10 NBA players off to a hot start

The NFL is the biggest and most-watched professional sports organization in North America each October and November. Nothing the NBA does will ever alter that reality. With that said, basketball diehards could legitimately claim the Association has been responsible for the better and more entertaining storylines between the two leagues since the start of the 2019-20 campaign. 

Stephen Curry is out indefinitely after suffering a broken hand in late October, and the Golden State Warriors plummeted to the basement of the Western Conference standings. LeBron James once again looks like the best overall player on the planet. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t a complete disaster as of mid-November. Seemingly everybody has a take on load management and what it means for the NBA now and in the future. 

Association experts, observers and fans promised the most open and competitive season of the decade, and the league didn’t disappoint as Halloween decorations made way for Christmas lights and holiday music. Granted, not every player off to a hot start this fall will be in meaningful basketball games come April. Some even may be moved before the trade deadline. But at least a few are early contenders for honors such as Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player, and a certain 24-year-old may finally be in the infancy of a long-awaited breakout year. 

Who is off to a hot start so far this season?

Trae Young 

Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young tallying five steals during a Nov. 8 loss to the Sacramento Kings was an aberration. To put it nicely, the 21-year-old remains a liability on defense and often appears disinterested with that aspect of playing. Young also made history, per Hawks PR, by becoming the first player to ever notch at least 38 points, nine assists and seven boards across his team’s opening two regular-season contests. He drained 14-of-28 three-point attempts in four October games, and he’s shooting over 46 percent from the field. With John Collins suspended for 25 games, Young is tasked with carrying Atlanta’s offensive burden more than at any previous point of his 90-game career.

Kyrie Irving 

Nobody who has followed Kyrie Irving’s career was shocked by the report from ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that claimed Irving lapsed “into a funk” and was responsible for an episode that left “everyone scratching their heads as to what precipitated it” during the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason trip to China. Irving likely will always be enigmatic off the court to those outside of his inner circle, but even his detractors located in Boston and Cleveland can’t ignore his scoring over the season’s first 10 games. Irving posted 29.7 PPG, roughly seven points better than his career average, over his first stretch of contests in Brooklyn colors. As Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News wrote, Irving set a franchise record by accumulating 222 points through Brooklyn’s first seven games. The one-time champion who grew up in New Jersey says he’s happy living and playing in the Big Apple. Time will tell. 

Gordon Hayward

Basketball, like life, is often unfair. For the first time since Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome and horrific leg injury minutes into the 2017-18 season debut, the 29-year-old showed glimpses he had located his previous All-Star form. Hayward averaged 18.9 PPG and career-bests in REB (7.1) and field-goal percentage (55.5) over eight appearances. On Nov. 5, Hayward torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for 39 points while going 17-of-20 from the field. He was back. Then he suffered a broken hand on Nov. 9. That latest setback will sideline him for at least six weeks, according to Jimmy Golen of the Associated Press. 

Tristan Thompson 

Tristan Thompson and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t get the memo the team is tanking. Thompson finished Cleveland’s 10th game of the season third on the team in scoring, and he averaged career highs in PPG (16.5), REB (11.4) and BLK (1.4) over those outings. He’s even making threes for the first time in his pro career!
The 28-year-old is out of contract following the campaign, and the rebuilding Cavs have little reason to consider paying him beyond that deal. Thus, Thompson is auditioning for would-be contenders between now and Dec. 15 when offseason signees become trade-available.  
New Cleveland head coach John Beilein deserves praise for guiding a lackluster roster to a 4-6 start. The franchise nevertheless cannot exist in a state of denial. Thompson is currently worth more on the market than in the Cavs lineup. 

Thomas Bryant 

The Washington Wizards lost six of their first eight games en route to what is practically guaranteed to be a woeful season but center Thomas Bryant was one bright spot. The former Los Angeles Lakers castoff hit the 20-point mark in three of those eight outings, and he converted at least 60 percent of his attempts in three straight games from Nov. 4 through Nov. 8. Bryant began Nov. 13 averaging 2.3 BLK, 11.3 defensive rebounds and 14.8 total rebounds per 100 team possessions. If he can get back to his 33.3 percent three-point shooting from a season ago (he was at 26.1 percent after eight games), he can evolve into more than just a stat compiler for an awful team. 

Aron Baynes

During the 2019 FIFA World Cup , Boston Celtics salary cap casualty and Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes shot 52.4 percent (11-21) from beyond the arc while averaging 11.4 PPG and 5.5 REB. The 32-year-old carried that form over to the start of the NBA season. In 10 games, nine starts, Baynes averaged career-highs in PPG (16.2), REB (5.8), AST (3.1), BLK (0.9), three-point percentage (50.0), field goal percentage (59.0) and MIN (24.3). Guard Devin Booker is making those around him better en route to taking a necessary career leap, but Baynes is playing well enough to potentially keep Deandre Ayton a spectator once the 21-year-old serves his 25-game ban. 

