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NBA Power Rankings Week 5: Warriors climb to top, Mavericks fall to bottom

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We all knew that Golden State would have the top spot in the rankings at points this season (seven wins in a row will do that) but did anyone see Dallas on the bottom? That caught me off guard.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (11-2, Last Week No. 3). They have won seven in a row, and have done it with a dominant offense and a pedestrian defense. The Warriors are moving the ball — they have 30+ assists in their last nine games — and they are scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions with a True Shooting Percentage of 62.4 in the last seven. Against Toronto last week, almost 74 percent of the Warriors’ shots were either at the rim or a three pointer, and 45 percent of their shots were uncontested (according to NBA.com players tracking). That is covering up a defense giving up 106.6 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (12-2, LW 1). You can’t underestimate how great Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been defensively this season, propelling this team — but don’t sleep on how great the Clippers’ offense has been of late. In the Clippers’ last five games they have scored 118.9 points per 100 possessions (second only to ridiculous Warriors offense). They are scoring efficiently in every possible way — transition, pick-and-roll, spot-up jumpers, whatever they run now it works.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (10-2, LW 2). What’s the primary place the Cavaliers are getting shots? Catch-and-shoots. They account for 30 percent of their looks, and the Cavs are shooting 55.4% eFG% on those (stats via Synergy Sports). The one loss last week was when LeBron James rested. They enter a fairly soft stretch of the schedule, with the only challenge being Portland in the next week.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (10-3, LW 6). They have won five in a row and remain undefeated on the road at 7-0. San Antonio’s offense is 3.8 per 100 better when Tony Parker is on the court. “Tony knows the offense better than anybody, and he gets us organized in a lot of situations, so he has been really important since he came back from his injury,” said Gregg Popovich.

 
Hawks small icon 5. Hawks (9-4 LW 5). Part of Atlanta’s success has been it’s bench — it has the most efficient scoring bench in the NBA so far this season (using points per possession). Well, at least until the entire team sleepwalked through a day game Sunday in New York. At the heart of that bench has been the play of Thabo Sefalosha, who is having his best season in the NBA, efficient on offense and playing fantastic defense.

 
Bulls small icon 6. Bulls (9-5, LW 9). Dwyane Wade sat out the second game of a back-to-back in Los Angeles, which signaled the start of Chicago’s knee maintenance program for him. Chicago won anyway with Jimmy Butler dropping 40, and with that have won five-of-six (with the lone loss being the Clippers). When Butler and Dwyane Wade are on the court but no Rajon Rondo, the Bulls outscore opponents by 24.7 points per 100. They finish up their road trip vs. Denver and Philly this week.

 
Hornets small icon 7. Hornets (8-4, LW 8). Kemba Walker has been a flat out beast this season, especially running the pick-and-roll. He’s got a 53.9 percent eFG% on those shots, and as a team the Hornets score at a very good 1.03 points per possession on those plays. Teams are trying to take the ball out of his hands on those plays, but when he has to pass out Hornets still at a good 0.91 points per possession (stats via Synergy Sports). Tough start to the week with Memphis and San Antonio, then an interesting home-and-home with New York.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (8-5, LW 4). We didn’t want to penalize them too much for losses to the Cavaliers and Warriors last week, and while the referees followed the letter of the law in the end in Sacramento that rule needs to be changed. The Raptors have been all offense, no defense of late: in the last five games they are scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but giving up 108.8. Also, your weekly reminder that DeMar DeRozan is a beast even if Anthony Davis passed him in the scoring leader chase.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (8-5, LW 15). The Rockets looked every bit a playoff team this week beating Portland and Utah, while playing Oklahoma City to the wire in a two-point loss. It’s just two games, but to the eye the Rockets’ defense looks much improved with Patrick Beverley back. (Can he pull it out of the bottom 10? They are 22nd right now.) After Thanksgiving Houston heads out on a five-game West Coast road trip that will be a real test.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (8-5, LW 17). Winners of four in a row, and that includes beating the Clippers and Jazz on nights David Fiddle’s spread the floor offense clicked. The bad news is they will need to continue this streak without Chandler Parsons for a couple weeks (bone bruise in his left knee), and their spacing and shooting is not the same with him off the floor, they are 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse with him sitting.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (8-6, LW 11). This team has some ugly losses — they lost to the Pistons without Andre Drummond this week, and despite a triple-double from Russell Westbrook they lost to a Pacers team resting Paul George on Sunday. They have a mini West Coast road swing to start the week (no Warriors), then head home to take on the Pistons with a chance to get a little revenge for that loss.

