Almost exactly a month in to the 2019 season, and some would say it’s a bit too early to start thinking about the MVP race.
Not us. It’s never too early.
Thirteen games – as most teams have played by now – is more than enough of a sample size to assess who’s been in the gym over the summer; who’s been working on the weaknesses in their game, and who’s perhaps founds themselves in an expanded role on a new-look team.
It’s also been enough time for some early-season contenders to fall by the wayside. Two-time MVP Steph Curry, for one, is already completely out of the conversation after sustaining a broken hand in Golden State’s early loss to Phoenix – and probably wasn’t in the picture anyway given their slow start to the season.
Similarly, Joel Embiid’s point decrease per game from 27.5 last year to 22.9 this year, and his apparent inability to play more than 30 minutes on any given night have relegated him to the status of outsider looking in. Nikola Jokic is the same; his drop in points, rebounds, assists and shooting percentages across the board make it nearly impossible to make a case for him to repeat as an MVP finalist.
Enough focus though on those who didn’t make the top 5; let’s take a look at those who did.
5. LeBron James (Lakers 11-2)
25.0 PPG 11.2 APG 7.6 RPG
LeBron James is 35 years of age, in his 17th season as an NBA star and still comfortably one of the best basketball players on the planet. Think about that for a second; there’s no understating quite how remarkable it is that the King has maintained – maybe even improved – his already ridiculously-high level of play as he enters a point in his career when most others are beginning to think about retirement.
Prior to beginning his tenure with the Lakers, the oft-used comparison for James was the Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson, and those comparisons are looking completely apt now with LeBron leading the league in assists (by nearly three per game from Luka Doncic) and currently sitting pretty as the only player in the league averaging a points/assists double-double.
Across the board, James’ numbers are as good as they’ve ever been. The assists are a career-high, and while his points per game (25.0) are the lowest they’ve been since his rookie season, his field goal attempts per game are as few (19.2) as they’ve been since 2016-17’s championship-winning season.
The King’s shooting percentages – particularly from three-point land – have remained steady, and he’s officially reached a point in his career where he’s an above-average shooter from all areas of the floor.
Should the Lakers continue their outstanding level of play, James and running mate Anthony Davis are going to be right in the thick of the MVP conversation come season’s end. Given the quality – or lack thereof – of their supporting cast, that would be entirely appropriate.
4. Karl Anthony-Towns (Timberwolves 8-5)
27.0 PPG 12.2 RPG 3.8 APG 1.4 SPG 1.6 BPG
The call came in the offseason for Towns to show the world he could properly lead a team in to championship contention, and through 12 games he’s answered it.
The 24-year-old dual All-Star has led his Timberwolves to an 8-6 record, putting them firmly within the playoff race in a Western Conference which all of a sudden doesn’t look quite as strong as advertised. Remarkably, the 8th-placed Wolves are already two and a half games clear of the 9th-placed Kings (5-7).
Towns has been a behemoth. Andrew Wiggins is getting a tonne of plaudits for his rejuvenation on both ends – and rightly so – but it’s plainly obvious simply by watching Minnesota play that Wiggins stunning jump has a LOT to do with the increased amount of attention opposing defenses are being forced to pay to Towns in all parts of the floor.
The 6 ft 11 in centre is shooting a ridiculous – RIDICULOUS – 43.5% from beyond the arc on nine attempts per game, and better than 51% from the floor overall. Interestingly, he’s shooting a career-low 76% from the free throw line, in an indication that even this stunning level of play may not be his final form. It’s his defense which has been most impressive, though; per the NBA’s matchup data, Towns has held star opposing centres Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid to a combined 10-28 shooting, and overall has been a menace all over the floor (1.6 BPG).
Karl-Anthony Towns swats Donovan Mitchell for the 500th block of his career. pic.twitter.com/PHh85y8GKy
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 19, 2019
The 27.0 PPG are a career-high, as are the 3.8 APG and 1.4 steals. If Towns can lead the Wolves to a shock playoff berth – after approximately no one picked them to make it in the offseason – you can just about guarantee his name will be at the pointy end of MVP discussions.
