We’re coming up on about one month into the NBA season and there have been some interesting storylines so far regarding possible Coach of the Year candidates.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have withstood a season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward while incorporating several new players. Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic have gotten off to surprisingly good starts.
In the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies have adapted to the loss of several key players while the Houston Rockets, playing without Chris Paul since the season opener, haven’t missed a beat. And don’t overlook the young Timberwolves who have also started the season strong.
Here’s a look a six of the early Coach of the Year candidates, in reverse order.
6) Mike D’Antoni
Last season, the Western Conference was thought to be a two-team race between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. For the most part, that was true, but the Rockets emerged as a team to be taken seriously. Mike D’Antoni moved James Harden to full-time point guard and the result was career-highs in points (29.1) and assists (11.2), the Rockets finishing third in the conference at 55-27, and D’Antoni taking home the Coach of the Year award.
This offseason, the Rockets added Chris Paul in hopes of closing the gap between them and the Warriors, but Paul has been sidelined since the season opener with a knee injury. Although the Rockets will need Paul if they want any chance at competing with the Warriors in the playoffs, they’ve managed to play through his injury so far.
The main staple of D’Antoni teams has always been high-powered offenses. The Rockets have used their strong offense to sit atop the Western Conference at 9-3. They are scoring 110.5 points per game, good enough for fourth in the league. There are four players averaging double figures in points, including a career-high 22.8 for Eric Gordon. Depending on how long Paul is out, and how much the injury affects him going forward, D’Antoni could find himself in the conversation once again for Coach of the Year.
5) Tom Thibodeau
Last season was the first time in Tom Thibodeau’s head coaching career that one of his teams finished with a losing record. He always got the most out of his Chicago Bulls teams and they became a playoff staple in the Eastern Conference. He had a young, inexperienced team last year and as President of Basketball Operations as well, he made sure he had a more balanced roster of young guys and veterans this year.
Jimmy Butler emerged as the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft to a franchise caliber player under Thibodeau. Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks had career years under Thibodeau in Chicago. He added those guys plus Jamal Crawford to help balance the youth and experience on the Wolves roster. So far, it has paid off as the Wolves currently sit in the top four in the West. It was expected that they’d have a shot at the playoffs, but thanks to Thibodeau, home court advantage in the first round isn’t out of the question.
Thibodeau’s teams have always been recognized as strong defensive squads, and he’s often given much credit for the suffocating defense the Boston Celtics used in route to the 2008 championship. The Wolves, however, are giving up 111.2 points per game which is 27th in the league. If they can get the defense tightened up a bit, and hold on to the top four spot, Thibodeau might be looking at his second Coach of the Year award.
4) Frank Vogel
In Frank Vogel’s first four seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the team improved every year, made a few Conference Finals, and emerged as the only semi-legitimate threat to the Miami HEAT. The only year the Pacers missed the playoffs under Vogel was the 2014-15 season, and that was when Paul George missed pretty much the entire year with an injury.
This past summer, the Orlando Magic cleaned out their front office and brought in a new management team. They appear to have a clear direction, unlike last season, and they are thriving under Vogel. Aaron Gordon is playing his natural position at power forward and his having an All-Star caliber year. Evan Fournier is having a career year as well, and Vogel has taken advantage of Jonathon Simmons’ versatile skill set and has him closing games as the team’s point guard.
The Magic have not made the playoffs since Dwight Howard was traded back in 2012. Vogel’s teams have only missed the playoffs twice: once in Indiana when missing his star player, and last year when the Magic were out of sorts. Vogel has the Magic in the top ten in the league in scoring at 109.3 points per game. His Pacer teams were always tough and gritty defensively and this season he has the Magic in the top half of the league defensively. Their 105.6 points given up are right at 15th. It was unclear whether or not the Magic would be a legitimate playoff contender, but they’ve shown early on that playoffs are the goal. If they maintain their current pace, Vogel could be looking at his first Coach of the Year award.
3) Stan Van Gundy
Although he eventually resigned his position, under Stan Van Gundy, the HEAT improved each year he was there and looked well on their way to becoming the eventual championship team they became in 2006. His Orlando teams were a perennial playoff contender and in only his second year with the Magic, he took them to the Finals. He hasn’t seen that type of success in Detroit just yet, but it’s looking like they may have finally turned the corner.
