Three things to know: Breaking down tiers of NBA MVP race this season

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The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) Breaking down the tiers of the NBA MVP race so far this season

Let’s start with the caveat: It is way too early to have this conversation. With nearly three-quarters of the season left, what you see below and what is on my MVP ballot after the season could be very, very different.

That said, the race seems to be shaking out into tiers. To me, four players would have to be on the ballot (which goes five deep). Then the field opens up. However, as noted, with three-quarters of the season left, players will move up and down this ladder.

Here is where I see the MVP race right now.

• Top Tier: LeBron James and Joel Embiid

To win MVP, a player traditionally has to check off a few boxes. LeBron James checks the boxes.

First, it takes numbers. How about 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game, while shooting 41.3% from three. Check. Second, it takes being the best player on a team with one of the conference’s top three records. Check. And finally, it takes having a good narrative. Not only a check, this is where LeBron pulls away — he is the best player on the planet; he came in second in MVP voting a year ago but then stepped up in the playoffs and led his team to a title, and along the way reminded everyone he should have more MVP awards. LeBron will be the default choice for a lot of voters. So long as he and the Lakers don’t take their foot off the gas and coast through a long stretch of the season, LeBron will be near the top of every MVP list.

Joel Embiid would get my vote if I had to cast it today. He’s got the numbers — 28.3 points and 11.1 rebounds a game — and he’s the best player on the team sitting on top of the East standings. What would win it for me is Embiid’s defense, he is the anchor and heart of the fourth-best defense in the league (LeBron’s Lakers have a better defense, but Anthony Davis is the lynchpin there). What could hurt Embiid with voters is he does not have that narrative that stretches back to last playoffs. His story is about lifting the Sixers to a new level so far this season, but that story has many authors (it could win Doc Rivers Coach of the Year). Still, if Embiid stays healthy and plays like this all season, he is in the mix.

• Next tier, but will their team win enough: Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic

Kevin Durant has not missed a beat — he is playing like the pre-Achilles Durant who, for my money, was the best player walking the face of the earth for a couple of years (while in Golden State he outplayed LeBron in the Finals). That comeback narrative goes a long way, and KD has the numbers: 30.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game (and his advanced numbers are not far back of Embiid and LeBron). Brooklyn currently sits second in the East, but they have played dreadful defense since the James Harden trade, and voters notice things like ugly losses to Washington. That said, if Brooklyn can hold their spot near the top of the East, Durant has to be in the conversation.

Nikola Jokic is no longer averaging a triple-double for the season, but his numbers — 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 8.6 assists a game, while shooting 38.4% from three — all done incredibly efficiently put him in the conversation. Two things hold his candidacy back. First, his defense is not as good as the people above him on this list (and Denver’s defense is bottom 10 in the league). The other is wins. Denver started slow (and was a bit unlucky) but has strung together some quality wins of late, including ending the Jazz’s 11-game win streak. If Denver is a top three (or top four but very close) team in the West, Jokic has a shot.

• Third tier: Other players who could vault into the race

After those top four players, the field opens up considerably.

Other players who have played their way into consideration early include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George (George started fast, but Leonard has been better of late). They all will be in the mix if they can fill in the holes in their resumes this season. Not all of their teams will finish in the top half of their conference (Lillard and Curry could be hurt here), while others will have a strong season but may not live up to expectations (Antetokounmpo and Doncic). That said, there’s a lot of season left for these players to change their narrative and vault up into the upper reaches of this race.

2) Jokic’s MVP case? Ask Utah about the 47 he dropped on it Sunday

Utah came into Denver with the best record in the NBA and riding an 11-game win streak fueled in part by Rudy Gobert playing like his Defensive Player of the Year self so far.

Jokic blew that up — 47 points (tying a career high), four threes, with 12 rebounds and five assists.

Big games on the biggest stage is how you get in the MVP conversation. Denver got the win, 128-117.

That Jokic — and Embiid — are getting MVP mentions despite playing center speaks to what an amazing season both are having. Center has become a devalued position in the NBA, with some teams playing an undersized four in the role to get more floor spacing. Jokic and Embiid not only fly in the face of that trend, but they have also been phenominal. Games like Sunday against Utah are a reminder of just what a special player Jokic is.

