The Outlet: Ranking NBA MVP Top Five, Buying C’s, More

The Outlet: Ranking NBA MVP Top Five, Buying C’s, More article feature image
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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Outlet, featuring the best and worst from the NBA week that was…

TOP FIVE

This week’s top five? The MVP contenders. Here are my five current leaders for the award, along with analysis.

1. James Harden (+100): Harden is out with a hamstring injury; he’s already missed five games and isn’t expected back until at least next week. He’s due for a re-evaluation this weekend, which could lead to his return (or a longer stay on the bench).

Typically, missing any stretch of games — even fewer than 10 — would knock you out of contention. But every MVP candidate’s case is flawed this season. Last year, voters made an exception for Russell Westbrook. Never before had a player with a playoff seed lower than third won the MVP. Making one for a player who plays every game he can without regard for rest should be doable.

The argument for: Leads the NBA in scoring, ranks third in assists. Leading the second-best team in the West. Harden’s overall impact is the greatest, even if the team continues to win without him. He led them to the league’s best record at one point with Chris Paul out for most of that stretch.

The argument against: He’s been decent defensively this year but never great. Plays with Paul, so splits responsibility, and the Rockets’ success without him (but with Paul) hurts his credibility a bit. Harden could wind up missing 10-plus games, which would be rough for his candidacy.

Voter base: Pro-analytics voters who recognize the impact on points produced and overall team efficiency. Legacy voters who want to see him recognized after finishing second in 2015 and 2017. Wins-first voters who recognize Houston’s record and won’t reward the Warriors due to star power.

The angle: +100 is pretty strong. It wouldn’t be surprising to see James rise to the favorite spot in the next few weeks, which would create a great opportunity to invest in Harden. Harden will play out the string as long as he’s healthy, the Rockets don’t take rest days, and Harden wants the MVP. That’s the biggest reason to back him: Above all others, it means the most to Harden.

2. LeBron James (+175): LeBron is no longer on pace for career-best figures. He’s shooting his third-best career mark from the field and second-best from 3, but he is averaging a career-high 9.0 assists per game.

James’ performance compared to his career standards shouldn’t be relevant in an MVP race; his performance against other players’ season performances should be the standard. But that’s not how it works. One of the strongest leans toward James last year was the argument that he was having a career year in rebounds and assists. How can the consensus best player on the planet not win MVP in a career year? So his marks slipping below previous seasons matters.

James’ absurd 27-8-9 line and 56-39-78 splits are obviously insane. But bear in mind that as I wrote this week, the Cavs have the 29th-ranked defense, and they are horrible with James on the floor on that end. That doesn’t mean James himself has been a bad defender, but his impact hasn’t improved the squad as a whole. And for a player whose mark is made in his versatility, the Cavs being so significantly worse than his MVP competitors matters.

The argument for: Best overall player. Most value to his specific team; the Cavs would be worse than the other teams without their candidate. A pull to award him his fifth MVP to tie Michael Jordan. No player has averaged 27-8-9 on 39% 3-point shooting in NBA history. A career-best year in assists. If he gets his shooting back up to where it was a month ago, it’s the greatest player of his generation having his best statistical season overall.

The argument against: He’s measured against himself, right or wrong, and that’s a tough bar to meet. The Cavs are not considered a true threat to the Warriors. The Cavs are 29th in defensive rating, and just as bad with James on the floor. Is likely to take more time off for rest than the other contenders.

Voter base: Legacy-first voters who will lean toward awarding that fifth MVP with no idea if he’ll be in position to win another. “Best player overall” voters. Most-value-to-his-team voters.

3. Steph Curry (+1650): Curry’s biggest asset is actually his absence. The Warriors were 9-2 between Dec. 6 and Dec. 29 when he missed time with injury, which is obviously terrific. And they had a 105.9 offensive rating vs. a 98.7 defensive rating for a +7.2 net, which is great

However … with Curry on the season, Golden State has a 120 offensive rating, a 103.7 defensive rating and an insane +16.9 net rating. For the season overall, they are 12.2 points better in net rating with Curry on the court vs. off.

