Before we start, here are a few players who are putting together great season but did not crack the top five. I have also included some short notes as to why they did not make my list.
Dirk Nowitzki- Another fantastic year, but his numbers aren’t quite there.
Kevin Love- Crazy-good numbers, bad team.
Carmelo Anthony- Crazy-good numbers, horrendous team.
Dwight Howard- Putting together a great two-way season, but hasn’t been dominant.
As for the Top Five:
5. Stephen Curry
- 24.1 points and 8.8 assists per game
- 193 three-pointers made, most in the NBA
- 615 points off of pull-up shots (Any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting). 139 more points than the second highest pull-up total, per NBA.com.
During his 2010-11 MVP season, Derrick Rose averaged 27.1 points and 7.7 assists per game. Curry has put up very similar numbers this season, carrying the Warriors to a 36-24 record. Curry’s MVP case is aided by the inconsistent play of his supporting cast this season. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes have failed to make “The Jump” like many expected, leaving Steph to shoulder more of the offensive load for Golden State. In addition to his strong numbers, Curry is one of the most exciting players to watch in the game. Few players around the NBA cause Twitter eruptions like Steph does. Probably because few players can do things like this.
4. Joakim Noah
- 12 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game
- Opponents shooting just 44.5% on shots at the rim when being guarded by Noah, eighth best in the league, per NBA.com
Noah’s numbers are solid, but they only tell a fraction of his impact on the Bulls this season. Noah has helped write one of the most unexpected storylines of the year. After losing Derrick Rose and trading Luol Deng, the Bulls appeared destined for the lottery. However, Noah and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau would not let it happen. The Bulls are now 33-27 on the year and have won eight of their last ten games. They will likely end up as the three seed in the Eastern Conference and will be a pain in the ass for the Pacers or Heat to play in the second round. Chicago can thank Joakim Noah for staying relevant in what looked like a lost season.
3. Blake Griffin
- 24.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game
- Shooting 53.2% from the field, ninth best in the NBA, per NBA.com
- Shooting a career-high 70% from the free throw line
Chris Paul’s injury on January 3 produced a fork-in-the-road moment for the Clippers. Would they hold their ground in his absence and maintain a top seed in the West or would they slip in the standings and end up with an unfavorable playoff matchup? The Clippers needed Blake Griffin to step up in Paul’s absence and lead the team. He produced with flying colors and the Clippers went 13-5 with CP3 out of the lineup. Not only was a Clippers collapse diverted, but Blake established himself as a top MVP candidate. His play has drastically improved from past seasons. Griffin has developed a solid low-post game with multiple moves on the block. He has become a reasonably dependable shooter from mid-range and the foul line, forcing defenders to respect those facets of his game. Finally, while he has always been an above-average passer, the Clippers are allowing him to make plays with the ball in his hands. This is especially evident on the fast-break, as you can see in the following clip.
As for numbers one and two on my list, let us compare the following players:
Player A- 37.3 mpg, 27.5 ppg, 58.3% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 7.0 rpg, 6.4 apg
Player B- 38.4 mpg, 31.6 ppg, 50.7% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 7.7 rpg, 5.6 apg
How the hell do you choose one?
What if we compare memorable moments?
Player A is LeBron James and B is Kevin Durant. The race for MVP, like their numbers, is incredibly close. Durant appeared to have the early lead, putting up video game numbers with Russell Westbrook out of the lineup. However, LeBron has roared back in the last four weeks, including a career-high 61-point face-melter against Charlotte. They are the two best players in the world, playing arguably the best basketball of their respective careers, and doing so on two of the top teams in the NBA.
What makes this race even more enjoyable is the competition level between LeBron and Durant. It seems as if they are fueled by media discussions about who is the MVP. When one player seems to gain an edge, the other responds with a huge game. It’s as if their box scores are battling one another from across the country. As fans, we are the beneficiary of this fantastic theater. It is important that during all of the debating about who is the MVP, we take a step back and enjoy these two players playing the game at unbelievable levels.
Let’s get to it. The MVP standings at this point in the season are…..
