For the first time in NBA history, a player has been mathematically eliminated from the MVP race.
The new collective bargaining agreement’s 65-game standard to qualify for most major awards means that reigning MVP Joel Embiid’s recent knee injury ended any chance of him repeating. The question, now, is whether this was a preventable consequence of the rule’s existence in the first place. Would Embiid have played against Golden State last week if he hadn’t already missed 12 games in the first half of the season, leaving him with just five more potential days off before he’d be disqualified from winning the trophy?
Similarly, one can wonder the same thing about Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton, who stands to lose about $40 million on his already-inked contract extension if he is eliminated from All-NBA consideration by failing to meet the 65-game standard. Haliburton, who seemingly was well on his way to making the second team (at worst), had used up half his allotment of missed games when he came back far too soon from a hamstring injury on Jan. 19; he ended up missing the next five games after that. Even in the four games he’s played since, he’s played just over 20 minutes in each — the CBA doesn’t count it as a “game” below 20 minutes* — while struggling to meet his usual standard of play. (*Players do get two mulligans for games when they play between 15 and 20 minutes.)
We’ll likely never know if the new rule impacted their playing decisions at all, and if so, to what extent. However, it’s fair to say voters are smart enough to know Embiid isn’t the MVP if he missed half the season (as it now seems he might), and that having a clear line of demarcation at 65 games had the potential for unintended consequences. It was an unnecessary rule that clumsily addressed a perceived problem, and it should probably go away.
Amick: Joel Embiid deserved better, and the NBA’s 65-game rule game is flawed
The irony, however, is that we had a completely different “games played” standard being enforced in the past week that went largely unnoticed.
Did you see what happened with the selections for All-Star reserves? It quietly continued an increasing trend from recent seasons but seemed to go a step further this time around. It’s one that seems to have locked in the idea that the All-Star selections are almost a first-half MVP ballot rather than a more general coronation of the league’s best players … and that missing more than a small handful of games is a disqualifying event regardless of a player’s star stature.
The most notable example was that of the Knicks’ Julius Randle and the Heat’s Jimmy Butler — once again. This is the third time in four seasons that Randle made the team and Butler didn’t, and in each of those seasons, Randle made the team at least partly at the expense of Butler.
This is fascinating to me, because nobody thinks Randle is a better player than Butler. Even the most die-hard Knicks fan would volunteer to drive Randle to the airport if they could trade for Butler straight-up.
However, Randle has been one of the league’s elite minutes sponges over the last several seasons, while Butler hasn’t played more than 65 games in a season since he was a Chicago Bull. At the time of voting, Randle had played 14 more games and 555 more minutes than Butler; he had similar advantages in the other two seasons he made the team over Butler.
Of course, this time was even more amazing, because it came with the added knowledge that Randle himself was injured and was likely to miss multiple weeks — track the timeline, and it seemed Butler would basically catch him in games and minutes by the time Randle came back. Despite this, and despite Butler being the best player on the team that won the East last year, the coaches still went for Randle.
They were, at least, consistent. The coaches’ “reward for winning” ethos apparently only applies from October to January and doesn’t extend to people who got to the NBA Finals but missed some time early this season. In addition to Butler, Jamal Murray was excluded from the Western Conference roster after missing 14 early-season games.
There seems to be an invisible threshold of 10 missed games here. Bam Adebayo (10) and Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker (nine each) had the most absences of any All-Star reserve pick, but below that number, the coaches didn’t seem to hold it against a player at all. Most oddly, the coaches again went for Adebayo over Butler as their token Miami pick, when he’d only played five games more than Butler and hadn’t been nearly as good.
And yet, just above that number of missed games, it seemed players instantly became invisible. Kristaps Porziņģis has very clearly been the second-best Celtic when he’s played, and his team has the best record in the league, yet Porziņģis seemed to get little traction in the East; ditto for Murray in the West. We saw a similar situation play out last year when Booker, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard all failed to make the team after early-season injuries despite very obviously being among the best dozen players in the conference.
On the flip side, Orlando’s Paolo Banchero had basically one argument in his favor against the other forward candidates — perfect attendance and a gargantuan minutes total — and was honored based on it. Big minutes totals (and win totals, I should mention!) also likely helped Karl-Anthony Towns and Jaylen Brown slip through the cracks with resumes that otherwise looked pretty shaky compared to their competition.
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While I have my opinion, I’m not using this space to make a value judgment on whether this is right or wrong. But I certainly think it is interesting that this is the direction All-Star selections seem to be headed. It’s always been tilted pretty heavily toward team results in the first half of the season, despite producing occasionally laughable results, but the invisible 10-game threshold feels like a new one.
