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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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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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