Week 18 Observations: Paul George is Very Much in the MVP Conversation
Week 18 Observations: Paul George is Very Much in the MVP Conversation

As the NBA moves closer to All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, Nick Whalen takes a look around the league at the storylines to monitor.

Wesley Matthews made his Pacers debut Monday night against Charlotte. Taking over for Tyreke Evans as the starting shooting guard, Matthews struggled to a 2-of-10 (2-7 3PT) shooting night, but he added five rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes. Evans still played 20 minutes off the bench, while Cory Joseph finished with six points in 21 minutes. Both players looked to be in position to benefit after Victor Oladipo went down, but the addition of Matthews likely puts the kibosh on that.

Thirty-three-percent-owned in Yahoo leagues, Matthews' stock looks like it won't change significantly one way or the other, with his primary utility coming as a volume three-point shooter – albeit a streaky one.

A few hundred miles north, Wayne Ellington also debuted on Monday and had struggles of his own in Detroit. Ellington finished just 1-of-8 from the field, including 0-of-7 from three in 19 minutes off the bench. After shipping out Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock at the deadline, the Pistons were in desperate need of help on the wing, and Ellington will now compete with Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Bruce Brown for minutes

Dwane Casey rolled with Brown and Galloway as starters Monday, but neither player is much of an offensive threat, so it wouldn't be a surprise if Ellington (or Kennard) eventually take over one of those wing spots. Starting or not, Ellington should have a much more consistent role going forward after spending much of the year in DNP-CD purgatory on a bloated Heat roster. It's probably too early to give him a shot in most standard leagues, but Ellington ending last season just outside the top-100, in terms of total production, after finishing tied with Damian Lillard for sixth in the league in made threes (227). The shots may not have been falling on Monday, but at least Ellington is back to gunning away from beyond the arc.

The New York Knicks dropped their single-season franchise-record 17th straight game Monday night. With the revamped Sixers rolling in town Wednesday, that streak will likely hit 18 games, setting up a massive showdown with the Hawks in Atlanta on the final day before the break.

Entering Tuesday, the Knicks are in sole possession of the worst record in the league, but they lead the surging Suns, who haven't won in a month, by just a half-game. Meanwhile, Cleveland (1.5 games back) and Chicago (2.5 games) are still lurking. (By the way, if both streaks are still alive when the Knicks play at Phoenix on Mar. 6, ESPN has to flex it to national TV. They have to. As of now, Bulls/Sixers and Nuggets/Lakers are the TV games that night. One of those is a blowout, and the other will be the Lakers' 55th consecutive national game. This is a no-brainer).

Anyway, in all likelihood, those are the four teams that will enter the lottery with similar odds to land the No. 1 pick/Zion Williamson – full disclosure: I'd take Ethan Happ, but that's just me – and that could be good news for fantasy owners.

While there could be some jockeying to get into the bottom three, where each team has a 14% chance at the top pick, the motivation to tank – or at least take it to more extreme measures – may not be there. Finishing with the worst record nets the same number of lottery combinations as finishing with the second-worst or the third-worst, while the fourth-worst record still has a 12.5% chance at No. 1 in a draft where getting that pick is ultra-important.

The Hawks are still in the mix, but they're 4.5 games better than Chicago entering Tuesday, a deficit that'll be difficult to close over the next two months. Beyond Atlanta, there's a sizeable gulf between the 18-38 Hawks and the 23-34 Grizzlies, creating essentially three tiers of lottery teams, with Atlanta on its own island in the middle.

Obviously, Atlanta would love to improve its odds at No. 1 from 10.5% to 12.5% or 14%, but the Hawks are more committed to winning at least some of the time and also have the Mavs' 2019 first-rounder in their back pocket. Even if the Hawks dropped every game the rest of the way and ended the year on a 29-game losing streak, there's a decent chance they'd still miss out on the bottom three.

With all that in mind, let's turn back to the Knicks. Enes Kanter is gone. Wesley Matthews is gone. All the guys involved in the Kristaps Porzingis trade are gone. But New York appears committed to holding on to DeAndre Jordan, who's just washed up enough to keep the Knicks where they want to be, while lending a cloak of respectability.

Monday marked Jordan's fourth double-double in five games with the Knicks, and he holds averages of 11.2 points and 11.8 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game for his new team. He likely won't top 30 minutes on most nights, like he was in Dallas, but even in a slightly reduced workload, Jordan can still be a borderline-elite source of rebounds.

