It hasn’t even been a week since the NBA season started and we’ve already seen plenty of incredible performances.
Russell Westbrook has already dropped two triple-doubles, Anthony Davis recorded a 50-point outing on Opening Night and LeBron James turned in a triple-double of his own. If the first week is any indication, this season could go down as one of the most memorable in recent years.
One player who has certainly made his own headlines through the first three games of the season is Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Given the outstanding performances of Westbrook, Davis and James, it seems as though Lillard’s play so far has gone a bit unnoticed.
Had those players not gotten off to incredible starts, Lillard would be the one stealing all of the headlines. Instead, his averages of 35 points, eight rebounds, 5.3 assists and one steal seem like an ‘Oh-by-the-way’ stat line across the NBA. He opened up the Blazers’ season by dropping 39 points on the Utah Jazz and he followed up that performance with 29 points and 37 points in the next two outings.
His last game on Saturday against the Denver Nuggets was likely his most impressive of the three games. He had 37 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and a block in a 115-113 overtime win. It was Lillard that came up with two clutch shots in that game to help the Blazers pull out the win. He converted a catch and finish at the rim with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime, and then hit the game-winning floater with less than a second left in overtime.
Lillard’s two buzzer-beating shots further solidified his place among the game’s best clutch players. Of course, we all remember his game-winner against the Houston Rockets in the 2014 playoffs, but he’s among the best in the league when it comes down to the final five minutes of close games. Last season, he scored 125 points in the final five minutes of games in which his team was either ahead or behind by five points, which ranked 15th. He also scored the third-most points in the league during the fourth quarter.
This year’s Most Valuable Player race seems to be wide open. After Kevin Durant opted to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency, pairing two former MVPs in Durant and Stephen Curry on the same team could prove to be tough for either player to take home the award. Each player isn’t afforded the same amount of scoring opportunities they might have seen in previous years and could hurt their chances of winning. Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr predicted that Curry and Durant would hurt each other’s case, and Kerr predicted Lillard would win the MVP award.
With a player like Lillard, it’s clear that he’s the Blazers’ top scoring option night in and night out. They have other options as well in C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and others, but Lillard is the team’s go-to player and their top option. That will ultimately help his chances all season long to continue to put up huge numbers. It’s fair to say that he likely won’t continue to score over 30 points per game, but it seems like a safe bet to assume he’ll put up big numbers each night.
Lillard entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations for himself. He said very directly to the Portland Tribune that he wants to be MVP. He believes that with his workload on the Blazers that an MVP campaign isn’t out of the question. Last year, Lillard finished sixth in the league in scoring at 25.1 points per game and helped the Trail Blazers surprise many around the league by advancing to the second-round of the playoffs.
“I want to be the MVP,” Lillard said. “If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP.”
After finishing sixth in scoring last year, Lillard was named to the All-NBA Second Team but wasn’t a member of the All-Star team. Lillard often uses his snubs from the All-Star teams as motivation to continue to prove that he’s among the best in the league. The point guard position is the strongest it’s been in recent years and ranking the league’s top floor generals can often lead to some heated discussions among fans.
With so many talented players at the position in the league, it’s easy to see how overlooking Lillard can be a possibility. Players like Curry, Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving are often mentioned as some of the best in the league with no mention of Lillard. It seems as though he’s trying to change that notion and is off to a great start this season. He had an infamous quote after his All-Star snub in 2015 that is still floating around the internet.
“I just want to thank the coaches who feel I wasn’t good enough, the fans that didn’t think I was good enough and Adam Silver also for not thinking I was good enough,” Lillard said. “This isn’t unfamiliar territory for me, it’s actually what my life has been inspired by. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed or that I don’t feel disrespected, but it’s not too much to handle.”
Based on what we’ve seen from Lillard in three games, it seems reasonable to think that he can be a legitimate MVP candidate. The Trail Blazers finished 44-38 a season ago and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs. This came after many people didn’t believe they had the pieces to even make the postseason. Lillard finished eighth in MVP voting last season and it seems likely the Trail Blazers will need to be even better for Lillard to have a chance at the award.
Of course, he’s going to have a lot of competition all season long. Westbrook has already turned in two triple-doubles performances in just three games and was one assist away from making it three triple-doubles. If Westbrook keeps up that pace, it could be a one-man race this year. Other players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden among others figure to be in contention as well.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!
NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads
Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.
There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.
A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.
- They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
- They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
- They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.
Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.
The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.
He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.
There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?
To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.
It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.
Bradley Beal body language during the 1st half pic.twitter.com/qOMXk55CHc
— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) February 1, 2021
Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.
And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…
Nets defensive rating rank since the Harden trade
First 14 games: 30th
Last 8 games: 12th
They have won 8 games in a row. pic.twitter.com/zQSIY3mgAB
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 26, 2021
And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.
For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.
Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.
An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.
So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.
At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.
Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.
So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.
Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.
At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.
That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.
But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.
Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.
And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.
NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect
Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.
Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.
Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.
But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.
Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.
But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.
“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”
High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.
Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.
But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.
Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).
So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.
Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.
Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols
Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.
Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.
Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.
“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”
So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.
Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.