Admittedly, there isn’t much change at the top of our Most Valuable Player rankings this week, but there are some newcomers at the back end who are playing excellent basketball and are certainly worth paying close attention to on a nightly basis.
The field of MVP candidates is shrinking as the season progresses, but we have kept the list at the same number for now because a lot can change between now and then end of the regular season. But once we have a clear idea of the realistic MVP finalists, the list will shorten. With that said, we will continue the weekly rankings with more of a focus on the candidates’ recent performances and what each individual will need to do in order to hoist the MVP trophy.
For the first time in NBA history, two players – Russell Westbrook and James Harden – recorded 10 or more triple-doubles in the first 40 games of a season. This season, we’re witnessing modern greatness and jaw-dropping performances nearly every night. It’ll be exciting to see how this MVP race plays out, especially since it could come down to the wire.
Basketball Insiders releases our updated MVP rankings each Thursday. Let’s get to it:
With the Milwaukee Bucks above .500 and Antetokounmpo dominating on both ends of the floor, he cannot be ignored any longer. Not only is his play electrifying, but he also fills the stat sheet while being incredibly efficient. This season, he is averaging 23.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals while shooting 53 percent from the field – all of which are career-highs. His player efficiency rating (28.2) is currently ranked third, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. Real Plus-Minus – an ESPN metric that tracks plus-minus while also accounting for a player’s teammates and opposition – also shows Antetokounmpo’s dominance. To get an idea of just how much he’s impacting the game, his 6.6 RPM ranks ahead of Westbrook and James Harden.
The biggest pause for concern with the Greek Freak is his team’s record since the Bucks currently stand at 19-18. Aside from that, he has emerged as a superstar. Last season, he earned 84,617 All-Star votes; this year, he already has nearly 1,000,000 with three days left to continue earning votes. His three-point shooting still needs work (it’s under 30 percent) and he has shown signs of inconsistency, but there is no doubting his ability to play and defend all five positions. For him to truly be considered for the MVP award, he’ll have to vault his team to top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and keep putting up impressive stats. Fortunately, Giannis just turned 22 years old last month, so he has plenty of time to further his development. Regardless of what happens this season, he’ll likely be in the MVP conversation for years to come if all goes as planned with his improvement.
Of the two Toronto stars, Lowry is seemingly the more likely MVP candidate at this point. But their success is linked in many ways and it’s hard to separate the dynamic backcourt. Lowry has taken on a tremendous defensive workload while continuing to be consistent, efficient and strong on offense. His ability to find open players as a facilitator, hit the outside shot and run effective pick-and-rolls with Toronto’s big men has allowed DeRozan to continue to score at such a high rate. Over his last 10 games, Lowry is averaging 25.7 points, 6.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the field. With Toronto having one of the best records in the NBA (25-13), they certainly have the wins to have a player in the MVP race. The question is, can Lowry cement himself as the true number one option and produce at an even higher level to climb up this list?
Meanwhile, if DeRozan can continue his scoring output and put in some more effort on the defensive side of the ball, he could still find himself as Toronto’s best candidate. The MVP discussion is about team record, individual performances, player value and – fair or not – storylines. No one will forget DeRozan’s impressive start to the season, when he put himself in rare company by averaging 35+ points for an astonishing stretch. The biggest problem for DeRozan and Lowry is that they will split votes, unlike some of the other clear-cut top dogs on this list. At this point, neither player seems to have a realistic shot at winning the award due to their success being more of a one-two punch. Still, these guys deserve plenty of credit for the terrific job they’re doing for the Raptors.
The Spurs look like the obvious choice for the Western Conference’s two-seed if they continue playing at this pace. As Leonard receives attention as an MVP candidate, that’s something that will significantly help his case. While he had a huge 31-point night against the L.A. Lakers on the Jan. 12, he hasn’t always been the driving force behind the Spurs’ victories. His teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has started to get some of the attention, as he’s averaged 23.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during the month of January. That’s almost six points and two rebounds more than his regular season numbers and, beyond that, he’s become a guy who San Antonio has started to design more plays for. Leonard’s numbers are down for the month of January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing worse. Teams seem to be honing in on him more and, at times, forcing other Spurs to beat them. In order for Leonard to win the award, he’s going to need more performances like the 31-point outing we saw last night.
Durant is doing everything he can, but it seems as though Golden State has a problem handling late-game situations. Durant is part of that problem, as he’s been the go-to player on his team. After getting yelled at by Draymond Green after one such late play, it just seems the team has some issues to work out (which isn’t uncommon for newly formed “superteams”). They play great against most NBA teams, but have struggled in recent games. The addition of Durant was great for this team, but we all knew it would take some time for everything to work smoothly. Right now, they’re at an impasse in terms of who does what. It seems like they tense up and play careless, sloppy basketball in certain scenarios – particularly late in games. They’ve won four of their last five so it’s not something to go crazy over, but it’s something that could be hindering this team from reaching their full potential at the moment. After the epic Christmas Day game, the Cleveland Cavaliers play Golden State again next week, and we’ll all be watching closely.
James is continuing to do what’s expected of him. He’s averaging a hefty (yet somehow not hefty for James) 28.4 points, 6.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds in the past 10 games. The back-to-back losses to Portland and Utah on the road were bad, but it’s not enough to discount his true value to the Cavaliers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to see the new-look Cavs in action with the addition of Kyle Korver. If the move pans out, it’ll add another dimension to this already great Cavaliers team and possibly enhance James’ ability to win the award. Even in J.R. Smith’s absence, the Cavs have played very well and that’s due to James filling in for him in many ways. He’s taken on a larger role – mainly scoring more and putting in better performances on the defensive end of the floor. He’s firmly in this race with plenty of time left in the season.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double and yet somehow isn’t number one. This is even a shock to us, but while he may be deemed more valuable to his team, the award is historically given to the player who’s performing the best for one of the league’s top teams. Right now, the Thunder are currently sixth in the Western Conference. This could play a huge role in whether Westbrook gets the award or not. Westbrook’s value to his team is probably higher than any other player on this list. But the upcoming schedule for Oklahoma City is not easy and the Thunder may need more from Westbrook in order to stay in the race for a top-four seed. If Westbrook can keep the Thunder in the playoffs, it’s entirely possible to see him in this race until the end (and possibly winning the award). On the season, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.7 assists while shooting 42.7 percent from the field. Considering the circumstances, it’s remarkable that he continues to lead his team with this incredible production.
Harden is still number one by all accounts. If the Rockets continue to win, he’ll be here at the number one spot because of his combined individual and team success. At 31-10, the Rockets are in line to be the shock of the season. No one expected Houston to be this good through the mid-way point of the campaign. Give credit to Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, who created and changed the philosophy of this team. But it’s Harden who’s put this squad on his back and played out of his mind. His leadership abilities, creativity on offense and growth as a creator and facilitator have made Houston come together flawlessly.
Remember, they added focal points like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson over the offseason, lost Dwight Howard, and hired a new head coach in D’Antoni. But rather than needing a ton of time to adjust, they’re already playing this well. Barring an unforeseen setback, Harden has put himself in pole position to win this award through 41 games.
One final interesting note: While Westbrook leads the league in triple-doubles with 18, Harden has 11 of his own and is actually leading the NBA in double-doubles with 34 through 41 games.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday on Basketball Insiders.
NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man
Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.
Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.
In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.
Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.
“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”
In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.
He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.
“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”
It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.
“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”
Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.
While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.
“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.
NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.
But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.
The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.
So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.
Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up
The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.
The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.
Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.
Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.
Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.
Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.