James Harden and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. They’ve all put together seasons that will keep their names in any legitimate MVP conversation as this NBA regular season winds down.
Clearly some cases will be stronger than others.
But inclusion, often times, is just as significant for some.
In the case of Toronto Raptors All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan, this season serves as a case of what might have been.
DeRozan showed flashes early, scoring 30 or more points in 10 of his first 12 games of this season (including an opening night 40-point game and another 40-point outing three games later). And now he’s coming on again late in this season, piling up back-to-back 40-point games as the Raptors have won four straight, giving chase in a Kia MVP race that’s all but over.
DeRozan rejoins the top 10 of this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder on the strength of his late work, which comes at the most crucial of times for the Raptors.
His All-Star running mate Kyle Lowry hasn’t played since All-Star weekend, a 15-game stretch that has seen the Raptors go 10-5 in his absence. Since Lowry was lost for the remainder of the regular season (surgery March 1 to clean up loose bodies in his right wrist), DeRozan’s efforts couldn’t stick out more.
He scored a career-high 43 points in that first win sans Lowry, a 107-97 win over Boston, which was also the debut of trade deadline additions Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.
DeRozan’s words that night were telling, given what the Raptors would need from him for the remainder of this season.
"It always changes, especially when he's not out there," DeRozan said of the way he has to play when Lowry’s not out there. "Understanding attention is going to be focused on me, so I've got to pick it up a little bit more, be a little bit more aggressive, pick and choose my spots ahead of time, and that's what I tried to do tonight.”
He followed that up with 33 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers and 37 in a win over the Knicks during a three-game win streak that showed DeRozan was more than capable of the task of leading the Raptors’ charge on his own.
He’s is averaging career highs in points (27.2) and rebounds (5.4) after helping the Raptors to an Eastern Conference finals appearance last season.
It’s no coincidence that the Raptors faded a bit in the Eastern Conference standings when an ankle injury sidelined DeRozan for seven of eight games in late January and early February.
“I think people have been sleeping on him all season,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “I really do. He’s been their bellwether guy all season.
Who knows, If DeRozan continues on this trajectory, perhaps next season is the one where he puts together a sustainable MVP campaign?
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IMPORTANT NOTE:Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry have been removed from the list due to long-term injury issues that could keep them out of action for the remainder of the regular season.
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Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The real fun for Harden and the Rockets comes Sunday afternoon, when Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder show up at the Toyota Center for a showdown of the top two candidates in this race (3:30 ET, ABC). Harden is sure to be up to the task, given the way he’s grinding away down the stretch of this season (35.2 points, 11.2 assists, 10.6 rebounds in his last five games).
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook’s triple-double march continues down the stretch of his historical season. Assuming he plays the rest of the Thunder’s games this season, Westbrook needs to average 22.0 points, 7.7 assists and 6.9 rebounds to finish the season averaging 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds and join Oscar Robertson as the only players in league history to average a triple-double (22.0 points, 13.2 assists, 9.8 rebounds in his last five games).
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Questioning his team’s toughness after yet another loss, their fifth in their last eight games, does nothing for the collective psyche of a team in search of a groove as the regular season winds down. If the Cavaliers are indeed still in crisis, there’s only one man who can fix it (25.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.5 assists in his last five games).
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard has to be as happy as anyone to see LaMarcus Aldridge back in the lineup and playing like the All-Star he’s been for much of his career. If the Spurs are going to mount a serious challenge for the Western Conference crown this season, they’ll need yeoman’s work from both Aldridge and Leonard (21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists in his last five games).
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
The Celtics received a solid reminder in their past two games (back-to-back wins over Washington and Indiana) about just how valuable Thomas is to the cause. And he’s right, things are just “clicking” for the Celtics right now, which is a great sign as they battle for that No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Thomas followed up his two-game absence with that knee injury with back-to-back 25-point games (24.0 points, 4.0 assists, 2.0 rebounds in his last five games).
6. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall admitted that the Wizards returned from their recent road trip triumphant and a bit fatigued. But he refused to allow any excuses for his team letting up in these final weeks of the regular season. It all starts with Wall, continuing his impressive season-long grind from that 6-12 start to this season to a potential top-three finish in Eastern Conference (19.4 points, 11.4 assists, 2.2 rebounds in his last five games).
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Don’t look now, but here come Curry and the Kevin Durant-less Warriors. They’ve won five straight after sputtering initially after Durant’s knee injury. Credit Curry (and Splash Brother Klay Thompson) for getting back to their hot shooting ways just as word spreads that Durant could return sooner than perhaps anyone expected (24.4 points, 6.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds in his last five games).
8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Saturday’s matchup against the LA Clippers gives Hayward and his crew a direct shot at the team they’re trying to separate from for the fourth spot in the Western Conference. It’s also another preview of what would be an intriguing first-round playoff series between them, a potentially career-defining series for Hayward (21.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists in his last five games).
9. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
DeRozan’s ability to put the Raptors on his back with back-to-back 40-point games in wins over the Bulls and Heat. The Raptors have won four straight games playing without Kyle Lowry (injury) and their last game without Serge Ibaka (suspension), leaning more and more on DeRozan to carry them to finish line of this regular season (28.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists in his last five games).
10. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
George’s frustrations with the Pacers’ continued inconsistent play has to be gathering steam as they miss out any opportunity to move up in the Eastern Conference standings. It’s clearly going to take more than just monster scoring nights from their lone All-Star for the Pacers to find some solid ground (27.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
An inside look from a Western Conference scout at Gary Harris:
“Let me preface this by saying that I think Otto Porter should be a slam dunk pick for Most Improved Player this season. I don’t think there’s any doubt. But I hate that people aren’t talking about this guy (Harris), because he’s been really good for the Nuggets this season. He’s shooting the cover off the ball this season from deep (from 35 percent last season to 43 percent this season) and it’s made all the difference in his game. If he’s just an average shooter from distance, he’s much easier to defend and doesn’t impact their team the way he does when he’s a knockdown shooter from that range. Because he doesn’t have prototypical size for a shooting guard in our league. He just doesn’t. But I think he’s stronger than he looks, a better defender than you realize and he’s so young (22) that there’s so much upside still there that you have to feel good about his future if you’re the Nuggets. He’s yet another quality young piece for a team that’s obviously trending up, whether they end up in the playoffs this season or not. The quality, depth and balance of what they’ve put together on the roster out there is underrated. And Harris highlight that as well as any single young player they have.”
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