NBA MVP Ranking: Luka Dončić Holding off Giannis, Tatum and Field of Surprises
Brace yourself. Shakeups are coming at the top of our second NBA MVP ladder.
This tends to happen so early into a season. Stats and narratives and general impressions shift by the game. Short-term injuries affect a large portion of the schedule. It paves the way for turbulence.
Still, this year feels more topsy-turvy than most.
Availability seems like it'll matter more than ever, because the level of play at the tippy top is that gloriously preposterous. This will be reflected in my inability to choose...across multiple instances.
The field should clear up in the coming months. Time has a way of eroding MVP optionality.
For now, it is incredibly, impossibly deep.
As usual, this ranking is meant to reflect a snapshot in time—what my ballot would look like if the season had ended prior to Monday night's games, which thankfully it didn't, because this remained really hard.
T-10. Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid
Kevin Durant Previous Ranking: Unranked
Joel Embiid Previous Ranking: Unranked
Embiid is averaging 40.0 points, 5.3 assists, 2.8 blocks and 16.5 free-throw attempts since rejoining the Philadelphia 76ers rotation four games ago. He hasn't played enough to be placed any higher, but his case will continue to strengthen while James Harden is sidelined.
Durant is just on fire. He is shooting and scoring and passing and defending his butt off, and the Brooklyn Nets look like an actual basketball team following Kyrie Irving's suspension. Keep your eyes on KD's MVP stock, too.
9. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
Previous Ranking: 8
The Nuggets are starting to look dominant. Their schedule might have something to do it, but so, too, does Jokić. He owns the highest net-rating swing in the league—a testament to some wonky bench returns but also wild because he has visibly de-emphasized scoring (and three-point shooting).
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Previous Ranking: 4
Falling four spots less than a month into the season is not unprecedented—or a huge deal. The Grizzlies spit fire when Morant is on the floor, but he's shooting under 31 percent from three and sub-67 percent from the charity stripe since the last ladder.
7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Previous Ranking: 5
Scoring regression from Chris Paul. Injuries to Paul (heel) and Cameron Johnson (knee). No Jae Crowder. Still. Borderline vanishing acts from Deandre Ayton. And yet the Suns remain a regular-season machine.
Booker continues to be the primary reason why, a steadying force both on and off the ball who scales to so many different lineups and offensive approaches that quantifying his impact becomes increasingly difficult. His ranking third in plus-minus is a good place to start but nowhere near the finish line.
T-5. Stephen Curry and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Stephen Curry's Previous Ranking: 6
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's Previous Ranking: 7
BuT bOtH sTePh AnD sGa PlAy FoR tEaMs WiTh LoSiNg ReCorDs.
This is too true. And wins are most definitely a player stat. (They're not.)
Choosing between Steph and SGA was hard. So, I simply didn't. And I can't bring myself to care that the Golden State Warriors are comfortably below .500 and combusting on defense or that the Oklahoma City Thunder ended their four-game losing streak by beating the shorthanded Toronto Raptors and sad-sorry-directionless New York Knicks.
Both Steph and SGA can only be responsible for what's happening when they're on the floor. And their teams are winning those minutes.
Golden State has a net rating of plus-7.9 when Curry plays—a 27.2-point increase over its differential per 100 possessions without him. Playing within a killer starting five while getting spelled by a terrible bench certainly helps bump up the returns, but that doesn't make his job any easier.
Curry uplifts everyone around him by virtue of existing. He needs neither the ball nor actual numbers to break defenses. Granted, he has the numbers anyway: 32.8 points and 6.5 assists per game while finding nylon on 64.8 percent of his twos and 43.4 percent of his 11.9 three-point attempts per game.
Putting Curry any higher would feel at least a little off. Over 70 percent of his possessions have come alongside Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. A bench heavy on misses unnecessarily exacerbates Steph's importance.
Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, is averaging 31.1 points, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks per game on mind-melting efficiency of his own. Among everyone to attempt at least 35 pull-up jumpers since the last ladder, only Curry and Kevin Durant have higher effective field-goal percentages. SGA is shooting 73 percent at the rim and 51.7 percent on step-back jumpers (15-of-29).
This all comes on what can only be described as end-all usage. Out of 273 players to appear in at least 10 games, Luka Dončić is the only one with a higher share of unassisted buckets. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander has kicked it into high gear on defense. And the Thunder have outscored opponents by 33 points when he plays—one point more than the Dallas Mavericks have outpaced enemy teams by with Luka himself.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
Previous Ranking: 2
Donovan Mitchell dropped two spots from last time through no fault of his own. The top-five landscape is a gauntlet of megastar power.
Two missed games because of an ankle issue over the past two weeks coupled with a few shaky performances from beyond the arc set the stage for Mitchell's teensy-weensy dip. Is this splitting near-invisible-size hairs? And do I hate myself? Absofreakinglutely—on both counts. But that's how it goes atop the early-season mountain.
Anywho, Mitchell continues to slay defenses from, er, everywhere.
The share of his shots that comes at the rim is at its highest since 2018-19, a substantial feat given some of the lineups in which he works. More disarming: He's dropping in 75 percent of his looks at the basket, a logic-liquefying number even by early-season standards.