3) Russell Westbrook game-winning three hands Brooklyn a crushing loss

Kyrie Irving calmly drained his free throws putting Brooklyn ahead five, 146-141, with 12.3 seconds remaining. The game is in the bag…

Except then Bradley Beal races the ball up court and quickly drains a deep three. All Brooklyn has to do is get the ball inbounds and get fouled, but Joe Harris tried to inbound the ball to the space Durant was cutting out of, the Wizards grab the ball, and Russell Westbrook from three is your game-winner.

Huge win for the Wizards, who needed one desperately.

For Brooklyn, it just gave up 146 points to the Wizards.

It’s title or bust in Brooklyn, and that defense will bust them if something isn’t done to shore it up.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.

New coach, new attitude, but will that fix Lakers defense, Westbrook fit?

Los Angeles Lakers Media Day 2022
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham was the new face at the front of the room, and since the day he walked in the door he has been about looking forward and a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.

“This year, we’ve turned the page, you know, we’re looking at the windshield, not so much through the rearview mirror,” coach Ham said.

However, at Lakers’ media day everyone kept looking backward — to the team’s poor defense and questionable fit of Russell Westbrook last season.

Can a new face at the front of the room, a new focus, and some better luck with injuries wipe away that past and make the Lakers a threat in the West again?

“I think everyone here has a chip [on their shoulder], and in every right, obviously, [after last] season, last year,” another newcomer, Patrick Beverley, said. “Everyone wants a little bit of oomph, a little bit of you know, more of whatever it is.”

For Ham, “whatever it is” means defense. On Monday, Ham was preaching defense again. Like he has incessantly since the day the Lakers hired him — he is hanging his hat, his rotations, and the Lakers’ chances on an intense defense.

Of course, Frank Vogel preached defense, too. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020 they had the third-best defense in the NBA, the following season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on that end got lost last season for various reasons. The Lakers fell to the bottom 10 in the league on that end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.

Ham tied last season’s defensive concerns and Westbrook fit in the rotation together — if you don’t defend, you don’t play. That includes the $47 million former MVP guard.

“We got to have a defensive mindset,” Ham said. “Those are the guys that’s going to get the minutes, guys going out there to get stops. And… [Westbrook has] told me personally, he’s going to commit to that side of the ball.

“And that’s what camp is for. We’ll see.”

Ham would not commit to Westbrook as a starter. That comes after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook, to move on from last season’s frustrations, but any deal had to bring value back to the Lakers. That really never came close to happening (there wasn’t a great market for Westbrook’s services at his current price tag). So Westbrook is back.

“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, show up to work like I’ve always done thus far, do my job the best way I know how to, and that’s it. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to, and any other job across the world. As a professional and as a working man I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take of my family, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The awkwardness of Westbrook’s fit was a structural one — he has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play a role now. He’s not their best shot creator, he will be standing in the corners at times. That’s not in the nature of the aggressive, confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never strike a balance.

“We’re telling Russ be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him that before every game, like be yourself,” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him thinking too much like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the ball LeBron or AD’ and now he’s being passive and not being aggressive, which is who he has been in his league to be Russell Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, we can adjust.”

Ham, however, has talked about running the offense more through Davis — this is a critical year in his time with the Lakers — and, of course, nobody is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.

“My thing is offensively, we want to play fast, want to be physical and play free. And fast meaning our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Bron around the elbow area,” Ham said. “There’s a variety of sets that we have planned to install that’s going to highlight their strengths, get Russ in post more.”

Westbrook said all the right things about fitting in. Again.

“I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team doing whatever that is asked of me,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters I’ll be the best person I could possibly be.”

Westbrook said all the right things a year ago to LeBron and Davis, then his fit with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it really change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”

Each of the Lakers big three talked about just needing more time together healthy (for the record, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when all three shared the court). They jumpstarted the process this summer with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.

