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Numbers notebook: Early returns on late-season additions



It’s been five weeks since a busy trade deadline shook up the top of the Eastern Conference, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors all making deals in an effort to push themselves to the top of the East.

The postseason will ultimately decide the winners and losers from the deadline. It’s still early with most of these new faces in new places, and a couple of good or bad games could skew the numbers of a player that’s only played a dozen games with a team.

But there’s something to learn from every game on the schedule. And the playoffs are now less than a month away.

With no major conclusions to draw just yet, here are some early returns on some late-season additions to teams (in both the East and West) that will be competing in the postseason (and one that will likely come up short in its quest to end the league’s longest current playoff drought).

Let’s take a closer look: East trades | West trades

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Mirotic not shy in Milwaukee

Nikola Mirotic is averaging 10.2 3-pointer attempts per 36 minutes with the Bucks.

Since joining the team that averages the second most 3-point attempts per game, Nikola Mirotic has attempted the most 3-pointers per 36 minutes (10.2). Though he hasn’t been super hot (his effective field goal percentage of 54.2 percent with the Bucks is a little above the league average), the Bucks have scored an efficient 115.3 points per 100 possessions in Mirotic’s 243 minutes on the floor.

But interestingly, Mirotic has played just 88 minutes alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. The new Buck is seemingly a great complement to the Kia MVP candidate, but the two have played less than nine minutes per game together, with Mirotic more often playing alongside Khris Middleton. And really, everybody else in the rotation is a great complement to Antetokounmpo.

Pau Gasol is, seemingly, not in the rotation. He left San Antonio because he was the Spurs’ third-string center, but it’s not clear he’ll have a bigger role in Milwaukee. He’s been DNP’d in two of the last three games, and in San Antonio on Sunday, he was a minus-20 in less than 15 minutes of a game that the Bucks lost by seven.


Raptors still awaiting best from Gasol, Lin

Toronto’s starting lineup has been particularly strong when Marc Gasol is a part of it.

The Toronto bench hasn’t been nearly as good as it was a year ago, and the two late-season additions haven’t helped it much. Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have shot a combined 8-for-42 (19 percent) from 3-point range with their new team, and in their 100 minutes on the floor together, the Raptors have been outscored by 13 points per 100 possessions.

The Raptors miss Fred VanVleet, who has been out five weeks with a wrist injury. Last season’s third place finisher in Kia Sixth Man of the Year voting has the best on-court numbers among Toronto’s regular reserves, but has played just one game with Gasol and has yet to play alongside Lin.

Gasol has started five games with Toronto, and the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions in his 62 total minutes with him on the floor alongside their other four starters. With Serge Ibaka suspended for the next three games, that lineup will get some more burn (though Kawhi Leonard will surely sit out at least one of the three).

As expected, Gasol has given the Raptors’ ball movement a boost. They’ve assisted on 65 percent of their buckets over Gasol’s 12 games. That’s the fifth-highest rate in the league over that stretch and up from 58 percent (22nd) prior to his addition. They’ve assisted on more than 72 percent of their buckets with Gasol and Kyle Lowry on the floor together.


Harris shining bright with Sixers


Tobias Harris dominated for Philadelphia in a big road win vs. OKC.

In his eighth season in the league, Tobias Harris is registering career highs in both effective field goal percentage (56.6 percent) and true shooting percentage (60.7 percent). And both of those numbers have been higher in his 14 games with the Sixers than they were in his 55 games with the Clippers. Harris has been the Sixers’ second-leading scorer (19.9 points per game) since arriving via a Feb. 6 trade.

Because Joel Embiid missed the first eight games after the All-Star break, the Sixers’ new starting lineup has played just 83 minutes in five games together. The numbers in those minutes (plus-24.0 points per 100 possessions) have been ridiculously good, but they include 20 minutes in New York in which the Sixers outscored the Knicks by 23 points.

Even when the five starters are healthy, Harris will play more minutes in other lineups than he does with that starting group, because Brett Brown staggers his starters more than any other coach, keeping two on the floor at all time. Harris has played most with Ben Simmons, and the Sixers have been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in 301 minutes with Harris and Simmons on the floor without Embiid.

