Everybody remembers a great rookie season in the NBA, which often result in a trophy being held aloft. However, what about the players who have fantastic second seasons? We always talk about the so-called “sophomore slump,” but not every player deals with that. In fact, some players have had tremendous campaigns in their second years in the league. Here are 25 of the best second seasons in NBA history.
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To think that Lillard ended up at Weber State for college. Despite his humble beginnings, the sharpshooter was drafted sixth overall and impressed right out of the gate by winning Rookie of the Year. In his second season he made his first All-Star team and averaged 20.7 points per game for the Blazers while improving from both beyond the arc and at the free-throw line.
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Speaking of Rookie of the Year winners — and there are a lot of them on this list — Johnson was an iron man for the Hornets in his sophomore campaign. In addition to playing in all 82 games, he averaged a league-high 40.5 minutes per contest. Take that, load management! The man known, for odd reasons, as “Grandmama” did damage in his time on the court, as he averaged over 20 points and 10 boards per game.
A nickname like “The Brow” feels decidedly less strange after talking about “Grandmama,” but there was nothing strange about Davis’ game. While now he is certainly not well liked in New Orleans, the first-overall pick out of Kentucky made fans in the Big Easy happy during his second season. He too averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a night, but he also led the league in blocks per game with a hearty 2.8.
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This is the first guy on the list who isn’t a well-known name, as Drew made only two All-Star Games in his career. One of them was in the 1975-76 season, though, when he was in his second year with the Hawks. Drew made over half of his field-goal attempts, which helped him to average 21.6 points per game for Atlanta.
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Thompson’s first season was with the Nuggets in the ABA. The next year, his sophomore campaign, he moved with Denver to the NBA, and he was ready for the increased level of competition. Thompson’s No. 1 job was to get buckets, and he did just that. The Hall of Famer averaged 25.9 points per contest, helping ease his team into the NBA.
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Penny’s career was unfortunately derailed by injury, but this is a reminder of how much promise he had as a player. After making the All-Rookie team in his first campaign, Hardaway was on the All-NBA first team in the 1994-95 season. He averaged over 20 points and seven assists and would start hanging out with a smaller version of himself voiced by Chris Rock.
Like Penny, Bird’s career was hampered by injury, but it didn’t stop him from being a Hall of Famer with three MVP Awards. He made the All-Star Game every season of his career save the one when he was limited to six games. His sophomore campaign actually saw his scoring drop ever so slightly (21.3 to 21.2), but he improved in rebounds, assists and steals.
Wade made a massive jump from his rookie campaign, where he was solid, to his second season. He improved his scoring from 16.2 points per game all the way to 24.1, thanks in part to getting to the line all the time. It was a great season but only the second-best by a sophomore in the 2004-05 campaign. We’ll get to that, though.
Weirdly, the 1957-58 season is one of only two in Russell’s career where he and the Celtics didn’t win the NBA title. It’s also the first year he won the NBA MVP Award. He scored 16.6 points, but it was his defense and rebounding that stole the show. The legend led the NBA with 22.7 boards per game.
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Yes, you can argue Williams had a better second season than Russell, one of the all-time NBA greats. For his entire career, Buck wasn’t on Russell’s level, but he was an All-Star in his first two seasons. He averaged 17.0 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, but Williams’ calling card was his defense, even if his second season wasn’t one of the four where he made an All-Defense team.
The 2010s were a wonderful time in college basketball that saw a variety of great teams and great players come through some great arenas and gyms in the country. There were can’t-miss one-and-dones as well as four-year players who developed over time. Some became big-time NBA stars, and others found their professional paths taking them elsewhere.
We will attempt to wade through all the great talent of the past decade and pick the players to fill our 13 allotted spots to form our All-Decade team. The list includes two No. 1 overall picks and eight Naismith Award winners. Enjoy!
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Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Brunson has the distinction of starting for two national championship teams. In 2016 he was more of a role player, as Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina for the NCAA championship. He was a much larger part of the equation for a Villanova team that in 2017-2018 was ridiculously efficient and a lethal three-point shooting squad. The national Player of the Year was the perfect point guard for a team whose offense had some many diverse weapons but needed the right leader to bring it all together. He averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists for the 2018 national champions.
