Warriors week: If Steph Curry doesn’t win the MVP, who will?

News and notes from around the NBA

By John Krolik

Special to The Examiner

In terms of story lines surrounding the Warriors this week, injuries, recovery and potential remain the main threads.

Draymond Green’s injury will continue to be a major issue. Klay Thompson is slowly working his way back to his old self. We’re all holding our breath for the return of James Wiseman. And Jonathan Kuminga might be the most tantalizing Warrior rookie since Anthony Randolph.

(The latter is not faint praise – Randolph was almost comically talented, could easily have been an All-Star in the right era and system and was playing well enough for Real Madrid to earn a second NBA shot before rupturing his Achilles just over a year ago.)

But, honestly, these are the dog days of January in the NBA, and things are kind of slow. So, in the absence of a big story, let’s look at a few smaller ones in the Bay Area and in the NBA at large:

MVP race: Earlier in the season, it looked like Steph Curry winning his third MVP award was a foregone conclusion. However, with the Warriors’ recent downswing and Curry shooting an uninspiring 42% from the floor and 38.6% from three-point range, both career-lows, the MVP race suddenly looks wide open. There’s simply no candidate with the mixture of individual dominance and team success that would make giving them the award an easy call. Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain, which will supposedly keep him out for 4-6 weeks, should essentially disqualify him.

The Bulls have had an excellent season, but their success has mostly come by committee. (DeMar DeRozan is having a very nice season, but he’s not quite producing at what would normally be considered an NBA level.) On the same note, Devin Booker and Chris Paul are options 1 and 1a in Phoenix, so they should “split the vote” when the time comes. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is putting up even better numbers than he did last season, but it’s going to be hard for him to claim back-to-back MVP awards with the Nuggets sitting in the 6th seed in the West. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also having yet another tremendous season, but the Bucks are playing worse basketball than they did a year ago. Receiving three MVPs in four seasons generally requires a near-flawless resume.

Ja Morant has turned himself into appointment viewing, and the upstart Grizzlies are one of the best stories in the league. But it feels a bit too early for the third-year guard. LeBron James would have the mythical “narrative edge,” as he’s playing at an MVP level in his 19th season despite spending a significant amount of time playing center, the one position he rarely played in his first 18 seasons. But it’s hard to imagine him getting out of the shadow of the Lakers, who are currently playing below .500 basketball and clinging to a playoff spot.

Woeful Lakers: On the topic of the Lakers, the Russell Westbrook experiment has predictably been a disaster. In fact, James asking the front office to trade for him might end up being a stain on the superstar’s career. Westbrook’s forays to the basket often end in turnovers or missed layups. He has an extremely quick trigger on his jumper, despite the fact he doesn’t often find the net with it. His inability to shoot crowds the floor and forces things like LeBron playing center to happen, which hurts the defense. And he’s a poor individual defender, which is especially painful considering the Lakers gave up two extremely good perimeter defenders in Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to make room for Westbrook.

The Lakers have been a full five points worse per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor this season; his benching late in Wednesday night’s game seems like a harbinger of things to come. His contract means the Lakers will have him on the books for the next two seasons, which means LeBron won’t have a new point guard until his 21st season. At that point, even LeBron might start to show his age. From a Warriors standpoint, it is nice to see a James team effectively get eliminated from contention due to self-inflicted wounds. But as a basketball fan, it’s hard to watch what may be one of the last years of James’ prime wasted this way.

Thompson update: The good news is that Thompson’s mid-range game continues to look like a real weapon. He’s taking a career-high 20% of his shots from the 10-15 foot range, a career-low 5% of his shots have been from 16-23 feet, known as the dreaded “long two.” He’s also making 50% of his shots from 10-15 feet, which is both a career high and one of the best marks in the league. The bad news? Thompson is struggling mightily to get up and finish at the rim. A career-low 11.6% of his shots have come from within 3 feet, and he’s shooting a near-unthinkable 25% on those shots, which is frankly not something you see from an NBA player. This is definitely something that should improve as Thompson continues to get his legs back under him because it’s nearly impossible to imagine someone shooting that poorly at the rim for a full season.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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