Quick, name the best player on the best team in the Western Conference ... without looking it up.
If you didn’t say Tobias Harris of the LA Clippers, you’d be wrong. He and the Clippers sit atop the Western Conference standings this morning, a game ahead of both the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors in a fierce chase for the top spot.
Doc Rivers is (rightly) being praised for one the finest coaching jobs of his career and veteran super-sixth man Lou Williams is the player Rivers often turns to with a game on the line. But it’s the versatile Harris who has truly had a breakout start to his season.
Sure, Montrezl Harrell has been a monster off the bench and rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to turn heads with his play. But it’s the criminally underrated Harris that has become the most versatile piece on Rivers’ new-look squad.
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Harris leads the Clippers in both scoring (21.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.7 rebounds per game), the same way he did in Thursday night’s win in Sacramento. Harris has done all of this with little to no hype outside of Clipper Nation.
That could change, and probably should change, if he continues to put in the kind of work he has through the first 21 games of the season. And there’s no doubt Harris looks as comfortable with the Clippers as he has during any of his other stops (Milwaukee, Orlando and Detroit) during his previous seven seasons in the league.
He’s posted the best shooting numbers of his career (52.6 percent overall and 44 percent on 3-pointers) and, on a team without an All-Star anchor, Harris might be the best option to change that fact come NBA All-Star 2019 in Feburary.
In the meantime, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week will have to settle for inclusion on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder (he’s sandwiched between the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis).
That is, after all, where you usually find the best player on the best team in the Western Conference.
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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 27.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 blocks
Shaquille O’Neal says he’s handing over the Superman cape to Giannis after watching "The Greek Freak" do damage through the first quarter of the season. That sort of Hall of Fame endorsement goes a long way around here, not that we didn’t already have Antetokounmpo at the top of the list for the better part of the past month. The whole world has witnessed the rise of Giannis and the Bucks. He’s been unstoppable, dominating on both ends, but particularly in punishing defenders around the rim. The Bulls got a full dose of dominant Giannis Wednesday night when he pounded them for 36 points (on 14-for-21 shooting), 11 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and a steal in a tidy 34 minutes in a 116-113 win. He’s scored 33 or more points in four of his past five games and has rung up seven straight double-doubles as the Bucks continue to chase the Toronto Raptors for the Eastern Conference's top spot.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 28.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.0 blocks
Perhaps the only player in the league who has been as dominant as Antetokounmpo so far this season, Embiid continues to show off his dazzling array of skills in a jumbo package. Jimmy Butler’s addition to the mix has done nothing to take away from Embiid’s ability to control the action. That's exactly what he did in Wednesday’s rout of the New York Knicks (he finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and one block and one steal). And that performance came on the heels of a 32-point, 12-rebound, four-assist, two-block effort in Sunday’s win over Brooklyn. The Sixers are riding the wave as Embiid continues to crush it on both ends of the floor (he’s shooting .525 from the floor and 14.8 rebounds in his past five games). The scariest part for the rest of the league is that Embiid and Ben Simmons are still adjusting to play with Butler. As they continue to grow and develop that chemistry, with Embiid as the ringleader, they’ll keep rising in the East.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 28.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.4 steals
LeBron bounced back from a season-low 14-point effort in Tuesday’s loss to Denver exactly the way you’d expect from a four-time Kia MVP doing his best rope-a-dope on Father Time. His 38 points (and nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks) in Thursday’s win over the Indiana Pacers showcased all of the reasons why the Lakers have to be taken seriously as a playoff factor this season. LeBron scored 12 of his points in the final five minutes to keep the Lakers from squandering an early 24-point lead. It was the perfect rebound from the Lakers’ first back-to-back losing stumble in a month. Twenty-one games into his tenure with this storied franchise and LeBron says he’s still battling his own instincts when it comes to taking over games or ceding control to the Lakers’ youngsters. The fact is, the Lakers cannot afford for him to do anything other than close the way he did against the Pacers. There’s too much at stake.
4. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Last week: No. 6
Season stats: 24.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals
Leonard and Kyle Lowry have led the Raptors to the best start (a league-best 19-4) in franchise history, confirming GM Masai Ujiri’s offseason overhaul was the right move for the franchise. If Thursday's instant classic against the Warriors is a preview of what could be in June, that’s a Finals matchup the entire basketball world would love. Leonard led the Raptors with a season-high 37 points (eight rebounds, three assists) in the overtime win, and also took the defensive challenge of trying to slow down Durant. Although Durant scored a season-high 51 points, Leonard's defensive work down the stretch was critical in the win. And as for anyone still questioning his leadership credentials ... Leonard will let the results do all the talking for him.
5. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last week: Part of “and five more”
Season stats: 29.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.1 blocks
Durant walked out of Scotiabank Arena last night with everything but the win after shredding the Raptors for 51 points in an overtime thriller. It was Durant’s third straight game with 40 or more points, and the Warriors became the first team since the 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers to have three different players (Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) score 50 or more points in the same season. Durant collected his on a filthy 18-for-31 shooting effort, which included a 4-for-7 showing in 3-pointers. He also grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out six assists while going against a fellow former Finals MVP in Leonard. Durant has shouldered an even bigger load than normal with injured stars Curry (11 straight games) and Draymond Green (eight) in street clothes. But they’ll have the band back together again for Saturday night’s game in Detroit (7 ET, NBA League Pass).
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The Next Five
6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
9. Tobias Harris, LA Clippers
10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
And five more: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons; James Harden, Houston Rockets; Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
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