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NBA MVP media straw poll

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Two months ago, this year’s race for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award looked as competitive as any in recent memory.

But injuries have laid waste to the deep field of contenders, leaving Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic clearly standing above the rest of the field.

Jokic, who has not missed a game this season, took 90 of the 101 first-place votes cast in ESPN’s latest MVP straw poll, conducted this past weekend. If that result holds when the official ballots are cast next month, Jokic would be the first center to win MVP since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.

To gauge where the race stands with a month left in the season, ESPN asked 101 media members to participate in an informal poll that mimics the postseason awards voting. To make the balloting as realistic as possible, there were at least two voters from each of the league’s 28 markets, as well as a cross-section of national and international reporters.

As with the NBA’s official vote at the end of season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot, and results were tabulated using the league’s scoring system: 10 points for each first-place vote, followed by seven points for second, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.

Votes were tabulated from Friday through Monday night, when the Nuggets were hit with their own devastating news. Star guard Jamal Murray, in the midst of his best NBA season, tore his ACL in the final minute of Denver’s loss to the Golden State Warriors and will now miss the rest the season. In Denver’s first game since Murray’s injury, Jokic posted his 15th triple-double of the season, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a 123-116 win over the Miami Heat.

Jokic, has been spectacular this season, averaging career highs of 26.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists while also shooting career bests from 3-point range (41.8%) and the free throw line (85.4%). He was off to a strong start when this straw poll was last conducted, in mid-February, coming in third behind LeBron James and Joel Embiid, with just 164 points separating the trio. However, James and Embiid have missed significant time since then, allowing Jokic to pull away.

Jokic finished with 964 points and was the only player named on all 101 ballots. Embiid (82) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (81) were the only others named on more than 70.

Since the league shifted to its current voting format before the 2016-17 season, no MVP winner has finished more than 224 points ahead of second (when James Harden outpaced James in 2018). Jokic, by comparison, has a 568-point advantage over Embiid, who is now a very distant second.

That advantage, while a nod to Jokic’s incredible season, is also very clearly a product of the chaos spawned by the injuries virtually every other contender for the honor has dealt with this season. James has been out for weeks with a high ankle sprain and is still some time away from returning. Embiid has missed 18 of Philadelphia’s 54 games, including 10 recently for a bone bruise in his knee.

Kevin Durant finished fourth in the last version of the straw poll but has played in just four games since that poll was conducted and failed to get a single MVP vote this time around. Antetokounmpo hasn’t played since April 2 due to a nagging knee issue. Harden was playing as well as anyone in the league since his arrival in Brooklyn before he, too, suffered a hamstring injury last month that he recently aggravated, and he has played just four minutes in April.

While Jokic is miles ahead of the field, his point total is right in line with where the winners landed each of the past few seasons. What is different, however, is that there is no clear second-place finisher. Since the league shifted to the current voting format in 2017, second place has earned at least 738 points. Embiid, who received five of the remaining 11 first-place votes, was second with 401 points — not much more than half of that typical amount. Antetokounmpo (no first-place votes, 375 points), the two-time reigning MVP, was a close third, with Damian Lillard (two first-place votes, 67 total votes, 283 points) in fourth and Harden (one first-place vote, 62 total votes, 231 points) in fifth.

James, meanwhile, went from getting more than half of the first-place votes in the last straw poll to getting none this time. He was left off nearly two-thirds of the ballots entirely, garnering just 37 total votes and 105 points. He was just ahead of Chris Paul, who had two first-place votes and 98 total points, with Kawhi Leonard (80 points, including one first-place vote) in eighth, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (28 points) in ninth and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (26 points) in 10th.

The other players who received votes were Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (11th with 14 points), Stephen Curry (12th with 13 points) and Suns guard Devin Booker (13th with 3 points).

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Gregg Popovich misses San Antonio Spurs game to attend Tim Duncan’s Hall of Fame enshrinement

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Gregg Popovich took Saturday off, for good reason. There was no way he was going to miss Tim Duncan’s enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The San Antonio Spurs played Saturday afternoon without their head coach after Popovich made the decision to fly to Connecticut to see Duncan — with whom he won five NBA championships — officially go into the Hall alongside Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and six others.

The bond between Popovich and Duncan started getting forged in 1997, when the Spurs were about to use the No. 1 pick in that year’s draft on the forward who was coming off a stellar career at Wake Forest. Popovich flew to the Virgin Islands, Duncan’s home, and wanted to learn everything about him.

The chemistry was immediate, and it has lasted.