Joining Jordan from Dallas was Dennis Smith, Jr., who's started all five games since coming to New York. He's cooled off over the last two games – combined 9-of-29 FG – but as expected, Smith has stepped into the larger role he was never going to get in Dallas. Whether that's for better or worse remains to be seen, but Smith's usage rate (27.4%) is up more than four percentage points since the trade. While efficiency will remain an issue, Smith is putting up 17.4 points, 6.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds for the Knicks thus far and should be in line to hang onto the starting job through the end of the season.

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the impending return of Emmanuel Mudiay, who's been out since Jan. 23 with a shoulder strain. Prior to the injury, he'd been the consistent starter at point guard.

In his second game with the Raptors, Marc Gasol again came off the bench in Monday's 127-125 win over the Nets. At some point, Gasol could end up unseating Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam in the starting five, but as he gets his bearings, Nick Nurse has been content to use Gasol in a more reduced role. The veteran was on the floor to begin the fourth quarter Monday, but he was pulled with under five minutes to play, as Nurse went back to his starting five for the final stretch.

Still, Gasol had an effective night, going for 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. But given the Raptors' depth and continuity, it's looking as though Gasol's chances to come close to equaling the 33-plus minutes per game he averaged in Memphis are slim.

Even with the deadline in the rear-view, the Anthony Davis saga drags on. The Pelicans reportedly faced a hefty fine if they planned to hold Davis out to preserve his trade value, so the All-Star has been on the floor in the two games since the deadline passed. He played 25 minutes in a win over Minnesota on Friday and followed up with 34 minutes in Saturday's loss to Memphis.

The cruel irony is that even with Davis playing a near-full workload and putting up 14 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks, the Pelicans still managed to help their lottery position. To his credit, Davis appears committed to playing things out for the rest of the season, and Alvin Gentry confirmed Monday that he expects Davis to be available for the Pels' final two games before the break. At some point, the Pelicans figure to exercise some degree of caution – maybe Davis sits back-to-backs or picks up an extra rest day here and there – but with the playoffs all but out of the question, that's probably how Davis would've been handled anyway, had he never asked for a trade.

Quick Hits

Bobby Portis has come off the bench in all three games with the Wizards and hasn't missed a beat, averaging 21.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.7 steals/blocks in 29.3 minutes per game. His usage rate in Washington is almost identical to what it was in Chicago, and Portis knocked down a season-high six three-pointers Monday night against Detroit. Dating back to Jan. 29, Portis is putting up 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 made threes over his last six games, overall.

Meanwhile, Jabari Parker came crashing back down to earth on Monday after a pair of productive outings to begin his Wizards tenure. Parker debuted with seven points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and three steals Friday against Cleveland and followed up with 20 points, five rebounds, six assists and two blocks in Saturday's revenge-game victory over Chicago. But on Monday night, Parker never found a rhythm, picking up three fouls and finishing scoreless (0-3 FG, 0-3 3PT) in 20 minutes of action.

The good news for owners in 60 percent of Yahoo leagues in which Parker is owned? Scott Brooks shouldn't be in any hurry to toss Parker into his doghouse.

This isn't exactly breaking news to anyone paying attention, but Paul George is quickly going from fun dark-horse candidate to legitimate MVP contender. While James Harden continues to score in bunches and Giannis has the Bucks sitting atop the NBA, George has willed Oklahoma City to third in the West, just 3.5 games behind Golden State entering Tuesday.

Almost across the board, George's season-long numbers are by far the best of his career, but over the last 12 games, he's averaging 36.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.4 steals and shooting 49 percent on nearly 12 three-point attempts per game. George threw up a 47/12/10 triple-double in Monday's win over Portland – two days after going for 45 and 11 in a national TV victory in Houston.

Fantasy-wise, George has ascended to the No. 3 overall player in Yahoo leagues based on per-game production, and he's second behind only Harden in total production.

Jonas Valanciunas is hoping to make his Grizzlies debut Tuesday night, but he's still waiting for his immigration papers to be processed. Valanciunas was unable to practice with the team Tuesday morning, but there's a good chance he'll be available against the Spurs if everything is squared away before tip. Valanciunas hasn't played since Dec. 12, but he was cleared to return – then, as a member of the Raptors – just before the trade deadline.

In other tall European news, Nikola Mirotic was held out of Monday night's win over Chicago and could wait to make his Bucks debut until after the All-Star break. Mirotic hasn't been ruled out of Wednesday's game at Indiana but is still working back from the calf injury that's shelved him since Jan. 23. In his absence, Milwaukee's win on Monday means the team will officially go into the All-Star break without back-to-back losses for the first time in franchise history. The last team to do that? The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who also did it in 2015-16.

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Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. NIck was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast of the year in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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