Now that the NBA has officially settled in after a wild first two weeks of the 2017-18 season, it’s time to start an early tab on the Most Valuable Player award race.
Since this season is still very much in its infancy, this list will likely be subject to change on a weekly basis. Some of the names that you see here may stick around for a wire-to-wire MVP campaign, while others may just be drifters, capitalizing on the early stages of this season with their hot starts.
Last season produced one of the more compelling MVP races in recent memory, when Russell Westbrook and James Harden went head to head for the league’s supremacy, only to have Westbrook and his triple-double average win out. This year may not be as nail-biting as the season progresses, simply because the chances that two players repeat a nightly triple-double battle like last season isn’t as likely.
Nevertheless, the NBA is a ball of excitement and chaos at all times, so don’t expect to be disappointed by this race. Be sure to keep yourself posted on how the race develops here at Basketball Insiders with our weekly updates.
- Kemba Walker
The Charlotte Hornets are getting more than a handful from their star point guard to start his sixth season in the league. Through the first seven games, Walker (almost single-handedly) has his team at 4-3 with notable wins over the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.
What makes Walker a legitimate MVP candidate at the moment aren’t just his game-to-game averages, which at 24.4 points, 6.4 assists, and 3.9 rebounds certainly are enough to put him in the conversation. No, it’s how much of a different team the Hornets are when Walker is on the court.
So far this season, the numbers for Charlotte’s offense are astoundingly bad when Walker hits the bench for a breather. In the 74 minutes Walker hasn’t been on the court for the Hornets, they operate with an offensive rating of 76.9. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe how bad is. But when the New York native point guard is on the court, the Hornets are in a whole new realm of basketball with a 110.1 offensive rating.
Walker also improves his team’s defense, shooting, assist percentages, cuts down turnovers, and does just about everything short of actually playing basketball for the four other guys on the court with him. In this brand new season, Walker is off to a red-hot start and it would be criminal to leave him off of this list.
- DeMarcus Cousins
On the heels of his dominating performance while back in Sacramento for the first time, Cousins has squarely placed himself into the MVP watch while he does what he can to help the New Orleans Pelicans make the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.
The big man duo in the Big Easy is leading the charge for the Pelicans offense. But on the back of Cousins and his career year so far, they may be able to bruise their way into the postseason.
Through the first seven games of this season, Cousins is putting up gaudy numbers. 29.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists are all career-highs so far for Boogie. Whether that level of production can keep the pace all season long is another story, but the consistency that Cousins has shown to start the year is more than enough to warrant his place on this inaugural list.
In a matchup with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, Cousins dropped a 29-12-10 triple-double to stun LeBron James and the Cavaliers. And despite the final result against the Golden State Warriors ending in a loss, Cousins and the Pelicans showed they were more than capable of trading blows with the NBA’s heavyweight champ.
- Russell Westbrook
After turning in one of the most historic MVP campaigns ever, Westbrook finds himself a few spots down from where he was used to sitting last season. But with a new-look team and what appears to be an evolving role, the point guard with one trophy already on his mantle can never be counted out.
Even with the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony manning his wings, Westbrook is still cashing out triple-doubles like they’re no big deal. Through six games this season, Westbrook has notched three triple-doubles already.
Most of the hate on Westbrook over the years was that he couldn’t play well enough alongside the likes of Kevin Durant, and his ability to put the team over the individual was consistently in question. Well, with a few big name running mates in his stable for this season, Westbrook has refined his role entirely in the early goings of the season. Averaging just 16 shots a game, his lowest total since his second season, Westbrook has become the deadly facilitator he proved he could be last year. At the current moment, he leads the league in assists per game with 12.2.
In arguably the most competitive division in basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder may need this new version of Westbrook to steer them into a playoff appearance.
- Blake Griffin
Once again it’s the Blake Griffin show for the Los Angeles Clippers.
A new-look Clips team is off to a solid 4-2 start this season, mainly in part to Griffin playing at a level that he sometimes didn’t seem too capable of reaching while he was sharing the floor with Chris Paul.
After signing his max contract extension in the summer, it appears that Griffin put in serious work to help the areas of his game that were at times the weakest. Six games into this new season, Griffin is posting the second lowest defensive rating of his career and on the other end knocking down shots from beyond the arc at an elite rate.
Consider this: just two seasons ago, Griffin was attempting 0.5 three-pointers a game. He connected on a third of them. This season, Griffin is attempting 5.5 three-pointers a game and hitting 42 percent of his takes.
That’s not just improvement for a non-shooter, that’s an elite level shooting clip.
Granted, Griffin may not keep up this hot shooting for an entire season, but in the early goings, he’s proving that he’s added an entirely new weapon to his arsenal and can truly be an inside-out threat in this league.
