NBA Rumor: MVP Race

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Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic the two early favorites for 2021-22 MVP

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Jokić received 91 first-place votes and earned 971 total points from a global panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters as well as the Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award fan vote, making for 101 ballots. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (586 points) finished in second place, followed by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (453 points) in third place, Milwaukee Bucks forward Antetokounmpo (348 points) in fourth place and Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (139 points) in fifth place.

So on that front, how do you see this Nuggets matchup. No Jamal (Murray). They have (Will) Barton with the hamstring issue, and I’m not sure if he’s going to be out there. You have some history with them, and they’re trying to keep it going after losing a pretty important player. What’s your view of the series? Damian Lillard: I mean, they’re not at full strength but a wounded animal is the most dangerous animal. I’m not going into here even thinking about who’s not on the floor, because the MVP of the league is on the floor. They’ve got a lot of talent. Sam Amick: Does he deserve it? Sorry to cut you off, but you know people are going to be curious how you see it. Damian Lillard: I mean, I don’t think he’s missed a game this entire season.

Damian Lillard: But I think when you really look at it, and you see that Jokic has played in every game and he’s dominated the way he has, they’ve had injuries with so many guys out and missed games and he’s kept them rolling. He’s kept them where they are. And Embiid has missed a lot of games. And even when he got hurt, they just kept going, you know? So I would say Jokic. But yeah, I’m not going into the series worried about injuries or nothing. They’re still a great team. We’re going to have our hands full either way.

So do you feel like if Steph’s in (the conversation) then you should still be there too? Damian Lillard: I mean, I don’t go tit-for-tat. I just call it like I see it. I think Steph has had a great season. Obviously, there has to be a conversation about him being in the conversation. But I don’t think he wins it. At the eight seed, I just don’t see how that works. Last year, it was people like (ESPN’s) Stephen A. (Smith saying) ‘Man, I love what Dame is doing but he can’t be the MVP because they’re the eighth seed.’ You know what I’m saying? But last year, I averaged 30 points and eight assists on 46 (percent) from the field, 40 from the three-point line and 90 from free throw (it was actually 88.8). But last year, they’re like, ‘Man, we can’t consider him an MVP because they’re the eighth seed.’ And now it’s like it’s ok. For me, that’s the way that I’m looking at it. (Curry) is definitely in the conversation. There’s no way that you don’t have him in the conversation.

Draymond Green says Stephen Curry is the MVP

Draymond Green: “[Last season] was really rough. (And) there wasn’t a ton of turnover from last year’s roster to this year’s roster, yet we’re 37-33. Why is that? Steph Curry’s playing. Steph Curry’s playing. And the word MVP is an acronym for Most Valuable Player — Most Valuable Player. I think at times — a lot of times – it’s looked at as “Who’s scoring the most? Who’s putting up the best stats?” This, that and the other. And it’s not always given to the most valuable player. Well, Steph is obviously leading the league in scoring. But look at his value. Look at what he’s done to take a team that won 15 games last year and to have us right there in the hunt for the playoffs. And if I’m not mistaken, Russell Westbrook won MVP (in the 2016-17 season) and they were the seventh or eighth seed.”

Draymond Green: “That’s my point, and that’s how I’ve been looking at this thing, is like there’s no rule that says you can’t be an eighth seed and win the MVP because Russ has done it. Now in saying that, I personally thought that year that Russell deserved to be the MVP. So I had no problem with him winning the MVP because I actually thought he f—— deserved it. That OKC team he was on was horses—. Complete horses—. And he carried that team to the playoffs while going out and averaging a triple double, completely destroying every team that he played against. I thought he deserved to be the MVP. Why? Because he was so valuable to that team that he got that team to the playoffs while averaging a triple double. You’re damn right he deserved to be the MVP.”

Asked about the recent MVP talk, Randle said: “For sure, I’m not going to shy away from it. For me, it’s about getting better from game to game, improving as a player. I’m not focused on it. The praise obviously is great and everything but I’m not focused on it. All I’m worried about is getting better, keep leading the team game to game. Our team, I feel like we can compete against anybody.” They have proven that across April and now early May, but the final four games of this trip will be the tell-all – the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers and Lakers with LeBron James.

