The NBA news cycle moves faster than LeBron James’s climb up the MVP standings. So every Monday(ish) this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.
(I’m humbly filling in for Paolo Uggetti this week, whose shoes I will never fill because he has bad taste in footwear.)
Can the Bucks still reach 70 wins with Giannis injured?
Last week I watched someone on Twitter get relentlessly clowned for a rather large and unforgivable mathematical miscalculation, so let’s try to get these numbers right. Or at the very least, closer than this.
The Bucks’ chances of hitting 70 wins are now incredibly slim. Milwaukee has (1) a 53-11 record after Sunday’s loss to the Suns, (2) just 18 games left in the regular season, and (3) no Giannis Antetokounmpo for the time being. He missed Sunday’s game in Phoenix, and will also sit out Monday’s game in Denver before being reevaluated for a minor sprain in his left knee.
That means the Bucks can afford to lose only one more game to still nab 70 wins. It’s not a feat I’d personally bet on their reaching nor recommend their attempting to reach with the playoffs in sight, but it’s not technically impossible. In November and December, Milwaukee went on an 18-game win streak. Plus, there’s a chance that Giannis will return after a week and miss only the three games between now and next Sunday.
Surviving those won’t be easy for the Bucks, though, who have now lost three of their last four. And number four—Sunday’s 140-131 loss to the Suns, the most points that Phoenix has scored all season and that the Bucks have allowed all season—was the worst of all, and the first night of a back-to-back. The Nuggets are up next, on Monday, followed by the Celtics and Warriors at home. Milwaukee hasn’t completely collapsed without Giannis this season. They’re 5-2 during the seven games he’s missed, albeit all but one played against teams with losing records, and still manage a positive net rating while he sits, though “net rating” wasn’t much of a defense on Sunday. The bad news: Two of Milwaukee’s 11 losses this year came against Denver and Boston. The good news: Regular-season records are just consolation prizes. Ask the 2016 Warriors.
Is Lance Stephenson what the Pacers need?
Lance Stephenson will never be the preferred answer to any question. But he can be a last resort! The Pacers, who are dealing with a slew of injuries, need another body before it all falls apart, and Stephenson, who last played for the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the CBA, is a familiar face who happens to have played his best basketball in Indiana. The mercurial shooting guard and his former franchise are reportedly in “strong talks” to come to an agreement, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Sunday. This would be his third stint with the Pacers. The second go-round didn’t go as well as his first, and the third time would almost certainly be the riskiest of the three, but the Pacers’ options are nil. The trade deadline is long over. Even Dion Waiters has been signed.
One of the great mysteries of our time:
Lance Stephenson with Pacers (minus his 1st 2 seasons): 10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg, 46.1%, 32.7 3%
Lance everywhere else: 7.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 42.8%, 31.1 3%https://t.co/iPbQOtR2lK
— Nat Newell (@NatJNewell) March 8, 2020
Indiana is in the fifth spot in the East, a game ahead of the Sixers. It’s been another admirable season for Nate McMillan’s perpetually shorthanded group, but the injuries are too overwhelming at the most important stretch of the season. Malcolm Brogdon is out indefinitely with a left thigh tear and set to miss a couple of weeks. Jeremy Lamb’s season ended last month after he tore his ACL. And Victor Oladipo is finally back in the lineup, but has struggled to produce and stay on the floor
Stephenson, 29, was playing in the league only a year ago with LeBron James and the Lakers. It was forgettable, though: He received inconsistent minutes from a coach on the hot seat for a frustrated non-playoff team. But Stephenson is better remembered not as LeBron’s teammate, but as the enemy blowing in his face many years before, during Indiana’s wonderfully heated rivalry against Miami in the early 2010s. The Pacers need a ball handler, not an antagonist, but Stephenson is a package deal.
If not Kenny Atkinson, what do the Nets want?
I didn’t imagine Atkinson going out this way. A late-season break-up feels so unnecessarily urgent for the Nets, a team that doesn’t have either of its superstars at its disposal for the rest of the season. (Kyrie Irving had season-ending surgery on his shoulder last week, a merciful conclusion to his first year with the Nets, which was met with little cooperation from Irving’s body or psyche.) Now there’s no Irving, Kevin Durant, or Atkinson, and Brooklyn is left with the humble group that their former coach made so exciting last season ahead of an unlikely playoff push.