2. LeBron James
LeBron is having another phenomenal year. His efficiency has been particularly impressive this season. He is the only non-center with a top five field goal percentage and his 66.2% true shooting mark is second best in the league, per NBA.com. Amid frequent lineup shuffling and injuries, LeBron has been the sole point of consistency for Miami. Now, the Heat are surging, having won nine of their last ten games, and they have the look of a team hunting for the one seed in the East. Thanks to LeBron, they will probably capture it.
1. Kevin Durant
Durant is putting together the strongest all-around season of his career. As I have outlined already this season, Durant’s playmaking and defense have improved drastically. Like Griffin, Durant was put in a position where he had to carry his squad without a key teammate. It was during this period when Russell Westbrook was injured that Durant solidified his MVP case. Despite Westbrook rejoining the lineup in recent weeks, Durant is still putting up monster numbers, averaging 32.6 points per game in the five games since Westbrook has returned. As long as Durant continues to get his 20 field goal attempts per game, he will keep putting up dominant numbers.
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When Marc Gasol sprained his MCL on November 22, it seemed as if the Memphis Grizzlies season was over. Not only was Memphis going to be without their second best offensive option, but they would be missing one of the best low-post defenders in the NBA. Yet, despite playing in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Griz were able to tread water during Gasol’s nearly eight week absence. Thanks in large part to stellar play by Mike Conley (averaging nearly 17.9 points and 6.2 assists per game) and the ever-reliable Zach Randolph (averaging 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game), the Grizzlies were able to stay within striking distance.
Now, Gasol (or as my friend Nolan calls him, Big Spanish) is back and Memphis appears poised to make a run at a playoff spot in the West. They find themselves trailing Phoenix by two games for the eighth seed and Dallas by just 2.5 games for the seventh seed. Along with the consistent play of Conley and Randolph, Memphis has relied on a ground-and-pound style to win games. Memphis plays at the slowest pace in the NBA, averaging 92.11 possessions per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Memphis’ slow pace results from an offensive system that focuses on getting low-post touches for their bigs. In fact, both Randolph and Gasol rank in the top five in touches within 12 feet of the rim per game (Randolph 7.3, Gasol 7.9), per NBA.com. The Grizzlies are particularly effective offensively when they utilize Marc Gasol’s excellent passing skills in the low post, as you can see from this clip.
While the Griz do a good job of running their offensive through the low-post, they are abysmal from behind the arc. Their poor three-point shooting could turn out to be the reason why the Griz fall short of the playoffs. Memphis takes the fewest three-point field goal attempts per game in the NBA at 14.2 attempts and makes just 34.3% of them, the fifth worst percentage in the league, per NBA.com. These statistics make the rumors of buyout-candidate Jimmer Fredette landing with the Griz seem more likely. Not only would Jimmer provide a credible shooting threat from, but he would also fill the backup point guard role. A role that has been open since Memphis traded Jerryd Bayless to the Celtics earlier this season. Three-point shooting
Memphis will play a handful of quality opponents down the stretch, including games against Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Indiana, and two against Miami. They would likely need to at least split these six games to stay in the hunt. Moreover, in a perfect bit of NBA scheduling, Memphis closes its season with games against Phoenix and Dallas. These games could very well decide who will hold the final two seeds in the Western Conference
If the Grizzlies do make the playoffs, they will prove a difficult matchup for any of the top seeds. Largely, this stems from the unique style of basketball they play. The popular trend of playing small-ball lineups never made it to Memphis. Rather, the Griz will continue to bully opponents down low and take advantage of their size. The Grizzles have a solid rotation of four bigs (Gasol, Randolph, Koufos, Davis), that can provide quality defense and excellent rebounding. The Spurs, currently the second seed in the West, must be particularly nervous about a first round matchup with the Grizzlies. Memphis has competed well against San Antonio in the playoffs over the past decade (sans last year’s beat down) and has the opportunity to take advantage of an older, oft-injured Spurs squad.
The Griz are one of my sleepers this season. If they get in the dance, they are a team that has the potential to make a deep run. Despite currently holding a pedestrian 31-24 record, no one will want to play the Griz come playoff time. Not even these guys.
