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Head to Head: Runner Up in NBA MVP Race?

Who should be the MVP runner up behind Stephen Curry? Ben Dowsett, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton debate.

Basketball Insiders

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Spoiler alert: Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors will win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second straight year. Barring something insane – such as Curry revealing himself to be a robot and therefore making him ineligible to resume playing in the NBA – the award is going to Curry.

That’s because Curry has been ridiculously good this season. The 28-year-old point guard has turned the Warriors into a virtually unbeatable team that has won 62 of 69 games. Meanwhile, he’s topping last year’s ridiculous statistics by averaging a jaw-dropping 30.3 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and two steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range. He broke his own record for most three-pointers in a single season in just 58 games, and his performances have become must-watch TV.

Because the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player award is essentially decided, we wanted to debate the MVP runner up in today’s discussion. Ben Dowsett, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton share their thoughts on the NBA’s next most valuable player after Mr. Curry in today’s Head to Head.

LeBron James

The most interesting part of the 2016 MVP ballot won’t be who finishes first, but rather which runner up slots in behind Stephen Curry. There are three or four viable candidates grouped relatively closely. And while factors beyond Curry, such as voter fatigue and his move toward the “veteran” end of the spectrum, may have muted his overall impact, LeBron James continues to have as good a case as anyone.

To one degree or another, many of the typical requirements for an MVP are present. James is on a team leading its conference in wins, and sits sixth for per-game scoring – two of the most traditional categories many voters look to. A step deeper to one-number metrics puts him in the same elite category; LeBron is fourth for Player Efficiency Rating, fourth in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus and fifth for total Real Plus-Minus.

But it’s possible these broader metrics still undersell his value somewhat. The Cavaliers are a complete mess when he leaves the floor, with a 14.3 points per-100-possessions gap between their performance with and without him on the court – one of the largest in the NBA. LeBron has refined little elements of his game under the radar, including lowering his turnovers to the smallest percentage he’s seen since his pre-Miami days and upping his rebounding – particularly on the defensive glass.

Even tougher to distinguish at times has been his defensive performance which, while it still stagnates from time to time like any offensive superstar, has been at a much higher level than the previous few seasons. James is fifth for Defensive Real Plus-Minus among non-big men, a testament to the value he’s added on this side of the ball even while he’s carrying the same intense burden offensively. He’s more generally focused and has added even more emphasis to captaining a strong group on that end of the court.

James’ ridiculous athletic feats are fewer and further between these days, and the younger generation has certainly closed and even eliminated the gap that existed a few years ago. But in the non-Curry class, there’s still a great argument that no single player is more valuable to a top NBA team than LeBron.

– Ben Dowsett

Kawhi Leonard

Over the last few years, we knew that Kawhi Leonard’s ascent to stardom was inevitable. He had all of the tools – physical and mental – to be a dominant two-way player, a legendary head coach in Gregg Popovich making sure he reached his full potential and a talented group of future Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, etc.) around him to help him develop.

Now, the Leonard era is officially underway.

Two years ago, he surprised everyone when he was the Finals MVP in the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Miami HEAT. Last season, he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he made his first All-Star appearance. Leonard has been improving each season, and the player who hates the spotlight and individual accolades has been receiving more recognition lately – whether he likes it or not.

Before, Leonard was viewed as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming talents. Now, he is officially one of the NBA’s best players.

It’s very possible that Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year again this season, as he remains one of the best perimeter stoppers in the NBA and he shuts down the game’s best scorers on a nightly basis. His excellent instincts, huge hands, 7’3 wingspan, freakish athleticism, high basketball IQ and always-running motor make him a dominant defender. The numbers back this up, as he ranks first in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (5.1) and second in Defensive Rating (95.1). San Antonio has by far the league’s best defense, allowing only 95.6 points per 100 possessions, and Leonard’s play is a huge reason for this.

However, the reason that Leonard is my pick for MVP runner up is that his offensive game is finally catching up with his defensive excellence. This season, in addition to being a shutdown defender, he is leading the Spurs’ offensive attack as well. Leonard is averaging a career-high 20.9 points while shooting an extremely efficient 50.9 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three-point range. When Leonard entered the NBA, scouts criticized his shooting and said it was his biggest weakness. Now, Leonard is knocking down two threes per game and making almost half of his attempts from long range, which demonstrates just how much Leonard has grown as a player in his five NBA seasons.

In addition to scoring 20.9 points per game, he is also averaging 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and one block. He fills the stat sheet every night, and yet he does so many things that don’t show up on the box score that it’s impossible to quantify his impact on the game.

Advanced analytics help show how dominant Leonard has been this season. Among all NBA players, he ranks first in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (9.89) and second in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.282), trailing only Curry. Leonard also ranks third in Win Shares (12.4), fourth in Box Plus/Minus (8.2), sixth in Player Efficiency Rating (25.8), sixth in Value Over Replacement Player (5.5) and eighth in True Shooting Percentage (.619). He has become a well-rounded player who is elite in many facets of the game.

It also helps that the Spurs are currently 59-10; we all know that MVP voters love to select players from top teams. While Curry and the Warriors are an insane 62-7, it’s extremely impressive that San Antonio is just three games behind them in the standings.

The Spurs have turned Leonard into their two-way juggernaut that decimates anything in his path without showing any emotion. And the scariest thing about Kawhi is that he’s only 24 years old, so he’s not even in his prime yet – unlike the 28-year-old Curry or the 31-year-old James. The fact that I can make the case for Leonard as the runner up for MVP right now when he’s only scratching the surface of his potential is why the rest of the NBA should fear him for years to come.

– Alex Kennedy

Kyle Lowry

This is always a fun question and debate. What does it mean to be the Most Valuable Player?

It’s a question that we find ourselves asking every year and this year is no exception. Stephen Curry is probably going to end up winning his second consecutive MVP award at the conclusion of this season, but if we are searching for “other” MVPs, I think I would go the route of at least mentioning Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.

Of course, you can’t argue that Lowry is a better player than Curry or Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James or Kevin Durant or any number of other players in the league, but you could make the argument that he is as valuable to his team. As the Raptors were the discussion of the most recent NBA Sunday, we remind you that the team has improbably entered play on March 20 a mere 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It seems so long ago that Lowry was more renowned for being an injury prone and inconsistent contributor than he was a linchpin on one of the league’s better teams.

Since being nearly traded a few seasons ago, Lowry has become one of the better all-around point guards in the entire league and, with DeMar DeRozan, has helped the Raptors go from an afterthought in the Eastern Conference to a team that has a legitimate opportunity to overthrow LeBron James and his personal reign at the top of the East.

So far this season, Lowry is averaging 22 points, five rebounds and 5.4 assists. He has a Player Efficiency Rating of 23.76 and is coming off of back-to-back All-Star selections.

You can make the argument for any number of players in this discussion, but I’ll cut against the grain and mention Lowry—someone who has improbably risen to the top of the point guard depth chart in the East. Now, let’s see what he has in store for the playoffs.

– Moke Hamilton

Who do you think is the MVP runner up? Is it LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry or someone else? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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