At this point it’s becoming clear that there will be one of two outcomes in the NBA this season, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Either the current season will be drastically truncated, or it will be cancelled entirely.
Either way, we’ve seen all or almost all of the regular season games, which means we can start crowning the individual awards winners. So I’m handing out my awards this week - and asking for yours - starting with MVP. Tuesday will bring Defensive Player of the Year, Wednesday will be Coach of the Year, Thursday will be Rookie of the Year, and Friday will be Most Improved Player.
Spoiler: Not a lot of Golden State Warriors will be making appearances.
Now let’s get into it.
The Most Valuable Player award has been accompanied by some gaudy stat lines for the last few years. In 2016, Warriors guard Steph Curry won the trophy behind arguably the greatest offensive season the league has ever seen. The next year, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook nabbed the trophy by averaging a triple-double.
A year later, in 2018, Westbrook’s former and future teammate, guard James Harden of the Houston Rockets, won the award with some offensive numbers we’ve rarely seen before. And last year it was Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo who earned the honors behind one of the most well-rounded box score showings in league history.
As offensive totals creep higher and higher, we’re left with plenty of outrageous lines to choose from. But there can only be one.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
30.9 minutes, 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game
62.2% 2FG, 30.6% 3FG, 63.3% FT, 60.8% true-shooting
Choose your criteria for MVP, and you likely arrive with the Greek Freak as your winner.
Best player on the best team? The Bucks 53-12 record is three games ahead of anyone else, and they outscore opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that dwarfs the Los Angeles Lakers next-best mark of 7.1 (per Cleaning The Glass).
Most gaudy stat line? Go read those averages again.
Highlight machine who is must-watch TV? Check.
Advanced stats? Antetokounmpo leads the league in PIPM and ESPN’s RPM.
Despite the best efforts of some media outlets, it’s very hard to craft a compelling case for why Antetokounmpo shouldn’t be MVP. He’s far and away the most well-rounded player in the NBA. Consider the following:
Antetokounmpo ranks third in the league in points per game, third in rebounds per game, 25th in assists per game, 64th in steals per game, and 26th in blocks per game, despite being just 66th in minutes per game, a result of sitting so many fourth quarters, a la Curry during his second MVP run.
The Greek Freak even ranks ahead of Harden in points per 100 possessions, making him the league-leader in scoring on a rate basis.
He’s the MVP for the second-year running. He’s got to be.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
34.9 minutes, 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game
57.0% 2FG, 34.9% 3FG, 69.7% FT, 58.2% true-shooting
If MVPs were handed out based on narratives - which, to be fair, has happened a few times before - James would be the winner in a landslide.
While Antetokounmpo clearly deserves to win the award, James is an equally clear second-place finisher. He’s been the second-best player in the league, in this, his 17th NBA season. Father Time may be undefeated, but we’ve rarely if ever seen him given such a run as this.
Despite his odometer - he’s already played 1,100 more minutes (regular season plus postseason) than Kobe Bryant, and 9,893 more minutes than Michael Jordan - James is captaining the second-best team in the league, leading the league in assists, and controlling games night in and night out.
He may not be the best player this season, but he’s close. And that makes him the most impressive.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
32.2 minutes, 26.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game
51.0% 2FG, 36.6% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 58.5% true-shooting
Leonard hasn’t had to carry quite the load of the two names ahead of him. Due to injury and load management, he’s played six fewer games than Antetokounmpo, and nine fewer than James. He’s coasted a little more than the other two, partially because of management, partially because of an exceptionally deep Clippers team around him, and partially because he was rewarded last year for doing so.
And yet, if you were to start the playoffs tomorrow (oh what we’d give for that!), Leonard very well might be most people’s pick for the best player in the league.
When the games matter he’s arguably the best wing defender in the league, one of the top scorers in the league, and now, in his ninth season, proving to be one of the top playmakers as well. He’s not the most valuable (regular season) player in the NBA, but he might be the best.
4. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
33.3 minutes, 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.2 blocks per game
57.4% 2FG, 31.8% 3FG, 75.2% FT, 58.4% true-shooting
Only six times in NBA history has a player averaged at least 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists per game.
Four of those times were Oscar Robertson. Once was Russell Westbrook. And once was Luka Dončić, who is second of those six seasons in scoring efficiency.
The same Luka Dončić who turned 21 less than a month ago.
In just his second NBA season, Dončić has already established himself as one of the league’s elite talents, and arguably its greatest offensive force.
It seems inevitable that the MVP trophy will be his one day. This isn’t that day, but he’s shockingly close.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
36.7 minutes, 34.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game
53.8% 2FG, 35.2% 3FG, 86.1% FT, 61.6% true-shooting
Harden has been spectacular this year, as we’ve grown accustomed to (and yes, I can hear all you glorious Warriors fans shouting, “in the regular season!!!”). He remains an unstoppable offensive force, capable of erupting for 50 on any given night.
He loses a few points (relative to the four names above him) for the fact that he struggled mightily in February, and that Houston has been good but not really above expectations.
Still, Harden is worthy of plenty of praise, and has done some utterly jaw-dropping things this season. If my ballot is any indication, he’ll finish with his sixth top-five MVP finish in the last seven seasons.
Honorable mentions (in no order)
Nikola Jokic: Another spectacular year for Jokic, despite the slow start. Had he not begun the season uninspired and out of shape, he likely would’ve made the top five. As is, he’s the first one out, in my book.
Chris Paul: Paul hasn’t stopped Father Time quite like James, but wow has he come close. Through 64 games the Thunder have 40 wins, which is more than they had at that point in either of the last two years, when they had Westbrook and Paul George.
Anthony Davis: AD has been sensational, and I’m not a fan of players losing votes because of “too much help” (yes, Curry and Kevin Durant deserved more MVP praise the last three years). Perhaps I’m putting too much weight into his years in New Orleans, but I don’t feel like he can carry the team enough to be worthy of a top-five vote this year.
Joel Embiid: The Philadelphia 76ers have been a bit disappointing, but it’s no fault of Embiid’s. He’s been sensational. But he’s not quite there yet.
Damian Lillard: Lillard has been great, but we’re not giving MVP votes to teams on the outside of the playoffs.
Who is your 2019-20 NBA MVP?
This poll is closed