Andre Drummond 

Can the Detroit Pistons win with Andre Drummond? The same question many within the basketball community asked on Oct. 1 hovers over the club in the middle of November. The 26-year-old center is good for 20 points and 20 rebounds whenever the mood strikes him. As of Nov. 13, nobody had scored more two-point field goals (reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had played in two fewer games heading into that evening), and Drummond led the Association in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total boards, and total rebound percentage.  As Michael Pina of SB Nation explained, however, Drummond’s inconsistent efforts and obvious offensive limitations coupled with the fact the Pistons don’t have enough horses to make anything resembling a deep postseason run raise concerns about Drummond’s future. He can either test free agency next summer or exercise a player option worth over $28.7 million for 2020-21. As cruel as it is to suggest, the Pistons may require a top-tier team to lose a starter at Drummond’s position to move the big man before the trade deadline. Both player and club could benefit from such a transaction. 

Andrew Wiggins

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins was a punchline for much of his side’s season opener vs. the Brooklyn Nets, even though he made a couple of clutch shots during the overtime period. Few are laughing at the 24-year-old after 10 games. Wiggins is averaging career marks in PPG (25.5), AST (3.3), BLK (1.1) and field goal percentage (47.3), and as Danny Cunningham of SKOR North wrote, he also has drastically improved his shot selection, and the six-year pro is attacking the rim unlike at previous times during his underwhelming “empty points” periods.  Can this version of Wiggins last through the harsh winter months? Will he put forth more than half-efforts on defense minus the occasional solid outing? If “yes” is the answer to both questions, Wiggins will contend for Most Improved Player honors. 

James Harden

Houston Rockets guard James Harden heard your offseason jokes about his inability and unwillingness to share the ball with Russell Westbrook. Per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse and Basketball-Reference, the one-time regular-season MVP is only the third player in league history to average at least 37 PPG through the opening 10 games of a campaign. (Harden was at 37.3 at the start of Nov. 13.) The 30-year-old also scored the most points across 10 contests (373) than any player since Rick Barry tallied 381 points in the fall of 1966. Most frightening for opposing defenses is that several signs point to Harden heating up rather than peaking ahead of Thanksgiving. He shot under 13 percent from three-point land in three of his first five games before returning to form from long distance over the subsequent four outings. From Nov. 4 through Nov. 11, Harden averaged 40.25 PPG in four games. 

LeBron James 

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James turns 35 years old in December, but one wouldn’t know that by watching him this fall. USA Today, Alex Kennedy of Hoops Hype, Nemanja Vukasinovic of Fadeaway World and Forbes’ Tommy Beer all mentioned James as an MVP candidate in early November, and the King averaged 24.0 PPG, 11.0 AST, 8.2 REB and 1.1 STL in his first 10 games. He shot 47.1 percent from the field over that period.  James isn’t a fan of load management. “If I’m hurt, I don’t play. If not, I’m playing,” he told ESPN earlier this month. Lakers coach Frank Vogel should approach the situation differently. Los Angeles is built to win a title next spring. Limiting James’ involvement in relatively meaningless games this winter is vital to achieving that goal. 

Last season, the Toronto Raptors featured Kawhi Leonard in 60 regular-season contests. Leonard entered the playoffs fresh, and he was the Association’s top two-way player throughout the postseason. The Lakers require James’ best beginning next April, not in January. 

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/10_nba_players_off_to_a_hot_start/s1_13132_30528971

By: Zac Wassink

Steve Mills laying groundwork for David Fizdale’s ouster?

Even before Sunday’s impromptu press conference , Knicks president of basketball operations Steve Mills had been laying the groundwork for the eventual ouster of head coach David Fizdale, league sources tell ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

As Wojnarowski explains, rival coaches and executives view the Knicks roster as one that’s poorly constructed and lacks “legitimate NBA guard play.” However, Mills is selling owner James Dolan on the idea that the 2-8 squad has underachieved at least in part due to poor coaching and should be competitive in the Eastern Conference.

“[General manager] Scott [Perry] and I are not happy with where we are right now,” Mills told reporters on Sunday. “We think the team’s not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at.”

While Ian Begley of SNY.tv reported on Sunday night that no coaching change appears imminent in New York, Mills’ position leaves Fizdale vulnerable to a potential dismissal, writes Wojnarowski. The timing and tone of Sunday’s presser was met around the NBA with “surprise and dismay” and was viewed as undermining of the Knicks’ head coach, Woj adds.

“Everyone is moving to their positions now,” a league source told ESPN. “This is how they’ll make (Fizdale) the fall guy.”