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Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Davis may be the best player of the 2010s and certainly had the best freshman season of the decade. Davis averaged 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game in 2011-2012, earning him national Freshman of the Year honors as well as numerous Player of the Year awards. His 188 blocks that season were more than what most Division I teams had all year. To top it all off, Davis led Kentucky to the 2012 national championship where he earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
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Jimmer Fredette, BYU
“Jimmer Mania” ushered us into this decade. As a senior in 2010-2011, Fredette led the nation in scoring (28.9 ppg) and was the consensus National Player of the Year. Despite playing at BYU, his games were of national interest and his scoring exploits were a regular feature on highlight shows…including a 47-point effort against over Utah where he hit a half-court shot to close out a 32-point first half. He set many school and Mountain West Conference records and became a folk hero of sorts for fans around the country who were craving a Steph Curry-like, long-range gunner.
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Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Hield was a two-time Big 12 Player of the Year but it was his senior season that stands out as one of the best of the decade. In 2015-2016, Hield averaged 25.0 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 45.7 percent from three and winning the Wooden Award as the top player in the nation. This is how good Hield was: After scoring 46 points in a win over Kansas at “Phog” Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks fans gave him an ovation. He would lift the Sooners to the 2016 Final Four before a nine-point effort from Hield ended their season in a 44-point route by Villanova.
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Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Unlike many on this list, Kaminsky wasn’t a highly rated high school star nor was he the prototypical scorer one associates with an eventual national Player of the Year. He broke out during his junior season when he finally made it into the starting lineup and raised his scoring average from 4.2 to 13.9 ppg. As a senior, it increased to 18.8 points, which was quite a feat considering the Badgers played a deliberate style of offense. He was huge in Wisconsin’s win over undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four before losing to Duke in the NCAA championship game. Not only was Kaminsky tough to deal with in the post, but he also shot over 41 percent from three during that senior season.
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Frank Mason III, Kansas
Mason was many different things during his four years at Kansas. He was a role player who was the tough-minded point guard then became an All-Defensive player as a junior. As a senior he shined, averaging 20.9 points and 5.2 assists, winning the Bob Cousy Award, and he became the national Player of the Year. It wasn’t just that he was a good player all year, but he also was at his best in the biggest games and one of the toughest guards of this decade.
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Doug McDermott, Creighton
McDermott had arguably the best four-year career of anyone in the past decade. He was a three-time First Team All-American, a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and the 2013-2014 leading scorer and Wooden Award winner. When he finished his college career, he was fifth all time in scoring. He could put up points in a variety of ways as a post player and a shooter. (He made 49 percent of his threes as a junior.) He wasn’t just a great scorer though. As a senior he gave up his scholarship and became a walk-on to give a teammate a scholarship opportunity.
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Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor dominated the paint in Duke’s national championship season of 2014-2015. He was one of the more efficient big men whose combination of footwork and soft touch overwhelmed opponents who already had to deal with Duke’s other weapons. For the year, Okafor averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds while winning the ACC’s Player of the Year Award. That team had a major impact on Mike Krzyzewski’s recruiting philosophy of taking on more and more one-and-done players.
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Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
People tend to forget about how good Sullinger, a Columbus native, was for Ohio State. As a freshman, he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds and helped lead the Buckeyes to a 34-3 record and the top overall seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. He led them to the Final Four the following year, as his stats stayed around the same but he became a much better outside shooter.
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Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Valentine was a do-everything offensive talent at Michigan State. In his senior season, he averaged 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists for the Spartans and won several national Player of the Year Awards. In a win over Kansas, Valentine became just the fourth Spartan to record a triple-double, joining Magic Johnson, Draymond Green and Charlie Bell. His unique blend of size and athleticism mixed with being a 44 percent three-point shooter made him a matchup nightmare. 11 of 13
Kemba Walker, UConn
Walker’s run in March 2011 is legendary. The Huskies finished 9-9 in the Big East standings but used an epic five-wins-in-five-nights conference tournament run (which included a buzzer beater against Pittsburgh) to lock down an NCAA Tournament berth. Once in the Big Dance, Walker carried UConn on his back and led it to the program’s third national championship. In that junior season, he averaged 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists and was a finalist for several Player of the Year Awards.