Randle is averaging 24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists and shooting a remarkable 42.7 percent from 3-point range. A little better passer, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.5 assists and shooting 40.9. percent from 3. “I’d put him at the top as well,” Gibson said of Randle. “You look at the body of work Julius has put together on a night-to-night basis. Being really professional, especially in a tough market. People understand how tough it is to play in New York and bringing a winning mentality back to the Knicks. Julius has earned credit for the MVP race. He deserves it.”

Take a regular, 82-game season. It’s widely accepted that a player should play in about 75% of games – at least 62 games – to be considered. Bill Walton won MVP with the fewest games played – just 58 of 82 games in 1977-78. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has played in 45 of his team’s 64 games, and if he plays in the remaining eight games, he will have played in 73.6% of Sixers games. Embiid is an MVP favorite. But where does that leave Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James? His chances to win a fifth MVP have diminished, at least according to oddsmakers, because he missed 20 consecutive games due to injury. But James returned on Friday, and if he plays in every game the rest of the season, he will have played in 51 games – or 70% of his team’s games.

Jokić has put up a phenomenal season and the Nuggets finishing strong has put some distance between him and the closest contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. If Embiid had played the same number of games as Jokić while maintaining his level of production, our model has this coming down to the wire. But, as it stands, Jokić is the clear-cut favorite. Note that the scores may be slightly deflated (in comparison to historical seasons above), and expect these scores to rise slightly as the final games are played and we update the data.

Cowherd not having Joel Embiid in his top five is puzzling, considering the Philadelphia 76ers center is averaging 30 points and 11.1 rebounds per game on 51.3% shooting for the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but what does Paul have to say about his growing MVP talk? “I appreciate it,” Paul said as the Phoenix Suns (42-17) prepared to continue their five-game road trip Sunday at the East-leading Brooklyn Nets (40-20) in a national TV matinee (ESPN, 3:30 ET).

Joel Embiid: There's no doubt I'm the MVP

Shams Charania: 76ers star Joel Embiid sits down with @Stadium: “There’s no doubt (I’m MVP). I’ve been dominant all season. I’m not going to stop.” On motivation from feeling disrespected and frustrated last season, Shaq’s criticism “opened my eyes to actually realize that I can be that guy.” pic.twitter.com/Ud3O2APOkV

Jeremy Lin talked with Emmet Ryan of BallinEurope about Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and more, at the Collision conference, organized by Web Summit, which is being held virtually and staged out of Toronto, Canada. “What he’s doing is ridiculous. The end of the season will be interesting. He’s definitely a front runner right now and Denver is playing really well,” he told BallinEurope regarding Jokic’s position in the race for the NBA season’s MVP award, “The only other person I’d put into consideration is Steph Curry, what he’s doing is historic. There are good candidates on the Sixers and the Jazz but, to me, it’s still Jokic.”

Nikola Jokic clear favorite to win MVP now

While Jokic is miles ahead of the field, his point total is right in line with where the winners landed each of the past few seasons. What is different, however, is that there is no clear second-place finisher. Since the league shifted to the current voting format in 2017, second place has earned at least 738 points. Embiid, who received five of the remaining 11 first-place votes, was second with 401 points — not much more than half of that typical amount. Antetokounmpo (no first-place votes, 375 points), the two-time reigning MVP, was a close third, with Damian Lillard (two first-place votes, 67 total votes, 283 points) in fourth and Harden (one first-place vote, 62 total votes, 231 points) in fifth.

James, meanwhile, went from getting more than half of the first-place votes in the last straw poll to getting none this time. He was left off nearly two-thirds of the ballots entirely, garnering just 37 total votes and 105 points. He was just ahead of Chris Paul, who had two first-place votes and 98 total points, with Kawhi Leonard (80 points, including one first-place vote) in eighth, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (28 points) in ninth and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (26 points) in 10th.

