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2014-15 Chicago Bulls Season Preview

Will the Bulls soar back to the top of the East with a healthy Derrick Rose?

Basketball Insiders

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Without Derrick Rose for much of the last two seasons, the Bulls have struggled to tread water in an increasingly weak Eastern Conference. Now, with Rose back and several new players added to the mix in the offseason, Chicago once again looks like one of the Eastern Conference’s elite.

Can they live up to lofty preseason expectations?

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls

Five Guys Think

If we’ve learned anything the last few years, it’s that Chicago will always be one of the league’s most successful regular season teams if only because of Tom Thibodeau’s tenacious coaching style. This year, though, they may have more talent on this roster than any Eastern Conference team this side of Cleveland. Derrick Rose If He’s Healthy (apparently his new full name) worked out some kinks playing international ball this season, but what makes this team really exciting is its depth, supplemented this summer by the additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks. Carmelo Anthony would’ve been nice, but the team is more well-rounded this year and looks every bit the part of a championship contender. Simply because of the way Thibodeau values the regular season, they probably will end up with the best record in the conference.

1st Place – Central Division

-Joel Brigham

In my opinion, there are two teams that are clearly a notch above the competition in the Eastern Conference and that is the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. Both of these teams have the pieces to contend this season and made some excellent moves over the summer. Not only will the Bulls get a healthy Derrick Rose back (hopefully), they’ll also bring in new faces like Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks, all of whom should help Chicago’s offense. That was a big weakness for the Bulls last year, but all of those players can score and getting Rose back will help them on that end as well. Chicago has a terrific head coach in Tom Thibodeau and the pieces to really make noise in the East. Right now, I have Cleveland and Chicago penciled in as the East’s best teams and there’s a significant drop off after those two.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

The combination of Derrick Rose’s return and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland gives the Bulls a legitimate shot at winning the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers should be the favorite to win the conference, but it is the Bulls that may emerge on top once it is all said and done. Obviously, that mostly depends on Rose, but the Bulls will need Pau Gaosl to do some heavy lifting, as well. In terms of raw basketball talent, Gasol is an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, but he will need to rediscover the consistency and toughness that he used to help Kobe Bryant win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Newcomers Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott will give coach Tom Thibodeau some more weapons on the offensive end. If he can figure out how to mesh their collective talents with Rose, Gasol and Joakim Noah, and if the Bulls can find a way to remain healthy over the long and strenuous season, they may emerge as the eventual Eastern Conference champions over the smaller Cavaliers, even if they do cede the Division to Team LeBron.

2nd place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

The good news is the Bulls will finally get back a fully healthy Derrick Rose. The bad news is Rose didn’t look particularly good during the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Still it was great for Rose to get back into the mix of highly competitive competition, which also allowed the former MVP to get his legs back under him. Chicago was able to lure former All-Star Pau Gasol in free agency, which will undoubtedly add firepower to the lineup next to Rose and All-Star center Joakim Noah. The addition of international star Nikola Mirotic and rookie Doug McDermott will have the same effect. How far the team ultimately goes this season rests on Rose’s rehabilitated knees. The supporting cast has improved, but Rose must return at an All-Star level for the Bulls to reach new heights.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

We’ve learned over the last two years that this team is far from reliant on Derrick Rose. They’re going to be competitive no matter who is out there, and this team arguably has the deepest and most talented power forward and center rotation in the league after the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic to Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. What I’m really concerned about, even in the case that Rose is healthy, is the firepower on the wings. Can the combination of Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell play championship-caliber basketball? To me, that’s an even bigger question mark than can Rose stay healthy? If they were a little bit more proven on the wing, I’d be willing to bet on Rose staying healthy and putting them infront of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But, as assembled, I cannot.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Chicago hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut over the course of the last couple of years, but they added a whole bunch of it in the offseason this summer. Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott all can score the ball, but the team’s best offensive player still has to be considered Derrick Rose. Despite a slow FIBA World Cup tournament, Rose has shown enough flashes of his former self to make it more than probable that he’ll still be the center of the Bulls’ offensive plans.

