Amick: The NBA MVP race, the Wild West and why the Hawks, Grizzlies should make deadline trades
Amick: The NBA MVP race, the Wild West and why the Hawks, Grizzlies should make deadline trades
A public service announcement to my fellow NBA scribes who have a vote for Most Valuable Player: This race is far from over, so please don’t lose your focus down the stretch of the second half. Narratives be darned, the games from here until mid-April should be analyzed and scrutinized as dutifully as the ones that came in the first half.
This statement seems obvious, right? But as friend and colleague Marcus Thompson II reminded me in a recent MVP chat, one in which we zeroed in on the Nikola Jokić vs. Joel Embiid part of the debate, he shared his strong opinion that many voters tend to make up their minds far too early. There’s no way of truly knowing if this is the case, but it sure does seem that way.
So for all the recent talk of Jokić being on track to become just the fourth player ever to win back-to-back-to-back MVP honors, let’s not forget that there’s still approximately 40 percent of the season left to play. As Embiid showed on Saturday night, when the Philadelphia big man dominated his Nuggets counterpart in a wildly entertaining win that came under the national television spotlight, there’s still plenty of time left for opinions to evolve. Ditto for Luka Dončić and his fourth 50-point outburst in Dallas’ win Monday night over Detroit. Or Jokić’s 16th triple-double in a win over New Orleans on Tuesday. And so on.
Which brings us to… Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Much like Jokić last season, when he received all sorts of well-deserved credit for lifting Denver to a 48-34 mark without Jamal Murray and with Michael Porter Jr. playing just nine games, the Bucks’ two-time MVP is quietly thriving in a similar situation. There hasn’t been nearly as much national focus on this relevant reality as there was on Jokić’s undermanned experience last season, but — again — there’s plenty of time to make sure we all factor it in.
Antetokounmpo has had three-time All-Star Khris Middleton for less than a quarter of their season (12 games played entering Wednesday), and point guard Jrue Holiday has missed 11 games as well. Yet here are his Bucks (34-17), just two games behind Boston for the league’s best record.
As for Antetokounmpo’s individual impact, we’ve clearly grown numb to the video game numbers he puts up. That’s the only explanation for the relative apathy that has surrounded his season.
He’s averaging a career-high 31.8 points (third in the league), 12.2 rebounds (second) and 5.2 assists — marks that have only been reached three times in the history of the game (Wilt Chamberlain twice and Elgin Baylor once). Milwaukee’s defense, which is greatly aided by the 28-year-old former Defensive Player of the Year, is currently third in the league (and just 0.4 points behind No. 1 Cleveland in defensive rating). No matter how nitpicky Antetokounmpo was about his play during his recent interview with our Bucks beat writer, Eric Nehm, which we discussed on the “Tampering” podcast this week, Giannis has as strong an MVP case as anyone. Again.
As a general observation, the two-way domination of Antetokounmpo, Embiid (33.6 points, 10 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.7 blocks, 1.1 steals) and Boston’s Jayson Tatum (31.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.1 blocks, 0.8 steals) is making the evaluation process tricky for voters like myself who might have been leaning toward Jokić (25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 10 assists) or Dončić (33.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists). While the former three candidates are elite defensively year in and year out, the latter two candidates have all the cheat codes offensively but are generally seen as defensive liabilities.
In a perfect basketball world, this honor goes to someone who dominates on both ends of the floor. And while we may not know who the true front-runner is at this point, it’s looking likely that the winner will be one of the five players mentioned above. Then again, maybe not. There’s still a long way to go.
Who leads the NBA MVP race? Nikola Jokić? Jayson Tatum? Luka Dončić?
Do the Grizzlies make a move?
A question for the masses: If the Grizzlies (32-18; second in the West) can’t beat the Warriors during this season of struggle for the defending champs — after all the chirping Memphis has done in these past few years about being the better team — then is it fair to have doubts about them being true title contenders four months from now?
Yes, the sample size is small: A 123-109 Warriors win at Chase Center on Christmas Day in which Golden State played without Steph Curry and the Grizzlies had their entire core; and a 122-120 Warriors win on Jan. 25 at Chase Center in which Curry’s frustration with teammate Jordan Poole led to his (mouthguard-throwing) ejection with 72 seconds left, and Poole redeemed himself by hitting the game-winner. But to see the Grizzlies’ reaction in their visitor’s locker room after their latest loss to Golden State was to understand how badly that last one hurt.
Ja Morant refused to fulfill his media obligations, as did Dillon Brooks. Jaren Jackson Jr. (who fouled out late) headed for the exits quickly and didn’t speak with the media either. The list of quiet Grizzlies was long, with only Ziaire Williams, Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke choosing to speak with reporters. And as if falling to these Warriors for a second time this season wasn’t ominous enough, this was just one of the five losses on the Grizzlies’ disastrous West Coast trek.