Finally, we have a new dilemma now that Embiid and Randle will both miss the All-Star Game: Whom to pick as subs. (Side note: Should a West sub be needed, and based on the de facto wins and minutes standards, I’d be shocked if one of the two Sacramento snubs, Domantas Sabonis or De’Aaron Fox, wasn’t the pick.)
For me, Butler and Porziņģis are hammer-to-the-head obvious choices as the next two best players in the East. It’s not even close.
However, if we’re applying a miss-10-games-and-you’re-out rule, then it gets a lot more interesting, because it eliminates those two. If coaches can dare have somebody from a losing team sully their Reward For Winning Fest, Trae Young and Scottie Barnes make sense. If a five is needed, Myles Turner and Jarrett Allen have the requisite team success and games played but still fewer than 1,300 total minutes — barely more than Butler or Porzingis, with vastly less impact. Boston’s Derrick White might be an acceptable choice for one spot on all fronts, but that second spot is … interesting.
Travel Geekery: Four days in Memphis
I had a packed itinerary for my return to the 901 this past weekend, checking out two NBA games, two G League games and one college game. I’ll have more on the college game below, but let’s roll through the other four games on my tour of the mid-South:
• Thursday saw the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies. Cleveland, very quietly, is rolling right now; the Cavs have won 13 of 14 and are only half a game behind Milwaukee for second place in the East. After numerous early-season injuries, on Saturday in San Antonio, they finally got back to their core starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Max Strus, Evan Mobley and Allen.
The Cavs have discovered a more 3-point-heavy formula that has made their offense more potent — they launched 44 on Saturday, including an encouraging 3-of-3 from Mobley. Their biggest “problem” might be how to adjust their rotation to the reality of their newfound health; Slingin’ Sam Merrill — whose 16.8 3-point attempts per 100 possessions trail only Steph Curry’s 17.0 — was such a revelation off the bench that he likely has to stay in the mix, which could end up squeezing Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade or Georges Niang instead.
The other first-world problem facing the Cavs is in the frontcourt. With Tristan Thompson suspended, Cleveland could also use another big for its rotation now that Ricky Rubio’s buyout left it far enough below the tax line to realistically pursue one — Damian Jones’ minutes Thursday in Memphis were rather underwhelming, and so are his season stats. Nonetheless, all that “trade Donovan Mitchell” noise from earlier in the season has been shushed pretty emphatically. As I noted two weeks ago, the Cavs have addressed the spacing issues that killed them against the Knicks last spring and increasingly seem set for a deep playoff run.
• The Golden State Warriors visited the Grizzlies on Friday, and the game played out similarly, with Memphis’ second-line players grinding away but running out of talent by the second half.
From the Warriors’ end, however, the story was all about Jonathan Kuminga’s breakout. I hadn’t seen the Warriors in person in a month, but in Kuminga’s case, it felt more like a year; he was a totally different player. Kuminga scored a total of 26 points as I watched Golden State drop consecutive home games at the end of December, and it still felt like the Warriors were tripping over his fit with the veterans.
Man, has that changed: On Friday, he needed only 15 shots to drop 29 on the Grizzlies, and it was pretty clear he could have named the final point tally. Kuminga showed the whole package, running the floor, working isos from the free-throw line or sometimes just straight-up cooking defenders while initiating offense off the dribble. Welcome to the NBA, Tosan Evbuomwan:
JONATHAN KUMINGA WITH THE POSTER! 🤯
— NBA UK (@NBAUK) February 3, 2024
Overall, Kuminga is operating with a comfort and freedom we just haven’t seen before in his three NBA seasons. This was a guy who was excised from the playoff rotation last spring; He averaged 20.6 points on 66.5 percent true shooting in 12 games in January and did it with more assists than turnovers.
Between that and the continued development of rookie guard Brandin Podziemski, who had 14 assists on Friday and followed it with 15 points and 11 boards Saturday in Atlanta, it feels a lot less like a lost season in Golden State, regardless of the Warriors’ current record. In the big picture, yes, they’re still old and expensive, but they no longer feel stuck.
• As for the Grizzlies, I’m not sure I have a lot new to add. They’re sifting through spare parts while dealing with an absurd spate of injuries. Thirteen of the 15 roster players on Memphis were out for Sunday’s game against Boston; I was half-expecting assistant coach Vitaly Potapenko to make a dramatic return against his former team.