Top Defensive Player: It would be hard to pick anyone other than the reigning Defensive Player of the Year as the Chicago Bulls’ best defensive player, so Joakim Noah it is. Always an energetic, intense player, Noah is a perfect fit in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. He moves through rotations with ease and, despite his 7-foot frame, can actually guard a number of different positions. For a number of years he was one of the league’s more underrated defenders, but not anymore. Now he’s got a Defensive Player of the Year award to defend (and live up to).

Top Playmaker: However good (or bad) Derrick Rose ends up being this year, he more than proved this summer that he hasn’t lost that quick first step. He’ll still get to the rim with greater ease than most of the guards in the NBA, and he also appears to be taking a more unselfish playing style into the new season. He’s got more talent alongside him than he’s ever had, which gives him every opportunity to be the playmaker he’s always been.

Top Clutch Player: No one on this roster has more game-winners under his belt than Rose, so despite two years of rust it still has to be him. Maybe he won’t always be the person that makes the last shot, but the ball will end up his hands when the clock winds down. Of course, the way the last couple of seasons have gone, we could be talking about Aaron Brooks the way we’ve talked about Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin the last few years, but if he stays healthy, Rose will be Chicago’s most important player in close games.

The Unheralded Player: With Carlos Boozer gone, this was supposed to be the year that Taj Gibson finally was given the opportunity to start and show what he could do as an everyday NBA starting power forward, but with the addition of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, Gibson is now part of arguably the most talented and crowded frontcourt in the league. Despite all that, he’s a perfect role player with tremendous work ethic and more than enough talent to step in and do whatever is asked of him. Don’t be shocked if, despite not starting, he does finish games thanks to his imposing defense, just as he did for the Bulls last year.

Best New Addition: While the Bulls added a lot of serviceable rotation players this summer, none is likely to have quite the immediate impact on the team as Pau Gasol. He’ll get all of Carlos Boozer’s old minutes, but because he can actually play a little defense he’ll be infinitely more valuable as the team’s starting power forward. As he showed playing for the Spanish National Team this summer, he’s got plenty of basketball left in those legs, and playing for a legitimate title contender like the Bulls should rejuvenate his career. He might not put up personal bests in terms of statistics this season, but he’ll be a big part of Chicago’s success.

– Joel Brigham

Who We Like

1. Jimmy Butler: Entering a contract year, Butler is really the only two guard the Bulls have on the roster (Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell notwithstanding), which means that, once again, Butler is going to play a ridiculous amount of minutes. He’s young and hungry, though, so having him on the floor that much, particularly considering his defensive abilities, isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the minutes don’t kill him. He regressed from three-point range last season quite a bit, and to be a worthwhile long-term backcourt mate to Rose he’s going to have get those percentages back up this year. Despite all of that, at his salary Butler remains arguably the best value in the NBA.

2. Doug McDermott: By the time it was all said and done, Chicago traded two top-20 picks and two second-rounders (the cost of dumping Anthony Randolph) to acquire McDermott, a player they’ve apparently had their eyes on for a really long time. All those threes Butler didn’t hit last year, McDermott will be expected to knock down this year, but he’s actually a more well-rounded player than the Creighton alum he’s most often compared to in Kyle Korver. McDermott is a little more Wally Szczerbiak than Korver, and he should inject a new dimension into Chicago’s offense. He’s also a perfect fit for the culture of the Bulls’ locker room.

3. Nikola Mirotic: While Thibodeau isn’t a huge fan of playing rookies, he proved last year with Snell that he would if a.) they were good enough, and b.) the need arose for them to see more minutes. Mirotic, a former Spanish League MVP and first-round pick, is certainly good enough. It’s why the Bulls worked so hard to get him over here and paid him as much as they did. Opportunity could be an issue with so crowded a backcourt, however, but there’s no question that Mirotic will be one of the most NBA-ready and mature rookies in the league this season. One injury to Gasol or Noah will give Mirotic a huge boost in minutes, and then we’ll really get to see what all the fuss has been about the last three years.