One game came without Morant, and another was without Desmond Bane. Big man Steven Adams suffered a sprained PCL two games into the trip that is expected to keep him out three to five weeks. Yet still, with Morant having insisted just last month that he wasn’t worried about any team not named the Boston Celtics, the optics of the trip were nothing short of awful.
“Nah. I’m fine in the West.”
When asked about the Grizzlies top competition in the NBA, Ja Morant doesn’t see any in the western conference 😳
(via: espn) pic.twitter.com/nzmv17E3ND
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) December 21, 2022
“I’m fine in the West,” he had said of his Grizzlies, as if an NBA Finals berth was fait accompli.
But are they fine? The 11-game winning streak from Dec. 29 to Jan. 18 seemed to indicate the affirmative, but then came the five-game slide and this natural question as the deadline looms: Should general manager Zach Kleiman and his staff push those proverbial chips in for a championship push?
To be fair, they may be planning to do this very thing and we just haven’t caught wind of it. This Grizzlies group keeps its business very close to the vest, and they have assets aplenty here with which to work.
Not only does Memphis have all of its own first-round picks, but the Grizzlies have a 2024 first-rounder coming their way from the Warriors (by way of the Andre Iguodala trade in 2019) that could be an intriguing asset for all suitors (it’s top-four protected in 2024; top-one in 2025; unprotected in 2026). In terms of a high-level player who could prove to be a difference-maker in Memphis, the speculation around the league has centered on Toronto’s O.G. Anunoby (our Eric Koreen workshopped one such trade in this mid-January story). The sixth-year small forward can be a free agent in the summer of 2024, meaning the Grizzlies would have to ponder the pricey prospect of adding him to their core.
Regardless of the target, I’d be surprised if the Grizzlies stay quiet in these next nine days. These recent struggles almost mandate that they make some noise.
About those Warriors…
Meanwhile on the other side of the building, where the Warriors had just begun a three-game winning streak that now has them fifth in the West, Draymond Green downplayed the notion that beating the Grizzlies was some sort of litmus test for their storied group.
“I mean, I don’t think we necessarily need to hold on to that,” he said. “I’ve always told you guys that if somebody plays their best and we play our best, they don’t stand a chance. It’s been the theme for some years now, and that hasn’t changed. Our mishaps are on us. Our shortcomings are on us. They’re not on anybody else. I don’t see many teams where I say, ‘Oh, man, that team scares me,’ or …’I’m worried about that team.’ No. I don’t feel that way. I think it’s on us to figure out the things that we need to figure out to be great. But it’s not because of some other team.”
But, I asked, is there still a different sense of enjoyment when it’s that particular team on the other side?
“That’s always fun to win that game,” Green said with a smile. “You know, they be chirping a lot. So, you know, when you got guys chirping the way they be chirping, it’s always fun to win that game.”
Don’t look now, but the Warriors (26-24) have crawled their way up the standings after winning 11 of their last 17 games. During that stretch, which started with the Christmas Day win over the Grizzlies, they have the league’s fifth-best defensive rating (they were just 25th prior).
Can the Hawks afford to stand pat?
Math is hard. You don’t have to tell this former journalism student that much, as I picked that major at Sacramento State University, in part, as a way of steering clear of the dreaded numbers game. But it doesn’t take a math wiz to see the Atlanta Hawks’ payroll may be problematic in the coming years. Especially considering they’re still struggling to play their way into playoff position (25-26, eighth in the East).
It’s not just a matter of avoiding the kinds of luxury-tax bills that may be coming their way, but the holistic question of whether they can return to contender status anytime soon with some of these players and this compilation of contracts. I don’t know what they’ll do, but I find the mystery of it all very interesting.
They’re tied to long-term deals with franchise centerpiece Trae Young ($178 million combined in the next four seasons), forward De’Andre Hunter ($90 million combined in the next four seasons) and forward John Collins ($78.5 million in the next three seasons, with a player option in 2025-26). Center Clint Capela is owed $43 million in the next two seasons, and All-Star guard Dejounte Murray — who remains a major priority in their big-picture plans — is owed $17.7 million next season before his crucial free agency arrives in the summer of 2024.
If these Landry Fields-led Hawks stay on this tricky track, building around Young while eventually giving Murray the kind of max money that is likely coming his way in that offseason, that’s when it could get (financially) ugly. And remember, we’re only six months removed from Atlanta’s one-sided Kevin Huerter trade with Sacramento that was widely known to have been driven by ownership’s desire to get below the luxury tax. So yes, in other words, money matters. But so does winning. As is the case with most teams, it’s … complicated.
