Last season, after leading his Golden State Warriors to the most wins in an NBA regular season, Stephen Curry became the first player to ever be unanimously voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. It was the 13th time that the award was won by the same player in back-to-back years, and now, this season, he will attempt to join the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players in the history of the league to win the award three times in a row – with Bird last completing the rare trifecta in 1986.
The odds may be stacked against Curry, though. The Warriors may be title favorites, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or his new teammate in Kevin Durant will walk away from this season with the distinction. That’s hard to believe considering Durant and Curry have combined to win the last three MVP awards, but the truth is that they will likely hurt one another’s cause.
Or will they?
Basketball Insiders handicaps the race for the 2016-17 NBA season’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Chris Paul (Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers)
There are a fair amount of people who believe that Chris Paul deserved the Most Valuable Player Award over Kobe Bryant back in 2008. Paul admirably led a sparsely talented New Orleans Hornets team to 56 wins and the second seed in the Western Conference. They finished one game behind Bryant’s Lakers and Paul ended up finishing a distant second to Bryant after the votes had been tallied.
Still, the Clippers will enter the season as a favorite to finish in the top three out West, and with the distance between the contenders in the conference and the lower echelon teams seemingly becoming greater, the Clippers should have a relatively easy time eclipsing 55 wins. That is, of course, assuming they stay healthy.
In years past, there has been more and more attention given to Blake Griffin, and deservedly so, but after losing Paul during last year’s first round, the Clippers folded like a cheap suit. Subliminally, that may have the effect of Paul’s perceived value being restored. If he backs that up simply by doing what he has done for the Clippers recently (he has averaged over 19 points and 10 assists per game for each of the past three seasons), he may emerge as the front runner.
All things considered, if the Thunder don’t win 50 games and the Warriors don’t win 70, Paul (or LeBron James) could end up winning the award by default, almost.
LeBron James (Small Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Stephen Curry may be in the running to become just the fourth player to win the award three consecutive times, but James is the only player aside from Bill Russell to have actually won the award four times in five years. James won the award in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers before yielding the award to Derrick Rose in 2011. James followed that by winning the award in 2012 and 2013, with each of those seasons ending with a Miami HEAT championship.
James is now at the age where he will pitch-count himself over the course of the long season, but with Curry and Durant having teamed up, getting the Cavaliers north of 60 wins would certainly result in James receiving at least a few first-place votes. Although last season’s 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists were far from his most impressive statistical season, he has a lot left in the tank and seems poised to take home the award for the fifth time. That is, of course, assuming he wants it.
Russell Westbrook (Point Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder)
The Most Valuable Player Award is typically awarded to someone whose team achieves great success. It’s difficult to imagine Westbrook win the award, but rules were meant to be broken.
In all honesty, let’s just say for argument’s sake that Westbrook is able to record 25 triple-doubles this coming season. If he does that and the Thunder win 47 games, depending on how other things shake out, many voters would consider him. Now, just imagine that the Thunder somehow win 52 games. The thought may seem overly optimistic, but Westbrook has a solid supporting cast and remember, the Thunder managed to win 45 games during the 2014-15 season. That happened with a weaker supporting cast and Kevin Durant playing in all of 27 games.
Everyone loves an underdog. And the stage has been set for Westbrook to emerge as a front runner.
Kawhi Leonard (Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs)
Tim Duncan may have decided to call it a career, but with Gregg Popovich still calling the shots in San Antonio, expect the Spurs to be in the mix in the end. At this point, nobody remembers, but last season, at 65-12, the Spurs had a legitimate shot to go for 70 wins. Popovich obviously opted not to, but suffice to say the Spurs are a really good team. Although Duncan will be missed, he played just 25 minutes per game and averaged less than nine points per contest. In all likelihood, Pau Gasol will be able to replace his production.
If the Spurs get anywhere near 65 wins this season, don’t be surprised to see Leonard getting a lot of MVP love. That is, of course, assuming he improves upon last season’s 21.2 points per game.
Stephen Curry (Point Guard, Golden State Warriors)
The bar has been set incredibly high for the Warriors, it’s almost not even fair. If this team is capable of winning 73 games without Kevin Durant, what would it take for them to exceed expectations this season?
The answer there? It’s a trick question. It’s probably not possible for the Warriors to exceed expectations this season, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for Curry to actually score what many would consider an upset by winning the Most Valuable Player Award for the third consecutive year. If he comes close to last season’s 30.1 points per game and gets the Warriors to 70 wins, then the voters, out of principle, will likely crown Curry the MVP again.
The problem in it all is that nothing will give you more perspective than winning the MVP award and winning a record-setting 73 games, only to come up short when it matters most. In all likelihood, the Warriors will lose their first game of the season during its first week and head into the All-Star break with more than a few losses. Still, where there’s a Curry, there’s a way, so we wouldn’t discount his chances completely.
The Second Tier
James Harden (Point Guard, Houston Rockets): The move to point guard will probably help Harden’s numbers, and that’s scary considering last season’s 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists were already out of this world. The concern with Harden will be corralling enough votes if his team doesn’t win enough games. Do you think the Rockets have enough talent to win 50 games out West? If not, it would take a perfect storm for Harden to walk away as MVP.
Kevin Durant (Small Forward, Golden State Warriors): Without question, a trans-generational talent. The only concern is that he is overlooked in Oakland. In all likelihood, his efficiency will skyrocket, but unless he does something tremendous, he will likely be penalized the same way that LeBron James was in his first season with the Miami HEAT. A fair number of voters didn’t vote for James simply because of the help he had. What would it take for Durant to overcome that type of bias?