 
Celtics small icon 12. Celtics (7-6, LW 12). Both Al Horford and Jae Crowder returned on Saturday night — and Horford celebrated by hitting the game winner, then getting the game sealing block. Isaiah Thomas’ offense has struggled recently, the return of Horford as a pick-and-roll partner and guy to space the floor should help. Look for them to climb the rankings the next few weeks now that they are healthy again.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (8-7, LW 10). They have the worst defense in the NBA this season, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions this season (the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu is part of the problem). All of that is why there will be more of things like the recent three-game losing streak, it’s hard to get consistent wins without defense — the offense can only bail you out so much. How many wins can they get out of a week with the improving Knicks and Pelicans, plus the Cavaliers and Rockets on the schedule?

 
Lakers small icon 14. Lakers (7-7, LW 12). The offense is there, the Lakers have scored 120+ points four times this season, which is already more than the two years under Byron Scott combined. The problem is on defense, where the Lakers cannot get stops, which did them in against a depleted Bulls team Sunday. The Lakers have allowed 116 points per 100 possessions through their last four games. Larry Nance Jr. is turning everyone’s heads, he had 18 points on 11 shots vs. the Bulls.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (7-8, LW 7). The Jazz have a four-game losing streak, and they have played eight games without George Hill now (out with sprained thumb) and are 3-5 in that stretch. Maybe the guy feeling Hill’s loss the most is Gordon Hayward, who has struggled with his shot because the spacing is not there. Dante Exum makes a nice backup right now but he cannot fill Hill’s shoes, which is why Utah is taking a serious look at extending Hill.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (7-7, LW 20). The Pacers beat the Cavaliers, although only because LeBron James sat, but more impressively got a win Sunday vs. Oklahoma City with Paul George out. He’s got a sprained ankle and will miss at least one more game (Warriors). Jeff Teague had 30 points and nine assists in the win over OKC, after a slow start to the season he has found his shooting groove the last couple of weeks. Tough schedule this week with the Warriors, Hawks, and Clippers (and a respite against the Nets).

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (6-7 LW 25). They have won three of four and in those four games the Knicks defense has been near the league average — which is a massive improvement. We’ve only had a small sample size but the Knicks have looked great with Carmelo Anthony at the four and Kristaps Porzingis at the five, they need to run more of that. Tough tests for that defense this week vs. Portland, then a home-and-home with Charlotte.

 
Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (6-8, LW 16). They beat the Thunder on the night Andre Drummond rested, but have lost three in a row since as their defense has been terrible. There may be no team with a bigger road/home difference than the Pistons, who are 1-7 on the road but 5-1 at home. This week they are home for three but it won’t be easy against the Rockets, Heat, and Clippers.

 
timberwolves small icon 19. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 18). They continue to struggle getting production out of the point guard position — Ricky Rubio’s never-good shot has not taken a step forward, and Kris Dunn is not ready to take over that role — the rookie is shooting 32.7 percent overall and is miserable from the midrange (and 27 percent from three). The defense also remains bottom 10, which is where Tom Thibodeau is going to push for improvement.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (6-7 LW 22). They are getting outscored by 7 points per 100 possessions this season, which would would suggest a 3-10 team (according to basketball-reference.com), but their defense is improving and that is winning them some games. Jeff Green is starting over Aaron Gordon now at the three, which reminds us that Gordon was at his best at the four but isn’t getting used there enough. Winnable games this week: Suns, Wizards, and two against the Bucks.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (4-8, LW 26). Goran Dragic is back from a sprained ankle and the Heat picked up two quick wins (Bucks and Wizards). Not a coincidence. Hassan Whiteside is living up to that massive new contract — 17.7 points, 16.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game, with a PER of 25. He’s playing like an All-Star. This week they are on the road in Philly, Detroit, and Memphis.

 
Bucks small icon 22. Bucks (5-7, LW 14). The Bucks have lost five of six, including three in a row to quality teams (Hawks, Heat, and Warriors). What player has the lowest eFG% in the league on shots from from outside the paint? Gianni Antetokounmpo at 25.5%. They have two games against Orlando coming up, but the Cavaliers and Raptors are mixed in as well.

