Making the Case for Every Top NBA MVP Candidate

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2020

Making the Case for Every Top NBA MVP Candidate

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    Better championship parity across the NBA is making for one hell of an MVP race.

    Few players can talk themselves into having a crack at this year's Maurice Podoloff Trophy. The list of hopefuls itself remains exclusive.

    Among the select players vying for MVP honors, though, a consensus airtight favorite has yet to reveal himself. Some arguments might seem stronger than others, but as the season inches closer to its halfway pole, five stars have incredibly bankable cases.

    So, let's make them.

    While this exercise serves as a vote of confidence for each of the top hopefuls, it doubles as an MVP ladder. The strongest argument possible will be made for every participant, but the rankings will come down to which player is most likely to take home the award—for now.

Knocking-on-the-Door Candidates

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    10. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

    Whether Pascal Siakam can retain fringe-MVP consideration has yet to be determined. He has missed the past six games with a groin injury, and the Raptors do not have a timetable for his return.

    Siakam's argument carries a lot less weight if he sits for significant time. Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker are already inching closer to this spot on the ladder. For now, Siakam's performance following Leonard's departure is still enough to get him by.

    Last year's transition from tantalizing building block to Most Improved Player was impressive. This season's leap is bigger, better and far more important. Progressing from fringe star to full-blown superstar is the hardest jump to make, and Siakam has completed it while navigating a slew of other absences from his teammates.

    Nothing encapsulates his ascent better than his uptick in on-ball responsibility. Siakam has finished more drives than D'Angelo Russell; thrown more potential assists than Donovan Mitchell; attempted more off-the-dribble threes than Khris Middleton; and drilled more above-the-break triples than Devin Booker.

    If he returns soon and the Raptors make a play for one of the East's top-three seeds, Siakam's MVP case gets super interesting.

      

    9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

    Nikola Jokic's sluggish start to the season works against his MVP probability, but he's in the process of making up ground.

    Since going five consecutive games without attempting at least 13 shots, he's averaging 22.5 points and 7.6 assists while banging in 42.1 percent of his triples. Denver is eighth in offensive efficiency during this span, up from 19th beforehand, to go along with a 9-4 record. (The defense has slipped.)

    The best players from the best teams automatically gain some level of MVP consideration. The Nuggets are faring well enough to ensure Jokic gets that type of love. They own the second-best record in the Western Conference and, despite the performances from some supporting cast members, don't yet have another All-Star on the roster.

      

    8. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

    Kawhi Leonard's case will continue to get diluted by Paul George and the Clippers' finite interest in dominating the regular season, but he's an MVP staple even on a strictly monitored workload.

    Taking on additional playmaking reps boosts his credentials more than anything. We've seen everything else before—the defense (he's still a terror even when not going full bore), the finishing at the rim, the ridiculously difficult jump shots, etc. His table-setting responsibilities are more novel.

    Without a conventional floor general, the Clippers have him initiating the offense coming around more screens. Leonard has responded with a career-high 5.1 assists and by averaging a starting point guard's worth of potential assists (11).

      

    7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Joel Embiid remains critical to the Sixers' success—more important than he probably should be.

    Philly is winning the minutes it tallies without him but toeing a delicate line. He has the highest net-rating swing, by a mile, among all regular rotation players. And although his presence is more apparent at the defensive end, the Sixers have needed to lean on his offense when it matters most. 

    Embiid has a higher crunch-time usage rate (39.2) than Luka Doncic (38.5), with a—*quadruple-checks notes*—76.1 true shooting percentage.

      

    6. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

    Jimmy Butler has turned in more efficient seasons, and yet, this might be his best body of work yet.

    More than a few saw the Heat becoming irritants in the Eastern Conference. No one saw them staking their claim for the No. 2 seed. Bam Adebayo has received heaps of praise for his all-everything contributions, including from Butler himself, and deservedly so. But Butler is still the engine that makes Miami go so gosh darn hard.

    Nobody on the Heat has a higher net-rating swing. It isn't even sort of close. What Butler has sacrificed in scoring output and lost in efficiency he's offset with extra playmaking. He's running more pick-and-rolls than Paul George, averaging nearly as many potential assists as Giannis Antetokounmpo and dropping more actual assists than Chris Paul. (Butler logs comfortably more minutes than all these players, but this is still a wow moment.)