In other words: The best team in the league goes from a great team to an absolutely nightmarish death machine that devours all hope and life when Curry steps on the court.

It’s not that the Warriors are bad without him. It’s that they’re so much better than everyone else with him.

Arguments in favor: Best player on the best team. Most “valuable” in what he does for the Warriors. The best shooter on the planet, still. Fundamentally transforms the way defenses guard Golden State in a way no other player can.

Arguments against: The Warriors are 10-4 this season without him. Are you the most valuable player if your team doesn’t need you to operate at a 58-win pace?

Voter base: Best player on best team advocates. Wins-matter-most supporters. Three-point fetishists. Those that place a premium on scoring rather than versatility.

The angle: Curry’s missed 14 games already and is likely to miss one or two more games with his ankle injury. If he continues to be in and out like this, he’s sunk. He’s already be pushing the limits of what voters will allow for games missed. But this line (+1650) doesn’t reflect the kind of belief many voters have in what Curry means to the best team on the planet. It’s a good opportunity at this point with that return rate.

4. Jimmy Butler (+20000): That’s an absolutely crazy line for a guy averaging 22-5-5 for a team at 27-16, well ahead of what most expected for Minnesota.

If Milwaukee continues to hang around .500, and if Harden misses any other time, and if James decides to coast through January and February, and if Curry gets eliminated by how much time he misses … Butler is going to look really good. The Wolves are on pace for 50-plus wins. Westbrook is the only player since 1985 to win the award with a team below the No. 3 seed. The Wolves, though, actually have a good chance of hitting a top-three seed.

His efficiency and numbers compare favorably with a player like Kyrie Irving, the best player from the East’s best team, and his singular leadership, especially on the defensive end, would go a long way.

Arguments in favor: Two-way player, efficient and ruthless. His impact on the Wolves year over year is pretty evident with the Wolves a lottery team last year and one of the best in the West this season. Could outlast competitors just through availability.

Arguments against: The Wolves won’t be a top team in their conference. His individual metrics don’t jump off the page. He’s been efficient but not otherworldly. The Wolves defense was really bad until recently, which is his calling card.

The angle: This is obviously a long shot, and he likely won’t have staying power. The Wolves are at what may be their apex right now, and their current record includes a lot of 50/50 games that fell their way. They’ll be good, but probably not good enough over the long haul. If Butler himself starts to hit another gear, though, keep an eye out.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (+700): The list of players averaging 28-10-4 is short and full of illustrious players. Giannis continues to be full-on freak. But the addition of Eric Bledsoe has meant that the Greek Freak doesn’t have to freak so hard every single night. The Bucks aren’t a top East team, and Giannis has been supreme, but he’s short on superlatives.

Arguments in favor: Look at that line. Look at it! It’s incredible! He’s one of the most dominant physical presences in the NBA.

Arguments against: Milwaukee is only 2.5 games clear of the ninth spot in the East. They almost certainly will not land in the top three. He still doesn’t have a perimeter shot. He hasn’t been one of the more consistent contenders on this list.

The angle: These odds seem pretty strong for a guy on a team with very little oomph behind their record. If you want to go down the “Curry, Harden and James will all miss too many games” road, then my honorable mention is probably more up your alley.

Honorable mention: Kyrie Irving (+1300): Irving continues to have a lot of juice behind him, and it’s a little maddening. He’s been great in individual scoring while the Celtics have come back to earth a bit. His numbers still look identical to last year when he had less control of the offense. The Celtics’ success has been built on defense and a shared set of contributions, and yet, the narrative behind Irving remains strong.

