NBA MVP Rankings: Dallas Mavericks Are Wasting an Epic Luka Dončić Season
Welcome to yet another NBA MVP ladder filled with shakeups inside the top five.
To be sure, this iteration is less turbulent than the last. But roughly one-and-a-half months into the season, there isn't a no-brainer consensus—nothing resembling an air of inevitability.
No fewer than three players have an actual No. 1 case. And in reality, the number might be four. Or five.
Or even six.
As usual, this ranking reflects a snapshot in time—what my ballot would look like if the season ended prior to Monday night's games, which thankfully it didn't, because this remains really hard. Still.
Recent performances are worth a metric ton of value, because two-week intervals continue to make up a huge portion of the schedule. Still, this is a yearlong evaluation at its heart and will not be entirely subject to spur-of-the-moment swings that are implicitly unsustainable.
Early-season MVP races are almost always humdingers. But if the landscape holds, we're in for months' worth of epic debates.
10. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Previous Ranking: Unranked
De'Aaron Fox? De'Aaron Fox. It's time he received peripheral MVP love for headlining one of the league's top-six offenses and, for now, one of the Western Conference's six best teams.
Granted, his numbers coupled with inconsistent defense from Kevin Durant (tied for No. 10 last time) and a slew of star absences (namely Joel Embiid's) demand that Fox earn a cursory nod beyond Sacramento's success. He's averaging over 25 points and six assists per game while converting 59.3 percent of his twos and 38.5 percent of his threes and registering absurd crunch-time splits.
9. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
Previous Ranking: 4
Darius Garland's return to the court and to form has, predictably, lightened Mitchell's playmaking load. But the latter is still scoring like whoa while raining off-the-dribble threes and, for the most part, delivering much better defensive efforts.
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Previous Ranking: 8
Morant had me worried when he missed just one game with a sore left ankle. Were the Grizzlies rushing him back?!
Apparently not. His three-point and free-throw clips are still slumping relative to where they were earlier this season, but Morant remains an every-level offensive life force who enables Memphis to roll.
7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Previous Ranking: 7
Are we talking enough about how the Suns don't have Chris Paul, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder but are still, somehow, first in the Western Conference? I don't think we are.
Inspired performances from Mikal Bridges and, more recently, Deandre Ayton have helped. But Booker's imprint is all over this regular-season machine. Though his efficiency from beyond the arc has tumbled amid intense defensive focus, it's intact basically everywhere else, and Phoenix is scoring 1.14 points per possession when he's double-teamed.
Booker's supporting cast might even be leaving buckets on the table. The quality of his passes haven't changed, but the Suns are shooting 49.8 percent on his assist opportunities—the No. 40 conversion rate among running mates of players who rank in the top 50 of potential assists per game.
6. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
Previous Ranking: 9
Jokić apparently heard everyone who was bellowing for him to score more. He dropped 31 and 39 in his first two games after clearing the health and safety protocols.
Citing his league-best net rating swing is fun. But the Nuggets bench is doing their damnedest to suck enough to prop that up. It is more instructive to note that Denver is hammering opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays. How much credit he deserves for defensive success during that time is debatable. (I land on some but not all. He probably gets too much from many yet not enough from others.)
Slotting Jokić higher is possible if you believe his overall scoring downtick exists by design—an attempt to adequately arm the Nuggets (and preserve himself) for life in the playoffs.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Ranking: 3
As noted last time, Giannis Antetokounmpo's stay outside the top two feels temporary. That sentiment hasn't shifted.
The field in front of Giannis has.
Redditors with offensive or indiscernible usernames will claim we're dinging him too much for his struggles at the foul line (60 percent) and on looks away from the rim. That's what happens at this level. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP and has set a certain standard for himself to which he must be held.
The absence of Khris Middleton—and the time missed by Jrue Holiday—doesn't change this calculus. Others on this list are lifting up more problematic supporting casts. And while the Milwaukee Bucks offense has perked up in recent weeks, it still ranks 15th overall and hasn't fared nearly well enough in transition.
