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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: The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the end of the Jimmy Butler saga official, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Tom Thibodeau is next, and that could mark the end of the coach as lead executive run in the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the Timberwolves trade of Jimmy Butler finally complete, the next shoe to drop in Minnesota will be the fate of Tom Thibodeau, not only as a head coach, but as a lead decision maker.

Thibodeau and Spurs head coach Greg Popovich are the last remaining coaches with contractual control over their roster. However, Popovich stays fairly hands off on the Spurs roster leaving the day of work and planning to longtime executive RC Buford.

The NBA for years has been a copy-cat league, and the run of giving high profile-named coaches the team president title seems to have run its course with rather brutal results.

There have already been reports that ownership in Minnesota gave strong consideration to firing Thibodeau and his front office this past summer, but opted to stay the course.

It is believed that unless something special happens this season, Thibodeau is likely out at season’s end and the Wolves will look to re-tool their entire front office.

The issue that continues to come up with coaches as lead decision maker is the short-term, game-to-game thinking coaches need to have versus the long-term vision front offices need to have to be prepared for the future.

In most of the situations where the coach was the lead decision maker, not only were massively silly contracts issues, but draft picks and future draft positioning was often sacrificed for win-now transactions.

Much of the Jimmy Butler saga was tied to Thibodeau’s belief that waiting out the market would drum up better offers, and that even with an unhappy Butler he could win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt, ignoring the toxic culture that was bubbling up around the situation.

It has become fairly clear in NBA circles that the skill sets needed to be an effective general manager do not typically align with the skills needed to be a good coach. There have been a few successes in the dual role, but most have ended pretty badly.

A Big Free Agent Class

Not only will a possible 14 NBA teams have significant salary cap space this upcoming summer, almost half of the NBA is eligible for some level of free agency. Here are all of them.

The latest projections from the NBA peg the 2019-2020 salary cap to be just around $109 million, with the luxury tax line being roughly $132 million.

The cap jump won’t be anything close to what the NBA experienced in 2016 when the NBA saw a $24 million year over year jump, but there will be a solid increase from the $101.8 million cap this season.

With that increase, combined with a lot of the bad decisions made in 2016 expiring, many teams will have the flexibility to be players.

Current cap projections peg Dallas, the Clippers, Brooklyn, Chicago, Sacramento, Utah, Atlanta, the Lakers and Knicks as having the ability to pursue max level players in 2019 NBA free agency, with more than half of that list having enough space for a max offer and another non-max high dollar player.

Combine the expected availability of so much free agency cash with what’s shaping up to be an impressive 2019 NBA draft class, and this upcoming summer could be one for the ages in terms of teams being able to instantly reinvent themselves.

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NBA Daily: The Jimmy Butler Saga Is Over

Spencer Davies analyzes the effects of the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers.

Spencer Davies

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The trade call is complete and the deal has been made.

Jimmy Butler is officially headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. Former first-round pick Justin Patton is coming with him.

The Minnesota Timberwolves pieced together a package for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a future second-round draft pick in return for the four-time All-Star forward.

The Sixers have assembled a brand new big three for the season early, while Minnesota nipped what could have been a potential yearlong distraction in the bud.

All in all, this could be a transaction that is doubly beneficial in the present and the future. Only time will tell who gets the better end, but we can take a look at the effects of the trade for both sides.

Timberwolves

At first glance, failing to acquire a first or second option in return for Butler isn’t the best exchange for a player of his caliber. Coming up short of prying a first-round pick out of Philadelphia is visibly even worse, especially when the Houston Rockets reportedly came calling with four of those on the table.

What we do have to remember, though, is that—for now—Butler’s contract expires after the season is over. Scott Layden and Tom Thibodeau weren’t able to ask for a king’s ransom back because of that, yet they still did a solid job with what they could do.

Covington brings a mixed bag as far as his skill set is concerned. As one of the most unheralded team players in the NBA, the 27-year-old is a hound on the defensive end that has grown more confident as he’s gained experience. His extremely bothersome length allows him to disrupt ball-handlers and play the passing lanes to get out into transition.

Offensively the usage is low, but he’s a more-than-capable tertiary option who can catch fire from deep on any night, backed by his career-best 39 percent three-point percentage on this young season. Covington will space the floor and add a versatility and toughness that is tailor-made for Thibodeau to coach up.

Off to a less than ideal start to the year, Saric should welcome a change of scenery with open arms. Some have speculated that playing with the Croatian national team may have led to heavy legs from the outset, as he was in a glaringly obvious cold spell. In the first 10 games, his true shooting percentage was 43.6.