 
Nuggets small icon 23. Nuggets (5-8, LW 24). They won two-of-three last week and the one loss was in OT to the Raptors. Mike Malone is still searching for lineups that work well, but he seems to like a front line of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic (it worked well against the massive Jazz front line). Tough week coming up with the Bulls, Jazz, and Thunder on the docket.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (5-9, LW 21). They had lost four in a row before getting a quality win over the Raptors Sunday, which happened when they moved Rudy Gay to the four to start. The story with the Kings is fairly simple: When DeMarcus Cousins is on the court the Kings get outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions (very close to playing teams even), when he sits they get outscored by 13.7 per 100. Also, when Cousins and Rudy Gay are on the court together the Kings are +3.4 per 100.

 
Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (4-10, LW 29). The return of Jrue Holiday has been huge for the Pelicans, he is hitting shots (54.8 percent) and when he is on the court the Pelicans are outscoring opponents. Anthony Davis took over the top spot in the NBA scoring race, at 31.7 points a game. Hawks, Blazers, and the Mavericks are on the schedule this week.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (4-9, LW 19). The Nets have lost four in a row and gone 2-6 since Jeremy Lin went down, their offense is just not the same with him sidelined. Of course, their defense has been a disaster of late as well and he’s not going to help as much on that end — the Nets try to be aggressive and pressure on the wings but they don’t have personnel to do that.

 
Wizards small icon 27. Wizards (3-9, LW 28). The John Wall/Bradley Beal combo isn’t a disaster — when they are on the court together they Wizards outscore their opponents by 2 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Wizards’ offense is middle of the pack, the problem is their 25th-ranked defense keeps costing them games. Wall and Beal each scored 30+ on Saturday, but they couldn’t get stops and the Heat got the win. Can they pick up wins this week against the Suns and Magic (I wouldn’t count on the Spurs).

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (3-10, LW 30). The Sixers have won two-of-three, beating the Wizards and Suns last week. Joel Embiid is still a force of nature inside and finding his game, but when Nik Stauskas is hitting shots the Sixers floor spacing is better and they pick up wins. Those wins will be tough to find this week against the Heat, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Cavaliers.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (4-10, LW 27). One of the biggest surprises of the season so far is the fact Devin Booker is shooting 41.4 percent overall and 27.9 percent from three. Not the step forward we all expected. The Suns are in the middle of a six game road trip (1-3 so far, the win against the Pacers without Paul George) and the team continues to struggle on both ends of the court.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10, LW 23). Losers of five in a row, even with the return of Dirk Nowitzki, and they have the worst offense in the NBA. Harrison Barnes is trying to carry the offense and is doing well, but much of that is coming in isolation — 29.7 percent of his shots have come in isolation, the highest percentage of any player in the league this season, but he’s shooting a very good 52.4 percent on those (via Synergy Sports). It will be hard to find wins this week against the Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers.

Kemba Walker, Myles Turner lead Team USA over Australia in World Cup tune-up

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) With his team playing on a raised basketball court in a stadium normally used for soccer and cricket, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he felt like he was on a movie set.

“I kept looking behind me because I knew I was going to fall off the stage,” he said.

But once the game started, Popovich thought it all seemed normal. And if it had been a movie, Popovich surely would have liked the ending.

Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Myles Turner added 15 points and 14 rebounds, and the U.S. topped Australia 102-86 on Thursday before a crowd of 51,218 – billed as the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Australia.

“We have guys that are just starting to play with each other,” said U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points. “We got off to a little bit of a rough start in the first half, but the third quarter, we really picked it up defensively.”

Patty Mills and Chris Goulding scored 19 points each for Australia, which stayed with the Americans for about 2+ quarters before seeing chances slip away at Marvel Stadium – transformed into a make-shift basketball arena for two games against the Americans, tune-ups for both sides before the World Cup starts next week in China.

“It was an awesome opportunity,” Mills said. “I think basketball in this country has been waiting for something like this.”

After Australia briefly took the lead at 45-44 early in the second half, the Americans scored 13 unanswered points, including three straight 3-pointers by Turner, Harrison Barnes and Mitchell, to go up 57-45.

Walker was one the keys for the second-half resurgence for the Americans, scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime.

“I’m one of the leaders of this team, so it’s important for me to set that tone,” the Celtics guard said.