The Sixers have upgraded the talent around him, but Embiid remains the difference maker in Philly.


Matthews fills in nicely for Pacers

Wesley Matthews has helped keep the Pacers afloat in the chase for home court.

Of all the late-season additions listed here, Matthews seemed to fill the biggest hole in a team’s rotation. After Victor Oladipo was lost for the season, the Pacers started either the Cory Joseph (who’s 6-foot-3) or Tyreke Evans (who’s had a disappointing season) at shooting guard.

Matthews made six 3-pointers and scored 24 points in his third game with Indiana. Having made 38 percent of his team-leading 77 shots from beyond the arc, he’s helped the Pacers remain in the top five in 3-point percentage.

But the Pacers’ new starting lineup (plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes) hasn’t been as good as any of the other versions (with Oladipo, Evans or Joseph at the two), even though it has played six of its 10 games against teams with losing records. And the schedule is about to get much tougher, with the Pacers set to play 12 of their next 13 games against teams with winning records.

The Matthews addition has put Joseph and Evans back in their bench roles, and the Pacers have outscored their opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions in 566 minutes with the two reserve guards on the floor with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Domantas Sabonis.

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The Western Conference wasn’t as busy as the East at the deadline, but in the last two months, two former All-Stars made their debuts with the two teams atop the standings.

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Cousins’ impact a mixed bag so far


DeMarcus Cousins has added a new wrinkle to how the Warriors do things.

In the eight weeks since he made his season debut, the Warriors have been better with DeMarcus Cousins off the floor (plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him on the floor (plus-0.3). The bigger difference in those numbers has been on offense, though the issue with the Warriors’ new starting lineup has been on the other side of the ball.

In its 179 minutes together, the Warriors’ five-star lineup has scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions and allowed 111.1, making it the worst defensive lineup of their six that have played at least 75 minutes together. Cousins has had issues defending in space and that lineup has allowed opponents to make 11.1 3-pointers per 36 minutes, most among the 55 league-wide lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together (the league average is 8.4 threes per 36).

In 115 minutes with the other four starters on the court without Cousins over the last eight weeks, the Warriors have been better defensively and much better offensively, outscoring their opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions. Andre Iguodala has been the fifth guy on the floor for most of those minutes and has been on the floor for almost twice as many “clutch” minutes as Cousins over the last eight weeks. Down the stretch of close games, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been more likely to turn to his small-ball lineup, which has outscored its opponents by 22.7 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark among those 55 lineups that have played at least 150 minutes.

But Cousins had his best game as a Warrior on Wednesday, registering 27 points (on 11-for-16 shooting), eight rebounds and seven assists as the champs held off the Rockets in Houston. He was a plus-7 in a two-point victory.

Kevin Durant didn’t play on Wednesday, and it may be that Cousins is most valuable in minutes when the Warriors don’t have all three of their leading scorers — Stephen Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson — on the floor, though he hasn’t disrupted the offense when he’s been out there with all three. In fact, the Warriors’ starting lineup has assisted on 79.5 percent of its field goals, by far the highest rate among lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together.

As he showed on Wednesday, Cousins has the ability to be a difference-maker on any given night. And the great thing for the Warriors is that they have other options when they need them.


Thomas falls out of rotation

Isaiah Thomas has not experienced a career revival in Denver.

The Nuggets signed Isaiah Thomas last summer knowing that he’d miss most of the season as he recovered from hip surgery. What they didn’t necessarily know was that, before Thomas could make his season debut on Feb. 13, Malik Beasley (who wasn’t able to stick in the rotation in his first two seasons) and Monte Morris (who played 25 minutes as a rookie) would establish themselves as reliable reserve guards worthy of playing time ahead of the guy who finished fifth in Kia MVP voting in 2016-17.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave Thomas a nine-game audition off the Nuggets’ bench (playing five guards in their first eight post-All-Star break games), and the results weren’t great. Thomas shot 37 percent and the Nuggets scored just an anemic 96.2 points per 100 possessions in his 140 minutes on the floor. He had a higher free throw rate (25 attempts per 100 shots from the field) than any of the other Denver guards, but that’s probably not enough to make up for his sub-par shooting and defense.

