NBA quarter pole awards: Yes, LeBron is the MVP

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We are a quarter of the way into the NBA season, which is far too early to start talking about end of the season awards, playoffs or much of anything else.

I’m going to anyway.

Here are the awards in a few categories as we reach the quarter pole. We’ve got a long back stretch not to mention the final straightaway to go, but right now we’re starting to get a feel for the races (and some other random categories thrown in).

League MVP: LeBron James. A bunch of LeBron haters just read that then used my name in conjuction with some anatomically impossible acts, but it’s the truth — LeBron has been far and away the best player in the league so far. His PER is more than 8-points higher than the guy in second (Kobe Bryant, technically Manu Ginobili is closer but he has been out). Michael Jordan never had a PER this high for an entire season. He is averaging 29.7 points (on 56.4 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists plus a couple of blocks per game. He is getting to the free throw line more, his post game is better, his shot selection is better, his midrange jumper is improved… and he was already the best player in the league. Kobe and Kevin Durant can battle it out for a distant second with a lot of ground to close.

Best team in the league: The Miami Heat. Yes, the Chicago Bulls have played better team defense and have a better record, plus with the addition of Richard Hamilton their offense is vastly improved. Miami has had injuries (Dwyane Wade is still out) but their new up-tempo offense, the addition of Norris Cole and Shane Battier, plus getting Mike Miller healthy means they are still the team to beat. Miami made the finals last year and are better this year. The Bulls and Thunder can make a serious run at them, but watching the Heat get some easy buckets with their new offense makes me think they are still the team holding up the trophy at the end of the year.

Who are the dark horse contenders: Denver in the West, Orlando in the East: Denver is playing fantastic team basketball — fast and good on offense, with impressive ball sharing and balance. If they bring back some of Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith after the Chinese season ends, they get that much better.

Orlando (despite the off night in Boston) has the best center in the game and has surrounded him with shooters. They run the pick-and-roll well and Ryan Anderson is a perfect fit in the offense (he is four, the guy you want to help off of to Dwight Howard, but he makes you pay for that with his threes). They play good defense and know who they are. If they keep Howard and can survive the rumor mill, they are the team that could threaten the big two in the East in the playoffs (but most likely they are out in the second round, then will Howard stay?).

Most fun team to watch: Minnesota Timberwolves. The Clippers are the obvious choice here — and with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, D’Andre Jordan and the rest they certainly are a good choice. But I find myself gravitating toward Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and the Timberwolves. They are a team getting better every game and that makes them fun to watch.

Most disappointing team: New York Knicks. I thought going into the season they were the third best team in the East, but not only are they losing they look ugly doing it. Carmelo Anthony is not a point forward and Mike D’Antoni has ill-fitting pieces for his system. They need Baron Davis, and I don’t love Baron Davis as a savior. And somebody start using Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler better in the pick-and-roll, they are beasts. Honorable mention to the Celtics and Lakers.

Rookie of the Year: Ricky Rubio. This is shaping up as a two point guard battle, with Kyrie Irving as the other guy. And certainly Rubio has more talent around him to work with, but he comes in a much more polished floor general and a guy who can command a game. Plus his shot is better than we expected at 37.1 percent from three (the mechanics are still a little odd and shot-put like, but fixable).

Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden. It’s not close. There are the Williamses — Lou in Philly and Mo with the Clippers — who are playing well, but the only way Harden loses this is if Scott Brooks sobers up and moves Harden to the starting lineup.

Coach of the Year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia. This is one where there are few good candidates — Nate McMillan in Portland, Frank Vogel in Indiana, George Karl in Denver — and it is really open. But I’ll go with Collins, who has given Philadelphia a system that has made them the story of the young season.

Thing we’ve not liked this season: Sloppy basketball. The lack of training camp, the condensed schedules leaving less practice time, conditioning, it has all led to much sloppier basketball then we saw in years past. It feels like preseason games far too many nights. It’s not pretty to watch. The blame goes on everyone — owners and players — because they wanted as much money as they could after the lockout and gave us this ugly schedule with ugly, sloppy games. It’s hard to watch at points.