Making the playoffs in the West won’t be a breeze, but with this level of Griffin showing up to the court every night, the Clippers should be right in the thick of things as the season goes on.
- Steph Curry
What’s an MVP list without Curry, right?
In the second year of the Kevin Durant era in Golden State, the Warriors aren’t starting out as hot as they are accustomed to. Last season the Warriors’ third loss of the year didn’t come until Dec. 1, but this year the Warriors racked up three losses before October even ended.
But Curry has been his usual chef self, and expecting Golden State to return to their winning form is a safe bet.
At 28 points, 6.3 assists, and 4.5 rebounds, Curry is keeping pace with his numbers from last season. And luckily for him, a Harden-Westbrook battle doesn’t look like it can keep him out of the top two of the MVP race so far this year. Even in Golden State’s stacked offense, when Curry is on the floor the reigning champions see their offensive rating increased by 24.3 points.
On Monday night, Curry looked most like himself on his way to 31 points in an absolute shellacking of the Clippers, 141-113.
Barring anything insane happening, the Warriors look poised to be in contention for their second straight title come season’s end. And Curry will be a more than large part of that.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
No surprise here. The Greek Freak looks in position to dominate not only the entire league but the entire MVP field as well.
Off to an insane start to this season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 34.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. That doesn’t seem like real life, but I promise it is.
Antetokounmpo has led the Milwaukee Bucks to wins over the Boston Celtics, Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets, all three of which look to be playoff teams to start the season. At 6-foot-11 and moving like a gazelle, Antetokounmpo provides an entirely new problem for the rest of the NBA.
After making improvements to his shooting over the offseason, Antetokounmpo is now connecting on a respectable 33 percent of his three-point shots. If he can hold that number consistently throughout the entire season, there’s no reason to believe he relinquishes this top spot in the MVP race.
With the Celtics losing Gordon Hayward to a devastating injury, the window is open for the Bucks to push back against the Eastern Conference elite powers, such as Cleveland and Washington. As long as the Greek Freak continues his blazing pace, the Bucks are as dangerous as any team.
NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft
Simon Hannig breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.
The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and although many teams have improved coming out of this loaded draft, five teams seemed to have walked away as the biggest winners.
The Phoenix Suns Got Their Guy
The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft, selecting DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick.
The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but later traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers for Mikal Bridges.
In the second round of the draft, Phoenix selected Frenchman Elie Okobo and George King from Colorado, each of whom should be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team immediately. If not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.
Does Mo Bamba Have The (Orlando) Magic?
The Orlando Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba, whom they surprisingly selected with the sixth overall pick in the draft. They later drafted Melvin Frazier in the second round. It was a bit surprising that the Tulane product lasted that long, but the Magic benefitted.
Orlando got a player who can contribute right away and could compete for a starting job. Frazier is a great rebounder and defender and could change the team’s defense all by himself. The club now has two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba and a young contributor in Frazier.
Although the team’s offense will likely be work in progress, they can be very scary on the defensive end.
Now, we’ll all wait to see if Bamba, the New York product, can carry the Magic back to respectability.
Atlanta Hawks Will Let It Fly
After drafting Luka Doncic with the third overall pick, the Hawks ended up sending him to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young and a future protected first round pick. The pick is top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected in 2021 and 2022 and unprotected in 2023, according to Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.
With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and, with the 30th overall pick, selected Omari Spellman from Villanova.
Atlanta appears to building themselves in the way of the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with Golden State before taking the job with the Hawks.
The Rich Got Richer In Boston
The Celtics once again got a steal in the draft, as they were the beneficiaries as it relates to Robert Williams from Texas A&M. He is an athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. Williams has lottery talent but ended up falling to the Celtics, who selected him with the 27th pick of the draft.
Williams averaged 2.5 blocks per game at Texas and should also be able to provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams, as he averaged three offensive rebounds per game in college.
Luka Doncic Found A Good Home
The Dallas Mavericks walked away from the 2018 NBA Draft with two foundational pieces in tow, Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. Their other moves were also tremendous, as they drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ younger brother) with the last piece in the draft.
For Mark Cuban, it may take time to develop the pieces, but if things could go well, the Mavs might have some productive years ahead.
Doncic was thought to be one of, if not the best player available in the draft, so getting him at the expense of a protected future first round pick seems like a fair trade. Depending on how ready he is to contribute at the NBA level, the sky could be the limit.
Of course, every year, there are surprises. Some good, and some bad. However, walking away from the 2018 NBA Draft, these five teams all appear to have improved themselves immensely.
NBA Draft Night Trades
David Yapkowitz breaks down the trades that took place during the 2018 NBA Draft.
