Making the Case for Every Top MVP Candidate

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2019

Making the Case for Every Top MVP Candidate

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    What began as a wide-open race for the NBA's MVP award has since turned into a more exclusive affair.

    Distribute blame to Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden at your leisure. Their dominance is proving equal parts unreal and sustainable, and it has left both with almost airtight claims to the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

    HOWEVER!

    The MVP chase is a season-long battle that, in theory, favors longevity over romanticized streaks and partial-year detonations. And with the 2018-19 campaign reaching the halfway pole, the field has a chance to catch up to the standard-setters.

    Melt in the importance voters typically ascribe to team success, and the league's ultimate form of bragging rights are still up for grabs.

    In the spirit of ongoing competition, let's look at why every top candidate deserves legit consideration. This doubles as an MVP ladder (you're welcome) and will rank players by weighing the strength of their cases against the odds of them actually winning relative to how past races have shaken out.

Within-Striking-Distance Candidates

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    10. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

    Case in a Nutshell: Best player on what could be the best team.

    Toronto could feasibly wind up finishing with the NBA's best record, and Kawhi Leonard is doing work at the offensive end. The Raptors have figured out ways to keep their heads above water without him, but he's clearly their ticket to title contention.

    Still, Leonard isn't yet playing in both ends of back-to-backs, and in a wide-open Defensive Player of the Year race, he doesn't profile as a top-three finisher—a slight disappointment by his standards. His is a case that will have to win us over in the latter half of the season if it's going to be more than an honorary one.

                                                   

    9. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

    Case in a Nutshell: Proving indispensable to a team with Stephen Curry.

    Kevin Durant owns Golden State's highest offensive- and net-rating differentials. This is not a drill. It his him, not Stephen Curry. And whereas the Warriors are a net minus when Curry plays without Durant, they're comfortably in the green when the situation is flipped.

    This alone should put Durant the top five. And hey: It might. But this pecking order takes into account voter tendencies. Some maintain that Curry is Golden State's most valuable player, and the two stars will cannibalize each other's tallies accordingly. 

    Plus, it doesn't help that Durant ranks seventh on his own team in crunch-time effective field-goal percentage. The Warriors are 25th in points scored per 100 possessions down the stretch of close games while playing through him. That's an actual problem.

                                           

    8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

    Case in a Nutshell: Saving a could-be contender that isn't supposed to need rescuing.

    Kyrie Irving has a sneaky MVP case. I wrote more about it here

    The Cliffs Notes version of his argument: He's more irreplaceable to the Celtics than last season, when Boston didn't have Gordon Hayward and when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum hadn't yet enjoyed big-time breakouts.

    Boston's offensive rating has thus far plunged by 13.2 points per 100 possessions when Irving is on the bench. No other player who makes this MVP cut is having as large of an impact. And this offensive indispensability comes while Irving is playing career defense and flirting with top-10-player status.

    Look for his MVP argument to explode if the Celtics ever get on pace for noticeably more than 50 wins.

                               

    7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Case in a Nutshell: The MVP of a team with three stars.

    Joel Embiid is Philly's buffer against awkwardness. He isn't a perfect fit beside his two costars, but his work in the post and from face-up positions, along with a willingness to shoot threes and dive to the rim, helps counteract imperfect lineups.

    Neither Jimmy Butler nor Ben Simmons can say the same. Simmons hasn't yet found his niche off the ball, and Butler is already griping about his role, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Of the three, Embiid is both more suited to carry an offense and find ways to coexist within one that doesn't call for an absolute lifeline. Asking him to shoulder that burden on top of everything he does defensively is unfair.

    Embiid is somehow up for it.

                                

    6. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

    Case in a Nutshell: The Lakers won 35 games last year.

    Let's keep it simple.

    The Lakers won 35 games last year. They were playing at a 48-win pace before LeBron James went down with a groin injury. They've since grabbed just one victory in his absence. 

