Chris Paul discusses his place in the MVP conversation

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HOUSTON — Chris Paul is having one of his best overall seasons, leading a deep and talented Clippers team to top-tier status playing among the elite in the Western Conference.

Paul’s importance as the main cog that keeps the Clippers machine running was spotlighted recently, when his team struggled with a record of just 2-7 during a nine-game stretch when he was sidelined with a bruised right knee.

LeBron James has been other-worldly, and Kevin Durant might finish the season in the rarified 50-40-90 air in terms of shooting percentages from the field, the three-point line, and the free throw line before it’s all said and done. But Paul has been just as important to his team’s overall success, despite his not-as-gaudy numbers.

When asked if he deserves to be in the MVP conversation during his All-Star media availability on Friday, Paul chose to focus on his team’s goals for this season rather than his own personal achievements.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even worry about it to tell you the truth. I’ve been runner-up for like three years or something like that, so it is what it is. I’m more focused on winning a championship.”

The MVP is subjective, of course, and is maddening to pin down when fans try to win arguments either for or against a certain player’s candidacy. Paul defined it fairly simply.

“On every team in the league, they know who their most valuable player is,” he said. “It’s that team that wouldn’t be the same without that guy. Everybody has a different person on their team that fits that category.”

When told the award typically goes to the best player on one of the two best teams in the league from a regular season win-loss perspective, Paul seemed fine with that.

“Obviously you need to be winning games, because if you’re the most valuable then you play a part in making your teammates better and winning games,” he said. “You can’t win 20-some games and think you’re most valuable, because obviously you’re not, then.”

While Paul was humble in discussing his MVP worthiness, he was willing to talk up the position he plays, and emphasized his belief of how important it is to a given team’s overall success.

“The point guard position is the toughest position in the NBA right now,” he said. “And it’s been that way for a nice little while. I always said, everyone in the NBA is talented; some are more talented than others. At the point guard position you never have a night off. You never have a night off.

“Most nights, every night you play, the point guard is going to be the go-to guy — the guy that you’ve got to slow down in order to slow down the team.”

There’s virtually no way Paul passes LeBron or Durant in MVP voting unless his Clippers go on an incredible tear in the second half of season that finds the team with the one seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. And even then, if James continues his insane level of play, there might not be anything stopping him from taking home the award for the fourth time in his career.

Paul is certainly aware of this, which is likely the reason he’s not entertaining thoughts of his chances this season. But when you look at the way his Clippers have played both with and without him, there’s no question he’s in that conversation.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.