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Luka’s MVP Buzz and the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week

Examining Doncic’s chances of dethroning Giannis, the NBA’s proposed schedule changes, Zion’s eventual debut, and more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA news cycle moves faster than De’Aaron Fox. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.

Below, we’ll touch on Luka Doncic torching the NBA, the league’s proposed schedule changes, the Lakers’ strong (and happy) start, and more. Let’s get to it.

How seriously should we take Luka’s MVP chances?

At this point in the season, talking about the MVP race is basically just a buzzy way to discuss the best players in the league. But three weeks in, Doncic has officially crashed the party and demanded we add him to the already difficult conversation.

Doncic’s career has been in fast-forward mode from the moment he started playing competitive basketball, and things have only picked up speed over the past three years. He won EuroLeague MVP at age 19, was named NBA Rookie of the Year last season, and at just 20 years old, makes 24-year-old yours truly feel completely washed. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that in Year 2 of his NBA career, he is already Euro-stepping his way into the early MVP discussion. Still, it’s impossible not to marvel at the fact that he is this good this early in his career. Even Doncic himself—who is not exactly known for his humility (this is a good thing)—said last week that he didn’t expect to have this kind of immediate success. Through 16 games this year, he is averaging 30.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game—and he keeps one-upping himself. Doncic has scored 30-plus points in six of his past eight games, and on Sunday, he outdueled James Harden, dropping 41 points in 34 minutes and leading the Mavericks to a 137-123 win over the Rockets.

We’ll save the triple-double/stat-padding discourse for another day. For now, let’s focus on the phenom putting up those numbers. Considering he’s still shooting only 34.7 percent from 3, determining his ceiling requires pushing the boundaries of our imaginations. Doncic has already had his share of elite games against high-level opponents, and this week will provide an advanced test: the Clippers. It will be fascinating to watch how he performs against the carousel of defenders L.A. has at its disposal. Patrick Beverley will bring the first wave, with his trash talk and relentless accosting, and if that doesn’t work, the Clippers can send one of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard his way—or maybe even both, like they did last week against Harden. Escaping such a trap will require some Houdini magic, and how Doncic performs against the onslaught will be a good litmus test to see how real his early explosion is.

Should Doncic dazzle under those circumstances, we might run out of adjectives to describe him by next week. And come December, he just might be the front-runner in an MVP race that has so far been topped by the same two players who dominated it last season. Doncic is a whole two years younger than Derrick Rose was when he became the youngest to ever win MVP, and he’s got healthy competition around the league in known quantities like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden, and Kawhi. But if any semblance of this productive pace continues, and Doncic keeps lifting the Mavs offense to historic levels while he’s on the court, the NBA’s shiny new wunderkind may have the advantage.

Are the proposed schedule changes a good idea?

Late last week, an ESPN report outlined some of the proposed schedule and playoff changes that the league and the NBPA are discussing, with the goal of passing them in time for the 2021-22 season. A quick overview: shorten the schedule to 78 games (less is more but this is progress!), reseed teams in the semifinal round based on regular-season record (I like it—the teams in the East might not—but why not just re-seed the whole thing?), add a play-in mini-tournament for a playoff spot between the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference (might be confusing, but here for it), and finally, introduce an in-season tournament cup, à la the Champions League.

This is a pro-change space. While these adjustments are nowhere near perfect, the fact that the league is attempting to shake things up is a good thing. Be honest, you don’t care that much about tradition and 82-game-season records. Of these changes, the most polarizing is the in-season cup. As a soccer fan, I could not be more into the idea of a basketball Champions League, but part of the allure of the Champions League is that championships in European soccer are decided by points, not by playoffs. In that, the Champions League is unique. The NBA doesn’t appear willing to get creative with the formatting of its in-season cup, which would make it hard for the cup to stand out and tough to get teams and players to buy in, not to mention the fans. NBA fans especially worship at the ringzzz altar, and it may be difficult to rewire people’s mind-set and convince them that an NBA Finals is not the only thing of value a team can win.

It’s clear that the league has its hands full trying to propose a plan that addresses immediate concerns—such as resting healthy players and the decline in TV ratings—while also having to sell owners on slicing games off the schedule and making up the revenue elsewhere. Attempting to convince owners to try something new is hard; attempting to convince them to possibly make less money is impossible. The proposal, though imperfect and slightly confusing, has some highlights. For example, I really like the concept of making regular-season divisional games double as pre–knockout round games for the in-season cup, which theoretically would give players no less incentive to play in those games. I don’t know about you, but I would be more likely to tune in to that Kings-Clippers game in December if it determined which team would qualify for the cup. Then again, as more and more teams encourage superstars to manage their fatigue levels by sitting out some games during the season, we may end up with a scenario where Kawhi Leonard sits for load management during such a matchup, and there probably isn’t a financial incentive high enough that would get him, or the Clippers, to push his body for the sake of the [Insert Sponsor Name Here] Cup. But hey, progress has to begin somewhere.

Can the Lakers keep looking like the best team in the league?