Thomas didn’t play against Minnesota on Tuesday and Malone said that he’d play a shorter rotation “for the time being.” Assuming the Nuggets stay healthy, Thomas will likely go into another offseason having yet to reestablish himself as an impact player.


Morris aiding OKC’s defense

Markieff Morris has not had been called on to deliver big offensive showings.

When Jerami Grant missed the Thunder’s last two games before the All-Star break, Patrick Patterson started in Grant’s place and shot 2-for-13 (including 0-for-8 from 3-point range) over the two games. Even if the Thunder were healthy, there was a clear need for Markieff Morris to replace Patterson (who’s had a mostly disappointing two seasons in Oklahoma City) in the Thunder rotation.

Morris has shot just 39 percent with the Thunder, who have scored just 103.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But the defensive numbers have been good enough that the offense hasn’t hurt them too badly. And the emergence of Grant as a much more productive offensive player than he was last season lessens the need for Morris’ offense. Grant has shot 38 percent on 212 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season, up from 29 percent on just 102 attempts last season.

The issue is that Morris’ neck was hurting enough that he missed the Thunder’s win over Brooklyn on Wednesday.


Hood, Kanter help … somewhat


Rodney Hood saved the day for Portland in a March 3 game vs. Charlotte.

As noted last week, the Blazers have been playing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum more minutes together and (typically) starting the second and fourth quarters with both on the bench. That has put additional stress on the Portland reserves, which, for the most part, haven’t performed well in those minutes with both starting guards off the floor. In 462 minutes with Evan Turner on the floor without either Lillard or McCollum, the Blazers have been outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions.

So the Blazers (seemingly) addressed a need by trading for Rodney Hood at the deadline and adding Enes Kanter (via the buyout market) at the All-Star break. In his first two games with the Blazers, Kanter totaled 34 points and 17 rebounds in just 41 minutes. Later in the Blazers’ seven-game road trip, Hood scored 27 points (all in the second half) off the bench in a 10-point win in Charlotte.

But in 132 minutes with both Hood and Kanter on the floor so far, the Blazers have been outscored by 14.9 points per 100 possessions, with dreadful numbers (92.4 points scored per 100) on offense. In their overtime loss to the Thunder last week, the Blazers were outscored by 14 points (and shot just 9-for-30 from the field) in a little more than 18 minutes with both Hood and Kanter on the floor. Kanter has registered a negative plus-minus in eight of his nine games with the Blazers, with a game against the Phoenix Suns being the lone exception.


Clippers’ better in post-Harris state

Youngsters Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac have had a seamless transition to L.A.

Prior to trading Tobias Harris, despite strong seasons from both Harris and Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers never had a starting lineup that worked. They were outscored by 6.0 points per 100 possessions in 674 total minutes with any five of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Harris, Gallinari and Marcin Gortat — the six Clippers that have started the most games — on the floor.

But after Landry Shamet shot 7-for-12 from 3-point range in his first two games off the Clippers’ bench, coach Doc Rivers settled on a new starting lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Beverley, Shamet, Gallinari and Ivica Zubac. And that lineup has outscored its opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions in its 142 minutes together.

The Clippers have also outscored their opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions in 138 minutes with their four main reserves — Lou Williams, Garrett Temple, JaMychal and Montrezl Harrell — on the floor together. After the Harris deal, the Clippers acquired two rotation players (Temple and Green) for one (Bradley). They traded two starters and waived a third (Gortat), but improved their depth and discovered a functioning starting lineup to boot.

Prior to losing to Portland on Tuesday (with Gallinari getting the night off), the Clippers had won five straight games. It was, statistically, their best five-game stretch (plus-13.0 per 100 possessions) of the season and it briefly pushed them into sixth place in the West.

The Clippers have big plans for the summer, but they’re also set to give the Staples Center some playoff games next month. All because they’ve played better after trading Harris than they did before.


Barnes off to slow start with Kings


Harrison Barnes made his debut with the Kings in a Feb. 8 win vs. Miami.

The Clippers’ surge (along with one of their wins on that five-game winning streak) has been at the expense of the Sacramento Kings, who are 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot entering a tough, Thursday-Friday back-to-back in Boston and Philadelphia.

