The two-man race for the league MVP is becoming more of a one-man race as we near the end of the 2013-14 season. However, that still doesn’t take away from the fact that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league’s players.
That’s really saying something. Because as much as you may be led to believe that this era of the NBA is weak and diluted, there are actually a great deal of players out there who could be deserving of the MVP this year. The only problem is that they’re in the same league as James and Durant.
LeBron and Kevin are in so much a league of their own that we are finding ourselves debating who deserves to finish third in MVP voting. It’s more fair that way, since James and Durant are clearly not of this planet. No player LeBron’s size should have his athletic capabilities, and no player Durant’s height should be able to shoot that well.
Consider third place as the top spot among those who can be considered human, which is something we can all relate to. But even then that’s a stretch, as these three players vying for third place all possess inhuman capibilities of their own.
Either way, these three players have played important roles on their team. In two of these cases, their teams are probably on the outside of the playoffs without them, despite having respectable records and a comfortable spot in the postseason.
The other player amongst the three has been revered for their commitment to improving their all-around game, as well as how well he was able to lead the team in the absence of an extremely important player.
It’s unfortunate that LeBron and Kevin don’t seem to be going anywhere soon, otherwise these three would be in serious MVP conversations for at least the next five years. Until that day comes, we salute them for trying to be the best in a league where that’s currently impossible.
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It wasn’t too long ago when we were spouting off “Blake Griffin does nothing but dunk” and “The Clippers will never win anything with Griffin not able to hit a jumper in the playoffs”.
Times have changed, significantly. As recently as last year, Griffin was a 33 percent jump shoter and was shooting 34 percent from the integral 16-25-foot range, where stretch fours are at their most effective and impacting for the benefit of their team.
This year, Griffin has seen his jump shooting percentage go up to 36 percent and is at 39 percent from the 16-25-foot range, both career-highs. He’s also done it on a higher frequency of jumpers. He’s already taken 61 more jump shots than he did all of last season, leading one to believe that there’s a confidence there that wasn’t present before.
He’s even–sort-of–hitting three-pointers, shooting a career-high 28 percent on a career-high 40 attempts. The percentage of shots he’s taken has also caused a decline in the shots he’s taken in the 0-3 feet range (down from as much as 44 percent two years ago to 40 percent this year) and an increase in the shots he’s taken in the 16-25-foot range (from 23 percent last year to 26 percent this season).
If you’ve seen any of the Los Angeles Clippers games this season, you’ll notice an obvious change in demeanor from the Blake Griffin of the past. He’s not nearly as hesitant or tentative when it comes to taking jumpers. If a defender gives him room to shoot, there’s no longer the thought of “Oh, man, I might have to take this jumper here” that was etched across Griffin’s face every time he was out of his comfort zone.
Blake’s 2012-13 shot-chart:
LOOK AT ALL THE BLOOD.
There’s a far more serene setting with green and yellow regions in Blake’s latest shot chart. As a result of Griffin’s newfound confidence in his shot, the Clippers have added a much-needed dimension to their offense, leading one to believe that Blake Griffin isn’t going to disappear in previous postseasons. He averaged 13.2 points on 45 percent shooting in the playoffs last year, despite having averaged 18 points on 54 percent shooting in the regular season.
Defenses are quick to adjust in the playoffs, since you have up to seven games to figure out the scouting report of a player. As prolific as Griffin was in the regular season, it didn’t work out in the playoffs because defenses were able to break him down into a one-dimensional scorer who needed to be in the paint to thrive.
That may no longer be a problem for the Clippers, who will now have Griffin’s jumper, albeit an average one, in reserve to successfully run pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul.
And speaking of Chris Paul, it was his absence that has led to Blake being considered an MVP candidate. Since NBA.com/stats indicates that Paul is the entire Clippers offense, as he leads the league in points generated by assists at 25, we were led to believe the Clippers were going to simply collapse without CP3 leading the way.