    Using the Heat as a one-star example might be an insult to Adebayo. To say he's paralleled Butler's value goes a step too far.

5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Case in a Nutshell: Anthony Davis is playing 2k while the rest of the league is trapped in real life.

    Playing with LeBron James looks good on Anthony Davis. Like, really good.

    Davis is having the best offensive season of his career. His three-ball is falling at just a 28.7 percent clip, but that's easier to stomach when he's finishing around personal-best levels at the rim and from the foul line. He's notching the second-best true shooting percentage of his career overall. 

    James wasn't spewing empty niceties when he said the Los Angeles Lakers would play through Davis. The former is averaging more field-goal attempts and has the higher usage rate, but not by much. Davis leads the team in free-throw attempts and scoring.

    His value resonates even more at the other end. The Lakers are allowing slightly more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but that's loaded with noise. Davis is everywhere. Rivals are shooting worse from pretty much every spot on the floor when he's in the game, and he's proved impenetrable around the rim and paramount to short-circuiting half-court possessions.

    Having Davis (and Danny Green) has simplified James' defensive role. He is more active and no longer as responsible for tackling tougher assignments. No player on the team has a higher defensive rating swing, which is both impressive when the Lakers are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions and much harder to imagine if Davis weren't around.

    Cobble everything Davis is doing together, and you get video-game numbers. He's averaging 27.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks per game—benchmarks that, not surprisingly, have only ever been matched by Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Robinson.

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Case in a Nutshell: Oh my, the points. And also the Houston Rockets' record. But mostly the points. Which have defenses double-teaming him the moment he exits the locker room.

    James Harden's MVP case can be restricted to the most fundamental argument: He is having the highest-scoring season in league history of anyone aside from Wilt Chamberlain. That's it. That could be his entire case, and he'd still make this short list.

    Of course, Harden's 38.3 points per game do not make up his entire argument. His efficiency amid extreme volume is a huge part of the equation.

    Bemoan the aesthetics of his game—and Houston's offense—as you must. Harden is draining 37.8 percent of his 13.7 three-point attempts per night, he's averaging an unreal 1.18 points per isolation possession, and his 63.9 true shooting percentage is the second-highest of his career. This doesn't make sense, in a good way, no matter how many trips he's making to the free-throw line. (And FYI: He's not getting to the charity stripe nearly as often over the past couple of weeks.)

    Criticism of Harden's style falls especially flat when looking at the level of concern defenses are showing for his offense. The attention he commands borders on unprecedented and, frankly, unhinged. He is inciting double-teams early and often, in a way perhaps never before seen, not even by peak Stephen Curry.

    As ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote: 

    "The most sophisticated tracking systems do not have language to evaluate what teams are doing to Harden. Second Spectrum, the gold standard, cannot directly tell you how many points per possession Houston scores when opponents trap Harden.

    "You can get that figure for Harden pick-and-rolls. That's a discrete play type these systems identify and log. There is no play type for 'guy walking near half court when two enemies bum-rush him.' It's not an isolation. There is no screen. It's just a dude strolling with a basketball."

    The degree to which this nuclear adjustment works (or doesn't work) is hazy. In theory, though, it makes.

    Rockets who aren't Harden have hit 36.5 percent of their wide-open threes, slightly below the league average of 38.4 percent. At the bare minimum, limiting his individual scoring opportunities—he's an excellent passer—feels like a smart decision. Houston is losing the minutes without him, and it's not even close. Bridging the gap when he's on the court renders the stints in which he's off that much more valuable to the other team.

    Moral of the story: Defenses don't care about the opportunities they're surrendering to four other players if it means taking the ball out of the Harden's hands. And warping entire approaches like this is a monstrous, even if inadvertent, form of validation. It reinforces just how important Harden is to the Rockets—and how alone he might be.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Case in a Nutshell: The Dallas Mavericks have the NBA's best offense and are competing for a top-three playoff seed, and Luka Doncic is why.

