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.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss: ‘I have complete faith in Magic Johnson … I have patience’

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Shortly after she hired Magic Johnson as team president last year, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss said she’d be heartbroken if the Lakers didn’t have an All-Star in 2018, when the game was in Los Angeles. Her urgency was apparent.

Of course, the Lakers didn’t have an All-Star last season. None came close.

But then they signed LeBron James this summer, and Buss has changed her tune.

The Rich Eisen Show:

Buss:

I have complete faith in Magic Johnson in terms of his ability to be a leader, to know how to put together a winner. And I have patience. And I think what he’s done has exceeded my expectations, how quickly they’ve kind of turned around the roster.

Johnson has done a great job running the Lakers. He cleared cap space while maintaining plenty of assets and convinced LeBron to sign.

The degree of difficulty on that is… debatable. Perhaps, LeBron just decided to join the Lakers and didn’t need much convincing.

What’s next for Johnson?

Maybe Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee will fit well with LeBron. Maybe Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are ready to compete deep into the playoffs.

I’m skeptical, which means Johnson’s next steps will be tricky. He has more than earned Buss’ faith, and her patience gives him even more latitude to build as he sees fit.

Still, it’s a bit odd to see a team acquire a 33-year-old superstar then shift into a more-patient approach. LeBron’s prime won’t last forever.

It’s on Johnson to maximize it.

Danny Ainge roasts Celtics players on Twitter

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Celtics president Danny Ainge has built a star-studded and deep team. Boston even has a few extra first-round picks to get even better in future years. The Celtics have 15 players with standard contracts, the regular-season limit. Unlike last year, Boston probably won’t swing a major late-summer trade.

So, Ainge is spending his time clowning his players.

He got Jaylen Brown:

Then Terry Rozier:

Do more, Danny! Kyrie Irving is overdue for another social-media feud.

Did Kevin Durant choose Warriors within day of Thunder losing to them in 2016?

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The Warriors eliminated the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals on May 30. On the following July 4, Durant announced he’d leave Oklahoma City for Golden State.

But when did Durant actually decide on signing with the Warriors?

Durant, Rich Kleiman (Durant’s business partner) and Rudy Cline-Thomas (Andre Iguodala‘s business partner) sat on a panel at Bloomberg’s Players Technology Summit.

Cline-Thomas, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“Remember 2017, you just lost to the Warriors — no 2016, you had just lost the Warriors, May — you and I get together after the game. I thought I was just gonna focus on not talking about basketball, and you wanted to focus on talking about Silicon Valley — asking me how it was out here.

“You had been following what Andre and I were doing, how it was being surrounded by all these CEOs, innovators and entrepreneurs. And I was like, ‘Wow. First and foremost, like yo — this dude just told me he’s about to sign with the Warriors, right (laughter). So, I was like I’m not gonna tell anybody, didn’t tell anybody whatsoever, didn’t want any rumors to get started…”

Durant on when he began thinking differently about business opportunities, via Shiller:

“Probably about 2015, I had got hurt. Basketball had always been my world … it stopped, and I had to think about other parts of my life and what I was interested in … it was rough because I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I liked or what type of person I wanted to be … I started to hear about Andre and more guys around the NBA — especially that play for the Warriors — that took advantage of the opportunities of being in the Bay Area.

“So throughout that whole year, me and Rich were talking about investing in companies and what I like to do outside of ball. Then I (saw) you and just all those questions came out at once and I was basically telling you I was coming to the Warriors (laughter).”

Kleiman, via Shiller:

“Well I just learned that he told you in May, before free agency — which is hardly factual, which we’ll have to clear up with Marc Spears and everybody here (laughter) — no way did that happen, but cool… (laughter).”

Did Durant really tell Cline-Thomas in May of a plan to sign with the Warriors? Did Durant know his intentions and inadvertently show his hand while talking to Cline-Thomas? Did Durant not consciously know where he’d sign but reveal clues to Cline-Thomas during their conversation? Were Durant and Cline-Thomas just joking?

Was Kleiman trying to set the record straight? Was he just trying to cover for Durant?

Durant was back in Oklahoma City for a press conference June 1, 2016. So, when Cline-Thomas says “after the game,” it sounds as if he meant the night of Game 7.

Of course, that will raise all kinds of questions about Durant’s competitiveness in the 2016 Western Conference finals. If he had one foot out the door to join the Warriors, how motivated was he to beat them? But Durant was awesome throughout that series. Golden State was just a great team. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he compartmentalized his feelings on the Warriors while facing them.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if he decided on Golden State shortly after the series. Draymond Green recruited Durant throughout that season. The Warriors’ desire to add Durant and their high level of appeal was well-established. Even without tampering, they didn’t have to wait until free agency officially began to become Durant’s choice. The NBA can control timing of permissible contact – not Durant’s mind.

It’s just tough to tell exactly what to take from Durant’s, Cline-Thomas’ and Kleiman’s comments – even with context of video:

Report: Kobe Bryant’s $6 million investment in sports drink now worth $200 million

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Kobe Bryant’s investment in BodyArmor is paying off – in a huge way.

Darren Rovell of ESPN:

Bryant made his first investment in the brand, for roughly 10 percent of the company, in March 2014, putting in a total of roughly $6 million over time. Based on the valuation of the Coca-Cola deal, his stake is now worth approximately $200 million, sources told ESPN.

Bryant earned about $330 million in his 20-year playing career. Add endorsements and this investment, and he could be approaching the level of wealth necessary to buy a major share of an NBA team (if that’s what he wants, which it doesn’t seem to be).

But we need greater context to understand Bryant’s acumen as an investor. If he diversified his portfolio, reporting on only the big winner could be extremely misleading. It’d be like saying Bryant made 11,719 shots. It’s impressive. But understanding how impressive requires knowing how many shots he attempted.