Paul missed 19 games this season, taking with him his league-leading 10.9 assists and 2.2 steals per game. In the time he missed from January 3 to February 9, Griffin was still able to lead the Clippers to a respectable 12-6 record, with a few of those losses coming against some of the league’s best in San Antonio, Indiana and Miami.
Griffin thrived without Paul. Without the league’s best point guard, Griffin was still able to put together robust statlines of 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists against the Heat; 36 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against Denver; and 33 points, 12 rebounds and four assists against the Lakers. He never scored below 16 points in that month-long stretch without Paul, and that only came in a blowout win over Orlando where he played just 24 minutes and attempted 12 shots.
Blake is now in a stretch where he hasn’t scored less than 20 points in a game since a January 18 loss to the league’s best defense in Indiana. Not bad for a guy who does nothing but dunk, right?
As a part of an offense that is second-best in offensive efficiency, is second in points per game and third in assists per game, Griffin finds himself as a part of some of the most efficient two-man lineups. In 1,640 minutes alongside Chris Paul, the two are recording 111.9 points per 100 possessions, while only giving up 100 points per 100 possessions, a considerable difference from the 104.4 points per 100 possessions they were yielding last year.
Although Griffin’s defense could still use some improvement, it is not nearly as poor as it was in previous seasons. The Clippers rank sixth in defensive efficiency after ranking ninth last year.
What’s led to Griffin being an honest and legitimate MVP candidate is how much improvement he’s shown in that jumper of his, as well as his ability to take charge in a time where his team was in desperate need of it with Chris Paul not on the floor.
Just how much does Chris Paul mean to this team? The Clippers have a net-rating of plus-11.5 when he’s on the court, as opposed to a plus-3.5 when he’s off. Griffin, however, is nearly on the same plane, as the team’s net-rating drops from plus-9.9 to a mere plus-1.4.
Griffin being able to keep this Clippers team afloat with Chris Paul sitting on the bench is enough to warrant some MVP conversation. How well he’s improved and what it’s done to the Clippers championship chances, however, is what could truly earn him the distinction of being the runner-up behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant for MVP.
He’s the type of player you detest, if you’re a fan of his opponent, because of how hard he tries in seemingly meaningless regular season games. Watching from afar, however, that same fan will also give up a vast majority of their roster to have that adrenaline-fueled, no-holds-barred player on their team.
That’s Joakim Noah, a player that every single team wants to have. His endless energy has been a boon for the Bulls, and it’s the main reason why Chicago is still in the playoffs, despite not having Derrick Rose the whole season and trading Luol Deng halfway through it.
That left Joakim to work with the likes of D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich as the team’s main ballhandlers, and Carlos Boozer and Jimmy Butler as it’s best scorers. Teams with D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy aren’t meant to be three-seeds in the Eastern Conference, no matter how weak the conference is.
The sole reason why the Bulls are still relevant, and why they’re set for the future, is because of Joakim Noah. The 39-31 Bulls have a net rating of plus-3.1 when Noah’s on the court, as opposed to a minus-3 when he’s off. No player on Chicago has a lower net rating when they’re off the court than Joakim.
Noah is the team’s leader in offensive rating among rotation players, leading the way at 101.1 points per 100 possessions, and that number plummets to a paltry 94.2 points per possessions when he’s off. The defense hardly sees any difference, though, as it drops from 98.1 to 97.3. His 5.4 defensive win-shares he’s collected this season, however, is the most he’s put up in his seven-year career.
You know you’re going to get that type of defense out of everyone who plays for the Bulls, though. The league’s second-best defense, in terms of efficiency, will give a concerted effort each and every game. D.J. Augustin is the only rotation player on Chicago to be giving up over 100 points per 100 possessions on defense when he’s on the floor.
Joakim has always been the type to leave everything on the floor, but he’s taken that to another level this year, especially in the absence of two of Chicago’s most important players on the offensive end. Only recording 99.7 points per 100 possessions last year, Joakim has adopted a passing game that rivals the best point guards. He’s averaging an absurd, and a career-high, five assists per game, 5.2 per 36 minutes, and has an assist percentage of–I’m not making this up–25.4 percent.