Antetokounmpo's minutes represent an improvement over the offense's norm but not by demonstrative degrees. He is far more bankable on the other end, where he once again belongs in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
This all reads like Giannis is failing the Bucks. He's not. Finishing fifth on a midseason MVP ballot is idealistic for most. His overall numbers remain gaga—30.9 points and 5.4 assists per game, 74 percent shooting at the rim—and he has quietly canned 57.9 percent of his mid-range jumpers (11-of-19) since the last ladder.
When Antetokounmpo inevitably improves his marks inside the paint, at the foul line and/or from deep, this will become a different discussion. Ditto for when he no longer barely ranks inside the top 90 of minutes played.
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Previous Ranking: 5
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's outside efficiency has trailed off over the past couple of weeks, and he seems a half-step less ubiquitous on the defensive end. That is the extent of his decline.
And to be sure, it isn't an actual decline. His numbers this season still bend the brain: 31.1 points, 6.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, 54.0 percent shooting on twos and 35.7 percent shooting on threes and 92.2 percent shooting from the foul line on career-high volume.
If this combination of counting stats and efficiency feels notable, that's because it is. LeBron James is the only player on record to clear 30 points, six assists, one steal and one block on better than 60 percent true shooting for an entire season. (Note: The Stathead database on this goes back to 1982-83.)
Ignore any impulse that wants to suggest SGA's production is empty or the byproduct of a role he wouldn't deserve elsewhere. The Oklahoma City Thunder have won the minutes he has played, and they're posting a better offensive rating with him (115.4) than the Bucks notch with Giannis Antetokounmpo (113.8).
Cry "cherry-picking" if you must. Milwaukee has yet to get Khris Middleton back, and Jrue Holiday missed a handful of games with a sprained ankle. But the Thunder don't even have a clear second-best player. Gilgeous-Alexander's surrounding uncertainty isn't any less of a barrier just because Oklahoma City operates on a bigger-picture timeline.
Perhaps the Thunder will start losing enough for him to fade outside the top five. Their 2-4 record since the last MVP ladder isn't great. It's also not inundated with losses that scream "Frauds!"
Regardless, SGA's body of work is enough to float a top-four finish. Especially when you consider the all-everything parameters of his role. Among the 329 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game through more than 10 appearances, only Luka Dončić has a larger share of his made shots go unassisted. And Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in clutch win probability added, according to Inpredictable.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Previous Ranking: 2
Steady is Jayson Tatum's stock. Dropping one spot from the last MVP ladder had less to do with the man himself and more to do without the repeated eruptions of the names to come.
Tatum's three-point clip has ducked below 31 percent these past couple of weeks, but he offset the dip with stellar shooting inside the arc (53.7 percent on twos since the last ladder) and career-best free-throw volume. His defense has been instrumental to the Boston Celtics' inching back up the stopping-power hierarchy despite their odd lack of forced turnovers, and he's averaging 6.8 assists(!) over the past couple of weeks.
The Celtics have lost just once since the last ladder and have the league's best offense and net rating. Tatum props up that dominance without needing to monopolize possessions as a playmaker or scorer. His superstardom remains more scalable than most, and it allows Boston to manage dependence on any one functional feature. Never-in-doubt wins like those over the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings also permit them to keep his minutes in check.
Not to say Tatum isn't wired to carried the whole show. He is. He has been. He's still clearing 30.0 points and 4.6 assists per game with a bonkers 62.5 true shooting percentage.
Maybe he doesn't have the singular-lifeline juice to leapfrog one or both of the names in front of him long-term. But for perhaps the league's most complete player, on its potentially best team, top-five appearances are beginning to feel like the floor.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Previous Ranking: T-5
Stephen Curry finished atop the early-season MVP ballots of ESPN's Zach Lowe and Kevin Pelton on the Nov. 21 episode of The Lowe Post podcast. And, well, good luck proving them wrong.