Fizdale’s handling of the Knicks’ rotation since he arrived at the start of the 2018-19 season has been questionable, as he has at times shuffled players in and out of the rotation seemingly at random. Still, he hasn’t been dealt the best hand. After New York’s front office signed several veteran free agents in the offseason, Fizdale has been tasked with finding regular minutes for those players while simultaneously developing young prospects like Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett and Dennis Smith Jr.

The idea that New York’s roster as constructed should be a playoff team in the East seems laughable, but even if Dolan doesn’t fully believe Mills’ spin, he might decide that a new coach could get more out of the roster than Fizdale has.

Fizdale is only in the second season of a four-year contract worth an estimated $22M, per Wojnarowski. So if the Knicks do make an in-season change, they’ll have to pay two head coaches for the rest of the 2019-20 campaign and for two more years after that.

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/steve_mills_laying_groundwork_for_david_fizdales_ouster/s1_14822_30510122

By: Luke Adams

Dion Waiters reinstated by Heat after suspension, not traveling with team

After he was suspended for the first game of the season and didn’t travel with the team over the weekend, Dion Waiters has been reinstated by the Heat, writes Ira Winderman of The South Florida Sun Sentinel.

However, according to Winderman, Waiters won’t be in uniform Tuesday night for Miami’s game vs. the Hawks. He also didn’t participate in the Heat’s shootaround Tuesday morning, and wasn’t available to comment on the situation.

“He’ll be here tonight,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Anthony Chiang and Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald. “He will work out [but] he will not be active tonight. Then we’ll take it from there. Enough has been said about it, and we’ll take it day by day.”

The situation remains an unusual one, with the Heat offering little insight on where things stand with Waiters and not making him available to the media to address the situation himself. Sources tell the Herald duo that Waiters openly complained about his playing time during Miami’s preseason finale and refused to do one of his required weighs-ins that week.

Waiters has a $1.2M bonus in his contract for appearing in at least 70 games in a season, so it’s fair to assume that in addition to his previous complaints about his role, he’s also not thrilled about missing his fourth straight contest to open the year. The 27-year-old is healthy, but his conditioning may not be at the level the Heat expect.

The Heat are off to a solid start this season, winning two of their first three games despite being without star Jimmy Butler. If that success continues, the club presumably won’t be in any rush to get Waiters and fellow veteran James Johnson back into the rotation. Johnson will also remain inactive Tuesday night due to conditioning issues, per Windmeran.

It’s possible that Waiters and Johnson will meet their conditioning requirements and be activated by the Heat soon, but this is a situation worth watching — both players still have two years remaining on their eight-figure contracts.

By: Luke Adams

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/dion_waiters_reinstated_by_heat_after_suspension_not_traveling_with_team/s1_14822_30390782

Raptors, Kyle Lowry agree to one-year, $31M extension

The 2019-20 season won’t be a contract year for Kyle Lowry after all, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who hears from agent Mark Bartelstein that the Raptors and their starting point guard have agreed to a one-year contract extension worth $31MM.

The extension will lock up Lowry through the 2020=21 season, putting him on track for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2021 and taking another top player off the 2020 market. As a result of the deal, Lowry will no longer be part of the group of Raptors who enter the season on pricey expiring contracts, though Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet still fit that bill.

Lowry publicly expressed his desire for an extension in early August at Team USA’s pre-World Cup camp, and according to Wojnarowski, the Raptors’ brass – including president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster – has been motivated for months to get a deal done. The new extension should be a win-win for the two sides — Lowry gets one last big payday, while Toronto retains its cap flexibility for the ’21 offseason, when several stars are projected to reach free agency.

“We are so appreciative of how Masai and Bobby handled every aspect of this negotiation,” Bartelstein told Wojnarowski. “Once again, they displayed how they look after their players in a first-class manner, especially someone like Kyle who they recognize has such a legacy with the franchise.”

Lowry, who has made the Eastern Conference All-Star team for five consecutive seasons, scored a modest 14.2 PPG in 2018-19, but averaged a career-high 8.7 APG and had some big games during the Raptors’ championship run. In addition to doing the little things on defense (he led all players in the postseason in charges drawn and loose balls recovered), the 33-year-old also memorably opened Game 6 of the NBA Finals by scoring Toronto’s first 11 points.

While Lowry’s cap charge for 2019-20 is about $35M, he may not actually earn quite that much, since he has $1.7MM in likely bonuses tied to individual and team accomplishments. If the Raptors don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals and Lowry doesn’t earn a spot on the All-Star team, his cap hit would be reduced to approximately $33.3MM at season’s end.

Lowry will still have the opportunity to earn some or all of those incentives in the newly-added year of his contract, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, who notes (via Twitter) that the usual six-month trade restriction won’t apply to the veteran. Lowry’s new deal doesn’t exceed the limits of an extend-and-trade, since it’s just for one year and doesn’t feature a raise. Still, unless things really go south in Toronto this season, it seems unlikely the Raptors will consider trading the Villanova alum within the next six months.