Tim Connelly eager to finish what he started with Nuggets

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DENVER (AP) The prospects of a return home to Washington were undeniably appealing to Tim Connelly.

Not nearly as alluring as this: Finishing what he’s started.

The Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations elected to stay in town even with the Wizards calling. Things are booming these days with a Nuggets team that boasts a young nucleus led by big man Nikola Jokic and that won 54 games in the regular season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West before losing to Portland in Game 7 at home during the second round of the playoffs.

There was just too much work left to be done in Denver to consider taking Washington’s front office job even if it would’ve been with the organization where Connelly got his start and in the area where he and his wife are from.

“It’s safe to assume, and maybe it’s me being overly optimistic, that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that means more wins. I don’t know if we’re going to win a playoff series and advance, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any regression next season.”

A Baltimore native, Connelly appreciated the audience with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He said he was flattered by their recent “exchange of ideas” as the Wizards look to fill the role of team president after Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April.

“The relationships that have been built up here and the hard times we’ve been through – it was very hard to envision leaving something that has been so hard and so long coming in its build,” said Connelly, who broke into the NBA with the Wizards as an intern in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant video coordinator and as a scout.

Connelly was hired as Denver’s general manager in July 2013 and it took a while for the team to take off. Team President Josh Kroenke stayed patient with him. Connelly brought in coach Michael Malone before the 2015-16 season and they’ve steadily progressed since – from 33 wins in Malone’s first year to 40 wins in ’16-17 to 46 in ’17-18 and finally to 54 this season, including a league-leading 34-7 home mark.

“We did not get off to a good start by any stretch, and (Kroenke) doubled down on what easily could have been perceived as an initial mistake because he liked the processes and liked how we attacked our job day to day,” said Connelly, who was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2017. “Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me.”

Connelly and his staff have struck it rich in the draft, taking Jokic with the 41st pick of the second round in 2014. They’ve also selected Jamal Murray, along with up-and-comers Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr., who sat out this season as he recovered from back surgery.

The biggest offseason decision remains this: What to do with veteran leader Paul Millsap. The team holds a $30 million option, which could be restructured.

“I fully expect Paul to be back in a Nuggets uniform,” Connelly said.

On the free agency front, Denver hasn’t exactly been an attractive landing spot in recent summers. But Connelly sees that starting to change and believes the unselfish play of Jokic could be an enticing selling point. Denver could be in the market for another shooter and a power forward in order to take the next step.

“It will be fascinating to make those calls” in free agency, Connelly said. “If they say it’s about winning and the answer is about winning and they don’t talk to us, then I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”

The Nuggets definitely turned some heads throughout the regular season as they challenged Golden State down to the wire for the best mark in the West. They beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling to the Trail Blazers.

“We sent a pretty loud message,” Malone said. “I think there were questions about our team all year long, for whatever reason: How legitimate are they? Are they really a No. 2 seed? Can they take their game into the playoffs with so many young guys that’ve never been there before?

“We answered so many questions about our team in the best way possible.”

NOTES: Malone said Jokic’s race horse, Dream Catcher, recently won a race in Serbia. “He made sure I knew about it, because the last race he won I was at,” Malone said. “I thought I was a good-luck charm but obviously I’m not.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took Game 4 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, 120-102.

Things started off okay for Milwaukee but started to peter off as the hometown Toronto crowd got behind their Raptors. The bench continued to show up for Leonard’s squad, and it was Kyle Lowry dueling it out with Antetokounmpo in the first quarter.

Leonard scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four steals, and perhaps his most impressive play of the night came early in the third quarter. Running a little two-man game with Marc Gasol, Leonard cut to the basket and wound up dunking all over the Milwaukee star.

