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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/26/17

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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Happy Holidays to all, especially those fighting their way through the Most Valuable Player gauntlet.

With Christmas Day games in the rearview mirror, every team and their respective stars can set their sights on the second half of the season to assert their dominance. Since we last checked in on the MVP race, not too much has changed. Those at the top haven’t given much reason to think they’ve been supplanted. However, a pair of teammates has swapped out spots on the ladder from our last update (I’m sure you could probably guess who).

Without ruining too much of your post-Christmas present list, let’s get into the action.

  1. Joel Embiid

Despite playing just four of the seven games on the Philadelphia 76ers schedule since the last ladder, Joel Embiid has done enough to stake his claim still.

After a hot start to the season, thanks in large part to Embiid’s availability, the Sixers have struggled mightily in December. Over their last 10 games, the Sixers are 2-8. Since starting 13-9, they’ve dropped overall to 15-18. During their last 10 game stint, Embiid has played in just half of those contests, fueling most of their losing ways.

Granted, it’s hard to win an award if you can’t stay on the court, especially MVP. We saw that last season with Embiid and Rookie of the Year. But this year, the Sixers have playoff hopes that fall squarely on the big man’s shoulders. And when he’s out there, he delivers.

The Sixers are 14-11 with Embiid on the court. His averages are well known and beyond impressive. His plus/minus advantage on both ends of the court has been stressed enough. Embiid is important, plain and simple.

On Christmas Day against the New York Knicks, Embiid propelled the Sixers to a tight 105-98 victory. However, according to ESPN Stats and Info, when Embiid was on the court the Sixers outscored the Knicks 90-65. Not much more needs to be said after that.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in with Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics, the team being carried by young players has cooled off a bit from their league-leading hot start in the wins column. As a result, Irving hasn’t made up much ground on his contemporaries in the MVP race.

Over their last eight games, the Celtics are even at 4-4. Despite Irving notching 30-point games in five of those contests, Boston just hasn’t been able to get it done with the level of efficiency they were used to at the start of the season.

Regardless, the dynamic point guard is still putting himself and his teammates in the best possession to be a possible threat come playoff time. Over the same stretch of games, Irving has upped his production, scoring 28.3 points per game to go along with 5.5 assists.

After losing a close one to the Washington Wizards on Christmas day, the Celtics will look to regroup going into the new year, and hopefully get back to their winning ways.

For Irving, however, barring a supernova second half of the season, the narrative of him winning MVP during his first season with his new club has all but faded away at this point. There are simply too many better options at this time.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

For Giannis Antetokounmpo, dropping in this week’s ladder isn’t an indicator of him playing poorly, but simply being outshined by one particular individual (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Since our last stop with the Milwaukee Bucks and Antetokounmpo, the squad has split their six contests but stamped a huge win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Greek Freak poured in 27 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, and two steals. Battling LeBron James and the Cavs head-to-head and coming away with the victory was a statement by Milwaukee that they’re here to play, and they will be here in May when the intensity is kicked up a notch.

The raw numbers for Antetokounmpo are still as impressive as they’ve always been, and any player averaging 30 points and 10 rebounds a game while serving as the main initiator of his team’s offense will always be within arm’s length of grabbing the MVP trophy. With the stiff competition he’s going up against this season, it’s a good thing Antetokounmpo has that ridiculous wingspan.

  1. Kevin Durant

During our last ladder, Kevin Durant’s superstar teammate, Steph Curry, was holding on to the last spot. Being sidelined with an ankle injury has cost Curry his chance of making a lasting impact on the MVP race, but the unfortunate injury has given Durant cause to make his.

Since Curry went down, Durant has kept Golden State afloat, going 8-1 in those nine games and posting absolutely gaudy averages on both ends of the floor: 29.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 3.1 blocks.

When Durant and Curry are on the floor together, it almost makes each of their cases for the award nullified, considering the help they provide each other. But as one of the superstar duo sits for an extending period of time and the team as a whole doesn’t skip a beat, it makes the case for their counterpart to receive a bit of extra credit.

In the wake of Curry’s loss, Durant has reverted back to his Finals MVP form and put the Warriors on his back. During the all-important Christmas Day Finals rematch with LeBron and the Cavs, Durant had 27 points, seven rebounds, and five blocks en route to a victory. He also provided some key stops down the stretch (foul or not) that allowed the Warriors to hold onto their lead, proving his importance goes well beyond his ability to shoot a basketball.

Durant has some serious ground to make up on the top two spots in this race, but if Curry begins to miss more time than expected, he may have the opportunity to do just that.

  1. LeBron James

There are no more words for what LeBron James is doing in the 15th season of his career.

At this point, nothing will do his ridiculousness justice. James was 18 years old when he entered the NBA, a physical marvel the likes of which we hadn’t seen. Nearly 15 years later, as James lives his second life in the league he entered as a teenager, he is still every bit of that same physical marvel.

While this version of James may not rattle the rim as frequently with his violent dunks (though he’s still very much capable of doing so), he has begun to adapt and evolve with the times. His shooting percentages, maybe once thought this season to be the result of some hot streak, appear to be staying put. James is shooting 56 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 77 percent from the line, all multiple points above his career averages. He’s four days away from this 33rd birthday.

At one point this season, the Cavs were 5-7 and many declared the sky falling post-Kyrie Irving. Since then, all James has done is lead his team to a 19-3 record, with his other All-Star point guard, Isaiah Thomas, still sidelined by injury.

The numbers are there. The wins are there. The MVP mentality is there.

James could lock up the award in the second half of this season with ease during any other campaign. Unfortunately for him, there’s this guy with a beard bigger than his who is matching his performances night for night.

  1. James Harden

Over the last week, the Houston Rockets have seemed to fall under some hard times. After their Christmas Day debacle against Oklahoma City, Houston claimed their first three-game losing streak of the season.

Before that holiday mishap, the Rockets dropped back-to-back games to subpar teams in the Clippers and the Lakers. Even worse, James Harden scored 51 points in each of those games. It wasn’t enough, though.

This slight rough patch has brought Harden’s MVP case back down a notch and within reach of LeBron’s clutches. Obviously not an ideal scenario for Harden to be in. But the NBA season still has it’s second half to get into and it wouldn’t be wise to suspect that James and the Rockets will all of a sudden begin to lose games.

Despite not having Chris Paul alongside him on Christmas, Harden is accustomed to winning without him should his fellow all-star point guard miss extended time with a left adductor strain, though that’s not expected to be the case.

With upcoming road games against Eastern Conference heavyweights in Boston and Washington, Harden has the perfect opportunity to reaffirm himself as the league’s MVP with a couple of wins and big-time performances. Should his team continue to flounder, though, Harden will leave the door open at this point in time to the likes of LeBron and Durant.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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