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NBA MVP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

With a week of NBA Training Camps in the books, David Weissman dives into potential candidates to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.

David Weissman

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Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 60-22 regular season last year en route to his first NBA MVP Award. The 24-year-old will try to earn the award for the second straight season and is the betting favorite at +300 odds, followed by Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden. 

Front Runners

Giannis Antetokounmpo 

Last season, the Greek Freak had the best season of his career, averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks on 57.8 percent field goal percentage. Antetokounmpo has steadily increased his points, rebounds and assists averages each year of his career, but the scary part is he still has room to improve.

Only shooting 25.6 precent from behind the arc last season, Giannis can increase his MVP chances if he can improve his three-point shot. By comparison, Giannis was more accurate during the 2017-18 season when he shot 30 percent from three. Being able to shoot above 33 percent from three-point land should be a goal for Giannis if he wants to continue to be in the conversation for best in the league. With the addition of the three-point shot to Giannis’ arsenal, he would be the clear favorite for MVP, becoming the most complete player in the NBA.

Anthony Davis

With LeBron James likely to focus on load management in his 17th season, Davis will be the Lakers’ main scoring option. Running the pick-and-roll with one of the league’s best facilitators in James, Davis has shown he can thrive as LeBron’s running mate, tallying 22 points, 10 rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes of play during his first preseason outing with the Lakers.

LeBron has emphasized that he wants to run the offense through Davis.

“If we are not running the offense through [Davis], what’s the point of him being on the floor,” LeBron said at Media Day. The King seems to be focused on passing the torch to Davis rather than prioritizing his own stat line, which makes Davis the more likely of the duo to win MVP this season.

Anthony Davis has prioritized winning Defensive Player of the Year this season.

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable…”

If Davis can improve his 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game average from last season, with a Defensive Player of the Year effort, he could be the third player since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to win both awards in the same season.

Stephen Curry

As Antetokounmpo is trying to win consecutive MVP awards this season, Stephen Curry knows how tough the feat is, as he was the last player to do so in 2015-2016. One key factor of Curry’s MVP seasons was Kevin Durant not being on the Golden State roster, allowing Curry to be the focal point of the offense for the Warriors. Klay Thompson will also be out most of the season, as he is recovering from an ACL tear suffered during last year’s NBA Finals. With Durant leaving the Warriors for the Nets and Thompson out for most of the season, look for Curry to reclaim the offensive spotlight for the Warriors this season.

With the Warriors acquiring D’Angelo Russell this off-season, Curry will be able to play off of another dynamic playmaker in Russell, who will create more offensive opportunities for Curry. Playing with Russell instead of Thompson in the backcourt may require some adjustment on Curry’s part throughout the year, but look for Curry to help Russell get immersed in the offense. It would not be surprising if Curry gets close to making 400 three-pointers again next season, which will help give the league’s greatest shooter a great shot at his third MVP trophy.

Outside Looking In

James Harden/Russell Westbrook

Both Harden and Westbrook each own MVP hardware and have grown accustomed to being the number one option on their respective teams. Last season, Harden (39.6 percent) and Westbrook (30.1 percent) each ranked in the top eight in the league in usage rate. With Westbrook joining the Rockets this offseason, the former teammates will need time to adjust to each other. This adjustment in play will probably prevent both from being top contenders for the MVP this season.   

With the Thunder, Harden mainly came off the bench averaging 12.7 points per game. Westbrook meshed well with Harden, averaging 16 points per game while playing with him on the Thunder. Harden was traded to the Rockets a few years after being drafted by Thunder, where he has since transformed into a perennial MVP candidate in Houston. Harden has averaged 29.0 points in seven seasons for the Rockets, including a career-high 36.1 points per game last season. Westbrook has also taken his game to another level since playing with Harden, becoming the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in three consecutive seasons.

There is an expectation that both players will be focused on adapting to each other’s game and trying to do what is best for the team to make a playoff run. Since both will need to learn how to share the ball again, it may hurt their individual stats, lowering their chances for MVP this season.

Kawhi Leonard

With Leonard joining the Clippers this offseason, he will start a new era with Paul George as his running mate. Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship in franchise history last season, averaging 26.6 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game during the regular season. With an impressive stat line over the regular season, alongside his lock-down defense, Leonard will be an MVP-caliber player for the upcoming season.

The biggest obstacle for Leonard to win MVP is his workload. The Raptors had to rest Leonard for 22 games last season due to a lingering quad injury, and the Clippers are likely going to do the same this season. Leonard looks to be more productive during the regular season, though. 

“This year I’m feeling good and feeling way better than I was at the start of last season,” Leonard said.

If Leonard can miss less than 20 games this season, look for him to be a contender for the regular season MVP. 

Dark Horse

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell is only entering his third year in the NBA, but has shown incredible promise his first two years in the league. Since he’s come into the Association, Mitchell has been dominant as Utah’s main offensive option; he’s the only 6-foot-5 or under player in the past 20 years to score 20 points per game as a rookie, and only the fifth to do so as a sophomore.

After spending the summer representing Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, Mitchell focused on the jump he wants to make this season at Jazz Media Day. With many of the typical superstars that represent Team USA in international play not participating in this summer’s tournament, Mitchell, along with Kemba Walker, became the leaders of Team USA in this summer’s tournament. Despite placing seventh in the tournament, it gave Mitchell the experience that could lead to an All-Star jump.

The Jazz became an immediate NBA Finals contender this summer, trading significant future assets for 32-year-old Mike Conley and signing 30-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million contract. Mitchell and the Jazz now have spot-up shooting, a wide-open floor and secondary playmaking, all of which the Jazz lacked in Mitchell’s first two years. Both of these moves will help get Mitchell better looks, helping him not rely on ill-advised shot selection.

If Mitchell can use this opportunity to focus on improving his shot selection and offensive efficiency, he may even be able to take the jump required to be an MVP candidate.

Prediction: When the regular season closes, this writer anticipates Anthony Davis will claim his first regular-season MVP Title. Playing off LeBron will allow Davis to make an MVP jump offensively to give him the most productive regular season of his career. 

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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