The NBA season is into its second half, 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) Embiid, LeBron injuries throw MVP race wide open
There is no edict from the NBA that says how many games a player can miss in a season and still win the Most Valuable Player award, but in practice that number is 10. There are exceptions — Bill Walton missed 24 games before winning back in 1978, and Allen Iverson was out for 11 games when he won in 2001 — but none in the last two decades. Voters (selected media members) rightfully note that part of being valuable to a team is being there and on the court for teammates.
At the All-Star break and midpoint of the season just more than a week ago, Joel Embiid and LeBron James appeared to be this season’s MVP frontrunners.
Embiid missed that game due to injury and has since hyperextended his knee — he has now missed 12 games and counting.
LeBron has now missed two games, the latest one after suffering a high ankle sprain on Saturday against the Pacers. The timeline on returns from that injury are all over the map, but as Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, that number is generally about 10 games. LeBron is legendary in how fast he returns from ankle issues, but if he misses 10 or more games, it will seriously dent his MVP chances.
Those injuries have thrown an already unpredictable MVP race wide open.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic certainly has the offensive numbers — 27.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.6 assists a game — and the advanced statistics love him. Some pundits already had him on the level of (or even above) Embiid and LeBron. However, concerns about his defense and only being able to lift Denver to the five seed (tied for that spot) hurt his case.
Portland’s Damian Lillard faces the same challenges as Jokic. Lillard has the numbers — 30.3 points and 7.6 assists a game — and he has been the most clutch player in the league this season. He has had to carry Portland while CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic were out (McCollum has returned to the lineup). However, Lillard’s defense is in question (and the Trail Blazers have the 29th ranked defense in the league), and Portland is the team tied with Denver for the five seed.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has come on strong of late — the Bucks have won six in a row and 11-of-12 — and he is averaging 29 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 6.4 assists a game. However, Antetokounmpo faces voter fatigue and doubts after winning the award two years in a row only to have his Bucks flame out in the playoffs (and he had some rough series)
There are other players in the mix, but they have bigger questions. Stephen Curry is carrying the Warriors’ offense and putting up MVP numbers, but Golden State is just a game above .500 and the nine seed. Luka Doncic started slow in Dallas but came on as the season moved on and Dallas has climbed the standings (but is still eighth). James Harden has been a playmaking revelation in Brooklyn, but he started the season by showing up to Houston out of shape, demanding a trade, and torpedoing that franchise’s season. Kawhi Leonard has looked dominant at points, but he and the Clippers have been inconsistent. Kevin Durant played at an MVP level but now has missed 24 games (and counting) this season.
Maybe LeBron returns after only missing five games, doesn’t look like he has missed a beat on the court, and grabs ahold of this race. Or maybe as the Lakers slip, Jokic lifts Denver into the top four in the West, which helps bolster his case. Or…maybe a lot of things.
All we know for sure is that with 30 games remaining, the MVP race is as wide open as it has been in a long, long time.
2) Rookie of the Year frontrunner LaMelo Ball fractures wrist
LaMelo Ball had done something this season we didn’t think possible — he made the Charlotte Hornets must-watch television.
Which is why this news feels like a punch to the gut. LaMelo — who is the clear Rookie of the Year frontrunner — likely is out for the rest of the season due to a fractured wrist suffered against the Clippers Saturday. While the team left the timeline for a return open, other reports suggest we will not see Ball again this season.
Fracture is in the area of Ball's thumb, source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 22, 2021
Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game this season. He also is helping Charlotte win games — something rare for a rookie. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East and will struggle to hold onto that slot without Ball in the rotation.
The injury happened midway through the second quarter Saturday. LaMelo drove the lane in transition and landed awkwardly on his wrist. He played the rest of the game but heavily favored his left hand.
Charlotte has been mentioned in trade rumors as a potential seller at the deadline, but that dynamic may change after this injury. If the Hornets are serious about making the playoffs, they may need to be buyers.
3) Blake Griffin is back — and dunking
Blake Griffin made his debut as a Brooklyn Net on Sunday.
Blake Griffin gets an ovation checking in for his Nets debut 👏 pic.twitter.com/8krzNPEUNv
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 21, 2021
Since the signing, pundits had been warning Nets fans, “don’t expect Lob City Griffin, he’s not the same player.” Griffin hadn’t even dunked a ball since December of 2019.
So how did he get his first bucket as a Net?
BLAKE THROWS DOWN HIS 1ST @BrooklynNets BUCKET! pic.twitter.com/1SS6JPN3Ls
— NBA (@NBA) March 22, 2021
And that wasn’t the only play he was making he simply wasn’t in Detroit.
WELCOME TO BROOKLYN, BLAKE pic.twitter.com/MA7jPMtg6c
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) March 21, 2021
Griffin played 15 minutes Sunday, had just that one basket, but showed off his playmaking and passing, and generally looked like a guy who could play backup big man minutes. He could be a boost for the Nets at the five, with DeAndre Jordan basically being a matchup-dependent option at this point. That is all the Nets were hoping for. It’s one game, small sample size theater is in play, but the Nets should be happy.
As for the game itself, a feisty Washington team showed up to take on Brooklyn, but 28 points from Kyrie Irving and Harden adding 26 sparked a 113-106 Nets victory.