For those who aren’t aware, assist percentage is defined by basketball-reference.com as “an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on while he’s on the floor”. His previous career-high in that category was 17.6 percent, which was set last year.
His ability to find his teammates on cuts, whether going through the lane or leading them on a backdoor cut, is unprecedented for a center and is on the same level as former centers who were passing legends, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Arvydas Sabonis.
Noah ranks 26th in assists per game. By comparison, he’s averaging more assists per game than the likes of Jose Calderon, Brandon Knight and Tyreke Evans. Noah is one of only two non-point guards in the top 30 in assists per game, with the other being LeBron James.
Josh McRoberts is the only other big man who comes close to matching Noah’s assist total, averaging 4.2 assists per game. McRoberts, however, isn’t averaging 11.2 rebounds and 12.4 points on 48 percent shooting like Noah is.
There’s only one player in the league averaging at least 12 points, 11 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. I’m sure you can guess who it is, since you just spent a few hundred words reading about how apt a passer they are. Kevin Love comes close, but he’s averaging only 4.2 assists and is not even half the defender Joakim is.
It’s crazy to think now that Joakim was the fifth big man taken in the 2007 Draft, and that’s not even including Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. Noah was selected behind the likes of Yi Jianlian and Brandan Wright. Safe to say the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats regretted those decisions?
Like Joakim Noah, Stephen Curry is one of those players whose team would be absolutely lost without his presence on the floor.
At 44-27, the Golden State Warriors are a six seed and are only two games away from besting their record last season. They, like about six other teams out West, have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs and possibly make a legitimate championship run, especially if Curry gets hot.
Although Curry still has plenty of room for improvement on the defensive end, yielding a PER of 14.9 to opposing point guards, the offensive impact he has for this Warriors team is like none you’ve ever seen before.
When Curry’s on the floor, the Warriors are garnering 109 points per 100 possessions. They’re getting his 41 percent three-point shooting, which is actually the lowest of his career, career-high 8.5 assists and career-high 23.5 points per game when he’s leading the offense with his unequivocal shot-making ability that also leads to plenty of facilitation opportunities.
Not enough has been made of Curry’s incredible jump in facilitation. He’s averaging two more assists per 36 minutes than he has in any other season and his 40 assist percentage, ranking sixth in the league, is a career-high by a substantial margin.
As you could expect, Curry’s usage rate has also jumped, up to 28.1 percent, a career-high after having a usage-rate of 26.4 percent last year. What this leads to is an unhealthy dependence that will have the Warriors heavily relying on their All-Star point guard more than ever before.
When he’s off the floor, the Warriors offenses collapses on itself like a neutron star. Golden State is generating 92.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor, leading to a net rating differential of 14.8 points. The Warriors are racking up 17 less points per 100 possessions without Curry on the floor than they are when he is. The only other Warriors player that has a large impact on the offensive end is Klay Thompson, who generates 108 when he’s on, while the team only obtains 95.4 when he’s off.
One thing we know is that Golden State doesn’t have as formidable a bench as they had last year, when Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry were providing more than what this year’s bench can in a combined effort. It’s going to be a Curry-or-bust playoff run. The Warriors will likely have the benefit of playing with a healthy Andrew Bogut this time around, but their offense will rely on Curry more than ever, even with Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup.
Curry’s impact on this team deserves MVP recognition, since it’s a reward that’s given out to those who have a significant role on their team, rather than the best player. Without Curry, the Warriors are as inept on offense as any other team in the league. Even the league’s worst offense, the Philadelphia 76ers, have been capable of generating 95.7 points per 100 possessions this season. The Warriors without Curry have been as inept on offense this year as the 76ers are on an average night. Thankfully for Golden State, Curry has yet to miss a game and is actually averaging fewer minutes per game than he was last season.
Who do you think will finish third in MVP voting?
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