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 PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers
The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.
If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.
In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.
“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”
What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.
Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.
Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.
Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.
Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future
Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.
Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”
Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.
There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.
Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago
After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.
Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.
Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.
Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.
But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.
Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.
For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.
So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.
It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.
His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.
Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.
That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.
Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.
Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.
Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.
NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized
Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.
With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?
Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.
“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”
Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.
“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”
Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.
“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”
Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.
For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.
By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.
How Dwight Howard ranks in scoring efficiency among players with at least 70 post up possessions this season: pic.twitter.com/lVYRfkIQhP
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) November 22, 2017
Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.
“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”
Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.
“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”
With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.