The Race For The 2017 NBA MVP Is Closer Than We Think

At least, six players have a solid case to win the award this year and none of them are Stephen Curry.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 6, 2017

We are one year removed from the first time the NBA crowning its first ever unanimous regular season Most Valuable Player. We may not be that lucky this year.

Stephen Curry, also MVP in 2015, averaged 30.1 points a game and led the Golden State Warriors to a historic regular season, tallying a record 73 wins in 82 games. The season would have been capped with a Championship, had the Warriors’ quest not been thwarted by an equally historic, record-breaking comeback by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, things are quite different. At the time of writing this, there are at least six players that have a solid case to win regular season MVP. Two-time MVP Curry, isn’t one of them. Nor is 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.

The case for MVP is simple. If Player X were not to suit up for Team X, would Team X, (a) win as many, if not more games, and (b) make the playoffs?. For Curry, his incredibly talented (and now partially injured) Warriors’ roster, works against his case for MVP this season. Without Curry, a core of Durant/Green/Thompson can, most certainly win as many (if not more) games and would most likely be the favourites to win the title, let alone make the playoffs. Replace Durant with Curry, and you have the 2015 and 2016 Warriors, who were NBA Champions and finalists respectively.

Even without Curry and Durant, the Warriors’ have the luxury of trotting out Livingston/Thompson/Green/Igoudala/Pachulia as their death line-up with Ian Clark (who has been great for them) and David West coming off the bench. That’s a 40-win playoff team in the West in this season (Denver Nuggets, seeded eighth is on pace to finish with 37 wins). There is no doubt that both Curry and Durant rank among the ten best basketball players alive, but is their impact on the Warriors’ more than, say…

6. Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs

(25.9 PPG / 3.4 APG / 5.9 RPG / 1.8 SPG / 49%-38%-89% Shooting splits: Field Goal %, 3-point %, Free Throw %)

Leonard’s rise from 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been spectacular. His numbers have soared in the season following the Trophy, and this season is no different. With Tim Duncan gone, much of Spurs’ offence now runs through Leonard, making him the target of double teams every night. Leonard has adjusted well, breaching the 25 ppg mark, a career high, despite a slight dip in his shooting numbers (51-44-87 last season). However, ever since he was blessed with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft, Popovich has only seen winning seasons (Winning season = more wins than losses in the regular season and vice versa). While much of the Spurs’ success can be attributed to Duncan, Pop gets due credit for steadying the boat against the tide of an aging roster for years. As great as he is, and will continue to be, Leonard needs Pop as he leads the Spurs to the second best record in the NBA and their quest for a sixth title. Unlike…

5. John Wall on the Washington Wizards

(22.7 PPG / 10.8 APG / 4.5 RPG / 2.0 SPG / 45%-32%-82%)

Wall’s style is similar to that of another great point guard, Chris Paul. He is a pass-first defensive point guard who can score when he needs to take over the game. After six seasons of wading through mediocre, inconsistent rosters, Wall finally has the healthy and competitive roster he needs to complement his talent. The proof? Wall is averaging a career high 10.8 assists per game, second only to fellow MVP candidate, James Harden. Wall’s also leads the Wizards with 22.7 points per game and 2.0 steals per game, both career highs. Under his leadership, the Wizards overcame a mediocre start to the season (16-16 through 31-Dec), to become one of just four teams with 20 wins in 2017 (other teams being GSW, SAS and BOS). Wall’s importance to the Wizards is also evident in the fact that the Wizards are nearly 13 points worse (per 100 possessions) when Wall isn’t on the floor. Even with a healthy Bradley Beal, a breakout season by Otto Porter Jr. and a fast rising Kelly Oubre Jr., it is hard to imagine the Wizards enjoying much success without Wall. Much like…

4. Isaiah Thomas on the Boston Celtics

(29.4 PPG / 6.2 APG / 2.7 RPG / 46%-38%-91%)

The last time the NBA had a more prolific fourth quarter scorer? Never. The 5’9” Thomas is scoring a league-leading 10.8 ppg in the fourth quarter. What seemed like an anomaly at first, is now become routine for the Celtics and Thomas. Anomalies do not last 62 games into the season. Opponents do not matter, as evidenced by his late three against the reigning NBA Champions. Thomas thrives in the big moment and enjoys the pressure that comes with being “the man” in the fourth quarter. However, while this works in the regular season, Thomas and the Celtics will need a sturdier strategy in the playoffs. With refs letting the lighter fouls slip by, a seasoned defensive team like the Cavaliers will get physical with Thomas much before he touches the ball. Couple that with Thomas’ height as a defensive liability (Celtics defensive rating touches a league leading 101.8 when Thomas is off the floor as opposed to 113.0 when he’s on it.), and you have a team that desperately needs a bigger, more physical player to step up in the clutch. That reminds us of…

3. Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder

(31.7 PPG / 10.1 APG / 10.7 RPG / 42%-34%-84%)

Video game numbers. It’s the only way to describe what Westbrook is putting up this season. It’s been a few decades (55 years to be precise) since an NBA player averaged a triple double for a whole season. With just 20 games to go, a repeat of that glorious feat is very real. Westbrook has given new meaning to the term triple-double threat. One could argue that these numbers are warranted in light of the mediocre team that Westbrook has been given. That’s a fair assumption, considering that the Thunder are a league-leading 14 points worse when Westbrook is not on the floor.