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It’s one of my favorite times of the year- NBA trade deadline season! A time when unsubstantiated rumors are thrown around like insults at a roast. As a future NBA GM, I have spent countless hours on the ESPN Trade Machine figuring out ways to manipulate rosters to address team needs. This season, I have crafted five trades that would impact the NBA landscape. These trades comply with salary cap regulations as well as rules regarding trading draft picks. More importantly, I believe these trades to be mutually beneficial for the teams involved and interesting for the league. Without further ado, here are my big deals.
Bobcats receive: Evan Turner
Sixers receive: Ben Gordon’s expiring contract and Blazers 2014 1st Round Pick
Why it works-
The Bobcats are currently clinging to the eighth seed in the East. After years of ineptitude, the Cats need to give their fans some sense of hope. Turner is a solid all-around player, averaging 17.4 points, 6 rebounds and just under 4 assists per game. The Cats would have the option to insert Turner into the starting small forward spot or use him as their sixth man. Either way, Turner would be an upgrade over Jeff Taylor and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
Rumors are circulating that the Sixers will be active at the trade deadline. With an eye towards the future, GM Sam Hinkie will be looking to bring in draft picks and expiring contracts. Acquiring Ben Gordon’s expiring contract and the Blazers 2014 first round pick will do both of these things. It’s hard to imagine the Sixers giving Evan Turner a long-term deal in the offseason. Thus, it makes sense for Philly to get what they can for him now.
Warriors receive: Greg Monroe
Pistons receive: Harrison Barnes
Why it works-
Golden State is one of the most entertaining teams in the league. However, they have had a disappointing season thus far and are only nine games above .500. One of the primary issues for the Warriors has been figuring out who to play in crunch-time. The addition of Andre Iguodala has left Harrison Barnes as the odd man out. As a result, Barnes has become expendable for the Warriors. By trading Barnes to Detroit for Greg Monroe, Golden State could add much needed frontcourt depth and solidfy their crunch-time five. A closing lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Monroe would be deadly on the offensive end and big enough to hold their own on the boards.
The Pistons have a logjam in the frontcourt. The experiment of playing Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith together has been an epic failure. Not only is Detroit’s offensive spacing terrible when those three are on the floor together, but they are also allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Bringing in Barnes would give the Pistons a natural small forward who has the potential to grow into a very productive player.
Suns receive: Pau Gasol
Lakers receive: Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract, Miles Plumlee & Suns 2014 1st Round Pick
Why it works-
Some writers predicted the Suns to be in full tank mode this season (slowly drops his head in shame). Shockingly, the Suns are in playoff position and appear just a piece away from serious contention. Pau Gasol would be a great addition, bringing a reliable low post presence that could take some of the scoring pressure off of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe come playoff time. Gasol would make the Suns a difficult matchup for anybody in the West.
The Lakers are awful and it appears they will be for the near future. The goal for L.A. should be acquiring draft picks and slashing salary. Gasol has never fit in well with Mike D’Antoni’s system and it appears both sides would benefit from a change. The draft pick the Lakers would acquire will not be as valuable as many would have guessed before the season, but in a deep draft, the Lakers could add a nice young piece. Miles Plumlee has shown flashes of competence as a backup center and would be a key sweetener for the Lakers.
Rockets receive: Jeff Green, Phil Pressey & Vitor Faverani
Celtics receive: Omer Asik & Aaron Brooks
Why it works-
The Omer Asik soap opera has to come to an end. The Rockets would do well to bring in Jeff Green, a player who can play the stretch-4 and space the floor for Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls. Green is shooting 36% from three-point range this season. While this is a respectable mark, I would expect this percentage to increase upon arriving in Houston as Green would no longer be the primary offensive focus of the opposing defense.
In Asik, the Celtics would acquire a quality big man who could anchor their defense for years to come (if they choose to re-sign him after next season). Pairing Asik with Jared Sullinger would give the Celtics a talented, young frontcourt pair. In addition, next season the Celtics would have Asik’s expiring contract as a trade chip to utilize in their rebuilding process.