There are reports that Atkinson, who was hired in 2016, had recently lost control of the locker room. There are also reports that the split was a mutual decision between him and Brooklyn, the franchise Atkinson helped get back on its feet after a disgraceful couple of years. He is generally considered one of the brightest coaches in the league; on Sunday, Gregg Popovich called him a “very talented young man” after finding out he’d been let go. (Atkinson is 52.) I welcome any reports or explanations that make sense of this decision … but losing control of the locker room can’t be the entire story. The players with the most influence, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, aren’t necessarily part of the locker room right now.
“Here is something you can take to the bank,” New York Daily News writer Stefan Bondy tweeted Saturday. “If Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant wanted Kenny Atkinson to be the coach, he’d be the coach.” When interim coach Jacque Vaughn took over, the first thing that he did was start DeAndre Jordan—whom the Nets gave way too much money this summer simply because he was Irving’s and Durant’s friend—over Jarrett Allen. One is washed, the other is Jarrett Allen. It doesn’t take a character map, suspenseful music, and a detective played by Daniel Craig to surmise what’s going on here.
Maybe it’s because of the comradery that the inspirational, underdog Nets shared last season. Maybe it’s because Irving famously sours on people and situations. Sure enough, Irving reportedly clashed with Atkinson early on. It’s ironic that Atkinson played such a large part in redefining the Nets’ culture and making Brooklyn an appealing destination to Irving and Durant, only to miss out on reaping the rewards once they got there. The risk of introducing superstars in the player empowerment era is that you then must constantly convince them to stay, regardless of what their contract says. Earlier in the year, Irving said he’d need better teammates around him. I fully expect the Nets to take care of that this offseason, too. What the Nets want is to keep their superstars happy, even if it means pivoting entirely from the startup culture GM Sean Marks and Atkinson spent the last couple of years building.
If it’s a chill figurehead that the Nets are after, then the Ty Lue rumors should come to life. It makes sense that Irving would want Lue around. They were together in Cleveland; Irving saw Lue take a backseat to LeBron. It wouldn’t be the first time Irving tried to emulate his former teammate.
What else does LeBron have to do to win MVP?
A friend told me last week that the MVP race between Giannis and LeBron was manufactured out of boredom. There is no race, no drama, only a clear winner and a second-place gap where a narrative should be. He said that Giannis Antetokounmpo will win MVP, and he’s probably right. Barring something fantastical, Giannis has it locked up. Statistically, he tops LeBron in nearly every category, assists being the major exception. (LeBron doesn’t even score the most points or grab the most rebounds on the Lakers—that’s Anthony Davis.) But after the way LeBron dominated this weekend, I’d at least call it a race.
On Friday, LeBron vanquished the reigning MVP and MVP favorite as the Lakers beat the Bucks. There was his final line—37 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists—and then there was the way he sought out the 25-year-old on the floor trying to usurp him. Giannis brought out the best of LeBron on both ends. We don’t see the same no-nonsense, not-an-inch defense from him every night anymore, but we see it when it’s necessary, and it was necessary against Giannis.
Then on Sunday, LeBron knocked off Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, as the Lakers downed the Clippers in the crosstown rivalry clash. It was quite the weekend in Staples Center, considering Giannis, Kawhi, and LeBron have rotated as the best players in the world over the past two seasons. But there was no question who the best player was in the arena this weekend.
There are many interpretations of what the MVP award should reward. We can all agree that it should reflect team success, but to what degree? And are wins more important than individual performance? In 2017, James Harden defended his case for MVP over Russell Westbrook by arguing there wasn’t enough importance being placed on team record: “I thought winning is what [MVP] is about—period.” There’s always an argument for the best player on the best team. But after Friday’s Lakers win, the Bucks showed they may not be the better team after all.
Though LeBron has yet to leave his prime at 35, being that age hurts his chances at a season-long award such as the MVP race. It’s a cumulative thing, and he knows his body needs to pick its battles. But his ability remains unparalleled.