In today’s social media-driven NBA, MVP candidates don’t just need the numbers, they need an accompanying narrative to take home the MVP award. Just ask James Harden.
Three seasons ago, Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP vote despite averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and leading the Rockets to 55 regular-season wins. Westbrook edged Harden because he had the best narrative: Westbrook was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson and the superstar who stayed in OKC even after Harden and Kevin Durant had left.
The next season, however, Harden beat LeBron James for the award, despite having inferior statistics, because he had the better narrative: It’s about time we recognize Harden’s greatness and reward him because he probably should have won last season.
Last season, Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo because people had crowned Giannis as the best two-way force in the league and the next face of the NBA. As Harden so aptly put it in a GQ interview, “[I had] a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games… and all the talk was about [Giannis]? There’s no way. You can’t pout or be mad, and the kid had an unbelievable season, so did his team. But the things I was putting up were legendary. You going to look back in 10, 15 years from now and be like, is that really true? Did that really happen?”
Narratives matter in the MVP race. So, as a primer for this season’s MVP race, here are the top-10 MVP contenders and their accompanying narrative (in italics) entering the season (in alphabetical order):
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Based on the past two seasons, it’s clear Giannis is on a LeBron James-Kevin Durant kind of career trajectory. That being the case, we should expect Antetokounmpo to ascend even higher in this, his seventh season, in the middle of his athletic prime. Giannis’ MVP narrative will be one of dominance, a season where he erases any doubt as to whether he’s the best player in the world. Look for him to improve his game in some obvious way this season -– the most obvious hole in his game is his jump shot (26 percent from three-point land last season) -– but he could also double-down on his already one-of-a-kind post game or become a better playmaker.
Steph Curry, Warriors
Steph has a chance to remind everyone that he’s still the toughest player to game plan for in the league … and maybe ever. He’s back to being the unquestioned best player on his team and the player who won back-to-back MVP awards before taking a step back to make way for Kevin Durant.
After having the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA during his record-setting 2015-16 MVP season, Curry finished the next three Durant seasons at 11th, 10th and 13th. With no Durant and no Klay Thompson for most of this season, Curry’s usage rate should easily jump back into the top-five again. Thus, his stats will almost certainly mirror his stats from that 2015-16 MVP season, when he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds and made an NBA-record 402 three-pointers. If the Warriors are near the top of the West, and Curry leads the league in scoring and flirts with breaking his own three-point record, he’ll be right in the mix for MVP.
Like Shaquille O’Neal before him, AD is hitting his prime and poised for a Hall of Fame leap as the two-way centerpiece and next great big man for the Los Angeles Lakers .
If he plays anything like he did during the second half of the 2017-18 season, when he averaged 31 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.1 steals over the last 27 games of the season, he’ll probably be a frontrunner for his first MVP award. And if he is playing like that, you can bet your bottom dollar that LeBron and Klutch Sports start campaigning for AD to take home the MVP award. In fact, you don’t even have to read between the lines from the Lakers’ media day to see that James is already doing that.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Embiid’s narrative began shortly after Kawhi Leonard’s fourth bounce fell through the basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The world saw Embiid crying as he left the court, exhausted from a grueling seven-game series. If Embiid plays his way into the MVP conversation, it will mean he spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, vowing that he’d never lose another playoff series due to fatigue. He’ll have realized that few people on this Earth have been blessed with his size and athletic prowess, and he decided it’d be a travesty if he didn’t maximize those God-given gifts. It’s time to do what Shaq and Wilt and all the other historic NBA centers did before him: dominate.
With Jimmy Butler taking his talents to South Beach, Embiid will have ample opportunities to show off his newfound conditioning as the closer for the Sixers.
James Harden, Rockets
The Beard knows first-hand how a narrative can swing an MVP vote. He believes he got robbed of the award last season. He has a point. And that means that Harden’s narrative this season will be one of revenge against the voters who wronged him out of capping off a historic season with no MVP trophy. Revenge against the people who think he isn’t the best player in the league. Revenge against the people who don’t think he can lead the Rockets to a title.
