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Rodney Hood: Ahead of Schedule

Rodney Hood is way ahead of schedule, as he has already become a major contributor for the Utah Jazz.

Ben Dowsett

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It’s mid-December and the Utah Jazz are playing at home against the New York Knicks. Midway through the second quarter, a Gordon Hayward drive and kick finds an open three for sophomore guard Rodney Hood at the top of the key. Brick. No matter, the rebound flies long and right back into Hood’s hands. He immediately initiates a new set, a pick-and-roll with Trey Lyles that opens up the Knicks’ rotations and puts the ball back in Hood’s hands for another open triple a few passes later. Brick.

The Jazz again secure the offensive board, and after a failed Raul Neto floater bounces off the hands of a Knick, it caroms right back to Hood for yet another open look from deep.

Brick.

Many coaches would be frustrated at such a sequence. Hood took three shots in under a minute of game play, missing all of them. He’s just 23 years old, after all, playing alongside more tenured players in his second NBA season. Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s response, though, was the polar opposite.

“I told him my favorite possession the other night was when he missed three 3s in one possession,” Snyder said, unprompted, a couple days later. “Because it meant he kept shooting. As long as that’s the mentality he has, I’m happy.”

It’s easy for the general public to undersell the role of environment and comfort in the growth of a young NBA player, and to some degree it’s understandable. The players the common fan sees the most often – the Jordans and the LeBrons and the Currys – would certainly have been superstars in virtually any early career situation. But these outliers can mask the vast importance of managing a young player’s growth, the details of which can make or break a career in seemingly the tiniest of areas.

One guy who will never underestimate this piece of development is Hood himself.

“It’s a great opportunity [here], and I realize that,” Hood told Basketball Insiders. “You look around the league… a young guy makes a mistake, he gets pulled out of the game or he gets sent down to the D-League or something like that.” Not in Utah. “As long as I’m making the mistake aggressively, trying to make the right play, that’s the biggest thing they want from me.”

Hood has been among the primary beneficiaries of Utah’s approach, but he’s been far from the only one. Snyder’s mantra places process over results in virtually every case – right idea, wrong result is infinitely more acceptable than vice versa. Guys are going to struggle on a team this young, but what’s being judged is the way they’re doing so and whether they’re building on past failures.

Some might call it an ingrained part of Snyder’s basketball identity, and Hood knows a thing or two about those roots as well. Both men had the distinct honor of playing for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in their formative years, and both still draw often from this experience under one of the greatest developmental minds in the game’s history. Eras and the differences between the college and pro games might limit the on-court shorthand between the two Duke products, but it’s present in a more general sense. When asked about the similarities between his last two coaches, Hood discussed how they trust their players.

“For me personally, just short-term memory,” Hood said. “Coach K used to tell me the same thing – you miss a shot, just keep shooting, and shoot it like you’re supposed to make it… He really lets his players play. I think that’s the recipe. He puts a lot of faith in his players, and gives them a lot of confidence.”

Internalizing the mindset isn’t always easy.

“Rodney’s such a diligent person, and he’s such a perfectionist, he can take a miss too hard,” Snyder tells Basketball Insiders.

Part of his growth, as Snyder tells it, is the understanding that the season is 82 games long, and the next shot matters much more than the previous one.

A rough start to the year from the field tested his resiliency, but Hood has come through unscathed to become one of the most vital pieces for a Jazz team that’s been decimated by injuries early in the season. He’s second on the team in nightly minutes behind only Gordon Hayward since the turn of the new year, a period during which he’s ripping nets to the tune of over 47 percent from three-point range on over six attempts per game. Hardly a media session goes by where Snyder doesn’t have some kind of praise for the load being carried by Hood and Hayward on the wings, where the duo is averaging more than 40 points per game together for the month of January.

“Before Alec [Burks] got hurt, it was one or two of the three of them [together on the wing],” Snyder said. “I think with Alec out, it’s even more important – Rodney’s production offensively has been huge. It’s tough for us to win, really, when one of those two guys, Gordon or Rodney, isn’t playing well offensively. That’s the reality of where we are.”

Snyder’s rotations have reflected his praise since Burks was sidelined with an ankle injury in late December. Hayward and Hood both start the game, but Rodney will typically exit roughly at the halfway point of the first and third quarters – Snyder staggers him back into the lineup to begin the second and fourth quarters as Hayward sits. The two are clearly Utah’s preferred ball-handling options, and this approach allows Snyder to go the vast majority of games (entire ones, sometimes) with at least one on the floor at all times.