“With all of us you know our time on the floor together was very limited because of injuries for myself and Bron but I think that was that was really it,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”

Injuries have been an issue. Davis spent the summer getting healthy and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry a larger load. LeBron echoed that idea.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham’s media day message was not a new one, it’s what he’s been saying — defense, accountability, a team mindset. The question, looking back to last season, is fit. Ham has talked to Westbrook about those things and has been the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ is going to get his chance.

“Everything has been about you know, being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding [Westbrook] to that — words that came out of his own mouth,” Ham said.

Roster changes could come in Los Angeles. They didn’t this summer — at least with the core players — because GM Rob Pelinka would not send out both picks the Lakers can trade (2027 and 2029) for any deal that didn’t make Los Angeles a contender. Asked bout that, Pelinka noted he gets one swing at this and it has to be a home run.

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Pelinka said. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

In the short term, that improvement falls to Ham and the Lakers roster. They are saying all the right things about looking forward.

But will the ghosts of seasons past haunt them again? We’ll see.

Wolves’ Edwards ‘willing to do whatever it takes to make it right’ after homophobic post

2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves
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MINNEAPOLIS — Anthony Edwards said he’s “willing to do whatever it takes to make it right” with the LBGTQ community and Minnesota Timberwolves fans following the homophobic remarks he recently made on social media.

Addressing reporters at Timberwolves media day on Monday, his first public appearance since the NBA fined him $40,000 for his now-deleted video clip on Instagram, Edwards apologized again for the disparaging, profane comment he made about what he assumed to be the sexual orientation of a group of men he filmed on a sidewalk outside a vehicle he was riding in.

“Man, I respect everybody. I know what I posted was immature, and I’m sorry for that if I hurt anyone,” Edwards said. “I’m working to be better.”

Edwards said he would be OK having a gay teammate if someone came out and would try to clamp down on homophobic language in a locker room if he heard it.

“For sure. I’m taking it as far as I can. That’s not who I am,” Edwards said.

After ranking 19th in the league with an average of 21.3 points per game last season and helping lead the Timberwolves back to the playoffs, Edwards in his second year flourished into a true star and fan favorite who consistently brought a youthful energy and a charming confidence to the court and off of it.

Following the trouble he stirred up earlier this month, Edwards found himself in the strange and sudden position of being an unpopular figure.

“It’s kind of messed up, because I want people to love me, man. I don’t want to give nobody a reason to hate me or talk bad about me, so I felt bad for myself and for what I said about people for sure,” said the 21-year-old Edwards, who was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft.

Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and coach Chris Finch both had stern conversations with Edwards after the social media post.

“It just makes me think before I do everything now, pretty much,” Edwards said.

Said Connelly: “He’s disappointed in his own actions. He’s disappointed that he put himself in that position, and hopefully he’ll continue to grow and we’ll continue to educate these guys on the importance of being really positive community members and respectful of all people that we’re lucky enough to have in our community.”

BONJOUR, RUDY

Media day for the Timberwolves has often been accompanied by some kind of off-the-court distraction, with the sudden firing of president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas (2021) and the trade demand made by star Jimmy Butler (2018) the most recent examples.

This time, the Edwards situation overshadowed some of the arrival of Rudy Gobert, the veteran center and defensive ace who was acquired this summer from the Utah Jazz for four players and five first-round draft picks.

Gobert recently returned from the EuroBasket championship, where his France national team lost to host Spain in the gold medal game in which he had only six points and two shots.

“You learn from the losses. You learn from the wins. For me, just learn how to finish the job. We had a really good tournament, but we fell short at the end,” Gobert said.

PATIENT RUSSELL

Playing this season on a salary of more than $31 million, point guard D'Angelo Russell has returned to training camp with an upbeat attitude, a new pick-and-roll partner in Gobert – and as a new dad.

After an up-and-down season, and a first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies – a six-game loss – that left much to be desired, Russell did not receive a contract extension. But the eighth-year veteran didn’t get traded, either.

“The money’s in free agency, so if that’s what you’re about, tap into it. No frustration,” he said. “The organization has treated me as great as it could possibly go, and the people here now have obviously showed their love toward me and how much they want me to be here. That’s all I can ask for.”

MISSING TOWNS

Karl-Anthony Towns was absent from media day with an unspecified illness, but he was not expected to miss the first practice on Tuesday.