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From Behind the Bar: A Very Early MVP Race Tracker

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Plus a look at more Trade Machine ideas and other random thoughts.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The early race for MVP is full of new faces. With injuries to past MVPs Durant and Rose and Lebron toiling below .500 in a weak conference, it’s wide open. This has got to excite the small market and underdog fan, especially if your small market team has the mega-bendable and stretchable domination machine that’s one part Machete, one part Spiderman, one part Hakeem, one part border wall and all parts create-a-player NBA Live ‘97 with a Gameshark arsenal of cheat codes.

Top 10 Early MVP Candidates

To be in the race, you need to be on a winning team, sorry LeBron. (Yes, that felt good.) I’ll give the top two slots to the best two players on teams from each conference and then the rest will fall into individual player impact on the league.

1. Marc Gasol:

The younger nastier Gasol is evolving as an offensive player. He’s always been the brute of the family and thus the perfect Grizzly. They should just re-brand making his face their new logo. Coach Joerger has him modeling his offensive arsenal after Larry Legend telling him, "It’s okay if you shoot a lot, because you are really good at it." He has added a good deal of range to his jumper over the years —as I’m writing this I just finished watching him take 20’ jumpers over DeAndre Jordan and pirouetting for beautiful spinning layups at the rim making all of the Clippers bigs look like fools. He’s a fantastic passer out of the post and his post-presence on defense has always been ferocious. His early season averages of 19.9 pts, 8.1 rbs, 3.1 asts, 1.5 blks and 1.2 stls, while very solid, don’t jump off the page as one of the league’s best players. But if you watch this well constructed team, his impact on the game and team persona is undeniable. We often fall in love with double-doubles and 20+ point scorers, but Gasol is the most important player on the team with the best record in the best conference. Also, there isn’t a stat for the amount of bruising he leaves on his opponent. Gasol should probably be in the pole position, but it’s like picking a defensive player over a QB in the NFL —flash often beats out substance. I’ll try to ignore the sizzle and focus on the steak.

2. Kyle Lowry:

Like Gasol, he’ll be the victim of playing on a team that plays great team basketball. His stats don’t scream MVP, but when you are the heart and soul and the best player on a team with the best record in your conference, you deserve MVP consideration. Both Lowry and Gasol are the opposite of the hero ball players that often win such honors, but with the early success of their teams playing real team basketball, maybe it’s time that guys who sacrifice numbers for wins get the acknowledgement they deserve. If you have NBA League Pass and haven’t watched the Raptors, add them to your rotation and watch how stellar their backcourt plays (and as an added bonus you can see a lot of Greg Stiemsma DNPs, which any Pelicans’ fan can appreciate). For those wondering, Lowry gets the nod over DeRozan due to his superior fg%, his on-court leadership, toughness, defense and his assist numbers. Also, Lowry is 3rd in the league in win shares and 9th in PER. If the Pelicans can ever move Evans into the backcourt, I believe the Holiday/Evans pairing would be very similar to the Lowry/DeRozan partnership making us a longer and better defensive team. (Uh-oh. It looks like maybe Eric Gordon should hold Kevin responsible?)

3. Anthony Davis:

Now that I got my, "I’m not a total homer" top two out of the way, it’s time to focus on the guy putting up the best stat line in the league while still somehow being underutilized. Davis is averaging 26.3 pts, 11.4 rbs, 3.5 blks, 2.2 stls, 1.8 asts, is shooting 57.8% from the floor and 80% from the stripe. He’s 2nd overall in points per game, 5th in rebounds per game, 1st in blocks and 3rd in steals. He leads the league in PER yet is 19th in usage percentage (Tony Wroten, Louis Williams and Gerald Green all have higher user percentages). He edges Lowry for the top spot in offensive win shares. He beats out James Harden in total win shares. He’s second to Steph Curry in plus/minus. Removing my red, blue and gold tinted glasses, it’s still impossible to argue that there is a better individual player in the league right now. Also, keep in mind that those stats include a blowout win (Minnesota) and a blowout loss (Denver) that hurt his averages. The only thing holding him out of the top spot, as he revolutionizes basketball, is our ninth position in the West. As it stands, we are still in the lottery. The MVP has to be in the playoffs. He can miss the playoffs and still continue to hold his League Pass MVP crown. The good news is that the Pelicans are on the cusp and that our road heavy start to the season will have us playing at home more frequently for the stretch run. If he remains healthy and as a team we commit to getting Davis in the top 8 in usage, we will be a playoff team making AD a clear MVP frontrunner. Davis’ MVP candidacy is in the hands of Monty Williams, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans —don’t blow it.

