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NBA Takeaways: Is DeMar DeRozan An MVP Candidate?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to NBA Takeaways, your least favorite weekly wrap-up on the internet. Just like last Sunday and hopefully every Sunday from here on out, I'll be taking you on a short journey of the week that was in the association. Throughout this article you'll find some random thoughts, tidbits and interesting opinions I've developed from the week's NBA action.

There's really no point in trying to write anything else here, so without further ado, here are my takeaways from the past 7 days:

'Jurkic' Horns Is A Beautiful Thing

The Nikola Jokic/Jusuf Nurkic combination gets torched defensively every time the pair set foot on a basketball court. They are just too slow to play together as a combo in the modern day NBA, where players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James regularly spend time at power forward. 

But offensively speaking, 'Jurkic' (twice as awesome as Brangelina by the way) is an unstoppable force. Both Europeans can bang down low, handle the ball a bit, hit open jumpers and thread beautiful bullet passes through ant-sized windows, making them a nightmarish duo to defend. 

Mike Malone has based a large chunk of the offense around his two star big men, with the crowning jewel of his halfcourt playbook being his array of 'Horns' sets that have just been unfair for any opposing defense. Just check out this set the Nuggets ran against the Raptors:

Watch how Malone cleverly has Mudiay set a pick for Nurkic, full-well knowing that no defense will want to switch that play. This gives Nurkic just enough daylight to scoot towards the rim and allows for Jokic to fire in a beautiful pass on the money for an easy score.

#UnleashTheJurkic

DeMar DeRozan Is A Legit MVP Candidate

I never thought I'd ever have to say this, but DeMar DeRozan is a superstar ladies and gentlemen! Well, at least that's what he's looked like in the first six games of the season.

DeRozan is averaging an immense 33 points per game, while shooting an impeccable 52.4% from the field. Those are fantastic numbers for a guy that usually struggles to maintain any sort of efficiency.

So what's changed? Well, it's not like he has suddenly added a three-point shot to his arsenal or has turned into LeBron James, his improvement is a result of small, yet noticeable refinements to his game. He no longer drives like a headless chicken to the rim now, instead he picks his spots and gets to the parts of the floor where he knows he can be effective. Last season, his instinct was to try and bulldoze his way into the paint on every single play, but this season, he has become a little bit more mature, in fact the percentage of his shots from within 2 feet of the hoop are down from last season by more than 10%. 

He has only taken 10 threes so far this season, because he knows that's not his game. In place of those ineffective bombs from downtown, he has more of his patented mid-range game. The art of the long-two has gotten lost in the analytics era of basketball, but with teams happy to give their opposition these shots, DeMar DeRozan is bringing it back with some smart shot selection that exploits these areas of an NBA defense.

I can't wait until somebody quotes me on this later on this season, after DeMar DeRozan inevitably goes 0 for 20 from mid-range in a game, but DeMar DeRozan is looking like a sneaky MVP candidate here early on.

STOP, HARRELL TIME!

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets -- as always -- are lacking defense and energy. They can't stop any team in the league from scoring on them and have looked about as lively as me at 3 in the morning. So why on earth are they playing Nene over the ball of energy that is Montrezl Harrell and his flaming orange hair?

I get that on the second unit without James Harden, the Rockets need more guys that can create their own offense (i.e. not Montrezl Harrell) so that the offense doesn't go completely bust when James Harden is having a breather, but surely, somewhere there has to be some minutes for Harrell in Mike D'Antoni's rotation. When the Rockets finally did give Harrell his chance when Nene sat out against the Knicks, he exploded. He racked up 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in an inspiring performance that lifted the entire team. He adds the intensity and defensive instincts that the Rockets clearly need for them not to completely implode this season. How could D'Antoni not want more of this:

Klay Thompson Can't Hit Anything

Listen y'all, something's wrong with Klay Thompson. 

One of the best five three-point shooters I have ever seen is in a major funk right now. According to NBA.com, Thompson's slump has gotten so bad that through six games this season, he is connecting on just 28.6% of his wide-open treys (6 feet or more of room). This is the same guy that made 45.5% of these shots last season.

At this point in the season, with such a small sample size, we can all just chalk this one up to a shooting slump. But what if it isn't? What if the Durant signing has gotten into his head? We already know that Klay told Shams Charania of The Vertical in the offseason that he's not going to be 'sacrificing shit' in the wake of Durant's arrival, so what if there are some problems behind the scenes in Golden State?

Of course, this is all just speculation, but something's not quite right in Oakland.

The Clippers Are Terrifying...

Face it, there's a part in all of us that secretly want the Clippers to do well. Deep down, we all kinda want to see Chris Paul make it out of the second round. If the first two weeks are anything to go by, this could be the Clippers' year. Their squad is incredibly deep after their free agency additions of Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass and Raymond Felton, they're healthy again for the first time since the start of their 2014-15 campaign and are looking as cohesive as ever.

While the Clippers' offense is what usually drives their success, thus far L.A.'s defense has been the real story of the season. With a defensive rating of an astounding 90.7, the best such mark in the NBA by more than 3 points per 100 possessions, the Clips are trampling teams with their ferocious defensive attitude that has them looking as good as the Spurs of last season. The Clippers haven't changed too much about their defense this season either. It's just that their rotations, switches and defensive decision making looks sharper than ever. The entire team is on a string for the whole 48 minutes game in and it is a sight to behold. 

The scary part is that the Clippers are 5-1 and their offense has been pretty mediocre thus far. That's the same offense that has ranked 6th, 1st, 1st and 4th respectively over the past four seasons. If Doc Rivers can get this team clicking on both ends of the court, the rest of the NBA needs to watch out.

