There has been so many 50-plus point games and incredible individual performances this year. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are obviously filling the stat sheet, but there are other players putting up producing at an extremely high level as well.
The list of potential candidates has diminished a bit, so the race has gotten tighter. We’ve kept the list at seven candidates for now. But as the season progresses, look for the list to go down to five and potentially three or two (looking at you, James Harden and Russell Westbrook) as we hone in on the legitimate candidates.
Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. Did your favorite player make the cut?
Through 36 games, Curry is averaging 24.2 points on 16.9 field goal attempts. These numbers aren’t jumping off the board anymore, but his play still is. His ability to facilitate this offense and find open teammates has been vastly underrated this year due to Kevin Durant’s incredible play. He’s averaging his lowest turnover rate since the 2011-12 season. But his shooting has been inconsistent, as he’s averaging the lowest shooting percentage since his rookie year.
Curry has a gift to score at will, but Durant is doing much more at the current moment. However, in the month of January, Curry is starting to find his stride. He’s averaging nearly 29 points per game, almost five points higher than his season average. But he’s still not the Curry we’re used to seeing. Remember, he’s taken a backseat to Durant and he’s done it with it nothing but class. It’s unprecedented for a two-time MVP (and a unanimous one, no less) to have another player come in and take over the franchise. Keep that in mind when you’re talking about Curry. This team will need him as they get closer to the playoffs and he should only get better as the season progresses. This offseason, everyone discussed which player would lose the most out of this marriage. It appears Curry has made the biggest sacrifice so far, but he’s still averaging 24.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds. If that’s him taking a back-seat, imagine what kind of numbers he can post if Golden State can get him more involved and increase his shooting percentages.
6. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (Last Week: 6)
Lowry has taken over the shine in Toronto. His ability to hit the outside shot, coupled with his assist numbers and defensive presence, make him extremely important (and underrated). As statistical and historical data have shown, most MVPs come from a top-two seed. This helps Lowry and DeRozan in their quest for the MVP, as many of the top players this year are lower in the standings. Still, even with that knowledge, they’ve got jump even higher if they really want to be considered for the award. With the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant all leading top-two seeds, the argument to put DeRozan or Lowry over them isn’t strong enough. If DeRozan was continuing his 30-plus point scoring streak with the same efficiency as earlier in the season, he’d have a case potentially. But the problem continues to be that they’re splitting the load. Statistically, they’re not jumping off the charts, and record-wise, while they’re a top-two seed, they have competition that’s greater than them. It’s a tough position, but if they can keep up the pace both individually, and as a team, they’ll certainly be on the outside of the conversation.
Leonard’s team is still winning and that’s good for his stock. The problem we’re starting to see is that his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge is starting to gain some momentum. While Aldridge isn’t gaining momentum in the MVP conversation, he’s performing much better for the Spurs, which seems to be affecting Leonard’s statistics and value. Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the game and has a ton of non-statistical value. But in Leonard’s last 10 games, we’ve seen his numbers drop off. For the season, Leonard averages 24 points, 3.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds. But within the past 10 contests, we’ve seen his statistics drop to 22.6 points, 3.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds. In a smaller, more recent sample size, Leonard is averaging 20.7 points, 3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in the past three games. While this isn’t do or die for arguably the league’s best two-way player, the fact that he’s taken a step back statistically hurts his cause and it’s something to keep an eye on.
Durant lost on Christmas day to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It’s just one game, but that was a statement game for Golden State with all of the basketball world watching. While Durant was still at his best, not winning that game hurt his cause in these rankings. We all know the Warriors can beat any team on any given night, but the fact that he lost the most important regular season game hurt his chances in the short-term. We’ll move on soon enough, but that one stings.
As far as the season goes, Durant has been spectacular. His underrated defensive value and ability to score with such efficiency cements him in this conversation for the long-haul. Golden State seems poised to have the NBA’s best record, but with that comes pressure and scrutiny. Durant has handled everything very well considering the circumstances, but there are some alarming statistics that stand out. In losses, Durant averages 30 points, but in wins, Durant averages 25.2 points. While they’ve only lost a handful of times, people will look at this and question if Golden State needs him scoring more.
He’s firmly in the race, but Golden State’s on-court chemistry and decision-making will need to be addressed and fixed in order for Durant to win this award.
