Baker's Dozen - CJ's Injury, Playoff-bound Knicks & Most Improved Player Rankings

Welcome to the 2nd edition of Baker’s Dozen, where I'll provide my thoughts on the week that was in the NBA. I didn’t get cancelled after last week’s pilot episode – that’s positive! As I did previously, I’ll go over a handful of stories that impacted the association, as well as some miscellaneous views and opinions. Enjoy…

CJ McCollum's Injury

In the midst of a career-year, the injury bug crept up and bit CJ McCollum and the Blazers. Initially thought to be a minor ankle sprain, Portland announced on January 19th that the injury is more severe than originally thought – a small hairline fracture, which will put McCollum on the shelf for minimum of 4 weeks. 
Besides destroying the mid-season hopes of fantasy basketball managers (including yours truly), how will this impact the Blazers moving forward?

The thing I know: it’s Dame time. The 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year and 5x All-Star (how was he omitted from the All-Star team in 2015-16 & 2016-17?!) will put the Trail Blazers on his back, as he has done in the past. At the time of McCollum’s injury, Lillard’s PER was down slightly from last year's career-high of 26.9, but still ranks 3rd in his career thus far. Look for that number to climb. Portland will get everything they can out of Dame, who has been a top-10 minutes per game player most of his career (18th in 2013-14 & 11th 2015-16 are the only times outside the top-10).

The thing I don’t know: how the Blazers will fare over the next 4 weeks. Not only are they missing McCollum, but also big man Jusuf Nurkic, who had recently returned after a long layoff with a Shaun Livingston-type leg break. If you haven't seen it and are squeamish, don't Google it. It's not worth it. Nurkic is out for a minimum of 6 weeks after breaking his wrist. Can the Blazers tread water while two of their starters are out? They will need to get better production out of Robert Covington, who's having a downright terrible first season with the Blazers. He's averaging career-worsts: 6.6 ppg, 31.4 FG% & 30.1 3P%. Safe to say Covington isn't earning any part of his $12.1M salary. He is easily a candidate for most disappointing/worst player in the league playing more than 30 minutes per game. Enes Kanter has been his typically decent point/rebound production with high percentages without any real defense to speak of. Can Gary Trent Jr., Rodney Hood or Anfernee Simons carry the load while CJ is out? Of the three, Hood is the most likely candidate, as he has proven the ability to score the ball in the NBA and has more experience that Trent Jr. and Simons combined. Obviously, none of them can replicate what McCollum brings to the Blazers, but it will be entertaining to see Lillard drag the rag-tag group of Blazers through the next four weeks. 

Are the New York Knicks for Real?

The New York Knicks – yes the Knicks! – are in a playoff position at the 17-game mark of the season with a respectable 8-9 record. How is this happening? Are we living in an alternate universe? The hiring of head coach Tom Thibodeau certainly has a lot to do with it, as the Knicks are playing hard for the demanding coach and executing wonderfully on the defensive end. 
How long will it last? We are presently in Step 2 of the "The Five Steps to Every Tom Thibodeau Coaching Cycle", with Step 3 being my personal favorite, where Thibs takes no regard for the human body and just runs his players into the ground. For now, it's working. One of the biggest reasons is that Julius Randle is playing out of his mind. Randle is not only making a case to be an All-Star, but All-NBA too - he’s playing that well! Randle has always been able to score and rebound the ball, but he has nearly doubled his playmaking output with 6.2 apg this year, and it seems as though he is genuinely making his teammates better. 

Despite still being horribly inefficient (41.2 FG%), 2nd year man RJ Barrett has made improvements in his game. He is scoring and rebounding better, has dramatically improved his free throw shooting (up to 76.2% from 61.4% last year) and continues to compete on the defensive end. His compete level is one of the things head coach Tom Thibodeau has noticed most: “I love the way he competes. His attitude has been great and he’s in a good place”. When Thibs is commenting on your effort and attitude, you know you’re in a good spot. That’s a Thibs special - he eats effort for breakfast and a positive attitude for lunch. 

