Admittedly, there isn’t much change at the top of our Most Valuable Player rankings this week, but there are some newcomers at the back end who are playing excellent basketball and are certainly worth paying close attention to on a nightly basis.
The field of MVP candidates is shrinking as the season progresses, but we have kept the list at the same number for now because a lot can change between now and then end of the regular season. But once we have a clear idea of the realistic MVP finalists, the list will shorten. With that said, we will continue the weekly rankings with more of a focus on the candidates’ recent performances and what each individual will need to do in order to hoist the MVP trophy.
For the first time in NBA history, two players – Russell Westbrook and James Harden – recorded 10 or more triple-doubles in the first 40 games of a season. This season, we’re witnessing modern greatness and jaw-dropping performances nearly every night. It’ll be exciting to see how this MVP race plays out, especially since it could come down to the wire.
Basketball Insiders releases our updated MVP rankings each Thursday. Let’s get to it:
With the Milwaukee Bucks above .500 and Antetokounmpo dominating on both ends of the floor, he cannot be ignored any longer. Not only is his play electrifying, but he also fills the stat sheet while being incredibly efficient. This season, he is averaging 23.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals while shooting 53 percent from the field – all of which are career-highs. His player efficiency rating (28.2) is currently ranked third, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. Real Plus-Minus – an ESPN metric that tracks plus-minus while also accounting for a player’s teammates and opposition – also shows Antetokounmpo’s dominance. To get an idea of just how much he’s impacting the game, his 6.6 RPM ranks ahead of Westbrook and James Harden.
The biggest pause for concern with the Greek Freak is his team’s record since the Bucks currently stand at 19-18. Aside from that, he has emerged as a superstar. Last season, he earned 84,617 All-Star votes; this year, he already has nearly 1,000,000 with three days left to continue earning votes. His three-point shooting still needs work (it’s under 30 percent) and he has shown signs of inconsistency, but there is no doubting his ability to play and defend all five positions. For him to truly be considered for the MVP award, he’ll have to vault his team to top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and keep putting up impressive stats. Fortunately, Giannis just turned 22 years old last month, so he has plenty of time to further his development. Regardless of what happens this season, he’ll likely be in the MVP conversation for years to come if all goes as planned with his improvement.
Of the two Toronto stars, Lowry is seemingly the more likely MVP candidate at this point. But their success is linked in many ways and it’s hard to separate the dynamic backcourt. Lowry has taken on a tremendous defensive workload while continuing to be consistent, efficient and strong on offense. His ability to find open players as a facilitator, hit the outside shot and run effective pick-and-rolls with Toronto’s big men has allowed DeRozan to continue to score at such a high rate. Over his last 10 games, Lowry is averaging 25.7 points, 6.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the field. With Toronto having one of the best records in the NBA (25-13), they certainly have the wins to have a player in the MVP race. The question is, can Lowry cement himself as the true number one option and produce at an even higher level to climb up this list?
Meanwhile, if DeRozan can continue his scoring output and put in some more effort on the defensive side of the ball, he could still find himself as Toronto’s best candidate. The MVP discussion is about team record, individual performances, player value and – fair or not – storylines. No one will forget DeRozan’s impressive start to the season, when he put himself in rare company by averaging 35+ points for an astonishing stretch. The biggest problem for DeRozan and Lowry is that they will split votes, unlike some of the other clear-cut top dogs on this list. At this point, neither player seems to have a realistic shot at winning the award due to their success being more of a one-two punch. Still, these guys deserve plenty of credit for the terrific job they’re doing for the Raptors.
The Spurs look like the obvious choice for the Western Conference’s two-seed if they continue playing at this pace. As Leonard receives attention as an MVP candidate, that’s something that will significantly help his case. While he had a huge 31-point night against the L.A. Lakers on the Jan. 12, he hasn’t always been the driving force behind the Spurs’ victories. His teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has started to get some of the attention, as he’s averaged 23.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during the month of January. That’s almost six points and two rebounds more than his regular season numbers and, beyond that, he’s become a guy who San Antonio has started to design more plays for. Leonard’s numbers are down for the month of January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing worse. Teams seem to be honing in on him more and, at times, forcing other Spurs to beat them. In order for Leonard to win the award, he’s going to need more performances like the 31-point outing we saw last night.
