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Toronto Raptors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Toronto Raptors have made an enormous financial commitment to their roster, will it be enough to matter in the East? We take a look at the Raptors in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The band is back together in Toronto for another go at postseason glory. After re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors bring back two of their top three scorers from last season and look poised to prey on the weak Eastern Conference in an attempt to finally unseat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

With some fresh faces in the mix for Toronto, and hopefully full seasons from Lowry and Ibaka to pair with what appears to be the prime version of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are about to embark on what looks like their third consecutive 50-win season.

While the continuity and experience are there for the Raptors, will it finally be enough to get over the hump and past the Cavs? Only time will tell.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Toronto brought the gang back this summer to continue trying to take their shot at an NBA championship.

In retaining both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors kept their two biggest weapons alongside star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, effectively keeping their window of competition among the East’s best open. Despite keeping old faces around, the Raptors did manage to add some fresh blood into their equation, hoping to finally break through to the next level. C.J. Miles crosses the border into Toronto after a trade that sent Corey Joseph to the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors also added OG Anunboy in the first round of this year’s draft.

Whether the same core plus a few new sidekicks can help Toronto get passed Cleveland and Boston is still up for debate, and barring catastrophic injuries, probably unlikely. However, the Raptors will still be plenty competitive this season, as they have been for years now.

2nd place — Atlantic Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s okay if you’ve started to get bored by the Toronto Raptors. There were no splashy moves this summer, which came after yet another uninspiring postseason showing. Kyle Lowry is awesome, and DeMar DeRozan is one of the league’s elite scorers at this point, but neither player has been all that great in the playoffs the last few years. Serge Ibaka doesn’t look as athletic as he did in Oklahoma City, and Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t appear to have much more ceiling to grow into. These guys are what they are at this point, and while the addition of C.J. Miles will help with three-point shooting a bit, there just wasn’t enough change here for me to think bigger things are coming. They’re a high playoff seed in the East, for sure, but it’s hard to expect much out of them in the postseason based on what we’ve seen from them in the recent past.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Joel Brigham

In what should be remembered as a fairly excellent summer, the Raptors were able to ride both sides of the competitive fence. They retained Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka – both on sizable contracts, but nothing ridiculous, and with only three-year terms to match the remaining guaranteed time on DeMar DeRozan’s deal. This means they’ve clearly identified this three-year period as their competitive window. They’ve also retained young talent on the roster, such as Norm Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and 2017 draftee O.G. Anunoby. They’re set for both the present and future.

Whether the present side is enough to get them over the hump and into an NBA Finals remains to be seen, and feels unlikely for now. The Raptors did add shooter C.J. Miles, but they also lost both Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll. Unless the playoffs bring some new answers for the Clevelands and Bostons of the world, they could be in roughly the same competitive spot a year from now.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Ben Dowsett

After clocking “only” 51 wins last season, the Raptors saw a fairly impressive streak come to an end—it was the first time since the conclusion of the 2011 season that the team failed to increase their prior season’s win total.

The team also saw their three-year reign atop the Atlantic Division come to a halt, as the Celtics managed to finish two games ahead of them in the standings.

At this point, most people believe that the Raptors have peaked, and I’d tend to agree. DeMar DeRozan remains one of the more underrated shooting guards in the league, and at 28 years old, he probably hasn’t played his best basketball yet. The same can’t be said of Kyle Lowry, however, as he will turn 32 years old in March. The most interesting thing to see as it relates to the Raptors is the extent to which the minutes created by DeMarre Carroll’s trade to Brooklyn impacts some of the younger players on the roster. If rookie OG Anunoby hits the ground running or if Jonas Valanciunas or Norman Powell take a significant stride forward and become stars, then maybe the Raptors will have a chance to fight for something other than a berth in the second round of the playoffs.

If not, though, we’ve likely already seen the best of this group, and we’ve likely seen their reign atop the Atlantic end.

