Category Archives: Michael Knapp

Introducing the NBA MVP(F) Power Rankings

Michael Knapp
Columnist

The NBA is drunk this season.

The Nuggets are somehow battling with the Warriors for first place in the West while being led by a flabby Serbian magician. LeBron is playing in Los Angeles with virtual teenagers and, like all parents, he secretly (or not so secretly) wishes they’d leave the nest already. James Harden is putting up 30-point games at a rate only eclipsed by Nathan Peterman interceptions. (Sorry, Buffalo Bills fans.)  

Through and through, despite how wild things get, one thing you can always count on in the NBA is having a surplus of fun players putting up ridiculous stat-lines on a nightly basis. Trying to make sense of it all, I have concocted the overly simplistic and probably-not-accurate MVP Formula.

The MVP Formula (MVPF)

The MVPF will be divided into three categories (worth 20, 20 and 10 points – I will get into this more in a second) and the highest score possible is 50. The only surefire 50 in recent memory was Stephen Curry in 2016, but LeBron honestly flirted with a perfect score for all four of his MVP’s.

I will pick the 10 most realistic MVP candidates – which was pretty straightforward this year, aside from leaving Anthony Davis out because of the dumpster fire that is the New Orleans Pelicans. I will then rank them in each category, and they will be given points in accordance with their designation. So, in 20-point categories, 1st place gets 20, 2nd gets 18, 3rd gets 16 and so on. In 10-point categories, 1st place gets 10, 2nd gets 9 and yeah, okay, you get it.  

Here is a breakdown of the three categories, with a little justification behind each:

Stats (20 points): This will rank players based on their individual numbers. I will take into account traditional per-game averages, but will also consider some more advanced stats. One metric that will be used regularly here is Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which is a per-minute rating of a player’s performance (feel free to read more on it here). All you really need to know is that 15 is solid, anything over 20 is all-star worthy, 25ish is super-star territory, and 28-30 usually means MVP consideration. (8 of the last 10 years the PER leader won MVP.)

It’s also worth mentioning that games played will be factored in here. So, for example, LeBron, Steph and Kawhi all took hits in this department because they’ve missed significant time – especially LeBron.

Narrative (20 points): The NBA is in the entertainment business, and the entertainment business cares A LOT about storylines. If narratives didn’t matter, Jordan and LeBron would have 10 MVP’s each. But they don’t, because it’s more fun to work up reasons as to why other guys deserve it based on some record they might set, playoff seed they’re chasing, teammate injury they’re overcoming, or whatever else. So, put simply, this will take into account how compelling a player’s narrative is based on the way they’ve been covered – since journalists do pick the MVP.

Team Success (10 points): This one is simple – rank the players in order of team wins. Even though, historically, MVP’s are usually on top three playoff seeds, I have a feeling this might be changing. Russell Westbrook on a six-seed in 2017 is one example, but in general, as star-power becomes more and more concentrated on a few super teams, it would seem like guys doing it themselves on good-not-great squads will be taking home top honors more frequently.

Okay, that’s it. That’s the formula I’ve worked up in conjunction with NASA and some of the top basketball scientists on the planet.

Now, on to the rankings. I will list out five-through-ten but will go into a little more detail on four-through-one since, as of right now, those are the only guys who seem to really have any shot at the award.

The Official MVPF Power Rankings

10. LeBron James, MVPF Score: 7
27/9/8 (points per game/rebounds per game/assists per game, all rounded up), 51/36/68 (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free-throw percentage, also rounded up), 25.7 PER
10th in stats (2 points), 9th in narrative (4 points), 10th in wins (1 point)

9. Kyrie Irving, MVPF Score: 16
24/5/7, 50/41/87, 25.2 PER
9th in stats (4), 7th in narrative (8), 7th in team wins (4)

8. Kevin Durant, MVPF Score: 18
28/7/6, 52/37/89, 25.1 PER
7th in stats (8), 10th in narrative (2), 3rd in wins (8)

7. Joel Embiid, MVPF Score: 23
27/14/4, 48/30/81, 25.5 PER
6th in stats (10), 6th in narrative (10), 8th in wins (3)

6. Stephen Curry, MVPF Score: 26
29/5/5, 49/44/92, 25.8 PER
5th in stats (12), 8th in narrative (6), 3rd in wins (8)

5. Kawhi Leonard, MVPF Score: 29
27/8/3, 49/36/86, 26.1 PER
8th in stats (6), 4th in narrative (14), 2nd in wins (9)

4. Nikola Jokic, MVPF Score: 36
20/11/8, 51/31/85, 27 PER
4th in stats (14), 3rd in narrative (16), 5th in wins (6)

Okay. Now we’re getting into the real race.