The roof of Marvel Stadium was closed and the court was placed in the middle of the field surrounded by hundreds of white chairs, more than 20 rows deep, for fans who paid for floor seating.

Despite the huge crowd, Australian media reported that some fans were issued refunds because they bought tickets based on promotional materials depicting Stephen Curry and LeBron James – who were part of the U.S. player pool when the deal was struck last year to play these games. Neither Curry nor James is on the U.S. roster for the World Cup.

Australia was also without its biggest star, Ben Simmons, who has opted not to play in the World Cup. Still, the Boomers starting lineup included four NBA players: Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova.

And the Aussies gave their crowd some thrills – like a run just before halftime that cut the U.S. lead to 44-43 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Goulding and six straight points by Mills.

The win was the 78th in a row in major international exhibitions and competition for the U.S. national team, a streak that started with the bronze medal game of the 2006 world championships. It encompasses gold-medal runs at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007.

TIP-INS

USA: Mitchell wrote “End Gun Violence” on his shoes before the game to remember the victims of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings … Boston’s Marcus Smart, who is still working his way back from a calf injury that popped up about two weeks ago during training camp in Las Vegas, did not play. … It was the first meeting between the national teams since the Americans won 98-88 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics on their way to a gold medal.

Australia: Actor Russell Crowe, who spends most of his time living in Australia, was part of the massive crowd. … In a sight that NBA fans are used to, Dellavedova dived on the floor for loose balls three times in the game’s first three minutes – including on the opening tap. … Mills gave Popovich, his longtime coach in San Antonio, a massive hug courtside just before the game started.

INJURY SCARE

Jayson Tatum got knocked over by a defender in the third quarter and tumbled backward somewhat awkwardly – the back of his head falling into Walker’s knee. Tatum was shaken up briefly but remained in the game.

UP NEXT

The teams meet again in Melbourne on Saturday.

NBCsports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 35-31

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to players 50-46, 45-41, and 40-36. These are players 35-31 on our list.

35. Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert was an unheralded recruit who originally signed with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. The last first-round pick from the MAC? Chris Kaman in 2003. Only after Ohio’s coach left, LeVert instead went to Michigan. He arrived in Ann Arbor at 6-foot-5, 165 pounds. A redshirt appeared obvious.

But LeVert forced his way into the lineup as a freshman. As a sophomore, he developed into an All-Big Ten second-teamer.

At one point during that season, Brian Cook of MGoBlog brought up a shortcoming: LeVert wasn’t attacking the rim and drawing fouls enough.

“But, like, wait a week and he’ll be better,” Cook quipped.

It barely registered as a joke. LeVert was improving that rapidly.

Unfortunately for LeVert, his career has since been dominated by significant injuries. The latest was a dislocated foot early last season. Before that, LeVert was generating plenty of Most Improved Player buzz.

LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive).

But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be.

LeVert has the work ethic. he has a good developmental infrastructure around him with the Nets. He just must stay healthy long enough to put everything together.
—Dan Feldman

34. Lauri Markkanen

There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be.

The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. In Markkanen’s final 10 games of last season — before he was shut down due to extreme fatigue and a bout of a rapid heart rate — he averaged 15.5 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting overall, 30 percent from three, and 7.7 boards a game. He was pretty average. Markkanen also has missed 27 percent of the Bulls games in his two seasons due to injuries (to be fair, those were fluke things, like his sprained elbow, not chronic things that would lead one to think of him as injury prone).

Markkanen is capable of more. If Markkanen can become a more consistent offensive force and better on the defensive end — he’s not a bad defender, he’s okay, but with his length and athleticism he should be a better rim protector — he can take over the role as the alpha on the Bulls. They need him to. Zach LaVine can go get buckets, but he is not a No. 1 option guy. Markkanen can be. Markkanen has the potential be an All-Star level player and the franchise cornerstone the Bulls need him to be. The question remains, can he reach that level and stay there?
—Kurt Helin

33. Damian Lillard

It’s been assumed that by the end of his most recent contract that Damian Lillard won’t be the player the Portland Trail Blazers need any longer. He’s already 30 years old, and the common refrain has been that point guards at or near six feet tall don’t age gracefully.

But like anything else, we must take both historical examples and understanding that we are in a new era of NBA basketball into consideration. This era is one where guys like Lillard are pioneering a 3-point shot that has stretched the limits of spacing on an NBA floor. Because of that, it’s entirely possible that Lillard ends up being more like late stage Jason Kidd then late-stage Chris Paul.

