Let the record show one very clear thing, out the gate:
LeBron James may have just had the best weekend of basketball, in the regular season, I’ve ever seen. He played the team with the best record in the NBA Friday night, and played the opponent with the next best record on Sunday afternoon. Granted both games were in Staples Center, but LeBron looked like the clear best player amongst the best competition on the floor. He was physical with Giannis, he was crafty with Kawhi. He blew past Bucks and he shot over the top of Clippers.
Each game was competitive, but they were clear Laker victories. Each game had a slew of All NBA talent, but LeBron was ahead of the pack.
Monday morning sports talk was full of arguments over the MVP race. “LeBron did this…” or “LeBron did that…” and the Las Vegas odds on LeBron winning the MVP nearly doubled. NBA talking heads tweeted out their opinions, morning talk shows went all in, and seemingly the single weekend flipped the switch. Tuesday was much of the same… Different commentators taking their turn to say “ya know, this LeBron James guy is kind of good at the whole basketball thing.” This week, we’ve begun to see more and more of the debate style talk shows, podcasts, and radio hosts try to turn the MVP award into a debate as we approach the final fourth of the season. But we need to make one thing clear:
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA MVP.
If he plays even his averages for the majority of the rest of the games, he is on track to be the definitively best player on the best team in the East, after clinching the playoffs faster than any team before him, with Wilt Chamberlian individual numbers. Giannis’ biggest knock is typically his low raw, per game stats. He is averaging 29.7 ppg, 13.7 rpg, and 5.8 apg. He’s shooting 54.7%/30.6%/63.3%. On their surface, even as the clear leader of team with the top record in the NBA, those numbers aren’t insurmountable. They’re MVP level numbers, but it’s easy to see how someone else may be able to compete for the MVP.
But the key numbers with Giannis begin with a single stat: 30.9 minutes per game.
Giannis is getting MVP level per game statistics and playing less than 31 minutes a game. Average NBA starters play roughly 36 minutes per game, the heavy usage guys playing 36-40 minutes, and potentially more in close important games. Giannis’ per 36 minute stats are: 34.5 p36, 16.0 r36, 6.7 a36. The last nba player to average 34 and 16 per 36 minutes? A guy named Wilt Chamberlain. Y’know, Wilt the Stilt, the guy who scored 100 in a single game, has the highest four ranking seasons in points per game, has the most points in a season, most career rebounds, highest rebound per game average, etc… That guy.
Clearly, Giannis has dominated the games he’s played for every minute he is in. Even in a loss last Friday, Giannis tallied 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists in just over 35 minutes. His “bad games,” the ones where he hits his averages, he’s the only Bucks’ player over 20 points, the only Bucks’ player with over 10 rebounds, and leads the Milwaukee in assists. And they lose by a mere 10 points, at Staples Center.
This isn’t to take away from LeBron’s 37-8-8 in that game, to take away from a big Lakers win, or to make light of a loss in a potential NBA Finals matchup. But in awarding a regular season award, we need to look at the entire season. The entire body of work includes every game. It includes a random game from early January, where the Lakers won despite an inactive LeBron James. It includes the game before Christmas, where LeBron is sitting a few days before a marquee matchup.
It’s not that there isn’t validity in load managing and taking a few nights off; the scientific and on floor evidence both point out that it helps to be healthy and rested when May and June roll around. But the MVP is not “who is the best player, period.” It’s not “who looked the most dominant when they played” or “who hit the definition of valuable on the head.” It’s not “who was the most impressive in the most important games” or “who showed up the best in nationally televised games.” It’s not “who had the most impressive single month” or “who had the most impressive single week” or “who had the most impressive weekend.”
It is, over the course of the entire regular season, who was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player? In looking at the entire season, or at least the first three-fourths of it, Giannis is still head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Sure, there are off the floor reasons that a LeBron James MVP would feel great. If there were any doubt before, LA became the center of basketball last summer. LeBron was joined in the City of Angels by All NBA Anthony Davis, All Star Paul George, and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The NBA off season, and all acquisitions since, have been defined by the LA – LA rivalry. Further, LeBron has been at the center of that rivalry since it’s recent inception. LeBron’s hands are all over the team he built in purple and gold, and there are several players in red and blue he wanted in his locker room.
If there were any doubt this season were going to be about LA, the season’s connection to the Lake Show was sealed on January 26th. The tragic and sudden death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and their friends struck a chord with NBA fans everywhere. The focus became the organization Kobe spent 20 years with, and the stadium he built in many ways. It’s not that there’s anyone rigging the league for a Lakers title run, but one certainly feels like a poetic ending to a season that has been all about Los Angeles. As well as LeBron spoke about Kobe to the crowd at Staples, his dedication of said hypothetical trophy to him would bring flowing streams of tears out of Los Angelenos.
But that doesn’t dismiss that this is Giannis’ season to win the MVP. He ranks first overall in PER for the season, and may record the highest rating ever. His current Real Box +/- ranks in the top ten of any season in NBA history… LeBron’s, incredible in its own right, is 74th all time.
But individual statistics and analytics aside, Giannis also has his team atop the Eastern Conference, before his recent minor injury was on pace for a run at 70 regular season wins, and does not have the slew of handpicked teammates LeBron James has. James can defer to Anthony Davis, an all pro in his own right. When the defense collapses on James or Davis, Danny Green is spotted up and shooting threes at just over a 40% clip. As they showed over the weekend, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo can all work opposing second units. And if you’re a really unlucky opponent, it might be a night Kyle Kuzma goes 5/6 from behind the arc.
Giannis’ teammates? Sure, Khris Middleton made the All Star team, but he’s certainly never been top five in the MVP conversation like Davis has. Brooke Lopez is a great defensive big that stretches the floor on offense, but he can’t stretch it like Danny. The Bucks second unit is strong, but it doesn’t feature all time greats as veteran role players. The Bucks were built around Giannis being great. They were only going to go as he goes… And as he’s gone, they’re the best team in the league at this point.
The irony of citing statistics, or talking about teammates, yet again in the MVP conversation is not lost. In 2015, Steph Curry of the top seeded Warriors beat out James Harden of the number 2 seeded Rockets. Curry had multiple other All Stars for teammates, where Harden did not. Harden had better individual statistics… but Curry won the MVP. In 2017, the idea of statistics and team success were paramount in Russell Westbrook’s first triple double season with Oklahoma City, when compared to another James Harden season of individual greatness and a top three seed in the Western Conference. The following year, when James Harden won his own MVP, he and his Rockets won the most games in the league… but LeBron James led the league in most statistical categories.
Last season? Giannis won the MVP in Milwaukee as the team achieve great success, even though Harden had a historic scoring season. Harden had drawn his own likeness to Wilt Chamberlain, both in the peaks of his season and the sustained excellence he had individually… but Giannis’ team success and burst on the scene proved too much.
Is Giannis about to take his turn getting the “yeah but,…” when it comes to being the clearcut statistical MVP?
There is a month left, and certainly plenty of things could happen. But as it appears, and as it currently stands, it would take a lot of focus on the narrative and a shift from any inclusion of statistics to give the award to anyone besides Giannis.
So yes, LeBron James had the best weekend of basketball I have ever seen. He did play the team with the best record in the NBA Friday night, and he did play the opponent with the next best record on Sunday afternoon. He did dominate both games, and he did look like the best player on any of the three teams.
But the MVP isn’t about a month, a week, or a weekend. It’s not about 20 games, or the TV games, or even the post season games. It’s about the 82 regular season games. What we’re watching Giannis do over that span is historic… So while we enjoy it, we need to be sure we don’t overlook it come awards season.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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