Nikola “Joker” Jokic is putting up an otherworldly stat-line, especially for a 7-footer. He’s 13th in the league in rebounding, eighth in assists, trails only Russell Westbrook in triple-doubles, and he’s on the second best team in the west, despite the fact that the Nuggets have been missing Gary Harris and/or Paul Millsap for half the season.

Jokic is a historically unique player – and not just because he looks like the world’s largest baby. The only real player comparison that comes to mind is Bill Walton, considered by many the greatest passing big of all time, but even in his best year Walton averaged 5 assists, Jokic is at 7.7. He really might be the first point-center. 

The only center to average more assists in a season was Wilt Chamberlain, but he was a noted stat-padder playing against guys half his size.

First-time all-stars, like the Joker this year, rarely win MVP, but he should stay in the race as long as the Nuggets remain relevant. They are two games back of the Warriors, and have yet to be fully healthy for an extended period of time. If Jokic is putting up superhero point-center numbers AND Denver beats out Steph, KD and co. for the one-seed he’ll have to get some serious attention.

3. Paul George, MVPF Score: 39
29/8/4, 45/41/84, 24.9 PER
3rd in stats (16), 2nd in narrative (18), 6th in wins (5)

Paul George suffered one of the more gruesome leg injuries in basketball history a few years ago and has come all the way back to being a legitimate MVP candidate.

PG is second in the league in scoring, and has been as good offensively the last couple months as anyone not named James Harden (averaging over 32 points), but where he really separates himself is on the defensive end.

He leads the league in steals at 2.3 per game, and he’s generally considered one of the more effective two-way players in the NBA, having made three all-defensive teams. He was second among all-stars in defensive rating (points the team allows per 100 defensive possessions with him on the floor), and was top five in net rating (same thing but for total possessions).

George honestly could win Defensive Player of the Year, and the whole “two-way threat” idea builds in to his narrative as well. It is a widely held, and usually correct, belief that most stars will fire up 25 shots on offense and then conserve energy on defense. Nobody thinks this of George, and a hardworking two-way player that’s come all the way back from snapping his leg in half sure sounds like a great MVP storyline.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, MVPF Score: 40
27/13/6, 58/22/72, 30.3 PER
2nd in stats (18), 5th in narrative (12), 1st in wins (10)

If a mad scientist went into his lab to construct the most dominant basketball player possible, he would probably come out with something resembling LeBron. If that same scientist bestowed all his secrets upon his protégé before dying, but forgot to show him how to give his player a jump shot, you’d get something like Giannis.

The Greek Freak is a 6-11” point-forward that is as unstoppable going to the basket as Jackson Maine is going to drag bars. (If you don’t understand this A Star is Born reference please stop what you’re doing and go watch it immediately… okay, you’re back.)

Remember how Paul George is second among all-stars in defensive rating and top-five in net rating? Yeah, well, Giannis leads both categories among ALL players. And it’s not that close.

He’s up over 30 in PER, a barrier that often means an MVP award is in your future, and he’s ninth in the NBA in field goal percentage despite taking five more shots per game than anyone ahead of him on the list. 

Just last week he went an absurd 17-21 from the field en route to 43 points in a blowout over my beloved Washington Wizards:

The ONLY knock on Giannis is his aforementioned struggles from the perimeter. 22 percent from deep is pretty abysmal, especially on over two attempts per game. But he’s actually been shooting 33 percent since the New Year, and if he continues anything close to that he’ll go from unstoppable to… well… even more unstoppable.

Giannis’ numbers would have him in the mix for MVP regardless of how well his team was doing, but the fact that the Bucks have the best record in the NBA gives his case a nice boost. If this award was voted on tomorrow, there’s a very good chance he would win.

1. James Harden, MVPF Score: 42
37/7/8, 44/37/87, 30.8 PER
1st in stats (20), 1st in narrative (20), 9th in wins (2)

Giannis would look like a surefire MVP most years. But this isn’t most years, thanks to James Harden.

Over Harden’s last 31 games, he is averaging 42 points (!!), 8 rebounds and 7 assists. He’s also taking a mind-bending 15 threes and 13 free throws per game. Over that stretch he has not finished below 30 points once.

Right now, at 36.6 points per game, Harden’s season would be the 7th most prolific scoring output of all time, and the best mark in over 30 years. He would also finish with the 12th best PER ever (30.8).

