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Phoenix Suns 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Phoenix Suns had a busy off-season, not only hiring a proven leader at head coach but re-making the roster into what looks like a team poised to win some games. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Phoenix Suns in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Phoenix Suns have had a bad go of it.

In five years, the Suns have managed just 126 wins, tied with the Knicks for the fewest in the NBA over that span. With the exit of Steve Nash in 2012, the team found themselves in a pit that they have yet to dig themselves out of. There was hope in 2014 – the Suns won 48 games but just narrowly missed the postseason – but they have since spiraled and have yet to recover from it.

Fortunately, for the franchise and their fans, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Suns have wallowed in misery for nearly a decade, their young core having been thrown to the wolves and unable to fend for themselves. But now, after an active offseason, the Suns have decided to bolster their future with several well-traveled veterans.

The rebuild may not be over but, for the first time in a long time, the Suns appear to be on the up. At the very least, they look to be turning a corner, a sight for the sore eyes of any and every NBA fan.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It’ll be a pleasure to see Monty Williams back in the big chair again. Having Devin Booker as his go-to guy should make it rather easy to implement an offense that scores consistently. Deandre Ayton hanging around down low will certainly help the rebounding battle on both ends as well. If there’s a position Phoenix has lacked in recent years, it’s point guard. The organization addressed that this summer with the addition of Ricky Rubio, who can run an offense with his playmaking ability. Defense should take priority first and foremost, a notorious area of struggle for many years. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges will provide the brunt of the physicality on opposing wings to force turnovers. The Valley Boyz certainly had a swagger about them to close last year as well. Still, they’re amongst a stacked group of four other clubs, so don’t expect more than a fifth-place finish.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The name of the game for the Suns in 2019-20 is development. The team boasts some nice pieces. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton anchor the team, and we should expect to see continued development from them. They also boast strong role players in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric and an accomplished floor general in free agent signee-Ricky Rubio. Unfortunately, the Suns missed an opportunity to add Jarret Culver to their roster when they traded back in the draft to clear cap space. New Head Coach Monty Williams certainly has his work cut out for him given their dismal 2018-19 season. But fortunately for Williams, expectations shouldn’t be too high. The Western Conference will be brutally competitive this season, and Phoenix simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with the elite teams out West.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Drew Maresca

The Suns biggest need heading into the offseason was point guard. They’ve perhaps solved that issue temporarily with the free-agent signing of Ricky Rubio. Rubio has been one of the better playmakers in the league throughout his career, and players like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton should benefit from playing alongside him. Speaking of Booker and Ayton, the two quietly put up monster seasons this past year. Booker continued his ascent as one of the league’s top wing scorers, and Ayton had a Rookie of the Year type season, only he didn’t get the same national hype as others did. It is concerning that the Suns are on their fifth head coach in as many years, but they have some quality young pieces in place. It’s time to start showing some real progress. Unfortunately for them, the other teams in the Pacific are that much better than them at this point.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

It’s really hard to say what the Phoenix Suns’ strategy was going into this offseason. A rational approach would have been to focus on adding shooters to surround Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton while adding a point guard to give Booker some time off the ball. The Suns could have addressed the point guard issue by drafting Coby White, who projects to be a very solid lead guard in the future and who would have been on a team-friendly contract for several years. Instead, Phoenix decided to move salary off their books (throwing in two second-round draft picks to do so) in order to sign Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million contract. This move was questionable (to say the least) in a vacuum and is even worse when you consider that Phoenix originally had the sixth overall pick and White went seventh to the Chicago Bulls. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned that the Suns used the 11th overall pick on Cameron Johnson, who was not projected to go anywhere close to this high on anyone’s draft board. Johnson is a good shooter but his skill set is something that could have been addressed in free agency. There are too many issues to cover in this short section, so I will wrap it up by simply saying there was little rhyme or reason to most of what Phoenix did this offseason.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Suns as a perpetual NBA dumpster fire. Ownership continues to make bad decision after bad decision and the results have been the same – disappointment. This year, things at least on the surface look better. Monty Williams brings instant credibility to the revolving door at the head coaching position. James Jones as full-time leader of the franchise has made some good roster additions, which begs the question of whether this might actually be the year things turn in Phoenix? On the surface, maybe. Devin Booker could be an MVP candidate if he continues his progression. Former top pick DeAndre Ayton has the tools to be elite, and the roster seems better suited to winning games more so than at any time in the last five years. If all things play out as they look on paper, the Suns should be significantly better. That doesn’t mean they are playoff contenders, but progress is better than no progress.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

With Ricky Rubio inked to a three-year, $51 million contract, Devin Booker on a maximum contract and the re-signing of Kelly Oubre at two years, $30 million, the Suns are relatively invested in their developing core. Add in DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, whose team options for the 2020-21 season are sure to be picked up before November, and the Suns do not project to have enough cap space to sign a max player next summer (perhaps up to $25 million).

