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


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.

Hart will be free agent this summer seeking new contract, ‘would love for it to be New York’


Josh Hart‘s play since coming to the Knicks has made him a lot of money.

Already a darling of many front offices, Hart has been a seamless fit in New York, averaging 11.1 points and seven rebounds off the bench for Tom Thibodeau, playing quality defense, and being the kind of plug-and-play wing every team can use. He’s quickly become a fan favorite in New York, but the Knicks will have to pay up to keep him. Hart has a player option for $12.9 million next season that he is widely expected to decline — there’s a lot more money and years available to him on the open market.

Hart told Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape he wants to find a home, and he hopes that it is in New York.

“I want bigger things for my wife and myself,” Hart said. “Just find a home somewhere where we are valued and really like living there. And I think that can be New York. I would love for it to be New York and hopefully the organization feels the same way. Coming up, this contract is hopefully my biggest one, one where I’m making sure my family’s fully taken care of. So, I’ve also got to take that into account, too.”

That is the polite way of saying, “I like it here but you’re not getting a discount.”

While Hart will have made a tidy $33 million in his career when this season ends, his next four-year contract will be worth more than double that amount — this is the deal that sets up generational wealth for Hart’s family. This is a business and he has to make the decision best for him, as much as he may love the Knicks.

Expect the Knicks to pay up, especially as long as Thibodeau is around. This is a deal that should come together.

But first, Hart and the Knicks are headed to the playoffs, and Madison Square Garden will be rocking. It’s going to be the kind of experience that makes a guy want to stay with a team.

Hall of Famer, Knicks legend Willis Reed dies at 80


Willis Reed, the legendary Knicks’ center whose dramatic entrance onto the Madison Square Garden floor minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals sparked the team to its first title, has died at the age of 80.

The National Basketball Retired Players Association announced Reed’s passing. While no cause of death was announced, it was known Reed had been in poor health for some time.

“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “My earliest and fondest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who embodied the winning spirit that defined the New York Knicks’ championship teams in the early 1970s. He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports.

“As a league MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP and member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Willis was a decorated player who took great pride in his consistency. Following his playing career, Willis mentored the next generation as a coach, team executive and proud HBCU alumnus. We send our deepest condolences to Willis’ wife, Gale, his family, and many friends and fans.”

Reed had an amazing career — highlighted by the two NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards, plus being a seven-time All-Star — but he is best remembered for a legendary 1969-70 season. That year he became the first player to sweep the regular season, All-Star Game and NBA Finals MVP awards.

However, it was him walking out on the court for Game 7 of the Finals in 1970 — after he suffered a thigh injury in Game 5 and had to miss Game 6 of the series, and the Knicks had no answer for the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain without him — that became the moment of legend. Reed scored four early points that game, and while he was limited the rest of the way he sparked the team to its first title (Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists had something to do with the win, too).

Reed was born in 1942 in Hico, Louisiana, and stayed in the state through college, leading Grambling State to the 1961 NAIA title. Considered an undersized center at 6’9 “, teams quickly learned he played much bigger than that as he went on to win the 1965 Rookie of the Year award.

Reed averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds a season over the course of his career, and he had his No.19 retired by the Knicks. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.


Reported optimism Towns, Edwards to return to Timberwolves Wednesday


The Timberwolves could finally get their roster whole this week — just in time for a final postseason push — with the return of both Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.

That could happen as soon as Wednesday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Facing the Hawks and their bottom-10 defense could be a soft landing spot to bring Towns and Edwards back.

Towns suffered a strained calf in November that was expected to keep him out for 4-6 weeks. However, he had a setback in January, reports Jon Krawczynski at The Athletic, and it has taken until now to get back. Towns averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this season before the injury, but his efficiency was down (32.8% from 3), and his fit with Rudy Gobert and Edwards was clunky. The trio needed more time to sort everything out, but the injury robbed them of that.

Edwards rolled his ankle last week and it looked much more severe at the time, but he was listed as day-to-day and has bounced back quickly. Edwards is a player who prides himself on playing nightly and pushing through nagging injuries.

The return has come at a critical time for the Timberwolves, who sit as the No.8 seed as of this writing (tied for 8-10, officially) in a West where 1.5 games separate the No. 7 and 12 seeds. The Timberwolves need wins and getting their two best offensive players back should be a boost.

However, the fit of this Timberwolves roster — radically overhauled last offseason — was rough in the season’s opening month before Towns was injured. Now the players are being thrown back together for the first time since then. Having a real floor general and pass-first point guard in Mike Conley now should smooth the transition, but the Timberwolves don’t have a lot of season left to work out the kinks, and they need wins now to ensure they make the postseason (ideally as a No.7-8 seed to have an easier path out of the play-in).

Watch Dillon Brooks pick up 18th technical, will get suspended another game

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Dillon Brooks sat out the Grizzlies’ March 5 loss to the Clippers after reaching 16 technical fouls this season — hit that number and the league gives a player an automatic one-game suspension. After that, with every two more technicals a player earns another suspension.

Brooks had gotten another and was up to 17 heading into a critical game Monday night against Dallas, when he did this:

Brooks will likely be suspended by the league Wednesday against Houston, the game where it appears Ja Morant will return to the court. Don’t look for the Grizzlies to appeal and try to get this technical rescinded, as coach Taylor Jenkins said, via Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“At this point, I don’t think we even try anymore,” Brooks said.

What was Brooks doing? Telling Theo Pinson he was a cheerleader.

Brooks’ rough night included him trying to do a jersey swap with Kyrie Irving after the game, but Irving not accepting Brook’s jersey (Brooks stepped on Irving’s foot during the game, aggravating an injury and had Irving leaving the building in a walking boot). After the game, Brooks admitted he needs to rein things in a little.

“I’ve got to tone it down and get back to my mindfulness practice and find ways to channel it better,” Brooks said.

Brooks needs to do this for the sake of his pocketbook — this is two game checks lost to suspension, and that doesn’t even include the $35,000 fine for shoving a cameraman.

Brooks plays with an edge, it’s part of what makes him effective — he’s the guy that gets under the other team’s skin. However, it’s one thing to walk the line and another to step over it constantly. Brooks needs to do better at knowing where that line is.

The good news for the Grizzlies and Brooks is the technical count gets wiped out for the playoffs and starts over (with suspensions starting at seven).