Thunder receive: Arron Afflalo
Magic receive: Jeremy Lamb, Kendrick Perkins & Mavericks 2014 1st Round Pick
Why it works-
The Thunder are playing excellent basketball this season. An upgrade from Jeremy Lamb to Arron Afflalo would put the Thunder in pole position to capture the NBA title. Afflalo is having a great season for Orlando, averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 42.7% from three, per NBA.com. Unlike the James Harden trade, the Thunder should focus on the present rather than the future and go all in on a championship run. Adding Afflalo would signal the front office is doing just that.
Orlando is 16-38 with Afflalo. Trading him will only benefit the Magic by ensuring that they will lose more games and get a better chance at a high pick in the draft. What’s more, Afflalo will be 30 years old next season and it is unlikely that he will factor in to the Magic’s long-term rebuild. The Magic would be happy to acquire an additional pick and a potential talent in Jeremy Lamb. Perkins will also be in the last year of his contract next season, making him a possible trade asset.
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The retirement of longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern became official Saturday. The new leader of the league is Adam Silver, a man who had served as deputy commissioner since 2006. Silver inherits a league that is in a much better state than when Stern assumed the role in 1984. In Stern’s 30 years as head of the NBA, he grew the popularity and value of the league exponentially. The NBA’s annual revenue soared from $165 million in 1984 to $5.5 billion in 2013. Stern also oversaw the expansion of the league from 23 to 30 teams. Another key element of Stern’s tenure was the growth of the global popularity of the NBA. Thanks in large part to the success of the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics, NBA games can now be viewed in 215 countries in 47 different languages. Above all else, Stern’s impact on the globalization of the game will be the defining aspect of his legacy. Well, that and his struggles with drinking bottled water.
Despite Stern’s vast accomplishments, the league is far from perfect. Tanking, poor officiating and college eligibility are just some of the issues that confront the league. With Adam Silver taking over as commissioner, now is the time to consider ways to improve the quality and entertainment of the NBA. Widely regarded as a fair and kind man, Silver is known as an outside the box thinker who is willing to incorporate innovative ideas to improve the NBA. He is also expected to run the NBA in a much less dictatorial way than Stern did. Thus, the NBA could see new ideas being incorporated to enhance its product. Here are some of the ideas I think would make the league better.
1. Trim the regular season to 66 games
We are now fully immersed in the “dog days” of the NBA season. That period of time between Christmas and the All-Star game that produces uninspired, low effort play across the league. One way to avoid the midseason drawl would be to shorten the season to 66 games. Shortening the season would cause teams to ramp-up for the playoffs sooner as each game is more valuable. Moreover, as part of the schedule change the NBA could eliminate back-to-back games. Back-to-back games are harmful to the quality of the NBA for both players and fans. Players are tired and face greater risk of injury due to fatigue. Fans often miss out seeing star veteran players who are rested on back-to-backs like Dwyane Wade. A 66 game schedule is long enough to weed out pretenders but short enough to keep a quality product from the beginning to end of the regular season.
2. Change draft eligibility rules
The NBA should implement a system similar to baseball. The new draft rules should be that players can enter the NBA straight from high school. However, if they choose to go to school, they would have to go for a minimum of three years. This rule change would allow for players who are ready for the NBA game like LeBron and Kobe to enter the league immediately. At the same time, players who feel they need to gain experience and seasoning in college are provided three years to develop. There are multiple benefits to having players stay in college for at least three years. First, players coming to the NBA after three years of college would be better prepared mentally, physically and emotionally for NBA life. Second, the college game would grow in popularity as fans would be able to watch recruits develop and contribute for longer than five months. Finally, the NBA game would increase in popularity as incoming rookies would have more popularity after being on the national stage in college for three years. Better players entering the league leads to a better product, plain and simple.
3. Create a centralized system for in-game reviews
How is this not a thing? Why do I have to sit through a five minute clear-path foul review during a Bucks-Bobcats game? It seems as if every eligible call is reviewed by officials. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as getting the call right should always be the ultimate goal. However, the NBA should find a way to make reviewing calls a much faster process. To accomplish this goal, the NBA should turn to the system the NHL uses to review plays. They should create a centralized office in the league’s headquarters that acts as a command center for all in-game reviews. No more having the referees waddle over to the monitor and look at 45 replays. Instead, someone watching each game at the LRO (League Review Office) can watch a a handful of replays in thirty seconds and then radio in the call to the head referee. For once, the NHL should act as a template for effective policy.