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Zion Williamson, Duke
Have you heard of him? Williamson took college basketball by storm in 2018-2019, as it seemed as if every moment of his college career was dissected and debated. It was certainly covered by ESPN with a streaming series and wall-to-wall coverage of his exploits. (The network even had a camera devoted to him when he was injured.) His powerful yet graceful dunks filled highlight shows, but it was his motor and smile that made him a fan favorite. Sure the media overkill turned some fans away, but his impact on the sport was undeniable even if for just one season.
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Trae Young, Oklahoma
Young led the nation in scoring in 2017-2018 with a 27.4 ppg average. He also led the country in assists that season (8.7), becoming the first player to ever head both categories. Seriously…how does that happen? He got off to a hot start at the beginning of the season before the Sooners cooled off a bit during conference play, as turnovers and his defense were criticized. Still there was no playmaker like Young all decade long. His 22 assists against Northwestern State tied the single-game record.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss says reports of what her team offered to the Pelicans in an attempt to land Anthony Davis were exaggerated, tweets Howard Beck of Bleacher Report. Buss addressed the rumors in a speech today at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. She couldn’t mention Davis by name because of tampering rules, but said leaks that the Lakers were willing to trade “our entire roster” for “a certain player” were “fake news.”
A report just before last month’s trade deadline said L.A. was prepared to give up all its young talent, offering Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac and Josh Hart to New Orleans, along with a pair of first-round draft picks.
The denial from Buss meshes with a report yesterday by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, notes Christian Rivas of Silver Screen and Roll. “My sources have told me within the last 48 hours that what we’ve heard the Lakers offered may not be true,” MacMullan said in an appearance on “The Jump.” “… I think there’s some question about just how much did they offer. Did they even get a chance to offer anything?”
There were rumors in the week before the deadline that former Pelicans GM Dell Demps was refusing to take calls from the Lakers to give them a chance to talk about Davis, so MacMullan might be right when she speculates that a formal offer was never made.
No one has confirmed which players with which L.A. would have been willing to part to acquire Davis, but there have been reports that the trade talk had a negative effect on many of those whose names were mentioned. The Lakers haven’t played well since the deadline, falling into 10th place in the West with a 30-32 record.
L.A.’s trade plans involving Davis should become clearer once the season is over and negotiations can resume. However, the Lakers will find a more competitive playing field, with the Celtics and Knicks expected to become actively involved, along with other teams.
1. Should the Pelicans trade Anthony this season or this summer?
The Pelicans are in 12th place in the Western Conference, and it’s time they start thinking about trading Anthony Davis. If they deal him this season, the Lakers might be willing to part with three of their four young assets (Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart). The 76ers might be willing to dangle Ben Simmons, too. Heck, the Warriors could even offer Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
If New Orleans waits until the summer, the Celtics will be eligible to acquire Davis (a provision in the CBA is preventing them from doing so this season without including Kyrie Irving) and could offer a package including Jaylen Brown and their war chest of valuable future draft picks. The Knicks could offer their unprotected 2019 first-round draft pick and Kevin Knox. The only downside to waiting for the summer is that if Davis demands a deal to a specific team, the Pelicans lose all their leverage. Lots to consider in the Big Easy, and none of it is all that promising.
2. What does the Lakers starting lineup look like this spring?
The best-case scenario includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A lineup with those two could win the title. The next best scenario probably involves James, Bradley Beal and whichever two youngsters remain. This lineup could hang with any team in the league but is probably an underdog in the Conference Finals and Finals. The worst-case scenario would be if they make no major moves at the deadline because their current lineup likely has a Conference Finals ceiling and it’d be malpractice to waste a year of LeBron’s prime, like when the team has a number of trade chips.