    James has the stat lines. He always has the stat lines. His impact sometimes gets obscured by his regular-season cruise control, but this year is different. The Lakers don't have another All-Star. They're made up of youngsters and role-playing vets, some of whom remain questionable fits. And James, barring catastrophe, is taking them to the playoffs anyway.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 49.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.2 player efficiency rating (PER), 195.27 total points added (TPA), 6.62 real plus-minus (RPM)

    MVP Probability (via Basketball Reference): 5.3 percent

    Case in a Nutshell: Best player on a surprise contender.

    Is Nikola Jokic too high? It feels like he's too high. So he's probably too high. 

    This, mind you, has nothing to do with his vacuum argument. He is the best player for a Denver Nuggets team staring down at the rest of the Western Conference. His offensive IQ is terrifyingly high, and he's playing smarter defense.

    That last part isn't bulletproof. Jokic owes aspects of his rosier defense to Paul Millsap. Denver is allowing over 115 points per 100 possessions when he plays without his frontcourt partner, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Overall, though, Jokic is putting himself in the right spots. He's a borderline weapon when aggressively jumping pick-and-rolls, and on the occasions in which he does drop back, he isn't giving off that newborn-giraffe feel. 

    Not to be overlooked: The Nuggets have survived a rash of injuries thanks to him. Since Dec. 1, they are 17.3 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor, and they've had to navigate this span with absences from Millsap and Gary Harris, in addition to the still-shelved Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and Isaiah Thomas. Denver has also won an NBA-high 17 games in crunch time, and despite iffy shooting slashes through those stretches, Jokic owns the league's sixth-best cumulative clutch plus-minus.

    Considered against the long-standing resistance to Jokic's superstar climb, the center's MVP case is an opportunity for mea culpas and the bonus support that comes with them. He's not getting either. 

    Jokic doesn't garner the respect or acceptance incumbent of players in his position. Like the Nuggets, he's still treated as a dark horse. That'll be reflected on his MVP ballot. But he's doing his damnedest to stay around the front of the pack, and for now, it's working.

4. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 177.11 TPA, 6.99 RPM

    MVP Probability: 5.1 percent

    Case in a Nutshell: Having a career year as the best player on a top-five team.

    Paul George no longer leads the Oklahoma City Thunder in usage rate. A healthy Russell Westbrook has predictably leapfrogged him. But George does pace the team in field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, and Oklahoma City has his expanded playmaking responsibilities.

    Westbrook missed time with knee and ankle injuries. That helps. And he remains an overbearing presence down the stretch. But the transition to George as an equal, if not the alpha scorer, is real. He even takes more shots per 36 minutes than Westbrook when they share the floor.

    Wresting touches and status from the 2016-17 MVP is one thing. Turning that opportunity into a career year is another. George is averaging personal bests in points, rebounds, assists and steals, maintaining his killer efficiency on pull-up threes amid a volume increase and spearheading a first-place defense that still doesn't have Andre Roberson.

    The coup de grace: Oklahoma City's net rating surges by 14.8 points per 100 possessions with George in the game. Here's that same differential for everyone else who appears on this ladder:

    • Kevin Durant: 15.5
    • Joel Embiid: 13.8
    • Anthony Davis: 11.1
    • Kyrie Irving: 11.6
    • LeBron James: 5.6
    • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 5.0
    • Nikola Jokic: 4.0
    • Kawhi Leonard: 1.9
    • James Harden: 0.0

    Defensive Player of the Year is on the table for George. He warrants something more. And with the Thunder battling for pole position in the Western Conference, he has a chance of getting it.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 28.7 points, 13.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.6 blocks, 50.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 30.3 PER, 240.09 TPA, 7.07 RPM

    MVP Probability: 7.3 percent

    Case in a Nutshell: Too dominant to care about his team's record.

    Anthony Davis makes the top three in spite of history. League MVPs predominantly go to players on great teams. The New Orleans Pelicans far from meet that criteria. They're on the outskirts of the West's playoff race and a ways below .500.

    Russell Westbrook's 2016-17 crown has become the example "Well, actually" for players, like Davis, headlining non-contenders. The Pelicans fall short of even that standard.

    Only two MVPs have ever come from sub-.500 from squads: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76) and Bob Pettit (1955-56). Both of their teams posted a higher winner percentage than New Orleans has now.