James has shown that he’s still the best player in the league. While he’s not the statistical monster that Westbrook or Harden is, he’s on arguably the best team in the NBA and leading the charge. Since J.R. Smith went down, there were some doubts about how the Cavaliers would respond. James stepped up and took on a greater role offensively averaging two more points and more rebounds. While that doesn’t sound impressive, he’s calmly and quietly averaging 27.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on the best team in the Eastern Conference. As our Alex Kennedy recently wrote, James is (somehow) flying under the radar despite posting monster stats since we take his greatness for granted at this point.
King James is going to be in this conversation throughout the season and if the Thunder or Rockets slip up or if Westbrook or Harden regress, James could be in line for the award.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
The Thunder have lost three in a row and look like they’re falling back down to earth. Still, Westbrook continues to average godly numbers, but if his team isn’t in the top-four or five in the Western Conference, it’ll be hard to justify giving him the award. In the last five games, Westbrook is averaging 30 points on 38 percent shooting, and that’s not good enough for the Thunder to win games. He’ll need to increase his efficiency to get Oklahoma City back on track but in order to do so, who else can help him? As much as we’d like to think winning as a team while individually averaging a triple-double with efficiency is sustainable, it’s hard to see it happening over a full season. The Thunder have an increasingly difficult schedule coming up and with the recent run of losses, it’ll be hard to see Westbrook as the number one candidate in the MVP race.
Harden’s Rockets are still winning. Even without Clint Capela, who was a primary pick-and-roll option on both offense and defense, they still continue to win. Mike D’Antoni deserves some of the credit and Daryl Morey deserves some as well, but Harden’s play has seemingly been the biggest factor. His playmaking and scoring are on another level. In the last 10 games, Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.3 assists and 8.8 rebounds for a team that has won their last six contests. Shooting almost 47 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from behind-the-arc and 90 percent from the charity stripe in the past 10 games, Harden has some of the best efficiency numbers from a high-volume scorer that we’ve seen.
On Dec. 31, Harden and the Rockets played the New York Knicks. Not only did Harden have a career-best game, he made history. He scored 53 points on 53.8 percent shooting (including 56.3 percent behind the arc), while also contributing 17 assists and 16 rebounds. Harden has changed the minds of a lot of NBA fans, becoming a player that has improved mentally, physically and statistically. His leadership looks vastly improved and the once questioned star is now showing his true self. We documented his transformation over the offseason, but I don’t think anyone expected what he’s doing this season.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday night on Basketball Insiders.
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.
NBA Daily: Raul Neto Seizing His Opportunity in Washington
Tristan Tucker examines Raul Neto who, in the midst of a career resurgence, has provided the Washington Wizards with some much-needed stability at the point guard position in the absence of Russell Westbrook.
Washington Wizards guard Raul Neto is coming off one of the more disappointing seasons of his career. Waived by the Utah Jazz, Neto joined a Philadelphia 76ers’ roster in 2019 that had some serious championship aspirations. Unfortunately, like the 76ers, Neto’s season fell flat.
For many former second round picks, a rough season could signal the conclusion of a career. But not for Neto, who has persevered and turned his career around to start the 2020-21 season.
Neto exploded onto the scene for the Wizards and has really shown an ability to hold it down on the court, especially in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. He’s averaged career-highs almost across the board so far, recording 8.9 points and 1 steal per contest on outstanding percentages; Neto’s shot 52.7 from the field and 42.4 percent from three, both by far the highest of his career and, among Wizards with at least 10 games played, rank fifth and sixth on the team, respectively.
“I think I have been around different teams and I try and do whatever the team needs on the court,” Neto said. “If it needs to play with more pace or if it needs more scoring, I will try and do whatever I can to help. I think that’s how I fit so quickly on the team.”
Neto began his professional career in Brazil when he was just 16 years old, playing for the World Team in 2010 at the Nike Hoop Summit and then heading to Spain for the 2011-12 season. After two impressive seasons, the 28-year-old point guard was selected with the 47th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta then traded Neto to the Jazz where he eventually signed on for the 2015-16 NBA season.
Immediately, Neto was cast into a big role with the Jazz, starting in the season opener and starting in 53 of his 81 appearances that season. His efforts earned him a spot as a member of the World Team in the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge.