4. Derrick Rose: He certainly has his detractors, but the reality is that Chicago is only as good as Derrick is. Based on ten regular season games last year and what he did at the FIBA World Cup over the summer, it’s clear that Rose has some rust to shake off before returning to his former self. It is encouraging, however, that his athleticism remains and he seems as strong and confident as ever. He may only be 75% of what he was in his MVP campaign, but with so much offensive firepower on this team now, he won’t be asked to shoulder anywhere near as much of the load as he was two or three years ago. He’ll bounce back. Let’s just hope he’s able to stay healthy for a full season.

5. Tom Thibodeau: While this could be considered both a good thing and a bad thing, nobody values the regular season like Tom Thibodeau. Almost every year, the Bulls end up with a better record than anyone expected and as a result earn a desirable playoff seeding, and that’s a testament to how Thibodeau views regular season games. To him, every contest is a series of repetitions that fine-tune these athletes for the postseason. He doesn’t let his guys take days off for no reason, but most of his players don’t want to sit, anyway. Thibodeau is a defensive guru, as well, and as long as he’s there the Bulls will be one of the better defensive units and most successful regular season teams in the NBA.

– Joel Brigham

Strengths

Obviously under Thibodeau the Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, as they led the league in opponents’ PPG last year (91.8 ppg) and were second in opponents’ field goal percentage (.430). They were also in the top ten in rebounds and blocks and really shouldn’t have too much of an issue repeating that success this season, even with an improved Cavaliers team in their division. It certainly can’t get any worse with former starter Carlos Boozer gone.

-Joel Brigham

Weaknesses

Outside of Derrick Rose, the Bulls really don’t have any playmakers in the backcourt. Butler, Snell, Dunleavy and McDermott all have their strengths, but none of them specialize in ball handling, which means Rose, Hinrich or Brooks will have to have the ball in their hands at all times. Good ball handlers are what break down defenses, and if Rose is unable to do it for Chicago, who will?

– Joel Brigham

The Salary Cap

The Bulls used their one-time amnesty to waive Carlos Boozer, helping to open cap space to sign Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Cameron Bairstow  The team renounced Kirk Hinrich to maximize their space, then used their $2.7 million Room Exception to bring back the veteran point guard.  Now the team is limited to minimum contracts (or trades) to add to their roster, which is currently just 12 deep.  Jimmy Butler is eligible for a contract extension until Halloween, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

The Bulls were the biggest winner of the FIBA World Cup, as Derrick Rose proved he is healthy and Pau Gasol looked like he was in fantastic shape for Spain.  Aside from health, the key question for the Bulls will be the minutes distribution and the closing lineup.  In Noah, Gibson, Gasol, and Mirotic, the Bulls have four viable big options.  Unfortunately the most likely plan is to start Noah and Gasol together, which does not seem the best use of the team’s talents.  (One would guess that Gasol would not have signed if he were not at least projected to start.) It is ironic in a league with an ostensible dearth of centers that Gasol has played there so rarely the last few years.  But he really is a center at this point in his career, especially defensively where he lacks the quickness to get out on shooters or defend quicker power forwards off the dribble.

It will likely fall to Joakim Noah to defend power forwards on most nights, and while he may prove a better one-on-one defender there with his quick feet than at center where he can get overpowered on occasion, forcing him to defend away from the basket is in some respects a waste of his defensive abilities.

Offensively, Noah could struggle to space the floor for Gasol’s postups.  The Bulls surely hope that Gasol can shoot the three as effectively as he did in FIBA play, although shots above the break may still prove beyond his range.

Gasol really would work better as the center with the second unit when he can dominate backup centers and serve as the scoring hub with Mirotic to space the floor for him when Rose is out of the game.  Starting Taj Gibson with Noah would also keep the 34 year-old Gasol’s minutes down during the regular year.  Ultimately, any pairing of the four bigs would work very well except the likely starting combination of Gasol and Noah.

