Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: DeMar DeRozan continues to shine while bucking NBA's latest trend

Week 6: Toronto All-Star fueling Raptors through unconventional mid-range game

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Going against the grain has never been a problem for DeMar DeRozan.

The Toronto Raptors All-Star is a contrarian in a 3-point shooting NBA landscape, refusing to join the party in favor of the sweet science of the mid-range game that is a prized relic of previous generations.

It’s hard to argue with DeRozan’s results. He’s averaging 24.8 points on .484 shooting from the floor, his best mark since his rookie season, to go along with a career-best 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds. His mastery of the mid-range has fueled the Raptors this season, even in the midst of their new-look offense that includes floor-spacing 3-point shooters prominently in the culture shift Raptors boss Masai Ujiri promised a couple years ago.

It’s not that DeRozan has refused to embrace the distance-shooting revolution, he takes them when the right opportunity is presented. He’s already taken 50 this season and he’s on pace to smash the 124 he took last season and even eclipse his career-high of 210 attempts he took during the 2013-14 season.

He just doesn’t need to live out there to thrive. And he certainly doesn’t need the 3-pointer to continue to impact the Raptors positively.

“You’ve just got to understand counters,” said DeRozan, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. “I’ve been doing this my whole career, nine years, just studying angles and counters, opportunities of shot selections when I’m inside that 3-point line. And with my counter moves, I’m always ready for whatever they try to throw at me and how they try and stop me.”

That includes a healthy diet of studying his own game, both through film work throughout the season and on and off the court in the offseason.

“Everything comes into play, film and pick up ball, especially the offseason,” DeRozan said. “Being able to look at all my mistakes, being able to evaluate the things I could have done better offensively and just trying to master the craft and being a student of the game. I try to look at every miscellaneous thing that may go untouched or unnoticed and I try and tighten it up, and then add other things accordingly. And you can see it, you see the results in game time situations.”

Whatever his method, it’s working for the Raptors. They’ve integrated new faces like C.J. Miles and OG Anunoby without issue. And while All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry has needed a little more time to adjust to the wrinkles of Dwane Casey’s new offense, DeRozan has been in a groove from the start.

Before his 18-point effort in Wednesday’s loss to the New York Knicks, DeRozan had scored 22 or more points in nine straight games. His consistency has been a driving force for a Raptors team in the midst of redefining itself offensively.

And his leadership has been invaluable for a team that has quietly shoved its way back into the top four of the Eastern Conference standings behind Boston and Detroit and ahead of Cleveland, heading into tonight’s game against Indiana (8 ET, NBA League Pass).

So what if they aren’t the style darlings of the league, playing an up-tempo brand of basketball that captivates crowds from arena to arena. DeRozan said the Raptors are fine with where they fit in the landscape right now.

“We understand we can’t worry about what everybody else is thinking or saying, we’ve got to worry about and focus on getting better with every opportunity we’re given,” DeRozan said, making sure to remind anyone that might have forgotten that just two seasons ago the Raptors were in the conference finals against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. “And when it’s all said and done, you count the teams who are standing at the end and go from there. As of right now, we don’t worry about it. Let this be the time we find out about ourselves and continue grinding, because we’ve still got a long way to go.”

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The top five in the Week 6 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.1 points, 9.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds

While relative newcomers like Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo have garnered much of the early season MVP buzz, Harden has somewhat quietly gone about the business of maintaining his status as arguably the most unstoppable offensive force in the league. And he’s done nothing but bolster his case for the No. 1 spot on this list for a Rockets team that is 9-1 in its last 10 games, tied with Irving’s Celtics for the best mark in the league. Now that Chris Paul appears to be healthy and back in a groove, Harden might not have to shoulder as much of the responsibility of driving the Rockets as he has previously. His 21 points in Wednesday’s rout of the Denver Nuggets was his lowest scoring outing this month. His 32 minutes against the Nuggets marked just the third time all season he’s logged fewer than 33 minutes in a game. And he’ll get an extra day of rest in advance of Saturday’s visit from the New York Knicks.

2. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 22.5 points, 5.2 assists, 2.1 rebounds

The Celtics’ win streak ended at 16 games Wednesday night in Miami, with both Irving and his coach, Brad Stevens, trying to provide some perspective on exactly where this team stands now. Steven insists his team is not as good as the streak suggests. Irving, though, is every bit the closer and clutch performer he showed himself to be during that stretch. That said, he knows better than anyone else on the roster just how important it is for the Celtics to move on from the streak and make sure that does not end up being the highlight of their season. Now that the bar has been raised, and his old team in Cleveland appears to have worked through some of their early season issues, the battle for supremacy in the Eastern Conference is really on.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 28.6 points, 8.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds

The world looks completely different now for LeBron and his Cavaliers on the other side of their current, league-leading six-game win streak heading into tonight’s home game against Charlotte (8 ET, NBA TV). Those stitches he needed to close up a gash in his lip in Wednesday’s win over Brooklyn lit the flame for LeBron, who scored 24 fourth-quarter points to finish off the Nets. He’s scored 30 or more points in three of his last four games and continues to dominate every night a jaw-dropping 15 seasons into his career. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on just how unbelievable it is for LeBron, just a little over a month away from his 33rd birthday, to still be far and away the best player in the game. You can wonder how long he’ll be able to keep up this pace or stop debating about it and just appreciate the unprecedented nature of what he’s doing.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds

The road wasn’t particularly kind to Curry and the Warriors, as they were humbled both in Boston and Oklahoma City during their four-game cross country jaunt. Instead of serving notice to two teams with designs on blocking their path to a second straight Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Warriors were reminded that they are far from the team they expect to be come playoff time. A visit from a three-win Chicago Bulls team tonight at Oracle Arena (10:30 ET, NBA TV) should be exactly what Curry and the Warriors need to get back on track after that ambush in Oklahoma City Wednesday night. Curry’s had 13 assists and 13 turnovers in his past two outings, stagnant work in that regard from the player who makes the Warriors flow. He’s as good as there is in the league when it comes to recognizing when he needs to take a step back and get back to his own basics.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 22.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists

Don’t let the personality and super-sized social media presence fool you. Embiid is in the spotlight these days first and foremost because of the on-court impact he’s having on an upstart Sixers team. He’s been unreal in some of the biggest moments for a young team still finding its way in the realm of playoff-caliber teams. Sure, he’s not afraid to tell you exactly what he thinks. And he’s more than willing to tell you he’s going to beat up on you before doing so. But he’s backing up all his tough talk with absolutely dominant performances whenever the Sixers need it, the Portland Trail Blazers being his latest victim (28 points on 11-for-19 shooting, 12 rebounds and two blocks in just 30 minutes). There’s no telling what he has in store for the Orlando Magic Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

The next five:

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

7. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

9. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

And five more …:

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans; Tobias Harris, Detroit Pistons; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; John Wall, Washington Wizards

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Next up?

A behind-the-scenes look at Tim Hardaway Jr. from an Eastern Conference executive:

“People had a whole lot to say about that contract the Knicks gave him. But it doesn’t look so crazy right now. The guy has really been lights out so far. As good as Porzingis has been, and he’s having a true breakout season himself, I’d argue that Hardaway has been every bit as valuable to what they are doing here recently. What he did to the Raptors the other night (career-high 38 points in an impressive win) was special. In college he had moments like we’ve seen out of him last season in Atlanta and certainly this season back in New York.

“He’s better than you think off the dribble and his handle has really improved. I think his time in Atlanta playing for Mike Budenholzer really helped change his game. He’s not a great defender by any stretch, but he understands the concepts and knows you have to bring energy on that end, too. And given the position he plays, he won’t be able to get by playing on one end and surviving. He’s fearless, too, which I think might be his best quality. He’s not afraid of the moment. That’s in his DNA. Credit (Knicks coach) Jeff Hornacek for giving him the freedom to play the way he has. That’s invaluable for a young talent, being allowed to play through some of the inevitable ups and downs. But the thing the Knicks have to feel really good about is how well he and Porzingis go together. Neither one of them is a finished product. Porzingis has an enormous ceiling. But Hardaway should be a nice player to have growing and continuing to develop his game alongside Porzingis. It’s a good fit.”

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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.

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