Neto would go on to play a majority of his next three seasons in the G-League, finding a hard time sticking to a role that suited him in Utah. When Philadelphia tried to remake its roster in the 2019 offseason, Neto was called in to give the team an able-shooting ball-handler, one that they desperately needed. However, Neto was, again, miscast and, while he was getting good minutes, the team as a whole struggled to find their identity and, as a result, everyone’s play suffered.
In the 2020 offseason, Neto was able to find a roster spot on the Wizards, who saw him as a potential diamond-in-the-rough type and a player that they should take a chance on. And their gamble has paid huge dividends as, at the moment, Neto has given Washington a reliable piece to play next to All-Star Bradley Beal.
“[Neto] does a tremendous job of running the team, running the offense,” Beal said after a Wizards’ preseason game. “He gets after it, he’s a real pest. I always make fun of him because he has a strong build…he’s very strong.”
Traits that likely stood out to Washington were Neto’s calm demeanor and his ability to run the offense, something that a few of his younger teammates could learn from and, hopefully, pick up themselves. Players like Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura have shown much promise as scorers and playmakers and should continue to benefit from players like Neto that are able to get them the ball accurately and consistently.
“Deni [Avdija]’s very talented, he’s very very talented,” Neto said. “He’s young so he’s got a lot to learn and get better. He’s a very good player, he’s been playing professionally overseas for a while…Rui [Hachimura] is also a very good player. Strong, plays hard and very good defense. Probably going to be our guy, like today he was guarding [Kevin Durant], he can go against guys in this league that are tall and can score.”
While the Wizards are in the midst of a disappointing season, something that may prove worthwhile in the long run may be to give Neto, who’s averaged just under 17 minutes per game, a larger role, perhaps as the team’s sixth man. When Neto is on the floor, Washington’s already potent offense gets even better — multiple lineups that feature Neto have posted an offensive rating of at least 130 points per 100 possessions — and, while it isn’t that cut-and-dry, it would behoove the Wizards to experiment and see what he can do in a larger role.
“I just try to play my game,” Neto said. “With my new team, I’m trying to understand my teammates and play the game the way Scott [Brooks] wants us to play and just move the ball and be a player out there that tries to help the team and do whatever I have to do. If I have to shoot, if I have to score depending on who I am on the court…”
“I think, number-wise, I did great,” Neto said after the Wizards’ preseason opener. “I think there’s always room for improvement and I think I’m going to work on that and take advantage of my opportunities.”
“[Neto] has heart, he has grit, he has everything we need,” Beal said. “He can shoot the leather off the ball which is what I love about him too.”
Neto isn’t the solution to all of Washington’s problems — of which, there are many — but there’s no denying the impact he’s had, even in his short time with the team. With the turnaround he’s seen, Neto has not only proven that he belongs in the NBA, but that he can serve as a solid veteran spot-starter or bench piece. Not just for a Washington team that can use just about anyone right now, either, but for any team looking for a consistent shooter and leader on the court.
“It’s easy when you have teammates like we do,” Neto said following a preseason game. “I’m just trying to work hard and play the right way. I think we have improved…we’re still going to get better.”
Point-Counter Point: Where Should The NBA Expand?
For the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion. The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the topic of NBA expansion, which for the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion,
The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?
The most popular candidate among cities that haven’t been home to an NBA franchise previously is Las Vegas, whihc makes a ton of sense and has to be a heavy favorite if the NBA does expand.
The market and potential for revenue have long made sense from a financial perspective, but the stigma around ‘Sin City’ was an issue. Things have changed quickly, though, and professional sports and the public, in general, are much more accepting of sports gambling than in previous years.
The NHL was the first professional league to enter the market with the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. The team won the Stanley Cup in their first year as an expansion team and have quickly become a popular team in the league.
The WNBA and NFL have since joined the NHL in Las Vegas with the Aces (WNBA) and LAs Vegas Raiders (NFL). The NBA could soon be joining them. Vegas is the 28th most populous city in the U.S. and generates a ton of traffic from all over the world. It just makes too much sense.
Another reason it’s only a matter of time is the NBA’s already established in the city as a league. For years the NBA Summer League has been held in the area and it has become quite a popular event. Many from the industry attend, from media to players.
Finally, Vegas has a home stadium ready to go in T-Mobile Arena.
