Three things to know: Embiid, LeBron injuries throw MVP race wide open

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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

Ten.

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.

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.

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?

And that wasn’t the only play he was making he simply wasn’t in Detroit.

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.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

WhatsApp's "Naija Odyssey" New York Premiere
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.