As for the effect of Lowry’s new deal on Toronto’s 2020 cap space, the club still has a good amount of flexibility, though a lucrative extension for Pascal Siakam by the Oct. 21 deadline would all but eliminate that flexibility. Guaranteed 2020-21 salaries for Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw, and Lowry add up to approximately $50M, with cap holds for Siakam and VanVleet pushing that number up to about $75M. The NBA’s latest projection calls for a $116M cap in ’20-21.

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/raptors_kyle_lowry_agree_to_one_year_31m_extension/s1_14822_30193940

By: Luke Adams

Top-10 NBA MVP narratives, from Giannis to Simmons

In today’s social media-driven NBA, MVP candidates don’t just need the numbers, they need an accompanying narrative to take home the MVP award. Just ask James Harden. 

Three seasons ago, Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP vote despite averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and leading the Rockets to 55 regular-season wins. Westbrook edged Harden because he had the best narrative: Westbrook was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson and  the superstar who stayed in OKC even after Harden and Kevin Durant had left

The next season, however, Harden beat LeBron James for the award, despite having inferior statistics, because he had the better narrative: It’s about time we recognize Harden’s greatness and reward him because he probably should have won last season.

Last season, Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo because people had crowned Giannis as the best two-way force in the league and the next face of the NBA. As Harden so aptly put it in a GQ interview, “[I had] a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games… and all the talk was about [Giannis]? There’s no way. You can’t pout or be mad, and the kid had an unbelievable season, so did his team. But the things I was putting up were legendary. You going to look back in 10, 15 years from now and be like, is that really true? Did that really happen?”

Narratives matter in the MVP race. So, as a primer for this season’s MVP race, here are the top-10 MVP contenders and their accompanying narrative (in italics) entering the season (in alphabetical order):

May 19, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) shoots the ball as Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) defends in overtime in game three of the Eastern conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Based on the past two seasons, it’s clear Giannis is on a LeBron James-Kevin Durant kind of career trajectory. That being the case, we should expect Antetokounmpo to ascend even higher in this, his seventh season, in the middle of his athletic prime. Giannis’ MVP narrative will be one of dominance, a season where he erases any doubt as to whether he’s the best player in the world. Look for him to improve his game in some obvious way this season -– the most obvious hole in his game is his jump shot (26 percent from three-point land last season) -– but he could also double-down on his already one-of-a-kind post game or become a better playmaker.

Jun 7, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots the ball against Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka (9) during the third quarter in game four of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Steph Curry, Warriors

Steph has a chance to remind everyone that he’s still the toughest player to game plan for in the league … and maybe ever. He’s back to being the unquestioned best player on his team and the player who won back-to-back MVP awards before taking a step back to make way for Kevin Durant

After having the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA during his record-setting 2015-16 MVP season, Curry finished the next three Durant seasons at 11th, 10th and 13th. With no Durant and no Klay Thompson for most of this season, Curry’s usage rate should easily jump back into the top-five again. Thus, his stats will almost certainly mirror his stats from that 2015-16 MVP season, when he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds and made an NBA-record 402 three-pointers. If the Warriors are near the top of the West, and Curry leads the league in scoring and flirts with breaking his own three-point record, he’ll be right in the mix for MVP.

Sep 27, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward/center Anthony Davis listens to a question during the Lakers media day at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo, CA. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis, Lakers

Like Shaquille O’Neal before him, AD is hitting his prime and poised for a Hall of Fame leap as the two-way centerpiece and next great big man for the Los Angeles Lakers

If he plays anything like he did during the second half of the 2017-18 season, when he averaged 31 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.1 steals over the last 27 games of the season, he’ll probably be a frontrunner for his first MVP award. And if he is playing like that, you can bet your bottom dollar that LeBron and Klutch Sports start campaigning for AD to take home the MVP award. In fact, you don’t even have to read between the lines from the Lakers’ media day to see that James is already doing that.

May 2, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after scoring against the Toronto Raptors during the fourth quarter in game three of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid, 76ers

Embiid’s narrative began shortly after Kawhi Leonard’s fourth bounce fell through the basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The world saw Embiid crying as he left the court, exhausted from a grueling seven-game series. If Embiid plays his way into the MVP conversation, it will mean he spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, vowing that he’d never lose another playoff series due to fatigue. He’ll have realized that few people on this Earth have been blessed with his size and athletic prowess, and he decided it’d be a travesty if he didn’t maximize those God-given gifts. It’s time to do what Shaq and Wilt and all the other historic NBA centers did before him: dominate

With Jimmy Butler taking his talents to South Beach, Embiid will have ample opportunities to show off his newfound conditioning as the closer for the Sixers.