2nd place — Atlantic Division

— Moke Hamilton

The Raptors did well to retain their most important players this offseason and structure their contracts in a way that allows Toronto to go in a different direction in three years, should it become necessary. For now, the Raptors seem destined to remain a tier below the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. The loss of Patrick Patterson may have more of an impact on Toronto than most predict, but the addition of C.J. Miles will add some much needed floor-spacing. Toronto is going to have to hope that some of its younger players have improved enough so that they can effectively fill the roles that veterans like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph , Patterson and P.J.Tucker held last season. Even if the Raptors’ younger players step up, it won’t amount to anything unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan find a way to perform at their usual levels during the postseason. For a variety of reasons, both star guards have struggled to make the kind of impact that are expected of them in the games that matter most. Until they figure out how to overcome this, the Raptors can’t hope to compete with Boston or Cleveland, regardless of how well the rest of their players perform. Also, can we please get more playing time and a bigger role for Norman Powell?

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player – DeMar DeRozan

Now in the midst of his prime and coming off of a career year, DeMar DeRozan has separated himself from Kyle Lowry to become the clear-cut top option on offense.

Last season, while Lowry struggled with injuries, DeRozan found himself as the head honcho of the Toronto Raptors’ offense. Scoring a career-high 27.3 points per game was one thing, but DeRozan dominated the ball on offense and turned in a massive 34.3 percent usage rate. Much is known about DeRozan’s inability to connect from downtown, and he shot his worst percentage from beyond the arc last season since 2011-12. However, his ability to cut defenders up in the midrange is unparalleled and slowly, but surely, that skill is becoming a lost art in today’s NBA. But DeRozan makes it work.

With a healthy (and paid) Lowry, plus a few more options that can shoot from outside, DeRozan should be fully capable of replicating his career year this season using the extra lane space at his disposal. If the Raptors expect to trade punches with the big dogs of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need a big year from their star shooting guard.

Top Defensive Player – Jonas Valanciunas

While DeRozan carries the torch for the Raptors on offense, their defensive anchor comes in the form of 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas.

In the age of small ball and shooting from deep, Valanciunas provides a little blast to the past for the Raptors in the way he uses his large frame to take up space and plug up the middle of the lane. Last season, Valanciunas led Toronto in Defensive Win Shares with three, and was second on the team in Defensive Rating, posting a 105 in that category.

Along with being the team’s anchor defensively, Valanciunas is the Raptors top defensive rebounder as well. So, after the big man does his job in terms of affecting the opponent’s ability to score, he’ll rip down the loose ball as well to turn it back over to the Toronto offense.

With multiple 20-point scorers and capable shooters on the roster up across the border, the defense hinges itself on the 7-footer from Lithuania.

Top Playmaker – Kyle Lowry

For the last five seasons, the Raptors’ top playmaker has been the same guy. And this summer, Toronto made sure that same guy would bear this title for at least three more seasons.

Kyle Lowry is the catalyst behind the Raptors offense that again holds the task of trying to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers and battle with the Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy.

While battling injury last season limited Lowry to just 60 regular season games allowed DeMar DeRozan to explode his scoring total, the Raptors offense as a whole felt the effects of losing their starting point guard. When Lowry wasn’t on the court for Toronto, their Offensive Rating dropped from an impressive 115.9 down to a 108.1.

Lowry doesn’t just represent the Raptors’ point guard and leader in assists when he’s on the court for Toronto; their offense as a whole surges from his ability to score efficiently at all levels and operate the unit as a well-oiled machine.

Top Clutch Player – DeMar DeRozan

As the Raptors’ alpha dog on offense, it’s generally a good bet to place the ball in DeRozan’s hands come crunch time as well.

Last year, as noted, DeRozan had a lot of time to himself on offense. As a result, he logged a decent amount of minutes in the “clutch time” of games. Of the 41 games that DeRozan and the Raptors were in a “clutch” situation (either the 4th quarter or overtime with less than five minutes left with either team’s lead being less than five), Toronto was 22-19. DeRozan himself managed 3.6 points in 3.4 minutes of those particular situations, good for 14th best in the entire NBA.

When the game is on the line for the Raptors, their best bet is to get it to their best scorer and let him go win the game.

The Unheralded Player – Norman Powell

When the star backcourt players for Toronto need to catch their breath, Norman Powell is waiting in the wings to pick up their slack.

Playing just 18 minutes a game last season, Powell managed to score 8.4 points per game and provided the Raptors with a much-needed scoring punch off of the bench. In just his second season, Powell saw a serious increase in action as he began to consistently prove his worth in the Raptors’ second unit.

Without the name recognition or the big contract that some of the other Toronto backcourt members possess, Powell tends to fly under some radars in terms of attention paid to. However, with another year and a bigger role under his belt, the Raptors’ bench scoring dynamo could see himself get even more opportunities this season. Judging from the track record, Powell will be right there to produce when called upon, too.

