Actually make it three for MVP
Some NBA awards talk and more feature on this Newsletter Tuesday ... with a reminder to make sure we don't forget to include Giannis in the endless Jokić vs. Embiid chatter
NBA awards season is dribbling to a close.
The 2022-23 regular season ends April 9. Year-end award ballots are due back into the league office April 10.
Time is short, then, for award aspirants to sway opinions within the NBA electorate.
I, again, will not be voting officially. I'll certainly make my theoretical selections known on this Substack in all the prominent categories, but I haven't cast a formal ballot since the 2016-17 season. The New York Times does not allow its reporters to vote on such awards, which ruled me out from 2017-18 through the 2020-21 season, and I have adopted the same policy on my new sports media planet.
No official ballot is needed, mind you, to give in to their irresistible pull and talk about the various award races. Of the six major individual awards, with teams approaching or even at the 70-game mark, there is a clear-cut favorite in just two categories.
1. Sacramento's Mike Brown, by all reasonable projections, is leading the Coach of the Year race.
2. And Orlando's Paolo Banchero has held the Rookie of the Year lead pretty much since Opening Night.
The other four? Up for grabs.
Who's your Sixth Man of the Year favorite? Is it destined to go to the Eastern Conference with Boston’s Malcolm Brogdon, New York’s Immanuel Quickley and Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis ranking as top contenders?
What about your Defensive Player of the Year fave? Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez? Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr.? Miami’s Bam Adebayo? Someone else?
How do you plan to assess a deep Most Improved Player field uncharacteristically filled with All-Stars (Lauri Markkanen and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and near-All-Stars (Jalen Brunson)?
League sources say there's also a fairly contentious MVP race brewing that you might have heard about it.
All I ask, as I first conveyed via the Monday Musings, is that we start properly referring to this as a Nikola Jokić vs. Joel Embiid vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo three-man MVP race. One of the disappointing offshoots of the nonstop (and increasingly un-fun) Jokić vs. Embiid debate is that Antetokounmpo is scarcely mentioned as a top candidate when he very clearly should be.
On top of ticking so many statistical boxes like he does, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are on a tidy 26-6 run to surge into the East’s top spot after a heavy home loss to Washington on Jan. 1.
It's going to be an eventful 25-ish days.
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Thoughts on The Big Dance
I hope the headline for this section didn't fool you.
You guys know by now that I have borderline zero to offer in terms of NCAA Tournament scouting or prognostication. Once Cal State Fullerton's season is over, my season is over.
Yet I can direct you to follow my pal Rafael Barlowe's excellent NBA Draft coverage via his NBA Big Board Substack if you plan to use the tournament for your draft preparations on top of the usual bracket endeavors known to captivate the nation this time of year.
I also want to take a moment to congratulate Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor, his trusty assistant Anthony Santos and the whole team and staff on another tremendous 20-win season.
My Titans, for the fourth time in the last five Big West tournaments, made it to the title game, which automatically sends the winner to The Big Dance. We lost this one Saturday night to UC Santa Barbara in Henderson, Nev., but you’ll hear no complaints from me.
Taylor once again got the most of the Titan talent and steered us to the one game every Big West team wants to play in. We won that game in 2018 and 2022. We lost it this season and in 2019. Just to get to the Big West decider this time, we had to beat Hawaii for the third time this season and then take out top-seeded UC Irvine in the Big West semis. We also had to overcome the cancellation of two regular-season home games against UC Davis and UC San Diego, as both opponents dealt with COVID-19 intrusions., that likely cost Fullerton two more victories and a higher tournament seed.
The Gauchos got us when it counted most … just 19 days removed from an emphatic Titan Tech road win over Santa Barbara in Goleta, Calif. That's the way it goes in the Big West. Everybody can beat anybody on their day (or night) and timing things just right in the conference tourney can be a high-stakes crapshoot.
I'm just grateful to Coach Taylor and Co. for getting the Titans into such meaningful games, over and over, and won’t take it for granted.
The end of Jim Boeheim's nearly 50-year run at Syracuse is the headliner NCAA story that grabbed me this month, but that's truthfully because I got to know Boeheim a little bit through his work as a Team USA assistant coach to Mike Krzyzewski at the three tournaments I covered in which they worked in tandem (2012 Olympics in London, 2014 Worlds in Spain, 2016 Olympics).
Just as with Krzyzewski, I got to experience Boeheim in a completely different environment from the one you're used to seeing him work. On USAB duty, with Coach K in charge and NBA stars all around, Boeheim happily blended into the background. There were no testy press conference exchanges. It was a treat for me, usually in a corner of the gym no one else had even noticed, to visit with him away from the chaos surrounding the starriest roster in the international game and just talk hoops with one of the college game's seen-it-all coaches.
I’ve never covered a single Syracuse game, so I'm by no means qualified to try to put his tenure with the Orangemen in the proper perspective. For that I refer you to my Substacking colleague Mark Whicker, who last week published this vintage Whickian look at Boeheim's highs and lows:
Continuing the discussion from my Monday Musings column about the mildest West of all time: The NBA has been a 30-team league since 2004-05. In the 15 full 82-game seasons since, no season has featured fewer than six teams with at least 50 wins, per research from my pal Mike Lynch of Basketball Reference. This season, though, we're on pace for only five 50-win teams ... and Cleveland (43-27) and Memphis (41-26) only just moved onto a 50-win trajectory with their respective victories Sunday and Monday. The three seasons with only six 50-win teams in the 30-team era: 2005-06, 2015-16 and 2017-18.
Since Portland’s Damian Lillard scored 71 points against Houston on Feb. 26, there hasn't been a 50-point game in the NBA for 15 days. Drought is probably too strong a word, but the dry spell seems notable because there have been 22 games this season in which an NBA player scored at least 50 points — including three in February — compared to just 19 total last season. Fifteen of this season’s 22 50-or-more games were in December (seven) and January (eight).
The 71-point games this season by Lillard and Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell have made this the first season with two 70-point performances since Wilt Chamberlain posted three in 1962-63.
It's been a while since I ran one of my favorite stats: Denver's Nikola Jokić leads the league with 99.2 touches per game. Indiana's Tyrese Haliburton is second in the league at 94.5 per game.
Only two of the top 10 players in the league in touches per game are big men: No. 1 Jokić and No. 9 Domantas Sabonis (82.4 per game) in Sacramento. Toronto’s Pascal Siakam is 11th at 81.4 per game despite a recent dip in his play.
The Grizzlies are 7-7 this season when Ja Morant doesn't play. They were 20-5 in Ja-less games last season.
Also in our Monday Musings column, we noted that Milwaukee recently became just the fourth team in league history to go unbeaten in February. The other three, as passed along by fellow Substacker Justin Kubatko: Dallas (10-0 in February 2007), Houston (13-0 in February 2008) and Houston again (12-0 in February 2018).
Golden State’s Stephen Curry turns 35 today. So I’m bringing back a one-on-one interview I did with Steph in January in which we discussed the milestone birthday as well as his longevity goals, this difficult title defense for the Warriors and the statistics he obsesses over:
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