3. Which teams mortgage their futures at the deadline?
Out West, the Pelicans are sure to be in the middle of everything, as they hold the crown jewel in Anthony Davis. Yet there’s a chance the Pelicans hold onto Davis and make a big trade of their own — we know they were in the mix for Jimmy Butler earlier this year. Everyone knows that the Rockets and Lakers will be looking for deals too. The Kings are desperate to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, so keep an eye on them as well.
Out East, any of the top five teams could justify pushing their chips in and try to capitalize on the Warriors’ perceived vulnerability. Also, keep an eye out for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat — they’ve straightened things out as of late and have been trying to land a blue-chipper ever since LeBron James left.
4. Does Michael Jordan deal Kemba Walker?
The conundrum of Kemba Walker: He means everything to the Hornets and wants to remain the face of the franchise, yet they can’t compete with him on their roster. He’s not quite elite enough to carry Charlotte deep into the playoffs, yet he’s too good to not carry the team to a .500 record. With no cap room (maybe you shouldn’t have maxed out Nic Batum, MJ!) and hardly any trade assets (maybe you shouldn’t have turned down four first-round picks to draft Frank Kaminsky, MJ!), Michael Jordan needs to seriously consider trading Walker for some future draft picks and/or cap relief if the Hornets ever want to quit toiling in mediocrity.
5. What do the Blazers do at the trade deadline?
The Blazers are having another solid season. They’re 25-17 and have an average offense and defense. They won’t miss the playoffs, but they probably won’t make it out of the first round if they don’t make a move at the trade deadline. Is this the year they break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? How does the passing of owner Paul Allen impact the team’s previously unwavering loyalty to its dynamic backcourt? Would the Wizards ever consider a Bradley Beal for McCollum plus an unprotected 2020 first-rounder swap?
6. Which teams should blow it up at the deadline?
A couple of teams that are teetering on the brink of falling out of playoff contention should seriously consider blowing up their rosters by trading away assets for future draft picks and high-upside prospects. The most obvious team is the Washington Wizards. At 17-25, no John Wall for the rest of the year and no cap space, the team should absolutely be looking to trade Otto Porter and his massive contract, Markieff Morris and his abrasive attitude and even Bradley Beal if a team like the Lakers offers multiple prospects and draft picks.
Just above Washington in the standings, the Magic, Pistons and Hornets are all fighting for the eight seed. If any of them falter, they’d be obvious “tank” candidates. In the West, everything is still congested in the standings, but the Grizzlies and Pelicans will want to listen to offers for their respective stars if they’re on the outside looking in a month from now.
7. Do the Bucks have enough to compete for a title?
When LeBron James was 24 years old, he won his first MVP and led the Cavs to a league-best 66 wins. He was so transcendent that the team didn’t think it needed to improve a roster with Mo Williams as its second-best player at the trade deadline. Everyone knows how that worked out for Cleveland — the Orlando Magic caught fire in the Conference Finals and upset the Cavs.
Milwaukee Bucks fans should be scared to death of history repeating itself with Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. Giannis is also 24 years old and an MVP front-runner, and he’s leading a surprisingly good Bucks team to the top of the conference as the deadline nears. While the Bucks have better secondary options than the 2009 Cavs had, their current roster is probably another scorer and versatile forward away from being threats to win it all.
8. Are the Raptors finally a legitimate title contender?
These dinosaurs are legit. Unlike past years, they have a roster built for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is back to being the Kawhi Leonard of old (albeit, a little better on offense and a little worse on defense). Danny Green is having his best season in years. Same goes for Serge Ibaka, whose switch to small-ball center appears to have triggered a Benjamin Button-like reverse aging in his body. Kyle Lowry is second in the league in assists, too.
And who could forget Pascal Siakam — wow, where the hell did this guy come from? In his third season, he’s made the jump from solid defensive presence off the bench to potential All-Star and two-way terror on the court. He’s always sprinting, making offensive players uncomfortable on defense and pushing the envelope on offense — just making winning plays all over the court. He’s like Toronto’s own mutated version of Draymond Green. If you haven’t seen him play yet, you’re missing out on the best spin move in the NBA.
