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.

Report: Philadelphia ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as next coach

Mike D'Antoni 76ers
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Philadelphia 76ers ownership (led by Josh Harris) reportedly has been very hands-on in picking the team’s new coach — even if that means a new direction for the roster. That hands-on style reportedly why ownership likes Elton Brand as GM and may balk at bringing in a big-name president of basketball operations — that person would want total control of basketball decisions. Right now, ownership is pulling a lot of those levers.

And ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach in Philadelphia, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have been saying since last week that the job is D’Antoni’s to turn down. They say he’s the guy the ownership group wants. One source even said the 69-year-old would have to bomb his interview with the Sixers owners not to be offered the job.

The problem is that Brand is supposed to have a huge input on the hire. The ownership is only supposed to approve or deny Brand’s suggestion. Now, word is leaking out that Brand is pushing hard for the Sixers to hire D’Antoni and that Joel Embiid gave his blessing. In addition, there are reports that the Sixers will make trades if D’Antoni is hired. The expectation is that he’ll have a say in picking players for his freewheeling style of play.

With Billy Donovan taking over in Chicago, the list of top candidates for the Philadelphia job seems down to two: Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni. Lue would be the conventional choice, a guy who would try to make it work with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together, along with Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. Roster tweaks would be coming, but with Lue the idea would be making better use of the roster and style the 76ers have already built.

D’Antoni would be a radical change of direction — he is coming from a team that just started 6’7″ Robert Covington at center. The current 76ers roster would need changes to fit with D’Antoni’s freewheeling ways, and even then the coach would need to adapt what he wants to do. (No contract is untradeable, but moving the four-years, $147.2 million left on Harris’ deal, or the three years and $81 million on Horford’s contract, would require Philly to throw in a lot of sweeteners.)

D’Antoni would mean another change of direction in Philly, but that seems to be what ownership wants.

Bam Adebayo on injury: “I’m good,” expects to play in Game 5 Friday

Bam Adebayo injury
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In the final minutes of Miami’s Game 4 win, while Tyler Hero was knocking down shots and Jimmy Butler was getting to the line, Miami‘s Bam Adebayo was dealing with an injury, walking around holding his wrist, his arm dragging. He had gotten tangled up with Daniel Theis under the basket and clearly injured something.

The questions raised post game were about what happened, how serious it was, and could Adebayo be out for Game 5 on Friday? There was nothing official from the team but it looks like he will play, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press and Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel.

Adebayo had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4, and his play is critical to Miami’s game plan against Boston. His ability to protect the rim at one end, then come out high to set screens and pull Theis out of the paint on the other end, is at the heart of what the Heat want to do in this series. If he is even slowed in Game 5 it is an advantage for Boston.

This time of year, and with the Heat one game away from the NBA Finals, no chance he sits if he can at all play.

LeBron James: Neighbor’s walls, not Breonna Taylor, got justice

Lakers star LeBron James
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Louisville police officers were not charged with killing Breonna Taylor. However, former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing firing recklessly into nearby apartments during the incident.

That outcome left NBA players unsatisfied.

LeBron James:

The emotions LeBron – and many others – are feeling are completely understandable. This was a tragedy. Faced with an obvious injustice, it’s easy to demand the harshest-imaginable punishment. That didn’t come.

But it is not too late to address the injustices – which were always far larger than the officers at the scene returning fire – at play in Taylor’s death.

Tyler Herro carries Heat over Celtics in Game 4, within one game of NBA Finals

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If the Boston Celtics targeted Tyler Herro in the 2019 NBA Draft, they have more reason than ever to lament their near miss.

Herro scored 37 points to lead the Miami Heat to a 112-109 win over the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. The 21-year-old rookie put Miami up 3-1 and himself in the record book.

The only other player so young to score so much in a playoff game? Magic Johnson, who had 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals at age 20.

The Heat will look to reach the NBA Finals in Game 5 Friday. Teams leading a best-of-seven series 3-1 have won 95% of the time.

Miami’s big concern: Bam Adebayo, who hurt his wrist late in the game. Adebayo (20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals) played through the injury but appeared to be feeling it.

He and the Heat just kept grinding through everything, though.

Miami won despite shooting only 10-for-37 on 3-pointers (27%). Forget about make-or-miss league. The Heat willed themselves to victory with aggravating defense, hustle, rebounding… and, yes, big-time shot-making by Herro, who made 9-of-11 2-pointers and 5-of-10 3-pointers

The Celtics committed 19 turnovers – some forced by Miami, some self-inflicted. The Heat’s zone defense continues to make Boston uncomfortable, though Marcus Smart (10 points and 11 assists) found some success penetrating and kicking against it. Jaylen Brown (21 points and nine rebounds) knocked down some of those created looks.

After a scoreless first half, Jayson Tatum scored 28 points in the second half. Stephen Curry scored 33 second-half points after a scoreless first half in Game 6 against the Rockets last year. That’s the only time someone followed a scoreless first half with so many second-half points in the Basketball-Reference postseason database, which dates back to 1997.

But those successes weren’t sustained. Tatum (six), Smart (four) and Brown (four) all had too many turnovers.

This series is even by points scored. But Boston has been just a little too erratic, which is why Miami has the key 3-1 lead.