The other key question is the health of Derrick Rose. He looked explosive at times in the World Cup despite a dismal statistical performance, so he should be able to get back to a high if not MVP level.  The greater issue is the risk of reinjury, which after two straight seasons with major injuries is of course rather high.  The list of players who have missed two straight years due to injuries and returned to their prior level is short, if not nonexistent.

Whether coincidental or not, the Bulls were very healthy last year aside from Rose after the hiring of Jennifer Swanson as Director of Sports Performance, so there is some reason for optimism.

Best Case

64-18

The Bulls finish number one in defense under coach Tom Thibodeau, perhaps the team’s most valuable asset unless Rose can return to All-Star form.  Gasol proves he is not done as a viable second option, Doug McDermott plays his way into the starting job, and Mirotic merits plenty of time as well. Jimmy Butler rediscovers his 2012-13 touch on 3s, Rose does return to All-Star form, and the Bulls suddenly are a top-seven offense.

Worst Case

50-32

Every Chicago fan’s worst nightmare healthwise. (As a Chicagoan, I won’t even type it.)  McDermott proves unready to start at the three, leading to more Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks than anyone should ever have to see.  Tony Snell is no better than last year and merits only spot minutes.  Gasol is overmatched attempting to carry the offense at 34, while Joakim Noah regresses from his career year as he turns 30.  But even if uh, someone misses most of the year, the Bulls squeaked out 48 wins last year with a skeleton crew.  With the new additions and actual depth this year, the defense should remain stout as ever while the offense can’t be worse than last year’s horrendous finish.  50 wins should be the realistic floor.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

What will Derrick Rose contribute?

A lot of people expect the Bulls to be among the best teams in the league this year, and while that’s completely possible, it all comes back to how healthy and reliable Rose proves to be. If he’s an All-Star again, Chicago will be in the conversation for a championship, but if he plays like he did for those ten games last season, the Bulls are in trouble. They need him, and with some of the key players on this roster getting up in age, they need him now.

– Joel Brigham

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NBA AM: Defensive Player Of The Year Watch

Rudy Gobert would appear to be the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. But should he be? A few players have made it quite the interesting race — and Dylan Thayer lays out exactly who.

Dylan Thayer

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The postseason is almost here as the NBA regular season winds down to its last couple of weeks. At this point, it is obvious to tell whether a team is going to make the playoffs or head for an appearance in the NBA draft lottery. What hasn’t been obvious thus far though is who is going to win the MVP award, but it looks to be between Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid. The DPotY award has been one that most could agree belongs to Rudy Gobert for the season he is having. The official site of the NBA however does not agree with this notion. Anyways, let’s jump right into our eighth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

It’s too late to displace Rudy Gobert from this position in these rankings because his season has been that good. While the Utah Jazz are destined to finish amongst the top of the Western Conference, Gobert will also finish at the top of this award’s final tally, even if he somehow isn’t the winner. Without the center from France, the Jazz defense would be out of sorts, as just his presence around the rim is enough to ward off the opposing offense. Just ask the Spurs.

And while he did get completely crossed out of his shoes by Devin Booker recently, it is a season-long award, so don’t hold that against him. For the majority of the season, he has held firm in key defensive stats such as defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game. He ranks second in all three categories, per NBA Advanced Stats 𑁋 101.4 defensive rating, 0.181 defensive win shares and 2.8 blocks per game. These are key indicators that he has been having a monster season, along with the Jazz being one of the best teams in the league. As things continue to unfold, expect Gobert to come out of the season as the DPotY. 

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 2)

The seven-foot-three center for the Philadelphia 76ers has had a memorable season under Doc Rivers. The hiring of the new coach made a big impact on the Sixers’ future and helped Embiid take his game to even higher levels. The Sixers have looked like a title contender throughout the season, thanks to great defense from their two stars. Embiid holding down the paint and Simmons being a pest on and off the ball around the perimeter. His defensive rating is fifth among qualified starters with a rating of 105.6, to go along with 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Averaging more than a block and steal per game puts Embiid in elite company defensively, as P.J. Washington and Bam Adebayo are the only other centers putting up similar numbers. Embiid should be a finalist for this award for the impact and effect he leaves on the defensive end of the floor for the Sixers every game.

