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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch — 1/6/20

The NBA is now entering the heart of its season as teams and players are beginning to settle into their levels of play. Quinn Davis takes a look at the candidates who have separated themselves for Most Improved Player, including one new face.

Quinn Davis

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After an eventful holiday season, the NBA now enters its middle third. With Christmas in the rearview, teams and players will push forward to the All-Star break over the next month-and-a-half.

Over the last two weeks, many of the candidates for the year’s awards turned in performances that could help or hurt their positioning. Joel Embiid turned in his best defensive performance of the season on Christmas, holding current MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo to his least efficient game of the year.

There were also a few Most Improved candidates in action that helped or hurt their case.

The last two check-ins for this award have featured the same five players. That changes here, as a certain Boston Celtic has plowed into the competition after a string of impressive contests. This player will replace Pascal Siakam on this list, as the Raptor will be missing time with an injury and will now likely fall short of his quest for back-to-back Most Improved awards.

Here is the list as it stands in the first week of the new decade.

5. Jaylen Brown

The aforementioned Boston Celtic is none other than Jaylen Brown, who has been coming into his own in his fourth NBA season. The swingman is now up to 20 points per game on the best efficiency of his career. He has been a key cog in the Celtics strong first third of the season.

Brown’s most noticeable improvement has come around the rim. He is finishing 68 percent of his attempts at the rim and converting on 51 percent of his attempts that are classified as short mid-range shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are up from 63 percent and 41 percent last season, respectively.

His three-point shooting has also returned to the 40 percent mark after last year’s down season. In other words, he has been a scoring threat from all over the court.

Brown’s passing is still a weak part of his game, but his assist percentage has risen to 11 percent after hovering in the 7-8 percent range the three previous seasons.

His defense has not fallen off despite the increased workload. He is pesky and strong on the perimeter and can bother wings that can’t beat him with their quickness. Brown’s two-way efforts will garner him deserved all-star consideration. If they continue all season, he will be a major factor for this award as well.

4. Brandon Ingram

Brown’s fellow 2016 draftee Brandon Ingram has also been on a hot streak as of late and continues to be one of the major players for this honor. The Pelicans as a team are in the midst of a four-game winning streak that has featured wins over the Nuggets, Pacers and Rockets.

Ingram has been stellar over the last two weeks, continuing his run of efficient scoring that he hasn’t been able to achieve until this point in his career.

Here is an extremely cherry-picked stat just for fun — Ingram’s current averages of 25.3 points, 7 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 55 percent effective field goal percentage have only been achieved by the following players for a full season: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl Anthony-Towns.

Regardless of how meaningless that stat actually is, Ingram is having a fantastic season and should merit serious consideration for Most Improved.

3. Luka Doncic

The Slovenian wunderkind is still doing his thing in Dallas even after missing a few games with an ankle sprain.

Last game in a loss vs. the Charlotte Hornets, Doncic recorded a 39-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. In a recent win against the Brooklyn Nets, Doncic put up the line of 31 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists to carry the Mavericks over the Nets while Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed the game due to injury.

His passing genius and scoring improvements have been talked about ad nauseam in this space, so we’ll spare you the gushing. Also mentioned before is the fact that Doncic’s MVP candidacy could overshadow his push for Most Improved, so this could be all for naught.

Whether he gets respect for his herculean leap from voters remains to be seen, but it’s looking very likely that he will be a fixture on this list all season.

2. Bam Adebayo

Coming in at number two is the center who has emerged as a driving force behind a defensive powerhouse in South Beach.

Adebayo has not only anchored one of the league’s best defensive outfits but has also excelled as a lob threat and developed a solid face-up game on the offensive end.

It’s been mentioned before, but Adebayo is stunningly quick for a player with his build. He has mastered the art of the jab step and has left good defensive centers feeling foolish as he dashes around them for a layup.

The Miami HEAT are five points better per 100 possessions defensively with Adebayo on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. This is thanks to his ability to dissuade opponents from going to the rim. Opponents attempt only 31 percent of their shots at the basket with Adebayo on the court compared to 38 percent when he rests.

His ability to wall off the paint has been invaluable to Miami’s defensive strategy this season.

A large part of Adebayo’s improvement has come in the little things, like his defensive awareness and rolling off of screens. Due to his lack of eye-catching numbers, he might not receive the same consideration as some of the others on this list.

If the HEAT keep winning and Adebayo continues performing at this level, there could be some more voters looking his way.

1. Devonte’ Graham

Who else? Graham has not slowed down at all this season after bursting onto the scene in mid-October. He has been the driving force behind Charlotte staying somewhat competitive and has even shown a clutch gene to boot.

Graham’s impressive leap has not only been in pure basketball ability, but in his mentality on the court as well. Graham plays with a chip on his shoulder fit only for a player who was passed on by 30 NBA teams before being drafted in the second round.

His passing has also been a weapon for the Hornets as Graham has had double-digit assists in five of his last six games. His offensive play has even prompted some All-Star buzz.

It is unlikely that he will make the team given the number of high-quality guards in the Eastern Conference, but that fact that he could even receive a vote is impressive considering where he was last season.

There is not much more to say for Graham that hasn’t been said, so enjoy the video of his dagger against Cleveland from just the other night.

 

That is an audacious shot to take, but Graham took it and Graham made it. There will probably be many more to come.

That wraps up this look at the Most Improved players in the league. Check back at Basketball Insiders for updates on the race for every award this season.

In the Hunt: Pascal Siakam (get well soon), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, Malcolm Brogdon, Jonathan Isaac (get well soon), Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, Domantas Sabonis, Davis Bertans, Richaun Holmes

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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