“I’m very comfortable playing with Gordon,” Hood said. “And when he’s getting his rest, coming in and being the ‘number one guy’ on that second unit.”

The quotation marks within his comment are Rodney’s own – the Jazz under Snyder are reluctant to give any single player the “leading man” tag in a motion system designed to exploit defensive shortcomings rather than any individual on a game to game basis. But as the year has gone on, it’s become abundantly clear that this ethos can only get them so far given the roster. Guys like Hood and Hayward have become de facto first options with much of the team’s depth proving inadequate or injured, a fact reflected in the last month as the two have combined to use over 55 percent of Jazz possessions while on the floor.

Hayward has been this guy to some degree for at least a couple years, but Hood’s shockingly advanced game in the pick-and-roll has been a huge part of what’s allowed him to ascend so quickly to a 1b role of sorts recently. Whether hidden behind sensation Jabari Parker in his year at Duke or undiscovered for some other reason, Hood blew Jazz brass and the league as a whole away with his patience and comfort level in the two-man game nearly instantly last season – and things have only improved in his second go-round after a summer spent honing his craft.

Per Synergy Sports data, Hood is generating 116.1 points per-100-possessions on finished plays where he uses a pick set for him. Of guys who have run at least 100 such plays, only three players have been more lethal (Steph Curry, Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon; right behind Hood at fifth and sixth on this list are Kevin Durant and James Harden). In a raw sense, Hood accepting a pick from a teammate has been preferable to the historic Golden State Warriors offense so far this season.

At 23 years old, there already isn’t a single non-superstar in the game more adept than Hood at the niche skill of taking a pick, getting into the lane, and then shielding his defender off using his back and hind parts while he surveys the landscape. It’s almost a comical sight at times – Hood warding off frustrated defenders with his derriere, working his way into the paint while keeping the big man at the rim at bay with the risk of a lob pass. His in-between jumper game is pristine, with one of the prettiest and most versatile floaters in the league, and he’s money finishing at the rim. Leave a single crack and Rodney will be patient and skilled enough to find it:

“It just came naturally,” Rodney said when asked where it came from. He’s been big since his younger years, which set the baseline. “I consider myself a guard offensively – just getting in the lane and being bigger [than guys], taking your time, seeing the floor. That’s something I worked on in the summer, just slowing down, letting yourself be able to see the floor and not rush yourself.”

During a drill last summer at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, Hood would slow things down and use this nearly unstoppable shielding technique to score repeatedly – frustrating the other NBA players in the gym.

Combine this with a jumper that’s rounding back into form in a hurry, and you’re quickly seeing the outlines of a professional scorer in this league. Combine that with the length and smarts to check multiple positions on defense – Snyder often assigns Hood to the opponent’s top ball-handler – and an immensely valuable two-way player begins to take shape.

Hood isn’t bothering to define himself – there’s too much work to be done. He knows he’s part of the scouting report now, and is hard at work on his ability to draw fouls and get teammates involved in the two-man game when opponents inevitably load up on his score-first options.

“Just get it out of my hands,” he says. “The job is to create two on the ball and make the right play.”

Hood is quickly looking like the second huge draft win in a row for GM Dennis Lindsey and his team. The Jazz are a borderline playoff team despite all their youth, and have reached that perch with two starters (Hood and Rudy Gobert) who were selected in the 20s in consecutive drafts. Hood has almost instantly become nearly untouchable as a core piece moving forward, even as the Jazz deal with the impending reality that some of their young talent will eventually end up elsewhere.

Hood checks all the boxes for a modern NBA wing already, and will only become more valuable as his skills and mental acuity come along. Getting through the year without any injury setbacks is big for him after a rookie season marred by a few unlucky maladies, and confidence with his body has been just as important as confidence in his skills. Both are currently at all-time highs.

Put in a position to succeed, Rodney Hood is doing exactly that. There have been speed bumps along the way, but confidence from his coach and his franchise have helped navigate them. A selection to the Rising Stars Challenge in the All-Star game is well deserved, and if he keeps up this trajectory, it’ll just be the tip of the accolade iceberg.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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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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