Durant is doing everything he can, but it seems as though Golden State has a problem handling late-game situations. Durant is part of that problem, as he’s been the go-to player on his team. After getting yelled at by Draymond Green after one such late play, it just seems the team has some issues to work out (which isn’t uncommon for newly formed “superteams”). They play great against most NBA teams, but have struggled in recent games. The addition of Durant was great for this team, but we all knew it would take some time for everything to work smoothly. Right now, they’re at an impasse in terms of who does what. It seems like they tense up and play careless, sloppy basketball in certain scenarios – particularly late in games. They’ve won four of their last five so it’s not something to go crazy over, but it’s something that could be hindering this team from reaching their full potential at the moment. After the epic Christmas Day game, the Cleveland Cavaliers play Golden State again next week, and we’ll all be watching closely.
James is continuing to do what’s expected of him. He’s averaging a hefty (yet somehow not hefty for James) 28.4 points, 6.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds in the past 10 games. The back-to-back losses to Portland and Utah on the road were bad, but it’s not enough to discount his true value to the Cavaliers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to see the new-look Cavs in action with the addition of Kyle Korver. If the move pans out, it’ll add another dimension to this already great Cavaliers team and possibly enhance James’ ability to win the award. Even in J.R. Smith’s absence, the Cavs have played very well and that’s due to James filling in for him in many ways. He’s taken on a larger role – mainly scoring more and putting in better performances on the defensive end of the floor. He’s firmly in this race with plenty of time left in the season.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double and yet somehow isn’t number one. This is even a shock to us, but while he may be deemed more valuable to his team, the award is historically given to the player who’s performing the best for one of the league’s top teams. Right now, the Thunder are currently sixth in the Western Conference. This could play a huge role in whether Westbrook gets the award or not. Westbrook’s value to his team is probably higher than any other player on this list. But the upcoming schedule for Oklahoma City is not easy and the Thunder may need more from Westbrook in order to stay in the race for a top-four seed. If Westbrook can keep the Thunder in the playoffs, it’s entirely possible to see him in this race until the end (and possibly winning the award). On the season, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.7 assists while shooting 42.7 percent from the field. Considering the circumstances, it’s remarkable that he continues to lead his team with this incredible production.
Harden is still number one by all accounts. If the Rockets continue to win, he’ll be here at the number one spot because of his combined individual and team success. At 31-10, the Rockets are in line to be the shock of the season. No one expected Houston to be this good through the mid-way point of the campaign. Give credit to Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, who created and changed the philosophy of this team. But it’s Harden who’s put this squad on his back and played out of his mind. His leadership abilities, creativity on offense and growth as a creator and facilitator have made Houston come together flawlessly.
Remember, they added focal points like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson over the offseason, lost Dwight Howard, and hired a new head coach in D’Antoni. But rather than needing a ton of time to adjust, they’re already playing this well. Barring an unforeseen setback, Harden has put himself in pole position to win this award through 41 games.
One final interesting note: While Westbrook leads the league in triple-doubles with 18, Harden has 11 of his own and is actually leading the NBA in double-doubles with 34 through 41 games.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday on Basketball Insiders.
NBA Daily: Fixing The Houston Rockets
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the newly-minted Houston Rockets, a team that now has given itself plenty of options.
In the most well-timed edition of Fixing ever, we’re taking a look at the very recently-revamped Houston Rockets. We all knew that one trade was coming one way or the other and now the time has arrived. For how well-designed this beautiful era of basketball was for the Rockets, it surely didn’t deserve the anti-climactic ending it got. Yet here we are. For the first time since Yao Ming’s retirement, Houston is starting from scratch.
Is all hope lost in H-Town? Well, losing Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Harden is basically like the Justice League losing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in one swift motion. It would be a major setback for anyone. In situations like this, it’s not about what you lost. It’s about how you respond to what you lost. To their credit, Houston had time to prepare for the disintegration of the Harden-D’Antoni-Morey era, and they haven’t taken their departures lying down.
They’ve wiped the slate mostly clean and, even if there’s definitely room for improvement, the new-look Rockets are a little more exciting than what meets the eye.
It is a shame that Harden never gave this group a chance. Houston had a better offseason than they were given credit for because the high-profile personnel that they lost (or were about to lose) overshadowed what they brought in. Compared to past teams that faced similar circumstances, Houston could have done a lot worse. Let’s start with the best-kept secret that gets more and more exposed by the hour: Christian Wood.
