While the top of the MVP watch list hasn’t changed, we’ve got some newcomers closing out the top 10. As we’re about one-quarter through the season, the race is starting to become close and polarizing.
Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. How is your favorite player stacking up against the competition?
Walker has been terrific for the Hornets this season. However, as the season has progressed, his statistics have slowly decreased. The Hornets currently sit at fourth in the Eastern Conference, winning three out of their last four games. Walker has been consistent, averaging 23.6 points, five assists and four rebounds. But in order to really put himself into the conversation, he’ll need to carry more of an offensive load with this team. While he has been very good defensively, he’s barely in the top-15 in scoring and hasn’t won enough to warrant more consideration.
Butler is still in the top 10 in scoring while leading this Chicago Bulls team to seventh place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls have struggled, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons last week. But Butler should be in the conversation based on his individual performance and early team success. While some of his contributions don’t show up on the stat sheet, Butler has still been impressive regardless of the statistics.
Lillard has moved up because his team is over .500 and Portland has won two of their last three games. While he isn’t on one of the NBA’s elite teams, he is averaging some incredible statistics and helping his squad win. Currently, Lillard is sixth in the league in scoring (28 points per game), while also averaging 5.6 assists and five rebounds per game. Lillard is the clear leader and number-one option on the young Blazers. In order for him to climb up the rankings, he needs to lift Portland higher in the standings.
Wait, Stephen Curry wasn’t on this list last week?! Well, he’s back on now. After playing second fiddle to Kevin Durant early on in the season, he’s once again becoming a primary threat (at times) for the league’s best team. Even with a teammate like Durant, Curry is averaging 25.9 points, six assists and four rebounds per game. But what’s most impressive is his ability to take a back seat without letting it affect him negatively. He’s still shooting close to 50 percent from the field, making plays and creating for others while allowing Durant to become the primary option on this team. All signs point to Curry maturing as a player and being smarter as a teammate.
DeRozan is still shooting 48 percent from the field and scoring 28 points per game (which is good for fifth in the league). This, on a team that’s second in the Eastern Conference at 14-7. They were on a six-game win streak before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers two nights ago, and DeRozan’s been their primary option. While he’s not the playmaker that Kyle Lowry is, DeRozan has been the consistent scoring threat night in and night out. If DeRozan starts to miss more shots or Lowry picks up a greater offensive load, then we may see Lowry on this list instead of DeRozan. For now, the former USC star is seemingly doing more for this Raptors team.
Lowering James wasn’t due to flipping water bottles with his teammates on the bench. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 15-5 and have slipped up in a couple games in the past week. While James is arguably the best player in the league, voters will look for any reason to give the MVP trophy to someone else since they’re tired of crowning James. That means his team needs to be the absolute best in order for him to win this award. He’s still in the top-15 in scoring and continues to be the unselfish superstar we’ve come to love. But his numbers are always going to be taken for granted. Fair or not, James is held to a different standard.
Leonard has moved up this week because the San Antonio Spurs continue to win. Currently, the Spurs are one game behind the Golden State Warriors for the best team in the Western Conference at 18-4. Leonard is averaging the most points and steals on the Spurs, leading the second-best team in the league. As long as the Spurs keep winning and Leonard continues to be in the top-15 in scoring, he deserves to be high on the list of MVP candidates.
The Golden State Warriors are continuing to play incredible team basketball. While Durant’s teammate Steph Curry is playing excellent basketball as well, Durant is seemingly doing more for this team. However, Durant has not only stood out on the offensive end, he’s been extremely impactful on the defensive end as well. Beyond his 26.5 points on 55 percent shooting, he’s also top-30 in steals and defensive rebounds while also averaging 1.5 blocks per game. Durant deserves to be in the conversation, but is probably in a tier just below behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
The Houston Rockets are currently playing some of the best team basketball in the league. Last week, they beat the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets in consecutive nights away from home. This week, they’ve won both of their games (against the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers) by an average of 20 points. The reason they’ve been so good is because of James Harden. His ability to make plays for his teammates, score at will and contribute on defense have been the difference maker for Houston. Harden is averaging 28.5 points, 11.4 assists and 7.5 rebounds while shooting over 45 percent from the field. There’s no question that Houston will go as far as Harden takes them.
Westbrook is continuing to put up monstrous numbers on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that’s won six straight games. Currently, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists and 10.9 rebounds while playing close to 36 minutes per night. Even if the Thunder don’t make the top-four in the Western Conference, Westbrook has a very good chance at winning the MVP based on his statistical dominance alone. If he keeps this up, it’s going to be extremely hard to give the MVP trophy to anyone else.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday night on Basketball Insiders.
NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals
Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.
Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.
Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.
James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.
“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”
James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.
While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.
The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.
James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.
“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”
James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.
“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.
“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”
Other Opening Night Observations
Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)
- Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
- Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
- Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
- Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest
Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)
- The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
- Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
- Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
- Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
- Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener
The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.
In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.