With the Christmas Day games behind us and the New Year upon us, the NBA season is closing in on the midway point. This means, of course, that for the average fan the season is just beginning. With 82 games stretching over six months, many fans don’t pay all that close of attention to the early season window. For those who have been watching, the MVP race looks like it includes more worthy candidates than years past.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James and Luka Doncic are all having seasons that would earn them an MVP in years past. But the current NBA is a different beast. Monster stat-lines are becoming more and more normal, team scoring totals are going up, and perhaps the most fun in it all is that we finally have a season where nobody really knows who is going to make it out of either conference. The NBA Finals picture is *relatively* wide open, and so is it’s MVP race. All the new faces on new teams has been fun so far, and the early season action has not disappointed. The previously mentioned four players have had absurd starts to their 2019-2020 campaign, so for those who are only just tuning into games and joining us, let’s dive into what they have been missing out on and break down the current pecking order in the MVP race.
- Luka Doncic
To start, let’s look at the youngest candidate of the bunch. When Derrick Rose won the MVP in 2011 at 22 years and 5 months old, it made him the youngest ever to win the award. This year, Doncic will be just a few months past 21 if he is able to dethrone Giannis as MVP. (he’s 20, turning 21 in February). He currently boasts a ridiculous 29 points on 47.1% shooting, 9.5 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, numbers that have him currently posting a player efficiency rating (PER) of 31.32. That number can go up and down on a game to game basis, but is hovering right around Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962-1963 season PER of 31.82, an NBA record. The Mavericks are fifth in the West at 22-12 and are likely this year’s biggest surprise so far. With running mate Kristaps Porzingis still not looking entirely consistent/confident after a year away from basketball nursing an ACL injury, Doncic has shouldered an impossible sized load for a player his age and he has handled it masterfully. The forward leads the NBA in box plus/minus, with Antetokounmpo, Harden and James ranking in second, third and fifth for comparison.
The one knock against him for MVP though? Defense. Doncic is not a liability on the defensive end but he certainly is not among the league’s best defenders either. With the Mavs unlikely to finish with a top seed in the West, relatively average defense grades and stats, and fresh off of an ankle injury that countless players have reaggravated in the past, Doncic just does not seem like a favorite to win the award right now. He could quite simply finish with one of the best seasons in NBA history and no trophy to show for it. Depending on what positions certain players are classified in, it is possible Doncic might not even crack First Team All NBA, can you imagine that?
- James Harden
Next, we’ll dig into the most polarizing candidate in this year’s MVP race. Harden leads the league in scoring by a wide margin, averaging 38.2 points per game, with his lead from the free throw line helping along the way. As of December 30, Harden has made 350 of his 407 free throws. That gives him 116 more makes than second place Jimmy Butler, and 73 more attempts than second place Giannis Antetokounmpo. The arrival of Westbrook may have made some think Harden’s scoring would go down, but instead the scoring has gone up even further while still holding consistent at 5.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists per contest. Those offensive numbers alone would tell you Harden has to be MVP. Nobody has averaged more points than Harden for a season since Wilt Chamberlain in the 1962-1963 season — and yet, Harden is not leading the MVP race in the eyes of most pundits outside of Houston.
This comes down again to the defense and effort of Harden along with the sheer volume at which he is being used in Houston’s gameplan. Harden’s usage rate has hovered around 38% this year, similar to that of Antetokounmpo and Doncic, but his efficiency is lower and his consistency is too. Harden is second in the NBA in minutes per game and first in field goals attempted and missed per game, three pointers attempted and made per game, AND free throws attempted and made per game.
Basically, Harden is playing at a historic pace to put up some of these insane single game numbers he has already reached this season, such as: 60 points in a win against the Hawks, 50 points 9 and 6 in an overtime loss to the Spurs (yeah yeah put the asterisk next to it, maybe it should’ve been 52), 55 points in a win against the Cavs and 54 two nights later in a win against the Magic. However, it is disappointing to see lapses in effort from the former MVP continue to show up in live action, such as the clip that went viral of the guard refusing to come further than midcourt on offense as his teammates struggled through a crucial late possession against the Warriors on Christmas day.