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

Simmons has been severely disrespected on this list many times, so now is the time to give him the recognition he deserves. As the number two offensive option for the Sixers, the defensive end is a different story, as Simmons brings a lot of energy to the defensive unit. Statistics aside, he has been a complete machine on defense wreaking havoc on his opponents. Whether it’s sending a Charlie Brown three flying into the stands or picking off an inbound pass intended for Coby White and taking it to the basket to ice the game, he has been having one of the best defensive seasons across the NBA. The advanced stats back up the claim as he ranks fifth in defensive win shares with 0.142. He’s also third in the league in steals per game with 1.7 per game to go along with 0.6 blocks per game. His play on defense has raised eyebrows everywhere, and he should be in the running for the DPotY award.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 5)

The Greek Freak has been having another historical season, even though he hasn’t gotten the credit he truly deserves. This happens when you have insane statistical seasons the past few years though, some people stop paying attention. Antetokounmpo should be recognized for the impact he has on winning for the Milwaukee Bucks, especially on the defensive end. Antetokounmpo averages 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game at the power forward position and is always someone opposing players have to think about when they’re on offense. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares (0.139) and eighth in defensive rating (106.3), so the advanced metrics also show just how valuable he is to have. While he may not win the award this year, even though he is the reigning DPotY, he should still be in the conversation as one of the game’s elite defenders.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The leader of the Miami HEAT has been having another phenomenal season on defense as the HEAT gear up for the playoff run. He has been a thief on defense as he leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Butler is so quick to display his elite defensive IQ as he is always there to jump the passing lane or attack a ballhandler at his vulnerable dribbling moments. Butler also ranks in the top 10 in defensive win shares with 0.138. It is clear that with him, Bam Adebayo, and the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo, that the HEAT are going to be a defensive nightmare for opposing teams this postseason.

Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: 4)

The game tape doesn’t jump off the screen to represent Conley’s case for the award, but as the season comes to an end, it is clear that Conley has played a huge role on the Jazz defense. Opposing teams not only have to worry about the Stifle Tower in the middle of the Jazz defense, but they also have to worry about the pesky point guard looking to steal the ball at any moment. Conley’s season has been remarkable as his improved play has been a catalyst of the improved play out of Utah. The advanced statistics give Conley a big lift and vaulted him into these rankings, as they are just too hard to ignore when he’s been at the top all season. Conley leads the league in both defensive rating (99.9) and defensive win shares (0.181), as well as the 1.4 steals per game he posts for the season.

The running for the DPotY is coming to an end. It looks like the center for the Utah Jazz, Gobert, is going to be the winner, but anything is possible. The Simmons for DPotY movement has begun to make waves on Twitter, so maybe he comes up and wins the award. It is the NBA and nothing is completely assured, so don’t be surprised if the winner isn’t who you thought it would be. Here’s to another great NBA regular season despite all of the obstacles that were faced during the pandemic. Stay tuned for the next edition of the rankings!

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – May 4

With under 10 games to go in the regular season, Tristan Tucker breaks down the latest iteration of Basketball Insiders’ MVP ladder.

Tristan Tucker

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With just a couple of weeks until the end of the 2020-21 regular season, the NBA’s award races are getting closer to being complete. Though several contenders emerged across the year, one is beginning to set himself apart from the rest. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaking out toward the end of the year.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 1)

With under 10 games left in the regular season, it appears the MVP award is Jokic’s to lose. Much can happen in the last few weeks of the season, but Jokic has been phenomenal all year long. On the year, Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game and has the Nuggets on a five-game win streak and third in the west.

Jokic’s shooting splits are also the best of his career by far. “The Joker” is connecting at a 41.2 percent clip from deep and is shooting 86 percent from the charity stripe.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last MVP ladder, the Nuggets have lost just one game with Jokic leading the charge.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: Honorable Mention)

Though Antetokounmpo missed more time soon after missing six straight, “The Greek Freak” would be a solid runner-up as MVP. Even though he played under a minute in one of the contests, Antetokounmpo is still averaging 26.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1 block per game in his last nine outings.