In the eyes of many around the league, all those economic truths make it all the more likely that the Hawks do something of significance before the Feb. 9 trade deadline. They’re currently approximately $2 million under the tax, meaning they don’t have to do anything now for financial purposes. But Hawks owner Tony Ressler has proven to be quite restless of late, so it would come as a surprise to many if they didn’t do something to shake up the roster.
Young isn’t going anywhere. The same goes for Murray. Collins is the most likely one on the way out, of course, and it’s worth repeating that the asking price is known to have decreased significantly from recent years (per league sources, there is a focus on landing a quality player, or players, in return but no mandate for a first-round pick). That development is clearly a reflection of the focus on salvaging this season, as opposed to recouping the vast assets lost in the Murray trade with San Antonio in the summer. As we’ve reported recently, the Jazz and Rockets are known to be among the teams in pursuit.
But league sources say the Hawks have no shortage of trade interest in Bogdan Bogdanović as well — as in “half the league is calling” type stuff. The 30-year-old guard has a player option for $18 million next season, so most teams would understandably view him as a short-term rental (with the hopes of re-signing him if he opts out). To this point, the Hawks haven’t shown much interest in moving him. Capela could certainly help most teams and would yield a good return, but he continues to have the kind of chemistry with Young that likely means he’s going nowhere. If you somehow haven’t noticed, it’s quite important for this iteration of the Hawks to maximize Young’s powers.
A quick glance at those numbers…
- Young with Capela (827 minutes this season): Net rating of 2.4 and a defensive rating of 112.6 that would be good for 12th in the NBA (they’re currently 20th).
- Young with third-year center Onyeka Okongwu (622 minutes): Net rating of minus-1.6 and defensive rating of 114.1 that would be good for 19th.
Something tells me this won’t be the last time we’re talking about the Hawks’ roster plans this season.
More on the Wild, Wacky West
There’s no ‘D’ in ‘Beam Team’
I’m a broken record on this front, but the “Beam Team” Kings (28-21; third in the West) are still in dire need of better defensive efforts if they’re going to break this albatross of a playoff drought (circa 2007). Consider this much: In their wins, the Kings have a defensive rating of 111.2 that would rank sixth in the league; in losses, they have a defensive rating of 118.8 that would be 29th.
For all the fun these Kings have had in the opening months, they’re still just 4 1/2 games ahead of 11th place Oklahoma City. That’s a sobering reality for a team that has (mostly) been on a joy ride to this point, and a product of the parity party that is the Western Conference.
Enter Monte McNair. In the wake of signing a three-year extension that was well deserved, the Kings’ general manager is no doubt looking for ways to add defensive talent to this group that needs only to be adequate on that end because of their high-octane offense (second in offensive rating). Their playoff push, 17 years in the making, demands it.
Speaking of the potential for freefalls, the Pelicans have lost nine straight after falling to Denver on Tuesday night and now sit — unbelievably — at 10th in the West. Truth be told, though, the slide started long before then.
They’ve lost 14 of 17 games in all, with that stretch starting just three days before Zion Williamson’s right hamstring injury that has sent them into the basketball abyss. Per the Pelicans, Williamson is “healing as expected” and due to be re-evaluated on Feb. 7.
Are Kawhi and PG rounding into form?
The Clippers (29-25) have taken full advantage of New Orleans’ demise, winning six of their last seven games and rising to fourth (1 1/2 games behind the Kings). The schedule has been soft, with the wins coming against San Antonio (twice), Dallas, the Lakers, Atlanta and Chicago.
But honestly, who cares? All that matters for the league’s pre-eminent load management squad is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played in all of those games, and they were nothing short of dominant. The loss came against Cleveland, with Leonard and George sitting for the only game of this stretch that was a back-to-back.
Leonard (in those six games): 30.5 points (59.8 percent overall; 48.6 percent from 3-point range on 5.8 attempts per game), 6.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, two steals and a team-high net rating of 12.8.
George: 23 points (53.6 percent overall; 40 percent from 3-point range on 6.7 attempts per), 6.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.3 steals and an 11.3 net rating that is the second-highest on the team.
Before this stretch, the Clippers were just 9-7 when Leonard and George both played. They have the league’s second-best net rating in this seven-game span.
Don’t leave out the Lakers
No Western Conference breakdown is completely without an obligatory Lakers mention. And if all these other teams are capable of climbing this crowded ladder, then a Lakers team with LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, the recently added Rui Hachimura and Anthony Davis might be too. After downing the Knicks on Tuesday night, when Davis had 27 points, nine rebounds and a plus-16 mark in his third game back from his five-week absence (right foot injury), they’re just three games behind Golden State for the fifth spot (24-28 overall).
No wonder there still aren’t many sellers on the sluggish trade market. Almost everyone’s still in this game.
(Top Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
#Amick #NBA #MVP #race #Wild #West #Hawks #Grizzlies #deadline #trades