I had a hard time believing that the Knicks are for real, and had to get a 2nd opinion from my Cousin Keith, who happens to be a Queens native and basketball junkie. He boldly claimed that the Knicks will stay in the playoff picture and finish as the 8th seed, buoyed by the aforementioned Randle and Barrett, but also by good guard play from Austin Rivers and Alec Burke. Stay tuned for more thoughts from Cousin Keith in future Baker's Dozen pieces. 

Most Improved Player Rankings

At this point in the season, the NBA's Most Improved Player award is clearly a three-horse race between Chris Boucher, Jerami Grant and Christian Wood. All three players are averaging career highs nearly across the board and I doubt any other players will creep into the conversation. With a trio of breakout candidates so early in the season, it will be an an interesting race for the highly coveted award. 
  1. Chris Boucher - the lanky Toronto Raptor Center is the early favorite for MIP. Tied for 3rd in the league with 2.3 bpg (behind only Myles Turner & Rudy Gobert), Boucher is also adding 1.7 makes on 49.1 3P%. His 58.6 FG% puts him 12th in the league and he recently had a 6 game stretch where he averaged 20.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg & 3.2 bpg in only 28.9 mpg. It’s only a matter of time before he gets into the starting lineup and really heats up. Boucher won the G League Defensive Player of the Year & MVP in the 2018-19 season, becoming the first player in league history to win both awards. He may be on track to add more hardware at the end of this season. 
  2. Jerami Grant - When Grant spurned the Nuggets to go to Detroit, more than a few people were taken aback. Grant left a team on the rise in Denver to head to a rebuild in Detroit, and more importantly, see an uptick in his usage. Rather than just being utilized as a 3&D type in Denver, he is now Detroit’s highest scorer, top defender and best overall player. Grant is averaging career highs: 24.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 36.4 mpg and 19.8 PER. He has quickly blossomed into one of the best success stories in the NBA this year.
  3. Christian Wood - The undrafted journeyman cashed in 3-year $41M contract after an explosive 16 game stint at the end of February and March in Detroit. Some were concerned that his great play was a fluke, but the big man is having a career year in Houston, averaging 23.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.8 bpg in 33.6 mpg (all career highs). Now that James Harden is gone from the Rockets, there are plenty more shots to go around in Houston.

Things I Think are Interesting... 

NBA Franchise Values: Sportico recently released the NBA’s Franchise Valuation Report, with three teams (New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors & LA Lakers) coming in north of $5B valuations. The average value of a franchise is $2.5B, down roughly 2% from this time last year. Despite the COVID-19 induced revenue shortfall, the NBA and its franchises are seeing the best growth amongst the Big 4 sports in North America since 2010, with average franchise value increasing sixfold. 

One of the biggest reasons for financial optimism in the NBA is that among the Big 4 sports in North America, basketball has the largest appeal around the world. (Disclaimer: I am not saying that basketball is more popular around the world than football/futbol/soccer, as the MLS can be considered the 5th major sport in North America.) Basketball is far more accessible and inexpensive than hockey; safer and more popular than American football - which isn't played outside of North America at any kind of watchable level (don't forget about the CFL). Apart from some Asian nations (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) and Caribbean countries (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) baseball doesn't have the same reach of basketball - especially in Africa and Europe. 

A look at recent winners of the league's most prestigious awards shows just how global the NBA really is: two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is from Greece, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is from France, 2018-19 Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic is from Slovenia and there are presently 17 Canadians in the NBA right now, most amongst non-US nations. The league was growing its reach in Africa, with the creation of the Basketball Africa League, which was set to debut this year before the season was put on hold due to COVID-19. 

What exactly does all of this mean for the NBA? More eyeballs watching the sport from non-US markets, which means one thing: more revenue. I think one could argue that the NBA will continue to see growth, and pass the NFL for average franchise value within the next 10 years. 

Line of the Week: Clint Capela easily wins the line of the week this time around. I was going to give it to him for his 27 point, 26 rebound, 5 block performance versus Detroit, but then he went and triple-doubled with a silly 13 points, 19 rebounds & 10 blocks in a win against Minnesota. Well done Clint! 

Have a question for Tom? Send an email to and I'll answer as many as I can in our first mailbag article coming soon. 

Check out previous columns:

Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports