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

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?

Full Article

By: Pat Heery and Sean Keane

 

Raptors roar: Winners and losers from Game 1 of the NBA Finals

The long-anticipated 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors tipped off Thursday night in Canada.

Coming into the series, Toronto found itself as the overwhelming underdog. Though, Kawhi Leonard and Co. were favored to win the opener at home.

From pretty much the start, Toronto played like the better and more hungry team. Pascal Siakam dominated all four quarters. Leonard came through when it counted the most.

Meanwhile, the Warriors couldn’t get any secondary scoring behind Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson struggled and was visibly frustrated. Draymond Green found himself in foul trouble.

Here are the biggest winners and losers from Toronto’s 118-109 Game 1 win over the defending champs in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Winner: Marc Gasol 

A lot was made of Gasol’s struggles on offense in the Eastern Conference Finals. He also didn’t seem to have a great matchup against Golden State’s bigs in the NBA Finals. If Game 1 is any indication, that was nothing more than narrative.

Gasol led Toronto in scoring with 14 points in the first half, finishing that span plus-11 in the process. Showing improved defense, his all-around game was excellent. In the end, the borderline future Hall of Famer scored 20 points and grabbed seven boards before fouling out.

Loser: Klay Thompson

 With Kevin Durant out of action, it was rather apparent that Thompson needed to step up behind Stephen Curry. That certainly wasn’t the case in Game 1.

Klay just didn’t have it on either end of the court. His frustration boiled over with a dumb technical in the final stanza. Thompson was ultimately minus-10 on the court and didn’t show the same long-range sniper ability that has defined his career. Maybe he should start listening to Drake music again.

Winner: Danny Green 

This NBA champ entered Game 1 having hit on just one of his past three 15 three-pointers. But proving himself to be the solid veteran we saw in San Antonio, Green did not hesitate to take big shots at big times.

Still getting the starting nod for Nick Nurse, Green drained 3-of-7 three-point attempts and played some absolutely great perimeter defense against the likes of Curry and Thompson. Green could very well be an X-factor moving forward in the series.

Loser: Draymond Green

The aggressiveness we saw from Green during Golden State’s four-game sweep of Portland in the Western Conference Finals just wasn’t there Thursday night. He attempted three shots in the first half, committing as many fouls and turnovers in the process.

Green might have finished the evening with a triple-double (10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists), but he was not the same overall presence we’ve seen through the playoffs. That’s magnified by the performance Siakam put up on him offensively.

Winner: Pascal Siakam 

Not enough can be said about this youngster. He might not be the best player in Toronto, but Siakam continues to perform like a king. Thursday night’s action was no different.

At one point that spanned the final three quarters, Siakam hit on 11 consecutive shots. He did so with elite defenders such as Draymond and Kevon Looney on him. With Kawhi laboring a bit, Siakam’s 32 points were the difference in this game.

Loser: Warriors other bigs

While DeMarcus Cousins was performing well in limited action, the likes of Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell did not do their thing. Bell got the start over his counterparts, playing a combined 12 minutes and scoring two points. Meanwhile, a previously impressive Looney scored nine points but was negative-four in 28 minutes of action.

We’re highly intrigued to see how Steve Kerr employs his bigs in Game 2. The rotations clearly did not work Thursday evening. There’s now a good chance that Cousins will get the start over the others Sunday evening.

Winner: Stephen Curry 

Pretty much the only member of the defending champs to do anything on offense Thursday night, Curry was hassled by both Toronto’s defense and some bad officiating. Despite this, the two-time former MVP was still able to do his thing.

Curry scored 34 points on 8-of-18 shooting, including a ridiculous 14-of-14 mark from the free-throw line. He continued to display aggressiveness while not settling for threes. That’s what the Warriors need with Durant sidelined.

Full Article

By: Vincent Frank

 

Top takeaways from Raptors’ dramatic Game 7 victory over the 76ers

It all came down to a single game as the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors were even at three games apiece heading into Game 7.

With the game being a see-saw affair throughout, it should surprise nobody that the final contest of this highly competitive series went down to the wire. The game was all tied up at 85-85 with less than two minutes remaining. From there, the Raptors did what they had to and pulled away thanks to a clutch game-winner with time expiring by Kawhi Leonard.

These are the top takeaways from Game 7 between the Sixers and Raptors.