Sep 27, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) poses for a picture during media day at Post Oak Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden, Rockets

The Beard knows first-hand how a narrative can swing an MVP vote. He believes he got robbed of the award last season. He has a point. And that means that Harden’s narrative this season will be one of revenge against the voters who wronged him out of capping off a historic season with no MVP trophy. Revenge against the people who think he isn’t the best player in the league. Revenge against the people who don’t think he can lead the Rockets to a title. 

An MVP season for Harden might not include the same massive scoring as last season (36.1 points per game) now that his high-usage buddy Russell Westbrook is in H-Town. But if his isolations and pick-and-rolls remain two of the most highly efficient plays in basketball and his assist numbers go back to what they were in previous seasons (10.0 per game from 2016-17 to 2017-18), Harden will have another crack at MVP.

LeBron James, Lakers

This is the most obvious narrative: LeBron’s “Forgot About Dre” season. LeBron is coming off of a miserable first season with the Lakers in which he suffered his first major injury and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. However, missing the playoffs means that he finally got an extended rest after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals. 

He’s also undoubtedly been listening to the media mock his team the past 12 months and declare that he’s no longer the Best Player on the Planet. It’s all set up perfectly for LeBron to come out and have a G.O.A.T. kind of season to remind the basketball world that he’s still the King.

An MVP season for LeBron won’t be his typical 27-7-7 season –- voters are too bored of that. Instead, look for him to average double-digit assists now that the Lakers have Davis, but a dearth at point guard.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

The Joker’s narrative is mostly tied to his team’s success. If the Nuggets, who should have some of the best chemistry in the league, are the best team in the Western Conference and flirt with winning 60 games, Jokic will get plenty of MVP votes and his narrative will sound something like this: Jokic is doing it all alone as the lone superstar in a conference loaded with superstar tandems. He flashed his true potential as a franchise centerpiece in last season’s playoffs, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. That performance has carried over into the 2019-20 season as he has Denver at the top of the league earlier than anyone would have imagined. 

September 29, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard speaks with media during media day at LA Clippers Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

After last season’s playoff run and subsequent free-agency power flex, Kawhi is the Alpha Dog of the NBA, and he isn’t ready to relinquish that title just yet. In fact, as a little more of Kawhi’s personality has come to the forefront, it has become apparent that he relishes destroying opponents the same way MJ and Kobe did, albeit in a less expressive way. 

With Paul George out at the beginning of the season, the Clippers will need Playoff-Kawhi (30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds on 49-38-88 shooting splits) to keep them near the top of the Western Conference until George returns, which should force Kawhi to get rolling a lot earlier than last season’s load-managed season.

May 12, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts following the win over the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard’s MVP narrative is similar to Jokic’s in that it’ll be tied to the Blazers’ record this season. Most analysts seem to think that the Blazers will finish closer to .500 than the 53 wins the team had a season ago. Thus, if Lillard leads Portland to another top-three finish in the West, and with his typical Curry-lite numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds with 44-37-91 shooting splits last season), and none of the other candidates on this list are having other-worldly seasons, Lillard could start to garner some late season MVP buzz. 

He’s the best leader in the league, the superstar who chose to stay when most would have demanded a trade –- he’s as important to his team as any player in the NBA. Isn’t that everything you can ask for from an MVP candidate?

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/yardbarkers_top_10_nba_mvp_narratives_from_giannis_to_simmons/s1_13132_30133574

By: Pat Heery

How twilights of Lebron, Kawhi could mirror games of Magic, Jordan

The NBA has never been in a better place than it is now in terms of popularity, excitement and quality of play. The league has a number of things to thank for that, most notably its superstars led by the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, who continue to perform at a high level. And as we’ve seen in recent years from players such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, Father Time remains undefeated.

The best way to delay the inevitable athletic decline is to enhance new skills and play a less physically taxing brand of basketball. Take Dirk Nowitzki, for example. He developed a tough-to-block-shot — a one-legged fadeaway jumper that allowed him to get a high-percentage shot off anywhere on the court — and he remained one of the best offensive players in basketball until late in his career.

Let’s take a look at a handful of today’s older superstars and see if there’s a historical parallel they can model their games after to help them age gracefully into the twilight of their careers. As far as my criteria, a player must:

  • Be a future Hall of Famer (sorry Jimmy Butler!)
  • Still be playing at an All-NBA level (sorry Chris Paul!)
  • Be entering at least his ninth season. 
February 21, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) controls the ball against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

LEBRON JAMES, LAKERS, 17th season (turning 35 this season) 

Twilight should mirror: Magic Johnson, seasons 10 thru 12, 29-31 years old.
Key three-year averages: 21.4 points, 12.3 assists, 7.1 rebounds per game.