Even if they don’t end their 12-year playoff drought, the Kings have had a transformational season. They’ve found an identity and have a talented young core to develop. But their attempt to accelerate their timeline, trading Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph for Harrison Barnes, hasn’t made much of an impact.

Over the 12 games that he’s played with the Kings, Barnes ranks seventh on the team in usage rate and has a true shooting percentage (54.2 percent) below the league average (55.9 percent). The Kings’ new starting lineup has been worse than their previous two starting lineups (with either Iman Shumpert or Bogdan Bogdanovic at small forward), getting outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions in its 148 minutes.

The Kings won their first two games with Barnes, but have since lost seven of 10, with the league’s 27th-ranked offense over that stretch. Five of those last 10 games have come against the league’s top 10 teams (including three of them against the top four), but the Kings have scored less than a point per possession with Barnes on the floor in his other seven games with the team.

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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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Suns sign Fredette for rest of season



PHOENIX (AP) — Jimmer Fredette is back in the NBA.

The Phoenix Suns signed Fredette for the rest of the season Friday with a team option for 2019-20.

The 30-year-old Fredette won every national college player of the year award his senior season at BYU in 2011 after leading the country in scoring at 28.9 points per game. He was traded to Sacramento after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by Milwaukee.

Fredette never had the same success in the NBA as he did in college, averaging 6.0 points over five seasons with four teams. He spent the last three seasons playing for Shanghai of the Chinese Basketball Association, leading the league in scoring last season with 36.9 points per game.

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Lakers must win offseason to avoid this season’s embarrassment turning uglier



They’ll finish the season with a losing record and without a playoff spot as their legendary superstar deals with failure and their fan base does a collective head scratch over what went wrong and what size hammer just hit them.

But all that has happened to the Lakers in 2018-19 doesn’t qualify as devastation.

No, devastation will be if they have a dreadful summer.

Lost in the turmoil of getting swept by the Knicks, LeBron James’ groin pull, Lonzo Ball’s ankle sprain, Brandon Ingram’s blood clot and fallout from the proposed Anthony Davis trade is the forgotten reality that the Lakers were never built to do anything special this season. Challenging for a championship or even reaching the conference finals was never the goal or purpose. This team wasn’t built that way. This was never a “win-now” project, as much as the noise perhaps led you to believe.

This was always a “win-in-July-2019” project.



LeBron gives his thoughts on the disappointing Lakers season.

This season was an embarrassment, nothing less and certainly nothing more. Missing out on the playoffs was unexpected, but not damaging in the big picture. All it did was give talk shows some meaty material, mainly because LeBron was involved and for the first time since 2006 the game’s best player won’t be in prime time this spring or summer. That’s all.

But if the Lakers lose big this summer, it could have far-reaching implications for LeBron, the franchise — and all of it would be bad. There would be justifiable second-guessing, blown opportunities, broken promises, a front office under fire, maybe a strong reaction from owner Jeanie Buss and a fan base in uproar.

Most or all of the above will follow the Lakers into next season if they don’t win the offseason. Plenty is riding on president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka making the right moves to maximize the remaining three years on LeBron’s contract and make the Lakers title contenders. The Lakers do have certain factors in their favor — ample cap space, the charms of LA, the presence of LeBron and just being a destination franchise — and so it could work out.

There’s also a worst-case scenario that would be nightmarish for all involved should all of the following happen this summer:

Anthony Davis Isn’t Traded To The Lakers

The primary target in the Get Help For LeBron effort was always Davis, for understandable reasons. He’s a generational talent who’s still in his prime, he has already stated a desire to play for the Lakers and among superstars he’s unassuming and therefore probably the best fit to play in the shadow of LeBron, which can be overwhelming for some.


Anthony Davis talks about his decision to request a trade from the Pelicans.

The drawback is Davis, unlike a handful of other A-list players, isn’t a free agent this summer. And while he has some leverage in where he plays next, the Pelicans own his rights for one more season and the ultimate decision rests with them.

Evidently, they believe they can get a better package for Davis than the Lakers offered at the trade deadline, perhaps because someone else whispered in their ear (cough … Celtics, Knicks … cough). The Pelicans are looking for a haul in order to save face and reshape a losing team and this summer buys them time and a clearer market.