Curry's numbers are reality-fracturing. He's averaging 31.4 points and 7.1 assists per game while dropping in 62.9 percent of his twos and 44.1 percent of his 11.7 three-point attempts per game. Like, what?!
Using the Golden State Warriors' record against him never made sense. It makes even less now. They're still hovering around .500 and play-in territory, but they have a top-six offense and are 5-2 since the last MVP ladder. Their uptick might even be skewed in the wrong direction thanks to a no-hands-on-deck Nov. 21 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Golden State has cobbled together more interesting bench units to help keep itself afloat. Playing Draymond Green in some of those lineups has helped a ton. But Curry remains the driving force of everything. He now owns the league's second-largest net rating swing and ranks first in plus-minus.
On-off splits aren't solely a matter of Curry's benefiting from a crappy bench. Again: The Warriors are finding solutions, it seems, outside the starting unit. The degree to which Curry warps defenses is just beyond comprehension.
He opens up the floor for everyone even when he doesn't have the ball and even when he's not moving. Golden State's effective field-goal percentage climbs by 12 points with him in the game—the second-biggest uptick in the league and the highest, by a mile, among all other nine names to appear on this list. Teammates are also shooting 58.2 percent on his assist opportunities, another MVP ladder-best mark that oozes awesomeness whether you consider his supporting cast shallow or deep enough.
Awarding Curry the top spot would be fine. I'd like to see the Warriors' wins toughen up a bit first. Victories over the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves were a start. Beating the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and starless Los Angeles Clippers rang hollow. It still wouldn't surprise me if Steph is No. 1 next time—or five minutes from now. He has a real, if not likely, shot to become just the third player to win the MVP award after his 34th birthday.
1. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
Previous Ranking: 1
Squaring away Luka Dončić's place in this argument is getting tougher by the week.
The Dallas Mavericks aren't obliterating opponents when he's on the floor, but they're comfortably winning his minutes. That feels like a minor miracle when looking at the circumstances under which he plays.
Figuring out how much to beef up MVP stocks because of spotty supporting casts is really hard. Dallas is making it too easy. It's not just the Mavs' obviously imperfect roster construction; it's how they manage it.
Electing not to add another ball-handler over the offseason after losing their second-best player has led them into the arms of the previously unsigned Kemba Walker. Christian Wood's defensive lapses are presumably costing him playing time, but head coach Jason Kidd is totally cool with giving benefit of the doubt to bricklaying exploits from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock.
Dallas' ceiling with this exact roster makeup remains to be seen. But it's higher than 11th place in the Western Conference. And anyone attributing the Mavs' recent plunge to Dončić needs a reality check.
Whether you think he's capable of playing a different, less-central role is irrelevant. Dallas isn't giving him the chance to try. Riding him into the ground is still its most efficient form of hope, and he's killing it. Somehow, someway, he continues to hit over 60 percent of his twos and brutalize matchups in the post while leading the league in scoring. He has also drilled 35.9 percent of his three-point attempts (most ultra-ridiculously hard) since the last MVP ladder.
Equally important: There has been a weirdo internet groundswell calling for Dončić to involve his teammates more. If only he was, you know, third in potential assists per game. Oh, wait, that's exactly where he sits. His teammates are shooting 50.2 percent on his assist opportunities. That is noticeably higher than Dallas' overall efficiency—non-Dončić Mavs are at 45.5 percent combined—yet only the 37th-highest conversion rate among running mates of players who rank in the top 50 of potential assists per game.
There's a discussion to be had about shot quality and late-clock grenades, but the overarching point is unassailable: Dončić is not in any way, shape or form the problem in Dallas. And though his first-place finish is not without vulnerability (Stephen Curry is coming), it is for now a worthwhile nod to his attempt at rescuing an organization that's done little to nothing in service of itself or its generational megastar.