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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 29

With big-time injuries to LeBron James and Joel Embiid in recent weeks, Tristan Tucker takes a look at how the landscape of the MVP race is changing.

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Since Basketball Insiders’ last MVP update, significant injuries struck two of the frontrunners of the race. Despite it being late March, with teams gearing up for playoff pushes, the MVP ladder looks drastically different. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the many shakeups that have occurred in the past two weeks.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 2)

The last man standing from this season’s earlier three-man MVP race, Jokic has a stronger case than anyone else. Jokic’s play is consistent and he’s leading the Nuggets further and further into the playoff race, as the Nuggets are 4-2 since the last ladder. Across that span, Jokic is averaging 25.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game.

Those numbers are very close to Jokic’s season averages, but he shot 62.3 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from three-point range in that time.

With Aaron Gordon now on board following the NBA trade deadline, the Nuggets have a real shot at moving up the standings. Denver is just 3.5 games out of the second seed in the west with tests against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers on the horizon.

Jokic has a legitimate chance at being the first true center to be named MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00. So much for the center position being obsolete.

2. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets (Previous: 5)

By his own bold proclamation, James Harden is the MVP. While he isn’t quite there, he has a stronger case than anyone sans Jokic. The Nets are 31-15, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing a combined 42 games. Harden is leading the league in assists, while scoring 25.8 points per game.

The Nets are 17-2 in games Harden has played in since Feb. 10. And in the last two weeks, Harden is averaging 30.8 points, 11.4 assists, 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game. In that span, Harden put up two 40-point performances, one of which was a triple-double against the Indiana Pacers.

With Harden on the floor, the Nets are simply dominant. Both Irving and Harden deserve immense credit for keeping Brooklyn competitive without Durant. Adding Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge will help take the load off the duo’s shoulders.

3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

Lillard deserves more buzz for the way the Blazers are playing this season. Portland is 28-18, winners of three straight and six of the last eight. That record leaves the Blazers tied with the Nuggets, just 3.5 games out of second place.

In the last two weeks, Lillard is averaging 25.3 points, just below his season average of 30 points per game, to go with 6.5 assists. With Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum back from injury, Portland has a chance to go on a run, especially after the acquisition of Norman Powell from the Toronto Raptors.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 4)

Antetokounmpo hasn’t played many games since the last update, leaving him in the same position for the last two weeks. However, the Bucks are one of the hottest teams in the league, 13-3 since Feb. 19. Currently, Antetokounmpo is averaging a career high in assists per game with 6.4, continuing to evolve in a year where Milwaukee will desperately try to get over the hump.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid hasn’t played since March 12, but his team is 6-2 in games without him, two factors that severely hinder his MVP case. However, Embiid still lands in the fifth slot this week, his 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game are too good to ignore. Embiid is resuming on-court basketball activities this week, making his return seem somewhat imminent.

6. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 3)

James is in a similar spot as Embiid, but his team is just 2-3 in games he has missed. James is expected to miss four to six weeks with his injury, an unfortunate circumstance for a player as dominant in his 18th season as he was in his first. “The King” is averaging 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists this season.

Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (Previous: NR)

Leonard’s Clippers are 6-1 in their last seven games, with Leonard averaging 23 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 36.8 percent from deep during that time. Many of Los Angeles’s recent wins are flat-out dominant, with a 27-point win over the Charlotte Hornets and a 33-point win over the San Antonio Spurs. Be on the lookout for a late-season surge from the Clippers while the Lakers deal with injuries.

With so many shakeups in the rankings this week, it just goes to show how unpredictable this league can be. Follow along with Basketball Insiders to see how teams prepare for playoff runs with under 30 games to go until the end of the season!

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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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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