BOSTON -- The MVP race is just starting to heat up with no shortage of candidates.
There are the usual suspects in the mix this season as well as a few unfamiliar faces like Boston’s Kemba Walker according to NBA.com’s Sekou Smith (SPOILER ALERT: He’s got Kemba pretty damn high on his list. Check out the link and see why).
Still, this season's race has a strong international flavor at the top, headlined by the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks with Dallas’ Luka Doncic right on his heels.
Not only does Antetokounmpo have the Bucks rolling atop the Eastern Conference standings at a league-best record 19-3, but the Greek sensation is putting up numbers that are even better than they were a year ago when he won the award.
Antetokounmpo is looking to be the first repeat winner of the award since Golden State’s Stephen Curry (2015 and 2016) and so far, he’s making it damn difficult for all comers.
He joined Dirk Nowitzki (2007) as the only international player to win the league MVP award with no prior college basketball experience in the United States.
And just like Antetokounmpo has taken the league by storm in recent years, Doncic is doing much of the same now as he tries to build off last season’s Rookie of the Year campaign.
But this season, the 20-year-old has taken his game to another level.
The reigning Western Conference player of the month, Doncic is averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists - numbers that no player this young has averaged in a single season.
Those include seven triple-doubles, which equals the NBA record for triple-doubles in a season for a player this young.
When you look at the numbers and that the Mavericks (11-6) are among the better teams in the West, Doncic’s MVP candidacy is real.
“The MVP race so far kind of reflects how the league as a whole is looking this year,” a league executive told NBC Sports Boston. “It just feels a lot more wide open now than it has in past years. But those two guys, Giannis and Luka, are special talents. I suspect we’ll be talking about them and the MVP race for years to come. Their both really young, really good players who are great for the league and for their respective teams.”
LET’S TRY THIS REPLAY CHALLENGE ONE MORE TIME
The NBA has been abuzz with talk of officiating after the Houston Rockets protested a call at San Antonio that was incorrect and in hindsight, was critical in their overtime loss to the Spurs. Well, Houston was involved in yet another questionable late-game call they did not agree with. It came in Toronto on Thursday.
Different game, different outcome.
The Rockets, challenging a foul called against Austin Rivers with 1:14 to play that would have put the Raptors' Fred VanVleet at the free-throw line with three shots to potentially make it a one-possession game, had the call on the floor overturned.
And moments after gaining possession after winning the challenge, Russell Westbrook scored to seal Houston’s 119-109 victory.
OLYNYK'S IMPACT ON TWO FRANCHISES REMEMBERED
Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk returned to Boston this week, the place where his watershed moment in the NBA occurred.
Even though it has been a couple of years since he played for the Celtics, folks still recall how he carried them to a Game 7 win over Washington in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals with 26 points in 28 minutes.
Not only did it set him up for a big payday (four years, $50 million) that summer, but it also sent two franchises in completely different directions. Boston has been a mainstay among the top teams in the East since then, while the Wizards have steadily descended into becoming a basketball afterthought.
“That summer, everything got shaken up,” Olynyk told NBC Sports Boston. “Washington had some injury troubles and stuff, and for us, we all got shook up that summer; basically our whole team was gone. We had a great group of guys that year. We loved playing with each other and playing for one another. Coach [Brad] Stevens did a real good job; we just gelled. It was a fun team to be a part of.”
KNICKS' ISSUE IS TALENT, NOT COACHING
This has been a rough season for David Fizdale and the New York Knicks, currently owning an eight-game losing streak following a 129-92 beatdown at home to the Denver Nuggets. The Knicks have lost their last two games by a combined 81 points which serves as one of the largest two-game margins of defeat in NBA history.
We have seen this story play out time and time again, often ending with the coach being fired which is exactly what happened on Friday, according to multiple reports.
But what’s often lost in the Knicks struggles, is the fact that they are using players who are talent-wise, far below those that they were vigorously pursuing.
Remember they cleared all that salary cap space with the intent being to land one or two of the bigger-name free agents out there, only to strike out with all of them.
Rather than having some combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, they have Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris Sr. who are all good players but … they ain’t Irving, Durant or Leonard.
And that lack of elite, next-level talent more than anything else, is why the Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA and won't be that much better now that Fizdale has been fired.
MELO'S DEAL FULLY GUARANTEED
Based on how Carmelo Anthony has played and his impact on what matters most to teams - winning - word about Melo’s contract being fully guaranteed by the Portland Trail Blazers was no surprise.
Signed to a partially guaranteed deal on Nov. 14, Melo has been instrumental in the Blazers’ rebirth from a team looking lottery-bound to one that looks a lot more like the crew that’s hoping to get back to the Western Conference finals.
After losing the first three games with Melo, Portland has won four of its past five and are just 1.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth spot in the West.
He’s showing that while he may not be as explosive a scorer as he once was, he can still get buckets and help a Portland team in desperate need of more offensive punch.
LEBRON ON THE "PRETTY BAD" TRAVELING CALL
It’s not the norm for NBA players to snitch on themselves when the referees miss a call against them. But LeBron James really didn’t have a choice when asked about the blatantly obvious travel at Utah that the entire world saw and has become yet another James-inspired, meme-worthy moment. “It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James told reporters afterward before adding, “I feel bad for the refs on that one because they’ll probably get a write-up on that or something. That was pretty bad.”
- We’ll finally get to see the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo face the NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard Friday night when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Los Angeles Clippers. The two were supposed to face off earlier this season, but the Clippers elected to give Leonard the night off for “load management” purposes. The NBA later fined the Clippers $50,000 because of comments made by coach Doc Rivers that according to the league, “were inconsistent with Leonard’s health status.”
- The Brooklyn Nets are better talent-wise with Kyrie Irving, but in terms of wins? With him this season, they are 4-7. In the games he has missed, they are 7-3.
- Former Celtic guard Shane Larkin continues to assert himself as the best overseas talent not currently in the NBA, recently setting a Euroleague record with 49 points (in just 31 minutes) in Anadolu Efes Istanbul’s 103-75 win over FC Bayern Munich. Look for him on an NBA roster next season.
- Most Improved candidates to keep an eye on include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram; the Celtics' Jaylen Brown; Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins; Charlotte’s Devonte Graham and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.