Historically, however, there has never been an MVP whose team has not finished in the top four of their conference. Even Iverson, whose style of play can be compared to Westbrook’s this season, led the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the best record and No. 1 seed in the East. So as great as Westbrook’s season is, he isn’t…

2. LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers

(25.9 PPG / 8.9 APG / 8.0 RPG / 54%-40%-69%)

The famous saying, “He plays chess, while the rest play checkers”, could very well be about LeBron James. Take another look at James’s career numbers and you will realize that, barring his rookie season, they are the epitome of consistency. It is astonishing that at age 32 and season 14, James has found a way to average a career high 8.9 apg while playing 37.6 minutes a game (second behind Kyle Lowry). That spike in assists can either be attributed to the Cavaliers’ lack of depth at point guard, or chalked up to James’ greatness. Except for the slump a few weeks ago (where they lost 7 of 11 games), the Cavaliers continue to play like NBA Champions and look primed to repeat under James’ leadership. Unless their plans are derailed by…

1. James Harden on the Houston Rockets 

(28.8 PPG / 11.3 APG / 8.0 RPG / 44%-35%-85%)

Happy Harden equals Happy NBA Fans. Harden’s ability to score was never in doubt. What is unexpected is this outburst of scoring, not seen in the NBA since the late 70’s / early 80’s when defenses were absent, and nearly every possession was an open layup. Harden’s shot chart, looks like a one-eyed smiling monster. Scoring 50 points in a single game is a herculean task in itself. Harden’s taken it a step further by dropping not one, but two 50-point triple-doubles this season. Harden has proven that the Rockets can make a deep playoff run with him as the best players. On any other team he is just another great scorer. On the 2016-17 season, Rockets assembled precisely for Harden? He is a probable NBA Champion.

My pick for the 2017 NBA MVP: James Harden.

The San Antonio Spurs’ (Quiet) Pursuit Of A Sixth NBA Championship

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 2, 2017.

This happens every season.

The San Antonio Spurs are dismissed from the playoff picture every single season. Either they are too old (2009-2013), or too devastated (2013-‘14).

This season they ought to have been both old and devastated. They brought on an aging Pau Gasol to pair with a sluggish LaMarcus Aldridge, when the league is moving towards lighter, faster, more dynamic offense. They have three key players well into their 40s. And the biggest change of all; they lost Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward in NBA history, to retirement.

Fans would have understood if the Spurs did not do what they always do, quietly dominate the season and make a deep run into the playoffs. After all, despite Leonard’s brilliance, the Spurs did not look like a playoff bound team on paper.

Luckily for them basketball is not played on paper.

The Spurs greatness is the reason why they get taken for granted; people either expect them to be there in the playoff mix, or forgive them for any dip in performance because, well, they (Spurs) are old (and devastated).

For Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, this is routine. The Spurs are a machine that just keeps on going.

A machine that just keeps on going

Take for instance this season.

They have the second best record in the league at 37-11, four games behind the Golden State Warriors (41-7), and the second best road record at 20-5 behind, well, the Golden State Warriors.

They lead the league in three-point field-goal percentage (3P%), with 41% and have the second best field-goal percentage (FG%) at 48%.

Defensively, they hold opponents to 99.2 PPG, second to the Utah Jazz, and rank among the top ten in Opponent FG% (44%, 6th) and Opponent 3P% (34%, 2nd).

In addition to featuring in the top ten in nearly every meaningful statistical category.

More importantly though they are 17-6 against teams that are playoff bound (as off the time of this article), second to the Warriors who are 17-4.

Okay, pause.

Considering all these numbers indicate they are second best to the blazing Warriors, are the Spurs legit title contenders?

So are they really title contenders?

That is where it gets tricky.

Long answer: No, they are not. They go ten deep, which sufficient in the regular season, but the talent to hold off better teams drops off significantly after their starting five. Other title contenders have kept their core intact over multiple seasons, the Spurs have to contend with a roster that is still earning their playoff chops. They have also finished a whopping 16 games with a score differential of five or less (9-7 record) leading all five legit title contenders. That’s dangerous territory in the postseason.