Phoenix is still midway through the rebuilding process, perhaps overpaying Rubio will prove worthwhile with a steady point guard. Meanwhile, the team owns all of its own first-round picks and has decent expiring contracts in Tyler Johnson ($19.2 million), Aron Baynes ($5.5 million) and Dario Saric ($3.5 million), should a trade opportunity present itself before the deadline in February. Saric is eligible for an extension prior to the start of the season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

Does this need any explanation?

Devin Booker is one of the best young offensive weapons in the game, certainly the best in Phoenix. Last season, the guard averaged 26.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and shot 46.7 percent from the field while he led the team in points and assists.

Booker saw his three-point percentage dip to 32.6 percent, but he has averaged 35.4 percent for his career so some positive regression should be expected.

Booker has been good, great even, thus far into his career. But the 23-year-old should be even better next season. With the best supporting cast of his young career, it would be a surprise if Booker didn’t take a step forward in almost every facet of his game.

Enough said.

Top Defensive Player: Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.

It was hard to decide between Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre for this spot, so I didn’t.

Both players are long, twitchy and have the size and speed to defend multiple positions. Both averaged more than a steal per game with the Suns last season (Oubre also played 29 games with the Wizards) while Oubre managed a block per game as well. Both hustle and give everything they have every time they step onto the court.

Case-in-point: the Suns have a pair of spectacular defenders that they can deploy anywhere and everywhere.

The presence of Booker and Deandre Ayton could put a strain on any defense, but the Bridges-Oubre combo should make up for what those two lack on that end of the floor. If nothing else, the two should prove invaluable assets to Phoenix in what has seemed like a never-ending rebuild.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

It isn’t a stretch to say that Rubio is far and away the Suns’ best point guard since the team traded Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2017.

In fact, while Bledsoe is certainly more athletic, one could argue that Rubio is the best point guard Phoenix has rostered since Goran Dragić before him, or even Nash before him. If nothing else, he’s certainly the point guard they have needed these last few seasons — a primary playmaker that can take on a secondary scoring role.

Alongside Donovan Mitchell – a player, despite their height difference, not too dissimilar to Booker – Rubio averaged 12.1 points, 6.1 assists and shot over 40 percent from the field last season. For his career, the Spaniard has averaged 7.7 assists, which would register as the Suns’ highest mark since Nash posted 10.7 per game in 2012.

To take their next step, Phoenix desperately needed a playmaker alongside Booker, not only to take on some playmaking responsibility but to displace some defensive attention as well. Rubio could do just that for them next season.

Top Clutch Player: Devin Booker

Booker was born with the clutch gene. With the amount of losing the Suns have done in the last few seasons he hasn’t been able to put it to much use, but Booker can clearly turn up the heat when under pressure.

In his four seasons, Booker has hit shot, after shot, after shot (you get the point) to either take the lead or win the game outright for Phoenix. Last season, in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within five points, Booker had 35 field goals, good for 16th in the NBA and far and away most on the Suns.

He only managed to shoot 40.2 percent (87 attempts) in those situations, but that fact may be a double-edged sword. Yes, Booker was inconsistent, but the Suns trust him in those moments and should continue to do so.

The team’s newest additions should only serve to draw defensive heat away from Booker, not only in the clutch but throughout the game, so don’t be surprised to see Booker’s efficiency take a jump.

The Unheralded Player: Deandre Ayton

Overshadowed by Rookie of the Year Luka Dončić, Ayton managed to have perhaps the quietest yet dominant season from a rookie in recent memory. In 71 games, the rookie out of Arizona averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.5 percent on the season.

Ayton is the only rookie ever to average 16, 10 and shoot at least 58 percent from the field.

Ayton also finished second in win shares among rookies, yet, somehow, the center earned a meager 66 points in Rookie of the Year voting and not a single first or second place tally. Both Dončić and the second-place Trae Young posted exceptional rookie seasons, but it would seem as if the NBA just passed Ayton by for some reason or another.

But the Suns (to an extent) know what they have in Ayton (or at least one would hope); there’s a reason they took him with the top selection over Dončić in 2018. If they can push him to be his best, Ayton may not only prove those that have doubted him wrong, but he could become the star Phoenix has long searched for.

Best New Addition: Dario Šarić

The Minnesota Timberwolves sent Šarić to Phoenix when they moved up from 11 to six in the 2019 NBA Draft. Šarić showed promise in his first two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers but, in a lesser role, took a step back in Minnesota.

Now, the Suns have the opportunity to capitalize on the Croatian forward.

