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NBA Daily: Ranking The Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ ranking series by taking a look at the best executives in the league.

Matt John

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If you’ve been keeping up with us for the past week or so, Basketball Insiders is ranking every position possible in the NBA. Last week, we took a look at players who were the best from their respective positions. This week, we’re taking a look at the other personnel’s effect on how the season turns out.

Today, we’re looking at the executives. The people that run the operation. The people who put the product out there. The people whose job NBA Twitter loves to pose as more than anything.

The guidelines for what makes a good executive depends on what the team’s goals actually are. If the team’s goals are geared towards winning a championship now, the executive is tasked with finding the right players and coaches to form a championship team. If the team’s goals are to winning a championship several years down the line, the executive is tasked with drafting and developing the right players. In some rare cases, the executive gets to do both.

It’s true that the executives are the ones responsible for the task of bringing in players in hopes of winning a championship. There does come a point where a question arises: If players are more involved in bringing other players in than the executive is, how much credit does the executive really deserve for the success that comes afterward?

Take Rob Pelinka, for example. LeBron James pretty much just fell right into his lap, and by extension, so did Anthony Davis. They wanted to play together. If they had wanted to do the same for New York, would we have really credited the Knicks’ management after years of incompetence? Nobody here is trying to say Pelinka is a bad executive; we have to keep it honest and say that he isn’t really responsible for the Lakers’ success as much as “GM LeBron” is.

For that reason, we have to hold Pat Riley, Sean Marks and Lawrence Frank to the same standard, no matter how good of a job they’ve done with their teams in previous years.

Does Riley deserve the credit for the HEAT’s success when it was Dwyane Wade who pushed Jimmy Butler to sign with them? Does Marks deserve props for Kyrie Irving wanting to play for his hometown team and having his best friend come to join him? Frank deserves some leeway because he established a winning culture in LA after Lob City collapsed, but the reason why the Clippers are competing at the top is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to play together for the city they grew up in.

If you want to give those guys more credit, all the power to you. Everyone has different criteria when it comes to rankings. The following executives named below formed the excellent teams they have now because of their savvy as executives and didn’t benefit from superstars wanting to join forces. At least, not entirely.

1. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

Hardly any reigning champion has ever lost its best player after winning the title. The ones that have usually did because said best player opted for retirement — Michael Jordan and Bill Russell come to mind. Such was not the case when Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles. Because of that, there’s no apt comparison to what the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors have done. If having to regroup after your best player — who’s still in his prime — leaves following a championship season becomes a thing, Toronto is setting the standard of how to do it right.

And they did this by…staying exactly the way they are — for the most part, at least. Besides bringing in a sneaky good infusion of youth — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis — the core, minus Leonard, has remained intact. Pascal Siakam’s taken yet another step into stardom, though he has simmered down a bit. Kyle Lowry’s back to his old ways. Fred VanVleet’s playing like he wants that Brinks truck. We could keep going on about the individuals who have contributed to Toronto’s unprecedented Cinderella run.

Nick Nurse’s genius schemes have helped Toronto stay on the course, but it was Ujiri who brought in all of the correct personnel for Nurse to put it all together, as well as Nurse himself. His moves since 2013 have all amounted to a team aiming to go as far as they did last year when no one thought that was possible back in October. That makes him an expert in team-building.

Maybe there’s a little recency bias considering the Raptors are the defending champions, but for two straight years, they have not only persevered when fate dealt them a cruel hand, but have seemingly come out on top. For that, Ujiri deserves the title as the best general manager in the league.

2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

He’s had his major hiccups in the past, but Sam Presti has proven time and time again that he is a brilliant executive. When he’s backed into a corner, he somehow manages to get himself out of it. He also somehow makes himself look smarter when he comes out on the other side. This time, Presti has made himself look about as brilliant as he’s ever been.

He already did everything that a smart executive would do in his position this past summer. He blew up the squad and squeezed every asset he could out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He has his point guard of the future. He has plenty of draft assets at his disposal to cement a new era. The only catch was eating Chris Paul’s contract. Who knew that wouldn’t be much of a catch?

Even through all of that, he managed to assemble possibly the most entertaining Thunder team since the Kevin Durant days. With the core they’ve formed behind Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’re basically the team that no one in the West wants to face in the playoffs. Not many teams get to have their cake eat it. The Thunder did because of Presti.

Look, the writing’s on the wall in OKC. We all know that this team will eventually be broken apart. That’s good for them. Even with the motherload of draft assets by his side, Presti is in prime position to get more. He’s got sign-and-trade scenarios with Gallinari coming up. He may enter the same situation with Adams. Schroder has some trade value, and, after the season Paul’s had, is it too crazy to say the veteran’s contract could be tradeable this summer?

