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The Big 3: Lowry, West 8-Seed and Play of the Week

This week’s Big 3 features Kyle Lowry, the “race” for the 8 out West and an instructive Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett

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Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we canvass the league for a few big themes from the week that was. We’re back from a brief holiday break – let’s get started!

This week’s column features an under-the-radar MVP candidate, one of the weirdest races for the eight-seed we’ve seen out West in decades, and a Play of the Week that helps illustrate a new defensive trend sweeping the league. All statistics are prior to Saturday’s games.

Kyle Lowry, Legit MVP Candidate

The MVP debate always starts out with a relatively wide net, typically led by a few frontrunners, before it narrows to include just those frontrunners plus a couple of fringe candidates. We’re roughly reaching that point this season: James Harden and Russell Westbrook appear to have distanced themselves in most conversations, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and perhaps a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard dotting the margins. If the vote was today, it’s likely we’d see Harden and Westbrook split the majority of first-place nods.

Based on all the past indicators of MVP success, though, we need to be adding another name to the list: Kyle Lowry.

It seemed to many (this pen included) as if Lowry had hit a bit of a plateau last year during his age-29 season. After all, he set career highs in virtually every major efficiency-related category while leading the Raptors to the most successful season in franchise history. However, there were hints of potential regression in his game.

So much for that. Lowry set his own career high in True Shooting percentage last year with a .578 mark, but he’s blasting that to smithereens so far this year – up to .642, the highest figure in the league for a guard (per basketball-reference.com). He’s finishing at the rim more effectively than ever before in his career, lighting nets on fire from floater range and sitting in the league’s top 10 for three-point shooting despite a ridiculous average level of difficulty.

In fact, Lowry’s shooting this season is eerily similar to the two-time defending MVP who has become synonymous with difficult shot-making. Lowry isn’t approaching Stephen Curry’s legendary 2015-16 campaign, of course – there’s a strong chance no one ever will – but take a quick gander at a comparison of their shooting metrics and you’ll see he’s right on par with Curry’s first MVP season:

Curry 2014-15: 48.7% FG, 44.3% 3P, .638 TS%, 42.0% on pull-up 3-pointers (per SportVU data)

Lowry 2016-17: 47.7% FG, 44.5% 3P, .642 TS%, 41.7% on pull-up 3-pointers

Curry’s 2014-15 numbers were on a bit more volume and perhaps a higher degree of difficulty, but those are nearly identical shooting figures.

Lowry currently sits fourth in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, trailing only Chris Paul, Antetokounmpo and James. The Raptors’ offense sputters and dies when he leaves the floor and his bench mobs that open the second and fourth quarters of most games are a big reason the Raptors still sit within shouting distance of the Cavs for the top overall seed out East. Lowry deserves to at least be on the margins of the MVP conversation and more of this over the next couple months could even get him up there with the main guys.

West 8-seed, Anyone? Going Once…

As of this writing, the Portland Trail Blazers – they of the glamorous 16-22 record, for a .421 winning percentage – sit in the eighth seed in the West. They’re jockeying with fellow sub-.500 teams for that final spot and a huge line of delineation seems to have been drawn between the eight-seed and the top seven teams in the conference.

Folks familiar with how dominant the West has been in recent years will recognize this as a rare occurrence, but perhaps won’t be aware of exactly how rare.

There have only been two teams in the last 20 years who have finished even directly at .500 and made the playoffs in the West: Houston last season and Minnesota during the lockout-shortened year in 1998-99. It was a full two decades ago that anyone got in at below .500 – three teams actually all did in the same year in 1996-97.

The West’s general dominance over the East hasn’t let up, by any means; the West is still 109-94 against the East on the year. But this is a rare gap in power structure we haven’t really seen since the current chasm between the conferences developed. With four teams in the West currently winning over 60 percent of their games (and the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies right on that line as of this writing), it’s looking like things have gotten even more top-heavy than usual – and the Warriors, driving that top-heaviness in large part, are in line for a historically weak first-round opponent if current standings hold.

Play of the Week

NBA offense and defense are in a constantly evolving chess game, only if just the top 30 grandmasters in the world played each other over and over and all 28 others sat and watched every game. Little tweaks that work make their way into other playbooks, sometimes immediately or sometimes over a few months or an offseason.

As the NBA’s rise in pick-and-roll play has spread, one of the counters that has eventually manifested has been switch-everything defenses to prevent damning rotations. For teams with multiple talented screener options, the next logical chess move has been to search for the best potential switching mismatch available, then go at that repeatedly while avoiding where the switch the defense “wants” to go to.

During set play moments at the end of big games, though, defenses have found a new counter. Many offenses are pretty transparent about their desire to run pick-and-roll during these moments and defenses who know it’s coming have started dictating some of their own action guarding screens.

The Warriors with Draymond Green in the 2016 playoffs were among the first teams to pull this trick out, though it’s possible someone else was the true innovator. In this example from the Oklahoma City Thunder late in an eventual loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, see if you can spot what Oklahoma City does. Pay special attention to Russell Westbrook, initially positioned at the top of the screen on the right.

As the play begins, note how Westbrook is mostly hanging a bit higher than usual in the middle area between his man on the baseline and ball-handler Kemba Walker (and note how Andre Roberson is doing the same on the other side of the court, in case the pick comes from there).

As the play develops, it turns out that Steven Adams’ man, Frank Kaminsky, is coming up to set the pick for Walker – not Westbrook’s man, Marco Belinelli. But that doesn’t matter to the Thunder. Their primary goal is making sure they have a guy who can switch the upcoming pick and take over on Walker without giving up a huge edge.

Westbrook executes the switch and the Thunder get what they want: Walker gets the ball out of his hands. He passes to Belinelli and while the Hornets do end up getting free-throws out of this, it still has to count for a process win for Oklahoma City. Belinelli isn’t a particularly creative dribbler, and while he’s certainly quicker than Adams, he’s a far better option than Kemba in that same situation. Also, by forcing the pass away from Walker and wasting a couple extra seconds, the Thunder have run the shot clock down below seven – they can give Adams solid help if he gets beat.

They didn’t execute it perfectly here, but a careful eye can see how useful this tactic can be. Teams can designate a “roll man defender” like they did with Westbrook here, knowing that they’ll have a good matchup on the primary ball-handler they’re honing in on. If the offense wants to exploit a mismatch, they’re forced to do so using a secondary playmaker who probably isn’t as talented or experienced going one-on-one in these big situations. Otherwise, they won’t be able to create any major creases in the defense.

Of course, know that the best offensive coaches are out there scheming the next counter here. Maybe teams fake a screen from one man and run it with another in a way that frees up an open rim run, or maybe they slip the pick more quickly and catch the switchers napping. If we see the next variation, we’ll update it here.

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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G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs

On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.

Dennis Chambers

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At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.

And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.

Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.

Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.

Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.

Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.

It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.

That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.

Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.

Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.

Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.

The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.

Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.

While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.

Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.

Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.

Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.

Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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