9. Are the Houston Rockets still contenders?
James Harden probably answered this one at Golden State last week where he put on one of the most impressive performances of his career. His three-pointer between the outstretched hands of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was the climax point of an on-going, 15-game stretch in which he’s averaging over 40 points per game. We know Harden will keep stuffing the stat sheet, but we also know that he’s prone to wear down in the playoffs if another teammate isn’t there to lighten his load. Can Chris Paul get back on track once he returns from his hamstring injury? Does Houston trade for another shot creator at the deadline?
10. Are the Nuggets a legitimate title contender?
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets’ meteoric rise to the top of the Western Conference has been one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. Jokic is proving to be a one-man elite offense, as the Nuggets have been able to withstand significant injuries to a number of their key players, including Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Even if they sputter at some point during the second half of the season, they should finish with a top-four record in the West. The question then becomes what is their ceiling this season with a roster comprised mostly of players with little to no prior playoff experience? A safe bet is that they’ll win their first-round series and then lose a close battle in the second round to a more experienced team like the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder or Lakers. Regardless, the future is bright in Denver.
11. Have the Thunder quietly built a defensive machine to upset the Warriors?
With Paul George playing at a first team All-NBA level this season and Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant playing excellent two-way basketball, the Thunder might be the team best equipped to take down the Warriors. Notice I didn’t mention Russell Westbrook? That’s because the Thunder are often winning games in spite of Westbrook. While he is taking two fewer shots per game and has recommitted himself to defense (leading the league in steals), his shooting splits and shot selection are abysmal. He’s a key reason why OKC has the worst field-goal percentage in the NBA. It’s so frustrating because this team could absolutely steal some games from the Warriors in a series (they’re 3-2 vs. Golden State since acquiring Paul George) with its defense and overwhelming athleticism. However, Westbrook has to be a much more efficient player for the Thunder to take down Goliath.
12. Can the 76ers avoid a chemistry catastrophe?
There are layers to this one. For starters, the relationship between franchise cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, is somewhere between “working partnership” and “icy.” It’s probably closer to the latter right now after their recent rebounding collision and Embiid’s subsequent freak-out. If that weren’t enough to worry about, Jimmy Butler is apparently already comfortable dressing down head coach Brett Brown in front of teammates about his role in the offense. Some teams can excel amid chaos like this; others fall victim to it. Will the Eastern Conference’s most talented team straighten things out for a long playoff run? Or will it implode from within?
13. Do the Pacers have enough offensive firepower to win the East?
It may come as a surprise to the casual fan, but the Indiana Pacers are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference this season. They’re currently in third place and have the NBA’s third-highest rated defense despite missing their star, Victor Oladipo, for 11 games this season. Their defense and plethora of excellent role players will keep them in every game come playoff time, but can Oladipo carry their offense enough for them to make a deep run? Look for the Pacers to add some more scoring pop at this year’s trade deadline.
14. What is the Clippers’ ceiling?
How many players do you think a casual NBA fan could name on the Clippers? Three? Four? Despite having no star power, the Clippers are 24-16 and in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference. This is no longer a cute story about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts — this team is legitimately good. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all good players and have destroyed unsuspecting opponents this season.
How good are they? Can they win a playoff series? It’ll depend on the matchup and whether they pick up a better two-guard (Avery Bradley stinks now) and rim protector (Gortat isn’t cutting it). They could probably take down any team without an MVP-caliber player in a seven-game series, so if they play the Spurs, Blazers or Jazz in the first round, they’ll have more than a puncher’s chance to advance.
