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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – May 4

With under 10 games to go in the regular season, Tristan Tucker breaks down the latest iteration of Basketball Insiders’ MVP ladder.

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With just a couple of weeks until the end of the 2020-21 regular season, the NBA’s award races are getting closer to being complete. Though several contenders emerged across the year, one is beginning to set himself apart from the rest. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaking out toward the end of the year.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 1)

With under 10 games left in the regular season, it appears the MVP award is Jokic’s to lose. Much can happen in the last few weeks of the season, but Jokic has been phenomenal all year long. On the year, Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game and has the Nuggets on a five-game win streak and third in the west.

Jokic’s shooting splits are also the best of his career by far. “The Joker” is connecting at a 41.2 percent clip from deep and is shooting 86 percent from the charity stripe.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last MVP ladder, the Nuggets have lost just one game with Jokic leading the charge.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: Honorable Mention)

Though Antetokounmpo missed more time soon after missing six straight, “The Greek Freak” would be a solid runner-up as MVP. Even though he played under a minute in one of the contests, Antetokounmpo is still averaging 26.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1 block per game in his last nine outings.

However, no game is more impressive than his 49-point showing against the daunting Brooklyn Nets. With the massive playoff implications on the line, Antetokounmpo added 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and a steal in a win over Brooklyn.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 3)

Though Embiid might not win the award, he deserves immense credit for being this close in the race despite missing significant time due to injury. On the year, Embiid is averaging a career-high 29.3 points per game. Even more impressive is his career-best shooting numbers: 51.2 percent from the floor, 37.6 percent from three and 85.4 percent from the line.

At full health, the 76ers are a scary unit and are on the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference. With its entire starting unit healthy, the team is 21-4.

4. Chris Paul/Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Previous: 4)

As mentioned in the last ladder, Chris Paul and Devin Booker are equally responsible for the phenomenal success of the Suns. Phoenix has a legitimate chance to finish as the No. 1 seed in the west, a remarkable feat and quick turnaround for the franchise.

In the last few weeks, Paul is averaging 17.1 points and 9 assists per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from deep. Success follows Paul wherever he goes. The worst a Paul-led team has performed is 37-45 in 2009-10, when he played just 45 games. Just last season, Paul took an Oklahoma City Thunder team with no stars to a 44-28 record.

However, this stint with the Suns might be his most impressive work yet. Phoenix, who finished outside of the playoffs last season, is 24-9 against teams with a .500 record or better.

Then there’s Booker, who’s averaging 25.6 points per game as the team’s leading scorer. Others are certainly contributing, but the tandem of Booker and Paul is one of the most exciting in the league.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Previous: 5)

The Mavericks are just 6-4 in their last 10 games with Doncic, but the team is close to clinching the Southwest Division. Winning the division would give the Mavericks a tiebreaker over the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, who are both tied with Dallas for the fifth seed.

Even though the Mavericks haven’t jumped off the page in recent weeks, Doncic is continuing to be impressive. Since the last MVP ladder, Doncic is averaging 29 points, 10.4 assists, 8 rebounds and 1.2 steals while connecting at a 48.8 percent clip from the floor.

6. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Previous: Not Ranked)

In what would’ve been an unthinkable turn of events mere months ago, the Knicks are 36-28, fourth in the Eastern Conference. Randle has been great all season but has played like a true superstar in the last few weeks.

Since April 13, Randle is averaging 31 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Even more mindblowing is the fact that Randle is shooting 51.4 percent from deep on 7.8 attempts per night across that span of time.

The Knicks are winners of 11 of their last 12 games and have clinched a postseason appearance for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Honorable Mention: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: NR)

He won’t win the award due to team success but it would be amiss to not mention Stephen Curry in the race for MVP. There’s an argument to be made that no team would be worse off without its best player than the Warriors. Look no further than last season’s team that boasted the worst record in the league.

Over the last few weeks, Curry’s play has kept the Warriors in the playoff picture despite several injuries in the team’s frontcourt. Now, Curry is the leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 31.3 points per game while shooting 42.6 percent from three on 12.2 attempts per contest.

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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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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