To put the cherry on top, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Pretty much everyone in the West is going to vie for the playoffs next year. When there’s no competition at the bottom, that’s the perfect time to tank. OKC missed its opportunity for a championship during the Durant-Westbrook era, but Presti has put them in prime position to create a potentially more fruitful one for years to come.

3. Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

When you know that you have a young super-duper-star on your team, it is absolutely imperative that you build around him the right way. If you don’t, you can wind up in a situation as disastrous as the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and deemed him their new superstar, they’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, with the man who made all the difference being Jon Horst.

Before Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you don’t build around a young superstar
After Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you precisely build around a young superstar

Horst may not have been responsible for drafting Giannis, but he is responsible for putting the right team around the Greek Freak to excel. He got the right coach. He brought in the right personnel. He shipped the wrong personnel out of town. He took the necessary risks to make Milwaukee better. He’s made his mistakes — waiving Christian Wood to make room for Pau Gasol — but the Bucks were a nuclear weapon ready to explode. Horst was the one who lit the fuse.

Since then, the Bucks have topped the league in net rating for the last two seasons and have possessed the league’s best record. Even if they’re technically league-average from three — 35.6 percent, good for 16th in the league — their reliance on the perimeter has unlocked Giannis’ game. They couldn’t have done that without both head coach Mike Budenholzer and the spacing they added because of Horst’s efforts.

There’s a difference between having the potential to be something special and being something special. The Milwaukee Bucks were the former term for five years and have been the latter term for the last two. Had it not been for Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard, they might be the reigning champions right now. If the season resumes, there may not be a “might be” between Milwaukee and reigning champions when it’s all said and done.

4. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks may not be contenders yet, but man, over the last two years, they’ve hit two straight-up bullseyes, and it’s already paying off more than anyone could have imagined. They got the Slovenian Boy Wonder and they have his Latvian partner-in-crime — for who knows how long, too? They may be deprived of assets, but those assets were well-spent.

And what did it cost to get them to what should be a glorious future? Cam Reddish’s draft rights, a few first-rounders that are sure to be late picks and eating what’s left of Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts. Lee’s contract will be up in a matter of months, and Hardaway’s bloated deal comes to an end. That’s pretty much a slap on the wrist considering Dallas hasn’t asked really anything from Lee — because they’ve never had to — and Hardaway has been reasonably productive in the role they’ve given him.

What most mystifying of all is that this wasn’t Dallas’ forte. They slyly built up an incredibly strong foundation of youth spearheaded by two of the league’s most exciting young stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Did anybody think Donnie Nelson had this in him two years ago? That’s not to say the Mavericks have been run incompetently under his time. It’s just the way that they’ve masterfully built their next era of basketball so shortly after Dirk Nowitzki’s prime didn’t seem in-character to them and, quite frankly, it’s unbelievable.

There are obviously more gaps to fill. Even while being one of the league’s historic offenses presently, the Mavericks have some guys to add on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no rush. Right now, they have the privilege of enjoying the ride. Because, for the first time in forever, time is on their side.

5. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

Just for the record, this list is not based on reputation. If it was, Ainge would be higher due to how many franchises he’s ruined to help the Celtics over the past decade-and-a-half. Moreover, if this list came out last year, he wouldn’t be mentioned because he did a horrible job running the team. This year, he got his spot back because his efforts as the executive are paying off big time again.

The assets he acquired from Brooklyn from back in 2013 are blossoming into the players he had in mind when he drafted them in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker has pretty much lived up to expectations as “Diet Kyrie.” Gordon Hayward looks a lot more like himself than last year, even if he’s not playing at the same level he did in Utah. Even Daniel Theis has evolved into one of the league’s better bargain contracts.

What’s most impressive is that in the wake of losing their best player, Kyrie Irving, and their most indispensable player, Al Horford, the Celtics managed to get better on both sides of the ball. They did more with less. Brad Stevens’ coaching has a lot to do with that, but Ainge was the one who brought these guys in so that they could compensate for their losses.

In essence, this has been a redemption year for Ainge following Boston’s season from hell last season. Ainge’s reputation for being one of the best executives in the league has stemmed from his cut-throat mindset. This time, he gets the nod because he executed the “less is more” approach to perfection.

6. Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets

Why is Denver always off of everyone’s radar? This is the second consecutive season in which they have finished with a top-three record in the conference that has been deemed the tougher one to compete. It makes sense to talk more about the Los Angeles teams because, until proven otherwise, they are a level above everyone else. After that, people want to talk about Houston’s funky experiment, Utah’s struggles, Dallas’ surge, and Oklahoma City’s resilience among others….but the Nuggets have been better than all of them.