An MVP season for Harden might not include the same massive scoring as last season (36.1 points per game) now that his high-usage buddy Russell Westbrook is in H-Town. But if his isolations and pick-and-rolls remain two of the most highly efficient plays in basketball and his assist numbers go back to what they were in previous seasons (10.0 per game from 2016-17 to 2017-18), Harden will have another crack at MVP.
LeBron James, Lakers
This is the most obvious narrative: LeBron’s “Forgot About Dre” season. LeBron is coming off of a miserable first season with the Lakers in which he suffered his first major injury and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. However, missing the playoffs means that he finally got an extended rest after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals.
He’s also undoubtedly been listening to the media mock his team the past 12 months and declare that he’s no longer the Best Player on the Planet. It’s all set up perfectly for LeBron to come out and have a G.O.A.T. kind of season to remind the basketball world that he’s still the King.
An MVP season for LeBron won’t be his typical 27-7-7 season –- voters are too bored of that. Instead, look for him to average double-digit assists now that the Lakers have Davis, but a dearth at point guard.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
The Joker’s narrative is mostly tied to his team’s success. If the Nuggets, who should have some of the best chemistry in the league, are the best team in the Western Conference and flirt with winning 60 games, Jokic will get plenty of MVP votes and his narrative will sound something like this: Jokic is doing it all alone as the lone superstar in a conference loaded with superstar tandems. He flashed his true potential as a franchise centerpiece in last season’s playoffs, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. That performance has carried over into the 2019-20 season as he has Denver at the top of the league earlier than anyone would have imagined.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
After last season’s playoff run and subsequent free-agency power flex, Kawhi is the Alpha Dog of the NBA, and he isn’t ready to relinquish that title just yet. In fact, as a little more of Kawhi’s personality has come to the forefront, it has become apparent that he relishes destroying opponents the same way MJ and Kobe did, albeit in a less expressive way.
With Paul George out at the beginning of the season, the Clippers will need Playoff-Kawhi (30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds on 49-38-88 shooting splits) to keep them near the top of the Western Conference until George returns, which should force Kawhi to get rolling a lot earlier than last season’s load-managed season.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard’s MVP narrative is similar to Jokic’s in that it’ll be tied to the Blazers’ record this season. Most analysts seem to think that the Blazers will finish closer to .500 than the 53 wins the team had a season ago. Thus, if Lillard leads Portland to another top-three finish in the West, and with his typical Curry-lite numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds with 44-37-91 shooting splits last season), and none of the other candidates on this list are having other-worldly seasons, Lillard could start to garner some late season MVP buzz.
He’s the best leader in the league, the superstar who chose to stay when most would have demanded a trade –- he’s as important to his team as any player in the NBA. Isn’t that everything you can ask for from an MVP candidate?
Written by Adrian Wojnarowski and Boddy Marks at ESPN.com
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid’s five-year, $146.5 million maximum extension is essentially guaranteed but protects the franchise financially should Embiid suffer a contractually specific catastrophic injury, league sources told ESPN.
Embiid, 23, signed the rookie-scale max extension Tuesday, with the $146.5 million total for the deal based on the NBA’s new salary-cap projections for the 2018-19 season.
For the Sixers to curb the ultimate value of the extension, it would take the triggering of several severe circumstances detailed in a 35-page-plus contract. Embiid’s unique career trajectory — missing his first two NBA seasons with successive foot surgeries and playing only 31 games in the 2016-17 season — created a pathway for Philadelphia general manager Bryan Colangelo; Embiid’s agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports; and the National Basketball Players Association to work together on creating a complicated and creative contractual agreement. The dramatic impact of Embiid’s brief but dominant debut season left him as the only rookie since Wilt Chamberlain to average at least 28.7 points per 36 minutes played.
Here’s how a perfect storm of calamity would have to unfold for Embiid to earn any less than the full $146.5 million: Across each of the final four seasons of the extension, ending with the 2022-23 season, the 76ers could waive Embiid for a financial benefit if he’s lost because of a contractually agreed-upon injury that causes him to miss 25 or more regular-season games and if he plays fewer than 1,650 minutes, league sources said.