15. Will Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward get back on track?
If someone told you that Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were averaging only a combined 23.6 points per game, you’d probably assume that the Celtics were having the season from hell. Fortunately for Boston, the “Marcuses” (Morris and Smart) have stepped up their respective games and covered for Brown’s and Hayward’s struggles. The team is comfortably in fifth place in the top-heavy Eastern Conference and will always have a chance in any playoff series with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and the Marcuses playing well. However, if the Celtics want to compete for a title, they’ll need at least one of Brown or Hayward to start playing better. Both have shown some signs of life recently, but an occasional good game won’t suffice come May and June.
16. Do the Jazz have another magical second half in store?
Quin Snyder has been a second-half miracle worker in his tenure as head coach of the Utah Jazz. Last season, after a 17-24 start to the season, the Jazz ripped off a 31-10 record the next 41 games and rode that momentum to a first-round upset over the Thunder. At 20-21 through 41 games this season, Snyder will need to once again work his second-half magic to get Donovan Mitchell and Co. back on track.
17. How does DeMarcus Cousins fit in with the Warriors?
As they attempt to three-peat and win their fourth title in five seasons, the Warriors are struggling with mental and physical fatigue. Even when they’re at full strength, they seem as vulnerable as they’ve seemed since Kevin Durant joined the team. That could all change when DeMarcus Cousins makes his debut. Will the Warriors be rejuvenated by their “new toy” and find new ways to throttle teams? Or will Cousins’ overwhelming but unnecessary offensive talent hurt the team’s on-court chemistry? Boogie’s commitment to defense could ultimately dictate this one.
18. Can Steph Curry really go 50-45-90 again?
Remember when Steph Curry won the first-ever unanimous MVP in 2015-16 and forced us to recalibrate how basketball was going to be played moving forward? That season he averaged 30.1 points per game and joined Steve Nash as the only players to ever join the 50-45-90 Club (FG percentage-3FG percentage-FT percentage). Well, he’s doing it again this season. Right now he’s averaging 28.9 points per game on 48-44-91 shooting splits. (And he’s been in a slump lately too.) Thanks to the equally ridiculous seasons guys like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are having, hardly anyone seems to be noticing how insanely well Curry is shooting this year.
19. Can we hand Luka Doncic the Rookie of the Year, already?
Barring injury, the answer is yes. Doncic has been a revelation in Dallas and is must-see television every time he steps on the court. He might even get voted in as an All-Star Game starter. And while he shouldn’t be an All-Star starter, nobody should have any issues with him making the team because he’s averaging 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game and absolutely has a case as being one of the 12 best players in the Western Conference this season.
20. Should the Knicks even bother bringing Kristaps Porzingis back this season?
If you recall, Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL just before the All-Star break last season. With a crappy roster in place and their sights set on Kevin Durant, the Knicks have been in no rush to get their young star on the court before he’s completely healthy. They are going to evaluate Porzingis in mid-February, but there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all this season.
Should he play? On one hand, it’d be nice to get him back on the court for about 10-15 games to help him get his rhythm and confidence back heading into the offseason — this is what the Pacers did with Paul George following his broken leg. On the other hand, with a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, they might not want Porzingis winning games for them and screwing up their lottery odds.
Pelicans star Anthony Davis openly proclaimed ahead of Sunday’s All-Star Game that he was going after the MVP award, and he didn’t make his master plan on how to do so much of a secret.
“Coach [Alvin] Gentry already told me every time I catch it to put it up,” said Davis upon being selected to his fourth straight spot on the Western Conference team.
The Western Conference All-Stars seemed to have no problems feeding Davis on his home floor at the Smoothie King Center.
Davis took an All-Star record 39 shots and scored 52 points to lead the West over the East at the 66th All-Star Game, 192-182 — the highest-scoring game in league history.
The 23-year-old’s point total smashed the previous record of 42, set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962.
“I stressed that, I think more than enough, to the guys in the locker room before the game that I wanted to get the MVP for this crowd, for the city, and I ended up doing it,” Davis said. “Them guys did a great job of just finding me, giving me the basketball. They wanted me to score 50. Every time, Kawhi [Leonard] was like, ‘Six more points.’ Or James [Harden] was like, ‘I’m going to pass you the ball.'”