Paul George (Small Forward, Indiana Pacers): Once a defensive-first team, the Indiana Pacers have a new head coach and, frankly, a new identity. What Paul George has working in his favor, though, is the fact that he has talent flanking him and he is coming off of what is arguably his finest statistical season. It’s hard to see the Pacers doing enough damage for George to beat out the likes of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, but respect is due.
Anthony Davis (Power Forward, New Orleans Pelicans): Agreed, Anthony Davis hasn’t done much for us lately, but he did finish fifth in MVP voting for the 2014-15 season. The Pelicans have a lot of work to do, but there are few players in the game who are capable of making an impact on both ends quite like Davis. Fear the brow; if he’s healthy, he will likely be an MVP-caliber performer. But are the Pelicans even a playoff team?
Damian Lillard: (Point Guard, Portland Trail Blazers): The Trail Blazers certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this coming season, especially not after spending truckloads to build out the talent base surrounding Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There are quite a few that don’t even expect the Blazers to win the Northwest Division this year, so if they manage to overachieve again, don’t be surprised for Lillard to accomplish the rare feat of going from All-Star snub to MVP contender.
Kyrie Irving (Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers): Never say never, but it’s difficult to see Irving finding a way to overshadow LeBron James.
Carmelo Anthony (Small Forward, New York Knicks): Call it a catch-22, but for the Knicks to approach the win total required for Carmelo to get consideration, they would need the supporting cast to play out of their mind, which would diminish ‘Melo’s credit.
Blake Griffin (Power Forward, Los Angeles Clippers): If he is the team’s alpha-male and takes playmaking pressure off of Chris Paul, watch out!
DeMarcus Cousins (Center, Sacramento Kings): When you’re giving us 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, we care less about your team’s win total. We got love for you.
NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn
Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.
With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.
The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?
Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.
How do Irving and Harden fit together?
Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.
Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.
Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.
Lack of depth is a problem
Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.
There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.
But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.
Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.
Nash’s first rodeo
On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.
Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.
As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.
For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons – Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.
It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.
Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.
NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch
From Christian Wood to Jaylen Brown, these are the breakout players reaching for their first-ever All-Star appearances.
In this feature for Basketball Insiders, we will take a look at players who have started hot out of the gate, and have vastly improved. The article will touch upon new faces in new roles, as well as players who have expanded their previous roles with their teams. The league has a pretty good amount of guys who have earned All-Star appearances previously in their careers, but the players in this article are ready to add their name to the list 𑁋 so without further ado 𑁋 let’s take a look at five players who are cementing their names around the league.
To the casual fan, Christian Wood is having a huge surprise season. But for the people who had him on their radar, and knew he could succeed with more minutes and a larger role, you were right. The 25-year-old began his journeyman career with the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV. He then played for the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and now the Houston Rockets. In his first 10 games this year, he is putting up 23.2 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game, per NBA.com. This is a major improvement for a guy who only averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year as a rotational player for the Pistons. Wood’s remarkable season thus far has put the league on notice and shown he is the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.
In his seventh season, Julius Randle has finally become a star in the Big Apple for the New York Knicks. Randle spent the first five seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, before signing with the Knicks before the 2019-20 season. This year, Randle has taken the lead role on the team becoming an above-average facilitator, while also raising his shooting percentages and totals.
According to Basketball-Reference, Randle is having a career-best season so far averaging 23.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game along with shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line 𑁋 all career highs. Randle’s play helped the Knicks get off to a 5-3 start before a recent five-game losing skid. Randle’s ascension as a player, as well as providing Knicks fans with a glimmer of hope, make him a good bet to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game this season if there is such an event.
Yes, CJ is the well-known sidekick to Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers, but this season has seen him steal some of the spotlights. Through the first 12 games of the season, McCollum has three 30-point games –including a 44-point and 8-assist performance against the Rockets – plus another 37-point outing to boot. His per-game numbers increased in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage, thus resulting in a very impressive 27.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.4 SPG and 43.4 percent from deep.
McCollum has done enough as a player to this point to establish himself as an above-average player in the NBA – but with the way he’s playing this year, he could be in line for his first All-Star selection. The lethal backcourt of Lillard and McCollum has led to a hot start this year – but the injury bug continues to haunt the team again this year. Already, they’ve lost Jusuf Nurkic for eight weeks and potentially now McCollum with a left foot sprain too, per Chris Haynes.
The Detroit Pistons made a really good decision to bring in free agent Jerami Grant on a three-year deal. The 6-foot-8 small forward has been putting up career-best numbers and his play for the Denver Nuggets during their Western Conference Finals run at the bubble helped get him this deservedly big contract. In the team’s first 12 games this season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, while also improving his free throw percentage and shot-creating opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he’ll miss out on any real All-Star chatter, given his place on one of the worst teams in the league – but the all-around improvement is there.
Jaylen Brown, the former third overall pick out of California, has molded himself into a star this season for the Boston Celtics. Brown’s improvement has been no secret around the league, especially after an Eastern Conference Finals run this past season – but this year he looks like he belongs up there with the best. Brown has been relentless in taking the ball to the rim and using his body to create contact when going up. He has also boosted his points per game from 20.3 to 25.8, while also adding more assists to his game with 3.9 per game. Brown should be a first-time All-Star this season with the Celtics currently sitting atop the conference.
These players are all having breakout seasons and have well-earned consideration for their first All-Star appearances this year. Of course, the game is not happening this year with the pandemic, but the players will still be recognized and added to the history books for their achievements, so the honor remains large all the same. Whether they make it or not is yet to be determined – but with the sample size of games played to date, they’re right in the conversation.
NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.
The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?
Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.
Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.
Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.
A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.
But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.
All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.
That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.
The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.
Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.
Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.
It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.
Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.
If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.
While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.
The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.
In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.
If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.
Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.
Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.
The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.
And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.