Best New Addition – C.J. Miles

Coming over in a trade from the Indiana Pacers, C.J. Miles represents the Raptors best new piece this season.

With Miles’ ability to score from the outside and play multiple wing positions, he adds a level of versatility and relief to Lowry and DeRozan that they didn’t have last season. Playing alongside two potent scorers like the backcourt duo in Toronto, Miles should be able to hoist open jumpers on more than a few occasions this season. After shooting 41.3 percent in Indiana last year running beside Paul George, there’s cause for belief that Miles can provide similar consistency up north.

While the Raptors posted one of the best offensive ratings in the league last season, they still were relatively average when it came to shooting three-pointers. As the rest of the NBA begins to adopt the long-ball mentality, Miles is the perfect addition to a Raptors team that is looking to make a deep playoff run.

— Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Masai Ujiri 

For another year, the Raptors’ general manager has kept the team relevant among the league’s powerhouse clubs. By signing Kyle Lowry to an extension, bringing back Serge Ibaka, acquiring the likes of C.J. Miles and drafting OG Anunoby, Ujiri allowed his franchise another season to make a deep playoff run.

Instead of bolting from beyond the border to the New York Knicks front office opening, Ujiri stayed put to man the fort he’d built into a legitimate contender in the East. And instead of letting some of his core players walk, Ujiri ponied up the necessary cash to keep the wheel turning in Toronto for at least a few more years.

Ujiri may never become the architect of a team that wins a title in Toronto, but he for sure has been the builder of one of the most successful stretches in franchise history.

2. O.G. Anunoby

Before tearing his ACL during his sophomore season at Indiana, O.G. Anunoby was regarded as a potential lottery pick in last June’s NBA Draft. Instead, he wound up falling due to injury and the Raptors snatched him up with the No. 23 pick.

If Anunoby returns to form though, he could present himself as an important perimeter option defensively for the Raptors. Standing at 6-foot-8, Anunoby measures out a 7-foot-2 wingspan, making his length and athletic explosiveness a combination that’s hard to get around. As a freshman at Indiana, Anunoby was responsible for guarding Jamal Murray during a NCAA Tournament matchup. The Hoosiers won that game, and Anunoby forced Murray to shoot 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.

Anunoby is a project, and coming off of injury doesn’t help that, but if he can put the health concerns behind him and develop the way Toronto is hoping he can, Anunoby could potentially wind up as the steal of the 2017 draft.

3. Dwane Casey

Dwane Casey has been responsible for shaping the Raptors into the contender that they have been over the last four years. While Ujiri has consistently placed upgrades and quality pieces in Casey’s hands, he’s ultimately been the one in charge of putting them all together to make it work.

And he’s done just that.

Over the course of the last four seasons, Casey’s lowest win total with Toronto is 48 wins, back in 2013-14. Since then, and coupled with the emergence of DeRozan and his pairing with Lowry, the Raptors have been a force to be reckoned with amongst the teams in the East (not named the Cavaliers). While Casey has never gotten the Raptors over that final hump — let’s be honest, there’s not much he can do about LeBron James — he’s consistently taken his team deep into the postseason and made them a more than watchable product.

What the Raptors have in Casey is a leader who is more than capable of meshing egos, game-planning at an elite level, and placing his team and players in a position to compete night in, and night out.

4. Norman Powell

The proverbial underdog on the Raptors squad, Norman Powell put himself on the map last postseason.

After turning in a strong sophomore campaign, Powell was asked to step into the starting lineup amid injury problems for five games during Toronto’s last playoff run, and boy did he answer the call. In just 25.2 minutes a night during the playoffs, Powell managed to score 11.7 points and shot a more than impressive 44.1 percent from downtown, giving the Raptors another scoring option that they needed with an ailing Lowry.

While on the court for the Raptors in the playoffs, Powell helped the team spike their Offensive Rating from 101.7 to 107.9. At just 23 years old, and through only two NBA seasons, Powell performed beyond his years for Toronto in the playoffs.

Heading into this season, Powell seems to have already earned his stripes and could be in position for another jump in production this season. Should he continue to develop, the Raptors may have another dangerous weapon to pair with their star-studded backcourt.

— Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

The Raptors are flirting with the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Currently, they’re slightly over by a small margin, invested heavily in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Of the four, Valanciunas is the most likely to be moved, if Toronto can find a suitor. The team is hard-capped at $125.3 million, which may get in the way of the team utilizing their Bi-Annual Exception of $3.3 million. Similarly, Toronto won’t be able to use most of their sizable trade exceptions ($11.8 and $7.6 million) until next July.

Looking ahead, the Raptors project to be over next summer’s salary cap (estimated at $102 million). Both Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are eligible for extensions, with an October 17 deadline. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options on Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that’s coming off of their fourth straight playoff run, the Raptors are loaded with experience. Simply put, they’ve got a bunch of guys that have been there before and know what it takes to grind out the long NBA season and get themselves to May basketball.

With a core of DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas, Toronto has guys in place that have experienced deep postseason runs. In a year where there could be some turnover of new teams at the bottom of the playoff standings, the Raptors could find themselves in a matchup with some fresh blood that may be too green to handle the moment.

What the Raptors do so well, especially in that aforementioned playoff scenario, is getting teams to commit fouls, shooting fouls in particular. Last season, Toronto was the best team in the league when it came to free throws per field goal attempt, where they averaged .233 per shot. By possessing the ability to wear down opponents and get them into foul trouble while simultaneously getting the opportunity for free points, the Raptors have a unique skill that will benefit them greatly come the postseason.

— Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

Unfortunately for the Raptors, what they have in experience they lack in any real depth. Today’s NBA calls for its most elite contenders to have three, maybe even four, star players. Toronto has two bonafide stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Serge Ibaka is a nice player, but he’s no star.

Last season, the Raptors had just four players average double-figures (not counting Terrence Ross who now plays in Orlando). Those scorers weren’t even spread out, either. DeRozan averaged 27 points, Lowry 22, Ibaka scored 14, and Jonas Valanciunas pitched in 12 points a night. After that, it drops off the Raptors. Trying to beat teams like Cleveland and Boston who are going to have a bevy of players who can drop 20 points in a blink of an eye is going to be a challenge should either one of Toronto’s star guards have an off-shooting night.

Along with their lack of star power, the Raptors are an average three-point shooting team at best, and in today’s league that’s just not good enough. Last season, Toronto ranked 21st in three-pointers made and 22nd in attempts. Luckily for them, their efficiency in taking those shots was decent, with a team average of 36.3 percent. With Lowry back at full health and the addition of C.J. Miles, hopefully, the Raptors can improve their outside shooting. Otherwise, they may not be able to produce those quick big-time runs the rest of the league seems to be adopting.

— Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Toronto Raptors finally get themselves over the hill with their current core and past the Cleveland Cavaliers?

How do I say this nicely? No.

Listen, while the Toronto Raptors are a very good basketball team, they lack some of the key ingredients to truly break through to that next level. Unfortunately for them, there’s not much they can do about it. They don’t have the cap space or the assets to acquire that crucial third-star player, and the duo of DeRozan and Lowry isn’t quite good enough to hang banners in Air Canada Centre.

More than anything though, it’s just bad timing. The Raptors impressive core and stretch of good basketball hits the brick wall otherwise known as LeBron James year after year. Sometimes, no matter what you do, it’ll never be enough to take down one of the great ones.

— Dennis Chambers

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NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role

Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.

David Yapkowitz

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It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.

Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.

Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.

Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.

“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”

The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.

His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.

“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”

Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.

In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.

“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”

Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.

“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”

The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”

With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.

By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.

For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.

A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.

stockdown456. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)

Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.

This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.

Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.

Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.

stockup455. Joel Embiid (Last Week: 6)

Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.

The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.

In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.

After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.

Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.

stockup454. Kyrie Irving (Last Week: 5)

Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.

Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.

Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.

At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.

stockup453. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Last Week: 4)

The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.

Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.

As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.

stocknochanges452. LeBron James (Last Week: 2)

After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.

No big deal.

That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.

Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.

Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.

stocknochanges451. James Harden (Last Week: 1)

The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.

James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.

Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.

What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.

On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.

LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.

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NBA

NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?

The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?

Steve Kyler

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At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work

The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?

Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.

All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:

Not Enough Touches

The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.

That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.

It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.

That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.

Russ Has To Be Russ

When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.

The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.

Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.

Where’d Offense Go?

The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.

There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.

Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.

It’s Not A Selfish Problem

The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.

Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.

But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.

All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.

It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.

That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.

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