The last three have been quite the opposite, however. Saric is averaging over 16 points and six rebounds per game during the stretch with a 67.1 true shooting percentage. Maybe the move to Minnesota will add even more fuel to the fire as extra motivation.

Considering Thibodeau leans toward veterans, it could be possible that the 24-year-old may not start. It’s not farfetched to think Anthony Tolliver could slide into the starting five at the small forward position knowing the coach’s tendencies. With that said, Saric might just be the perfect fit for the Wolves to start utilizing their bench.

Remember what Nemanja Bjelica did for Thibodeau the last few years as both a starter and second unit guy? Stretching out the half court game to allow others to penetrate is when Saric is at his most dangerous—especially when he’s a threat to knock down shots. There are certainly similarities between the two, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Croatian big man used in almost the same exact way.

Bayless has been around the block a few times, to say the least. The Wolves will be his eighth team in 10 seasons. It’s been difficult for him to stay healthy, as he’s only played 94 games since the 2014-15 campaign. He’s already dealing with a knee injury to start this current year off, too.

Once he does battle back from that, it’s possible Bayless could see some playing time. Again, going back to the veteran thing, Thibodeau loves to have experience out on the floor. And even if he doesn’t see too much action, he’ll be a great mentor and an influence in the locker room.

Looking at the contract details of these three players, Minnesota has a chance to control its own destiny. Covington is only in year two of the long-term deal he signed last fall. Saric’s team option exercised through 2020 means he’ll stick around for this season and next at the minimum. As for Bayless, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the year’s end.

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins signed for the next five years, the Wolves are working towards some stability. It is impossible to replace the talent Butler has, but, from where things began in October, this is automatically a healthier situation. Now it’s up to the organization to get the best out of their stars and rack up wins on a consistent basis.

76ers

We don’t need to go through the statistics to tell you how gifted of a basketball player Butler is. His reputation precedes itself—an in-your-face competitor on both ends, a specialist in the clutch, a master of mind games. Quite honestly, there’s no one else in the league like him.

That’s why new Sixers general manager Elton Brand went out and made the effort to get him. Up until this point, the team needed some kind of jolt. It wasn’t out of desperation, per se, but there’s been a clear regression from a season ago. In a division as competitive as the Atlantic, along with an Eastern Conference up for grabs, Butler could provide that extra boost to vault them to the top.

By landing a superstar and hanging onto his first-round draft picks, Brand successfully addressed the present and preserved the future—which also includes Patton, the 16th overall selection in 2017.

So how does Butler fit in Philadelphia? When an All-Star comes to town, somebody is going to have to sacrifice. It’s happened in Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston, among some others. At one point or another, there are going to be bumps in the road. Whether it’s lack of touches, debates over who’s taking the last shot or something of the sort—it’s bound to happen.

It’s plainly obvious that Butler is a go-to guy. Joel Embiid is playing that role currently as it stands today.

We know Embiid hangs out on the perimeter at times, but Brett Brown positions him in the post early and often. Meanwhile, Butler thrives on getting to the rim on penetration and cuts as a slasher, predominantly.

Ben Simmons is the master of drive-and-kick, drive-and-finish in his own right. Does this mean Butler will be spotting up primarily as a three-baller in Covington’s space? They’ll definitely need somebody to take those shots and make them because the two guys they just traded put up the second and third-most threes on the team.

Wilson Chandler staying healthy is going to be a big factor moving forward. He’s still getting his legs under him, though the veteran seems to be getting back in the swing of things slowly, but surely. Mike Muscala’s role is going to quickly expand as well.

Veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick is the obvious candidate to pick up the slack, as could rookie point guard Landry Shamet. At the end of the day, the responsibility of spotting up is for role players. Butler will do it multiple times throughout games. However, he needs to be touching the ball much more outside of that.

And you can bet he will. The Sixers are razor thin at the wing. They have Butler, Chandler, Furkan Korkmaz and maybe two-way rookie Shake Milton—provided he’s used at the three. Rest assured, Brand will leave no stone unturned in the search for depth and shooting in the coming weeks.

There have already been reports surfacing of Philadelphia targeting Kyle Korver from the Cleveland Cavaliers, which could ultimately be the best fit possible. According to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, a number of players on the Washington Wizards might be a fit.

That’s a separate conversation entirely. Speaking on this deal, the Sixers went for the big fish in the pond and reeled in an enormous catch.

How it will go from here—who knows? Evidently, Butler is open to inking a long-term contract with the franchise, but we don’t know the value of those words until pen hits paper. Regardless of what happens in the future, this is a great job by the front office and should pay dividends soon.

As you can see, both teams may end up winners in the case of this trade. The Jimmy Butler saga is over and everyone is moving on.

It’s about time.

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Is This Carmelo Anthony’s Swan Song?

