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The Closest MVP Races in NBA History

This year’s MVP race is going to close, but will it be among the closest (and most controversial) ever?

Joel Brigham

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It’s not even December yet, but already there is talk that this year’s MVP race could be the most hotly-contested in the modern history of the game.

Russell Westbrook is averaging 31.2 PPG, 11.2 APG and 9.9 RPG, a single tenth of a point away from leading the league in scoring and a single tenth of a rebound per game away from pulling an Oscar Robertson. In any other season, that would be your MVP no matter how good his team was or what any other player in the league was doing – but this isn’t any other season.

James Harden is fourth in the league in scoring with 28.3 PPG, but he’s also leading the league in assists with 12.4 APG and hauling in 7.8 RPG. Kawhi Leonard is averaging 24.8 PPG and is the frontrunner to win a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award. LeBron James is averaging 23.5 PPG, 9.5 APG and 8.2 RPG going at what looks like about 75 percent speed, and his team has only lost two games. Chris Paul has the Clippers playing some of the best basketball in team history, Kevin Durant is scoring more efficiently than he’s ever done for the Western Conference’s top team, and even guys like DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker have gotten their fair share of MVP chatter early in the season.

At this point in the season, it’s impossible to know which of these guys will win the league’s most prestigious individual accolade, but there’s no question it will be close.

The real question, though, is whether it will be historically close. The following offers a look into some of the closest MVP races in recent league history:

Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan (1998-1999)

It’s always fun when an MVP race is debatable among three great players rather than just two, and 1999 was an excellent opportunity for exactly that sort of power struggle following Michael Jordan’s retirement the season before. Someone had to grab the mantle, and these three powerful big men all were happy to take their stabs at it.

Malone averaged 23.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG and 4.1 APG, Mourning averaged 20.1 PPG, 11 RPG and 3.9 BPG and Duncan averaged 21.7 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 2.5 BPG in that first season post-Jordan. It seemingly was impossible to select one guy over the other two, and the final votes reflected that indecision. The first-place votes were tight with Malone taking 44, Mourning getting 36 and Duncan earning 30, but the second- and third-place votes were just as tight, with those numbers landing all over the place. Malone ended up winning the thing with 827 total points, though Mourning finished just 54 points behind, and Duncan only 33 points behind him.

Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd (2001-2002)

In a lot of tangible ways, 2001-02 was the year that both Duncan and Kidd truly blossomed as legendary, future Hall-of-Fame players. David Robinson passed his metaphorical torch to Duncan that year, just one season out from his own retirement. Meanwhile, Kidd found his way to New Jersey and helped the Nets bloom into the Eastern Conference’s representative in the 2002 NBA Finals – the first ever trip to the championship series for that franchise.

Already, both were seen as two of the best players at their respective positions, but they also showed just how transcendent they could be in a season where there really was an excellent debate over which guy would win the MVP award. Duncan averaged what would prove to be a career-high 25.5 PPG to go along with 12.7 RPG and 2.5 BPG, all for an elite Western Conference team. Kidd turned nothing into something in Newark behind his 14.7 PPG, 9.9 APG, 7.3 RPG and 2.1 SPG.

Ultimately, Duncan won the vote, 954-897, a difference of only 57 points. That tight tally was a testament to just how good each player really was that season.

Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal (2004-2005)

Looking back, it’s pretty incredible that Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in the mid-aughts, but his first one was considerably less controversial than his second one. Upon his arrival in Arizona, Nash led the Suns to 62 wins and supercharged a Phoenix offense that would ultimately serve as the brightest spot on Mike D’Antoni’s resume.

O’Neal, meanwhile, was doing fantastic things for a Miami HEAT team in his first season there after winning three rings in Los Angeles. With Dwyane Wade coming into his own and O’Neal giving the burgeoning HEAT a competitive heft that they hadn’t experienced previously, it really was no surprise that he’d get his fair share of MVP votes that season, as well.

Still, the unexpectedness of Nash’s coming-out party paired with his team’s success made the narrative too interesting to ignore, which is why he ended up winning this race by a scant 34 points.

Karl Malone, Michael Jordan (1996-1997)

The closest thing to 1997’s MVP race that we’ve seen this decade is when Derrick Rose split up what easily could have been a five-year stretch of LeBron James MVP awards, mostly because the voters simply seemed tired of handing the hardware over to The King every year. In an attempt to spread the wealth a little and give themselves something different to write about, media named Rose MVP in 2011.

Imagine whatever tepid hullabaloo that award caused and multiply it by a million to get a sense of how controversial the 1997 MVP award was. Jordan was at the peak of his career, four championships in and well on his way to winning a fifth, but Malone put up numbers just good enough to justify fatigued voters going in a different direction. In fact, Malone won 63 first-place votes compared to Jordan’s 52, but in terms of total points Jordan finished only 29 total points behind the Mailman. Malone won 85.7 percent of his possible votes, while Jordan snagged 83.2 percent of his, and many NBA people were simply horrified by those results.

Still, considering how many pro-Jordan stories had printed in the two years since his return from Retirement No. 1, it’s easy to see how media voters may have grown jaded toward MJ’s dominance – both on the court and in the papers. In truth, Malone had a great season that was just good enough to boot the game’s best-ever player from winning an MVP trophy he probably deserved.

Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley (1989-1990)

This might be the one that ends up looking the most like this current year’s MVP race before everything is all said and done. There were three legitimate candidates for the award, which included Jordan (33.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 6.3 APG), Johnson (22.3 PPG, 11.5 APG and 6.6 RPG), and Barkley (25.2 PPG, 11.5 RPG and over 60 percent field goal shooting). Out of that trio, Barkley ended up receiving the most first-place votes.

He didn’t win, though, which was the truly weird thing about this particular MVP race. It’s the only time in league history that a player has won the most first-place votes for MVP, but not won the total vote. The actual award went to Johnson, whose Lakers won 63 games that year.

Jordan was the one who arguably should have won the award. He led the league in scoring and steals, giving him a two-way value that the other two guys simply didn’t have. Despite all that, three voters left Jordan completely off of their ballots. A change there, obviously, could have changed the entire complexion of the vote.

In the end, Johnson bested Barkley by just 22 points, with Jordan only another 43 points behind him.

***

If Westbrook averages a triple-double, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t win this award, even if the Thunder completely fall off the map in the Western Conference, but team wins could easily sway votes toward other players who may be nearly as successful statistically and just as important to their team’s success, but with more overall wins. This race could be tight, and it could be controversial, at which point we may have to tweak this list a bit.

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Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA

NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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