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Six NBA MVP Candidates — By The Numbers

Buddy Grizzard dives into the deep numbers to break down a historic MVP race.

Buddy Grizzard

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As the NBA season enters its final days, award season gets into full swing with an intense Most Valuable Player debate sure to dominate headlines. This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the numbers that shape those awards debates, starting with a look at six candidates for MVP.

6. Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas is only the sixth Boston Celtic to score 2,000 points in a season. Only Kyle Korver (.635) has a higher true shooting percentage among NBA guards than Thomas’ .627. He has dominated fourth quarters and could still lead the Celtics to an improbable ascent to the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed. It’s been a remarkable season for Thomas, and in any other year, you could make a strong case for his MVP candidacy.

But this is the year of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. With Westbrook making history and Harden not far behind, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Thomas ranks dead last in defensive Real Plus-Minus by a wide margin. The Celtics allow 108.9 points per 100 possessions to opponents with Thomas on the court, but only 99.7 when he’s on the bench. You simply can’t make an MVP case for a player the Celtics constantly have to hide on defense when the players at the top of this list have been so great. One could easily make an argument that Kevin Durant deserves to be higher on this list than Thomas.

5. Steph Curry

Speaking of Durant, you can’t discount the value of two-time defending and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, who sacrificed shots this season to welcome Durant into the fold and incorporate him in Golden State’s league-leading attack. Curry is third in overall RPM this season, trailing only Chris Paul and LeBron James. However, it’s the very addition of former MVP Durant that weakens Curry’s case.

Simply put, it was easier to attribute more of Golden State’s success to a single player before the Warriors added a fourth All-Star. The Warriors remain the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title this season, but one obvious byproduct of the NBA superteam is the dilution of credit, something that will prevent Curry from getting serious consideration for a third consecutive MVP award.

4. Kawhi Leonard

In contrast to Curry, Kawhi Leonard is obviously the biggest contributor to San Antonio’s third 60-plus win season in the last four years. With Tim Duncan retired, Leonard has stepped right into his shoes as San Antonio’s quiet, unassuming leader. His 25.8 points and 3.6 assists are easily career-highs, while his 5.9 rebounds are well off the 7.2 he posted in 2014-15.

Strangely, Leonard will get serious consideration for a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award despite the fact that the Spurs’ defense performs better on a per 100 possessions basis with Leonard on the bench than any other player. Normally when debating MVP candidates, a team’s record is a big factor. With credit divided among so many stars for the Warriors and the Spurs holding the league’s second-best record, Leonard’s candidacy would be stronger in any other year.

3. LeBron James

If the standard for MVP is “which player improves his team the most,” you could pretty much give the award to LeBron James every year. The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers would struggle to make the playoffs without James. On top of that, James is having one of the best individual seasons of his storied career, with career-highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7) to go along with 26.4 points per game.

However, James’ individual brilliance isn’t enough to make MVP voters overlook the way Cleveland has stumbled in the second half of the season. The Cavaliers hold the tiebreak over Boston, but must win out to control their own destiny. That could come back to haunt the Cavaliers, a team that should be resting James after he’s led the league in minutes per game this season (37.8). As unquestionably-great as James is, he will undoubtedly be penalized by voters for the fact that Cleveland’s defense ranks in the bottom third of the league, and a staggering 28th since the All-Star break.

2. Russell Westbrook

Wait, WHAT? With Russell Westbrook eclipsing Oscar Robertson’s record with his 42nd triple-double against the Nuggets while pouring in 50 points and a dramatic buzzer-beater, Twitter exploded with claims that the MVP discussion is now an open-and-shut case. There’s just one problem: Are regular season accomplishments more important than a team’s potential to reach the ultimate goal, an NBA championship? Are the Golden State Warriors satisfied with their accomplishments last season after winning a record 73 games but falling short in the NBA Finals?

That’s not to say that James Harden has a better case for MVP because the Houston Rockets have a realistic shot at winning the title this year. They don’t, not with the way the Warriors are playing and Durant back from injury. But the Rockets have exceeded expectations to a greater extent than Oklahoma City. If chasing regular season accomplishments is the true definition of value, that’s fine, but consider this: No NBA player with at least 15 minutes per game has ever used more than the astronomical 41.8 percent of the Thunder’s possessions that Westbrook has used while on court this season.

Prior to Harden’s departure from OKC, there was a realistic expectation that the Thunder would win multiple championships. Had the Thunder retained Harden, it would have had three of the NBA’s top 10 players under contract. Instead, Harden complained about touches after taking only six shots in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals and OKC’s chemistry was fractured. The story coming out of the Thunder’s front office was that the Harden trade was driven by economics, but that sounds like revisionist history. Westbrook’s failed efforts at hero ball in the playoffs led to the exodus of two superstars, and now OKC may never win a championship during his career. Is that what counts as value?

1. James Harden

What makes the case for James Harden for MVP is the fact that the Rockets have exceeded expectations more than any NBA team this season. As Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes noted, only two MVPs since 1985 (Michael Jordan in 1988 and Karl Malone in 1999) have won the award while their team finished lower than second in its conference standings. Both of those teams finished third, so there hasn’t been a team since 1985 that finished lower than third and produced an MVP. Westbrook’s brilliance legitimately opens up the debate despite the Thunder’s mediocre performance in the standings, but Houston’s overachievement makes it easier to make that argument in favor of Harden.

As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, oddsmakers at Bovada set a similar over/under for wins entering the season for the Rockets (44) and Thunder (43.5). At the time of the article’s publication, the Rockets were on pace to exceed that projection by 13 wins, making Houston easily the NBA’s biggest overachievers. The Thunder, meanwhile, were only on pace to exceed their projection by three wins.

Golliver also notes that while Westbrook leads MVP candidates in the three-point era in the combination of points, rebounds, and assists per game, Harden is second on that list ahead of previous MVPs. Thus, Harden’s season has also been historic while pushing his team significantly closer to contention than the Thunder.

Westbrook may win the award on the strength of the narrative created when he surmounted a triple-double record many observers thought would never be challenged. But if we’re talking about which candidate has pushed his team to the most unexpected heights and placed it in the closest proximity to title contention, Harden wins this MVP going away.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.

Simon Hannig

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.

Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.

Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.

Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.

NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.

Quavo was named MVP.

BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game

There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.

However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.

It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.

All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.

The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.

Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.

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