Because of his Karl Malone-like frame, most assumed LeBron would move up positions (small forward to power forward to center) as his career progressed. While he’s clearly capable of that progression as evidenced by him dominating the restricted area throughout his career, he continues to develop his guard skills (8.8 assists per game the past three seasons) to evolve with the wide-open, perimeter-oriented evolution of the game. Put differently, he’s already adopted the Magic Johnson career evolution over the Karl Malone one, so he might as well take it full tilt and become a point guard now that he has a go-to scorer in Anthony Davis whom he can rely upon. Assuming good health, it wouldn’t be surprising to see James flirt with double-digit assists per game this season.

May 30, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots the basketball in front of Steve Nash (left) during NBA Finals media day at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

STEPHEN CURRY, WARRIORS, 11th season (turning 32 this season) 

Twilight should mirror: Steve Nash, seasons 12 thru 16, 33-37 years old.
Key five-year averages: 33.9 minutes, 15.4 points, 10.8 assists per game, 51-43-92 shooting  splits.


Curry always will be a better scorer than Nash ever was, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try to mimic the latter stages of Nash’s career as he ages out of his physical prime. When Curry can no longer shake the NBA’s best defenders out of their shoes, he’ll need to focus more on his playmaking (only 5.2 assists per game last season) to remain an elite offensive weapon into his mid-30s. Nash, a player development consultant for the Warriors, was still playing at an All-Star level until his final season in Phoenix by keeping defenses on edge with his brilliant orchestration of pick-and-rolls and willingness to pass up good shots for great shots. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Curry do the same.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – APRIL 25: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks tries to drive around Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 25, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

KEVIN DURANT, NETS, his next season will be his 13th (turning 31 this season)

Twilight should mirror: Dirk Nowitzki, seasons 11 thru 14, 30-33 years old.
Key four-year averages: 24.1 points, 7.5 rebounds per game 48-38-90 shooting splits.


Given what we know about the effect Achilles injuries have on a basketball player’s athleticism, Durant is going to be a different kind of player when we next see him on the court. He’ll still have his amazing bucket-getting skills, but he probably won’t have the same kind of quickness and leaping ability, making this comparison even more apt. Like Dirk, KD has the height (7 feet) and length to get a shot off anywhere on the court. Thus, even if Durant can’t get to the rim like he has his entire career (7.7 free throw attempts per game for his career), he should be able to score 25 per game until he’s 40 if he masters some of the fadeaways, pump fakes and moves Dirk had. Good news Nets fans: He’s already pretty damn good at the one-legged fadeaway.

Oct 13, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) controls the ball as San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) defends during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

JAMES HARDEN, ROCKETS, 11th season (30 years old) 

Twilight should mirror: A super version of Manu Ginobili, seasons 7 thru 9, 31-33 years old.
Key three-year per-36 minute averages: 20.7 points, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 turnovers per-36.


I used per-36 averages because Ginobili played only 28.9 minutes per game during this stretch, and Harden will almost certainly be playing more minutes late into his career. When Harden loses his insanely quick first step and elite ability to change speed and direction, he can still be one of the best offensive players in the league by constantly attacking defenses the way Ginobili did his entire career for the Spurs. Ginobili’s ability to play an ultra-aggressive playing style while not turning the ball over was especially impressive. As Harden’s athleticism wanes, his insane usage rate will likely drop and he’ll need to give the ball to the other team less (5.0 turnovers per game the past three seasons). With Russell Westbrook, another record-setting player in terms of usage rate, set to join Harden this season, perhaps we’ll start to see him take care of the ball a little better -– if he doesn’t, the Rockets might be in trouble.

Jun 13, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) during the second quarter in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/how_twilights_of_lebron_kawhi_could_mirror_games_of_magic_jordan/s1_13132_29954336

By: Pat Heery

Jeremy Lin considering playing in China next season

Jeremy Lin still is not drawing any significant interest from NBA teams more than a month after the start of free agency, and he acknowledged this week that he is considering the possibility of playing overseas.

Lin was in Guangzhou, China, on Friday endorsing Chinese sportswear brand Xtep when a reporter asked him if he has thought about playing in the Chinese Basketball Association next year. The 30-year-old admitted he has.

“Of course I am thinking about the CBA,” Lin said, via Jonathan White of the South China Morning Post. “I don’t know where I will be next year, so I don’t have expectations. I know what level I can play at, so if I don’t get that I won’t settle.”

Lin’s top choice would obviously be continuing to play in the NBA, but it’s unclear if he will get a shot. Regardless of what he chooses, he says happiness is his No. 1 priority.

“I want to be happy, that is the main thing,” Lin said. “When you are competing, everything is about the NBA. But I am 30 now, the main thing is to be happy.”

Lin became emotional during a recent public appearance and said he feels like the NBA has given up on him . He averaged 9.6 points per game last season in time split between the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors, and it sounds like he already has at least one opportunity to play overseas. There should be plenty of others if he chooses to go that route.

