The NBA's worldly MVP race
Can a US-born player bring a halt to the recent monopoly on the league's most coveted individual honor by foreign-born stars? A varied and deep field is forming one month into the regular season
Best American Basketball Player in the World was never a thing for the NBA's first 70-plus seasons because, well, basketball is first and foremost an American sport.
Making such distinctions was unnecessary.
Then the last five regular-season MVP awards were won by Giannis Antetokounmpo (two), Nikola Jokić (two) and Joel Embiid ... with Luka Dončić also regarded as a likely future MVP and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander barging his way onto last season's All-NBA first team.
It's a run of foreign dominance that, at the very least, has forced us to start asking the question regularly: Who will be the first American to wrest what is now known as The Michael Jordan Trophy away from the game's foremost international stars?
An American-born player last won the league's regular-season MVP award in 2017-18. It was a former Houston Rocket you surely remember named James Harden.
Three things I've noticed on this front through the opening month of the 2023-24 regular season:
🏀 My sense is that there has been less MVP chatter and debate than usual in November ... perhaps because of the NBA's efforts to devote so much of its marketing energy to In-Season Tournament awareness.
🏀 There is a long list of American stars that have made promising, gaudy starts to the new season that we will get to in a moment.
🏀 It might not matter because Antetokounmpo, Dončić, Embiid, Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokić are all so good. They leave little room for competition.
Jayson Tatum was a popular preseason pick to bring an end to the international stars' half-decade hold on the MVP award and has indeed played a more well-rounded game than ever amid Boston's 11-3 start. Tatum's unfortunate free throw miss late in overtime Monday night in Charlotte left the Celtics agonizingly short in an unforeseen 121-118 loss to the Hornets ... but only after Tatum had amassed 45 points. 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. He probably has the best shot to crash the party if the Celtics keep stacking up wins like they have.
A trio of slightly younger franchise players has likewise all produced on a similar level — Minnesota's Anthony Edwards, Indiana's Tyrese Haliburton and Philadelphia's surprising Tyrese Maxey — while Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown has already decided that he's going to be a vocal campaign manager for freshly named Western Conference Player of the Week De'Aaron Fox.
Said Brown after Fox (30 points, four rebounds and seven assists) combined with Domantas Sabonis to lead the Kings to an impressive victory Sunday night in Dallas:
"He's a two-way player — he guarded multiple guys tonight. He guarded Kyrie [Irving], he guarded Luka [Dončić] a little bit, he guarded off the ball. And he was phenomenal, but that's who he is supposed to be. We need to get that every single night from Fox for 48 minutes. And that's his mindset, and once he's there, now he's MVP. Because nobody ... nobody can freakin' mess with that man. He's that talented. Believe that."
Miami's Bam Adebayo has also playing the best two-way ball of his career … and then there is another trio of familiar thirtysomethings who have excelled from the jump for teams that realistically will have win more to put them in MVP contention.
LeBron James (who turns 39 in December), Stephen Curry (who turns 36 in March) and Kevin Durant (who turned 35 in September) are all still performing at a standard that demands we keep them ranked among the sport's top 10 most feared individual forces.
Thanksgiving Week, to be honest, is too soon for me to get too worked up about the MVP race, but the season's one-month marker did strike me as a good time to note that the MVP field looks like it's going to be deeper than usual, maybe even adorned with some new contenders.
Something else to watch: How many 50-win teams in the West will we see this season? Last season there were only two: Denver and Memphis.
If such parity inflicts the West again, that pesky team success component could well resonate with MVP voters even more than it usually does.
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NBA Photo Album
Two images that grabbed me in advance of your faithful correspondent’s looming back-to-back (Jazz at Lakers followed by Mavericks at Lakers) at what some of us still instinctively want to call Staples Center:
Phoenix's Kevin Durant is third in the league in minutes per game (37.2) this season, behind only Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey (38.1) and Portland's Shaedon Sharpe (37.3)
Only three players in the top 10 in minutes per game are 30 or older: Durant at 35, No. 6 Tobias Harris (36.3) at 31 and No. 9 Anthony Davis (35.7) at 30.
Rasheed Wallace is the NBA's all-time leader in ejections with 29.
According to research from my pals who curate the Yahoo! Sports AM newsletter, Golden State’s Draymond Green is now alone in second place behind Wallace with 18 career ejections — one ahead of Dwight Howard.
Five more former NBA players, per Kendall Baker and Co. from Yahoo's newsletter, have a career ejection total in the teens: Charles Barkley (16), Anthony Mason (16), DeMarcus Cousins (14), Shaquille O'Neal (14) and Matt Barnes (13). Dennis Rodman, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Miller are next in line with 12 each.
Before Green's five-game suspension for putting Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert in a chokehold, Brandon Ingram and Mo Bamba shared the longest suspension in the Adam Silver Era for on-court transgressions at four games each.
The next Timberwolves/Golden State game is 124 days in Minneapolis on March 24.
Three NBA teams awoke Tuesday with an unblemished record at home: Denver (7-0), Minnesota (6-0) and Boston (5-0).
Eighty-nine of the 90 available spots for two-way contracts leaguewide are filled. The only team with only two players on two-way deals is Phoenix, which is the league's only team without a G League affiliate of its own. The Suns are expected to have a G League team next season.
The Dallas Mavericks were deemed the most interesting team in Texas according to respondents to last Tuesday's poll question with 46 percent of the vote. Houston received 31 percent, followed by San Antonio at 23 percent.
This week's edition of The Saturday Stein Line will air at the special time of 8 PM CT rather than its usual noon slot. UNT Mean Green football pre-empts us at noon, but the move to the evening — combined with the usual Mavericks pregame show hosted by Kevin Gray Jr. — means that 97.1 (FM) The Freak in Dallas will feature 90 minutes of NBA buildup Saturday night before the Mavericks play in LA against the Clippers.
I’m typically on the radio Saturdays from noon to 1 PM CT on 97.1 (FM) The Freak in Dallas with an hour of live NBA talk. Join us online by clicking the link embedded in this sentence or via the iHeart radio app to listen to The Saturday Stein Line on this or on any Saturday ... or catch the podcasted version of the show once it drops via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or #whereveryougetyourpodcasts:
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