However, no game is more impressive than his 49-point showing against the daunting Brooklyn Nets. With the massive playoff implications on the line, Antetokounmpo added 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and a steal in a win over Brooklyn.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 3)

Though Embiid might not win the award, he deserves immense credit for being this close in the race despite missing significant time due to injury. On the year, Embiid is averaging a career-high 29.3 points per game. Even more impressive is his career-best shooting numbers: 51.2 percent from the floor, 37.6 percent from three and 85.4 percent from the line.

At full health, the 76ers are a scary unit and are on the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference. With its entire starting unit healthy, the team is 21-4.

4. Chris Paul/Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Previous: 4)

As mentioned in the last ladder, Chris Paul and Devin Booker are equally responsible for the phenomenal success of the Suns. Phoenix has a legitimate chance to finish as the No. 1 seed in the west, a remarkable feat and quick turnaround for the franchise.

In the last few weeks, Paul is averaging 17.1 points and 9 assists per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from deep. Success follows Paul wherever he goes. The worst a Paul-led team has performed is 37-45 in 2009-10, when he played just 45 games. Just last season, Paul took an Oklahoma City Thunder team with no stars to a 44-28 record.

However, this stint with the Suns might be his most impressive work yet. Phoenix, who finished outside of the playoffs last season, is 24-9 against teams with a .500 record or better.

Then there’s Booker, who’s averaging 25.6 points per game as the team’s leading scorer. Others are certainly contributing, but the tandem of Booker and Paul is one of the most exciting in the league.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Previous: 5)

The Mavericks are just 6-4 in their last 10 games with Doncic, but the team is close to clinching the Southwest Division. Winning the division would give the Mavericks a tiebreaker over the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, who are both tied with Dallas for the fifth seed.

Even though the Mavericks haven’t jumped off the page in recent weeks, Doncic is continuing to be impressive. Since the last MVP ladder, Doncic is averaging 29 points, 10.4 assists, 8 rebounds and 1.2 steals while connecting at a 48.8 percent clip from the floor.

6. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Previous: Not Ranked)

In what would’ve been an unthinkable turn of events mere months ago, the Knicks are 36-28, fourth in the Eastern Conference. Randle has been great all season but has played like a true superstar in the last few weeks.

Since April 13, Randle is averaging 31 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Even more mindblowing is the fact that Randle is shooting 51.4 percent from deep on 7.8 attempts per night across that span of time.

The Knicks are winners of 11 of their last 12 games and have clinched a postseason appearance for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Honorable Mention: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: NR)

He won’t win the award due to team success but it would be amiss to not mention Stephen Curry in the race for MVP. There’s an argument to be made that no team would be worse off without its best player than the Warriors. Look no further than last season’s team that boasted the worst record in the league.

Over the last few weeks, Curry’s play has kept the Warriors in the playoff picture despite several injuries in the team’s frontcourt. Now, Curry is the leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 31.3 points per game while shooting 42.6 percent from three on 12.2 attempts per contest.

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NBA Daily: Center Position Key to Celtics’ Fate

The Boston Celtics are walking the tight rope as they fight for their playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Brad Stevens must solve the riddle at the Center position if Boston wants to avoid being part of the Play-In Tournament.

Chad Smith

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After a disappointing and confusing start to the season, the Boston Celtics have seemingly turned things around. Boston went 11-5 in April but is still a full game out of the coveted sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate goal is to avoid the new Play-In Tournament. To do that, they will need to play excellent basketball in these last seven regular-season games.

It was a wild weekend of basketball for the Celtics at TD Garden. On Friday, Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 60 points to cap a 32-point comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs in overtime. Tatum joined Larry Bird as the only Celtics player to reach that scoring mark and became the first player in team history to have multiple 50-point games in a season.

Following that victory, Boston was unable to stop the Portland Trail Blazers at home. Making matters worse, both Tatum and Jaylen Brown were injured after colliding with one another with just 40 seconds remaining in the game. The good news is that it appears both of Boston’s All-Stars are going to be okay.