NBA nerds hyped up Wood throughout the offseason for how great he looked during the brief time he was the full-time center in Detroit – averaging nearly 23/10 on 56/40/76 splits. When you take the sample size (13 games) and how Detroit fared in that stretch (they lost all but one game) into account, it’s understandable why it was hard to buy stock in Wood’s potential during the mini off-season.
That’s why Houston got him at the value they did and he’s already one of the league’s better bargains. Those numbers he put up as a Piston have carried on with the Rockets; while his 53/34/66 splits with almost two blocks per game have put him on the map. Wood’s ascension hasn’t led to much team success yet, but he’s the last player to blame for that.
Then there’s Houston’s more well-repped new addition, John Wall. Wall’s probably never going to live up to the $40+ million deal that Houston is paying him, but they didn’t acquire him for that reason. They acquired him in the hopes of him giving them more bang for their buck than Russell Westbrook did. The results have been a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected after what he’s been through. It’s been encouraging to see that on a good day, he still has most of his form.
There are plenty of games left for him to find consistency. We also have to keep in mind that Wall’s just getting his feet wet following two awful injuries. Even if he’s not the same Wall from his prime, this has worked out a lot better for Houston than Westbrook has in Washington. Having the better player as well as an additional first-round pick should be counted as an absolute win for the Rockets.
There are other stand-out players: It looks like the Rockets found another keeper in rookie Jae’Sean Tate who, along with David Nwaba, have infused the Rockets with badly needed energy.
Jae'Sean Tate's defense is absurd. pic.twitter.com/mgMv3lZjp1
— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) January 15, 2021
Things were obviously better last year when Harden and co. were content, but the Rockets are far from a disaster.
What’s Not Working?
Well, James Harden. Plain and simple. When a superstar wants out, it wears the team down internally. That elephant is too big for the room to ignore, clear that both sides were done with each other by the end. Houston deserves props for willing to get “uncomfortable” just as they promised, but a superstar wanting out brings down the team’s morale no matter what.
It’s why Houston started 3-6 with the league’s ninth-lowest net rating at minus-1.8. There were other factors at play here with all the shuffling parts, but there’s no need for fluff. Harden’s trade demand loomed too large for it not to affect the Rockets. It’s hard for everyone when the best player on the team isn’t buying in. His teammates were complaining about him publicly.
The upshot is that it’s over now. Losing James Harden the player certainly isn’t addition by subtraction – in Houston’s case, that’s Westbrook – but losing James Harden the distraction could certainly be for this season.
Now that the dust has settled, the Rockets can finally take a deep breath and sort out both their present and their future. Presently, there’s going to be even more shuffling now than there was before. At the very least, the roster is going to have players who should be on the same page.
Houston may still have some loose ends from its previous era. From the looks of things, PJ Tucker could be the next one to go. Houston’s prospects are on the come up, but a player with Tucker’s abilities should be on a contender. That’s something that the Rockets, as of now, are not. The same goes for Eric Gordon, but it’s tough to see any of the elite teams willing to put up enough salaries to trade for his contract.
Then there’s the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo has been a good soldier in spite of the trade rumors that have buzzed around him over the last several months. Indiana trading him to Houston signified that he wasn’t re-signing with them. Houston provides a unique opportunity for Oladipo to further re-establish his value as a star. It’s hard to foresee if he’s in their long-term plans or if he’s another asset to move in their rebuild.
With all that said, new head coach Stephen Silas seems to have won over the players. After beating the San Antonio Spurs last night without Harden or Wall, the Rockets, despite not being in the tier of elite teams anymore, should be excited for what the season holds.
As for what the future will bring, their outlook is a lot brighter than it was back in September. Even if they’ll face the repercussions of giving up most of their own first-round picks for Westbrook and Robert Covington last year, they just hauled in a massive load of first-round picks and four pick swaps combined for Westbrook, Covington and Harden since then.
The development of players should put Houston in a good light, which could pay huge dividends for their chances in free agency. We’ve seen teams establish a great team culture while building up a promising future – ahem, the very same Brooklyn Nets that just cashed in for Harden proved that.
The Rockets might be next in line.
The days of Houston being a contender are gone for now. But, thankfully, the days of the Rockets becoming one of the NBA’s premier League Pass favorites may have only begun.
NBA Daily: Payton Pritchard — Boston’s Bench Band-Aid
Basketball Insiders’ Shane Rhodes breaks down the fortuitous start to Payton Pritchard’s rookie season and what it’s meant to the Boston Celtics.