The Lakers suffered a blow in the upcoming Davis auction when Ingram suffered his injury, which required surgery. Does that devalue Ingram to a degree in the eyes of New Orleans? Perhaps. And the Lakers don’t have anyone to replace him in any proposal, since Ingram was the centerpiece to any proposal.

The Lakers Don’t Get A Top-Three Draft Pick

The odds of them landing at or near the top spot in the June draft isn’t very high, and will be probably be less than 10 percent once the draft order is determined in May. It’s just that with a high pick, the Lakers will own an asset to keep or trade for Davis. If there was ever a team that could use a frozen envelope, it’s the Lakers. Oh, wait: The Knicks are back in the lottery, too. Never mind.

Kawhi Leonard Signs With The Clippers


Is Kawhi Leonard the right fit for Raptors’ team chemistry?

This would qualify as a double-whammy. It would cross a free agent off the Lakers’ list and meanwhile they’d watch him go to the crosstown Clippers. What’s more, it would mean Jerry West one-upped his former team. Make that a triple whammy, then.

Kevin Durant Re-Signs With The Warriors

Not only would the Lakers miss out on the top free agent on the market and someone who’s almost guarantee a changing of the guard in the West if not the NBA, KD staying with the Warriors would mean the Golden State dynasty continues. Therefore, even if the Lakers did get Davis (and strip themselves of a supporting cast in the process) they would still trail the Warriors in terms of star power.

Klay Thompson Re-Signs With The Warriors

This would be Durant Lite in terms of impact, but still.

Jimmy Butler And Kyrie Irving Sign With Anyone But The Lakers

He’s probably not a game-changing player and might not be the best fit next to LeBron. Still, while Butler isn’t the most attraction option, he is a good one, and maybe a necessary one if the Lakers strike out in other places. Butler would be better than nothing. Meanwhile, it’s hard to envision Irving reattaching himself to LeBron when he escaped LeBron three summers ago (and still hasn’t given a coherent reason for doing so).

And that’s it. Should the Lakers whiff on three or more of these players, times will get tense in L.A.. Yes, there are solid free agents such as Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, DeMarcus Cousins and others available this summer, and Mike Conley could be available in a trade. Yet they qualify as fallback Plan B players, not gotta-have players.


Is it conceivable that Kyrie Irving could play with LeBron again?

Remember, the Lakers and Magic gambled heavily just to put themselves in position to seize the summer of 2019. They traded D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets because the Nets also agreed to take Timofey Mozgov’s massive contract (in addition to sending a No. 1 pick to LA which became Kyle Kuzma). They didn’t re-sign Julius Randle, their former lottery pick from two years ago. They also bailed on Lou Williams and traded promising young center Ivica Zubac, all because they didn’t want to commit to any long-term money beyond 2018. Well: Randle, Russell and Williams are having career years and Zubac might be a starter next season.

Suppose the Lakers did all that … and didn’t maximize the cap flexibility that came in return? It will have all been a waste, and a costly one at that.

Should the Lakers endure a summer to dismember, then they’ll be forced to scramble to pad the roster, pray that LeBron’s body won’t fail him again as he turns 36 and hope Ball, Ingram and Kuzma produce breakout seasons. That’s a lot of positive projections. It would be a best-case scenario on the heels of a worst-case scenario.

If you think the Lakers are catching hell now, well, a poor summer would mean there’d be hell to pay.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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Kia MVP Ladder: Second straight MVP well within Harden’s reach



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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets


Harden has scored 30+ points against each team this season.

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 36.1 points, 7.7 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals

Harden and the Rockets host the surging Spurs tonight (8 ET, NBA League Pass) in an important game for playoff positioning for both teams. The Rockets have a chance to chase down the No. 3 seed, if they can finish strong. If Harden keeps playing the way he has, that shouldn’t be a problem. He’s been a nightmare for the Spurs, averaging 35.0 points on 52 percent shooting against them this season. The Rockets cannot afford to squander any more of Harden’s monster regular season efforts the way they did Wednesday’s 57-point outing in a loss in Memphis. The one benefit for the Rockets is Harden’s relentless grind. While “load management” is a phrase you hear often this time of year associated with star players headed for the playoffs, it’s simply not a part of Harden’s vocabulary. He doesn’t believe in holding anything back and said the Rockets have too much to play for to ease up now. So expect plenty of fireworks from Harden down the stretch of the season. 


