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Handicapping the 2016-17 NBA MVP Race

Always difficult to predict, the 2016-17 NBA MVP race may be one of the more interesting in recent memory.

Moke Hamilton

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Last season, after leading his Golden State Warriors to the most wins in an NBA regular season, Stephen Curry became the first player to ever be unanimously voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. It was the 13th time that the award was won by the same player in back-to-back years, and now, this season, he will attempt to join the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players in the history of the league to win the award three times in a row – with Bird last completing the rare trifecta in 1986.

The odds may be stacked against Curry, though. The Warriors may be title favorites, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or his new teammate in Kevin Durant will walk away from this season with the distinction. That’s hard to believe considering Durant and Curry have combined to win the last three MVP awards, but the truth is that they will likely hurt one another’s cause.

Or will they?

Basketball Insiders handicaps the race for the 2016-17 NBA season’s Most Valuable Player Award.

The Contenders

Chris Paul (Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers)

There are a fair amount of people who believe that Chris Paul deserved the Most Valuable Player Award over Kobe Bryant back in 2008. Paul admirably led a sparsely talented New Orleans Hornets team to 56 wins and the second seed in the Western Conference. They finished one game behind Bryant’s Lakers and Paul ended up finishing a distant second to Bryant after the votes had been tallied.

Still, the Clippers will enter the season as a favorite to finish in the top three out West, and with the distance between the contenders in the conference and the lower echelon teams seemingly becoming greater, the Clippers should have a relatively easy time eclipsing 55 wins. That is, of course, assuming they stay healthy.

In years past, there has been more and more attention given to Blake Griffin, and deservedly so, but after losing Paul during last year’s first round, the Clippers folded like a cheap suit. Subliminally, that may have the effect of Paul’s perceived value being restored. If he backs that up simply by doing what he has done for the Clippers recently (he has averaged over 19 points and 10 assists per game for each of the past three seasons), he may emerge as the front runner.

All things considered, if the Thunder don’t win 50 games and the Warriors don’t win 70, Paul (or LeBron James) could end up winning the award by default, almost.

LeBron James (Small Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers)

Stephen Curry may be in the running to become just the fourth player to win the award three consecutive times, but James is the only player aside from Bill Russell to have actually won the award four times in five years. James won the award in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers before yielding the award to Derrick Rose in 2011. James followed that by winning the award in 2012 and 2013, with each of those seasons ending with a Miami HEAT championship.

James is now at the age where he will pitch-count himself over the course of the long season, but with Curry and Durant having teamed up, getting the Cavaliers north of 60 wins would certainly result in James receiving at least a few first-place votes. Although last season’s 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists were far from his most impressive statistical season, he has a lot left in the tank and seems poised to take home the award for the fifth time. That is, of course, assuming he wants it.

Russell Westbrook (Point Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder)

The Most Valuable Player Award is typically awarded to someone whose team achieves great success. It’s difficult to imagine Westbrook win the award, but rules were meant to be broken.

In all honesty, let’s just say for argument’s sake that Westbrook is able to record 25 triple-doubles this coming season. If he does that and the Thunder win 47 games, depending on how other things shake out, many voters would consider him. Now, just imagine that the Thunder somehow win 52 games. The thought may seem overly optimistic, but Westbrook has a solid supporting cast and remember, the Thunder managed to win 45 games during the 2014-15 season. That happened with a weaker supporting cast and Kevin Durant playing in all of 27 games.

Everyone loves an underdog. And the stage has been set for Westbrook to emerge as a front runner.

Kawhi Leonard (Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs)

Tim Duncan may have decided to call it a career, but with Gregg Popovich still calling the shots in San Antonio, expect the Spurs to be in the mix in the end. At this point, nobody remembers, but last season, at 65-12, the Spurs had a legitimate shot to go for 70 wins. Popovich obviously opted not to, but suffice to say the Spurs are a really good team. Although Duncan will be missed, he played just 25 minutes per game and averaged less than nine points per contest. In all likelihood, Pau Gasol will be able to replace his production.

If the Spurs get anywhere near 65 wins this season, don’t be surprised to see Leonard getting a lot of MVP love. That is, of course, assuming he improves upon last season’s 21.2 points per game.

Stephen Curry (Point Guard, Golden State Warriors)

The bar has been set incredibly high for the Warriors, it’s almost not even fair. If this team is capable of winning 73 games without Kevin Durant, what would it take for them to exceed expectations this season?

The answer there? It’s a trick question. It’s probably not possible for the Warriors to exceed expectations this season, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for Curry to actually score what many would consider an upset by winning the Most Valuable Player Award for the third consecutive year. If he comes close to last season’s 30.1 points per game and gets the Warriors to 70 wins, then the voters, out of principle, will likely crown Curry the MVP again.

The problem in it all is that nothing will give you more perspective than winning the MVP award and winning a record-setting 73 games, only to come up short when it matters most. In all likelihood, the Warriors will lose their first game of the season during its first week and head into the All-Star break with more than a few losses. Still, where there’s a Curry, there’s a way, so we wouldn’t discount his chances completely.

The Second Tier

James Harden (Point Guard, Houston Rockets): The move to point guard will probably help Harden’s numbers, and that’s scary considering last season’s 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists were already out of this world. The concern with Harden will be corralling enough votes if his team doesn’t win enough games. Do you think the Rockets have enough talent to win 50 games out West? If not, it would take a perfect storm for Harden to walk away as MVP.

Kevin Durant (Small Forward, Golden State Warriors): Without question, a trans-generational talent. The only concern is that he is overlooked in Oakland. In all likelihood, his efficiency will skyrocket, but unless he does something tremendous, he will likely be penalized the same way that LeBron James was in his first season with the Miami HEAT. A fair number of voters didn’t vote for James simply because of the help he had. What would it take for Durant to overcome that type of bias?

Paul George (Small Forward, Indiana Pacers): Once a defensive-first team, the Indiana Pacers have a new head coach and, frankly, a new identity. What Paul George has working in his favor, though, is the fact that he has talent flanking him and he is coming off of what is arguably his finest statistical season. It’s hard to see the Pacers doing enough damage for George to beat out the likes of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, but respect is due.

Anthony Davis (Power Forward, New Orleans Pelicans): Agreed, Anthony Davis hasn’t done much for us lately, but he did finish fifth in MVP voting for the 2014-15 season. The Pelicans have a lot of work to do, but there are few players in the game who are capable of making an impact on both ends quite like Davis. Fear the brow; if he’s healthy, he will likely be an MVP-caliber performer. But are the Pelicans even a playoff team?

Damian Lillard: (Point Guard, Portland Trail Blazers): The Trail Blazers certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this coming season, especially not after spending truckloads to build out the talent base surrounding Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There are quite a few that don’t even expect the Blazers to win the Northwest Division this year, so if they manage to overachieve again, don’t be surprised for Lillard to accomplish the rare feat of going from All-Star snub to MVP contender.

Honorable Mention:

Kyrie Irving (Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers): Never say never, but it’s difficult to see Irving finding a way to overshadow LeBron James.

Carmelo Anthony (Small Forward, New York Knicks): Call it a catch-22, but for the Knicks to approach the win total required for Carmelo to get consideration, they would need the supporting cast to play out of their mind, which would diminish ‘Melo’s credit.

Blake Griffin (Power Forward, Los Angeles Clippers): If he is the team’s alpha-male and takes playmaking pressure off of Chris Paul, watch out!

DeMarcus Cousins (Center, Sacramento Kings): When you’re giving us 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, we care less about your team’s win total. We got love for you.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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