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.

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’


Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

Healthy in October for the first time in three seasons, Zach LaVine entered training camp as the $78 million man looking to justify one of the summer’s largest deals that many criticized.

And just a few days into camp, the spotlight homed in on him further when the Bulls lost Lauri Markkanen to an elbow injury.

LaVine responded to both challenges, putting together a preseason performance that not even the most optimistic expectations could have included.

In just 22.3 minutes he averaged 17.8 points on 52 percent shooting, made 44 percent of his triples and got to the free throw line a team best 4.8 times per game. In short, he looked much more like the potential franchise-building piece the Bulls believed they were acquiring 19 months ago.

“I’m my hardest critic, so there’s nothing on the outside that I haven’t told myself of where I want to be at. You want to tell the doubters on the outside I told you so, but it’s mostly coming from a place where I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for.’’

The fifth-year shooting guard was fluid, attacked in a variety of ways and looked like part of the offense, something that at times was non-existent during last year’s injury-riddled comeback season. Taking shots in rhythm, attacking the rim instead of settling for contested jumpers, running the floor. LaVine looked a lot like the player who shot 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep before the ACL injury in 2017.

“I think I found a good rhythm and then just keep that going into the regular season. I think last year still, I was trying to catch my rhythm with the games I played,” LaVine said Monday at the Advocate Center. “I’d play two good games and two bad games. I felt like that up and down was a little bit with the consistency of not playing. Now that I’m back fully I think that’s where I should be.”

The offensive uptick is a sight for sore eyes, especially with Markkanen on the mend. But where LaVine can quiet his harshest critics – including himself – is on the defensive end.

It’s just a five-game sample size, but LaVine’s individual defensive rating of 97.3 was better than the team’s overall 100.2 rating. A year ago, LaVine’s defensive rating was 113.9, the worst on the team, and worse than the team’s overall 110.4 mark. They’re baby steps, but steps nonetheless for a player who knows what the book says about him on that end of the floor.

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” he said. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

The preseason is one hurdle cleared, but they get much taller and difficult to get over when Thursday and the Philadelphia 76ers come around. No matter who starts in the frontcourt – Fred Hoiberg isn’t ready to announce Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. yet – or if the Bulls get good Jabari Parker instead of preseason Jabari Parker, all eyes will be on LaVine.

It’s the contract. It’s being the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butle trade. It’s how well he played before the injury and how dominant he looked in the preseason. He’s off to a good start and knows now is this time to build on it.

“There are a lot of things you want to reach and get better at every year, and I put a lot of work into this offseason,” he said. “I have a lot of things to prove and want to get better at, and yeah, I feel like it’s just motivation for yourself when you want to accomplish things.’’

Bulls sign local product Tyler Ulis to two-way deal

Bulls sign local product Tyler Ulis to two-way deal

The NBA preseason has finished and teams are finalizing their rosters before the beginning of the regular season.

For the Bulls, that meant claiming Tyler Ulis off waivers and signing him to a two-way contract.

The Athletic's Shams Charania first reported the move.

Ulis, a product of Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, was waived by the Warriors on Friday. He spent two years at Kentucky before getting drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns in 2016.

In two years with the Suns, Ulis made 58 starts and played in 132 games. He averaged just over 7 points per game in both seasons. Last season, Ulis also averaged 4.4 assists per game against 1.8 turnovers in 23.4 minutes per game.

The Suns waived Ulis after the season and the Warriors signed him for the preseason. He averaged 3 points and 1.5 assists per game in four preseason games with the Warriors.

The two-way contract means Ulis could be spending more time with the Windy City Bulls than at the United Center on game days, but backup point guard is a question mark for the Bulls. Cam Payne looks like he will get first crack at the role behind Kris Dunn with Denzel Valentine injured. Ryan Arcidiacono just made the team and could also figure into point guard minutes.