Toronto almost doomed itself early

The Sixers opened Game 7 going 0-for-10 from the field. Yet somehow, when JJ Redick finally broke the spell and drained a three, Toronto had just a three-point lead with half the first quarter gone by.

By the end of quarter No. 1, Toronto led 18-13, despite Philly going 5-for-19 from the floor and attempting just two shots from the free-throw line. Of course, Toronto couldn’t buy a bucket either and had the lead only because of eight made free throws.

That’s not the start either team was looking for. But Toronto failing to take advantage of the Sixers early — playing at home, against a team that couldn’t buy a bucket — was a huge storyline in this game, because at halftime the Raptors led by just four points in a game that was decided at the last second.

Marc Gasol was a liability

It’s a good thing that Serge Ibaka had a strong first half, because Gasol was almost completely invisible. The big man went 0-for-4 from the field in the first two quarters, despite playing 22 minutes. In fact, he was the only Raptors starter who had a negative plus/minus in that first half (minus-5).

The most notable thing Gasol did in that first half was barely brush Joel Embiid’s hair as the center stroked a three — earning three free throws in the process after an award-winning flop.

Things did not improve in the second half, either. Although Gasol scored seven points and hauled down 11 rebounds, the Raptors were minus-10 with him on the court in Game 7.

Even on off night, Embiid continues to be key factor

For the fourth game in a row, Joel Embiid was unable to come close to his seasonal scoring average. He came out of the gate slowly and struggled to find his shooting stroke throughout. Embiid also wasn’t nearly as aggressive as we’ve grown to expect in the paint. All told, he hit just 6-for-18 shots from the field and scored 21 points.

Yet, as we’ve seen throughout the series, even without dominating offensively, Embiid found ways to make a positive impact. While he was on the court for the Sixers, they were plus-10 in Game 7. That’s just incredible considering the contest was decided by two points and Embiid played 45 minutes. It just goes to show how valuable the big man is — even when he’s off his game.

Serge Ibaka was the X-factor

As we mentioned while discussing Gasol, Ibaka was incredible off the bench in Game 7. He and Fred VanVleet were the only reserves utilized by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse in this pivotal game. And when his number was called, Ibaka delivered an amazing performance.

The backup center played 29 minutes, putting up 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists. With him on the floor, Toronto went plus-22 on the scoreboard. That’s an unbelievable impact, and it was the difference in the game.

Kawhi wouldn’t be denied

May 12, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball against Philadelphis 76ers guard Jimmy Butler (23) in the first half of game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It was a weird night offensively for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry suffered a hand injury on his non-shooting hand early and was out for a while. Pascal Siakam disappeared for long stretches. We already touched on how poorly Gasol played most of the game. Danny Green was allergic to shooting.

With all those guys failing to step up, Kawhi Leonard went ham.

Launching an absurd 39 total shots, he wasn’t sharp hitting just 16 of his attempts. However, Leonard got hot late and ended up pouring in 41 points to lead the Raptors to a legendary victory and a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s been absolutely unstoppable in the playoffs thus far.

25 questions heading into the second half of the NBA season

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.

Full 25

By Pat Heery

Wizards reportedly willing to trade John Wall, Bradley Beal

The Washington Wizards are off to a terrible start this season, and the team’s front office may not be willing to be patient to see if things will turn around.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Wizards are giving teams the impression that they are open to trading any player on their roster, including John Wall and Bradley Beal. Washington would reportedly prefer to build around its All-Star backcourt, but the belief is that the current roster may no longer be able to coexist.

Wojnarowski adds that the Wizards had previously chosen not to include Wall and Beal in trade discussions involving star players like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, but the team’s 5-11 start has the front office reconsidering. Another possibility would be to shop Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre in an attempt to bring in a third star, but the Wizards have not seen much interest in those players on the trade market.

Beal is three years younger than Wall, who will be owed $42 million per year for four years starting next season. Wall also has a 15 percent trade kicker in his deal, so he may be tougher to trade than Beal.

A fresh start could make sense for Wall if things keep trending in the direction they have been heading, as he recently had to defend himself against criticism that he parties too much. However, it seems like the return for Beal could be more significant if the Wizards are looking to rebuild.

The Wizards fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 119-109 on Sunday, and head coach Scott Brooks unloaded on the team for a lack of effort.