...So Is Skinny Julius Randle

I'll admit it, when Julius Randle came out of college I was not high on him at all. I didn't like the idea of a prospect that all the experts compare to Zach Randolph, in an era where players like Z-Bo have become liabilities.

However, Randle has completely transformed his game from his days at Kentucky. Under Luke Walton, he has added new dimensions to his play that were previously non-existent. He has slimmed down his hulking frame to the point where he can go coast-to-coast off of a defensive rebound, make plays above the rim, switch on to guards defensively and be a decent rim protector.

He's playing the Draymond Green role in Luke Walton's offense for the Lakers right now and he is pulling it off, something that would have been inconceivable two years ago. He's playing as a point forward, helping to juice up the offense as a second or third facilitator. Just check out how on this possession against the Warriors, he dribbles the ball up court like he's Magic Johnson, stops to survey his options and then throws a beautiful bounce pass to a cutting D'Angelo Russell, who then oops it to Timofey Mozgov for an easy deuce:

The new, skinny version of Julius Randle is scary. If he keeps his Draymond Green act up, to go along with all of the other aspects of his game, he is going to be a great player going forward.

Russell Westbrook Needs Some Damn Shooters

Just as we all expected, teams are clogging the paint against the Thunder. In less than six games, they've all figured out that the Thunder have no outside shooting and they can clog the paint with as many defenders as they like to limit the effectiveness of Westbrook's genuinely terrifying explosions to the rim. In case you didn't know, that's OKC's entire offense. So...yeah...that's not great.

The Warriors took this strategy to the extreme on Thursday. They basically gave the entire Thunder team the Tony Allen treatment and had 10 arms barricading the rim at all times, just to make sure that every shot Russ took would be a shot that only Russell Westbrook could even dream of making. Every time Westbrook would kick-out to his open teammates on the perimeter after a drive, bricklaying would ensue, resulting in a highly ineffective offense. 

The sad part is that it seems that Sam Presti and the Thunder front office don't know that this is a problem. Early in the week, OKC traded Ersan Ilyasova for Jerami Grant. While in a vacuum, this is a good trade because Jerami Grant is just better at basketball than Ersan Ilyasova, they traded one of their only three-point threats for yet another guy who can't shoot to save his life. 

The Thunder need some shooting badly, otherwise the Russell Westbrook revenge tour isn't going to be a pretty sight for anyone involved. Without Ilyasova, they're going to have to eventually give extended minutes to Alex Abrines, the defensively impaired Anthony Morrow or *gulp* Kyle Singler, to get even a whiff of spacing out on the floor.

Words Can't Describe How Much I Love Nicolas Laprovittola

He's only played substantial minutes in three NBA games at this point in his career, but I already adore Nico Laprovittola. As he's Argentinian and plays for the Spurs, he'll draw a lot of thoughtless comparisons to Manu Ginobili, but unlike a lot of boring, obvious comparisons, this one actually makes sense. Nico has a crafty handle, Manu-esque facial hair, a dangerous jump shot and can throw insane 50 foot touchdown passes to teammates draped by multiple defenders in stride:

Don't be afraid everyone, the Laprovittola bandwagon still has plenty of room!

Extension Deadline Day Stuff

Finally, I'll just give you some quick thoughts on all the guys that got extended at the deadline this week. I already wrote a big piece on Steven Adams' new deal recently, so check that out here.

Cody Zeller: 4 years, $56 million

I love this deal. Zeller is one of the most underrated players in the league and they have extended him on an absolute bargain of a contract. Zeller's numbers won't jump out to you, nor will his mildly boring style of play, but he is a solid NBA big man nevertheless. He is a no-frills defensive anchor, that will diligently contest every shot around the rim and make excellent rotations on almost every possession instead of violently smacking the ball out of bounds like Hassan Whiteside or DeAndre Jordan. On offense, he'll finish strong around the rim and will rarely let you down, while being able to stretch out and hit a mid-range jumper when necessary.

At just $14 million per year in this cap climate, a guy like Cody Zeller is a steal and a half.

Gorgui Dieng: 4 years, $64 million

Don't like this at all. 

From a value perspective, $64 million over 4 years isn't a bad deal to have for a player like Dieng, but from a team fit point of view, it doesn't make much sense. Investing $16 million per year into Dieng essentially means that Tom Thibodeau is commited to the Gorgui Dieng/Karl-Anthony Towns frontcourt. A combo that doesn't provide Towns with enough spacing to operate down low like he should and a combination that forces him to become the de facto stretch four on the Wolves, a role that doesn't befit Towns' long-term potential as a do-it-all 21st century big man. 

On top of this, the early extension means that the Wolves are going to find it a lot harder to find max cap space this offseason and chase after some of the studs in this upcoming free agent class (Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward would both be ideal fits). Had the Wolves waited to extend him, they could've made a big chase at someone that can expedite their rebuilding process. 

Victor Oladipo: 4 years, $81 million

Basically the same conclusion as Dieng. I don't like the idea of a Westbrook/Oladipo backcourt for the foreseeable future. The pair don't exactly fit together like puzzle pieces, with both of them offering an inconsistent jump shot and a ball-dominant offensive game. And just like the Wolves, the Thunder have eliminated their chance at going after some superstars in free agency this offseason by extending their youngsters early.

Rudy Gobert: 4 years, $102 million

Anywhere below the max is a bargain for a player like Gobert.

That's all for this week, so I'll see next Sunday for another round of NBA Takeaways!

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