Another NBA Draft has come and gone. With rumors swirling all week about possible pick/player movement, the night remained relatively uneventful. There were a few trades that occurred, however. Here’s a quick breakdown of the movement that happened on draft night.
1. Atlanta Hawks/Dallas Mavericks
The Hawks and Mavericks completed the first trade of the night early on in the draft. Leading up to the draft, there were questions about how high Luka Doncic was going to be drafted. It was widely assumed that he wouldn’t slip past Dallas at No. 5. The Mavericks weren’t going to take that chance as the Hawks drafted Doncic with the intention of trading him to Dallas for Trae Young.
Both teams ultimately get what they need. It’s been reported that the Hawks might move on from Dennis Schroder this summer and they’ll need a point guard to replace him. Young is an explosive scorer who will fit in nicely with Atlanta’s rebuild. He can score from anywhere on the court and he’s a great playmaker as well.
For the Mavericks, they get a guy to add to their own young core with Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes. Doncic has the size to play next to Smith in the backcourt. He’s quite possibly the best playmaker in the draft with a solid offensive game as well.
2. Charlotte Hornets/Los Angeles Clippers
The Hornets and Clippers consummated the second move the night by swapping their own draft picks. The Hornets took Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the 11th pick and then immediately traded him to the Clippers for Miles Bridges, whom Los Angeles selected at No. 12.
For the Hornets, they get a guy who can play both forward positions. Bridges is more of a small forward but in small ball lineups, he can slide over to the four. Offensively he is at his best when he puts the ball on the floor and attacks the rim. He’s a decent shooter too.
The Clippers get a point guard who was rumored to climbing up many draft boards as the night approached. Gilgeous-Alexander is a solid pick for them provided both Patrick Beverly and Milos Teodosic’ injury history. He can also play off the ball if need be. He’s got the physical tools to be a very good defender at the NBA level. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine him as the future long-term starting point guard for the Clippers.
The Hornets also got two future second-round picks from the Clippers.
3. Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns
The Sixers and the Suns had the next move of draft night, also swapping their picks. The Sixers selected hometown hero Mikal Bridges with the No. 10 pick and later traded him to the Suns for the No. 16 pick, Zhaire Smith.
Bridges made a lot of sense for the Sixers. Not only is he a local guy, but his mother works for the team as well. He was a talented player who fit their team. He gave a post-draft press conference raving about being a Sixer all the while he had been traded already. But such is life in the NBA. Instead, Phoenix gets a guy that’s ready to contribute in the NBA right away. He’s the prototypical 3&D type guy.
For the Sixers, Zhaire Smith is another guy who was steadily climbing the boards in the days leading up to the draft. He’s a very athletic prospect with good defensive instincts. He probably won’t play much right away, but he does have the potential to end up being one of the better rotation players in this draft.
The Sixers also get a 2021 first-round pick from the Suns via the Miami Heat. It’s highly likely this ends up being a lottery pick and thus giving the Sixers the chance to add a high-end talent to an already potent group.
4. Second-Round moves
There are a few second-round moves that were made as well.
For one, the Hawks selected Devonte Graham with the 34th pick and traded him to the Hornets for two future second-round picks. Graham is another NBA ready guy who can come in and immediately contend for backup point guard minutes behind Kemba Walker.
The Sixers were involved in another deal sending the No. 38 pick Khyri Thomas to the Detroit Pistons for two future second-round picks. Thomas is a player that many projected to go in the first round. For a team that didn’t have a first-round pick coming into the night, the Pistons essentially picked one up. It’s possible he turns out better than Detroit’s most recent first-rounders Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.
The Sacramento Kings drafted Gary Trent Jr. with the 37th pick only to trade him to the Portland Trail Blazers for two future second-round picks. Trent was one of the better shooters in the draft and that’s what he projects to the be in the NBA. He’s probably a few years away from earning a spot in the rotation but he was also a possible first-round pick. He’s more NBA ready than Anfernee Simons who the Blazers took in the first-round.
The Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets swapped second-round picks with the Magic sending the No. 41 pick Jarred Vanderbilt to the Nuggets for the No. 43 pick Justin Jackson and a future second-round pick. Vanderbilt is a project in every sense of the word. He’s extremely raw and probably needed more time in college. But he’s got long-term potential and could pay off in the future. Jackson, on the other hand, was possibly a first-round talent had he entered the draft last year. He’s going to have to make the roster but could be a 3&D guy.
In the final move of the night, the Hornets traded the No. 45 pick Hamidou Diallo to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Diallo is a guy that had he come out last year, probably would’ve been a first-round guy. In any case, he is also very raw and will need seasoning in the G-League. He’s got all the physical tools and skill to be a good rotation NBA player.
#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors
With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.
Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.
Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.
Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.
The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.