healthy Alex Len as much as either of those veterans. In fact, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets, the Suns have one of the more intriguing young cores in the Western Conference.
As is always the case – but particularly with Phoenix’s roster – player health and availability could significantly impact how quickly fans in the ‘Valley of the Sun’ start to see tangible results. Still, they should have plenty to be excited about along the way as Booker, Bender and Chriss continue to adjust to life in the NBA.
It should also be interesting to see whether Coach Watson elects to lean on three-guard sets or is ultimately forced to make a decision with one of the vets currently slotted to play ahead of Booker. Barbosa’s addition and return to the organization is another positive, but if Booker starts well, the Suns could be in a situation where a trade to free up space while ideally shoring up another roster concern could be necessary sooner rather than later. In the event that happens and general manager Ryan McDonough tests the market on his veteran backcourt, Knight’s current contract happens to run a year beyond Bledsoe’s (through 2019-20).
#3 – Sacramento Kings (33-49 last season)
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Cousins, Bogdan Bogdanovic (draft rights), hired head coach Dave Joerger and staff
Key Subtractions: Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy, parted ways with former head coach George Karl and staff
Feel free to stop us if this phrase sounds familiar for the Sacramento Kings: franchise player DeMarcus Cousins is set to begin next season with a new head coach and system…
Of course it does, because this is now the sixth head coach that the Team USA center will have played for in his seven years in the league. Regardless of the reasons or which side has been at fault, it is time for the league’s best center to be a part of something successful beyond his Olympic endeavors. Coach Joerger has a short, but somewhat proven track record at this level and is generally well-received by his players from all accounts. The time has come for Cousins to turn some of his personal dominance into more overall success for his team.
While some might question or even snicker at the idea of having Barnes in that locker room, Joerger had him in Memphis and obviously feels comfortable enough with him as a potential influence for the younger players. Barnes, along with some of the other vet additions, can really look to insulate Cousins from having to shoulder so much of the leadership burden at times. Adding Afflalo as another option as a wing defender should help, but they could really use a year of him shooting in the low-to-mid 40s from beyond the arc as he’s done at times in the past.
Drafting two more frontcourt players was a bit perplexing, but that doesn’t mean Papagiannis and Labissiere aren’t each intriguing projects. The Kings were actually closer to the postseason than they were to the cellar in 2015-16 and seem to have a better fit in terms of their roster and style of play moving forward, so don’t be shocked to see them continue to inch toward that .500 mark this season if general team health permits.
#2 – Los Angeles Clippers (53-29 last season)
Key Additions: Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Brice Johnson, David Michineau, Diamond Stone
Key Subtractions: Jeff Green, Cole Aldrich
Even though the Clippers didn’t have much flexibility or cap room once they re-signed their own preferred free agents (Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute), the front office did a solid job of acquiring some bargain veterans like Speights, Felton, Anderson and Bass and guys they were targeting in the draft.
As far as the prospects go, Johnson gives them another athletic big man who can run the floor and finish at the rim and has decent touch on his shot from the mid range. He also managed to shoot 78.3 percent from the charity stripe (4.6 attempts per game) as a senior for North Carolina last season. Stone and Michineau may still be projects even if they were to make the regular season roster, but each have at least shown potential. Doc Rivers has particularly mentioned Michineau’s defense and possible ability to play both backcourt positions, while Stone was one of the draft’s more intriguing (yet clearly unpolished) young bigs.
The real questions that remain about this team will be whether they are at least relatively healthy as a collective unit when the playoffs come around and whether Coach Rivers can find the right blend of rest and roster management throughout the year to help with the concern. For as much as the Warriors deserve the spotlight for the team they’ve managed to put together, there have to be at least some within and around this organization – the fans aside – who feel as though their time to put everything together and play to their full potential.
Will the re-signed Mbah a Moute finally be the right piece at the small forward position with this crew? The Clippers have been looking for a viable option at that position for years and while the 6’8 veteran is long and rangy enough to defend scoring wings, he is hardly the three-point shooter (career 30.2 percent on .6 attempts) they’d like to have in order to create a more balanced floor for their talented scorers. Felton gives the team a veteran floor general behind Chris Paul, Anderson strengthens what looks to be talented second unit, and the combination of Speights and Bass add depth in the frontcourt depth. Speights, in particular, seems like an important addition with his ability to space the floor alongside either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan.
While the constant ring-count referencing and hyper-critical eye that we currently consume NBA basketball with may be a bit unfair or unrealistic to players at times, it isn’t beyond the scope of reason to expect more from the Clippers at some point. Although some might naturally place the San Antonio Spurs into that “best of the rest” category in the Western Conference, you’d hope to see a group as talented and multifaceted as Paul, Griffin, Jordan and J.J. Redick finally compete in a Conference Finals series and perhaps beyond.
#1 – Golden State Warriors (73-9 last season)
Key Additions: Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee (non-guaranteed), Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw
Key Subtractions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli
No need to bury the lead with this one, as adding Durant to such a talented blend of players still sounds about as crazy as it did back in early July. While there’s an absolute responsibility to remind you of all the other roster and rotation changes and how that could and almost certainly will impact team comfort and chemistry in the early going, there’s no point in denying the reality of the situation: Once they settle in and make the necessary adjustments, this team will be good. Scary good.
We shouldn’t expect them to really challenge last season’s record-setting regular season pace given all the necessary adjustments, but this unit does still have the chance to be historically great if Coach Steve Kerr and Co. can make the parts fit and players are truly willing to embrace the addition of such a great talent into their mix. It may sound somewhat silly to all of us rushing to crown them the paper champs, but chemistry is about as significant in the NBA as any other professional sport. The good news is, they have the type of culture and locker room that appears to be perfect for such a shift. If we’re being completely honest, Barnes, Ezeli and Speights were far less effective as the playoffs wore on during last year’s run to the Finals.
Although they aren’t likely to push for a regular season record in 2016-17, especially with the inevitable target that will remain on their collective backs on a nightly basis, look for these Warriors to really hit their stride over that final 35 games and into the postseason next spring. If team health permits, this will continue to be the most exciting stretch of professional basketball Oakland (and the surrounding area) has ever seen. Neither games nor titles are won on paper or during the summer months, but be prepared for at least a playoff-like atmosphere on a fairly routine basis this season whether the Warriors are playing at home or on the road.
Do you agree with these rankings? Leave a comment below!
Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings
Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.
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.
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?
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.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.