Harden could easily post ten games of 50 or more points this season, but to earn wider respect the effort needs to be the most consistent part of his game — and the winning when he goes off. His numbers may be staggering, but doing it while attempting 24.3 shots and 12.3 free throw attempts in 37.5 minutes per game leaves fans (and likely the voters) feeling as if Harden is out there chasing stat lines rather than actual team success.The Rockets made a blockbuster move to push for a championship by bringing in Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul, and both players are very ball dominant. Nobody knew quite what to expect, but it would seem logical that partnering the two up would lighten the workload on Harden. Instead, his usage mirrors that of last year as he and Russ rank first and third in the NBA in FGA per game. Houston is 23-11 to start the year, but they have been porous on defense and will need to find a more reliable recipe for winning than rolling the dice on whether or not Harden can pour in 40-50+ night in and night out.
- LeBron James
The fact of the matter is that LeBron has been an MVP candidate basically every year for the last decade and then some. Leading the new-look Lakers, Lebron has been performing at his same elite level, still showing no signs of slowing down in year 17. As Giannis remarked ahead of the Bucks’ first matchup with the Lakers, what Lebron is doing at 35 years old is alien like. James ranks fifth in the league in PER, and averages 25.3 points 10.9 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game. The assists average would set a new career best, and leads the league by nearly two marks ahead of Ricky Rubio’s 9.3 per game. Perhaps the most deserving reason for LeBron’s MVP hype to be back yet again is his revived defensive play. Fans could see his effort dwindling on the defensive end in years past as he conserved his body for the playoffs, but this season that has not been the case. James’ blocks and steals are on par with previous years, but his defensive rating has climbed as the Lakers have staked a large part of their identity around the defensive end of the court — and the winning results have followed.
While his playmaking and defense have taken a step up with Anthony Davis as his new running mate, everything else in LeBron’s game has managed to remain consistent with that of the past, making the Lakers a serious title threat. At 27-7 the Lakers lead the race for supremacy in the West, and the talk of the Clippers being the title favorite have hushed down more and more as the Lakeshow continues to plow their way through their schedule. LeBron is a GOAT who is entering (we think? maybe? who actually knows?) the twilight of his career soon and he has not won an MVP award since 2013 with the Miami Heat. With the Lakers contending with the Bucks for the best record in the NBA this season, and LeBron at the helm of it all even well past what is thought to be his athletic prime, nobody can deny that he deserves to be considered for MVP once more.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
Why not save the best for last? The reigning MVP is dominating at a level nobody has witnessed before. The Bucks are the NBA’s best team in the standings at 31-5, but looking deeper into the numbers reveals they are much more than that. Milwaukee ranks third in offensive rating just a hair behind Houston and Dallas, and 1st in defensive rating. If that doesn’t sound like the ingredients for success I’m not sure what does, and Giannis is at the core of just about everything the Bucks do. The Greek Freak is averaging 30.4 points, 13 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals — in just 31 minutes per contest.
That puts Antetokounmpo at 65th in the league in minutes per game, but it is all he is needed for as the Bucks starters often rest their way through late game blowouts. The per-game numbers already stand out as great, but the per 36 numbers level things out given that his fellow MVP candidates are getting more court time each night. Per 36 minutes, Antetokounmpo is posting 35.3 points, 15.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
Lebron James per 36: 26 points 7.9 rebounds and 11.2 assists
James Harden per 36: 36.6 points 5.6 rebounds 7.1 assists
Luka Doncic per 36: 32.3 points 10.6 rebounds 9.9 assists
Antetokounmpo is currently on pace to post a 33.70 PER for the season, nearly two full points ahead of Wilt Chamberlain’s 56 year old record of 31.82. Doncic and Harden are both currently on pace to finish right around the record mark as well, but Giannis is another entire step or two up the ladder on this one. The 25 year old also leads the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares, as well as win shares per 48 minutes. These numbers tell us what many Bucks fans could probably have guessed just from watching: Giannis is the best player in the league and has Milwaukee in a position to win their first championship since 1971.
If all four of the players mentioned in this breakdown continue doing what they have been doing so far this season, Giannis should win MVP and the three others can all feel like they may have been snubbed. The problem is that their seasons will have been great enough to crown them MVP in just about any year in league history, but right now Giannis has the entire league by the throat, and I don’t see him loosening his grip anytime soon.