Race to MVP still has five players in the running

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Derrick Rose is not your MVP.

Not yet anyway. Dwight Howard is still making his case, while LeBron James’ candidacy is limping like the Heat the last five games. But that could turn around.

Right now, we don’t know who the MVP is. Which is a good thing. A real race down the stretch is a lot more fun than a runaway.

If the MVP race were a horse race, they would have just entered the top of the stretch. Like most horse races, now is when someone will separate themselves from the pack. (Sure, some seasons you have Secretariat at the Belmont, but this is not one of those.) Nobody has earned the MVP trophy yet. They have just put themselves in position to win it.

Five players must be put on an MVP ballot. While we don’t get one of those ballots, this would be our choices as of today. But this could be jumbled in any order in the next five weeks. Somebody needs to separate themselves from the pack. (You can vote for who you think should be MVP at NBC’s MVP fan ranker right here.)

1) Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. The knock for years on Howard was he didn’t have enough post moves, that he was a one-trick pony. If you hear anyone say that now, you know they have not been watching the NBA this season — he is developed a series of trusted moves including a Tim Duncanesque bank shot. He was already the Defensive Player of the Year two seasons running, a disruptive force in the paint and defending the pick-and-roll. He remains one of the game’s best rebounders. He is having the best season of his career.

What do I look for in my MVP? A player who efficiently pushes himself to a new level and pulls his team to new heights with him. Howard has been very efficient this season and has pushed himself to new levels. I’ll also argue he is pulling the most out of this Magic roster (a roster that is likely to let him down in the playoffs, but that’s another topic). The Magic may be a disappointment, but that is not on Howard. His offensive usage percentage is at his career high but his shooting percentages have not seriously dipped. To me, right now, this is the guy.

2) LeBron James, Miami Heat. Yes, I’ve seen the last five games. That’s why he’s second — I had James on top of this list 10 days ago. Despite those recent games, he has stepped over from Cleveland to Miami and yet has maintained an immense level of efficiency — he is using 30 percent of his team’s possessions when he is on the floor (fourth highest in the league) and yet has an eFG% higher than anyone else in the top 20. He leads the league in PER.

It’s a matter of pushing and pulling his team. He’s proven he is still the best individual player in the league, but can he get his team over the hump in the final weeks of the season? That is his test.

3) Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. He is your current front runner, if the MVP vote were today he would win. And while I said in January I didn’t think he was an MVP, he has certainly proven he is a legit candidate. In a world where we want a player to push himself and pull his team to new heights, Rose has done that better than anyone this season. He also has pushed himself — he is getting to the line more the second half of this season, and he has a three-point shot you have to respect now.

But he is still not efficient enough for my taste to be MVP. He’s 12th in the league in PER, with a true shooting percentage (which counts threes and free throws) just a hair above the league average. He also is not the key part of the reason the Bulls are contenders — their defense. I’m just not all the way there on him. But he is a legit candidacy, if he wins it is not a travesty. He’s just not my guy.

4) Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks. The big German is having his best season in years (probably since the 06-07 team that won 67 games). He is very efficient — he is shooting a career best 53 percent at age 32. He is the hub of all things the Mavs do on offense, accounting for him opens up lanes for Jason Kidd and Jason Terry and a host of other Jasons. What’s more, Dallas is certainly performing better as a team than we expected. He’s not a great defender, but he’s better than he gets credit for. He lacks the wow factor of Rose or the spectacular plays of James, in part because we’ve grown complacent watching Nowitzki do his thing for so many years. But he should be in the MVP conversation.

5) Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. I think he has to be in the conversation, although if you want to replace him with Kevin Durant I’m not going argue much. (I had lobbied for Chris Paul for the first half of the season, but he has fallen off.) I put Kobe in because the Lakers are the better team, and nobody pushes his team to excel harder than Kobe. Except he didn’t this season until recently, the Lakers clearly coasted for a while. That’s a strike. Still, think of it this way: Kobe won the MVP in 07-08 with a PER of 24.2, this season he has a PER of 24.2. His shooting numbers are down a little from that season but his assist numbers are up. Look, he’s still one of the game’s elite and should be in the conversation. Kobe probably couldn’t care less if he is in this conversation so long as he is in the Finals MVP conversation.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade on time they faced off 1-on-1: “We was out there killing each other”

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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are good friends, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. They and their families hang out and ride banana boats together in the off-season.

They are also both incredibly competitive men.

So you had to figure they went 1-on-1 against each other at some point. It happened, once. Wade and LeBron talked about it on Channing Frye’s Road Trippin’ podcast(transcription via the USA Today).

James: “We played 1-on-1 one time in our whole life, and it was during the finals. Eastern Conference finals 2010 (they meant the 2010-11 season, that ECF was in May 2011). Our first year.”

Wade: “It was more-so to set a precedent for our teammates because we got our ass kicked the game before, Game 1 by Chicago. They tore us.”

James: “MVP Rose tore our ass up in Chicago, and we came in the next day, we was like we need to set the tone, so we was out there killing each other playing 1-on-1.”

Wade: “We never finished.”

James: “We never finished. We got to the point where (head coach Erik Spoelstra) blew the whistle, like bring it in.”

Wade: “Everybody was just watching us. We was going at it. We competitive, we was going at it, but we was setting a tone for this is how it’s gotta go. You gotta be able to go at this. We’re two of the best players in this game. We going at each other in the Eastern Conference finals right now. We out there killing each other, and this is what ya’ll better do tomorrow. Because we got beat on the boards by 20-something and we have to come with it, and we won four in a row.”

A 2011 Heat practice? There has to be video of this somewhere.

Miami did win that Eastern Conference Finals, but LeBron and Wade should have gone at it again during the NBA Finals, where the Heat lost to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks.

Report: Rockets’ Luc Mbah a Moute expected to miss 2-3 weeks

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The Rockets’ rotation is excellent, and their deep bench is lacking.

That’s part of the reason Luc Richard Mbah a Moute posted a ridiculous +57 in a 30-point win earlier this season.

But Houston will miss the forward for a while after he injured his shoulder against the Hornets yesterday.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s first inclination might be to shorten his rotation. He should mostly resist it.

Home-court advantage is important, and P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza can play more power forward (with Eric Gordon absorbing more minutes at small forward). But it’s also better to play Troy Williams more now than to wear down the players Houston will rely on in the playoffs, when D’Antoni will surely keep his rotation tight.

PBT Podcast: Early trade deadline breakdown with Dan Feldman

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The NBA’s trade market did not collapse after the Jahlil Okafor trade.

There’s more to come, but with the trade deadline is less than two months away, we have more questions than answers. DeAndre Jordan very likely could be on the move from the Clippers (and Lou Williams, too). But what is Memphis going to do about Mark Gasol? New Orleans with DeMarcus Cousins? Oklahoma City with Paul George? And if any of those guys are available, who is a buyer? Cleveland? Milwaukee? Portland?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down the high end of the trade market, plus talk about other guys who could be on the move — maybe Nikola Mirotic from Chicago, and what about someone like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from Charlotte — before Feb. 8 gets here. The last couple of trade deadlines have been interesting, but will we see a move that changes the landscape of the NBA playoffs in a meaningful way?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Joel Embiid calls out Karl Anthony-Towns’ defense during Instagram trash talk

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Joel Embiid often gloats on Instagram after 76ers wins.

Of course he did after Philadelphia beat Minnesota on Tuesday, specifically calling attention to this move on Karl-Anthony Towns (and this 76ers fan custom):

Embiid:

Towns commented:

That caption was as trash as your picture quality

Embiid replied:

Better quality than your defense

Embiid insisted it’s all in good fun.

Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

https://twitter.com/JCameratoNBCS/status/941395953113804800

I’m not sure Towns is having as much fun as Towns. But I know this:

Embiid had a valid point.