Examining the NBA's MVP race


Examining the NBA's MVP race

There's still time left and things could always change as teams make a playoff push, but at this stage of the season, the race for the league's MVP award has been narrowed down to a handful of players. Due to an injury-plagued campaign, Derrick Rose isn't in the mix to repeat - -though Bulls fans can take solace in the squad having the NBA's best record and Rose can always hope for another prestigious award: NBA Finals MVP -- but at this late juncture of the regular season, here's a look at five players who have made a case to take home the league's top individual honor.

Kobe Bryant, Lakers: 28.2 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game

For all of the talk about Bryant getting older, the shooting guard continues to excel and has maintained a stranglehold on the NBA's scoring lead this season. While the Lakers might not be the threat to win a title they've been in the past, don't attribute the drop-off to Bryant, who's been as good as he's ever been. Without former mainstays Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, not to mention a new coach in Mike Brown and Pau Gasol having a down year -- although center Andrew Bynum has raised his game to another level -- Bryant has adjusted and put the team on his back to ensure they're still a force to be reckoned with.

Kevin Durant, Thunder: 27.7 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game

The two-time reigning NBA scoring champion is actually second in that category this season, but that shouldn't take away from his brilliance. Durant has made considerable strides as a shot-creator, ballhandler and defender while leading the Thunder to the West's best record. Much has been made of his chemistry with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook -- speaking of, Westbrook is also having a tremendous individual season -- but Durant is clearly Oklahoma City's go-to scorer in the clutch and the primary reason many believe the Thunder will reach the NBA Finals.

LeBron James, Heat: 26.5 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game, 6.5 assists per game

For all of the criticism James receives in some circles -- including Chicago -- his near-nightly domination can't be ignored. James has developed into a remarkably complete, two-way player and his emerging post-up game has given him yet another element to torment opponents. While his struggles in the clutch and the Heat's bouts with inconsistency give ammunition to those who aren't fans of his style, his individual success shouldn't be downplayed, particularly with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh missing time due to injury.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves: 26.6 points per game, 13.9 rebounds per game

The league's Most Improved Player a year ago made another quantum leap in his game this season, becoming one of the NBA's top scoring threat, as well as being considered the game's top power forward in the minds of many observers. Love was the league's rebounding champion last season -- he currently ranks second to the Magic's Dwight Howard in that category -- but he's expanded his game further, as evidenced by winning the All-Star weekend three-point shootout. With rookie sensation Ricky Rubio out for the season, Love has put the Timberwolves on his back and surprisingly has them in playoff contention for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era in Minnesota.

Chris Paul, Clippers: 19.4 points per game, 8.8 assists per game, 2.4 steals per game

The only member of the quintet not to lead his team in scoring -- though he's not far behind Blake Griffin -- Paul is third in the league in assists and ranks second in steals. His trade to the Clippers, which spawned the infamous "Lob City" moniker has done more than create highlights; Paul has made the perennially-moribund franchise relevant. Arguably the league's best pure playmaker, Paul instantly transformed the Clippers into a Western Conference contender, but with Griffin and other weapons also attracting attention, it's hard to say he stands out more than the other names on this list.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

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Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."