NBA TV analyst and former NBA coach Sam Mitchell’s list of the top five players this NBA season looks much like most everyone else’s: Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Kevin Durant. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and others.
But the 2007 NBA Coach of the Year doesn’t need fancy metrics to put together a short list of candidates that belong in any MVP conversation (not that the eye-popping numbers hurt the cause).
In fact, Mitchell refuses to penalize players who toil on losing teams. That’s why believes Westbrook -- who sits atop the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder for a third straight week -- is his runaway pick a month into this season.
To Mitchell, the facts that Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder lead the Northwest Division and occupy the No. 5 in the Western Conference bolster his MVP case. But Mitchell thinks Westbrook would have a rock-solid case even without that.
“So if he’s doing the things he’s doing, at his size, dominating the game but his team barely missed out on the playoffs and we’re supposed to hold that against him?” Mitchell asked. “That crazy. So for me, Westbrook right now, no matter how they finish, is No. 1. And I think they are going to make the playoffs because he’s not going to allow it to go down any other way. But with what he’s doing, the points, rebounds, assists and the impact he’s having on that team every night, the winning ... that they lost Kevin Durant and they still lead that division, you’ve got to go with Russ at No. 1.”
Thirty-plus years NBA playing and coaching experience provides a perspective on a topic Mitchell believes is easily lost on folks who assume there is a numerical formula that can be applied.
Mitchell sees Westbrook climbing the career triple-doubles chart and wonders if he can be a modern-day Oscar Robertson and average a triple-double all season. He also knows how hard it is to devise a plan to stop, or even slow down, Westbrook.
“As a coach, you know there are guys who can put up numbers against you and there are guys who can beat you,” Mitchell said. “The guys who could put up numbers, I never worried about them. You know, you game plan for them, you don’t want them to get 40 or 50, but regardless for what you do they are going to get 25 or 30 because they are going to shoot enough to get there.
“It’s that guy that can beat you, that’s the guy I’m worried about. This is what I mean: Westbrook gets numbers but he might struggle in the first three quarters and then in the fourth quarter he goes off, he beats you. I’ve always put guys in two groups, guys who could get numbers and guys who could beat you. And there’s that handful off guys that do both, and that’s the dude ... that’s the MVP.”
Now, to this week's rankings ...
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Four straight triple-doubles (and counting) for the Western Conference Player of the Month, whose nine triple-doubles nearly matches the output of the rest of the league combined (10). The most important numbers for Westbrook, however, are the four straight games the Thunder have won with him shredding the competition (29.2 points, 13.4 rebounds, 13.2 assists in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden put together a triple-double masterpiece (29 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists) against the Warriors at Oracle Arena Thursday night, ending the Warriors’ win-streak at 12 games. He’s not only getting his, he’s fueling the rest of a perhaps better-than-advertised Rockets team by checking off all the boxes every night (29.0 points, 11.0 assists, 7.4 rebounds in his last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Durant couldn’t keep the Warriors’ win streak going, not even with a 39-point, 13-rebound effort against the Rockets Thursday night at Oracle Arena. But he’s managed his transition from Oklahoma City better than anyone could have expected a month into the process (29.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.8 blocks in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Back-to-back losses to the Bucks and Clippers will surely prompt a pointed reaction from LeBron, who struggled through an all-around off night of his own in Thursday’s blowout home loss to the Clippers. Expect him to be ready for tonight’s tilt (8 ET, ESPN) against Dwyane Wade and the Bulls (22.8 points, 9.2 assists, 6.8 rebounds in his last five games).
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The amount of heavy lifting Leonard has to do on both ends of the floor for the Spurs this season is staggering, given the way coach Gregg Popovich has always spread the responsibility around in the past. Leonard, as always, seems more than up to the task (23.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Curry fouled out early in the second overtime of the Warriors’ loss to the Rockets Thursday, but not before helping contribute to a game that saw both teams combine for a NBA-record 88 shots from beyond the 3-point line. Curry and the Warriors still have the best record in the league courtesy of the two-time KIA MVP (28.4 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals in his last five games) and his crew.
7. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Tonight’s Bulls-Cavaliers game will be marked by yet another LeBron James-Dwyane Wade reunion/matchup. But it’s the versatile Butler who is powering the Bulls this season with career highs in points and rebounds. Butler (29.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists in his last five games) is likely to have plenty of LeBron duty tonight.
8. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis earned a couple of days off after leading the Pelicans past the Lakers Tuesday with yet another mind-boggling performance (41 points, 16 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks in 41 minutes). He’ll get a crack at the Clippers at home tonight (33.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks in his last five games).
9. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Griffin (career-high tying 11 assists) and the Clippers got back on track with a big win in Cleveland Thursday, ending their three-game slide. Keep an eye on the maintenance plan coach Doc Rivers has already implemented for Griffin (16.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds in his last five games).
T-10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
He tied a career-high with 34 points in a win over Cleveland and followed that up with 23 points, eight assists, eight rebounds, four steals and two blocks to lead the Bucks past the Brooklyn Nets for their third straight win. Coach Jason Kidd’s decision to play through his young star looks better with each outing from Antetokounmpo (25.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists 3.2 steals and 2.0 blocks in his last five games).
T-10. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Walker has the Hornets atop the Southeast Division after Thursday’s win over Dallas, their third win in their last four games. They are winning with defense (8-0 when holding teams under 100 points), and Walker’s clutch work (21.4 points, 3.6 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Karl Anthony-Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at ... Kyrie Irving:
“I know people talk about Kyrie and Steph when they talk about the guys with the best handle in the league, but it’s really Kyrie and then Steph. No one in the league is better off the dribble than Kyrie. He can get basically whatever he wants, going in whatever direction he wants to go. He’s wicked with both hands and can finish around the rim as well as any point guard in the game, and that includes Russ (Westbrook). You saw what he did to the Warriors in The Finals. They couldn’t stop him. And they tried everybody. The toughest thing with trying to grade him is the LeBron factor. Kyrie was a great talent earlier in his career, he had all the same stuff to his game. Since he started playing with LeBron he’s become a great player, and one of the best offensive players in the game.”
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