NBA preseason primer: MVP candidates


NBA preseason primer: MVP candidates

Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players have the best chance to earn MVP honors for the upcoming season.

Mark Strotman: I feel as though I was in the minority last year - the voting said so - but James Harden was my choice for MVP. His numbers were certainly worthy (27.4/5.7/7.0) and he was magnificent holding down the fort for the Rockets when Dwight Howard missed half the year. It seemingly went unnoticed by many, but Houston was the No. 2 seed in the West. Yes, a full 11 games behind Stephen Curry and the Warriors, but impressive nonetheless when considering the nightly task Harden was given. All the while Curry had the rest of his star-studded cast with him every time out (Thompson, Green and Barnes missed a combined eight games).

But I understand Curry getting the nod. Because there's always got to be a storyline with MVPs. After voter fatigue set in on LeBron James, Kevin Durant's historic shooting season vaulted him to the trophy. Then it was Curry, whose Dubs won 67 games with first-year head coach Steve Kerr on their way to a championship. A narrative works, and I actually agree with that being the case.

It's why I'm pegging Anthony Davis as my MVP favorite this season. After he willed the Pelicans to a playoff spot in the final week of the season over the Oklahoma City Westbrooks, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that he's going to make that jump toward super-stardom this season, where it's not a question that he's a top-5 player in the league. He's got one more tier to climb, and he's going to reach it this season. The Pelicans bring everyone back and bring in head coach Alvin Gentry, who should only help in Davis' offensive progression. If the Unibrow can have New Orleans sniff even a top-4 or 5 finish in the West, it'll be his trophy to lose.

Vincent Goodwill: Man, Anthony Davis is downright scary. In the last 20 years, there’s two No. 1 picks who can be placed before Davis. Tim Duncan (1997) and LeBron James (2003). That’s the list. Not Allen Iverson. Not Derrick Rose. Not Dwight Howard or even Andrew Wiggins, a future superstar in his own right. Nobody should be surprised a player with a Player Efficiency Rating over 30 in Year 3 is on the verge of embarrassing the league. And for the history buffs, Wilt Chamberlain is the only other NBA player to have a PER north of 30 in his first three years.

And despite all that, this year is earmarked as the Kevin Durant revenge tour. Certain years, you can tell before the season begins that a player is on a mission. In 1987, the Lakers turned the team over to Magic Johnson and relegated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a supporting player. MVP. In 1991, Michael Jordan was sick and tired of having the Detroit Pistons sic themselves on him physically and tiring him mentally. MVP. In 2000, Phil Jackson took over the Lakers and challenged Shaquille O’Neal to be better on both ends, get in shape and dedicate himself to the triangle. MVP.

That’s Durant. He already owns the 2013-14 MVP and is nearing free agency, but is coming off an injury-filled season that caused him to miss 55 games. If he’s healthy, small forwards beware. The most dangerous player in the league will be back to reclaim his throne and at 27 (come Media Day), should be back in line for another scoring title, a deep run in the playoffs and a run like we haven’t often seen in the NBA. He and Russell Westbrook will learn a new system with a new coach, and the Thunder could very well be the favorites to make it to June. A 50-40-90 year is possible but what’s more likely is a Durant rampage to make up for lost time. And I’m here for it.

MS: Count me in for a season of Durant reminding everyone who the league's most dominant scorer is. One of my favorite moments from his MVP season was the back-and-forth duel between Durant and LeBron in January; it almost felt like a passing of the torch (Durant had finished second three times to James) for the MVP that season. Durant was just a young pup in 2012 when the two met in the Finals, and I'd love to see another showdown with a matured Westbrook, a hungry Durant and a healthy Cavaliers team. Now, that being said, the game's best player still resides in your favorite town, Cleveland.

There's something to be said for James having a "down year" averaging 25.3/6.0/7.4 and holding a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. I've watched his Game 3 performance against the Warriors a half dozen times this offseason, and come away more impressed each time. All things considered, it was the best Finals performance I've ever witnessed, and that series as a whole gives me the feeling that James is going to be on that same mission to remind people who's top dog this year. I remember reading Brian Windhorst, who wrote that James was secretly annoyed at the lack of attention he was getting for MVP last season. Some of that was justified. All of it will be used as fuel for the upcoming season, much like Durant.

Now he's in Year 2 under David Blatt, Kyrie Irving may miss time with his knee injury (which would only boost James' individual numbers) and, in terms of a storyline, the Cavs have ground to make up from last year's 53-win, second-place finish in the East. If James gets back to his (more) efficient ways, Cleveland runs away with the East like they should and everyone in the West beats up on each other James could be in line for MVP No. 5. Voter fatigue may have worn off after two seasons, and as cliche as it is, James will be determined as ever to bring a championship to Cleveland. If he plays 75+ games it'll be hard not to consider him the league's most valuable player.

VG: Unfortunately, James has entered the Jordan segment of his career where winning a fifth MVP will become dangerously hard because he’ll be judged against his own lofty standards. But there’s precedent. Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 was the worst of his five in terms of every major statistical category.

However, he was robbed of one in 1997 when voters got tired of awarding it to him every year so they closed their eyes and picked Karl Malone out of a hat. Not to mention he had a case in 1993 but Charles Barkley made the move to Phoenix so he was a popular, if not sentimental, selection.

I’m going to say this about LeBron and duck for cover: We’ve seen the best of him athletically, which could mean the best of him individually. Now, that’s not to say he isn’t the best player in the league by a longshot. He is.

But his numbers and efficiency have dropped to its lowest point since his second year, when he was a young and tender 20-year old. I don’t disagree with the premise that he was annoyed with not receiving MVP consideration last year, not dissimilar from his first season in Miami where voters all but eliminated him in July when he left Cleveland to join “Dwyane Wade’s team.”

While it’s understood James may have to do more until Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving get up to speed, he knows his body well enough to know after 35,000 regular-season minutes and 7,500 playoff minutes, he can’t go full throttle for 82 games anymore. Which is what it will require to win this year’s MVP.

How about last year’s top two vote-getters, winner Stephen Curry and runner-up James Harden? Curry still has that chip on his shoulder from being overlooked and let’s be honest, that God-given jumper isn’t going away. Never forget, his stats were deflated because Golden State had so many games tucked away before the end of three quarters. More teams coming for the champs means more competitive games means more opportunities for Steph to be Steph.

The case for Harden? Well, he averaged 27, seven assists and six boards. And he’s just 26. So if he’s truly peeved about not winning it last year, he could come harder this go round.

MS: I think it says a lot about where the NBA is that it took us 1,000+ words in to mention the guy who won it last season as a potential candidate. Curry's historic shooting numbers were a sight to behold, but it's probably too quick to say it's something we'll never see again, because, well....he could do the same this season. Harden is going to get his numbers, but after last season's performance it'll probably take a top seed in the West to get over the hump. Not sure that can happen, but an MVP makes the impossible reality.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend


Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”