By: Steve DelVecchio

https://www.yardbarker.com/nba/articles/jeremy_lin_considering_playing_in_china_next_season/s1_127_29707742

Cavaliers officially waive JR Smith after failing to find trade partner

JR Smith’s Cleveland Cavaliers tenure is over.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Cavaliers officially waived Smith at 5 p.m. ET on Monday, having tried and failed to find a trade partner before reaching that point.

The Cavaliers did everything they could to try to trade Smith, right down to getting him to postpone his guarantee date to try to make a move happen. No matter what Cleveland did, nothing materialized.

Smith will now be free to sign with any team he wants. He barely played last season and was not in Cleveland’s plans going forward.

Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports  |  By Grey Papke  |  Last updated 7/15/19

NBA free agency: Winners and losers from Day 1

NBA free agency officially tipped off around the league Sunday evening. It’s been one of the most highly anticipated free agent classes in modern history.

We got answers to some pretty big questions as free agency got going on Day 1. The Boston Celtics netted All-NBA guard Kemba Walker to replace Kyrie Irving, who ended up signing with the Brooklyn Nets.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic retained star center Nikola Vucevic on a less-than max contract. More than anything, the Nets’ ability to team Kyrie Irving up with Kevin Durant changes the entire dynamic around the Association.

It’s in this that we give you the biggest winners and losers from the first day of NBA free agency.

Winner: Kemba Walker

Walker traded the small market of Charlotte for the bright lights of Boston. While that’s going to come with a lot of pressure as the face of the Celtics’ franchise, Walker appears to be more than up for the task. He also joins a championship contender after toiling in mediocrity with the Hornets over the past eight seasons.

Equally as important, Walker netted a max four-year, $141 million deal from Boston after the Hornets low-balled him with a five-year, $160 million contract. Now the face of a contending team, Walker is a major winner.

Loser: Free agent big men

Nikola Vucevic receiving less than the max from Orlando represented a major hit for other free agent big men. In fact, his four-year, $100 million contract is well below market value. The same thing can be said about the three-year, $45 million contract Jonas Valanciunas signed with the Memphis Grizzlies.

This does not bode well for other free agents at the center position. Specifically, the market is going to be bare for DeMarcus Cousins.

Winner: Golden State Warriors

Even after both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered serious injuries in the NBA Finals, it was reported that Golden State would extend max-contract offers to both free agents. While Durant ultimately signed with Brooklyn, the Warriors did in fact offer him a five-year, $221 million deal. Meanwhile, Thompson committed to a five-year, $190 million max deal with Golden State.

It’s rare in today’s sports landscape to see a team show this type of loyalty to players. Thompson’s ACL injury is less severe than Durant’s ruptured Achilles. But both are serious. Offering up $411 million in guaranteed cash represents a major commitment for a team that’s facing billions in payroll over the next few seasons, even with Durant on his way to Brooklyn.

Loser: Kyrie Irving

Irving might have received a max contract from the Brooklyn Nets Sunday night. But it did not come without his reputation being tainted big time. Reports of his diva-like mentality ruining the Boston Celtics gave way to Irving’s former team not showing any real interest in re-signing him. That’s a major black eye for the NBA champion.

It’s also important to note that Boston did not waste any time replacing Irving with fellow All-Star Kemba Walker. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how all of this plays out. Should Walker lead Boston to championship contention with Irving’s Nets struggling while forming a super team, it would represent another major hit for the veteran.

Winner: Brooklyn Nets

Irving as a loser with the Nets as a winner? Both can be true. Brooklyn targeted Irving immediately after the 2018-19 season. It culminated in a max contract agreement Sunday evening. It also represents the biggest free-agent signing in Nets history.

Well, that was until later on Sunday when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Nets . He’s going to be joined by best bud DeAndre Jordan to form a new big three in the Big Apple. While KD is out for all of next season, the Nets still have a team worthy of competing in the Eastern Conference until he returns the following season. It was a memorable day Sunday in the Mecca of the basketball world. That’s putting it lightly.

Loser: Charlotte Hornets

Michael Jordan’s tenure as the Hornets’ owner has been an unmitigated disaster. The latest example of this is Charlotte offering Kemba Walker a five-year, $160 million contract, about $61 million less than it could have offered the All-NBA performer.

Instead, the Hornets head into next season with Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller counting a combined $71-plus million against the cap. That’s just horrible stuff right there. And it’s certainly enough to make MJ and Co. major losers in free agency. But hey, at least they’re now paying Terry Rozier nearly $20 million annually.

Full Article

By: Vincent Frank

One-On-One: The NBA Finals and the aftermath

Yardbarker NBA writers Pat Heery and Sean Keane address the hottest issues in the NBA. This week’s topic: the NBA Finals and the future of the Warriors dynasty.

