Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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The case for Luka Doncic as Most Improved Player

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Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.

“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.

Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.

But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.

Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.

But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.

Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.

Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.

Again, it’s hard for second-year players.

But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.

Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.

But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.

It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.

Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.

Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):

Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.

I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.

But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.

Duke’s Cassius Stanley declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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Two Duke players, point guard Tre Jones and big man Vernon Carey Jr., are expected to be in the 2020 NBA Draft and be taken in the late first-round or early second. We talked about them on the recent PBT Podcast breaking down some of this draft class.

Now a third Duke player, wing Cassius Stanley, has thrown his name in the mix.

“It was an absolute joy to coach Cassius this season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “I want to congratulate him and his great family on this decision. I’ve seen Cassius grow both as a player and person here at Duke, and I can’t wait to see how his career develops at the next level. Any NBA team will be very fortunate to get such a mature young man who is not only an incredibly-gifted athlete but a leader that wants nothing but the best for himself and his teammates.”

Stanley is projected as a second-round pick, but his incredible athleticism could get a team to use a late first-round pick on him.

Stanley is a 6’6″ wing and it’s his elite athleticism that will get him drafted as a potential 3&D wing. He averaged 12.6 points per game and shot 36 percent from three as a freshman (but on only three attempts a night). His athleticism gives him potential as a defender. The challenge is he relies on that athleticism, something that alone will not set him apart at the NBA level, he is not a shot creator for himself or others, and he struggles to shoot off the dribble. He can finish in transition, but at the next level nearly everyone can do that.

Stanley is a development project, but his athleticism makes him a good gamble for a team with a strong development program.

Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas reported early leader for Bulls’ top job

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What do the Bulls want in a new top executive? Near the top of the list: someone who can build an organization that drafts well and develops that talent. That’s why executives from Miami, Utah, and Toronto were high on the wish list.

Enter Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, who has done exactly those things in Denver. Karnisovas is the early frontrunner, reports Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports.

Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that Denver Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas is the leader in the clubhouse…

Sources said [team president Michael Reinsdorf] wants someone who has a presence publicly, especially given the reticent nature of Paxson and Forman the last several years. The Bulls have embraced analytics the last few seasons but having someone who can discern how to apply the numbers against other basketball factors is important to Reinsdorf…

“He wants someone who’ll surround himself with smart people, a great talent evaluator. There’s a need to get better in the player development department, too,” a source told Yahoo Sports.

Karnisovas has worked mostly in the background in Denver, with Tim Connelly being the face of the basketball operations. That would be a big change for Karnisovas, but one he may be ready for.

John Paxson is helping Reinsdorf with the search, but Paxson reportedly will take on whatever role is asked — or step aside completely — to make things smooth for whoever takes over the organization.

While NBA taking big financial hit, rumor is salary cap will not see huge drop

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No NBA games are being played, no fans paying for tickets or buying arena beers, no revenue is coming in. The NBA playoffs will not start on time. If games are ramped up at any point in the next couple of months, it will not be in front of fans, just television only.

Which is to say, the NBA is taking a big financial hit right now. How much is impossible to say, but a billion is not out of the question.

The NBA is set up for the players and owners to split revenue, basically 50-50 (it’s more complicated than that, but it stays close to that range). If Basketball Related Income (BRI) drops around the league, then the salary cap drops and players get less money.

The league’s income is going to suffer, but the salary cap may not that much the NBA players union told agents in a call today, according to Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

What this implies is salary cap smoothing — the league would keep the cap artificially high in the short term, but when revenue spikes back up in the following years that rise will be artificially slowed a little to even things out. The idea is to smooth out the cap number rather than have wild fluctuations.

This is likely part of the negotiations going on between the league and players union over the force majeure clause of the CBA, which allows owners to reduce salaries if games are canceled. If the players give up salary now they don’t want to see future income fall too because the cap cratered for a season or two.

Most likely, the owners and players can work out a cap-smoothing compromise that works for both sides (something they could not do when the new NBA TV deal kicked in and the cap spiked back in 2016). The league’s cap projections were already reduced some by the loss of revenue from China following the Daryl Morey Tweet controversy, the missed games obviously will reduce it further.

How much further appears to be under negotiation.

Bulls’ John Paxson reportedly willing to play small role, or even step aside, for new front office

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It all seems a little too coincidental.

Early reports about a shakeup in the Bulls’ front office had John Paxson, the current vice president of basketball operations, retaining at least some power. There also was a push to help current coach Jim Boylen keep his job.

Then the Raptors’ Bobby Webster, Pacers’ Chad Buchanan, and Heat’s Adam Simon all dropped out of the running for the Bulls job.

Suddenly, there has been a series of reports that Paxson was willing to give up his power and is ready to play whatever role the new GM wants. There was this from K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

But the perception that Paxson will be some hovering presence, going kicking and screaming into the night, is simply wrong. Early this season, Paxson communicated his vision to ownership for a new-look, more modern front office. He initiated some of this need for change.

Michael Reinsdorf likely would have arrived at the same conclusion anyway and has taken the reins on addressing the issue. Well before news broke over All-Star weekend, he began performing due diligence and background on a wide variety of candidates.

Joe Cowley at the Chicago Sun-Times took it a step further.

A source told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that not only is Paxson all for stepping aside from his position and acting more as an adviser to the Reinsdorf family when the front-office restructure is finalized, but would completely step down from the organization if the Reinsdorfs and the new-look executive group deemed it better for the rebuild to continue.

Was the “perception that Paxson will be some hovering presence” just among fans, or did it exist among potential candidates, too? Each of the three candidates that dropped out have positons of some power in quality organizations, each is only going to leave for just the right offer, one with total control of the organization.

It all seems a little too coincidental that they all dropped out and then came the rash of reports about Paxson not wanting to retain power. Whether it was true or not Paxson was always willing to step aside, perception matters.

Chicago did interview Utah’s Justin Zanik, another experienced executive from a stable organization who could be a good fit with the Bulls. The Jazz have set up the kind of strong draft-and-development program (Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, etc.) that the Bulls should try to emulate. The Bulls are also expected to interview Nuggets’ general manager Arturas Karnisovas and Magic assistant general manager Matt Lloyd.

With no games going on, there is no rush to make a hire by the Bulls, they have plenty of time for due diligence (as do the candidates). Chicago will want its new head man and his front office staff in place before what is likely a compacted draft and free-agency period, whenever that comes.