The NBA’s most obvious question has become fascinatingly difficult

Kevin Durant is shooting 60.4% from the field in his last 14 games. Jayson Tatum is averaging 37.5 points in his last six games. Giannis Antetokounmpo has had three 40+ point efforts in the past 10 days. Joel Embiid dropped two points Tuesday in his third game this season with at least 50 points. Luka Doncic’s 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists in a miraculous comeback and overtime win over the Knicks tied the record for the highest triple-double in NBA history.

It’s a new golden age of NBA superstars, a pool of talent as broad, diverse and elite as the league has seen in decades. He created a historically long list of championship contenders. And it could result in the deepest MVP run ever.

Truth be told, there isn’t much competition, especially in the modern era.

Two-time reigning Denver Nuggets MVP Nikola Jokic
PA

When Jokic won his second consecutive MVP award last season, his 65% share of the first-place vote was the lowest since 2008. No final count since the controversial Steve Nash-Shaquille O’Neal vote in 2005 – Nash has led 65 58 in votes for first place – came close.

It’s been 15 years since three players received double-digit votes for the top spot, even though last season’s top three (Jokic, Embiid, Antetokounmpo) each had a strong claim to the prize. It’s been 43 years since four players received double-digit votes for first place. Only twice in NBA history have five or more players earned first-place votes (1974-75, 2005-06).

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) celebrates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets on December 27, 2022 in Boston.
Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, NBA leader
PA

A cocktail of groupthink, voter fatigue and storytelling contributed to years of anticlimactic award endings. Although less than halfway through this season, the next MVP appears to face unprecedented competition.

Doncic, 23, is averaging 33.6 points, 8.8 assists and 8.7 rebounds while taking on more responsibility than any superstar in the league following Jalen Brunson’s departure to New York.

Jokic, 27, is having his most efficient season ever and could become the third player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season (25.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 9.5 assists, with a career best shooting percentage of 61.8) while leading the Nuggets to the best record in the West.

Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) defends Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during an NBA game on December 23, 2022.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is guarded by Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets.
Corey Sipkins

Antetokounmpo, 28, is in the NBA’s top five in goals and rebounds (31.7 points, 11.6 rebounds), and led the Bucks to the East’s second-best record despite just seven games in the three-time All Star. Chris Middleton.

Embiid, 28, could once again lead the league in scoring (33.7 points), and he’s shooting a career-best 52.9 percent from the field while leading the 76ers to eight wins in their last nine games.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) dribbles against the Atlanta Hawks on December 28, 2022.
Brooklyn Nets Superstar Kevin Durant
USA TODAY Sports

Tatum, 24, is also on pace to set personal best shooting, and he’s averaging 31.1 points and 8.1 rebounds for the NBA’s top team.

And Durant, at 34, is having what could be the best season of his Hall of Fame career, posting a career-best 56.0 percent from the field while averaging 29.9 points, 6, 9 rebounds and 5.4 assists for a team that fired its coach, needed to integrate long-absentee Ben Simmons and deal with the anti-Semitic saga and suspension of Kyrie Irving, but won 10 straight games and reaffirmed his place as a title contender. Remarkably, Durant’s 2014 MVP remains his only honor.

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans heads for the basket against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 19, 2022.
Zion Williamson of the promising New Orleans Pelicans could still crush the MVP race.
NBAE via Getty Images

That’s not even taking into account Stephen Curry’s return to finish one of his best seasons (30 points, 6.8 assists and 6.6 rebounds, shooting 50% from the field for the first time since his unanimous MVP season. in 2016) and potentially leading the defending champions on a second-half push. It also doesn’t predict continued growth for 23-year-old Ja Morant (27.1 points, 7.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds) or 22-year-old Zion Williamson (25.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4 .7 assists, 60.7 field goal percentage after a career-high 43 points on Wednesday night), which could each lead their teams to the top seed in the Western Conference.

Good luck to those with ballots.