Carmelo Anthony’s days of contributing for a winning team are done, but Matt John explains why he could make one last impactful stop before he calls it a career.

Matt John

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Well, that didn’t take long.

After only 10 games into the season, the Houston Rockets appear to have had enough of Carmelo Anthony. This is preceded by an abysmal performance in which the former 10-time All-Star made just one of 11 shots – and misfires on six attempts from distance – in a blow-out loss at the hands of his previous team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Shortly after the game, word had it that Carmelo’s days as a Rocket may have been numbered. Though the Rockets denied that they were waiving him, recent reports say that those within organization believe that this is the end for him.

A few months back, this writer detailed how Houston was basically Carmelo’s last chance to prove he could be a contributor for a winning team. His impending release confirms a sad, but not all that shocking, reality: the 34-year-old is finished.

While his basic statistics in Houston were not dreadfully bad – 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds are solid numbers – a closer look will reveal that Carmelo was not making things any better.

His scoring numbers come off of 40 percent shooting from the floor, including almost 33 percent from distance. That’s not great considering that he was added to improve the offense. It gets worse when you take a look at his on/off numbers. The Rockets were 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Carmelo on the floor, good for second-worst on the team behind Michael Carter-Williams.

Though it’s clear that Carmelo was not a good fit, he should not be made into the scapegoat because Houston’s problems as a team go well beyond just him. Their drop-off on both sides of the ball are a result of the resources they lack to surround James Harden and Chris Paul.

Getting back to Carmelo, with him going back on the market this early on in the season, many wonder where his next stop should be – if he has one at this point.

One possibility is going overseas, maybe to the Chinese Basketball Association, where Carmelo could become another Stephon Marbury-like icon. Another one is joining the Lakers, where he could join Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and be another one of the various boisterous personalities in that locker room. A third option would be to hang it up. Retire before he could potentially get ousted by another team.

This writer believes there is a fourth option for Carmelo, which would be the ideal one for him at this point.

While Carmelo can’t be a contributor anymore for a winner, there is still a place for him in the NBA. Primarily, what he would be brought in for at this point would be more for sentimental value than anything else. In this case, that would be returning to the New York Knicks.

Think of Carmelo’s situation to be similar to former teammate Allen Iverson’s back in 2009. After a briefly disastrous stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, Iverson shortly opted to return to his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was washed up, but Philadelphia wasn’t going anywhere – with or without him. Bringing him back gave the city some nostalgia for one of the franchise’s all-time greats, which made the season memorable,  even though “The Answer” only played in 25 games.

Carmelo didn’t start his career with the Knicks, nor did he spend nearly as much time or experience as much success with the Knicks as Iverson did with the Sixers. However, Carmelo spent a good chunk of his prime in the Big Apple and stuck through the thick and thin with the team. He may have had his problems with certain coaches and players over the years, but when he was at the top of his game, Carmelo loved being a New York Knickerbocker and wanted to do his best for the franchise.

With all the history he has in New York, Carmelo could end his career playing for the team he always felt an emotional attachment to. It would be a suitable send off for his career. Plus, he wouldn’t have to deal with Phil Jackson this time, he could play for a solid coach in David Fizdale and even be a mentor to some of the Knicks’ young talent. Carmelo wouldn’t be helping a winning team, but at least the veteran could do something worthwhile for the team he always wanted to leave his mark with.

For the Knicks, bringing in Carmelo wouldn’t do much to help the team win, but New York currently doesn’t have much to lose as it is. The team currently stands at 4-10, and no one knows exactly what the timetable is for Kristaps Porzingis’ return. Even with their bad record, the Knicks still have a feisty young team that is willing to compete with anyone despite the odds being against them. Bringing in Carmelo would bring back some good memories that would make them more appealing to watch. This season’s probably not going to be remembered for much anyway, so what’s the harm in bringing your last franchise player back for the nostalgia?

It’s true that Carmelo was on the Knicks as recently as a little over a year ago, and he requested a trade out of there. Remember, though, that Iverson similarly also requested a trade out of Philadelphia in 2006, and found himself back on the team just three years later after it was granted. In Carmelo’s case, perhaps both sides can let the past be the past so they can kiss and make up.

This, of course, is all just an idea. For all we know, Carmelo still believes that he can help someone who is legitimately trying to win. The man still has a reputation as a scorer in this league, warts and all. New York may also want to focus more on getting the kids more burn than bringing back a washed-up star who won them only one playoff series.

If New York’s not interested, then maybe his hometown Brooklyn could add him. If Carmelo wants both to win and go somewhere for nostalgia, then Denver would technically be an option. Considering that relationship didn’t end well and Denver appears comfortable with their team, that doesn’t appear likely.

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