4. Jimmy Butler:

Basketball’s iron man (playing nearly 39 minutes a game) is holding it down while Rose, Gasol and now Gibson have been trying on suits during games. Since he’s entered the league, he has been one of the top wing defenders, but now he has added a complete offensive game. He’s shooting nearly 50% from the floor with 20 points a night and is helping to get others involved with 3.5 assists per game. He’s a tormentor who will get under your skin like a Tony Allen, but he’s added a vintage Rip Hamilton like mid-range game to match his ability to finish around the rim. This team is less and less Rose’s team and more and more Butler’s with each DNP by the former MVP. Therefore, he’s likely not a real long-term MVP candidate in the eyes of the mainstream media/casual fan, but should be a top contender for most-improved with the next guy on this list.

5. DeMarcus Cousins:

Cousins is a throwback to the days of the dominant big man. He’s 7th in points per game (23.2), 1st in rebounds (12.3), is 2nd in PER for players in starting roles (Brandan Wright is 2nd overall), is 2nd in usage, is tied for 7th in win shares and is 11th in box plus/minus. If it wasn’t for the X-Man in New Orleans, Cousins could be in the conversation for box score hero. He’s physical, has great size, has a soft touch and some of the niftiest feet in the league. The Kings are currently the 8th seed, and with the improved efficiency of Rudy Gay and a solid cast of role-players, they seemed poised to battle for the 5-8th spot with the Pelicans, Suns, Mavs, Clippers and Spurs -- keeping Cousins in the MVP discussion all season.

6. Klay Thompson:

Like Lowry and DeRozan in Toronto, one could easily argue that Steph Curry is the more important, "Splash Brother," but Klay’s length and defense has earned him the nod from me. He’s shooting nearly 45% from beyond the arc, is 9th in points per game (22.6), is 15th in PER, 14th in true shooting and is 18th in usage. The Warriors have shown great improvement under Steve Kerr and Thompson’s contributions on both end are a huge factor in that advancement.

7. LaMarcus Aldridge:

Aldridge has the size to play the five, but has the agility, quickness, offensive toolbox and range to make him the 2nd best four in the league. Like Davis, his usage is a little lower than it should be (he’s actually one spot lower than AD at 20), but he plays alongside an equally offensive juggernaut in Damian Lillard. Lillard can be a little bit Westbrook to Aldridge’s Durant, taking touches from their team’s best player. That being said, this duo has the ‘Blazers sitting third in the West with a  10-3 record.

8. John Wall:

Without his backcourt compadre, Wall has been keeping the Wizards in the upper-echelon of the Eastern Conference —currently the second seed at 9-3. He’s averaging 19.4 pts, 9.1 asts, a league leading 2.7 stls and is 3rd in assists percentage, without the sweet stroke of Bradley Beal bumping those numbers up. He’s matured as a floor general, improved his jumper and his speed is Rose-like.

9. Dirk Nowitzki:

Dallas is an impressive 10-4 in the brutal West. Dirk will forever be the face of that franchise and is still the best player on the squad. Rick Carlisle is the 2nd best coach in the NBA and he has borrowed a page from Gregg Popovich’s (the master) book of minute management, which has Dirk’s stat line looking less MVP-like than the true impact he has on one of the league’s best teams. He’s averaging nearly 19 points while shooting 51.6% from the field and a blazing 42.4% from beyond the arc. That patented Dirk fall-away remains unstoppable. His 24.8 PER has him at 6th in the league. He’s in the top twenty in all scoring metrics and tenth in win shares.

