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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
“Look at all these title contenders!” was one of the most common talking points coming out of the frenzied 2019 offseason. After unprecedented star and player movement, several teams looked poised to make a run in the post-Golden State Warriors vacuum.
A byproduct of all the movement is an MVP race that may be as wide open as it has been in years. Over a month into the season, there are at least four legitimate candidates, with plenty of others lurking.
As of Friday, Basketball Reference’s stat-based projection system gave the following chances for the NBA‘s top individual honor:
- LeBron James (30.4 percent)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.4 percent)
- James Harden (17.6 percent)
- Luka Doncic (16.2 percent)
- Anthony Davis (3.6 percent)
- Jimmy Butler (1.7 percent)
- Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns (0.7 percent)
- Kemba Walker and Pascal Siakam (0.3 percent)
The individual numbers thrown up by everyone on that list, especially the top four, are double-take-inducing.
After securing last season’s MVP, Antetokounmpo is now averaging more points, rebounds and assists than he did in 2018-19. LeBron James is tossing a career-high and NBA-leading 11.1 assists per game. James Harden is averaging 38.4 points. Yes, that’s a three and an eight. Together. And in reference to an NBA player’s points per game.
Oh, and there’s the 20-year old you may have heard of. Luka Doncic is 0.1 points and 0.6 assists per game shy of averaging a 30-point triple-double.
Sure, pace is up in this era. But it’s not where it was in the ’60s when Wilt Chamberlain put up 50.4 points in 48.5 minutes per game and Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double in 44.3 minutes per contest. And yes, stars are given previously unseen freedom to go after these numbers. But this explosion of individual production around the league is primarily the result of talent.
It’s not something we can measure objectively, but it would be hard to argue for many other eras having more pure talent and skill than this one. As the popularity of basketball has grown around the world, the talent pool has gotten deeper.
Stars come from all over the globe. They spend their formative years with video, trainers and general access to basketball that just wasn’t around in earlier years. Just about every player, including plenty of big men, now have wide-ranging skill sets that were previously reserved for a special few. Positionless basketball is slowly eliminating the need for positional designations.
The result is a beautiful brand of basketball led by a variety of superstars. Deciding which one to crown MVP in 2020 is going to be, in a word, difficult.
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Chris Elise/Getty Images
Doncic’s start to the 2019-20 campaign defies explanation, but Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle took a pretty good shot at it, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon:
“I understand that he’s a performer, he’s an artist. It’s important for him to feel that he is out there doing a job to win a game, but also he’s an entertainer. I get that. What the great players in history of sport have in common is they can take the understanding of the entertainment side and fit it into the team concept and still make winning the priority.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that for Luka Doncic, winning is the No. 1 and most important thing, hands down.”
When Doncic throws his arms up, you almost expect a Russell Crowe impersonation. He’s in a different arena and certainly doesn’t come off as angry, but he’s satisfying the entertainment side about as well as anyone.
In a simple “Yes or No” poll, 49 percent of respondents identified the Mavericks as the most watchable team in the NBA right now. Given that “No” represents 29 other teams, that’s quite a result for Dallas. And good luck arguing anyone other than Doncic is the primary reason for those responses.
The way Doncic controls and manipulates entire possessions, from the defensive rebound to the bucket or assist, is nearing the level of James Harden or LeBron James.
In Wednesday’s 142-94 dismantling of the Golden State Warriors, he had 35 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes. After the first quarter, he had more points (22), rebounds (five) and assists (five) than the opposing team.
In Dallas’ previous game, Doncic posted a 42-point triple-double. Over his last 10 games, he’s averaging 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 8.2 free throws, 3.3 threes and 1.0 steals with a 64.0 true shooting percentage.
That is absurd. Per NBA Math, it gives Doncic one of the 50 best 10-game peaks throughout league history, and he’s still a 20-year-old in his second NBA season.
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Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press
The San Antonio Spurs have reached the playoffs each of the last 22 seasons. They’ve been to the postseason in 39 of the 44 seasons they’ve been in the NBA.
In 2019-20, the Spurs are on pace for 27 wins. Their defensive rating is 28th in the NBA. And after its 5-10 start, FiveThirtyEight has San Antonio’s chance of a playoff berth at less than 1 percent. The Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks are the only teams projected for fewer wins.
