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Five players most likely to win the MVP Award

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Last season, we entered the year with a wide-open MVP race that could have gone a lot of directions, but in the end Russell Westbrook and James Harden had put up such ridiculous numbers they stood out at the top (although Kawhi Leonard was lurking).

This season, we are back to that wide open race — the tectonic shifts in players moving to teams with other superstars this summer has changed the race. Here are the five guys that have the best shot at winning the award.

1) LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s a four-time MVP — and finished in the top three in voting for eight straight seasons until he was fourth in 2017 — who has been so consistently dominant his biggest challenge is we have become accustomed to his greatness. He averaged 26.4 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, and 8.7 assists last season and it was greeted with a shrug. However, with Kyrie Irving traded to Boston and Isaiah Thomas likely a spectator until January, James will have to carry more of a load during the regular season. If the Cavaliers continue to be the dominant force in the East (as is likely), James will get the credit, and that could propel him to MVP No. 5.

2) Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the reigning MVP and earned it with a historic season becoming only the second player to average a triple-double for the season — 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. The addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder roster will mean Westbrook’s counting stats will decline, but if he can lead this team to a No. 2 or 3 seed in the West with at least 57 wins, and he can show true leadership making sacrifices and getting everyone involved, he could pick up a back-to-back MVP win as well.

3) Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. He led a 61-win Spurs team last season averaging 25.5 points per game, but his legitimate case for MVP was that he was the best defender of anyone in the group (and the Spurs had the best defense in the NBA). He doesn’t tout himself for the award (or for anything), but if he puts up similar numbers again and the Spurs are right there with the Thunder and Rockets for the two seed in the West, Leonard again will be in the mix to win the award. The one question has become will he be healthy enough, after he sat out all of the preseason with a chronic quad issue.

4) Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors. He is a former MVP, the Finals MVP from last season, and the best player — sorry Stephen Curry — on what should be the most dominant team in the NBA this season. The MVP award has often gone to the best player on the best team, which has Durant as the favorite among the Las Vegas oddsmakers. He averaged 25.1 points and 8.3 rebounds a game last season, and likely will have numbers close to that. The one thing that could hold him back is voters fatigued with the Warriors winning everything and looking for a narrative they find more interesting.

5) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. He burst into NBA superstardom last season when they put the ball in his hands, made him the defacto point guard, and he responded with 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. There is almost nothing he can’t do on the court, and he only continues to improve. The key for him is not his jump shot (which is slowly improving), but rather will the Bucks take another step forward — this has been a “two steps up, one step back” team for a few years now. If the Bucks are stagnant or worse this season, it is bad news for Antetokounmpo’s MVP hopes (and maybe Jason Kidd’s job). However, if the Bucks move up the ladder in the East and are winning 50+ games, the Greek Freak will move into serious MVP consideration.

Just missing this list: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving.

Joel Embiid: Aron Baynes (‘Man bun’) ‘in NBA just to get dunked on’

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During the second round of the NBA playoffs, Heat guard Goran Dragic slighted 76ers rookie Ben Simmons. That came after Philadelphia eliminated Miami in the first round.

The procession of disses continues with 76ers center Joel Embiid mocking Celtics center Aron Baynes during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday. Boston, of course, eliminated Philadelphia in the previous round.

Embiid:

Baynes has gotten dunked on a lot this year – including by Embiid in the playoffs. The two also got into it during their second-round series.

But Baynes has the big edge: He’s still playing.

Though Embiid would like to be in the playoffs, that’s not his only goal. He also wants attention. So, mission accomplished, I guess.

Watch James Harden demolish Draymond Green with dunk (video)

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It got buried by a – finallyclose finish, but James Harden‘s dunk over Draymond Green in the Rockets’ Game 4 win over the Warriors last night was spectacular.

Because the foul was called early in the play, Green essentially had free reign to do anything sub-flagrant to Harden during continuation. There wouldn’t have been a second personal foul called.

Harden dunked anyway, an amazing display of athleticism and will.

PBT Podcast: Conference Finals now best of three; plus Metta World Peace

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Both NBA Conference Finals are tied 2-2 in both the East and West — and breaking that down is not even the best part of this podcast.

That’s because NBA champion Metta World Peace joins us to talk about his new book, “No Malice: My Life in Basketball or: How a Kid from Queensbridge Survived the Streets, the Brawls, and Himself to Become an NBA Champion.” World Peace discusses the time he cracked Michael Jordan’s ribs in a summer game, how he was nervous before Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2010, and how he was a pioneer in NBA players talking about mental health. (Metta’s portion of the podcast starts at 30:17, if you want to skip ahead).

Prior to that, Dan Feldman and Kurt Helin of NBC Sports dive into a discussion of the two conference finals series. LeBron James brought Cleveland back, but with the Celtics going home will the young players wearing green respond and change the momentum around again?

Do the Warriors have another gear and the ability to win another game on the road in Houston? How are both of those teams going to deal with fatigue from their tight rotations and intense games?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Clippers extend contract of coach Doc Rivers

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While not many people were noticing, Doc Rivers did arguably his best coaching job since coming to Los Angeles this season. Chris Paul forced his way to Houston before the season, then during it Blake Griffin was shipped off to Detroit. Then there were the injuries to Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, two players expected to be key contributors who played a combined 32 games. The offense too often felt like Lou Williams vs. The World, yet the Clippers finished above .500 (42-40) and pushed for a playoff spot until the final days of the regular season.

The Clippers noticed what a good job he did, and how well he handled things after losing his GM powers to Lawrence Frank. That’s why they have rewarded him with a contract extension (the details of which are not yet public).

“I am proud of the success we have had here over the last five seasons, but there is more work to be done,” said Rivers in a statement released by the team. “We are coming off a year where our team battled through many challenges and much adversity, proving deep talent and even greater potential. I am looking forward to getting back to work on the court to develop our players and compete with the NBA’s elite.”

“Doc is one of the top coaches in the NBA, coming off one of his finest seasons since joining the Clippers,” Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “We trust Doc to lead a competitive, tough, hard-working team while upholding a culture of accountability expected to resonate throughout the organization.”

Rivers was entering the final year of his contract, and neither side wanted him to be in a lame duck status.

For a Clippers franchise in transition, this is a stabilizing move. CP3 and Griffin are gone, DeAndre Jordan can be a free agent this summer, and Los Angeles has some big-picture questions about the direction to take the team it needs to answer. Unlike in Boston, Rivers is going to stick around for this restructuring.

Plus, this is good for Rivers, who makes no secret of the fact he likes living in Los Angeles. He has a comfort level with the city and the organization. Rivers likely took a healthy pay cut from the more than $10 million a year he was getting to be coach and GM, but it’s still good money and an organization he likes. So he is sticking around.