“It started there, it started with him going out of his way to want to know who I was as a person, wanting to meet my friends, wanting to meet my father, sit down and speak with him,” Duncan said. “It started there. And he built that trust from early on, just trying to understand who I was — not just as a basketball player, but as a person and beyond.”

Popovich said earlier this month that he still marvels at Duncan’s story, how a kid from the islands just happened to become one of the best players to touch a basketball.

“I do, especially since he was a swimmer and wanted to be an Olympian, as far as that goes. So, it’s a pretty incredible story. Everybody knows the story, but it’s true. That’s something that we’re all very happy about. We still toast him when we have dinners; as we’ve said before, ‘Thank you, Timmy.'”

Popovich had another compelling reason to attend. He quietly championed the Hall candidacy of Rudy Tomjanovich for years; Tomjanovich, the two-time champion coach of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, also finally will be enshrined as part of this Hall class.

“I never really understood why he was continually overlooked,” Popovich said of Tomjanovich. “I mean, as much success as he had, year in and year out, and the championships he won were really hard-fought. He came from the lower end of the rankings in both situations to just gut it out. He was the coach of the Olympic teams and got a gold medal. He was a class act. His players loved him. He has the game in his blood. I always thought he was an obvious choice. So, for it to finally happen, is just a wonderful thing for him and his family and all of us who are his friends.”

Popovich is not in the Hall of Fame, though it is widely assumed that his call is coming in the not-too-distant future. He is not a finalist for the 2021 class, which will be announced on Sunday and enshrined in September.

The enshrinement ceremony for this year was moved to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut largely because of the additional space it provides for a socially distanced event that adheres to protocols put in place for gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 enshrinement ceremony, scheduled for September, is tentatively scheduled to return to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts — with some parts of that weekend back at Mohegan Sun as well.

The Spurs’ game Saturday didn’t mean much to San Antonio standings-wise; the Spurs will be the No. 10 seed and be on the road for a play-in tournament game at either Memphis or Golden State on Wednesday. For their opponent, the Phoenix Suns, it still meant something — which is why Suns coach Monty Williams didn’t hop on a plane like Popovich did.

Williams has never chartered a private jet. He almost did, just so he could be there with Duncan as well.

“I’m really happy for Tim,” said Williams, a former Spurs assistant. “He’s meant so much, not just to the community of basketball, but meant so much to me. He’s one of my best friends. I’ve been able to live vicariously through him. Some of the highs of his career, I’ve been able to watch when he’s able to achieve something or had something cool going on.”

The last time Popovich missed an entire Spurs game was March 3, 2020 — a matchup when Duncan, who spent last season as a San Antonio assistant, filled in against Charlotte. Duncan got the role that night because he was the assistant coach in charge of that game’s scouting report; for the same reasons, Mitch Johnson got to fill the head coach role Saturday against Phoenix.

“We approach it the same way we always do — collaborate, work as a team, approach the game as a group in terms of what can help the guys and try to put them in positions to be successful,” Johnson said.

Popovich is expected back in San Antonio for Sunday’s regular-season finale, also against Phoenix.

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LeBron James to play against Indiana Pacers after six games out

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As the Los Angeles Lakers seek to win out and avoid the play-in tournament, LeBron James is set for his return Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, according to coach Frank Vogel.

James has missed the past six games to continue to recover from a high ankle sprain, but he practiced Friday and Vogel told reporters that the All-Star would play Saturday.

Vogel said Dennis Schroder, out the past seven games because of the league’s health and safety protocols, also will play against the Pacers. Alex Caruso is available as well, but Vogel said he may keep him out.

Currently the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, the Lakers can move up to at least No. 6 and avoid the play-in tournament if they win Saturday against the Pacers and Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans and if Portland Trail Blazers lose to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.

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Source — Ex-Detroit Pistons star Ben Wallace part of Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021

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Former Detroit Pistons star center Ben Wallace will be inducted into the Class of 2021 for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, a source told ESPN’s The Undefeated on Saturday.

Wallace and the entire 2021 class will be announced on Sunday at the museum in Springfield, Mass.

Wallace was best-known for his defense as he was a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. The former HBCU Virginia Union star won a 2004 NBA championship with the Pistons and also was a four-time NBA All-Star. He has his No. 3 jersey retired with the Pistons.

Wallace began his college basketball career at Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio) before transferring to Virginia Union where he was a first-team Division II All-American in 1996.

After going undrafted by the NBA in 1996, he played for the Washington Bullets/Wizards and Orlando Magic before becoming a star with the Pistons. The Pistons’ all-time leader in blocks also played for the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. Wallace is currently a co-owner of the G League Grand Rapids Drive and has coaching aspirations.

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