For most teams, the 2019-20 NBA regular season is but six or seven games old. That said, it’s never too early for a player to put their name in the ring for some end-of-the-season, non-championship hardware.
In fact, the race to Most Valuable Player has already seemed to have established itself.
Giannis Antetokounmpo started the season as the favorite at +300 odds and maintains that position with +250 odds coming from Caesars Sportsbook in Las Vegas. Stephen Curry started the season in a close second with +600 odds to win but has seen his odds for the award plummet in the past week after sustaining a hand injury that will force him to be out for at least 3 months. Despite the season being fairly young, there has been a lot of movement in the race for the regular-season award, including the rise of Paskal Siakam, now in the MVP conversation with Las Vegas odds of +5000.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+250)
Notwithstanding the Milwaukee Bucks’ slow start, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominant play has kept him in the conversation to repeat as MVP this season.
Already averaging a career-high in assists (7.4) and rebounds (14) per game, Antetokounmpo is now shooting three-pointers more consistently. In his first game against the Raptors since their Game 6 loss last postseason, Antetokounmpo played his best game of the year. Antetokounmpo dropped 36 points and had 15 rebounds in the 115-105 Milwaukee win, saying he was “motivated” by the match up after they fell to the eventual NBA champions.
Antetokounmpo can impact the game on either side of the court, which swayed many voters to pick him over James Harden, who averaged a league-best 30.7 points per game, last season. He has shown continued commitment to defense by averaging 1.8 blocks per game, which is a trait that only two other MVP candidates can hang their hat on: Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.
Of course, Antetokounmpo wants to be the first back-to-back MVP since Curry back in 2015-2016; who wouldn’t? Well, the continued development of his offensive game coupled with his dominant defensive play should make Antetokounmpo a strong candidate to accomplish that feat.
James Harden (+350)
James Harden, at 36.6 points per contest, has unsurprisingly led the league in scoring.
Meanwhile, as last season’s MVP, Antetokounmpo, isn’t even on the top-10 scoring leader board.
Harden is the outright isolation possession leader through seven games at 15 isolation plays per game, but he has coupled that with a three-point percentage of just 25.3 percent. At first glance, his polarizing offensive style requires him to dominate the ball and comes at the expense of integrating new teammate Russell Westbrook, though, who, despite Harden’s dominant playstyle, has posted several impressive box scores.
Harden has also capitalized the most out of any other player in those iso-situations, scoring 12 points per game in isolation. The usage rate leader of last season, Harden is one of the few players to rank above Anthony Davis in the category at 38.2 percent.
Harden’s start to this season has been very rocky, as he hit just 10 of his first 42 field goal attempts. However, he has been vintage Harden since; Harden put up 40 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and racked up 59 in an epic duel with Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards. The main question will be if Harden can shore up the inconsistencies he dealt with to start the year, and whether his play will help the Rockets be successful during the regular season.
Anthony Davis (+600)
Anthony Davis has averaged 28.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.7 assists through his first six games of the 2019-2020 season. That’s 3 points and 1 rebound per game more than the reigning MVP, Antetokounmpo. His three blocks per game lead the NBA and he’s been excellent at the free-throw line, converting 88.3 percent of his attempts and missing just once from the stripe in his last three games.
Davis’s season has been headlined by a performance that included 40 points, 20 rebounds in 3 quarters against the Memphis Grizzlies, planting him firmly at the forefront of the early-season MVP discussion. The 26-year-old is already a 6-time All-Star and playing alongside LeBron James has helped him improve on both ends of the floor, without the added pressure of carrying the whole of his team’s burden.
With Davis having established himself as a primary scoring option and defensive leader for Los Angeles, the Lakers have started strong with a 5-1 record. He has led the Lakers to a winning streak of five games after dropping their regular-season opener 112-102 to the Los Angeles Clippers. If the Lakers end the season as one of the top teams in a competitive Western Conference, and Davis is the primary reason for that success, look for him to be a top candidate to win the MVP award.
