Almost one month after the start of the 2017-18 season, the NBA is already full of surprises and storylines to last us all the way until June. Luckily, however, basketball fans still get nightly entertainment for the next since months.
Since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player award race here at Basketball Insiders, some things have changed. When the first list dropped, just two weeks had passed in this new season, and some early big-time performances catapulted a few players into the initial watch list. With under two weeks in the books, some consistency has formed for a few candidates, while a few newcomers find themselves smack dab in the middle of the race now.
Until the season really begins to settle in, you can expect the race or MVP to have some warranted fluctuation. Once the stars get into their groove though, the cream will most likely rise to the top.
With all of that said, let’s check in on our second edition of the MVP watch list.
- Kyrie Irving
Just five minutes into his brand new stint as a Boston Celtic, Kyrie Irving lost his most talented teammate, Gordon Hayward, to a season-ending injury.
In a new city, with new teammates, a new coach, and learning chemistry on the fly, all Irving has done is lead the Celtics to a league-best 12-2 record.
After suffering a facial fracture last Friday night, Irving did sit out of Boston’s win Sunday against the Toronto Raptors. But in order for the Celtics to keep up their torrid pace of bodying opponents, they’ll need their star point guard.
When Irving isn’t on the court for Boston, their offensive rating goes down, their assist percentage goes down, and their turnover percentage goes up. While Irving isn’t averaging career-highs across the board, he’s making the right plays and drawing attention from defenses so that players like Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum can flourish.
A month into the new era of his career, Irving is proving that he can be much more than LeBron James’ sidekick.
- Kevin Durant
Year two of the Kevin Durant experiment in Golden State seems to be working out just fine.
The Warriors are 11-3 and look as dominant as ever. When the likes of Durant and Steph Curry are on the same team, it may be hard for either player to actually win the MVP award, but that doesn’t negate their performance in pursuit of it.
Durant makes a 14-point difference in the Warriors’ offensive rating when he’s on the court, an insane number (yet somehow still not the best on the team). He’s currently shooting a career-high 44 percent from beyond the arc, too, adding, even more firepower to an already blazing arsenal possessed by Durant and his teammates.
So long as the Warriors keep winning and Durant keeps scoring efforts in the high 20’s, coupled with his near eight rebounds a night, the 6-foot-10 wing will constantly be in the MVP discussion. However, winning may be a more difficult task just due to this supporting cast.
- LeBron James
The start to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season has been less than ideal. At just 7-7 through the one month mark of the year, legitimate questions are arising about how long the Cavs can keep their stranglehold on the Eastern Conference.
Despite all of the obvious problems with the roster and their effort, though, LeBron James is literally dragging his team into competition. No matter how much dead weight he can appear to be carrying at times.
In year 15 of his Hall of Fame career, James is averaging 28.1 points, 8.8 assists, and 7.6 rebounds a night. He’s shooting a career-high 80 percent from the free-throw line and posting an absurd 66 true shooting percentage. James is playing the most minutes per night since his first season with the Miami HEAT, and in order for his team to win games, it looks like it’ll have to stay that way.
While the first month of James’ life after Kyrie Irving hasn’t gone as well as planned for his team, his personal stats are looking better than ever. All with over 41,000 career minutes already under his belt.
If the Cavaliers have any shot at reaching a fourth straight NBA Finals, it’ll be because James turned in his fifth career MVP season.
- Steph Curry
Just like Durant, Steph Curry has planted himself right in the thick of the MVP race after the first month of the season.
While both players are incredibly crucial to Golden State’s success, Curry has been arguably more important thus far. Remember that ridiculous 14-point swing Durant adds to the Warriors’ offensive rating? Curry’s is 21 points.
After initially debuting at No. 2 on this list, Curry does drop a spot, though. Despite his nightly brilliance for his defending champion ballclub, the teammates that Curry has alongside him in battle each night will eventually cost him in the long run for this award.
But, again, just like with Durant, that doesn’t negate the absurd impact Curry has on his team’s offensive dominance. It just likely will get overshadowed by a player doing similar things with less high-profile teammates.
- James Harden
Kyrie Irving wasn’t the only superstar guard who lost an All-Star teammate early in the season.
James Harden had his buddy Chris Paul in the backcourt with him for all of one game, and all Harden has done since then is average 30 points, 10 assists, nearly five rebounds and shoot 39 percent from deep for the Houston Rockets.
All of that has equated beautifully to an 11-3 record and atop the Western Conference, jostling with Golden State for position among the West’s elite teams.
After losing out on last year’s MVP award to Russell Westbrook and his triple-double barrage, Harden looks poised to earn his own hardware this season. Even with Paul slated to return Thursday against the Phoenix Suns, Harden will still surely shoulder the load moving forward until his all-star teammate gets reacclimated to the Houston offense.
The 28-year-old bearded superstar continues his excellence as the main distributor in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, without sacrificing his scoring output. Even with Paul sharing the rock with him upon his return, Harden’s hot start and thirst for an MVP trophy should keep his numbers and impact right where they need to be as the season advances.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
Not yet has anyone supplanted the Greek Freak in his quest for the title of league’s Most Valuable Player.
The 22-year-old all-around superstar is willing the Milwaukee Bucks to victory every chance he gets. Despite just a 7-6 record in the early goings of this season, Antetokounmpo makes the Bucks a legitimate threat to hang with whoever they face on a nightly basis.
His averages are still ridiculous: 31.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists a night. But what Antetokounmpo does on the defensive end is what can really save the Bucks moving forward, especially now that they have Eric Bledsoe to shoulder some of the load on the offensive end.
When Antetokounmpo isn’t on the court, opposing team’s are posting a 120.6 offensive rating. When he is on the court, though? That rating drops all the way to 105.7 for his Milwaukee unit. Having the ability to stick every position on the court will do that for a player and his team.
It’s still very early in the season, but so far, Antetokounmpo is doing the best he can to keep his wire-to-wire MVP campaign intact.
NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC
Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.
There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.
The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.
For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.
Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.
“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”
Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.
This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.
“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”
This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.
But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.
“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”
In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.
However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.
They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.
“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.