In just 25 minutes split over 81 games in Philadelphia and Minnesota, Šarić averaged just 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. He also saw a dip in his field goal percentage and three-point percentage. But there is plenty of talent there; Šarić averaged 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the season prior, and had the look for a future star.

Whether a starter or reserve, Šarić is more talented than what he put on display last season. If the Suns can recapture the spark that was his 2017 mini-breakout, they could add a star-caliber piece to their already impressive young core.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Aron Baynes

The Suns acquired Baynes from the Boston Celtics in a July trade and, while it seemed questionable at the time, there is some logic in the acquisition of a 32-year-old backup.

Baynes, along with some of the other new Suns, should provide a capable, steady veteran to man the second unit. In a similar vein, he should also prove a strong locker room presence for a young team that is going to need a leader.

Likewise, Baynes is a stout defender – during his short time in Boston, he was a key cog in one of the league’s best defenses – and he should prove a competent mentor on that side of the ball for the second-year Ayton.

2. Ricky Rubio

Another veteran addition, Rubio wasn’t the sexiest pickup. But, he could prove vital in the Suns’ quest to return to relevancy in the Western Conference.

He isn’t going to lead the team in scoring, nor will he dominate the ball. But Rubio should vastly improve the flow of the offense without taking too much away from Booker.

But, and perhaps most importantly, Rubio has been there before; maybe not to the extent of the Suns in recent years, but he wallowed in losses with the Timberwolves. In his six years in Minnesota, the team never won more than 40 games, and Rubio can likely empathize with how hard that can be to deal with on a competitive level.

And, after back-to-back postseason appearances with the Utah Jazz, Rubio should now also understand what it can take to reach the top of the Western Conference. Hopefully, he can impart some of that wisdom upon Phoenix next season.

3. Mikal Bridges

On paper, Bridges’ rookie season doesn’t look like much. But, when the Suns allowed him to do so, the wing flashed and he flashed brightly.

We’ve already discussed the fact that Bridges can be an impact defender, but there is room for some major offensive growth in his game. The 23-year-old shot 33.5 percent from three-point range, good for fifth among rookies with at least 200 attempts and fifth among the other Phoenix youngsters.

While his assist totals were low, Bridges also, on occasion, showed excellent court vision and passing ability.

Bridges is talented, and he’s exactly what the best NBA teams are built on– a long, versatile wing that can shoot and play great defense. With a full offseason under his belt and an understanding of the season-long NBA process, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a jump in year two.

4. Ty Jerome

Despite his age, Ty Jerome is another piece that could go a long way in the Suns’ hopeful turnaround.

The Virginia product is one of the few players with some winning experience. Fresh off a National Championship win, he is set to join the few already on the Suns’ roster with a championship pedigree.

Jerome should also prove a serviceable reserve in his rookie year; in his last season at Virginia, he averaged 13.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists 1.5 steals and shot 43.5 percent from the field. Jerome was also a sharpshooter, as he knocked down three-point shots at a 39.9 percent clip.

– Shane Rhodes

Strengths

There is a reason the Suns have sat near the bottom of the NBA for so long. They don’t have many strengths as a team, and that is partly the fault of the personnel, partly the fault of management.

But, Phoenix does have one thing on their side: youth.

The Suns brought in plenty of veteran talent to oversee their operation this season, but their youth is what can drive them into the NBA stratosphere. Ayton, Booker, Bridges, Jerome, Oubre, Saric are, on paper, one of the best young cores in the league and, perhaps more importantly, they are under contract for the foreseeable future.

The Suns may or may not capitalize on the talent they have; players sometimes just don’t “get it,” others can be mismanaged or fall out of favor. But, youth is something that can give Phoenix and their fans hope and, going into next season, it’s one of the few things they have going for them.

– Shane Rhodes

Weaknesses

If it wasn’t already clear, the Suns have been bad, and they’ve been bad for a very long time. A losing culture has been ingrained into the fabric of the franchise.

That type of atmosphere can be hard to overcome, even if a team has all the talent in the world; heavy is the head that wears the crown, but even heavier is the head under the crown’s boot. If Phoenix is ever to find their way out of the NBA’s basement, a monumental effort is going to be required of everyone, players, coaches and executives alike.

– Shane Rhodes

The Burning Question

Can the Suns Finally Take a Step Forward?

The Suns have shown so much promise before, only to trip and land flat on their face. It would be foolish to say they could make a push for the postseason, even more so in the Western Conference, but the roster is clearly on the up; can the franchise push them to the next level? Thus far, they’ve been unable, but with new management in the fold – Jeff Bower, James Jones, Monty Williams, etc. – it could almost be like a fresh start for the Suns next season.

– Shane Rhodes

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

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

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

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

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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