Outside Looking In:
Kawhi Leonard (+800) –
After leaving Toronto this summer, Leonard realized that he needed to focus on improving his passing ability in order to become more of a well-rounded player. Even though the Clippers have a deep bench with solid role players that can defend, they do not have a point guard that can manage the game as Toronto had with Kyle Lowery.
In response to this, Leonard has taken over the offense for the Clippers. He has doubled his assists from last year, going from 3.3 to 5.7 assists per game. Leonard, despite that extra offensive burden, has maintained his exceptional scoring efficiency as well; against another former team, the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard dropped 38 points, 12 rebounds while he shot 48 percent from the field.
Leonard has claimed to be the healthiest he has been in the past two seasons, after sustaining a serious quad injury in San Antonio that cost him an entire season and led to his eventual title run in Toronto. But, despite claiming to be in great health, Leonard will still lose games to “load management” and has already missed one game to start the season. It remains to be seen how often Leonard will be sidelined, but frequent absences certainly won’t help the 28-year-old superstar win any award, save for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Lebron James (+1000)
Whatever you do, please do not tell LeBron James that he’s 34 years old. Nor that he’s in year 17 of his career.
Many suggested during the off-season that James was “washed” or “over the hill.” But, after back-to-back triple-doubles against the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, James has silenced many of his critics. Of course, so far along in his career, it natural for questions to arise after last year’s groin injuries.
But, unfortunately for those critics, a 34-year old James posted an incredible 39 point, 16 assist, 12 rebound performance against a young Mavericks squad.
Of course, we’re only 6 games into the Lakers season, but, after his first offseason actually off for the first time in more than a decade, James has looked revitalized. With averages of 25.5 points, 11.2 assists, and 8 rebounds per game, proving that he is still the same, dominant James when it comes to his on-court ability.
The real question will be how James progresses through the season and whether he can continue his current level of play. He will certainly take games off during the regular season to ‘load manage,’ ala Leonard, which could hurt him in the award race. But, if he can sustain his play (and play enough), he could certainly prove another strong candidate for MVP.
Pascal Siakam (+5000) Siakam, who signed a four-year, $130 million extension with the Raptors last month, has averaged 26 points and 8.5 rebounds through six games. Given this early impact, Siakam is one of the biggest early risers. His odds have shot up to 40-1 from initial longshots odds listed at 100-1. Through his leadership, the Toronto Raptors have picked up right where they left off last season as one of the hardest-playing teams in the league starting the season with a 4-2 record.
Siakam has progressed in almost every game. But, during the Raptors’ latest loss to the Bucks, he floundered against Antetokounmpo due to foul trouble, something that has proven an issue having already fouled out of two games and having five fouls in two of Toronto’s other six. Regardless of the foul woes, Siakam ranks 12th in the NBA in scoring with 26.0 points per game, a significant improvement from his average last season of 16.9.
Without Leonard, many cast the Raptors out of the Eastern Conference elite. But, if the Raptors end up with one of the best records by the end of the season, it’ll be because of Siakam’s play and his leadership, both of which could prove a boon to his MVP chances.
Of course, take note of the small sample size qualifier; given more time, these rankings are subject to change over the course of the season. That said, these six have stood out from the crowd, and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Make sure to stay tuned for the rest of the Basketball Insiders award watches, and keep on the lookout for future updates throughout the season.
High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram
By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.
For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.
Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.
For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.
However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.
Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.
Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.
Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.
“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.
As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.
Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics
As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.
According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.
Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.
A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?
A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.
Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.
Energy Psychology – Player Development
As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.
Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.
Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.
Younger Players & The G-League
Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.
For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.
The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019
A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.
In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.
A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …
5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards
Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.
At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.
4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers
No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.
In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.
3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets
When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.
If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.
That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.
2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.
His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.
1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.
His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.
The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.
NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT
Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.
209 wins, 202 losses.
That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.
Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.
Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.
But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.
Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.
Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.
Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.
Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.
While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.
This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.
All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.
Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.
The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.
Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.
After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.
Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?
The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?
That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.
They have Butler now. They have their star.
Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.