For the Boston Celtics, Payton Pritchard has been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Boston sported, arguably, the NBA’s worst bench unit a season ago. Despite a fearsome-foursome of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, their lack of depth hurt them all season long. It stood in direct contrast to their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, the Miami HEAT, and, ultimately, sank the Celtics’ shot at the NBA Finals.
Now, with Hayward gone to the Charlotte Hornets and Walker on the mend, it was only logical to expect that dearth to once again be their Achilles heel. But, on the contrary, the bench has been rejuvenated — or, at the very least, much improved — to start the 2020-21 season.
And, albeit unexpectedly, Boston has the rookie out of Oregon to thank for that.
Pritchard, the 26th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, faced some serious questions about his game in the lead up to the season. He left the NCAA as the recipient of both the Bob Cousy and Lute Olson awards, given to the nation’s top point guard and non-freshman player, respectively, and served as a leader for the Ducks throughout his four years with the team.
However, in the NBA, a league that’s far bigger, faster and stronger than any competition he’s ever faced, plenty were concerned as to how Pritchard’s game might translate. He’ll never be the most athletic player on the court and, when combined with his 6-foot-2 frame, that raised some serious concerns about his defensive viability at the game’s highest level.
On top of that, Pritchard was far from the only addition the Celtics made this offseason; fellow rookie Aaron Nesmith was thought by some to be the best shooter in the draft, while Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson are battle-tested veterans that would demand a rotation spot from the jump.
Despite those stacked odds, however, Pritchard immediately took a rotation spot for his own, ahead of the higher drafted Nesmith and alongside the veteran Teague in Boston’s pecking order. In doing so, he’s brought a major spark to a bench that desperately needed one.
Save for a 23 point, 8 assist performance against the Toronto Raptors, he hasn’t jumped out of the boxscore. But Pritchard’s played with a veteran’s confidence and has contributed in nearly every game so far this season.
In fact, he’s played with a tenacity that even some of the more hard-nosed veterans lack, while his knack for the timely play has put Boston in the position to win on almost every possession. Pritchard is a +45 in his 10 games played, good for second among rookies and third among Celtics.
Like on this steal and drawn foul with the clock winding down against the Washington Wizards. Or his tip-in game-winner against the HEAT. Pritchard, at all times, is aware of where he needs to be on the court and, more importantly, when he needs to be there to put the team in the best position to succeed. Likewise, he’s moved with or without the ball and put himself in the position to help his teammates make the easy play as often as possible.
That presence of mind is something you just can’t teach — and Pritchard has it in spades.
Beyond the court, Pritchard has easily endeared himself to his Celtics teammates. Brown referred to him as “the GOAT” after just his fourth game, a win over the Pacers in which Pritchard finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in just over 27 minutes and was clutch down the stretch. Marcus Smart, known for his tenacious style of play, has said “the sky’s the limit” for Pritchard and has noted many similarities between himself and the rookie as far back as the preseason.
A bit more reserved, head coach Brad Stevens said “[Pritchard]’s had more good nights, for sure, than not,” after the rookie flashed against the Raptors.
Still, it’s clear Stevens, like the others, has quickly taken a liking to Pritchard and, further, has expected a lot of the late-first rounder. Pritchard, on multiple occasions and despite his lack of NBA experience, has served as part of Boston’s closing lineup, an ultimate show of respect from a coach like Stevens that values defensive execution above most else on the court.
“We’re going to ask him to do a lot right now. And, fair or unfair to him, he’s going to have to be consistent for us, for us to have a chance to be a good team.”
And Stevens is right; to be the best version of themselves, Pritchard must continue to improve his own game and help push the bench even further.
Of course, that kind of pressure is nothing new to Pritchard who, over his four seasons with the Ducks, carried the team on his shoulders and constantly stepped up when they needed him most. And, while he’s been lauded with praise, the rookie has continued to stay humble.
“Coming in, I’m just trying to do my part,” Pritchard said after the team’s aforementioned win over the Pacers. “It’s my fourth game, everything’s coming at me fast and I’m still figuring things out.”
“I just want to win and I want to help as much as I can to get a win.”
As the Celtics forge their path ahead and continue to outfit the roster, players that not only contribute right away but can elevate the play of Boston’s star duo, Tatum and Brown, will be the priority.
