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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/2/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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In one week’s time, not much has changed in terms of the Most Valuable Player race.

Since we last checked in on the battle for the league’s most coveted award on the day after Christmas, only one player lost his spot on the ladder. That individual gave way to a newcomer, who at this point of the season has fully forced himself into the MVP conversation.

While not much has changed in the matter on one week, due to some recent injury events, the next MVP ladder could look quite different from this version.

So without further ado, your current MVP standings.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan is playing like a new player entirely this season.

What that means exactly is that, for the first time in his career, DeRozan is a threat from beyond the arc. For a player that was already a master of the midrange (a dying art form in today’s NBA), adding a long distance shot to his arsenal completes DeRozan’s ability to score from any level of the court.

While DeRozan isn’t currently averaging a career-high in scoring (about 2.5 points down from last season), he’s posting a career-best 118 offensive rating, and showing his best facilitation skills as well with 4.9 assists per game.

Fresh off of a career-high and Toronto Raptors franchise record 52-point game over the Milwaukee Bucks — a contest that saw DeRozan go 5-for-9 from beyond the arc — the superstar shooting guard has done enough to firmly grasp a rung on this MVP ladder.

Toronto is currently fourth and sixth in offensive rating and defensive rating, respectively, in the entire league. So far, DeRozan has been their clear catalyst to a 25-10 record and second place in the Eastern Conference. With a complete star player and well-rounded attack on both sides of the ball, the Raptors could pose a legitimate threat to LeBron James’ conference dominance.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Over a week’s time, Irving hasn’t lost any ground on his spot in MVP race. But he hasn’t necessarily done anything spectacular to gain ground on those in front of him.

In that wild Boston Celtics comeback against the Houston Rockets that saw Boston erase a 26-point Houston lead, Irving led his team with 26 points. However, in the fourth quarter, which started off 81-69 in favor of Houston, Irving scored just three points, while turning the ball over twice.

That’s not an incredible indictment on Irving’s contributions to his team during that particular game, just that his teammates and coach are more than capable of mounting a comeback even without their best player piggybacking them to a win.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Like Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t been able to do enough in the last week to close the gap between himself and Kevin Durant.

But with the return of Steph Curry to the Warriors lineup, the next few weeks could be a perfect time for the Greek Freak to re-insert himself into the top-three of the MVP race.

As long as Milwaukee’s star jack-of-all-trades continues to dominate each facet of the court, that should be enough to pull him closer to Durant as time moves on. With Curry in the fold, it will be hard to continuously argue Durant’s claim to the award should Golden State continue their winning ways.

For Antetokounmpo, continuing to post near triple-doubles on a nightly basis is just one half of his battle to gain footing on those in front of him in MVP race. At 19-16, and sixth place in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks would be slated for a first-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers if the playoffs started today. Calling that situation less than ideal would be a massive understatement. Antetokounmpo needs to reach into his ever-growing bag of tricks and pull the Bucks into a much more favorable fourth or fifth seed placing, as they’re currently just one game behind either spot.

Antetokounmpo will get the numbers, but to have a serious shot at MVP, his team needs to finish in the top half of the playoff picture.

  1. Kevin Durant

Not all hope is lost for Kevin Durant’s MVP bid now that Steph Curry is back, but it doesn’t look good.

Curry’s return marked a season milestone for the superstar point guard. In his first game back, he hit 10 three’s, the most by any player this season. Welcome back, chef. As a result, Durant slid right back into his role as co-star and chipped in with a fruitful 20 points, nine assists, and five rebounds. Certainly a good game, but the focus was Curry.

For as great as Durant has been in his time without his star teammate, Curry still makes the most impact for not only himself but those around him. With Curry on the court, the Warriors operate with a 123.6 offensive rating, and a 108.2 rating without him. That’s a far cry from the 117.6 to 111.2 ratings the team posts with and without Durant.

All of this isn’t to say Durant isn’t an MVP-caliber player; we know he his. But his candidacy was, and will always be, contingent on Curry. With the point guard back in the fold now, it’ll be hard to imagine that Durant keeps ahold of his current spot on the MVP ladder.

  1. LeBron James

For the first time this season, LeBron James has a legitimate shot to make up serious ground on the top spot of the MVP ladder.

With James Harden sidelined for at least the next two weeks due to a hamstring injury, James has a chance to overtake him in the MVP hierarchy. But he has to get the Cleveland Cavaliers back into the win column.

Following a Christmas Day defeat to the Golden State Warriors, James and the Cavs dropped two more games in a row, both to teams with lesser talent in the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.

Both losses, despite a triple-double in the Kings game and a 29-8-6 line on his birthday against the Jazz, are blemishes on an immediate MVP resume.

The good news for James, though, along with Harden’s unfortunate injury, is that the Houston Rockets were losing before their star player was lost to injury. Houston was in the midst of a five-game losing streak before their double overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers, the very game they lost Harden to injury.

Should Houston stay afloat and re-establish their winning ways with their MVP on the sideline, coupled with James’ continued dominance, a hole will be poked in Harden’s MVP armor. For Harden’s case, and the sake of his first ever MVP award, he should hope that hamstring heals up quicker than expected.

  1. James Harden

As noted, James Harden has fallen under hard times.

In an unfortunate turn of events, the league’s leading candidate for most valuable player suffered a hamstring strain while dropping 40 points on the Lakers in an effort to snap a five-game losing streak for his team.

Now that Harden is sidelined for the time being, his MVP worth will truly be tested. Should the Rockets start winning again, thanks to the quarterbacking of Chris Paul, a slight discussion of Harden’s true worth will be questioned (prematurely, though, considering his worth is incredibly obvious). That being said, it’s hard to do anything but lose ground in an MVP race while on the bench.

With James hot on his tail, Harden will be in a heated battled for the MVP trophy in the second half of the season when he returns from injury.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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