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Three Things to Know: Who’s your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)

James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.

Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.

That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).

It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.

Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.

This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.

That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.

2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).

Nowitzki is not why this game was a national TNT broadcast on one of the league’s showcase nights: they wanted Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic. A 2018 NBA Draft showdown.

This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.

Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.

Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.

3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.

The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.

The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)

Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.

Zion Williamson has right knee soreness, won’t play final preseason game

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It’s the preseason, and so teams are trying to be extra cautious with their stars. That will apparently be the case this week as No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has reportedly not traveled with his New Orlean Pelicans for the final preseason game of the year against the New York Knicks.

Williamson has apparently strained his right knee, and his not heading to New York with the team isn’t looking like it’s just for rest as the regular season approaches. Williamson may actually have a bit of soreness working against him right now, which is the last thing any NBA fans want to hear right now.

Via Twitter:

The release from the Pelicans says that Williamson remained in Louisiana to undergo further testing on his right knee.

Hopefully this is nothing serious and the season can get off to a thrilling start. It certainly looks to be headed in that direction based off of how Williamson has performed already in preseason action.

New Orleans kicks off the regular season on Oct. 22 against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Ontario.

Michael Jordan opens first of 2 medical clinics in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — An emotional Michael Jordan unveiled the first of two medical clinics he and his family funded in Charlotte, North Carolina that will provide care to underprivileged members of the community.

The six-time NBA champion and Hornets owner was on hand Thursday for the grand opening of the $7 million Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic. Tears streamed down Jordan’s cheeks as he said, “this is a very emotional thing for me to be able to give back to a community that has supported me over the years.”

The clinic, located in a lower-income section of the city, will provide vital access to primary and preventive care to individuals in the community, including those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Jordan vowed to do more, saying “this is just the start of a battle of being able to touch as many people as we can.”

Jordan first announced the $7 million gift in 2017.

Andrew Wiggins doesn’t agree with people who don’t rank him very high

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This season, his sixth, is going to be the season where Andrew Wiggins looks and plays like he loves the game. His steadily-declining shooting percentages are going to rocket back up. He’s going to break out as an elite player who should have gone No. 1, and not just a guy who gets empty-calorie points.

That’s what Wiggins is thinking, anyway.

ESPN put out its list of top 100 players in the league and very reasonably did not have Wiggins on it, despite him scoring 18.1 points per game last season. In an excellent job of trying to create a second story out of the 100 list by asking about the “snub,” Wiggins said he isn’t worried about what people say about the four-years, $122 million still on his contract, but he wants to re-establish himself, he told Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“Everyone is counting pockets. Some people are mad about [it], some people are happy for you,” Wiggins told ESPN. “That’s how the world goes, especially when you’ve got something they don’t have or do something they don’t do. That’s how the world goes.

“Even when I averaged almost 24 points and got the max deal, people were still saying stuff,” he added. “Look at max players and some max players don’t average as much, but it is what it is. I’m just trying to get right, get back on track.”

If you just shrugged your shoulders, join the rest of the league.

Most Timberwolves fans have moved on from counting Wiggins as the second star to help out Karl-Anthony Towns. Most front office people on other teams have moved on as well, as evidenced by Wiggins’ nonexistent trade value (sources around the league say Minnesota has tested the market only to find no team that wants that contract unless the Timberwolves throw in sweeteners). 

Minnesota’s new head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Wiggins has to be a ‘main contributor’ if the Timberwolves are going to return to the playoffs. Which is one reason most experts have them missing out.

But Wiggins believes in himself. Timberwolves fans should expect and want nothing less than that, they just may not want to get their own expectations too high.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse shreds Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson

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The Raptors no longer have championship-level talent.

They still have championship-level expectations for effort and attention to detail.

Newcomers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson are learning that the hard way.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

That is HARSH.

But the last time he was coaching, Nick Nurse was overseeing a dominant defense deep in the playoffs. It must be a dramatic adjustment going to preseason intensity and sans Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Nurse might also be trying to motivate Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson, who have the tools to be more effective.

This aren’t new issue for these forwards, though. They were available so cheap for a reason.