    And yet, Davis is overwhelming us with evidence that the Pelicans are not his fault—that they are the byproduct of shoddy depth and limited defensive tools. Per 36 minutes, he's averaging more points than Damian Lillard; the same amount of rebounds as Karl-Anthony Towns; more assists than Donovan Mitchell; more steals than Giannis Antetokounmpo; and more blocks than Rudy Gobert.

    Put Davis' value against his primary competition, and he doesn't just hold up. He thrives. Look at his average ranking in eight oft-cited catch-all metrics compared to his MVP-field peers (via the Hardwood Knocks podcast's Andrew Bailey):

    • Anthony Davis: 2.1
    • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 4.3
    • James Harden: 5.1
    • Paul George: 5.3
    • Kevin Durant: 8.0
    • Nikola Jokic: 8.6
    • Kyrie Irving: 9.5
    • LeBron James: 11.3
    • Joel Embiid: 17.3
    • Kawhi Leonard: 21.8

    It will take an epic deviation from normal—or a legendary turnaround from the Pellies—for Davis to beat out everyone on the ballot. If anyone's worth that degree of exception, it's him.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 33.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 44.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 29.0 PER, 257.73 TPA, 7.77 RPM

    MVP Probability: 18.1 percent

    Case in a Nutshell: HAVE YOU WATCHED BASKETBALL IN THE LAST MONTH???

    Having Chris Paul is supposed to lighten James Harden's workload. Instead, with his backcourt running mate recovering from a hamstring injury, he's never done more.

    Harden's usage rate (38.5) isn't just a career high. Nor does it just lead the league. It is the third-highest mark in NBA history. 

    His numbers are living up to that volume. They're also belying it. Harden is on track to win his second scoring title while notching the second-best true shooting percentage of his career.

    The games he has played since Paul left a Dec. 20 loss to the Miami Heat have almost single-handedly thrust him to the top of the MVP hierarchy. Through those seven contests (including the Miami contest), Harden is averaging a bonkers 41.1 points, 9.9 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 42.0 percent from beyond the arc on ridiculously difficult volume.

    "Harden is taking 16 pull-up threes per game over the last seven games and shooting 42.9 percent on them," Dime's Mike Zavagno wrote. "Only 0.9 of his threes are wide-open. He's taking the hardest shots in the NBA and shooting the absolute lights out."

    Oh, and let's not forget to contextualize Harden's barrage of 40-point games. He has met that mark 11 times through 34 contests. It took him 72 appearances to hit that total last year, and 81 outings to match it in 2016-17. 

    That Harden's explosion has coincided with the Houston Rockets' trek up the West standings bodes well for his repeat bid. A top-three or top-two finish in the conference would allow him to fall off—he can't score and shoot and dazzle like this forever, right?—and still have one of the two strongest arguments in play.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.6 blocks, 58.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 28.8 PER, 239.12 TPA, 4.47 RPM

    MVP Probability: 41 percent

    Case in a Nutshell: Checking all the relatable boxes.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a prototypical MVP season: one not buoyed by any singular stretch but an entire body of work. And in that consistency lies an argument that satisfies all the usual requirements.

    Dominant without any real trace of a cold streak? Check.

    Best player on (what is for now) the best team? Check. And this reign transcends the Milwaukee Bucks' record. They may cede the league's top winning percentage, but they are the only team to rank in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency and have been for quite some time.

    More than just an offensive phenom? Antetokounmpo is going to get Defensive Player of the Year votes. So...check.

    Catching us off-guard in some form? His ball-handling now includes tricks beyond his gait and his length, and he's dropping more assists per 36 minutes than Kemba Walker. So, check again.

    Fair warning: James Harden is coming for this top spot. His push cannot be written off as another glamorized spurt. It isn't so much abnormal as an expansion of what he's done for the past three seasons. He'll drop off (I think), but his play now will have lasting effects on Houston's proximity to the top of the West and his MVP curb appeal. He is a threat.

    In the meantime, Antetokounmpo is maintaining his position with his classic wire-to-wire case—and deservedly so.

                       

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Jan 4. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.