Defensively, their most used and successful lineup features both Gasol and Aldridge who are mediocre at switching on defence, a big drawback when playing a seven game series against longer, quicker, more versatile teams. The Warriors and the Cavaliers, both, have at least two (if not three) high scoring stars. The Spurs do have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two elite defenders to cover up for any defensive shortfall on the part of their frontcourt. However, Leonard is now is tasked with the responsibility of carrying the Spurs offensively as well, something that is bound to take a marginal toll on this defence.

Short Answer: Yes. They have Gregg Popovich. And they are the San Antonio Spurs. Do you even remember the last time they were not a contender? Thought so.

Are We Taking Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas’ NBA MVP Campaign Seriously Enough?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 16, 2017.

With seven minutes and 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a close game, the following sequence takes place:

7:53. Player X comes off a screen to receive the ball at the wing.

7:52: He fires a three-point attempt

7:51: Realises the attempt will fall short and runs toward the rim

7:50: Grabs the rebound and attempts a putback while in air

7:49: Makes the shot with a soft touch off the glass

You would be pardoned if you thought player X was a 6 feet 6 inch NBA superstar veteran maybe with a couple of championships under his belt. You would also be very wrong on all counts.

Isaiah Thomas (named after the Hall Of Fame Detroit Pistons point guard) nearly missed making it into the NBA. Picked 60th (the last pick in the NBA Draft) by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas carried no expectations on his small shoulders. Listed among his most glaring of weaknesses were “decision-making ability” and “size”. What could anyone hope for from a 5’9” guard, when even Nate Robinson, who Thomas was compared to, was 5’11” and a journeyman at best?

Well, Thomas had other intentions.

From benchwarmer to starter

In his first season as point guard for the struggling Kings, Thomas quickly established himself as a fiery competitor who showed no mercy if the defense gave him an open lane to the basket. He quickly rose from benchwarmer to a starter, starting 37 of his team’s 65 games averaging nearly 12 points per game and five assists per game finishing seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting behind stars like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.

When the Celtics traded for Thomas in February 2015, all they expected of him was to be the off-the-bench offensive burst of energy he was at Phoenix. Thomas complied, marginally raising his scoring to 19.0 points per game for the 21 games remaining that season. The Celtics were satisfied. Thomas was not.

The subsequent summer, Thomas put in the hours, honing his skills and turning himself into even more of an offensive force breaching the 20 points per game mark (22.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. As the starting point guard for the Celtics, Thomas, along with basketball wizard coach Brad Stevens, led a team with mediocre but tough-as-nails talent to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and the playoffs before falling to the Atlanta Hawks six games. In the meanwhile, Thomas earned himself a trip to his first All-Star game as one of the 12 best players in the Eastern Conference.

This season, as the famous saying goes, is a whole other ball game.

Thomas has blossomed into an offensive threat that has left NBA defences befuddled. They are just not used to dealing with scoring guards this small. Defenders (guards) are always a step too late to catch Thomas off the dribble or taking a shot, and big men are no match for Thomas’ craftiness around the rim.

A whole other ball game

He is scoring a career high 28.2 points per game (fourth behind Harden, Davis and Westbrook) and dishing out the ball at a career high 6.2 assists per game (leading an efficient Celtics team that is tied third in the league with 24.9 apg). He leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 9.9 ppg. So if anything, he enjoys the attention defences pay to him and finds a way to thrive under pressure.

Wrap those numbers up with Thomas’s free throw percentage (90.7%, leading all players that attempt at least seven free throws a game) and Thomas has squarely placed himself in the conversation about the ten best players in the NBA.

What about the conversation for 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player?

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are putting on a show. Tallying historically great numbers consistently every night, single-handedly keeping their teams in contention and showing no signs of slowing down, both superstar guards could not make their case for MVP any stronger.

In the event of an injury to their respective superstars, both the Thunder and the Rockets would find it difficult to make the playoffs, let alone stay in contention for the Championship.

Which brings us to the Celtics.

Despite the blockbuster move to bring veteran All-Star Al Horford into the lineup, the Celtics most important player is Isaiah Thomas. The offense runs through him and he thrives with the ball in his hands, which works since none of the other Celtics need the ball to be effective and contribute. Also with the arrival of Al Horford’s dangerous inside-out game, Avery Bradley coming into his own at the offensive end, and Crowder continuing to get better, Thomas has multiple people to take the attention off him.

All this points to the fact that the Celtics are worse off without Isaiah Thomas. Maybe more so than the Rockets would be. Thomas is the Celtics floor leader, and when he is not on the floor playing point, the Celtics struggle mightily.

While his numbers are not as gaudy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, Thomas is critical to the success and championship contention for one of the top ten teams in the NBA That in itself, is sufficient to place him squarely in the conversation for the 2017 NBA MVP.

Not bad for a 5 feet 9 inch guard who almost did not make it to the NBA.