Heery: Sean,  the Raptors are the 2019 NBA Champions. That six-game series was equal parts exciting, bizarre and sad. Game 6 was an NBA classic. We witnessed Kyle Lowry come out like a bat out of hell, scoring 21 points and recording six rebounds and assists in the first half. We saw Klay Thompson put on a Finals performance of the ages before getting injured, then getting carried into the locker room, then coming back out of the tunnel Willis Reed style to make his free throws, then being ruled out for the rest of the game. (He left in a brace and crutches and was eventually diagnosed with a torn ACL .) Finally, we got to hold our breath in the last seconds as Steph Curry got a decent look in the last 10 seconds in a one-point game.

Kawhi Leonard was spectacular all playoffs and took home the title, his second Finals MVP, and some would argue, the Best Player in the World Belt. Fred VanVleet was one of the best five players in this series. Pascal Siakam, who won the Raptors Game 1 by going 14-of-17 from the field and 32 points, had a clutch Eurostep in the final 30 seconds and scored 26 points and grabbed 10 boards in 46 minutes. Lowry and Serge Ibaka were great in the last four games.

Sean, give me your eulogy for the Warriors’ injury-riddled Finals run this season and your thoughts on last night’s game.

Keane:  It’s a woulda, coulda, shoulda kind of ending for the Warriors, who through the playoffs dealt with KD’s Achilles, Boogie’s ruptured quad tendon, Kevon Looney’s shattered collarbone and the injury gods’ repeated assaults on Klay Thompson’s ankle, knee and hamstring. Yet they still had a chance to force a Game 7 with the greatest three-point shooter of all time firing away as the game ended.

If you were trying to make the super-team Warriors interesting and sympathetic again, this is how you’d do it. Take away an All-Star, then take away another one, and see how they react. They managed to beat the Rockets on the road short-handed, came back from double-digit leads against the Blazers and almost pulled out Game 6 with Quinn Cook and Shaun Livingston on the floor.

The weirdest part of the run was their near lack of home-court advantage at Oracle Arena — they were 6-5 at home and 8-3 on the road. It’s almost as if they wanted to pay tribute to the main thing that happened over the years at Oracle — lots and lots of losing.

Pat, what does this mean for the future Raptors and their fans? And is Kawhi going to stick around to be a part of it?

Heery: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this means that about 72 hours after catching flak for cheering the KD injury, Toronto is back! Not sure there are any JR Smith-type parade guys on the Raptors, so get ready for a lot more Drake during the parade.

As for Kawhi, I feel like the postgame celebration revealed a lot about him: There’s actually some personality in there once you peel back the layers, and he clearly has developed a bond with his Raptors teammates, especially Lowry. I now think he stays for at least another year in the Six to defend his crown. If he leaves, which would be unprecedented for a Finals MVP, he might have a built-in excuse if Masai Ujiri takes the money and runs to the Wizards, who are apparently about to back up the Brink’s truck with a $10M/year deal.(He’s worth it too, especially considering Jordan Clarkson makes $12M.)

Speaking of free agency, poor KD and Klay — both free agents this summer and both out for the majority, if not all, of next season with severe injuries. What are some of the ripple effects these injuries have on these two, the Warriors and the rest of free agency?

Keane: It’s likely the Warriors still offer KD and Klay their max deals, but it’s unlikely either plays before the All-Star Game. And if these Finals have proved anything, it’s that rushing back from injuries can have dire consequences, as does not paying the market rate for your training staff. The capped-out Warriors are looking at a season with Draymond Green, Curry and not a lot else. That’s a team that is contending for the six seed, not an NBA title. It could also be a chance for the Warriors to tank load manage their stars, who have played 100-plus-game seasons for five years, get a decent draft pick for the first time since 2012 and reload for a full strength 2020-21 year.

Regardless of what happens, a devastated Warriors team and an uncertain Raptors future means the road to the NBA championship is wide open, and the pool of available free agents is down two Hall of Famers. Milwaukee went all in last year and figures to be 110 percent all in this year. (That math works, right?) Philly is likely to pay all their free agents, after being one crazy Kawhi shot and one Joel Embiid hand wash away from knocking off Toronto. Even though he insists he won’t re-sign there, Boston might be tempted to trade for Anthony Davis anyway — a one-year rental of a guy who wants to play in Los Angeles just worked out great for Toronto!

Davis may be a Laker by the time you read this, and LeBron-plus-The Brow alone may be a legitimate contender in the Warriors-free West next year, provided the team signs better players than Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson this time. To me it also says that Bradley Beal is extremely available now, particularly if Ujiri accepts the Wizards’ giant offer of $10M and his choice of national monuments. It also says that Chris Paul should be unavailable. Two weeks ago, Daryl Morey threatened to trade anyone on his roster. Now the team that beat him four of the last five years has crumbled, and his team is poised to flop its way into the Finals.

What should the Warriors do in this impossible situation? And are there other teams that should be pushing their chips in this summer?

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By: Pat Heery and Sean Keane