10. James Harden:

There’s a lot of good basketball in Texas and unfortunately it's all in our division. Forget the US Men’s Soccer World Cup draw, the Southwest Division is the true, "Group of Death." It’s the inverse of the NFC South. Harden and Howard are starting to be even more unlikable than Harden and Howard were already, but sometimes the bad guys win. With Howard missing time, Harden is holding it down (5th in usage) with the help of his role players. He’s having a vintage Allen Iverson kind of year where his FG% is in the tank (39.1%), but he’s scoring 24.4 points (4th best) a game. He gets to the line better than anyone in the league. He has taken a staggering 32 more free throws than the second guy (Kobe Bryant) on the list and has hit 89.5% of those attempts. If you like the sound of whistles, you’ll love watching Harden play. He also is a great rebounder (6.4) and playmaker (6.7) for his position coming in 11th in assist percentage. He takes a lot of plays off defensively, but plays the passing lanes well averaging 1.7 steals —tied for 11th in the league. He also comes in 11th in PER. With a healthy Howard back his efficiency and FG% should improve. Klay Thompson is the best two guard in the league, but if Harden ever commits to playing defense he has the size and skills to overtake him.

The Breakup Was Mutual Trade Machine Matches (aka the eHarmony Rebound Machine)

The One That Fixes the Pelicans’ Rotation, Gives the Bucks a Real PG and Clears the Overcrowding in Phoenix While Giving Them a Channing Frye Replacement:

This is the rare three team trade where the Pelicans get to take a low-risk/low-cost gamble on a legit option at small forward in Khris Middleton, the Bucks get a more consistent and defensive pitbull of a PG in Eric Bledsoe and the bench scoring with a super friendly contract of Jimmer Fredette and the Suns get the Channing Frye replacement they seem to need in Ersan Ilyasova, a decluttered backcourt and some picks.

With Eric Gordon's injury, the Pelicans are allowed to play Tyreke Evans in a position where he can use his size, arm length, strength and defensive awareness to dominate his cover. On the offensive end, he can bully his way through smaller guards to get to the rim. Tyreke has done a solid job of defending bigger forwards, but I think the energy it takes to do so is hurting his ability to finish.

Babbitt and Middleton then get to fight it out for starting minutes at the three with the loser giving us added depth where we are thinnest. In reality, our 5th starter (whether it be at SF or SG) only needs to defend his position adequately, hit a wide open shot offensively and stay out of the way of Davis, Evans and Holiday. Middleton is on a team without a dominant player, so putting him in a role where he knows he’s the 4th wheel offensively will likely make him more efficient. Also, the attention that Davis and Evans will garner will open him up for cleaner looks, which I believe would have him return to a stat line more like his ‘13-’14 line.

If Middleton and Babbitt cannot get it done, we simply go back to the three guard lineup when Gordon returns and all we lost was Jimmer. The added benefit of this move is that it puts our second best player in a position to be even better. The Bucks are loaded with length and athleticism, but lack a playmaker and true floor general. Bledsoe adds even more athleticism to a team built to run, is a bite-sized Lebron when it comes to defense and best of all he has learned under Doc Rivers and Jeff Hornacek, has playoff experience and is a winner. He will be able to further hone his skills under one of the game’s best point guards alongside the best teenage tandem in NBA and the prolific shot blocker and noted psychopath, Larry Sanders. This would also move Brandon Knight to the bench where he can serve as a sparkplug off the bench ala Nate Robinson and even play next to Bledsoe for some stretches.

In Phoenix it reduces a lot of clutter and rids themselves of an obviously tainted relationship. Gerald Green can slide into the two next to Dragic helping to ease the burden of minute sharing between Green, PJ Tucker, Marcus Morris and TJ Warren. The best part is that the Suns still get to bring Isaiah Thomas off the bench and reacquire the stretch four skill set they lost when Channing Frye signed with Orlando. Eric Bledsoe’s youth and potential also get them picks to use in further trades or to add depth to an already talented team. It’s a rare three team trade that really makes sense for all involved and is really low-risk. Who says no?

The One Where Boogie gets a Partner in the Paint:

The Lakers can help the Kings become true title contenders in the form of a, "We’re sorry that terrible officiating and Robert Horry cost you a chance at an NBA title" gift basket named Ed Davis. The Kings can help the Lakers realize that it’s time to start collecting assets for a post-Kobe rebuild. The Lakers are making the head-scratchingly poor decision to feature Carlos Boozer over the much-underappreciated post talent and youth of Ed Davis.

I still can’t figure out why Davis hasn’t been able to stick with a team. I thought he was a great fit as the third big in Memphis as he’s a scrapper, solid defensive player, has good post moves and seems to operate from a team first mindset (actually, it’s amazing that the Grizzlies have let quality roleplaying depth like Davis and James Johnson walk and have had such early success). How he fell to the Lakers with a sub-million/year contract is insanity —consider that he makes Jimmer money while posting a 20.1 efficiency rating.

