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Head to Head: NBA’s Best Player

Who is the best player in the NBA? Tommy Beer, Eric Pincus and Alex Kennedy share their thoughts.

Basketball Insiders

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This week’s Head to Head is simple: We asked Tommy Beer, Eric Pincus and Alex Kennedy, who is currently the best player in the NBA? Here’s what they had to say:

LeBron James

LeBron James, at age 24, won his first MVP following the 2008-09 season. He went on to win four of the next five MVP awards.

King James has been generally viewed as the best all-around player in the NBA during this stretch. And in this pundit’s opinion, he still wears the crown as the league’s preeminent player.

Now in his age-30 season, LeBron may not be as quick and nimble as he once was. His fastball may be a few MPH slower, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer the game’s top hurler. What James may have lost in speed and explosiveness, he’s gained in improved basketball IQ and knowledge of the game. LeBron’s top-tier greatness is due in part to the incredible work he puts in each offseason improving different aspects of his game. While he may not be able to blow past defenders as often as he did during his first few years in the league, LeBron has implemented a post game that allows him to score easy buckets on the block.

During his four-year run with the Miami HEAT that netted two NBA titles and four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, LeBron put his team on his back on countless occasions and carried his team to victory. This was especially true toward the end of his tenure in South Beach, when Dwyane Wade was hobbled by nagging injuries. LeBron could and would score at will and often guarded the other team’s best player – whether that player was a guard or forward.

Now, surrounded by a different supporting cast in Cleveland, LeBron has continued to showcase his incredible all-around skill-set. James is averaging fewer than 25 points per game for the first time since his rookie season, but he is constantly finding ways to help his team win. LeBron has always been a willing passer and his distribution skills have been on full display in Cleveland.

The Cavs stumbled out of the gate this season, losing three of their first four, and seven of their first 12 games. However, following that low point, the Cavs reeled off eight straight wins. Not coincidentally, LeBron was Cleveland’s assist leader in the first of seven of those eight victories, averaging nearly 10 assists a night. At 6’8 and 240 pounds, the case could be made that James has been the NBA’s best point guard over the first quarter of the NBA season.

And of course he’s certainly still capable of pouring in 40-plus points on any given night, as he did Friday night in New Orleans. Per Elias Sports Bureau, it was the 54th regular-season game in which James scored at least 40 points, and his teams have a 43-11 record in those games (34-10 with Cleveland, 9-1 with Miami).

Such is the all-around greatness of LeBron.

Someday, maybe even someday soon, another player may knock the crown off of the King. But that day has not yet arrived.

– Tommy Beer

Anthony Davis

Now in his third NBA season, Anthony Davis has emerged as one of the top players in the NBA — he may even be the best.

At just 21 years old, Davis is averaging 24.3 points a game, fourth-best in the league.  When he was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans out of the University of Kentucky, with the first overall pick in 2001, Davis’ offense was a question mark.

It was clear as a college star that he was going to be a high-level defender as a professional, but did have a enough of a post-game or jump shot?  Now Davis has both, while averaging 10.2 rebounds and a league-high 2.7 blocks per game.  Davis is shooting 57.4 percent from the field, along with 1.6 steals a game, so he’s filling the stat sheet every night.

He’s averaging more points a night than noted scorers Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge.  He’s behind just James Harden, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but he’s a better defender than any of his high-scoring contemporizes.

Players like Kevin Durant and James are further along in their career, as far as experience.  Davis hasn’t had the opportunity to show the world what he can do on a playoff stage.

At issue, the Pelicans (11-11) just don’t have the supporting cast to truly compete in the Western Conference.  Guards Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans are having solid years.  Ryan Anderson is a dangerous shooter off the bench.  Omer Asik is a strong defender at the center position, but that’s about it.  Eric Gordon is dealing with a shoulder injury.

New Orleans just doesn’t have the second star, a Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.  Basketball is a team game and while a single player can put a team on the map, they’ll need more to win.

Davis is the NBA’s best two-way player, but he won’t get the recognition he deserves until the Pelicans reach a bigger stage, and that might not happen this season or the next.

– Eric Pincus

Kevin Durant

LeBron James is obviously a very special player and one can certainly make the argument that he’s the best player on the planet. He dominates a game in so many ways, makes all of his teammates better and has the rings and awards to strengthen his case.

Anthony Davis has also entered the best player conversation with the way he has started this season. It’s amazing what he is doing at 21 years old. I’ve annoyed many of my Twitter followers by tweet after tweet praising his game and stats, so there’s no doubt I’m on the bandwagon. I think he’ll be the obvious answer in this debate within the next few years, once he’s closer to his prime and winning more games.

However, for right now, I’ll make the case for Kevin Durant. He’s the NBA’s best scorer and he has an extremely impressive resume after seven years in the league.

He’s the reigning MVP, a four-time scoring champ, a member of the 50-40-90 club (shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line – one of just six players in NBA history), a five-time All-NBA First Team selection and two-time gold medalist.

Perhaps the best thing about Durant is that he is just now entering his prime at 26 years old. For years, he was the Anthony Davis in these conversations with people saying, “He’s the best young player in the league, so what will he be able to do in the a few years?” Now, we will soon know the answer. While LeBron has been showing some signs of decline, Durant’s best basketball is likely still ahead of him.

He averages 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals and one block, while shooting ridiculous percentages from all over the court. Each year, he finds something to add to his game that makes him even better. Just when it seems like he has peaked, he becomes a better defender or obsesses over his efficiency or improves as a leader or adds specific moves (such as Dirk Nowitzki’s signature fade-away).

 

Durant has gotten better each year he has been in the league, which is difficult for him to do since he emerged as one of the NBA’s best players so quickly and at such a young age.

Earlier this season, we saw how important he is to the Thunder’s success when the team struggled mightily while he was injured. Suddenly, OKC’s elite offense was ranked at the bottom of the league and the team was near the bottom of the Western Conference. Russell Westbrook’s injury obviously played a role in their struggles too, but it’s clear that the team was missing the NBA’s MVP and leading scorer.

Now, since getting back on the court, Durant has been shaking off the rust and returning to his normal level of production. And it’s no coincidence that the team is 5-1 since his return.

– Alex Kennedy

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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