Today’s last page

The back cover of the New York Post for December 29, 2022
New York Post

#:

🏈 How ‘enthusiast’ Brian Daboll’s fire and ice got the Giants heading into the playoffs

🏀 Nets pass Hawks for 10th straight win

⚾ Carlos Correa problem could ‘rise’ towards end of Mets deal

Core Atlanta Revenue vs. Big Apple

The Mets have several reasons for a winning term now. The long-suffering fanbase has gone nearly four decades without a championship, mostly spent in the shadow of a neighbor who is also the most successful franchise in American sports. They’re coming off the second-best regular season in team history (101 wins), but haven’t won a playoff since 2015. They have an owner footing the bill for the biggest payroll in the league. MLB history – approximately $489.832 million. , including the luxury tax, if the signing of Carlos Correa is finalized – and have two former Cy Young winners who are in the final chapters of their careers with Justin Verlander who turns 40 in February and Max Scherzer who turns 39 next season.

The Mets are built to win now, but must also win now because the Braves — and defending NL champion Phillies, who recently signed Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million contract — continue to give back more. difficult for the Mets to rule the NL East going forward.

The Braves, who have won five straight division titles and the 2021 World Series, have done a better job than any majors team of keeping their talent at home, via early contract extensions below market value. . On Tuesday, the Braves struck again, signing new receiver Sean Murphy to a six-year, $73 million deal. Atlanta has kept much of its core under team control for the foreseeable future, using the same formula to lock in Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider.

The Atlanta Braves have added Sean Murphy (inset) to a core group of players signed to long-term contracts that also includes Austin Riley and Matt Olson.
It was business as usual for the Braves, who added new receiver Sean Murphy (inset) to their core of players signed to long-term contracts that also include Austin Riley and Matt Olson.
Getty Images (2)

The Mets currently only have five players signed through 2025 (Francisco Lindor, Edwin Diaz, Brandon Nimmo, Kodai Senga, Starling Marte) with Justin Verlander on an acquisition option. After this season, Marte’s contract will have expired and Senga will have the option to opt out of his contract if he pitches 400 total innings in the next three seasons. Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil can both become free agents after the 2024 season, giving Cohen enough time to prevent the two homegrown All-Stars from reaching the open market.

Cohen will fill in the gaps and keep the Mets competitive by spending the GDP of a small nation every season, but free agent classes don’t offer stars every year and no city offers greater pressure for new players than New York.

Moreover, cohesion cannot be bought.

These guys again

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play against the Arizona Cardinals.
Tom Brady can land a 20th career trip to the playoffs by leading the mediocre Bucs to a win on Sunday.
PA

Tom Brady has had a winning record every season he has been a starter. Bill Belichick has only suffered one losing season since 2008. So has Aaron Rodgers.

Teams for three of football’s most important figures are below .500 with two weeks remaining in the regular season, but each legend is still very capable of leading their team to the playoffs.

Although the Buccaneers look much worse than their 7-8 record – their last two wins have come via double-digit fourth-quarter returns against sub-0.500 teams and they rank 24th in the league in margin of score (-2.5) – the putrid NFC South gave them a chance to become the sixth team with a losing record to reach the NFL playoffs. A Bucs win on Sunday against the Panthers would clinch the division, sending Brady to the playoffs for a record 20th time and giving the Bucs an undeserved home playoff game. A loss would put the Panthers (6-9) in charge of their fate and in line to reach the playoffs with a win in Week 18 at New Orleans.

Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers throws a pass against the Miami Dolphins on December 25, 2022.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have a losing record…and a realistic path to the playoffs.
Getty Images

The Patriots (7-8) also remain in control of their season despite losing four of their last five games, most recently suffering back-to-back devastating losses on an illogical late-game lateral against the Raiders and a last-minute fumble against Bengals. If New England wins Sunday against the Dolphins (8-7) – who will be without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa – and Week 18 at Buffalo – the Bills could have assured home-court advantage – Belichick can avoid embarrassment to miss the playoffs in two of the three years since he let Brady out of town.

The Packers (7-8), written off after enduring a five-game losing streak and falling to 3-6, have won three straight to position themselves to reach the playoffs with wins as home favorites against the Vikings and the Lions, in addition to a loss in Washington against the Browns or the Cowboys.

Brady. Belichick. Rogers. Their worst can still be quite good.

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