Via Twitter:

Leonard appeared to hobble a little bit after his dunk, but he should be ready to go for Game 5 on a Thursday night. Meanwhile, the series heads back to Wisconsin all tied up at 2-2.

The victor of this series will get to take on the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala says Stephen Curry is the second-best PG ever

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The Golden State Warriors are moving on to the NBA Finals yet again, thanks in large part to the efforts of Stephen Curry. Golden State’s point guard is now heading to his fifth-straight finals, and without Kevin Durant he was a big reason why the Warriors were able to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in just four games.

Of course there is a real worry that Durant won’t be able to play in the NBA Finals, either partially or fully, thanks to a calf injury. If that’s the case, and the Warriors can take home another championship trophy, it could mean great things for Curry’s legacy.

Curry is currently chasing Magic Johnson as the best point guard ever in the eyes of many folks. What might help solidify Curry’s place in history would be an NBA Finals MVP, which he would likely wind up with if Durant is unable to impact the Finals the way he has.

At least for Andre Iguodala, Curry is already the second best point guard of all-time.

Via The Athletic:

“I think he’s the second best ever,” Iguodala said. “I always thought that about him. I knew but other people didn’t know. So I wasn’t surprised when he took over that series. But I always gave Tony Allen credit. Playing against him made you understand the grind of how hard it is to win. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have to find another way. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He just embraced that. Just ingrained that into his system and it’s been there ever since.”

The real question is what Curry’s legacy will be after these Finals, particularly if they win without Durant. Some people aren’t keen to compare eras, and might never move off of Johnson for that spot. It seems reasonable to say that Curry is already the best shooter of all-time, but June could elevate him even further.

Raptors’ halfcourt defense, big games from Gasol, Lowry evens series with Bucks

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Slow your roll on “these Bucks can challenge Warriors” takes…

They are going to have to get out of the East, first. And that is proving to be more difficult than it looked after two games.

Back home in Toronto, the Raptors slowed the game’s pace down and used an impressive halfcourt defense — the Bucks scored less than a point per possession when transition was taken away — to control this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 30 points, but outside those two the Bucks shot 35.4 percent and had just 13 fast break points. It all kept the Bucks offense relatively in check.

Relatively is good enough when everyone is hitting their shots.

Kawhi Leonard had a quiet 19 points, although he did have the dunk of the playoffs all over Antetokounmpo.

Leonard didn’t have to carry the team because everyone in white seemed to be knocking down their shots. Kyle Lowry had 25 points on 11 shots, Marc Gasol had 17 (and his aggressive offense the last two games has stressed the Bucks defense), Norman Powell had 18, Serge Ibaka 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 13 points on six shots. The Raptors bench scored 48 points. Leonard (or Lowry) would draw attention on drives, but when the ball was kicked out and swung around, the open man didn’t hesitate and rarely missed.

All that led to a 120-102 Raptors win where Toronto was in control most of the way.

The series is now tied 2-2 and heads back to Milwaukee where the best-of-three left starts.

The Raptors continue to defend well in the halfcourt, with the Bucks scoring less than a point per possession (0.93) this game. In three of the four games, the Bucks have scored less than a point per possession in the halfcourt, but that only really matters if they can keep Milwaukee out of transition. The Raptors did that at home in a game with just 96 possessions, the fewest in this series (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Individually, Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer have leaned on Nikola Mirotic more in recent games, and the Raptors are now attacking him when they have the ball.

Combine that with an aggressive Gasol — he has started taking the shots from three that he hesitated on in the first two games — and his 3-of-6 from deep has become a big problem for Toronto.

Toronto had this in hand much of the second half, so much so that Drake was helping Nick Nurse relax on the sidelines.

The Bucks will need their other players — Eric Bledsoe, who had 5 points on 7 shots, and Brook Lopez, who had 8 points — to step up in the final games if they are going to advance.

The Raptors have found a formula that works, it’s on the Bucks now to adjust.