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: Rockets Might Be Formidable Challenge For Warriors
If nothing else, the Rockets gave everyone, including the Warriors, something to think about by beating the champs.
For those that had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of the Houston Rockets, Saturday afternoon’s win over the Golden State Warriors should serve as a bit of a wakeup call.
Sure, championships aren’t won in mid-January, but by virtue of the win, the Rockets won their season series against the Warriors, 2-1.
Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season—the year the Warriors won the first of three consecutive Western Conference Finals—they’ve lost a season series to just one other team: the San Antonio Spurs.
A review of the tape suggests that those that believe that Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are truly the team that has the best shot of beating the Warriors is founded in some fact. In the last three seasons, the Warriors have lost a total of 39 games.
In total, during that span, seven teams have failed to beat the Warriors even once, while 12 teams have beaten them one time. Four teams have beaten the Warriors twice and only the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them thrice.
The Spurs, though, have managed to beat the Warriors five times, with Popovich leading his team to a 2-1 regular season series win over the Warriors during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.
It’s safe to say that they have been the only team worthy of calling themselves anything near a worthy adversary to Stephen Curry and company.
At least, that was the case until Saturday night.
* * * * * *
With all due respect to Michael Jordan, if the Warriors win the NBA Finals this season, they can legitimately claim to be the best team in NBA history.
Two titles in three years is nothing to sneeze at, but the claim holds no weight whatsoever without ever having won two in a row, especially when scores of other teams have been able to accomplish the feat.
Aside from the two championships, the Warriors can claim the best regular season record in the league’s history and the distinction of being the only team to ever win 67 or more games for three consecutive seasons.
It is true that the Warriors have been almost invincible since the 2014-15 season, but things have changed now that Chris Paul has joined forces with James Harden.
This season, the Mike D’Antoni coached team ranks 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over last season’s rank of 18th.
With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute, they have four defensive stalwarts, one of whom (Ariza) who wasn’t able to suit up due to being suspended.
At the end of the day, beating a team in the regular season doesn’t really count for much, especially when you consider the greatest irony: in each of the seasons the Spurs beat the Warriors in their season series, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The obvious asterisk there is that the Warriors didn’t play the Spurs in the 2015 NBA Playoffs and only managed to sweep them once the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard in 2017.
Still, beating the defending champs in any game, much less a season series, has got to feel good. Whether they want to admit it or not, Saturday’s game against the Warriors was one that the Rockets wanted to get, that’s probably why Mike D’Antoni opted to reinsert James Harden into the game after he surpassed his 30-minute playing restriction.
In the end, Harden logged 35 minutes and ended up making what was the game’s clinching three-pointer.
* * * * * *
With the season a little more than halfway over, the Warriors still appear to be head and shoulders above those competing for their throne. Of the other contenders, the Rockets and Boston Celtics, at least for now, appear most formidable.
At the end of the day, what the Warriors have to fear more than anything is their own arrogance. As a unit, the team believes that it’s the best at playing small ball and that no other team can beat them as their own game. While that may be true, there have been a few instances over the past few years where that belief has ended up costing them.
What the Warriors seem to struggle with is understanding that not every possession can be played the same way, and as some possessions become more and more valuable, it would be wise for the team to play more conservatively and traditionally.
For example, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving made one of the most incredible shots we’ve ever seen, but it was Stephen Curry who helped leave the door open for the Cavs with a pitiful final five minutes of the game.
Among the worst atrocities he committed was an ill-advised turnover that came as a result of an off target behind the back pass to Klay Thompson. In such a situation, any second grader could have and would have known that a simple bounce pass to the flashing Thompson would have sufficed.
Steve Kerr’s message to his team, though, is to play like themselves and not overthink their execution.
While that’s fair, it does at least leave room to wonder if the Warriors will have the humility to play conservatively when the game is on the line.
Curry himself admitted to playing too aggressively and making poor reads and decisions down the stretch versus the Rockets. The team passed up wide-open two-point shots for three-pointers that didn’t fall, and those botched opportunities play a direct role in causing the loss.
Fortunately, for the Warriors, not much was at stake, but their performance and decision-making in those tight minutes leave us to wonder what will happen if and when they find themselves in another tight moment or two…
And by virtue of the Rockets becoming just the second team to take a season series from the Warriors since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, we can also fairly wonder whether they truly have what it takes to take down the Golden Goliath.
G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts
David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.
Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.
Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.
Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.
With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.
1. Christian Wood
Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.
His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.
2. Jameel Warney
Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.
3. Melo Trimble
After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.
He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.
4. Joel Bolomboy
Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.
At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.
5. Jeremy Evans
Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.
With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.
Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.
NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs
On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.
At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.
And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.
Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.
Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.
Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.
Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.
It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.
That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.
Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.
Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.
Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.
The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.
Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.
While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.
Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.
Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.
Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.
Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.