The good news: Vince Williams Jr. is a keeper as a 3-and-D grinder, but he’s also supplied surprising amounts of on-ball juice in the games they’ve been short-handed. Teenage rookie two-way G.G. Jackson is still figuring what is a good shot and what isn’t, a process he’s achieving by taking every shot and then finding out the answer afterward.
The other keeper, incredibly, might be undrafted 5-9 point guard Jacob Gilyard. The shortest player in the NBA, Gilyard is shooting 42.6 percent from 3 and averaging nearly six assists for every turnover. He also swatted a Steph Curry jumper on Friday, believe it or not.
WE ON THAT 🚫 pic.twitter.com/UrOOgGcalv
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) February 3, 2024
• Finally, I watched G League Ignite play two games over the weekend against the Memphis Hustle in nearby Southaven, Miss. Ignite’s roster has several prospects who will figure prominently in the next two draft cycles, including likely lottery picks Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis.
The late news that both Holland and Buzelis would sit out on Saturday likely caused a rash of “Dukes of Hazzard”-style U-turns on I-55 from visiting scouts, but those who stayed saw a bit of a breakout performance from 17-year-old point guard Dink Pate.
Matas Buzelis Q&A: Ignite prospect talks Rising Stars competition, watching Luka and more
Pate isn’t draft-eligible until 2025 and is still figuring out how to use his skills at this level. His season stats were yikes-level bad entering the weekend. However, he threw several breathtaking hit-ahead passes in the two games and showed pro-level size and athleticism for a backcourt player. His end point on 2025 draft boards will likely hinge on his development as a shooter and a scorer, where he’s been … shaky. Nonetheless, his play was likely the most notable development from the two games.
Buzelis played on Sunday and had one of his better games, finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds and qualitatively getting to his spots offensively with an ease we haven’t always seen this season. It wasn’t all roses, as he missed some short-range finishes that could have padded his scoring total, and had six turnovers; improving his left hand around the cup would help. Defensively, he also continues to flash secondary rim protection skill as he blocked at least one shot for the 21st time in 24 games.
Here’s a little Buzelis-Pate two-man game to end the first quarter on Sunday:
— NBA G League Ignite (@gleagueignite) February 4, 2024
Prospect of the Week: David Jones, 6-6 senior SG/SF, Memphis
I got a close-up look at one of the best players in the American Athletic Conference on Saturday when I sat courtside to take part in CBS’ broadcast of Memphis and Wichita State. (Shout out to CBS for inviting me, and to Spero Dedes and Clark Kellogg, whose backs are aching from carrying me for two hours.)
A left-hander on his third school, Jones had always flashed talent, but this season, he has put it together with more skill and patience. He’s upped his shooting percentages across the board, and his shooting form from distance looks repeatable enough to keep it up (38.1 percent on high volume, to go with 82.1 percent from the line). He has a great shot fake too, and enough burst to get past defenders and into the teeth of the defense.
Here’s some nice elevation on a put-back dunk, followed by some weirdo color commentator talking about whatever:
— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) February 3, 2024
He showed he can get to his shot on the move too. Jones took over the game down the stretch to rally the Tigers from a 14-point deficit in the second half, hitting the winning shot just before the buzzer on a quick pull-up going left:
— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) February 3, 2024
On the downside, Jones can get tunnel vision on the offensive end and miss open teammates when he’s looking to score. He can get wild on the ball too; as a result, he averages just 2.7 assists per 100 possessions, which is poor for a wing player with such a high scoring volume, and has committed nearly two turnovers for every assist. It stands out more since he’s a likely second-rounder and won’t be playing as a ball-dominant scorer at the next level.
Jones also takes bad gambles on defense and occasionally checks out on that end. However, his 3.5 percent steal rate is a positive indicator of pro potential (steals, historically, have correlated quite well with draft under- or over-performance), and he’s shown he can lock in and play shut down one-on-one defense at the college level.
As an older player (he’ll be 22 on draft night) with only one year of elite performance under his belt, Jones’ realistic range is probably in the second round or on a two-way. Additionally, his listed height seems … optimistic. I’m guessing he’ll measure about 6-4 1/2 at the NBA Draft Combine; my informal survey of league scouts over the weekend had half peg him at 6-5 and the other half say 6-4.
Nonetheless, it was great to get eyes on one of the nation’s most improved players. Jones has NBA athleticism and a potential 3-and-D profile that should keep his name in the conversation on draft boards through June.
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(Top photo of Jimmy Butler and Jamal Murray: Jim Rassol / USA Today)