Exactly one player is a better high-volume off-the-bounce three-point flamethrower. Mitchell is burying 40.7 percent of pull-up triples on more than five attempts per game. The only player with a higher conversion rate on that volume: Stephen Curry.
Everyone should be impressed with how Mitchell has handled playing in a new environment. Some of the timing and placement of his passes can get weird, but his turnover rate has not exploded, and he's averaging as many assists per 36 minutes as he ever has to go along with a career-high scoring rate.
Darius Garland's return should diminish the Cleveland Cavaliers' reliance on Mitchell. That's a good thing. Mitchell is averaging 39.1 minutes per game. That can and will and must come down. Whether the pull-back alongside Garland will adversely impact Mitchell's MVP case remains to be seen. And it doesn't matter. And it will continue not to matter so long as the Cavs look like contenders with him.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Ranking: 1
There is exactly one number that prevented Giannis Antetokounmpo from successfully retaining the top spot: three.
Left knee soreness cost him three of the Milwaukee Bucks' previous four games entering Monday night. He ranks outside the top 150 in minutes played.
Quality over quantity, it's early and blah, blah, blah. The margins are razor-thin so early into the season. Other players are providing profoundly impactful performances across larger samples. That counts for something.
It also doesn't mean Giannis will be here forever. He won't. (Related: How ridiculously high is the bar for him that third place on a friggin' MVP ladder feels too low?!)
Giannis is averaging 31.8 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks while downing 59.4 percent of his twos and deleting entire possessions from existence on defense both on and away from the ball. Opponents are shooting 50 percent against him at the rim—one of the seven stingiest marks among 78 players to contest as many close-range attempts.
Overindulgence from the perimeter is the sole knock against Giannis when he's on the floor. Should almost one-third of his looks be coming from mid-range if he's shooting 25 percent? Perhaps not. But there is value in the volume. The same goes for his pull-up threes. They keep defense on tilt.
Also: Sub-30 percent from mid-range is low for Giannis. Also also: None of this matters. He's a dominant anomaly.
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Talk about your big, bloated, inexcusable misses. Jayson Tatum was left off the last MVP ladder. I too heavily weighted what happened in the Boston Celtics' losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, along with his slumping efficiency on off-the-dribble jumpers.
I was wrong, and I'm sorry.
Tatum came pretty darn close to topping this whole ladder. His numbers induce drool. He's averaging 32.3 points and 4.1 assists per game with 65.3 percent true shooting while getting to the foul line at a career-high clip. His pull-up jumper continues to miss the mark, but he is still, somehow, converting 80 percent of his looks at the basket.
Boston has increased its reliance on Tatum over the past couple of weeks. He has responded by reminding us all that, yeah, the playmaking leap is real. His potential assists are up, and he's never been more unpredictable or on target as a live-dribble passer. If anyone has the inside track on how to guard against his over-the-shoulder kick-outs, please let me know.
Almost no other player is as important to his team at both ends of the floor. As I wrote previously, on a separate topic: "It feels like the Celtics have him checking harder assignments, he remains disruptive away from the ball, and he's turning blocks from behind into an art form."
That Tatum is doing so much of damn near everything with a left wrist injury makes zero sense. Sure, his MVP credentials may be hard-pressed to fend off Giannis Antetokounmpo and a certain-someone-to-be-named-in-three-seconds over the course of a season. But if he recaptures his off-the-dribble jump-shooting mojo, he might have an airtight case as the NBA's most complete player.
1. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
Previous Ranking: 3
The extent to which the Dallas Mavericks rely on Luka Dončić is staggering. And also historical.
Just two other players have ever posted a higher usage rate: 2016-17 Russell Westbrook and 2018-19 James Harden. Absurder still, almost 91 percent of Dončić's made baskets have gone unassisted. Among every player to average at least 15 minutes and appear in five or more games, his 90.7 percent mark would be the largest share of unassisted field goals made in the NBA's tracking database, which goes back to 1996-97.
All-consuming usage doesn't automatically translate to substance. There will be those who argue Dončić cannot play any other way—that he has to be an unprecedented focal point.
Maybe there's validity to that stance. We wouldn't know. The Mavs have never armed the offense enough to explore displacing Dončić from the ball. Left untouched, this roster isn't built to make that shift. Spencer Dinwiddie and Christian Wood combine to open additional offensive doorways, but Dallas has opted against playing all three together.
Oh, yeah, here's the other thing: Dončić is wrecking worlds playing this way. His 34.3 points per game lead the league and come on 60.9 percent shooting from inside the arc—including a 50ish percent clip from mid-range. His sub-30 percent success rate from beyond the arc will rankle some and played a part in holding him back last time, but he's downed 35.6 percent of his treys since then...while still getting to the foul line a crap ton.
Dončić's 8.1 assists per game don't do his passing justice. He is third in potential assists per game (16.3), trailing only Tyrese Haliburton and Harden.
Conventional wisdom suggests Dončić can't keep this up, because, well, we've never seen anything quite like it. He's looked tired in certain games. But the all-Dončić-everything model is working now. The Mavs are eighth in net rating despite being just two games over .500. If there's anyone who can sustain this, it's the 23-year-old who has never been on a Dallas team equipped to saddle him with anything other than unreal usage.