Specific injuries are laid out in the contract and include only past problem areas with Embiid’s feet and back, sources said. Embiid has to miss 25 or more regular-season games because of injuries to those areas, and play fewer than 1,650 minutes, for Philadelphia to have the option of releasing him for cost savings.
AS THE PROCESSORS basked in the afterglow of six wins in eight games (two against possible playoff teams), Daily News staffers Bob Cooney and Marcus Hayes sat down for a point-counterpoint on the club. They avoided directly addressing the situations of cornerstone players Joel “The Process” Embiid and tantalizing Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. No worry: There were other relevant questions. All aboard, everybody . . .
Brett Brown is an improving coach, and needed to improve.
BC: The thought that Brett Brown is improving as a coach goes directly to his team improving its talent. Joel Embiid is better – by far – than anyone thought he would or could have been at this point of his career. Hell, he’s better than many thought he might ever be. In Embiid, Brown now has a centerpiece to build around, go to at the end of games and thwart opponents’ forays into the lane that used to result in an endless layup line on most nights. In Ersan Ilyasova, the coach has a player who is best paired with Embiid, who can stretch the floor, who can make big three-pointers, who knows what it takes to win an NBA game.
Go down the list on the roster and it’s just so much better – either by improvement or experience – than at any time in Brown’s tenure. I’ve seen him in all kinds of basketball settings: games, practices, coaching clinics, one-on-one with players. I’ve talked basketball endlessly with him and rarely have I walked away not learning something about the game, whether it be situational or otherwise. We all know that disciples of great coaches – Brown being one of Gregg Popovich’s – don’t always pan out as head coaches. But there is something to be said for a guy who was around five Finals teams. I’ve always said we had to wait and see with Brown’s coaching, until he had real NBA talent. He’s getting it now and showing he knows what to do with it.
MH: To say Brown got better implies that he was not competent, much less good. It ignores both his accomplishments as an international head coach and the fact that he has had neither a competent starting point guard and, until recently, no palatable veteran players. Not only does it assume that Brown had room for growth, it assumes that he had the tools he needed for success. No, he didn’t get any better. He always was very good. Brown is a man who suffers fools with patience, but he bristles when asked whether the team’s recent success results from changes in method:
“No,” he said. “We really haven’t done anything differently. We’ve just stayed the course.”
That means he has molded serviceable point guards; that he uses Ilyasova, the team’s most polished player, to perfectly complement his star, Embiid; and that Embiid, breathtakingly talented but still painfully raw, has, as part of a process, become more efficient in the final minutes of games. Brown’s coaching always has been outstanding. His players have not.
The defending champion Cavaliers are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and on Sunday a star player not named LeBron took over.
Kyrie Irving scored 19 points in a pivotal fourth quarter to propel the Cavs to a 112-108 comeback win. He finished with a season-high 39 points.
How it happened
The Sixers jumped out to an early 10-point lead, as the Cavs began 0 for 14 from the floor. James scored Cleveland’s first field goal with 5:10 into the game.
The Sixers stretched their lead to 14 midway through the second quarter. The Cavs ended the quarter on a 9-2 run to cut the difference to six points at halftime.
In the third quarter, where they have struggled, the Sixers maintained a four-point lead even after the Cavs cut it to two.
The final 12 minutes, however, was ruled by the Cavs. Even though the Sixers got within five points with a minute to go, they had fallen too far behind. The Cavs outscored the Sixers, 35-27, in the fourth.
Inside the box score
James may not have been the leading scorer, but he put together a 26-point, 10-rebound, 13 assist triple-double (third of the season). He committed five turnovers.
Joel Embiid scored 22 points (8 for 18 from the field, 3 for 4 from three), nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three turnovers in 1:11 over his 24-minute restriction.
Jahlil Okafor had one of his better games off the bench this season with 14 points (7 for 11 from the floor) and a season-high nine rebounds in 23 minutes.