Kidd was 6-foot-4 and could play across multiple positions, but there’s a new geometry in the NBA that should aide Lillard. The dimensions of an NBA floor are being pushed to their limits as shooters get farther and farther away from the basket. As players adapt to this, passing lanes and scoring opportunities will continue to change.

With that in mind, Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason.

Superstar shifts are more likely to be unfortunate than successful. But Lillard is one of the most iron-willed players in the league, and he’s secure in both who he is and the cash he’s got in his pocket. If the need comes for him to find a new niche after a lost step or two, count on him to make it.
—Dane Delgado

 

32. Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert is underrated.

Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year.

Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. That’s so underappreciated.

Of course, none of this means Gobert will belong so high on this list at age 32. He’ll likely be past his peak in 2024.

But Gobert’s present-day production is higher than most realize. That gives him room to decline and remain quite good.

We’ll soon get a sense of how the Jazz value him long-term. Next summer, Gobert will be eligible for a super-max extension. I wouldn’t give him the full projected amount ($250 million over five years). I’d hesitate to give him even the smallest-allowable super-max projection ($155 million over five years). But remember, that extension would carry him through age 34.

At 32, Gobert has a much better chance of remaining a quality center.
—Dan Feldman

31. Stephen Curry

Did I miss something? I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38. Oh, and Steve Nash was an All-Star two weeks after his 38th birthday.

Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. After raising his scoring average to 28.2 points per game this postseason, there’s no signs of decline.

OK, the ankles. Yes, the ankles. There’s reason to worry that Curry’s wheels will deflate faster than the average NBA player, but even if Curry moves off the ball and becomes more of a spot-up shooter, I still think he’d stretch defenses to near half court. We’ve never seen a player like Curry who can launch from just about anywhere with the ball in his hands. But even if he can’t terrorize defenses with his lightning-quick handles and crab-like lateral movement, he’ll still impact the game at a high level simply by standing there beyond the arc. Just ask Miller, Allen and Nash about how that gravitational pull ages.
—Tom Haberstroh

James Harden: Media narrative contributed to Giannis Antetokounmpo winning MVP

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James Harden scored 36.1 points per game last season, the highest-scoring season since Michael Jordan. Harden’s 32-game 30-point streak was the second-longest streak ever. He scored 30 points against every team besides the Rockets.

My favorite Harden stat is just looking at the highest-scoring games of the season:

1. James Harden 61

1. James Harden 61

3. Kemba Walker 60

4. Devin Booker 59

5. James Harden 58

5. James Harden 58

7. James Harden 57

7. James Harden 57

9. LaMarcus Aldridge 56

10. James Harden 54

This was a special season.

So, why did Giannis Antetokounmpo win Most Valuable Player?

“Politics” was suggested to Harden.

Harden on 97.9 The Box:

I think the same way you think.

I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year.

I don’t want to get into details. But all I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. You know what I’m saying?

The season, there’s probably only a few seasons where anybody’s ever done that before.

People were tuned in onto how many points that I was going to score the next game. You know what I’m saying? It was a thing.

Harden is right. Narrative factors way too much into MVP voting.

Michael Jordan lost 1997 MVP to Karl Malone due to voter fatigue. In 2011, everyone was so mad about The Decision, voters picked Derrick Rose (and Dwight Howard) over LeBron James for MVP. Those results didn’t reflect what actually happened on the court.

As Houston started slow last season, Antetokounmpo became MVP favorite. That early inclination probably had an anchoring effect for final voting.

The most important step in eliminating biases is acknowledging biases. I have railed for years against letting narrative affect award voting. I think MVP should honor the player who had the best season. Nothing more, nothing less. When analyzing candidates, I make a concerted effort to separate superfluous factors like narrative.

I favored Harden a huge chunk of the season. I entered my final review expecting to pick Harden. But I ultimately landed on Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo was excellent offensively – not as good as Harden, but close enough to offset the massive defensive difference. Caught up in Harden’s scoring brilliance, I hadn’t properly appreciated Antetokounmpo’s defense until late in the process.

Harden had a great year. It was widely judged to be the second-best year in the entire NBA. He should be proud of that.

It’s unsurprising he answered this way, though. After all, he he has been enabled by a general manager who once said Harden’s previous runner-up MVP finishes meant maybe the award shouldn’t exist at all.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.