CLUTCH-DRIVE

The Raptors had one of those “everything goes wrong” games Tuesday against Miami. Already without Kyle Lowry after he hurt his butt — seriously — the Raptors saw Serge Ibaka get ejected after a fight with James Johnson  (which earned Ibaka a one-game suspension), then suffered a last-second loss on a Wayne Ellington layup. Ellington’s score was the product of a critical mistake by Pascal Siakam. Siakam, of course, was only in the game because of Ibaka’s ejection. He took a bad angle on closing out on a great shooter, surrendering the baseline.

But the reason help defense wasn’t there down low is because of where the NBA has gone so dramatically toward the perimeter. Check out how open Kelly Olynyk is under the rim. If Ellington doesn’t drive, he can just bounce pass to Olynyk for the win. All of the Raptors’ defenders are more concerned about shooters popping to the perimeter. Siakam’s overplay was the product of that gravitational threat.

It was just a bad defensive possession, the result of a series of terrible decisions. But it was also an indicator of what teams now fear — and a great example of Erik Spoelstra using that element against a team. He got two guys open under the rim.

THE CONVERSATION:  LAKERS STRESS

The Lakers are a hot mess right now. The loudmouth, self-aggrandizing father of their franchise icon without a jumpshot has gotten the entire coaching universe in a huff at ESPN (but not the father himself, for some reason) for an article where LaVar Ball criticized Luke Walton. Los Angeles looks checked out, and the constant refrain around the Lakers is that the players know they’re not a part of the long-term future, so they haven’t bought into the present.

Walton himself isn’t immune to criticism. His philosophies seem correct: Push the tempo, open the floor — all the things that made the Warriors the Warriors. But his ability to translate that to the players has been subpar.

All of this creates a dilemma. There was a surge behind the Lakers over the summer when Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over, a sense that the Lakers were “back.” They were expected to be not terrible in some circles. Spoiler alert: They are. Over the last month, they’ve ranked 25th in offense and 27th in defense, and the return of Lonzo Ball hasn’t really helped things.

So… what are their free-agent prospects thinking? Paul George seemed bowled over last week by the experience of playing at Staples. There’s still this sense that LeBron James will be interested, though the odds on James starting the 2018-19 season with a team other than the Lakers are -900.

Do free agents look at this team as it’s currently comprised and feel like it’s a special situation? Brandon Ingram looks good … but not transcendent. Ball looks like a good player … but not a guy who you can win with when he’s still very young.

The counter-argument is that if George, James or other stars decide to go there, it will be for the draw of LA. That hasn’t worked in previous years, but then, the Lakers were even worse shape then. At least now the Lakers can argue, “We can be pretty good,” especially with two stars. But with Ball spitting venom on his son’s coaching staff less than three months into his career and not much in the way of underpinnings, it does make you wonder.

Let me put it this way: If the books opened up odds of the Lakers’ over/under win total for next season at 41.5, you’d have to think the under would be the safe play right now. There’s so much on the line this summer, which is why the next three months are crucial. The Lakers have to show they’re a promising franchise worth risking immediate dropoff in production for the stars they’re targeting. The draw of the city can sweeten the pot, but the Lakers can’t be in the absolute basement in April.

BUYING STOCK IN: BOSTON CELTICS

I have stayed bearish on the Celtics all year, believing that eventually those youngsters wouldn’t defend so well, Jayson Tatum would come back to earth or hit the wall, and/or Al Horford would regress. Nope. It’s time to go ahead and capitulate. After storming back from 22 down in London against the Sixers, Boston is now six full games ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East, 3.5 up on Toronto.

Since their Christmas Day loss to Washington, Boston is 7-0 with a 92.6 defensive rating. 92.6! That Boston is 25th in offensive rating in that span only underscores how good they’ve been on the other end of the court.

Right now, Tatum has to be at least tied with Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year. Kyrie Irving, as stated above, is still very much in the MVP race, even if I think he should be on the outside looking in. And you might as well mail Brad Stevens Coach of the Year right now. It’s a done deal. The Celtics are 27-15-2 against the spread. Their magic number for a playoff spot, on Jan. 11, is just 29.