Cousins has never had a solid companion in the paint. Jason Thompson is a decent role-player, but moving him to the bench as a reserve five and slotting Davis into the starting lineup gives the Kings a very formidable frontline with the newly efficient Gay filling out the three and maintaining solid depth. This works by sending the Lakers a collection of trade exceptions, Reggie Evans and picks. The Lakers clearly don’t view Davis as a starter and will get Randle back from injury next year to fill their need for youth at the four. They could sit pat and let their cap clear out at the end of the year or use some expiring contracts, trade exceptions and picks to add instant assets if they are stuck in this win now delusion.

The One Where We Get a Team With Three Sets of Brothers:

Who doesn’t want to see a team with three sets of brothers on it? The Suns can make this happen. They already sport twins Markieff and Marcus Morris and with Zoran and Goran Dragic on the roster, surely Miles Plumlee is feeling lonely with Mason stuck in Brooklyn. For the small price of sending TJ Warren and Shavlik Randolph to the Nets and absorbing Andrei Kirilenko, the Suns can truly be a family affair. The Nets do it to dump the unhappy AK-47, add some wing youth and to acknowledge that they are stuck with Brook Lopez and his contract. This has Disney movie written all over it.

The One That Saves Greg Monroe’s Life:

As a Pelicans’ fan, you hate this move. If you can have an outer-Anthony Davis replica jersey experience, you love it for maintaining a small market dynasty. As a fellow New Orleans’ native, you like it because it resurrects the career of one of our own. The Spurs send Danny Green, Nando de Colo’s trade exception and a first round pick to the Pistons for Greg Monroe. While Tiago Splitter recovers from his scary nerve damage injury, Monroe gets to use his solid passing skills and lowpost arsenal in his position of comfort for a team that has revolutionized ball movement. He also gets to learn from arguably the greatest coach of all time and one of the best big men ever. This move allows the Spurs to bring Splitter back more slowly and guarantees a solid three big man rotation (Splitter/Monroe/Diaw) in the post-Duncan era. The Pistons already know that they will never be able to move Josh Smith, but they can at least move him to the four, add some perimeter shooting and gain a pick for a player that’s going to walk at the end of the season. At least they can keep him out of their conference.

Random Musings

• Two is company, three’s a crowd. Cleveland and Houston were in an offseason arms race to put together a big three. Cleveland won the offseason, but Houston owns the regular season. Maybe three stars are one too many. While James, Irving and Love struggle to create chemistry/adapt to new roles, the twosomes of Gasol/Conley, Lowry/DeRozan, Duncan/Parker, Davis/Evans, Curry/Thompson, Howard/Harden, Bosh/Wade, Cousins/Gay, Aldridge/Lillard, and Nowitzki/Ellis are all gelling fine with their cast of complements and playing better basketball. It may be better to spread that third star contract across a collection of role players that will thrive alongside your two stars making everyone better and your stars happy.

• Basketball is great theater, and theaters are dimly lit. I would love to see the Blender tone down the crowd lights like they do in Staples or the Barclay Center with a brightly lit court adding to the drama of an AD alley-oop or emphatic denial.

• New Orleans is a city surviving on the reputation of its culture, yet the Pelicans’ halftime shows are your run-of-the-mill variety hour monotony that you see in every arena across the country. If I never see the Amazing Christopher again, I will not shed a tear. I’d take a DJ Jubilee MCed dance party, a Royal St. busker band showcase, a Pelicans dance team routine choreographed to a live brass band covering some NO hip hop classics, a local comedy showcase or anything not The Mystic Cube with some sort of local connection. Why should we be like everyone else?

• Can the Smoothie King Center get a PA system that doesn’t sound like everyone’s trying to talk with a dirty sock stuck in their mouth?

• More red uniforms please.

• Less Joey Crawford please.

• Can Austin Rivers change his number to 15 so we can call him, "AR-15?"

• When you aren’t watching the Pels, you should be watching the Bucks, the Raptors, the Grizzlies, the Warriors, the Wizards the Kings and the Suns.

Quin Snyder looks like he’s set to star in a remake of American Psycho.