Spacing the Floor | The first half: The world according to Draymond Green
For the first time in at least a decade, there’s a question of who’s the best player in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James occupied that position since at least 2007 and now, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and even Joel Embiid have a claim to that title.
In the spirit of election season, Yahoo Sports polled a handful of scouts and executives, and while it was close, the choice was Leonard. Because of his previous accomplishments and fast start with the Toronto Raptors, Leonard instilled enough confidence in the pollsters to place him at the top of the mountain, by a 7-4 margin over Antetokounmpo.
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The Leonard-Antetokounmpo matchup didn’t come to fruition Monday night, as Leonard missed the game to rest and Antetokounmpo was in concussion protocol after catching an inadvertent elbow from Orlando’s Aaron Gordon on Saturday night.
The Bucks beat the Raptors 124-109 to become the lone undefeated team in the NBA (7-0), which backs one pollster’s claim for Antetokounmpo.
“Giannis, because everyone around him is better when he plays,” the voter said. “Because of what he can do, it allows his teammates to play more in space and expand on their skills … [Khris] Middleton, [Eric] Bledsoe and [Brook] Lopez.”
Antetokounmpo is blossoming under new coach Mike Budenholzer. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 14.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists with a Player Efficiency Rating of 24.8 — and those numbers are a bit deflated because he only played 19 minutes against the Magic.
One personnel man who’s seen the Bucks in person said: “Have you seen him this year?”
An assistant general manager said of Antetokounmpo: “He’s the most complete player, on a winning team and he’s high-efficiency. He affects all aspects of the game.”
The same could be said for Leonard, even though the Raptors are taking a cautious approach with him after acquiring him from the Spurs following an uncharacteristic dispute that was a pall over San Antonio’s franchise all last season.
Leonard is averaging 26.6 points, eight rebounds, three assists, 1.6 steals (including a no-look steal against the Timberwolves on Oct. 17) on 50-45.5-92 splits and a PER of 25.3.
“Kawhi can run a team, get his shot on his own and post up. Both are solid defensively,” said a personnel man who put Embiid ahead of Antetokounmpo. “Embiid’s talent is more rare and hard to find, but with so many teams playing small he could have trouble on the perimeter defensively.”
One scout picked Leonard because he said he’d worry slightly more about game-planning for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP in a playoff series.
Two front-office executives said the tie was broken because of Leonard’s perimeter shooting and Antetokounmpo’s outside game is still developing.
The most hilarious response came from an assistant general manager, who initially picked Antetokounmpo but talked himself into Leonard.
“I’m taking Giannis,” he said initially. “Kawhi is great, too. You flip a coin, it’s that close. Giannis affects the game on both ends. But Kawhi does, too. Kawhi shoots it better … man, it’s close.
“Kawhi shuts guys down, guards any and everybody. The Greek Freak is something special. His ceiling is higher, but I’m taking the grown man: Kawhi.”
(The Mase, “Welcome Back” version)
1. Kawhi Leonard … looking every bit as healthy as a man who needed to take last season off. Are the Raptors for real in the East?
2. Blake Griffin … although the Boston Celtics shut him down over the weekend (2-of-13 shooting on Saturday night) to give the Detroit Pistons their first loss, a 50-burger is nothing to sneeze at. Welcome back.
3. Speaking of welcoming back Slam Dunk Contest winners, Zach LaVine looks healthy after tearing his ACL in February 2017. He’s a better player now who has paid attention to what works on offense, averaging 29.3 points on 53-40-83 splits for an injury-riddled Bulls team.
4. Dwight Howard should be back for the Wizards this week … just what they need, right?
Questions, comments, complaints? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find him at @vgoodwill on Twitter.
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