The ridiculous stats aside, Harden is also currently winning the narrative battle. This is usually tough to do as a back-to-back MVP candidate, but he has provided multiple storylines to grab onto.

The fact that he’s producing at such a high level in the midst of injuries to Chris Paul and Clint Capela helps his campaign. His 31 straight 30-point games have been a popular Sportscenter topic. And, maybe most importantly, his MVP resume has a signature moment that Giannis, George and Jokic all lack.

He dropped 61 at The Garden:

Having a big game at Madison Square Garden is like winning a Golden Globe. In the scheme of things it really doesn’t matter but, for whatever reason, people make a big deal about it. (This goes out to all Bohemian Rhapsody fans: that movie is garbage and A Star is Born was robbed.)

Even on a fifth place Rockets team Harden’s storybook season has him in the MVPF lead right now. If he continues his torrid pace, he should be taking home the trophy for the second consecutive season.

And, for really no justifiable reason, I have tabulated the MVPF results below. Does this add anything to the column? Probably not. Did it take a while? Kind of. Could I have spent the time doing something more productive, like homework? 100% yes.

  Stats Narrative Team Wins Total
Harden 20 20 2 42
Antetokounmpo 18 12 10 40
George 16 18 5 39
Jokic 14 16 6 36
Leonard 6 14 9 29
Curry 12 6 8 26
Embiid 10 10 3 23
Durant 8 2 8 18
Irving 4 8 4 16
James 2 4 1 7

High Flying Bird and Player Empowerment

Michael Knapp
Columnist

Last week, Netflix released a new original film from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh: High Flying Bird. Soderbergh is best known for movies like Oceans Eleven, Traffic, and Magic Mike. It’s funny to think that the same guy who delivered us Channing Tatum in a thong may also be at the forefront of displaying the fragility of the current NBA labor union.

The movie is, in a nutshell, about a sports agent, Ray, attempting to end a six-month NBA lockout and secure his top client and recent number one overall draft pick his first contract. Over the course of the movie, while Ray is in the process of attempting to bring the two sides (owners and players) together, he realizes he has an opportunity to blow up the entire operation in the form of live streaming lockout games that would take place outside the NBA umbrella. This would leave owners without much leverage in future negotiations, since their players would be getting paid without them. In doing so, the movie makes a larger point: the owners need their stars, but the stars might not need their owners.

High Flying Bird never explicitly says it’s about the NBA, but it’s clear from the onset that it is, as it includes interviews interspersed throughout with current players Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Reggie Jackson. The film assumes the audience knows that it’s the NBA being displayed because single-league dominance is the norm in modern American sports, with challengers few and far between.

The NBA faced competition in the 1970s from the ABA, but the upstart league eventually folded when it merged with the NBA in 1976 (all the cocaine didn’t help either). Even the Evil Empire that is the NFL faced some opposition briefly in the form of the hapless 1980s USFL (and some other less notable leagues – like the current AAF), but their run barely lasted three years, even after filing an anti-trust suit against the NFL for monopolizing broadcast rights. (Coincidentally, cocaine was an issue here as well.)

Despite both leagues facing similarly minimal past competition, High Flying Bird gets at a vulnerability the NBA faces that the NFL doesn’t: player visibility.

The NFL – or the No Fun League – allows very little room for its stars to show any sort of personality. There is a primacy on team and league brand instead of the individual. Part of this is unavoidable; for one obvious example, they wear helmets. But some if it is due to the overbearing NFL rulebook.

Players can’t take off their helmet for any reason, even after the whistle has blown, and the rulebook also has harsh celebration restrictions. For absolutely no justifiable reason beyond commissioner Roger Goodell being a sadist, the following celebrations were prohibited until 2017: group celebrations, going to the ground (seriously?), and using the ball as a prop. What in the hell does any of this accomplish outside of ensuring players remain less visible than the league itself?

Celebratory rules have eased slightly in recent years, but it hasn’t really made any sort of noticeable difference in terms of player visibility.  The NFL is still an industrial juggernaut, far more recognizable than any of its stars. Take it away, Will Smith and Albert Brooks:

Yes, that’s right, the NFL LITERALLY OWNS A DAY OF THE WEEK. Guys switch teams as often as Taylor Swift switches boyfriends, but no one really cares. In a game where concussions and career-ending knee injuries are the norm, players are accepted as largely interchangeable and ultimately replaceable.

The NBA, conversely, is in a markedly different place. Basketball is defined by individual dominance and its stars are far more visible than its football counterparts. Some of this has to do with the reality that there are just less players  – 494 in the NBA as opposed to 1,696 in the NFL. But it’s also the simple fact that individual players have a bigger game-to-game impact in basketball. In the last few years alone Kevin Durant and LeBron James have single-handedly reshaped league-wide power dynamics with their free agent moves.

