Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 5

Race to MVP still has five players in the running


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.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.