It’s still early enough in the season to allow for a dramatic turnaround, but every loss makes a 23rd straight trip to the postseason less likely.
The most recent, a 138-132 stinker against the sub-.500 Washington Wizards, saw seven opposing players reach double figures. Three, including former Spur Davis Bertans, dropped 20-plus.
This was all fairly predictable. San Antonio’s top two in minutes played, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, have never been known as defensive stalwarts. DeRozan, specifically, has been flat-out bad. In nine of his 11 NBA seasons, his team’s defense has given up fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor. Aldridge is in the same boat for five of his last six seasons.
If they haven’t started looking already, it’s past time for the Spurs to at least consider the possibility of a rebuild.
It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a prolonged one. There’s some potential with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl. It’s even too early to count out Lonnie Walker IV.
Supplementing that young core with whatever San Antonio could get for one or both of DeRozan and Aldridge makes more sense than continuing this blaze of non-glory.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
There aren’t a lot of takeaways to be drawn from a single regular-season game in November, but Paul George and Kawhi Leonard finally found the floor together this week.
In the 27 minutes logged by the duo, the Los Angeles Clippers were plus-11. They won the game over the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics in overtime, 107-04.
Individually, both stars shot worse than 50 percent from the field, suggesting L.A. could be in for a bit of an adjustment period.
“We’re going to have growing pains,” George told reporters after the game. “The great thing about myself and Kawhi is it doesn’t matter, we’re going to play basketball. Try to make the right plays and play off each other and just keep the game flowing. I thought in that aspect we were good.”
That notion seems to apply mostly to the offense. On the other end, growing pains figure to be few and far between.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Celtics were scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions, good for the No. 4 offensive rating in the league. Against Los Angeles, Boston scored 97.2 points per 100 possessions.
Of course, Gordon Hayward was out with a broken hand. His playmaking and scoring likely would’ve made a difference. But few teams are better equipped to handle multiple creators than the Clippers.
If you were making a list of the top 15 perimeter defenders in the NBA, it wouldn’t be hard to get all three of George, Leonard and Patrick Beverley on there. During any game in which that full trio is deployed on defense, the Clippers are likely to hold opponents below their offensive averages.
There’s an abundance of length, athleticism and switchability on L.A.’s roster. It’s always been scary in theory. Now, we have it in practice.
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- Luka Doncic (13.7)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.3)
- LeBron James (10.5)
- James Harden (9.7)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (9.3)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Ja Morant has been blocked a league-leading 30 times this season. He’s taken 198 shots. That means roughly one of every six or seven attempts he puts up is sent away.
Given his size and aggressiveness, this may not be all that surprising. And his 18.5 points and 6.0 assists per game as a rookie are more important numbers.
But figuring out ways to finish around or under the shot blockers, rather than just attempting to end them by going over, will help Morant find sustained success.
Andre Drummond is grabbing 28.0 percent of the available rebounds for the Detroit Pistons. Dennis Rodman’s 29.7 rebounding percentage in 1994-95 is the only one on record that’s higher.
People may not be talking much about the Pistons right now, but that kind of historic production deserves attention.
Overall, Drummond is putting up 18.6 points, 16.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, and the Pistons’ net rating is 11.7 points per 100 possessions better when the big man is on the floor.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Of the nearly 4,000 individual performances of at least 10 minutes this season, PG’s 59.2 game score per 36 minutes is the best by a comfortable margin.
Scoring 37 points on 17 shots in 20 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks was simply ridiculous.
This wasn’t planned. I promise. But both lines of the week came at the expense of the rebuilding Hawks. One night after George lit them up for nearly two points per minute, LeBron James threw up one of the best lines of his career.
It was the eighth time in league history that a player had at least 33 points and 12 assists with zero turnovers. LeBron is the only player on that list more than once.
It’s remarkable that LeBron seems to have found another level in Year 17. He’s on track to average double-figure assists for the first time in his career.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Embracing Modern Shot Selection Award: Karl-Anthony Towns
Over his first four seasons, 25.1 percent of Karl-Anthony Towns’ shots came between three and 10 feet from the rim, 13.2 percent were twos from at least 16 feet and 19.6 percent were threes. This season, 13.3 percent are from the three-to-10-foot range, 5.3 percent are long twos and 51.1 percent are threes.