After the Lakers beat the Thunder at home last week, the usually stoic Rajon Rondo was trying hard not to smile during his postgame interview. In the background, LeBron kept making noise, laughing, and singing, playfully disrupting his teammate’s interview. It was easy to tell who was in a good mood. Last season’s tumult didn’t provide many images like this, but this is what are your happy-go-lucky Lakers look like this season, sitting at a league-best 14-2 after seven straight wins, with a gleeful LeBron driving the car on their way to what could be a 17-2 record by the time Luka Doncic comes to town next Sunday.

The Lakers’ early-season schedule hasn’t exactly been a gantlet (this week, they face the Spurs, Pelicans, and Wizards), but they are taking care of their chores by beating everyone besides the Clippers on opening night and the Raptors, who are 11-4. Before the season, there were questions about what the on-court product surrounding LeBron and Anthony Davis would look like. So far, the supporting cast has looked more than serviceable (the Lakers have a top-10 offense and a top-5 defense), but it also hasn’t mattered because the Lakers’ star duo is taking turns shredding teams. To wit: LeBron has recorded 10 assists or more in seven of his past eight games and leads the league overall; Davis is averaging a career-high three blocks, and he has decided to start pouring in 3s—shooting 10-of-18 in his past three games, to be exact—too. The opponents may get tougher, but with a revitalized LeBron, Davis at his peak, and the role players overperforming expectations, the Lakers feel like they’re just getting started.

So … when will Zion make his debut?

Few teams have had as many injured players this season as the Pelicans, who entered the season as a trendy playoff pick and thanks to all the injuries still don’t have a clear picture of what kind of team they are. In some ways, their identity is pending the return of Zion Williamson. So, when is he due back? On a local radio show Friday, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin was asked about the star rookie, and he gave a vague update about the no. 1 pick’s health:

Williamson’s original prognosis after his right knee surgery was six to eight weeks of recovery. We’re in Week 6 now, and speculation about his timeline has returned in full force—namely from Reggie Miller, who said on a TNT broadcast this week that Zion will be back in mid-December. Here’s where we all collectively shrug.

One side effect (benefit?) of Zion’s absence is that it’s allowed Brandon Ingram to blossom. Now, I refuse to litigate whether the Pelicans or the Lakers deserve more credit for the star turn that Ingram has taken this season. Instead, let’s heap praise on what Ingram is actually doing, like shooting a scorching 45.9 percent from deep (that probably won’t last), scoring 30 or more three times already this season, and taking over games like in Thursday’s contest against the Suns, when he dropped 15 points in the fourth quarter. Even if this has all come on a team that got off to an 0-4 start, this is the leap we’ve been waiting for, and it’s helped the Pelicans go .500 since.

“I think he just has a bigger role. … To be able to go out there and play his game and feel free, I feel like he really enjoys it,” Jrue Holiday said of Ingram. Still, Ingram may be more affected by Zion’s return than anyone else on the Pelicans. When I asked Holiday how he anticipated the fit—which has its skeptics, given that Ingram is best at the 4 and Zion may not be ready to play center right away—working, he said: “I feel like Zion doesn’t really need the ball necessarily, he can get it in other ways, off rebounds, in transition, he’s just another threat that adds to our arsenal. It’s going to be really fun to have him back.”

Zion’s development is obviously the top priority for New Orleans, and it may be up to Ingram to give up some of that freedom and adjust. Until then, Ingram can keep launching 19 field goal attempts per game, though. No one is going to stop him. For now.

Ben Simmons finally made a 3. Now what?

Much like the feeling you get about two minutes after New Year’s Eve turns into New Year’s Day, it hasn’t taken long to realize that nothing has really changed in the aftermath of Ben Simmons’s first career made 3-pointer. A new year doesn’t just magically reset habits and mind-sets, and Simmons will not suddenly start taking a ton of 3s after he made one Wednesday night against the Knicks. He’s yet to attempt another since, and he’s taken only two other shots that have been categorized as outside the paint all season.

The obsession with Simmons’s 3-point shooting is low-hanging fruit for a Sixers team that has plenty of other offensive issues, but it’s notable that his make was not like the pull-up 3s he showed in summer highlight reels or like the one he hoisted in the preseason. It was a catch-and-shoot corner 3 without much of a hitch—and it swished right in. In other words: This is what it’s supposed to look like. Even so, though, the cries from fans for Simmons to “shoot more” don’t really track for me. Defenses will continue to send the 6-foot-10 Simmons a thank-you note every time he takes a shot outside the paint. And for the Sixers—who are 11-5 after a dominant win over the Heat on Saturday—the focus should be on the fact that Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson (the perceived shooters on the team) are both shooting below their career averages from deep. Harris, especially, is averaging an abysmal 29 percent.

Simmons can already do so much defensively, in transition, and with his passing, that expending energy on chucking four 3s a game is counterproductive. The goal should be to turn this punch line into a luxury; it only matters that when he does have the chance to take a 3, he can make it. And we now know that he can. Let’s all move on.