Playmaking—Antetokounmpo is averaging a career-best 6.4 assists—has been an area of growth for Giannis, something team officials attribute to the game continuing to slow down for the 26-year old two-time reigning MVP. “The pace that he is playing at is different,” Bucks GM Jon Horst said in a telephone interview. “He’s playing with more control. He’s picking his spots. That’s the kind of thing you only get through maturity.” Regarding the MVP race, Horst offers the strongest possible endorsement. “He is a better player this year than in the years he won,” says Horst. And while GM-supporting-star is hardly an objective take, there is evidence backing it up. Antetokounmpo is in the top-five in offensive and defensive win shares—only Jokić can claim that—and one of two players (Jokić, again) averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

James Harden: 'I feel like I am the MVP'

After dropping 44 points in a win over the Pistons on Friday night in Detroit, James Harden said that he doesn’t simply believe he belongs in the Most Valuable Player award conversation — he should sit atop the list. “Do I feel like I belong in it? I feel like I am the MVP,” the Brooklyn Nets star said. “I mean, it’s just that simple. I don’t want to be speaking individually on myself. I am just going to leave it at that.”

Nikola Jokic the frontrunner for MVP award?

Either way, there’s little question that James and Embiid suffering injuries helps the MVP candidacy of Nikola Jokic, the other top contender based on advanced statistics. And it continues to crack open the door for the past two winners, Antetokounmpo and Harden, whose chances were written off early in the season. Most importantly, the injuries are a reminder that we shouldn’t be in a hurry to pick an MVP before the season is near completion.

The impact of injuries is a key reason it’s dangerous to start to draw MVP conclusions too early in the season. Staying on the court is a key part of value within an individual regular season. Historically, 10 games missed has been about the cutoff for MVP consideration. The last player to miss more than 10 games in an MVP season was Allen Iverson in 2000-01 (11). Before that, you have to go back to Bill Walton in 1977-78 (an unprecedented 34) for the previous example. (No MVP between Walton and Iverson missed more than seven games.)

Kyle Kuzma: MVP is a very political award

LeBron James has been awarded the NBA’s MVP award four times in his career, tied with Wilt Chamberlain for the third most all time, but one of his teammates, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, says James should have double that. At least. “The NBA MVP is a very political award,” Kuzma said after the Lakers’ 116-105 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday. “Bron should have been the MVP at least eight, nine, 10 times. Everybody knows that.”

When asked about Kuzma’s claim, James admitted he felt he has been snubbed in the past, but he wouldn’t specify how many he felt he deserved to win. “I should have more than four, I believe,” James said. “But … I don’t sit around thinking about it or crying about it, or whatever the case may be. I just try to come in the next season and be the MVP and be talked about [for] it again. I bet a lot of the greatest that played this game feel like they should have more as well, if you ask any one of those guys.

“It’s a mistake on the voters’ part to go season after season without voting the best player in the league MVP,” Vogel said. “You know what I mean? That’s the simplest way to put it. There’s been other players that have been deserving, but he’s been the best player in the league for as long as I can remember. Maybe since his second, third year in the league. It’s just one of those things that’s unfortunate. It’s not right. And he should get it this year. He’s doing it every night and no one is as deserving.”

As we cross the halfway point of the NBA season, we are set up for what should be the most raucous and divisive MVP race since Russell Westbrook’s win in 2017 — and one of the most unusual in NBA history. A lot of voters — this one included, as I have an official ballot — try to compartmentalize by considering only the discrete 82 games (or now 72) of each season. We give the award every season; it is for that specific season. What happened last season shouldn’t factor in. What might happen in the playoffs is irrelevant.

The discourse surrounding last year’s top two finishers — the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James — was primed to get messy and interesting and maybe a little edgy in the media even before Harden and two behemoth centers crashed the MVP race. Antetokounmpo has won the past two MVPs, outpointing James easily last season. Antetokounmpo’s statistical case was almost unassailable — at least according to almost every publicly available statistic. He also won Defensive Player of the Year. The Bucks finished with the best record in the NBA.

As our Brian Windhorst noted last month, James has not won MVP since 2013. You can explain away each individual season. I’ve had an official ballot in every season starting in 2013-14, and have not voted James as MVP in any of them. At the time, each vote felt fine — close in some seasons, but fine. I don’t regret any of them now. In totality, it still seems undeniably stupid that that guy we all recognize as the best player alive has not won MVP in eight years. It just does.

On the flip side, there is a clear pull to reward James a fifth MVP as something of a career capstone. He is having an MVP-worthy season: 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists on tidy 51% shooting — 36% on 3s, 59% on 2s. The two other leading candidates — Joel Embiid of the 76ers and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets — outpace him by most advanced metrics, but not all of them. James is in a virtual tie for No. 2 in the field of nine candidates in Value Over Replacement Player (behind Jokic, and by a lot), and No. 1 in ESPN’s fancy real plus-minus stat.

