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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Jan. 4

Basketball Insiders releases our first MVP rankings of the 2020-21 NBA season, with some surprises high on the board.

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It’s still early in the 2020-21 season, yet there have been amazing performances every night across the NBA. And, because of those performances, fans have started to see which stars are have shone brightest and separated themselves from the pack early in the MVP race.

And so, each week at Basketball Insiders, we will be taking a look at our top candidates for the MVP award — here are a few that caught our attention through the first week of play.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Despite a rollercoaster start to the year, Antetokounmpo is the MVP frontrunner through the first week of play. The Milwaukee Bucks have had a curious start, losing by 20 to the New York Knicks, proceeding to set the NBA record for 3-pointers in a near-50-point win over the Miami HEAT just to lose to the same team the very next day.

And yet, Antetokounmpo has continued to dominate every night while the Bucks’ highs have been high, as evidenced by their record-breaking performance against Miami. Elevated teammate play should help him win more down the stretch and Antetokounmpo will likely push for a triple-double on most nights. It also helps that Antetokounmpo is defending the award in a year where his prime competition hasn’t pushed too far forward quite yet.

2. Stephen Curry

Curry kicked off 2021 with a bang, giving fans the first 50-point game of the season and then some, going off for a career-high 62 points. Entering the game, Curry and the Golden State Warriors appeared to be in a lull despite Curry averaging well over 25 points per contest. Now, with Draymond Green back in action, the Warriors should push for a playoff spot if Curry can continue to go off.

Curry is averaging 32.3 points, 6.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game on 45.8% shooting from the floor. Many across the NBA landscape pointed to the Warriors’ cold start and claimed that Curry couldn’t carry this roster to the playoffs. Clearly, he took notice, and will likely do everything in his power to help muster this team into the postseason.

3. Trae Young

Young has slowed down in the last couple of games, but there’s no denying the sheer impact he has had on turning around the Atlanta Hawks’ culture. The Hawks are 4-2 and Young is averaging 28.2 points and 8.3 assists per game on respectable efficiency.

There are two big tests that will determine the legitimacy of Young’s MVP campaign: the first being whether or not he can win against tougher competition, the second being the consistency with which he can get to the free throw line.

For the first point, three of the four Hawks wins have come against teams that weren’t expected to be very good this year: the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Bulls could feasibly make the play-in tournament in the East, but that’ll be an uphill battle. Detroit is a pleasant surprise with its competitiveness but is still 1-5 while the Grizzlies have been without Jaren Jackson Jr.

The fourth win came from a game against a Brooklyn Nets team that just lost Spencer Dinwiddie and is currently 3-4. If Young can come away from a stretch next week that sees the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns, the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers with numerous wins, it’ll boost his MVP stock tremendously.

As for the second point, Young has struggled with getting to the foul line recently and it has noticeably affected his scoring output. In the first four games, Young averaged over 15 free throw attempts per game and averaged 33 points. In the last two games, however, he’s averaged just four free throw attempts and put up just 18.5 points per game.

Obviously it’s a small sample size. But, if this trend continues, it will affect Young’s MVP eligibility going forward.

4. Joel Embiid

It might be a surprise to some to see Embiid this high. And, while it is early in the season, Embiid has the Philadelphia 76ers tied with the Phoenix Suns for best record in the league. Embiid has been simply unstoppable, finally armed with a roster that suits his skillset.

Embiid is currently averaging 25 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 blocks per game on 53.9% shooting from the floor and a 40% clip from deep. Combine that with the fact that the Sixers are 5-0 when Embiid plays, with their only loss being a 24-point blowout against the Cleveland Cavaliers without him, and his MVP case is rock solid.

It’s still too early in the season to determine whether or not Embiid will remain this high for long, but a different coaching culture and teammates like Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris have helped spark what seems to be a 76ers turnaround after they disappointed last year.

5. James Harden

Harden would likely be higher on this list if the situation regarding his trade demand wasn’t so murky and if he had more games under his belt. Alas, Harden has only appeared in three games due to game postponements and COVID-19 tracing protocols.

When the Rockets are fully healthy, however, the lineup is loaded with its guard and center rotations. Between John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who both look healthy, Harden and Christian Wood, who could legitimately play his way into the All-Star Game if he continues his play, Houston has the players to boost Harden’s case even further.

However, the full lineup has played in just one game together, a three-point win over the Sacramento Kings. And, while Harden has appeared in just three games, he’s still averaged 37 points, 5.3 rebounds and 11 assists per game while shooting a nearly 50/40/90 line — quite impressive to say the least.

Even if Harden gets traded this season, with numbers like these, there’s no way he doesn’t shoot up this ladder as the year goes on.

6. LeBron James

James is obviously timeless and the Los Angeles Lakers don’t appear to be taking any breaks as they boast a 5-2 record with a seemingly improved roster from last season. Gone are Danny Green, Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee and in are Wesley Matthews, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.

This crew is one of the best James has ever played with and he will do everything in his power to capitalize on the strength of one of the deepest teams in the league. James will perennially be in this conversation and will probably move up the ladder as the season goes on.

Honorable Mention: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

While players like Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic and Kevin Durant are sure to rise up these rankings as the season goes on, there’s a pair that deserves mentioning right now: the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — two players that have gone above and beyond for the Celtics to start the year in the absence of Kemba Walker.

The Boston Celtics, much like all other Eastern Conference teams, have struggled to put their best foot forward and sit at a 4-3 record after a near-loss to the Pistons, a team that Boston had already lost to on New Year’s Day.

However, both Tatum and Brown have looked stellar to begin the year, with Tatum knocking in the game-winner against Detroit and Brown hitting his career-high of 42 points against the Grizzlies. Both players are currently averaging what would be career-highs across the board.

Tatum is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists per game with a career-low in fouls per game while Brown is averaging career-highs in points, assists, steals and blocks per game on a ridiculously good 59.8% from the floor and 42.5% clip from deep.

If either of those players’ lines can stand out as the norm, either or both will be in the MVP conversation.

As previously mentioned, it is still early in the season — our ladder could look completely different as soon as next week as a host of different players sit just outside the conversation. That said, be sure to check out next week’s edition to see if any of those guys can garner some serious consideration.

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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