With most NBA teams reaching the midpoint of their schedules this week, it's a good time to check in on how the race for Most Valuable Player is shaping up.
Early on there seemed to be a sentiment to get LeBron James his 5th MVP award, and he still looks to be one of the top contenders. James’ all-around play had lifted the Lakers into contention for a top 4 seed in the West, and when he went out recently because of a groin injury, L.A. immediately lost 5 of its next 6 games.
James' stats this season are almost identical to his career norms. He's averaging 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists compared to 27.2, 7.4 and 7.2 over his career. But the phenomenon known as "voter fatigue" is definitely real when it comes to NBA awards, otherwise Michael Jordan probably would have won 8-10 MVP's instead of 5.
Writers and broadcasters around the league understand that just like Jordan, James is and has been the NBA's best player for more than a decade. But instead of just rubber-stamping the MVP ballot, many media members decide to vote for the player having a career year on one of the league's best teams.
That's led to four different winners in the last five seasons, with Steph Curry earning back-to-back honors in 2015 and 2016. The prevailing belief in NBA media circles is that if LeBron can lift a young Lakers' team that failed to make the playoffs last season to a top four seed in the West, it might be time to vote him in for a 5th MVP award, which would match Jordan's total. Missing games currently because of the groin injury probably won't have any impact on the voting, especially if James leads the Lakers on a big late season run.
With that being said, my top two choices right now would be Milwaukee's do-everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo and last year's winner, James Harden.
Giannis has led the Bucks to the 2nd best record in the East, averaging 26.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6 assists per game. What's even more amazing in this era of 3-point heavy offenses is that Antetokounmpo is doing most of his damage in the paint. He's already racked up 152 dunks at the midway point of the season, and is shooting 78% on shot attempts within 3 feet of the basket. It's probably only fitting he's doing this in Milwaukee, because the percentage of points he's scoring in the paint takes us back to the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook.
Harden is also making a strong case to win the MVP for the second straight season. He just had a streak of scoring 35 or more points snapped at 10 games when he "settled" for 32 in the Rockets' win over Denver Monday night. Harden has been doing most of this damage with backcourt running mate Chris Paul sidelined because of a hamstring injury, meaning defenses are focused even more on trying to limit his touches.
What makes this season even more impressive for Harden is how he's led the Rockets back into playoff position after a poor start. Houston has won 12 of its last 14 games to take over 1st place in the Southwest Division. They're currently tied for 4th place in the West at 23-16. Harden leads the NBA scoring race by a whopping 4 points per game and he's also 4th in assists with 8.7. With Paul injured, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute gone, and the Carmelo Anthony experiment a complete failure, it's scary to think where the Rockets might be right now without Harden's brilliant play.
MVP cases could be made for Kawhi Leonard with the East leading Raptors, Curry's irreplaceable contributions for Golden State and the two best big men in the game, New Orleans' Anthony Davis and Philly's Joel Embiid, but if I had to vote for the mid-season MVP, I would go with Giannis by an eyelash over Harden.
The great thing is we still have half a season left to decide with one of these amazing players will put together the best resume for the award.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
It was only a matter of time before Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor would decide to remove Tom Thibodeau as head coach and President of Basketball operations. The dual role of coach/GM has become too big in today's NBA, and we know Thibodeau would always value the game to game priorities of coaching over the long term planning responsibility which comes as front office boss.
Even though the Timberwolves had a winning record since the Jimmy Butler trade with Philadelphia that brought back a pair of good rotation players in Robert Covington and Dario Saric, Taylor was concerned about fan apathy that had attendance near the bottom of the league. After committing max contracts to young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Taylor is hoping interim coach Ryan Saunders, son of former Timberwolves’ coach and executive Flip Saunders can bring a more player-friendly approach to practices and games and hopefully lead the team to a 2nd straight playoff appearance.
If the 32-year old Saunders fails in his half-season audition, there's always the chance Taylor will turn to former Bulls' coach and Timberwolves’ player and executive Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg told ESPN this week he prefers to return to coaching at the NBA or college level instead of going back to a front office role. NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh reports Taylor has always held Hoiberg in high regard and would definitely consider him for a prominent role with the franchise in the future.
So, could Hoiberg succeed Thibodeau as head coach for a 2nd time? It will definitely be a storyline to watch this summer, unless of course Hoiberg decides to accept the UCLA head coaching job or some other college vacancy this spring.
Seems like everywhere Butler goes in his NBA career, drama is sure to follow. 76ers coach Brett Brown tried to downplay reports of Butler aggressively questioning his role in the offense during a team film session, but it's clear that Butler prefers to run a pick and roll, isolation heavy style that doesn't fit with what the Sixers had been doing.
The future in Philly is all about the partnership of Embiid and Ben Simmons, but new general manager Elton Brand (former Bulls' Rookie of the Year) was hoping acquiring Butler ahead of his upcoming free agency would give the Sixers a chance to get the Finals. While that still might happen, you have to wonder whether Brand would be comfortable offering Butler a 5 year max contract that would pay him over 40 million dollars a season into his mid-30's.
With a number of teams possessing enough cap space to offer max deals this summer it's possible Butler will find the team and the contract he's been looking for since emerging as a top 20 player. But given Jimmy's "scorched earth" approach to team building, he and his agent might not find as many options as they were expecting.
Finally, for Bulls’ fans hoping Charlotte All-Star point guard Kemba Walker might be available in free agency this summer, he indicated for the first time he might be open to exploring the market.
Appearing on ESPN's "The Jump," Walker said he's met with Hornets' general manager Mitch Kupchak and team owner Michael Jordan to discuss roster upgrades for a team that's currently 9th in the East with a 19-20 record. "They know. They know what they got to do. That's not my job. I'll leave it up to those guys."
Previously, Walker had consistently professed his loyalty to the organization for sticking with him through some growing pains early in his career, but Tuesday's comments indicate he won't commit long term with the Hornets if they're not committed to building a contending team.
The 2-time All-Star is enjoying his best NBA season yet, averaging 25.4 points, including a league-best 8.6 points in the 4th quarter. If Walker is willing to give up the extra money that would come with re-signing in Charlotte, he'll have teams lining up with max contract offers this summer.