Towns’ career true shooting percentage was already fantastic—61.9 prior to this season—but the shift in shot selection has him at new heights. In 2019-20, he’s at a whopping 65.5 true shooting percentage.
That may level off a bit over the course of the year, but Towns’ new layup-and-three-heavy shot selection (as seen in his shot chart) makes that less likely.
Under-the-Radar Production Award: Moritz Wagner
Washington may be a losing team, but it’s a fun losing team.
On the season, Wagner is averaging 12.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 threes, 0.9 assists and 0.9 blocks per game (22.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 threes, 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocks per 75 possessions). Among players with at least 200 minutes, Wagner’s 9.1 overall RAPTOR rating ranks fifth, per FiveThirtyEight.
One team’s salary dump is another team’s treasure.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Malice in the Palace
This week held the 15-year “anniversary” of one of the most memorable events in NBA history: the Malice at the Palace on Nov. 19, 2004.
Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams (then with Grantland) detailed the brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fans in 2012, including this notable quote from Stephen Jackson, who was with the Pacers on the day in question:
“I think a lot of us made a lot of selfish decisions that day. I made a selfish decision to stop trying to break it up and to confront Lindsey Hunter and Richard Hamilton. That was my selfish decision. Ron [Artest] made a selfish decision by going into the stands. We all made selfish decisions, but at the same time, we were protecting each other. It’s kind of hard to see if that’s right or wrong.”
The Malice at the Palace is one of those “remember where you were” moments in sports. During my senior year of high school, I remember watching hours of coverage on ESPNews in the basement of my parents’ house. I sat in disbelief, watching the same clips over and over.
If there’s a silver lining that came out of that ugly game, it’s that such brawls feel almost impossible these days. Some long for the bad blood and physicality of bygone eras, but the abundance of caution exercised by the league to prevent such fights outweighs those concerns.
Bam Adebayo Operating Miami’s Offense
Over his first two NBA seasons, Bam Adebayo had an assist percentage of 12.9. This season, he’s all the way up to 20.6. Among players averaging at least 10 rebounds this season, Adebayo’s 4.5 assists per game trail only Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
You can see all of Adebayo’s assists from the last two weeks here. The reel isn’t just a bunch of basic plays. Adebayo is reading defenses, passing his targets open and mixing in a variety of deliveries: bounce passes, one-handers, kick-outs, you name it.
The Miami Heat have tapped into the “let your big man hit cutters from the high post or top of the key” approach the Denver Nuggets have used with Nikola Jokic over the years. With the opposing center forced to defend outside the paint, cutting lanes have become more open for scorers like Jimmy Butler and Kendrick Nunn.
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Scott Threlkeld/Associated Press
Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics, Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
The league loaded up Thanksgiving Eve with a couple of revenge games on national television. And I’m not talking about revenge for the players.
So far this season, we’ve seen Kemba Walker and Mike Conley receive hero’s welcomes upon their returns to their former stomping grounds. Kristaps Porzingis got the opposite in New York.
Kyrie Irving (if his troublesome right shoulder is right by then) is going to fall closer to the KP end of the spectrum when he returns to Boston. Expect the crowd to be raucous, especially if the Celtics—currently five games ahead of the Nets in the standings—run away with the game.
In terms of strategy, Boston may just want to let Kyrie get swept up by the energy of the crowd. This season, Brooklyn is 0-3 when Irving’s usage percentage tops 35. It’s 6-5 when Kyrie is below 35 percent or doesn’t play at all.
The old “don’t worry too much about the star and lock the other guys down” approach might be in order.
Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans, Nov. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Anthony Davis rocked a shirt that read “That’s All Folks” (seen above) in his final home game as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans. After demanding a trade in the middle of the 2018-19 campaign, he now goes back to the Big Easy as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time on Nov. 27.
The reception might be similar. But unlike the Kyrie reunion, the star’s new team is the one that should roll in this game.
By giving up 112.1 points per 100 possessions, the Pelicans have the No. 26 defensive rating in the NBA. Their 17.1 turnovers per game are the fifth-most. If they cough the ball up at that rate against AD and LeBron James, that defensive rating might get even worse.