A lot of this also comes down to how savvy NBA stars are in furthering their own interests. Whether it’s Lebron’s I Promise elementary school for at-risk children, Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media production company, or KD’s Durant Center to help kids from his hometown go to college, NBA players have proven increasingly adept at promoting, and expanding, their personal brands.

Even on top of LeBron, Steph, and KD, the NBA features several other players who are, within themselves, multi-million dollar corporations: Harden, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Paul George (to name a few). Not to mention retired players like Michael Jordan (a billionaire), Shaq and Kobe.

The NBA labor union is more fragile than the NFL’s precisely because of the league’s abundance of star power. Players have more leverage because of their individual followings. Basketball players are Beyonce, football players are Kelly Rowland. And, just to give some quantification for this, the players with the largest social media following in the NFL are Odell Beckham Jr, Cam Newton and Tom Brady. They have a combined 22.3 million Instagram followers. The three most prominent social media figures in the NBA are LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. They have a combined 83.3 million Instagram followers.

All of this just makes High Flying Bird feel even less like a fantasy and more like a possible future reality. The movie hints at Netflix wanting to stream live lockout games – a not-so-subtle wink at the film’s own distributor – and, in an era of increasingly pronounced player autonomy and celebrity, it’s hard to not at least wonder what would happen if even a handful of stars decided to take advantage of an opportunity of the kind.

Wouldn’t Netflix subscriptions skyrocket if they were streaming sports on top of 11,000 episodes of Friends? The answer is probably yes, so you’d think the payout for top basketball talent would be lofty considering it’s the same streaming service that gave Adam Sandler $250 million for four movies that have a combined negative 500% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Just to slow things down here for a second, this is DEFINITELY not a call for the NBA to blow things up tomorrow, as even the movie itself (spoiler alert) concludes with the lockout ending. The league’s last collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was actually pretty favorable to players, as maximum and minimum salaries alike both increased substantially.

But High Flying Bird isn’t asking if the current NBA labor market could be better, it’s asking why the league needs to exist in the first place. This is especially apparent in an era where player-loyalty to specific teams has all but evaporated – shout out to Anthony Davis and the hell scape that is New Orleans Pelicans basketball.  

Michael Bauman at The Ringer says it best: “Rather than asking whether athletes can be replaced, [High Flying Bird] asks why, if the public loves athletes so much it’s willing to devote time to obsessing over their social media fights, do these athletes need to give half the revenue they generate to ownership?”

Honestly (and obviously), an NBA exodus would be far from painless. Steven Soderbergh himself understands the dangers of trying to monetize your talents outside of an industry staple. His 2017 movie, Logan Lucky (which is really freaking good, for what it’s worth), flopped at the box office because he thought he could work his way around a traditional, studio-run marketing campaign.

This was part of Soderbergh’s motivation to move over to Netflix. Instead of looking at his misjudgment as a reason to reintegrate with an established distributor, he decided to bypass traditional distribution altogether. That is why platforms like Netflix are so powerful in the Internet age; they’re disruptors.

Entertainers of all kind – directors, actors, comedians, and so forth – now have the ability to operate outside conventional paradigms while still receiving giant paydays. Who knows? Maybe basketball players are next.  

The Warriors Have Somehow Gotten Better

Michael Knapp
Columnist

By now, even the most casual NBA fan knows some version of the story: In 2014, head coach Mark Jackson is ousted in favor of Steve Kerr. In his first year at the helm, Kerr wins 67 games, an NBA championship, turns Draymond Green into a strangely effective Dennis Rodman-Rajon Rondo hybrid, and Stephen Curry wins his first MVP. In year two, the Warriors win an NBA record 73 games, Steph has another historic MVP season in which he makes roughly six billion threes, and they look like they’ll coast to another championship.

After a scare in the Western Conference Finals, where they come back from being down 3-1 to win the series, they get back on track against the Cavaliers and have a 3-1 lead of their own. But then Kyrie turns into Uncle Drew, and LeBron morphs into a cross between Jesus and, well, LeBron, leading the Finals in every major statistical category except for nut punches (Draymond beats him by one… or two, couldn’t tell if he connected with both). Cleveland goes on to win in seven.

Three weeks later Kevin Durant signs with the Warriors in free agency, the same team he was up 3-1 on just six weeks earlier. Golden State has looked virtually unbeatable ever since.