4. Create a tournament to determine the top four picks in the draft
This idea is an attempt to get rid of some of the tanking that occurs across the league while adding some excitement for fans in struggling basketball cities. Thus, I bring you the Kwame Brown Tournament of Ineptitude. The teams with the bottom four records in the league would face off in a tournament to determine the top of the draft order. If the season were to end today, Milwaukee would host Philadelphia and Orlando would host Boston. The winner of each game would face off in a game for the top overall pick in the draft. The tournament could take place over three days before the start of the playoffs. The final game would be played in the arena where the consensus number one overall pick plays, no matter if its Cameron Indoor or a small high school gym in Arkansas.
5. Allow teams to pick who they play in the playoffs
This is an idea that I have heard discussed in the past, most notably by the great Bill Simmons. The idea is that the top four seeds in each conference would pick which opponent they will face in the first round of the playoffs. For example, top-seed Indiana would get to pick any of the playoff qualifying Eastern Conference teams to play in the first round. Maybe instead of facing the eighth seed Charlotte, they would choose to play the fifth seed Chicago because of favorable individual matchups. The second seed, Miami, would follow with their pick and so on and so forth. Think about the bad blood that would come from naming who you want to play! This idea would create great drama in an often predictable first round.
While these five ideas may not be implemented, let us hope that Silver will pursue innovative ideas to increase the quality of the NBA product.
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I first saw rumblings of Durant’s new nickname on Twitter. After a career-long search, had the NBA universe finally found an apt moniker for one of its biggest stars? I was hesitant at first, unable to commit to the new identity without investigating if it truly fit. Slim Reaper. Undoubtedly catchy, but did it really apply? Then I watched highlights of Oklahoma City’s victory over Portland, a game in which Durant took over the last three-plus minutes of the game to propel OKC to a comeback win. I was sold. It wasn’t that Durant scored 11 points in the final 3:30. Rather, it was the way he did it. In those final minutes, Durant had the look of an assassin. He appeared enraged that Portland would have the audacity to think that they could stop him. He wanted the win, but he also wanted it in the most cold-blooded way possible. With the shot-clock winding down and a four point lead, Durant coolly pulled-up from three and buried an “F-you for not double teaming me” rainmaker to seal the victory. A cold-blooded assassin on the court, a perfect fit for a name like Slim Reaper.
Durant’s play this season has been spectacular, especially considering the time Russell Westbrook has missed due to injury. His scoring has been well-publicized and deservingly so. In the 16 games Durant has played since Westbrook was sidelined on December 27, KD has averaged 36.2 points per game, per NBA.com. Additionally, Durant has scored 30 or more points in his last ten games, including a career-high 54 against Golden State. For the season, Durant is leading the NBA in scoring at 31.1 points per game. He is doing so while also leading the league in true shooting percentage at 64.3%, per NBA.com. His incredible efficiency has propelled him to a Player Efficiency Rating of 31.0, also tops in the NBA, per ESPN.com.
Despite his ridiculous scoring numbers, I would argue that KD has been just as impressive in other areas of his game. He is becoming a very good defender, using his length and quickness to generate deflections while also averaging just under eight rebounds per game. Durant is not quite on the Paul George/LeBron James level of two-way superstars, but he has greatly improved his play on the defensive end over the last few season. Moreover, Durant is averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game this season. Like his defense, Durant’s playmaking ability’s have improved exponentially throughout his career. His assist numbers are even more impressive when one considers that the over-sized corpse of Kendrick Perkins is clogging the paint and Derrick Fisher is getting minutes despite shuffling around with a walker.
The battle for MVP will be exciting to watch as we enter the second half of the season. As I look at the field, Durant’s lava-hot play over the last month has moved him to the top spot on my list with LeBron and Paul George close behind. An MVP trophy will mark another step on Slim Reaper’s quest to take over the NBA.
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