Kevin Love recorded a 25-point, 11-rebound double-double. He went 9 for 9 from the line.
JR Smith (0 for 11 from the field, 0 for 7 from three) was scoreless in over 38 minutes.
The Sixers shot 15 for 34 from three while the Cavs went 12 for 40.
Jerryd Bayless was out with left wrist soreness and Sergio Rodriguez got the start. Bayless had felt the discomfort during Friday’s game. He had missed the first 13 games of the season with the injury, which he suffered during training camp. … Iman Shumpert was out for the Cavs because of a left hamstring strain.
Joel Embiid had yet to play in an NBA game when he said during training camp he thought he could be clutch. The proclamation was based on an internal feeling without any stats to back it up.
Embiid started this season with an empty slate on which to build those moments. In his sixth NBA game, he put the Sixers on his back in overtime for their first victory.
“I thought Jo brought us home with some individual sort of brute strength and post play at the end,” Brett Brown said following the Sixers’ 109-105 win over the Pacers on Friday night.“We saw the best of Joel Embiid when it mattered most.”
Embiid struggled in the first three quarters. He had scored nine points (2 for 7 from the field) with three rebounds in 16½ minutes through the third. The fourth was a different story. Embiid turned up his game, scoring 11 points (3 for 8 from the field, 4 for 5 from the line) in just over seven minutes. His three-point shot reclaimed the Sixers’ lead with four minutes left in regulation. Embiid said he has been following top players who raise their games in the fourth quarter.
“Making plays in the clutch is a learning process for me, and you’ve got to trust it,” he said.
The Sixers have a 24-minute restriction on Embiid. He had clocked 23:48 through four quarters and thought he was done for the night when the game went into overtime. Embiid joked he was “kind of yelling at them to let me play and crying a little bit,” telling his coaches he wanted to play when it counted the most.
Brown went to Embiid with 1:57 remaining in overtime. He scored five points, including a perfect 3 for 3 from the line, and grabbed two rebounds during that time. His free throws with seconds left secured the Sixers’ win.
Kevin Pelton: Chad, we talked briefly about Joel Embiid in our recent Rookie of the Year discussion, with both of us declaring him the favorite for the award. But Embiid’s fascinating — and long-awaited — NBA debut deserves more discussion than that, with an eye toward his long-term potential rather than what he’ll continue to do the remainder of this season.
Let’s start with a comparison to the last time we saw Embiid in game action, way back in March 2014, before a back injury ended his lone season at Kansas. You were keeping a close eye on the Jayhawks, who had both Embiid and eventual No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins on the roster. How similar is what you’re seeing from him now, and how has he changed over the last two and a half years?
Chad Ford: Well, before he hurt his back (ending his freshman season at Kansas prematurely) and then breaking his navicular bone in his foot during a workout with the Cavs, Embiid was the No. 1 prospect on our Big Board and was drawing comparisons from scouts to a young Hakeem Olajuwon.
He had elite size, was a fluid athlete, could score in the paint and on the perimeter and was an excellent shot blocker and rebounder. Turnovers, a tendency toward foul trouble and a lack of experience and strength were the only real concerns beyond the injuries.
So what are we seeing this season? Everything we loved about Embiid before the draft. In fact, in most ways he looks seriously improved in his strengths despite having not played basketball for two years.
He’s now much, much stronger. He’s on a playing-time restriction, but he is scoring more than 30 points and grabbing 10 rebounds per 36 minutes of action. He’s shooting the ball comfortably from NBA 3-point range (in fact, he leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage at this early stage). He’s second in the league in blocked shots per game.
So really only his lack of experience, which translates into a high turnover rate, questionable shot selection and excessive fouling, is holding him back.
Now that he’s finally back, this really seems like a best-case scenario for the Sixers. He’s exactly what they’d hope he could be.
Do the numbers tell the same story, compared to what we saw at Kansas in that limited sample size?
The Philadelphia 76ers won’t play on Christmas this year because, well, why would they?
The team is still stuck deep within The Process, losers of five straight to begin the season after winning just 47 combined games in the three previous seasons while gathering the sort assets that only losing can provide. The NBA doesn’t usually like to schedule teams boasting a 47-199 record to work on the league’s showcase slate of day and evening games on the holiday, especially the sort of 47-199 team that can start a season 0-5 without a blown synapse in the house. The Sixers, as usual, are playing as expected.
What will improve, reportedly starting on Dec. 26, is the team’s ability to field its best players. “Rookie” center Joel Embiid and scoring pivotman Jahlil Okafor will see their playing time restrictions (currently stuck at around 24 minutes a game) lift following that unofficial demarcation point, placed nearly two months following the start of the 2016-17 season.
Sixers coach Brett Brown, prior to his team’s close loss to the Cavaliers on Saturday evening, confirmed the idea. From Dave McMenamin at ESPN:
“As I understand it, [the minutes] will not escalate until Christmas and then it will only be judged,” Brown said Saturday before the Sixers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 102-101. “It may stay the same then, too.”
“There is always a judgment, a decision in relation to back-to-backs, but as a sort of a cut-off minute restriction, I believe that it’s going to stay at 24 until Christmas,” Brown said. “And then we’ll judge that second third [of the season] after that first third ends. We’ll judge that second third accordingly.”
From Jessica Camerato at CSN Philly:
“I think as I watch them and we judge their fitness, I think at times going beyond four five-minute segments is not good for them,” Brett Brown said. “I feel like fatigue sets in given the amount of time that they’ve been able to play and practice, etcetera.”
This would be wonderful news for any team, as Embiid clearly looks like a franchise center to begin his career, and Okafor remains an intriguing prospect despite some on and off-court setbacks from 2015-16.
If we’ve learned anything from the myriad significant injuries that can befall pro talents, meniscus tears in the knee and Jones fractures in the foot are certainly worth minding in ways that even ACL tears or (if Paul George is any indication) broken legs are worth fretting over.
Okafor, who slightly tore his right meniscus late in his pockmarked rookie season, is averaging just 19.5 minutes in four games thus far with Philly in 2016-17. He’s averaged 10.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, in work off of the 76ers’ bench.
Bryan Colangelo was standing near the side of the Sixers practice court on Monday afternoon talking about Brandon Ingram, the rail-thin small forward who had just finished a pre-draft workout for the team.
“He’s everything we thought he was, but in a one-on-none workout, you’re not going to learn everything about a player,” Colangelo said. “That’s why we scouted a lot of basketball games and watched a lot of tape.”
Colangelo was not in the organization when most of that scouting was done, but he’s up to speed on the choice between Ingram and Ben Simmons with the first pick of the June 23 NBA draft.
“The most important part we’ve been looking for is medical information on both players,” Colangelo said. “That’s a big part of what goes into the final decision.”
At the far end of the court, literally and figuratively towering over the proceedings, Joel Embiid was working on his low-post moves against a purposely pliant defender. Embiid is monstrously big now. He grew approximately two inches in the last year and has added upper body strength. Standing near Jahlil Okafor and Christian Wood, both of whom are listed at 6-foot-11, Embiid looked to be more in the 7-foot-2 range.
Colangelo moved from Ingram to the subject of Simmons, and why the presumptive top pick has not (and will not) agree to a similar workout for the Sixers. The new general manager blamed it on the agent.
“Why don’t you call Rich Paul and ask him?” Colangelo said after being peppered a third time for the reason Simmons didn’t want to visit Philadelphia.
It was hard to keep from watching Embiid during this exchange, and during the one about whether Dario Saric will show up this season, even though it would mean a potential financial risk. Embiid took entry passes and spun this way and that. He shot lefthanded. He shot righthanded. He did drop steps. He ducked under. He floated soft hooks through the net. He powered to the basket for dunks. Finally, he did a crossover dribble from right to left behind his legs, took one gigantic stride and rose above the rim, above everything, above all the upturned faces gaping at him, above the very limit of hope an NBA franchise can have in one player, and he brought the ball down through the rim with a crash.
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