They’ve coasted to two NBA championships since Durant’s signing, having lost just one finals game in their two trips. This season, however, initially looked like it might be different. Draymond and Durant were beefing, sharpshooter Klay Thompson was slumping, Steph was injured, and they were in the middle of the pack in a loaded Western Conference. The word “parity” felt like it was creeping back into the NBA vernacular for the first time since Durant made his move to Oakland.

The Warriors’ “slump” didn’t last long. Thompson has been hot since the New Year, Curry has been as good as ever since returning to the lineup, and the KD-Draymond feud seems to have died down.

All of this was enough to put Golden State back atop the Western Conference, fending off a surging Denver Nuggets squad. But a new addition to their roster has made them as dangerous as ever: DeMarcus Cousins.

If the Warriors ever had a weakness, it was at center. Andrew Bogut filled this role in the pre-KD days but they had to shed his contract to make room for Durant. Lately, the role has been filled by the likes of Zaza Pachulia, Kevon Looney, and Damian Jones. None of these players have been particularly good, per se, but criticizing Golden State for not having a good fifth starter is like criticizing The Wire for not having a good fifth season. Sure, McNulty’s made-up serial killer storyline was idiotic, but the rest of the show, like the Warriors’ other four starters, is still brilliant. (I’ve officially lost track of this analogy. Moving on.)

Cousins has been one of the most dominant centers in the NBA over the course of his career, making four All-Star games and appearing on two All-NBA teams. He spent last year with the Pelicans but tore his Achilles midseason, which limited his free agent prospects. He signed a ludicrously cheap one-year, 5.3 million dollar deal with the Warriors, and returned to action last month.

Since “Boogie” Cousins entered the fray, Golden State has looked as unstoppable as ever. Cousins is averaging 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4 assists in limited action, but his per-36 numbers are basically where they’ve been the last few seasons: 22.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists.

With Cousins in the lineup, the Warriors are 6-1 and averaging 119.1 points per contest, slightly above their season average. More notably, they are racking up an absurd 33 assists per outing since his return, a number that would surpass the Showtime Lakers as the best mark ever were it maintained over a full season.

Boogie brings several skills to the table that they’ve never before had in a center. First and foremost, he is an elite post player. The NBA is in the midst of a three-point revolution where all screens are switched on the perimeter to prevent top marksmen from getting open looks – an issue especially apparent when facing Golden State, boasting three of the best shooters ever. Cousins is able to punish teams that switch guards onto him by taking them down to the block and putting his 6’11”, 270-pound frame to work.

Beyond his effective post play, Cousins is also one of the more versatile bigs in, well, league history. Before getting hurt last season, Cousins was shooting a respectable 35 percent on 6.1 three-point attempts a game, a ridiculous volume for a center. He is shooting 39 percent from deep so far this year.

His floor spacing draws shot blockers away from the rim and opens up the lane for what has become one of the best cutting teams in the NBA since Kerr took over. With past Golden State centers, opposing bigs were able to leave a healthy cushion, clogging up the paint for potential backdoor passes. Teams no longer have this luxury against the Warriors with Boogie on the floor.

Outside of his scoring ability – he’s been top ten in points per game four of the last five seasons – Boogie is also among the best passing centers in the league. Through seven games, Cousins is averaging 6.4 assists per 36 minutes, a number that places him second among centers behind Nikola Jokic’s flabby wizardry. With five current or former all-stars in the fold, Golden State’s offense  – and team morale – hinges on them sharing the ball, something Boogie has proven himself capable of doing; albeit a temper tantrum is a real possibility if he doesn’t get enough shots up.

Boogie somehow makes what is arguably ALREADY the best offensive team ever EVEN BETTER. Barring an injury (or two… or three), Golden State should coast to another championship if Boogie keeps producing at the level he is now… but honestly, they should be fine this year even if he doesn’t. Where the plot does thicken is this summer.

Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant could be unrestricted free agents (Durant has a player option) this July, and there are rumblings about KD going to New York and Klay joining LeBron in LA. Those are, however, just rumblings right now. It’s hard to imagine either one of them going elsewhere weeks after securing a third straight championship. 

Will the Warriors be willing to pony up the money to bring everyone back? Possibly. Do they need everyone back to continue to win at such a high level? Probably not. In what ways did the Stamp Act contribute to growing tensions in the colonies and help spark the eventual American Revolution? This is completely beside the point but it is one of my homework questions and any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

If everyone stays, Golden State’s luxury tax will be looking more robust than a Donald Trump fast food bill (just ask Clemson football). But it might be worth it in order to keep together what could very well become one of the NBA’s great dynasties.