By Steve DelVecchio

Original Article

Spurs Take Game Two Against Grizzlies

Written by Jack Maloney at CBSSports.com

Look, not everyone will tell you the truth. But I will tell you what others are too afraid to say:

Kawhi Leonard is good at basketball.

In Game 2 of the Spurs’ first-round series against the Grizzlies Monday night, Leonard poured in a postseason career-high 37 points on just 14 shots, thanks to a 19-of-19 performance at the line. While it’s always impressive to set a career high, the fact that the mark he passed was one he set just two days before in Game 1 makes it even more remarkable.

Leonard, the game’s leading scorer, also grabbed 11 rebounds on the night, and scored 10 of his 37 points in the fourth, including a thunderous dunk, which put an exclamation point on the win.

In addition to being a new personal postseason high, Leonard’s performance was also of a historic nature — in more ways than one.

First, he became the first Spur to put up 35 points and 10 rebounds since Tim Duncan in 2008.

And in addition, he became just the third player in the past 30-plus years to be perfect at the free-throw line while taking at least 19 shots from the charity stripe in a game.

To continue reading this article, click here.

Kawhi Leonard Stole The MVP Award Last Night

Written by Tim Cato at SB Nation.com

After he led a 16-point comeback against a division rival, after he scored 39 points on 12-of-18 shooting with 30 coming in the second half, after he hit the contested game-winning three off the dribble with 26 seconds left in the game, after he ran back on defense to swat James Harden’s would-be game-tying layup off the glass, Kawhi Leonard said he didn’t really know how voters “pick or choose” the MVP each season.

That’s how.

Leonard made his on-court case in about 10 seconds during Monday’s 112-110 win against the Houston Rockets. In the first half, Leonard had watched as fellow MVP candidate James Harden lit up the Spurs, only for Leonard to respond with an even more convincing final 24 minutes. The defining moment was, of course, this sequence.

The three-pointer was impressive, but the block was special. That’s what separates him, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. That’s what makes him Kawhi.

“The three, you know Harden makes threes, Kawhi makes threes, this guy makes threes, that guy makes threes, Steph makes threes, everyone does that,” Popovich said. “But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what [Leonard] does. Not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly, and he went and took it.”

It seemed fitting that Leonard was late meeting the media after the game because of a drug test, as if even the league itself couldn’t believe Leonard is this good. (The tests are administered randomly, so put away your tin foil.) When asked about “his three-pointer,” he asked the reporter to clarify which one — as if the question could be about a shot that wasn’t the game-winning one.

 To continue reading this article, click here.

Kawhi Leonard: A Different Type of Superstar

Written by Seth Partnow at WashingtonPost.com

Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs is the rarest of players who exerts truly elite influence on both ends of the floor. Not since LeBron James in his earliest Miami days has a player combined an all-defense level play with all-world efficiency on high volume on the offensive end.

While not quite as prolific a three point shooter as Stephen Curry or J.J. Redick, Leonard is shooting with similar accuracy on nearly four attempts a game is extremely impressive.

So to have Leonard, the reigning defensive player of the year and a front-runner (alongside Draymond Green) for this year’s award flirting with 50 percent from three-point range is an enormous advantage for the Spurs.

More frequently, “three and D” players are good shooters and adequate defenders, or good defenders who shoot just well enough to not be ignored while spotted up. Players who do both well are highly sought after in the NBA economy, as shown by the very near max contracts given to DeMarre Carroll and Khris Middleton last offseason.

Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus detailed the “three-and-D-ness” of every player in the NBA on Wednesday, measuring three point shooting success against defensive impact as measured by Basketball-Reference.com’s Defensive Box Score Plus/Minus, or DBPM, a box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. As the chart below shows, at this year’s all-star break, Leonard leads the league in both categories

Measuring individual defense, especially on the perimeter, is difficult. DBPM, used above, necessarily rewards player who collect blocks, steals and defensive rebounds. While these stats are quite often indicators of good defense, they aren’t perfect. Some excellent defenders, such as Klay Thompson and to a lesser extent Redick, do not collect a lot of these sexier defensive stats, thus can appear poor defenders. On the other hand, players who collect rebounds such as Kevin Love or gamble often for steals such as Russell Westbrook can be overrated.

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