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 AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?
Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?
Set Up To Fail? Maybe
The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.
Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.
It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?
Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.
It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.
So What Next?
The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.
Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.
With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.
It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.
“I Dont wanna be here.”
As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”
Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.
The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.
With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.
Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?
Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.
The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?
The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.
Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.
As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.
The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.
Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.
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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise
The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.
He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.
He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.
Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.
The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.
“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.
So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.
As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.
In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.
But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Porzingis.
Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.
In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.
Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.
And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.
“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.
“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”
Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.
Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.
The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.
So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.
Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.
If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.
So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.
Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.
To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.
When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.
He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.
And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.
With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word.
It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.
For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.
In this town, that’s more than half the battle.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.