Boston has road trips to Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and New York. Those are games they should win but their two remaining home games will be pivotal. Both are against the Miami HEAT, who sit directly ahead of them in the standings. These two games could ultimately decide which team goes to the Play-In Tournament and which one will get a much-needed week of rest before the playoffs.

Brad Stevens has proven to be one of the elite coaches in this league, but even he has found this puzzle difficult to solve. On paper, the Celtics have all of the talent needed to content for one of the top teams in the East. Stevens has had to experiment with different lineups throughout the season as they have dealt with many of their players missing time for various reasons.

While Boston’s depth chart is fairly solidified, the one spot that has plagued them most this season has been the center position. With the playoffs right around the corner, it is a riddle they are still trying to solve.

When the Celtics traded Enes Kanter before the start of the season, it opened the door for free agent Tristan Thompson to join the fray. The two-year, $19 million contract that Thompson signed seemed to solidify him as the starting center going forward. His lack of production and versatility was part of the reason why Boston struggled coming out of the gates. Daniel Theis was a much better fit around the rest of the guys on the floor.

When Boston decided that the 30-year old Thompson was not the answer, the window of opportunity opened for Robert Williams. The 23-year old is in his third season and has been highly productive with his increased minutes. When Boston traded Theis to the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, part of that was proof of their confidence in Williams.

Looking at Boston’s other options, none of them have the upside that Williams possesses. Grant Williams has improved slightly but has not become a difference-maker. Mo Wagner was acquired at the trade deadline but has since been cut. Luke Kornet has stuck around since the trade but adds little value. Tacko Fall provides tremendous length but little to nothing else at this stage of his development.

The trio of Tatum, Brown and Kemba Walker account for about 60 percent of Boston’s scoring this season. While these three have shouldered the load on most nights, it has been the hustle, rebounding, and rim protection that Williams provides that has been vital to their success.

The raw numbers also point to Williams as the better option for Boston against most teams.

Williams currently ranks inside the top ten in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) this season. By comparison, the only other Celtics players are Tatum in 31st and Brown in 50th. Williams also ranks inside the top ten in offensive rebounding rate and ranks third in the league in terms of true shooting percentage. One other notable ranking lists Williams 14th overall in Value Added. Thompson, meanwhile, ranks 49th in the league in that same category.

Williams and Thompson are neck-and-neck in many of these other statistical categories but Williams has the slight edge in all of them. Overall he has been much more efficient despite playing fewer minutes on average. His versatility and athleticism are valuable skillsets that Thompson simply cannot match at this stage of his career.

In a starting role, Williams has produced some impressive numbers. As a member of the starting rotation, Williams averages 10.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and two blocks per game while shooting 69 percent from the floor. Most importantly, the Celtics have a 9-1 record when Williams starts.

Williams nearly averaged a double-double in March and started April on a tear as well. He posted 20 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists against the Houston Rockets, followed by a solid performance of 16 points and 8 rebounds versus the Charlotte Hornets. He missed a handful of games with soreness in his left knee but has since returned to the lineup.

The brief absence of Williams opened the door back up for Thompson, who has played better over the past two weeks. His movement on the floor and his production on it have improved, but his real value for Boston is his size. The Celtics will need his interior defense to match up with MVP candidate Joel Embiid in a potential playoff matchup. Williams is the better option against most teams but he has not shown the ability to slow down the Philadelphia 76ers’ star big man.

Another important attribute that Thompson brings to the table for this team is championship pedigree. Winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thompson adds some valuable championship experience to a young team that sorely lacks it. He is the only player on Boston’s roster that has even played in the NBA Finals.

The fact is that while Williams and Thompson share some similarities, these are two vastly different players on the court. That should bode well for Stevens, as he can throw another wrinkle into the opponent’s game plan. He can also play to his strengths, which is something that is often overlooked in coaching.

While there may not be a clear and obvious choice to their center position right now, they don’t necessarily need to have one. What they have been doing is working, and appears to finally have them headed in the right direction. They are far from the top tier in the East, but then again so too are the other 11 teams.

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