McGraw: MVP race might be best in NBA history
Due to dwindling competitive effort, all-star games have pretty much run their course and the NBA is no exception.
But when it comes to star power, the NBA might be at an all-time high.
This is a specific reference to the MVP race. The NBA all-star break is a good time to pass out mid- to late-season awards, so consider these candidates:
• James Harden has been on a tear, scoring at least 30 points in 31 consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in NBA history. Since Jan. 1, he's averaged 41.8 points.
For the season, Harden is averaging 36.6 points, a number no one has hit for a full season since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87. Harden is also pitching in 7.7 assists, but he might not win MVP.
• Most people felt there was no chance anyone in the modern NBA could average a triple-double over a full season. Oscar Robertson's 1961-62 would be one of a kind.
Well, Russell Westbrook is about to average a triple-double for the third straight year. He's backed off the scoring (21.7 ppg) this year, but is on pace for career-highs in rebounds (11.2) and assists (11.2). He's probably not going to win.
• Paul George is having the best season of his career. He's not only posting career-highs in points (28.7) and rebounds (8.0), he leads the NBA in steals. George is averaging 32.4 points since Jan. 1, which isn't Harden territory, but impressive since he shares a ball with Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
• Philadelphia's Joel Embiid has quietly cranked up his production, averaging 27.3 points and 13.5 rebounds. Is that good? Well, no one has averaged 27 and 13 in the NBA since Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-2000. And New Orleans' Anthony Davis has nearly identical numbers, 28.1 points and 12.9 boards.
• After missing 18 games with a groin injury, LeBron James won't be a factor in the MVP race. But he is averaging 26.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists in his first Lakers season. The last time he won MVP, with Miami in 2012-13, James averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Not much difference.
• Steph Curry has picked things up with 28.6 ppg, while shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range. In his second MVP season of 2015-16, Curry averaged 23.8 points and shot 44.3 percent from 3-point range.
• These are all worthy candidates, but voters tend to favor the best player on the best team, which makes Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo still the MVP favorite. He's averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and shooting 58.1 percent from the field. The Bucks hit the break with the league's best record and the Greek Freak has been the driving force, without a doubt.
Realistically, this is a two-man race between Antetokounmpo and Harden. If the Bucks stay on top of the standings, this might be Antetokounmpo's year. If the Bucks falter, Harden will likely repeat.
An argument like this wouldn't be complete without some historical perspective. Our pick for the previous best MVP race was 1987-88, the year Jordan won the first of his five awards.
This was truly a year when legends from two eras overlapped. Jordan led the league in scoring at 35.0 points. Dominique Wilkins was a strong second at 30.1 ppg. Larry Bird had his last dominant season with 29.9 ppg.
Big men shined as well. Charles Barkley averaged 28.3 points and 11.9 rebounds, Karl Malone was at 27.7 and 12.0, with Hakeem Olajuwon at 22.8 and 12.1.
John Stockton deserves a mention for averaging 13.8 assists. This was the first of Stockton's five straight seasons averaging at least 13.5 assists. There have been only two other occasions in NBA history when someone averaged 13 assists -- Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson did it once each.
An honorable mention MVP race is 1966-67. Rick Barry led the league in scoring with an MJ-like 35.6 ppg. Robertson checked in at 30.5 points and 10.7 assists. Jerry West was at 28.7 points and 6.8 assists. But the MVP was Wilt Chamberlin, who averaged a tidy 24.1 points and 24.2 rebounds, and won his only championship in Philadelphia.
Coach of the year
Milwaukee's Mike Budenholzer has turned a supposedly-flawed roster into a powerhouse during his first season. So he's an obvious favorite, but not the only strong candidate.
It's been a month since Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending knee injury, but Indiana is still third in the East, ahead of Boston and Philadelphia. So Nate McMillan has done a remarkable job. Brooklyn, with coach Kenny Atkinson, is on track to make the playoffs despite trading away several dozen lottery picks. Sacramento's Dave Joerger deserves credit for producing rapid rebuilding results. Who knew that was even possible?
Rookie of the year
Dallas' Luka Doncic has this one wrapped up, but it's been a good rookie class. Atlanta's Trae Young struggled early with his 3-point shot, but made up for it by piling up assists. Sacramento's Marvin Bagley has come on strong, Phoenix's DeAndre Ayton is back from injury and Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. had a good start.
Most improved player
This one probably belongs to Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell. He's gone from the young player the Lakers didn't want to an all-star leading the Nets into the playoffs.
Defensive player of the year
This is always a tough one, but looking at the best teams and players in defensive rating points to four finalists -- Antetokounmpo, George, Indiana's Myles Turner and Utah's Rudy Gobert. Maybe this should be George's consolation prize.
Sixth man of the year
Lou Williams has taken the baton from Jamal Crawford as the league's most dangerous bench scorer. He's averaging 19.9 points off the bench this season, which will be tough to beat. Brooklyn's Spencer Dinwiddie, an original Windy City Bull, was another top contender, but he had thumb surgery, which might knock him out of the race.