Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 5

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.

Reports: Minnesota working hard to trade Ricky Rubio by deadline; Knicks swap for Rose possible

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves brings the ball down court against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on December 28, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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On paper, Ricky Rubio seemed a good fit for the Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves: He’s a gifted passer and strong defender who knows how to run a team. In practice, his lack of shooting on a team of slashers and a big man inside — Karl-Anthony Towns — allowed teams to clog the lane.

So the Timberwolves are working hard to find a landing spot for him before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern, according to multiple reports.

This has led to talks with the Knicks of a Ricky Rubio for Derrick Rose swap, and there is more than just smoke with this. Although, if there is enough fire to get a deal done is another question entirely.

A Rose/Rubio swap is a small win for the Knicks — Rubio would find a way to get the ball to Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, plus he improves their defense. Also, it means they don’t have to overpay Rose or another point guard this summer as Rubio is under contract for next season.

For the Timberwolves, they get a guy who will get them some buckets on the drive but who also takes opportunities out of the hands of Towns, Andrew Wiggins and everyone else. Plus Minnesota’s defense gets worse. I’m not sure how that gets them to the playoffs.

Yao Ming elected Chinese Basketball Association president

SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 09:  Yao Ming reacts during the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Symphony Hall on September 9, 2016 in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese Basketball Association has voted unanimously to appoint NBA Hall of Famer Yao Ming as its president.

The CBA’s social media account quoted Yao as saying at a ceremony on Thursday that he hoped to reform the domestic league’s draft system and push more Chinese players into the international arena.

Yao’s appointment is considered as a reform step for an association which until now has typically been led by government sports officials.

Yao, 36, was one of the first Chinese athletes to become an international household name when the Houston Rockets drafted him with the first pick in 2002. The 2.29-meter (7-foot-6) center played for eight seasons before retiring in 2011, citing chronic injuries.

The Shanghai-born Yao was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016.

As trade rumors swirl, Paul George gets back to work with Pacers

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 14:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 14, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George showed up to work Wednesday wearing the same Indiana Pacers uniform he has all season.

He has no changes planned for Thursday either.

With rumors swirling about George’s future and the NBA’s trade deadline set for 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, the four-time All-Star tried to tamp down speculation by staying focused on his current job.

“I’ve got a team to turn around in the second half, and that’s what I’m committed to,” he said Wednesday after an evening practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

George could have avoided a bit of conflict if he had used those same words in an interview Friday on ESPN radio.

Instead, he talked about his desire to “play on a winning team” after being asked about a possible extension with the Pacers, leading some to wonder if George is uneasy about a longterm deal in Indiana. An unwillingness to sign could land him on the trading block.

George knows it’s all part of the basketball business, even if it’s tricky for big-name players.

If he is actually available, the 26-year-old star would be one of the hottest commodities on the market.

George is again one of the league’s best scorers, has appeared on the league’s all-defensive team three times and was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2013. He’s led his team to two conference finals and won an Olympic gold medal. And he has a propensity for delivering on promises, like when he swore to come back better than ever after breaking his lower right leg in a horrifying scene 2+ years ago.

Now Pacers fans want to know whether George will make good on another promise: Bringing the franchise its first NBA title.

The decision may rest more with Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, than George.

Bird is trying to do what’s best for the short and long term. Indiana has lost six straight and is currently seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference.

George wants to be a part of the solution.

“I think we can make moves to get better,” he said. “I’m confident in where we’re at and what we can do.”

George’s contract has added a twist to the traditional discussions.

While Bird has already offered a max contract extension, George can opt out of his current deal after next season. He seemed to indicate he might do just that during last week’s All-Star activities.

“As I told Larry, I always want to play on a winning team. I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it (all). That’s important,” George said Friday. “Say what you want; I want to compete for something. It’s frustrating just playing the game for stats or for numbers or to showcase yourself. Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.

“I wanted to be the first and want to be the first to be able to bring a championship to Indiana,” George added. “So that’s still on my mind … and something I definitely want to achieve in Indiana.”

The Indianapolis Star reported Wednesday that George and team owner Herb Simon met in New Orleans, a subject George declined to discuss Wednesday.

George did say that he and Bird are “on the same page.”

What exactly that means for Thursday remains unclear.

Bird must decide what works best – strengthening George’s supporting cast, or collecting players and draft picks so they can go in a different direction.

George’s teammates are hopeful the star is still around for Friday night’s game against Memphis.

“I would hope so,” point guard Jeff Teague said. “I enjoy playing with him. He’s the reason I wanted to be here.”

Reports: Kings front office rushed to trade DeMarcus Cousins, fearing owner would change mind

Vlade Divac, Vivek Ranadive
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Why did the Kings trade DeMarcus Cousins late Sunday night? Might they have gotten a better off than the Pelicans’ piddly package by waiting until closer to Thursday’s trade deadline?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac felt pressure on multiple fronts.

First, as he said, he had a better offer two days prior and feared the return would only get worse. Cognizant of losing out on the designated-veteran-player extension, Cousins’ agent was threatening not to re-sign with teams that traded for Cousins, and that apparently spooked one at least one potential suitor.

And then there’s Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive, who reportedly has been intent on keeping Cousins.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports on The Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix:

They wanted to do this deal before Vivek Ranadive changed his mind again. This talk about this new list of transgressions by Cousins over the last few weeks — the incident with the Golden State fan, the technical fouls now that it turned into suspensions — these were very consistent with what’s gone on. These weren’t new. Now, they used that to say, “Well, we just decided we couldn’t go forward with him.” Management, the front office, they’ve wanted to trade him for a very long time. And they could not get Vivek on board. Once they had Vivek on board, they didn’t want him to change his mind again. A, that was part of the reason they rushed on Sunday to get the deal done.

Marc Stein of ESPN on The Lowe Post podcast:

Vivek has been resistant to a DeMarcus Cousins trade for so long. He was into the Buddy Hield-New Orleans package idea, and the Kings’ front-office people wanted to push this thing through as fast they could before the owner changed his mind. I think that’s where the urgency came.

Cousins contributed to a toxic environment in Sacramento. For all the good he brought, there were plenty of negatives. I understand trading him to improve the culture.

But if you have to rush through a trade before other teams (like the Lakers) have a chance to improve their offers just so your Buddy-Hield loving owner won’t harmfully meddle, maybe jettisoning Cousins won’t eliminate all the dysfunction.