SELLING STOCK IN: DENVER NUGGETS

It’s time for mild panic in Denver. Not screaming, throw-yourself-through-the-saloon-door hysteria, but nervous-fluffing-of-your-gingham-dress anxiety. I don’t know why I’m rolling with this Western theme, just go with me. In the past two weeks, the Nuggets have:

  • Lost to Philadelphia, at home, with Embiid out. It was only the second win of the season for Philly without Embiid. They were 1-7 before that game.
  • Lost to the Kings by eight.
  • Lost in predictable fashion to the Warriors despite a predictably great effort that predictably came up short.
  • Lost Wednesday to the woeful Atlanta Hawks, who were at the end of a west coast road trip in a game Denver was favored by 9.5.

Nikola Jokic continues to be unable to assert himself in consecutive games. He has games where he dishes and finds guys open. He has games where he pops off in scoring. But he isn’t effective in consecutive games, and this team needs its best player to be there consistently. It doesn’t matter if the Nuggets are starting Mason Plumlee next to him or that Paul Millsap is still out until All-Star break. Jokic’s overall “pretty-good-not-great” season is imperiling their playoff chances.

Michael Malone dragged his squad on Wednesday night, telling them in the locker room they were “full of s—” if they believed they were a playoff team right now. Denver just isn’t good enough to believe it can win on talent alone. They have a home-heavy January schedule against bad teams, just like the ones they’ve been losing to, intermixed with tough road games against teams like the Spurs. If they don’t get it together, they may find themselves in a hole they can’t dig out of.

GIVE THE MAN SOME CREDIT: “THE FINNISHER” LAURI MARKKANEN

Lauri Markkannen out-dueled Kristaps Porzingis in double overtime Wednesday, another stellar performance with 33 points on 10-of-22 shooting and 10 boards.

While we’ve all been looking at KP as the “Next Dirk,” keep this in mind. Markkanen, as a rookie, has a 53% effective field-goal percentage when coming off screens, per Synergy. The Bulls use some cool stuff to free him, too, like their firebug guards faking dives coming off Markkanen screens to then screen his own man:

Markkanen’s a pretty savvy rookie, too. Here he recognizes the space he has, but also knows that the defender can close. So he calls for the screen from the guard, then pops up just as the ball-handler heads to the middle. Ker-splash.

Markkanen won’t win Rookie of the Year, but a franchise that seemed so lost this summer has a real gem in the Finnisher. Did I mention Zach LaVine is going to be back in the next week?

THE RUNDOWN

Stuff I’ve been reading/listening to this week…

Chris Herring’s feature on Jusuf Nurkic and why he keeps getting hit in the face is fun and interesting. It should be noted that players around the league have commented consistently at their frustration with Nurkic’s on-court antics. The dude inspires a lot of angst from his peers.

Was great to talk with my old podcasting partner Zach Harper on Spread the Floor this week. We talked the Wolves, the Pelicans and John McClane’s political alignment.

I mentioned earlier my feature on the Cavs’ woeful defense. Evan Abrams did a great job breaking down the Cavs’ ATS disaster this season and why that may change. They almost have to regress back to the mean… right?

I’ve got the under on Pink, which coincidentally, is the title of my favorite fake Rolling Stones album.

Somehow, despite being a Chiefs fan, I still want to watch football this weekend and not sit in a dark room crying and listening to The Cure. Why the Jags could contain Big Ben.

I wrote on Otto Porter and why his small-ball capability at power forward really enables a Markieff Morris trade.

Jamal Murray is a big fan of Steph Curry, who praised the kid this week.

“And you get a cabinet seat! and you get a cabinet seat! And you get a cabinet seat!”

The power went out at CES. Heh.

This Rolling Stone article on the coming extinction of trucker jobs flew under the radar, and it’s a huge deal. It’s a great example of how tech innovation is, in some ways, inevitable, and how the key is figuring out transitions rather than trying to stave off the death rattle of certain employment sectors.

Photo via Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports