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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 10/31/17

With the first two weeks of the 2017-18 season in the books, let’s take a look at the early MVP race.

Dennis Chambers

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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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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