As we near the end of the released portion of the NBA’s schedule and head toward a bizarro All-Star Game and the stretch run of the season with fans in the stands, the actual basketball has been delightful of late. Protocols are working to keep players on the court, and after a condensed offseason, it appears teams are finally rounding into form.
There remains a glut of teams hovering around .500, but on the whole, the playoff and awards races are becoming clear. Here’s who’s up and who’s down this week in the NBA.
Stock Up: The NBA MVP race
It’s nice to actually have a debate for this award again! That’s not to say watching Giannis Antetokounmpo develop into a devastating two-way player and make the Bucks a contender wasn’t exciting in its own way, but this year’s race is shaping up to go down to the wire between three players.
For Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, there’s the chance to see whether a big man can win for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal. Both Philadelphia and Denver’s bigs are putting together career-best seasons, but their teams are trending in opposite directions. Jokic’s Wilt impression has been necessary just to keep the Nuggets afloat, while Embiid’s consistency and development have this Sixers team looking like they might finally break through to the conference finals or further.
And then there is, of course, LeBron James, who is in search of his fifth MVP trophy at age 36. The debate ratcheted up a notch this week when Anthony Davis claimed “politics” might get in the way of James winning the award despite the best shooting season of James’ career and his oversight of the team’s dominant record.
— Brian Jacobs – The Painted Lines (@BrianMikeJacobs) February 11, 2021
All three players are putting up incredible numbers, with teams built specifically around their skill sets. But the nod for me has to go to Embiid, in large part because of what he’s doing defensively in addition to the fact that he’s impossible to guard and has grown as a play-maker. The Sixers are nearly 21 points better per 100 possessions when Embiid plays versus when he’s on the bench, the best metric of the three candidates and among the best in the NBA.
It’s never smart to grade players on a curve compared to what they had done in the past, but that context helps understand why Embiid is so valuable now. He’s noticeably more engaged and energized late in games this year, and has mastered the balance in his scoring so that there’s almost no hesitation as he considers whether to try a three, settle into the post, or give the ball up. We focus mostly on Ben Simmons when we talk about the fit between the Sixers’ stars, but Embiid has done his part to make the pairing work better as well by becoming a better passer and decision-maker and bringing the same nightly energy that Simmons does.
Their two-man game, in particular, has become a sight to behold.
The two-man game between Embiid and Simmons was a sight to behold last night.
Embiid's passing and Simmons' comfort with his right hand have taken it to a new level this year. pic.twitter.com/5alZe0AyRO
— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) February 12, 2021
Though advanced metrics show Embiid may be slightly worse this season on defense than usual, he has, on the whole, taken his game to a new level and is our MVP leader.
Stock Down: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s offensive evolution
Coming off a 47-point night in a loss (without Jrue Holiday) to the Suns, Giannis is putting up numbers that rightly show off the additions he’s made to his offensive game. It looks like he and the Bucks’ coaching staff have finally committed to building out his repertoire as a shot creator outside of his quick attacks in transition and finishes inside. Whereas the focus in the past was to make sure Giannis could make threes when left open, he’s expanding even further in 2021.
That includes running more pick-and-roll (9 percent of his possessions this season compared to less than 7 last year), especially in smaller lineups, and getting increasingly comfortable taking pull-up jumpers and more broadly just taking advantage of the rhythm of the two-man game.
Good stuff from Giannis as the ball handler in the PnR on Monday against Denver, including a pull up jumper from mid pic.twitter.com/2SXBDKuouD
— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) February 10, 2021
Nevertheless, Giannis has to feels a sense of urgency to put it all together more quickly in time for the playoffs, since what Milwaukee does will be ultimately judged by their ability to finally push through to the Finals and ideally win a championship. At the same time, Giannis will be more heavily scrutinized amid Khris Middleton’s career-best season.
Giannis continues to get late-game looks for the Bucks, but in situations like these, with little time available, Giannis’ deficiencies as a jump shooter could make Middleton more deserving of those opportunities than he is.
Giannis drops 47 PTS vs. Suns but falls short on the final shot. pic.twitter.com/VuCLohRxDo
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 11, 2021
As Devin Booker said of the shot, opponents are “in good shape” when Giannis takes that shot. It’s good that he’s working hard to develop that part of his game, but the early returns are a reminder that he still has a way to go.
Stock Down: Mark Cuban’s long game
As Arizona State University professor Kenneth Shropshire said recently, Mark Cuban’s decision not to play the national anthem before games likely earned him good graces among players and fans and made him look like a “good guy,” and he raised an issue about our society’s default of playing the national anthem before big events that has been raised before. But Cuban’s stand ended when the league made clear two things: 1. It is fine to handle pregame however teams see fit for now and, 2. Once things are back to normal, the rules on the anthem will be followed.
But did Cuban accomplish anything? It’s another line in the sand that the NBA has drawn, but at the same time, nothing changed. If, during the offseason, team governors agree to alter the anthem policy of the league, many will look upon Cuban’s choice here as the beginning of something bigger.
In the short-term, though, Cuban’s actions have not been followed up with a more thorough description of his stance, except to state that he supported those who did not feel empowered by the anthem and encouraged others to listen to their perspective. What’s lost in all of this, however, is exactly how Cuban feels. By continuing to play the anthem, Cuban is once again laying real action at the feet of the disenfranchised rather than doing something truly risky in order to stand up for them.
Maybe Cuban himself, as his words indicate, does not feel as detached from the anthem as some of his players or coaches might. His statement sought to take his own perspective out of the picture, but it does matter how he feels. After all, Mavericks staffers were surprised at the decision, according to Tim Cato of The Athletic. It seemed to come directly from Cuban.
But rather than use the moment to affirm why the anthem tradition was not worthwhile to him or elaborate on why and how it perpetuates a false patriotism in his mind, Cuban backed off and shirked the responsibility he seemingly sought to grab hold of in the first place.