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Ranking the Contenders for NBA MVP

NBA MVP

On July 17, the league notified teams that the seeding games in Orlando will not count towards consideration for individual awards, including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA Teams and others.

This news is unfortunate considering the race for MVP was just heating up towards the end of the season, but it makes sense given the circumstances. This was a great year for talent in the league, with several players submitting MVP-caliber resumes. Even the fifth option on this list could make an argument for the honor in most other years.

The MVP award is the most prestigious individual accolade in sports, and its voting must be taken very seriously. Many player’s legacies are defined by their regular season work, and this award honors that.

Here are the top contenders for NBA MVP ranked from least to most deserving.

Honorable Mention

As stated before, the league is becoming extremely heavy on talent. Players such as Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic all had stellar seasons and in any other season could have made a legitimate run at the award.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis makes for a supremely overqualified second banana to LeBron, but it hurts his case to know that on a normal team, his record wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. Replace someone like Luka Doncic or Nikola Jokic with Davis on their team, and the team’s record probably goes down. Maybe this is unfair to speculate, since he’s grown from his days in New Orleans, but it has yet to be seen if he can get a top seed as the best player on a so-so team.

AD’s in the perfect spot for his style, and he deserves to be in the conversation for top five due to his elite ability to play on both sides of the floor. Still, in such a tight race, every little thing counts, and he hasn’t proven himself as the best player on a dangerous playoff team yet.

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard is one of the most popular players in the NBA, so it’s hard to put him outside the top five. Portland dealt with injuries all season, and it’s unfair to Dame that his team record hurts his case. He put up a career year, averaging 28.9 points per game and 7.8 assists, and went on a tear towards the end of the season. Still, in a nit-picky race like this, even being the star of a non-playoff team doesn’t cut it.

Nikola Jokic

Jokic led Denver to the third seed in a tough Western Conference and rebounded from his slow start to the season. He’s slightly more efficient than last year, when he finished fourth in MVP voting. His flaw that keeps him from the top five is that even though this is a regular-season award, he’s never been thought of as the leading player on a championship contender.

The Joker is a top 10 player in the league, no doubt about it, but his Nuggets aren’t taken seriously as a true contender. He’s a pretty good scorer and a solid defender, but he’s just not on the same level as the other guys that will appear on this list.

5. James Harden

If this list was made five months ago, Harden would likely be second on it. He started the season drawing rumors of a 40 points per game, but tapered down as the season went along. It doesn’t help that Russell Westbrook broke out in the last few months of the season and convinced some that he was the MVP of the Rockets during that time.

It’s also hard to put Harden much higher than fifth due to the Rockets record. The team went 40-24, tied for fifth-best in the Western Conference, which is a bit of a letdown considering they have two superstars and tied with the Thunder, who have less talent.

Harden isn’t the model of efficiency, shooting 43.5 percent from the floor and 35.2 percent from three, but his high volume of free throws makes up for that. Overall, his incredible scoring and high assist numbers are good enough to get him into the top five contenders.

4. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard isn’t known for his regular season play, so he has no actual chance at winning MVP, but even when he goes 80 percent he’s still in the top five. The Clippers reached second in the West despite Paul George missing 22 games which is a testament to Leonard’s value to the team. He provided A+ defense and still averaged 27 points per game, while dishing out a career-high five assists per game as well.

NBA MVP
Even with Kawhi saving his energy for the playoffs, he’s been playing at an extremely high level.
Photo courtesy of Detroit News.

The case against Leonard being this high would be his supporting cast. Though PG-13 missed a good chunk of the season, Leonard had Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, two borderline All-Stars and elite role players in Patrick Beverly, Landry Shamet and Marcus Morris. The team was already successful before he got there, but now that Leonard’s a Clipper, they’re a serious contender which is why he has to be on this list.

3. Luka Doncic

Doncic’s sophomore season has to be in the conversation for best of all time, nearly averaging a 29-9-9 on what was on pace to be a 50 win team. His transformation of the Mavericks from the second-worst team in the West last season to a dangerous playoff team is incredible.

The Mavs were first in the league in offensive rating after being 20th last year and ranked third in points per game compared to 21st last year. Part of this turnaround can be attributed to a healthy Kristaps Porzingis this season, but the team lost several strong offensive players in Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith Jr from last year.

Doncic’s turnaround is the key difference in the new and improved Mavs, with his transition to point guard giving him more control of the team’s offense. He’s clearly adjusted as a great playmaker, averaging 2.7 more assists per game than last year.

Doncic has made an impressive bid for Most Improved Player considering what a great 2018-19 season he had but now he’s made the leap to superstar, and with that, top three consideration in the MVP voting.

2. LeBron James

If the season had gone on as regularly scheduled, who knows if LeBron could have made the leap to number one on this list. He finished off the regular season by vanquishing the fully healthy Bucks and Clippers while clearly being the best player on the court. LeBron had the momentum in the race against Giannis, no question, but taking the full season into account, it’s hard to give him MVP.

While LeBron’s supporting cast as a whole isn’t great, he did have Anthony Davis. Having another top-five player on his team makes his record a tad less impressive and also splits the votes between the two. Before the last couple of games of the season, there were a small bit of NBA media members who believed that AD was the Laker’s MVP.

Still, this doesn’t at all discredit what LeBron did this season. At age 35, he averaged a 35-10-8 while leading the league in assists, showing that he could just as effectively play point guard. His defense isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a high standard to set. LeBron still placed third among eligible players in defensive win-shares.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

So much has happened this NBA season that Giannis’s all-time great season is going slightly under the radar. Giannis is a shoo-in to win MVP and the favorite among many experts to win Defensive Player of the Year. ┬áHe’s the best player on a team that was on track to win 67 games and nearly averaged a 30-14-6.

Those stats are crazy, but even crazier is that he only played 30.9 minutes per game. Looking at his per-36 numbers, they look like something out of Wilt’s era: 34.5 points, 16 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. He did this all on 55 percent efficiency from the field and got to the free-throw line 10 times per game, a career-high for him.

Throughout the entire season, excluding perhaps the last three games, Giannis remained the favorite for MVP, even when James Harden was averaging almost 40 points per game. There’s a case to be made for him as the best two-way player in the game and he’s only 25. There’s a very likely chance that Giannis could win four straight MVPs barring a surge from Luka.

The only knock against Giannis is his shooting. According to NBA.com, he shoots just 34.7 percent from beyond five feet from the rim. Still, he boosted his three-point shooting to above 30 percent and is taking a career-high 4.8 threes per game, which shows he’s working on his shot. If, or when, he does, the league’s in for a whole world of trouble.

Featured image courtesy of EssentiallySports.

 

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