3. James Harden (Rockets 11-3)
39.2 PPG 7.6 APG 5.6 RPG 1.6 SPG
This level of scoring is almost unprecedented in NBA history, and regardless what you think of the way James Harden plays basketball, his sheer brilliance has to be recognised.
420 points through the first 11 games of a season has only happened twice before in NBA history, both times by Wilt Chamberlain. If Harden can hover around the 39 PPG mark for the remaining 68 games of the season, he has a serious chance of threatening a 40 PPG average, something that hasn’t been achieved since Chamberlain did it in 1961-62.
For context, that’s something neither Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant ever got close to achieving in their illustrious careers.
The Rockets are currently on an eight game winning streak, and Harden has scored 35 or more points in every single game of that run. His scoring chart so far this season looks like this: 19, 29, 40, 59, 36, 29, 44, 36, 42, 39, 47, 44, 49, 36.
We are running out of superlatives to describe his ability to either get to the hoop or cook an opponent on the perimeter.
The ONLY reason Harden isn’t leading the MVP race by a country mile is his inefficiency; he’s taking a career-high 25 shots per game, hitting his lowest percentage of shots (42.5% from the floor) since his rookie season and a career low 34.0% from three.
We’re nitpicking, though. It’s fair to say if Harden averages 39 PPG over the course of the season he WILL be winning the NBA MVP.
2. Luka Doncic (Mavericks 8-5)
29.5 PPG 10.7 RPG 9.3 APG
Luka Doncic is 20 years old. Twenty. Two, zero.
He’s currently 0.7 of an assist per game away from averaging a triple double through 13 games in just his second NBA season. The only reason Luka isn’t number one on this list is thanks to the all-round brilliance of the guy who’s currently the best basketballer on the planet, but he’s already not far behind.
The Mavericks are three games clear inside the Western Conference playoff standings at 8-5, and have proven with a number of quality wins and near losses that they are more than capable of throwing down with the benchmark teams in the conference.
The scariest thing for the other teams in the west is that Doncic’s colleague Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t even gone close to reaching his limitless potential through the first 13 games of the year, and once he does, Luka’s assist numbers are only going to get higher (he’s currently second in the NBA for assists per game). He is already the only NBA player currently ranked in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists.
On Monday night in a win against the Spurs, Luka became just the second player in NBA history to put up a 40-point triple double under the age of 21, with LeBron James the only other member of that club.
There’s not much else to say. If the Mavericks make the playoffs, your league MVP just might be a 21-year-old kid from Slovenia. Mindblowing.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks 10-3)
30.3 PPG 14.0 RPG 6.2 APG 1.5 SPG 1.5 BPG
As much as it’s fashionable to try and pick someone other than the reigning MVP, it’s literally impossible not to have the Greek Freak in the box seat to repeat his 2018-19 victory.
In his last six games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 35 points per game, including a 38-point, 16-rebound, 4-assist, 3-steal demolition of the Chicago Bulls last Thursday night. Only Andre Drummond is averaging more rebounds per game, and while Antetokounmpo’s shooting has been (and always will be) his Achilles heel, he’s managed to turn himself in to a 32% sniper from three and is going at a career-best 58.1% from the floor.
Encouragingly for Bucks fans, he’s feeling confident enough to take more than 4 threes per game, well up on his career average of 1.8.
Oh, he’s also playing just the 33 minutes per game, and his Bucks – who’ve been missing second-fiddle Khris Middleton for much of the first month – are a game clear in second on the Eastern Conference table.
The scariest thing about Giannis is that he’s still a work in progress offensively,. His free throw shooting remains horrendous (61.2%) and his turnovers (4.8 per game) are at a career-high level, so if he can tidy up those two traits and continue his meteoric three-point shooting rise, the sky is literally the limit.
Until further notice, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be your 2019-20 MVP.