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: Three Teams Failing Expectations
Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.
Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.
But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.
That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.
Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.
The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.
The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.
Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.
One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.
Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.
Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.
Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.
The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.
No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.
Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.
The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.
Kevin Huerter on Lloyd Pierce: “Obviously, our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for it.”
Huerter says he sent Lloyd a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta.
— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) March 3, 2021
The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.
Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5
Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.
The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)
February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.
WILD sequence at the end of Hornets-Kings as Malik Monk wins it with an and-one 😳pic.twitter.com/FNEhgdRVr0
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2021
One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.
When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.
Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 24, 2021
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)
Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.
Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)
Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2021
But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.
Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.
5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)
If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.
It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.
ANTHONY EDWARDS…DUNK OF THE YEAR. 😳😳😳
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 20, 2021
The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.
With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.
6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.
Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA.
Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.
Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)
Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.
The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.
With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!
NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench
Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.
When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.
But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.
On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.
“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”
As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.
This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.
“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.
This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”
Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.
Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.
“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”
Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.
“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”
And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.
He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.
“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”