London could be a huge move for the league and sports in general, but the timing isn’t right. Given the current circumstances in the world, London doesn’t seem as likely as other cities. That’s unfortunate, as it makes a ton of sense from the league’s perspective. Not only would it be the first NBA franchise to be based in Europe, but it would also beat the other major U.S. sports leagues in getting there.
The timing would be great too, as the league has a number of up-and-coming players from Europe. That’s caused an increase in popularity worldwide, so surely fans would be excited to get a team of their own.
Given the things that would have to be worked out to have a team playing so far from most of the league, it’s hard to imagine the NBA going through those obstacles on top of the global situation as of today. Patience will be key for London, but it’s one of the best options if things were different right now.
The last two cities that come to mind in terms of contending cities are Mexico City and Louisville. While the NBA would be wise to wait to expand overseas, Mexico City could be a great option. There’s an untapped market south of the U.S. border and it would be much easier to add to the league in short order than somewhere in Europe.
Louisville makes sense as well as a city that offers a market not being maximized by the league. It’s a great basketball city for college hoops, as is the state of Kentucky in general. Residents would buy in right away and it may offer the most loyal fanbase the NBA can establish in little time.
– Garrett Brook
The city that immediately comes to mind when thinking of expansion in the NBA Is Seattle. Home to the SuperSonics from 1967-2008, the team was a staple of the city before being bought in 2006 and subsequently moved to Oklahoma City two years later.
The SuperSonics had a lot of success in Seattle during their 41-year stint, making the playoffs 22 times, the NBA Finals three times and taking home one NBA Championship in 1979. The SuperSonics have maintained national relevance since their departure.
In a poll done by the Herald Net at the beginning of the year, 48 percent of responders said it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back to Seattle. In a Twitter poll done by a journalist at the same newspaper, 77 percent of respondents said that it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back. And, because the NHL is expanding to Seattle, the city is currently building a brand new $930 million stadium.
One of the primary reasons the team pulled out of Seattle in the first place was because the team wanted a new stadium, and the city refused to invest the money necessary to build one. All of this packaged together with Seattle’s rapid growth as a city, over 400,000 people have moved to the Seattle metro area since the SuperSonics left, which means if the NBA decides to expand, don’t be surprised if Seattle is the immediate favorite.
Another city that comes to mind when speaking of expansion is Vancouver, the former home of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Vancouver Grizzlies didn’t have much success in their six seasons, thanks mainly to poor management in the front office. If given a more successful team, Vancouver could play host to an NBA team yet again.
Attendance started in the middle part of the league in the Grizzlies opening couple of seasons in the NBA, showing that there is interest in basketball in the area, but as the team continued to struggle year after year, they slipped to the back half of the league.
Another reason cited for the Grizzlies’ departure from Vancouver was the value of the Canadian dollar at the time compared to American dollars; that is less of an issue now as the Canadian dollar has become much closer in value to the American dollar over the last 20 years. It stands to reason that a good team would draw more interest than it did in their first run in the city, especially with the sport of basketball growing in Canada as a whole.
If the NBA wants a team further east, Pittsburgh is a city with a passionate group of sports fans that would almost certainly rally around a team were they to have success early on. Pittsburgh features successful franchises in the NHL, NFL and MLB, so it stands to reason an NBA franchise would succeed in the city as well. There would also be no worries over having to build a stadium in Pittsburgh since the Penguins stadium, PPG Paints Arena, has a capacity of 19,758, which is more than the average capacity for an NBA arena.
Kansas City is another place that has a lot of basketball history, even if it was over 35 years ago. The Sacramento Kings were initially located in Kansas City from 1972-1985 and even made the Western Conference Finals in the 1980-81 season with a team that featured former Wizards’ general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Kansas City did struggle with attendance during that period, but since 1985 the city of Kansas City has grown quite a lot, with the city’s population going from 1.15 million in 1985 to nearly 1.7 million at the start of 2021. Plus, the success of the Chiefs and Royals have both had in the city in recent years – both have won championships in the last 10 years – indicates that an NBA franchise would have the ability to succeed there as well.
– Zach Dupont
EDITORIAL NOTE: While the NBA is exploring the viability of expansion, there is no timeline currently being discussed. Obviously, with the current state of the pandemic, NBA expansion is not going to happen soon, but as the world normalizes in a post-vaccine world, expansion seems more likely in the NBA than it has in almost two decades, so expect to hear more about this topic.