The Lakers are plus-9.1 per 100 possessions with James on the floor, and minus-4.4 when he rests — the second-fattest on-off gap among the major candidates, trailing only Embiid. That sustained during the Lakers’ slide without Anthony Davis; the Lakers are plus-20 with James on the floor since Davis went on the shelf, and minus-31 with James on the bench, per NBA.com By historical standards, James is having an MVP-level season — just not a no-brainer MVP season. As of now, it would rank midtier among all 65 prior NBA MVP seasons: almost exactly in the middle in points per game, 49th in Player Efficiency Rating, 61st in win shares per 48 minutes.

A similar sentiment may help James in this season’s voting. Harden is the “new team” guy — the Garnett/Barkley/Nash of this season’s race. But the barrier to winning his second MVP should be very high for Harden considering the nature of his exit from the Houston Rockets. The eight games he played there constitute 11% of this season — a non-trivial share. They will constitute an even greater percentage of Harden’s individual season, because he has missed a few games. He put up numbers in those eight games, but if you watched them, you know Harden was disengaged. Opponents outscored the Rockets by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor during his final Houston stretch — and won the minutes Harden rested by almost the same amount, per NBA.com. You can’t erase that from his candidacy for an award based on play in this particular season.

Harden has been brilliant as a Net. He’s already second in franchise history in triple-doubles, which is both amazing and a little funny. Someday, the voting body might buck precedent and award MVP to someone traded in-season. I’m skeptical Harden is or should be that player. Just getting on the ballot is going to be hard — for Harden, Lillard, Curry, and others. Everything will change if Durant continues to miss major time, or if Irving does — and Harden lifts the Nets. Even then, Harden winning seems a stretch given what Jokic, Embiid, and James are doing. With or without Harden as a serious candidate, the next two months figure to give us a rollicking MVP debate.
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July 27, 2021 | 3:09 pm EDT Update
Nets general manager Sean Marks has every intention of extending all of the Big Three this summer, with free agency officially tipping off Monday at 6 p.m. The question now is, are those three stars – Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – all on the same page about staying in Brooklyn for the long haul? And with all three of them max players and money not the big factor, what goes into the decision? “(You) like being in that environment, first of all. You enjoy playing the game, that’s the most important thing. I think we all three enjoy playing with each other,” Durant said when asked by the Post after Team USA practice on Tuesday morning. “But that’s a personal thing, and guys are different. I’m sure when the time is right I’m sure we’ll all make the right decision for ourselves.”
The Big Three can all become free agents after the 2021-22 season. But they can also ink long-term extensions this summer that would keep them in Brooklyn through the 2025-26 campaign. Durant – who’ll lead Team USA vs. Iran at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday – was asked by the Post what he specifically would look for in making his call. “Just being in a great environment and being around teammates that enjoy the game,” said Durant. “Keep growing individually. That’s the most important thing; how we’re growing individually. Definitely how we come together as a team. I enjoy seeing my teammates get better; I enjoy getting better and have an environment that encourages that every single day.”
So while Cunningham may share traits with Magic and Bird, the view of him as a can’t-miss prospect is much easier to process because of current-day players like Jokic—and, in particular, Luka Doncic. In broad strokes, Cunningham and Doncic may well be geminis of a very specific playmaking archetype. It’s rare to see perimeter players leverage their size, strength, and stride to create space in the way that both players seem innately aware and capable of. “As prospects, I do think Cade has a pretty similar baseline in terms of the vision and the way he sees the court, the way he processes how everyone is moving,” Zaucha said.
One watches Cunningham expecting a beeline to the right decision; one watches Doncic expecting the seas to magically part, showing another way. But the stylistic difference may not have much effect on substance. “I wonder if there really is a gap in their creativity—the way they manipulate defenders, especially—or if it’s some sort of aesthetic bias at play,” Zaucha said. “Because Luka loves to make those creative decisions, and then sell it with a behind-the-back pass or some wild delivery that the defense doesn’t expect. Whereas I think Cade—from a decision-making perspective, I think Cade solves problems in creative ways, he just doesn’t always make them look creative.”