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Six NBA MVP Candidates — By The Numbers

Buddy Grizzard dives into the deep numbers to break down a historic MVP race.

Buddy Grizzard

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As the NBA season enters its final days, award season gets into full swing with an intense Most Valuable Player debate sure to dominate headlines. This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the numbers that shape those awards debates, starting with a look at six candidates for MVP.

6. Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas is only the sixth Boston Celtic to score 2,000 points in a season. Only Kyle Korver (.635) has a higher true shooting percentage among NBA guards than Thomas’ .627. He has dominated fourth quarters and could still lead the Celtics to an improbable ascent to the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed. It’s been a remarkable season for Thomas, and in any other year, you could make a strong case for his MVP candidacy.

But this is the year of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. With Westbrook making history and Harden not far behind, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Thomas ranks dead last in defensive Real Plus-Minus by a wide margin. The Celtics allow 108.9 points per 100 possessions to opponents with Thomas on the court, but only 99.7 when he’s on the bench. You simply can’t make an MVP case for a player the Celtics constantly have to hide on defense when the players at the top of this list have been so great. One could easily make an argument that Kevin Durant deserves to be higher on this list than Thomas.

5. Steph Curry

Speaking of Durant, you can’t discount the value of two-time defending and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, who sacrificed shots this season to welcome Durant into the fold and incorporate him in Golden State’s league-leading attack. Curry is third in overall RPM this season, trailing only Chris Paul and LeBron James. However, it’s the very addition of former MVP Durant that weakens Curry’s case.

Simply put, it was easier to attribute more of Golden State’s success to a single player before the Warriors added a fourth All-Star. The Warriors remain the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title this season, but one obvious byproduct of the NBA superteam is the dilution of credit, something that will prevent Curry from getting serious consideration for a third consecutive MVP award.

4. Kawhi Leonard

In contrast to Curry, Kawhi Leonard is obviously the biggest contributor to San Antonio’s third 60-plus win season in the last four years. With Tim Duncan retired, Leonard has stepped right into his shoes as San Antonio’s quiet, unassuming leader. His 25.8 points and 3.6 assists are easily career-highs, while his 5.9 rebounds are well off the 7.2 he posted in 2014-15.

Strangely, Leonard will get serious consideration for a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award despite the fact that the Spurs’ defense performs better on a per 100 possessions basis with Leonard on the bench than any other player. Normally when debating MVP candidates, a team’s record is a big factor. With credit divided among so many stars for the Warriors and the Spurs holding the league’s second-best record, Leonard’s candidacy would be stronger in any other year.

3. LeBron James

If the standard for MVP is “which player improves his team the most,” you could pretty much give the award to LeBron James every year. The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers would struggle to make the playoffs without James. On top of that, James is having one of the best individual seasons of his storied career, with career-highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7) to go along with 26.4 points per game.

However, James’ individual brilliance isn’t enough to make MVP voters overlook the way Cleveland has stumbled in the second half of the season. The Cavaliers hold the tiebreak over Boston, but must win out to control their own destiny. That could come back to haunt the Cavaliers, a team that should be resting James after he’s led the league in minutes per game this season (37.8). As unquestionably-great as James is, he will undoubtedly be penalized by voters for the fact that Cleveland’s defense ranks in the bottom third of the league, and a staggering 28th since the All-Star break.

2. Russell Westbrook

Wait, WHAT? With Russell Westbrook eclipsing Oscar Robertson’s record with his 42nd triple-double against the Nuggets while pouring in 50 points and a dramatic buzzer-beater, Twitter exploded with claims that the MVP discussion is now an open-and-shut case. There’s just one problem: Are regular season accomplishments more important than a team’s potential to reach the ultimate goal, an NBA championship? Are the Golden State Warriors satisfied with their accomplishments last season after winning a record 73 games but falling short in the NBA Finals?

That’s not to say that James Harden has a better case for MVP because the Houston Rockets have a realistic shot at winning the title this year. They don’t, not with the way the Warriors are playing and Durant back from injury. But the Rockets have exceeded expectations to a greater extent than Oklahoma City. If chasing regular season accomplishments is the true definition of value, that’s fine, but consider this: No NBA player with at least 15 minutes per game has ever used more than the astronomical 41.8 percent of the Thunder’s possessions that Westbrook has used while on court this season.

Prior to Harden’s departure from OKC, there was a realistic expectation that the Thunder would win multiple championships. Had the Thunder retained Harden, it would have had three of the NBA’s top 10 players under contract. Instead, Harden complained about touches after taking only six shots in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals and OKC’s chemistry was fractured. The story coming out of the Thunder’s front office was that the Harden trade was driven by economics, but that sounds like revisionist history. Westbrook’s failed efforts at hero ball in the playoffs led to the exodus of two superstars, and now OKC may never win a championship during his career. Is that what counts as value?

1. James Harden

What makes the case for James Harden for MVP is the fact that the Rockets have exceeded expectations more than any NBA team this season. As Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes noted, only two MVPs since 1985 (Michael Jordan in 1988 and Karl Malone in 1999) have won the award while their team finished lower than second in its conference standings. Both of those teams finished third, so there hasn’t been a team since 1985 that finished lower than third and produced an MVP. Westbrook’s brilliance legitimately opens up the debate despite the Thunder’s mediocre performance in the standings, but Houston’s overachievement makes it easier to make that argument in favor of Harden.

As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, oddsmakers at Bovada set a similar over/under for wins entering the season for the Rockets (44) and Thunder (43.5). At the time of the article’s publication, the Rockets were on pace to exceed that projection by 13 wins, making Houston easily the NBA’s biggest overachievers. The Thunder, meanwhile, were only on pace to exceed their projection by three wins.

Golliver also notes that while Westbrook leads MVP candidates in the three-point era in the combination of points, rebounds, and assists per game, Harden is second on that list ahead of previous MVPs. Thus, Harden’s season has also been historic while pushing his team significantly closer to contention than the Thunder.

Westbrook may win the award on the strength of the narrative created when he surmounted a triple-double record many observers thought would never be challenged. But if we’re talking about which candidate has pushed his team to the most unexpected heights and placed it in the closest proximity to title contention, Harden wins this MVP going away.

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

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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