The Pistons have come out of the gates with the second-best record in the East. They had an impressive West Coast road swing last month where, albeit losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, they beat the Warriors and Clippers. Stanley Johnson, who has seen uneven playing time in the past under Van Gundy, has been placed in the starting lineup and is responding accordingly. Although his numbers don’t jump off the page (8.5 points, 40.3 percent shooting), Van Gundy’s trust in him has seemingly done well for his confidence and he’s become an integral piece of the team. Tobias Harris is also having a career year, and Andre Drummond has seemingly returned to the All-Star form he displayed during the 2015-16 season.
Van Gundy has also been known as a good defensive coach, and the Pistons are currently giving up 100.8 points per game, good enough for 8th in the league. They’re scoring well too at 105.6 points per game. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Pistons were another team on the bubble. They could be a playoff team, but they could very easily not be as well. Unless the Cleveland Cavaliers get their act together, the East appears wide open. Van Gundy has had teams that have done very well in the regular season and if they can keep this up, he’ll be in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
2) Dave Fizdale
It’s not easy to bounce back when a team loses several key players like the Grizzlies did this summer after the departures of Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph. Even before this year, the Grizzlies have been overlooked and ignored yet like a lite version of the Spurs, they defy expectations and remain a force in the tough West. In his first ever season as a head coach, Fizdale kept Memphis competitive and they even put up a fight against the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, despite their roster losses, Fizdale has taken a mostly young group and has them right in the thick of things in the West. They have impressive wins over the Warriors, the Rockets (twice), the Clippers, and the Trail Blazers. He’s taken James Ennis III and Jarell Martin, two guys who haven’t always had a defined role, and put them in the starting lineup where they’ve thrived. He’s moved rookie Dillon Brooks in the starting lineup as well.
Fizdale is also developing a reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the league. Last year, the Grizzlies’ 100 points given up per night was good enough for third in the league. This season, they’re only giving up 98 points per game. Their offense is solid as well at 101.5 points per game. The Grizzlies look like they’re not content with just making the playoffs, they’re fighting for a top-four spot and home-court advantage in the first round. The West was supposed to be especially tough this season with several All-Star players shifting over from the East. Despite that, here are the Grizzlies right in the middle of it. Should this continue, Fizdale should be near the top when it comes to the Coach of the Year voting.
1) Brad Stevens
When Brad Stevens first became head coach of the Celtics in 2013, it was unclear whether not he could make the leap from college to the NBA. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the best coaches in the league. The Celtics have improved every year under Stevens, and while the team hasn’t always been one of the most talented in the league, Stevens has always gotten the most out of them.
The Celtics were dealt what could have been a crushing blow in their season opener. Their prized free agent signing, Gordon Hayward, went down with an injury that was later revealed to be a season-ending one. Not only were they down perhaps their second-best player, but the Celtics went through a roster turnover that left them with ten new players. Despite that, the Celtics not only have the best record in the East, they have the best record in the entire league. Stevens has transformed the Celtics into a legit threat to Cleveland’s dominance.
One of Stevens’ calling cards since arriving in the NBA is defense. Currently, Boston is the best defensive team in the league. They are only giving up 94.6 points per game, the best in the NBA. Kyrie Irving has taken his game to levels not previously seen. The Celtics are showing no signs of slowing down and, should Cleveland recover manage to get their act together, they could be in for a tough fight.
Should each of these teams mentioned continue their current pace, all of these coaches would be worthy of winning Coach of the Year. However, based on the circumstances surrounding Boston, from losing Hayward to having a high roster turnover, Stevens has to be the clear early favorite. It doesn’t matter much what these other teams do, the Coach of the Year award is looking like it’s Stevens’ to lose.
Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings
Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.
The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.
Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.
However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.
The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.
As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.
A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.
In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.
And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.
The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.
Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.
They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.
Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.
Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.
On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.
These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.
The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.
NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching
The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?
When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.
Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.
Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG
Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.
Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.
The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.
Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG
At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.
Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.
Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG
Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.
Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.
If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.
Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG
As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.
Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.
Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.
James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG
The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.
In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.
Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?
If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.
Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.
Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.
Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.
Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.
Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.
- Kyrie Irving
Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.
Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.
While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.
- DeMar DeRozan
Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.
With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.
Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.
That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.
While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.
- Steph Curry
What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.
During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.
His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.
I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.
- James Harden
James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.
While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.
Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.
- LeBron James
Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.
Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.
But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.