The 374 points scored between the teams are the most in NBA All-Star Game history, according to ESPN Stats & Information, surpassing the previous high of 369 set last season.
The honor is the first NBA trophy for Davis, who finished fifth in regular-season MVP voting after the 2014-15 season.
“It was a lot of fun,” Davis said. “My teammates did a great job of looking for me.”
Davis placed the accomplishment behind his gold medals from the Olympics and World Cup and his NCAA championship, but called it “an award that I’m going to cherish forever.”
Davis, 23, also had 10 rebounds. He held off a late MVP charge by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who had 41 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds.
The whistle blew to signal a timeout, and yet DeMarcus Cousins stood statue-still near the free throw line in Sacramento’s palatial new Golden 1 Center, as if hoping a tractor beam would lock on his coordinates and take him… anywhere, rather than grapple with the closing minutes of another loss to the Lakers. The same Lakers who dealt the Kings their most heartbreaking defeat, in the 2002 conference finals, and are already bouncing with promise in the first season of the post-Kobe era.
As Sacramento finished squandering a 19-point lead and Cousins’s 28-point, nine-rebound effort, the league’s most-talented center could no longer contain his exasperation. At the buzzer he beelined for Los Angeles power forward Julius Randle to air his grievances, only to be met by a united front of Lakers, many of whom laughed in his face. Cousins then retreated to the Kings’ locker room, where his gaze turned glassy. Beat reporters whispered that he would probably be too angry to take questions. Coaxed into talking, he bemoaned the opposition’s overly physical treatment and his own team’s “tender” play, knowing full well that he had voiced the same sentiments many times before.
Moments later TNT commentator Shaquille O’Neal, who owns a small stake in the Kings, blamed Cousins for their stagnation, calling him a “hothead” who lacks “great leadership qualities.” O’Neal even hinted that the franchise “may be looking to go in a different direction.” The Hall of Fame center never points out the guards’ soft entry passes and lackadaisical transition defense, management’s atrocious draft record—or the fact that Sacramento’s 10-year playoff drought predates Cousins. Even to Shaq, who spent his 20s targeted by critics, Cousins is the franchise’s major problem, and his ouster the only solution.
This cycle of losing, frustration and finger-pointing continued the next night in Portland. Despite repeated hacking, Cousins put up 33 points and grabbed nine rebounds, uncorking three-pointers, brilliant dribble drives and ferocious dunks. Then on the final play, small forward Rudy Gay ignored his repeated pleas for a pass and instead hoisted a contested jumper that rimmed out. Cousins stomped off the court, dejected if not disgusted, as the 122–120 overtime defeat dropped the Kings to 4–7.
Elsewhere, other members of the NBA elite are enjoying predictably rosy seasons. LeBron James had a triple double on opening night and led the Cavaliers to a 6–0 start. Steph Curry set an NBA record by hitting 13 three-pointers. Blake Griffin, looking fully recovered from a leg injury and a damaged reputation, teamed with Chris Paul to guide the Clippers to a franchise-best 9–1 start.
But there is another group of marooned All-Stars who, like Cousins, spent the first two weeks of the season kicking and screaming for help. In Indiana, wing Paul George was ejected and fined for booting a basketball into the stands, where it smacked a woman in the face. In Washington, point guard John Wall was tossed from back-to-back games for bumping a ref and dragging Celtics guard Marcus Smart to the ground. And in New Orleans, power forward Anthony Davis put up record numbers, but still endured an 0–8 start that has his playoff hopes on life support.
With a historically unprecedented opening-night eruption, Anthony Davis bellowed at the fickle basketball world that had forgotten him.
In the New Orleans Pelicans’ 107-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets, Davis did everything imaginable to reestablish his status as the game’s best young talent—a status he’d lost following a disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
He scored 50 points, snared 16 rebounds, gifted five assists, swatted four shots and swiped seven steals.
That has never happened before:
Davis was ultra aggressive, taking 34 of his team’s 92 shots. No other Pelicans player connected on more than six field goals, while Davis made 17.
He moved freely, showing no sign of the preseason ankle injury that, for a while, put his opening-night status in doubt. Working for space off the dribble, finishing at the rim, connecting on difficult in-between flips through contact—AD displayed everything, from everywhere, offensively.
So dominant and so clear was Davis’ scoring mentality, point guard Tim Frazier quickly developed tunnel vision, searching for AD whenever possible.
Frazier, pressed into duty by Jrue Holiday’s absence, had 11 assists on the night.
Defensively, Davis’ length and quickness were all the way back. Though he made a few positional mistakes, the lapses in attention and sporadic effort that contributed to a major step backward last year were gone. He was locked in, aggressive and committed on both ends.
Yet we’re here talking about a loss and, more dispiritingly, a possibly season-defining trend, as Scott Kushner of the Advocate observed:
All that statistical brilliance didn’t amount to anything because the Pelicans are too injured (again), too invested in talent that can’t help AD (as always) and too painfully lodged in a half-rebuild that shows no sign of producing a second star.
The lottery pick, Buddy Hield, had four points in 17 minutes. The biggest free-agent acquisition, Solomon Hill, had two points in 27 minutes.
Anthony Davis’ season is over. Alvin Gentry told reporters during his pregame media session Sunday that New Orleans has decided to shut down the three-time All-Star for the remaining 14 games of 2015-16, a decision that factors in the 23-year-old’s left knee and shoulder injuries.
“We’re going to shut him down. He’s done for the year,” Gentry said. “It’s unfortunate, but he’s got an issue with his shoulder that he’s played with the whole season. It’s amazing when people talk about him being soft or whatever; they don’t understand that he’s played through a situation with his shoulder the entire season.”
Along with what appears to have been a season-long issue with his shoulder, Davis injured his left knee Friday vs. Portland, when he was contacted by Portland’s C.J. McCollum and teammate Jrue Holiday. The knee also needs treatment.
“He has an issue with his knee that we’re going to get corrected,” Gentry said. “I think for us, we have to look at things long term, and we have to look at what’s best for the future of our franchise. For that reason, he won’t play anymore this season.”
Gentry declined to delve into specifics of the injuries, deferring to medical staff.
“It’s something that needs to be done and needs time to heal,” Gentry said of the knee injury. “The same thing with his shoulder. I’m sure you can find out from the doctors or the trainers, but I don’t really want to get into it and try to explain all the aspects of it (from a medical expertise standpoint).”
Asked whether the injuries could impact Davis’ potential participation in the Olympics later this year, Gentry said he wasn’t sure, “but if I was a betting man, probably so.”
New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis is forever trying to understand the responsibilities of his role. As the $145 million man – the superstar sent from the future – Davis is desperate to learn the lessons of leadership.
What Davis dropped on the Detroit Pistons on Sunday in Auburn Hills – 59 points and 20 rebounds – left the NBA stunned and speechless. He reminded everyone, including himself: Davis is a transcendent and generational talent stranded on a flawed, broken roster.
Ever seen something like it? “I haven’t,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told The Vertical in a text message. “Not by a big with that skill level.”
This season had been targeted as Davis’ MVP breakthrough, his time. Now, he’s nowhere near the conversation. Sit down with him, and the sense comes quickly: That’s the least of his concern. Winning matters to him, and that’s how Davis wants to be judged. Chris Paul pushed his way out of New Orleans, but Davis is starting a new five-year deal, and he’ll have to find a way to become part of the solution there.
Throughout All-Star weekend, Davis probed the biggest winners in the NBA. Throughout this lost Pelicans season, Kendrick Perkins has been guide to his personal inventory of franchise star stories – from Kevin Garnett and LeBron James to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“Perk tells me stories from 10 years ago, and says: As the franchise player and leader of this team, you have to do this, you have to do that,” Davis told The Vertical.
Davis listens, but here’s the truth of the matter: The franchise star job demands that you learn through experience. Otherwise, everything will devour you. Davis is so gifted, so dedicated. And he takes everything – the losing, the unrealistic insistences that he ought to be to able to win all alone – in the most personal way possible.