2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks


Can Giannis be the future face of the NBA?

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 27.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

The injury hits just keep on coming for the Greek Freak and the Bucks. First it was Malcolm Brogdon (foot), who is out for six to eight weeks. And now Nikola Mirotic (finger), who could miss weeks, though Mike Budenholzer disputed the reports that he could be out as many as four weeks. If Antetokounmpo hadn’t staked the Bucks to such a roust cushion in the standings, there might be cause for concern in Milwaukee down this final stretch of the season. Instead of panic, there should be a sense of understanding that these bumps and bruises are a part of any NBA season and the reason you operate at a high level from the top of the roster on down is to weather times like this. Antetokounmpo has to worry about making sure his own body is refreshed and recharged for what’s to come. He’s nursing a sprained right ankle of his own that has cost him the Bucks’ past to games. The absence of five rotation players will test any team, even one that has performed at the ridiculously high level the Bucks have all season. Antetokounmpo will have to crank it back up if he wants to finish on top of this list while also making sure the Bucks keep their spot atop the standings.


3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors


Curry was certainly hot from deep against the Wolves.

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.8 points, 5.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals

The clearest sign that Curry’s operating at that truly galactic level that only he and a select few others in the league can, is that he’s impacting games positively regardless of if he’s having a great shooting night or not. So profound is Curry’s impact on what the Warriors do, he changes the dynamics for both teams just by being on the court and a threat to light it up offensively. Now it certainly helps when he goes off the way he did Tuesday against Minnesota, when he scored 36 points and drained eight of his 14 shots from deep as he and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson led the way. But he can control the action in other ways to, as he did Thursday night with his 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a home win over the Indiana Pacers. Finding the right balance hasn’t been much of an issue for Curry, even with all of the bodies going in and out of Steve Kerr’s playing rotation this season. The fact that Curry doesn’t have to push it every single night bodes well for the Warriors’ long-term prospects as well. They know what is needed from the two-time Kia MVP in the coming weeks and months. Even better is that Curry knows it as well.


4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers


Embiid was ‘unstoppable’ against the Celtics.

Last week:No. 8

Season stats: 27.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks

Perhaps Embiid is right. When healthy, he might very well be the most “unstoppable player in the league.” Look at his performance this season when healthy enough to be on the floor. There is no physical match for the Sixers’ big man, who plays all over the floor on both ends at the highest level. The load management break he took out of All-Star Weekend (sore knee) was a much-needed break for a player still trying to put together a full season of action. But the way he’s played since returning has been jaw-dropping. The Sixers have won six straight, including statement wins over Boston and Milwaukee in their last two games. Embiid asserted hid dominance in both contests. He wore the Celtics out Wednesday night with 37 points, 22 rebounds, four assists and a block. He was just as good in Sunday’s win in Milwaukee, going for 40, 15, six and a block. So the next time Embiid shouts about being the most unstoppable player in the game, he might be right. He’s certainly on the right path to living up to all of the hype, self-generated and otherwise.


5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder


Despite a solid game against the Heat, George has struggled lately.

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.2 points 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals

With the Thunder reeling right now, losers of four straight games, George and Russell Westbrook will be the guys who have to provide the solutions. The schedule does them no favors tonight, as they travel to Toronto to take on a Raptors team (7:30 ET, NBA TV) that has won two straight and remain hot on the trail of the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. George’s individual game hasn’t been immune to the Thunder’s recent struggles, by the way. He’s shooting just 38.2 percent from the floor in his last 10 games, 32.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line. The concerns folks have had about the Thunder all season are bubbling back up to the surface now just weeks before the playoffs begin. Are they more than just their dynamic duo? And if not, can they really be anything more than a short-timer in the playoffs working solely off of the fuel George and Westbrook provide? A tough road win in Toronto could go a long way in calming down some of these concerns, at least for a day or two.

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The Next Five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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