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.

Devin Booker to play in Suns’ opener Wednesday

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Devin Booker — the Suns’ newly minted max contract player — had been working hard to recover from off-season hand surgery in time for the opening of the season (the original timeline after surgery had him missing the first week or two of the season).

Looks like he made it, according to coach Igor Kokoskov, via Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic.

Booker is young, 21, and hopefully he just healed quickly. There is no reason to rush Booker back here, the Suns need to approach this season with a long-term view, not thinking win now.

This is going to be an interesting young Suns team with Booker, rookie Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Mikal Bridges, and now with some veteran voices in Trevor Ariza and the newly added Jamal Crawford in the locker room. This team is not playoff bound in the West, but nightly they will be improved and not a pushover.

Portland, NBA community react to passing of Paul Allen

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For 30 years, Paul Allen has owned the Portland Trail Blazers. In that time the team made the NBA Finals a couple of times, was a model of consistency making the playoffs 23 times, and providing a city unforgettable memories filled with some of the biggest personalities and best players in the game.

Allen passed away Monday, losing his battle to cancer. He was just 65 years old.

It has led to an outpouring from the entire NBA community, especially around Portland.

“Paul Allen was the ultimate trail blazer – in business, philanthropy and in sports,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “As one of the longest-tenured owners in the NBA, Paul brought a sense of discovery and vision to every league matter large and small.  He was generous with his time on committee work, and his expertise helped lay the foundation for the league’s growth internationally and our embrace of new technologies.  He was a valued voice who challenged assumptions and conventional wisdom and one we will deeply miss as we start a new season without him.  Our condolences go to his family, friends and the entire Trail Blazers organization.”

Russell Westbrook listed as out for season opener vs. Warriors

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No Russell Westbrook. No Andre Roberson. Maybe no Steven Adams.

This is not what the NBA had in mind when they sent Oklahoma City to Golden State for the second game of the NBA’s opening night doubleheader on national television. But, that’s the reality due to injury.

Westbrook had arthroscopic surgery on right knee back on Sept. 12 and it was expected to be re-evaluated around the start of the season. However, with the marathon of the NBA season about to start no way the Thunder were never going to rush him back, national television and the Warriors or not. While it’s less than ideal, getting it dealt with and missing training camp and a few games is better than to risk something worse during the season (or miss a month of the season in a Western Conference where there is little margin for error because of the depth of quality teams).

The Thunder called it “maintenance,” but this is Westbrook’s fourth surgery on that knee, although it’s the first in more than four years. His issues with this knee date back to the 2013 playoffs when Patrick Beverley crashed into it and tore the meniscus.

Westbrook is about to turn 30, has some heavy-usage miles on that body, and just signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension.

Alvin Gentry: Pelicans wouldn’t trade Anthony Davis for anyone – ‘not even Beyonce’

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Pelicans star Anthony Davis said he’s the best player in the NBA.

His coach, Alvin Gentry, agreed then expanded.

Gentry:

If you don’t want to call him the best player, I call him the most valuable. Because if you can trade him for anybody, then he is the most valuable guy. Not that we would ever consider that. Don’t you guys take some kind of spin and put it on top. There is no one in the league that we would trade him for. There is no one out of the league. Not even Beyonce. If we wouldn’t trade him for her, then he’s probably untouchable.

I’d trade Davis for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s also in the MVP race, even younger and locked up an extra season.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden are better, older and locked up for longer than Davis. I’d probably trade Davis for LeBron or Curry, though not Harden.

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum are worse, younger but also locked up for longer than Davis. I probably wouldn’t trade Davis for any of them, though the additional team control makes it worth considering.

Really, Davis is already at the point – as few as two years from unrestricted free agency – trade speculation hits high gear. The possibility of him leaving New Orleans high and dry in 2020 is too great to ignore.

As far as Davis for Beyonce… I guess it depends on your priorities.