They still have one of the best all-around centers in the game. They’re a well-coached squad with guys who know their roles. Best of all, they somehow still have more potential to fulfill. This year, they found yet another reason to be excited about their future. They went with a low-risk, high-reward project in Michael Porter Jr, and let him redshirt his rookie season. Now, with Porter Jr. healthy and playing ball again, it looks like Denver may have yet another superstar waiting in the wings. If he avoids the injury bug, Denver’s ceiling gets taken up to yet another level.

It hasn’t all been perfect. Jamal Murray still hasn’t become the consistent electric scorer that he shows himself to be from time to time. Paul Millsap’s not getting any younger and…what happened to Gary Harris? Have we ever seen a young player’s production drop as badly as Harris’ when the guy’s only in his mid-20s? That’s what makes Denver even more impressive. In spite of some of their guys not being as productive as they like, they’ve managed to outplay everyone in the conference that doesn’t reside in LA.

It’s time the Nuggets got their due. They wouldn’t get one if it weren’t for Connelly’s excellent work running the operation. He would be even higher if he had just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights, but Nuggets fans have already heard enough about that, haven’t they?

7. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

Daryl Morey has a reputation for making brilliant trades either because he hoarded the appropriate assets in order to make them, thought outside the box or thought he’d fit in with Houston’s gameplan like a glove — or all three. That brings us to Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook didn’t seem like the type of player that Morey would covet. He’s not a three-point shooter. He prefers having the ball in his hands. He’s not the most efficient scorer. An incredible future Hall-of-Fame talent, indeed — just not the sort of player that Morey would want on his team. We all know the situation both he and Rockets were facing with the fall out between James Harden and Chris Paul. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

So why is Morey on this list? Because, like all good executives do, he retooled the team into the perfect one for Westbrook and Harden. Instead of forcing Westbrook into Houston’s system the whole season, he changed up the system to make life easier for Westbrook to play to the best of his abilities. Going with all wings and no bigs is definitely not a foolproof plan. It is, warts and all, the only way he can properly justify trading Paul — who’s a shoo-in for an All-NBA team this year — for Westbrook, who wasn’t really fitting in with the team.

That’s what the best executives do. They make the accommodations so that the pieces fit even if it’s not a picture-perfect situation. Morey’s lower on this list than he usually would because there’s a very solid chance that this may not work, but he’s still here because he knew it’s what he had to do.

8. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers

It’s virtually impossible to not include a man who everyone regarded as incompetent almost three years ago only to be laughing in all of their faces since then on a list like this. Pritchard has been running a victory lap around everyone since he traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This season, he had even more reason to.

Oladipo took the reins by becoming a star his first year in Indy, and now Sabonis has followed in his footsteps two years later. Even though the former’s status as a star is going to be in question until he proves he’s still got it, Indiana has still managed to be one of the tougher teams in the Eastern Conference. Pritchard deserves credit for helping them stay afloat after their best player has been through hell and back.

Sabonis’ evolution into one of the league’s best offensive bigs in the league has helped a fair amount, yes. Bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell to stabilize things has also helped. All of those players were brought in because of Pritchard; they were arguably upgrades over who they had before.

The Pacers have a good thing going on for them. If things continue to progress for them as well as they already have, things could turn out better than they were with Paul George. There is an elephant room that Pritchard will have to confront sooner or later — trading Myles Turner when it’s clear that Sabonis is their big man of the future — but knowing how he’s done since 2017, there should be plenty of confidence that he’ll make the right move.

This list was based off how the executives performed this past season. Had Zion Williamson not gotten hurt, David Griffin probably would have made this list. If New Orleans has a healthier season, and their young guys continue to grow, there’d be little reason not to include Griffin at a time like this. The same goes for Zach Kleiman and company, who have done a masterful job with Memphis this season.

If this had been based on moves made before the season, it’s very likely that Dennis Lindsey and Elton Brand would have been on here. Since the moves they’ve made haven’t worked out nearly as well as they had hoped, they can’t be included.

Lastly, these days, it’s tough to rank executives because management around the NBA period has gotten smarter for the most part. We have teams that still have poor ownership, but executives have mostly gotten smarter. Even recently, the Chicago Bulls, who have been largely criticized for the moves they’ve made (and not made), hired a smart front office guy — Arturas Karnisovas– to clean up their mess.

Maybe the New York Knicks will do the same. At least, that’s what their fans have wanted since the start of the 21st century.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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