And, if any of them are as rock-solid as Pritchard has been so far, the Celtics will be well on their way to an NBA title.
NBA Daily: Nic Batum Fitting in with the Clippers
David Yapkowitz breaks down Nic Batum’s early season and the impact he’s had on the Los Angeles Clippers.
After the Los Angeles Clippers flamed out in the 2020 NBA playoffs, as they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, it was clear that some roster changes needed to be made. They addressed some of those needs, specifically interior defense, rebounding, perimeter shooting and playmaking as they inked free agent Serge Ibaka to a deal and made a trade with the Detroit Pistons for Luke Kennard.
And, in the early season goings, both Ibaka and Kennard have lived up to expectations. But, arguably, the most impactful addition for Los Angeles has been the more low-key signing of Nicolas Batum.
Batum’s signing didn’t garner major headlines, probably because nobody really knew what to expect. He battled injuries his last season with the Charlotte Hornets and suited up in only 22 games — his last game played was Jan. 24, 2020. But, even before last season, he wasn’t nearly as impactful in his years with the Hornets as he had been in his early years with the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the 2020-21 season, however, he’s become an invaluable member of the Clippers rotation, having started all 11 games thus far. He’s healthy and looking like his pre-injury days, reminding people of the versatile player he was and can still be.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge me off 18 months when I’ve played 15 years as a pro if I count my years in France,” Batum said after a recent Clippers win. “I’ve had a good career. I’m not a Hall of Famer, but I think I’ve had a respectable career.”
“What happened in the last 18 months, it didn’t work out. The first years in Charlotte was great… we made a change in the coach and it didn’t work out, it happens sometimes. But I’m in a great situation right now.”
It’s been his versatility that’s paid dividends for Los Angeles thus far. A wing for most of his career, he’s been the team’s starting power forward and has done a little bit of everything. An additional playmaker in head coach Tyronn Lue’s offense, Batum has helped to keep the ball moving when the Clippers’ stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are either out of the game or without the ball themselves. Likewise, he’s been a dependable three-point shooter, as he’s hit on 43.5 percent of his shots from deep, and an efficient scorer overall, shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
While his overall numbers this year — 10.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists — are right in line with his career averages, Lue has played Batum to his strengths and he’s looked rejuvenated.
“Nic’s been really good, his passing ability, he’s just very versatile on offense and defense,” Lue said after a recent Clippers win. “He’s very important to what we’re trying to do. He’s just going to get more and more comfortable. He was a great addition for us.”
Batum’s versatility isn’t limited to his offensive contributions, he’s been particularly effective on the defensive end as well. His combination of length, size and strength has enabled him to guard multiple positions. He can stick with guards and wings on the perimeter and he can drop down and body up someone in the paint.
In the Clippers win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 3, Batum saw time guarding all three of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Batum has always been a versatile defensive player, something he recalls from his Portland days when he used to find himself being asked to guard Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd in the same game.
“It reminds me of my first couple of years with the Blazers when I was coached by Nate McMillan. I was kind of used the same way,” Batum said. “I was used that way my first two to three years, now I’m back to that role. I’m not 21 anymore, I’m 32 now so I have more experience, I got more stuff behind me, it’s just better for me.”
Batum has also become trusted by the rest of the team late in games. He’s shown a willingness to take big shots and the consistency to knock them down. He knows his role on the team and has played it to perfection.
When the defense inevitably collapses on Leonard, George and Lou Williams, the Clippers main crunch time options, Batum knows he’s going to be relied on to make some big plays. He’s looked at the way Boris Diaw was used on the San Antonio Spurs, or Andre Iguodala with the Golden State Warriors, and he’s tried his best to fill a similar role with the Clippers.
“Those are the players I try to use to inspire myself this year. I have to be ready. Even if Kawhi [Leonard], PG [Paul George] and Lou [Williams] are great, they can’t rely on themselves 100 percent of the time,” Batum said. “In ten situations, nine are going to be for them but the tenth one, you have to be ready because it might come your way. Just to be on the court with those guys in those situations, you have to be ready.”
And to this point, he’s enjoyed his early days in Los Angeles. He’s loved what he’s seen from the team and loves the chemistry and rapport they have with each other on the court.
“I love it. I wasn’t there last year so I don’t really know what happened and I don’t really care. All that matters for me is this team, this year,” Batum said. “The group is great, chemistry is amazing. We got great leaders… we got guys that just want to be together and love to be with each other.”