    Luka Doncic's sophomore campaign is brain-bending. He's averaging nearly a triple-double per game—28.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.0 assists—and his true shooting percentage has jumped by almost seven points despite his usage rate spiking by nearly 20 percent.

    Some won't feel entirely comfortable celebrating his efficiency. Math doesn't lie, but there remains something unseemly about a sub-33 percent clip from downtown. 

    Whatever. Doncic is launching more than 10 threes per 36 minutes, most of which are coming off the bounce. Leeway must be afforded for his blend of volume and difficulty.

    Besides, if you're at all rankled by his below-average accuracy from long distance, he makes up for it inside the arc. He's shooting 75.4 percent at the rim and 46.9 percent on floaters. His 62.9 percent clip on 17.1 drives per game is bonkers—and the best mark among 113 players who are averaging at least five downhill attacks per game and have made more than five total appearances.

    Don't let the Dallas Mavericks' depth take away from Doncic's MVP mystique. Their bench has the league's best point differential per 100 possessions, and they're hammering opponents when he's off the court. That is not a knock on him.

    Dallas is still very much a one-star team. Singling out the Mavericks' third-best player is a laboring thought exercise, and Kristaps Porzingis has been more turbulent than not. The drop-off between Doncic and Dallas' No. 2 is, so far, steeper than the gap separating everyone else on this list from their co-star. (This may register as false depending on how you feel about Russell Westbrook these days.)

    This ginormous delineation in the Mavericks' pecking order has not crimped their relevance. They are not a happy-to-here postseason lock. They are contending for a top-three playoff seed and a heartbeat away from legitimate title contention, if not there already, because Doncic has crossed the threshold into megastardom.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Case in a Nutshell: Age-35 LeBron James is the best player on the Western Conference's best team, and somehow, even with a fellow top-seven star as his co-part, indispensable in an almost unsettling way.

    Are we fully appreciating LeBron in real time? Because it doesn't feel like we're fully appreciating him in real time.

    Last year's groin injury—which has since popped up again—helped us confront his mortality. But Anthony Davis has made appearances in various MVP ladders ahead of his co-star, which feels wrong.

    This isn't a matter of diminishing one superstar's value to prop up another. Davis belongs in the conversation. Rather, this is a nod toward what should be, yet has somehow not become, blatantly obvious: James is more important to what the Los Angeles Lakers do.

    Look no further than the on-off splits. Davis and James have logged a similar amount of time without the other. The Lakers have thus far lost their Davis-only minutes. They are, conversely, winning James' solo reps by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.

    Context is important. Los Angeles has assembled its roster to revolve around James' playmaking and doesn't have the secondary creators to consistently offset his absences. That's sort of the point.

    Davis is more dependent on James for his offense. Almost 64 percent of his made baskets have come off assists. James has been the helping hand on his scores more than three times as often as anyone else on the roster. 

    Again: Do not take this as a potshot at Davis. This is a mutually beneficial partnership. Davis' presence on the backline has encouraged James to be a more, shall we say, active defender. His deflections per 36 minutes are up since last season, and though the tracking data says he's contesting fewer field-goal attempts, opponents are shooting noticeably worse from deep with him in the game—even when he's not beside Danny Green.

    Still, James' overall value isn't as tightly tethered to another player. He remains the center of his team's universe. That's wild to say about a 35-year-old. It gets tougher to comprehend knowing James leads the whole damn league in assists, and that, this year, his team just so happens to be one of the Association's foremost championship contenders.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Case in a Nutshell: He's the best player on the league's best team and having a ridiculously dominant season at both ends of the floor.

    Another season, another opportunity for Giannis Antetokounmpo to simultaneously contend for the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards.

    Seriously, the extent of his dominance is getting out of hand. Somewhat buried beneath James Harden's historic scoring eruption is Antetokounmpo's own nightly salvos. He's averaging over 30 points...in barely 31 minutes per game.

    That pales in contrast to Harden's 38-plus at first glance but is much closer when prorating their buckets. Antetokounmpo is putting up 33.8 points per 75 possessions compared to Harden's 35.4. 

    Genuinely, actually, holy crap.

    People still harp on Antetokounmpo's limited range. That is their right. He isn't yet shooting league average from beyond the arc, but his 32.7 percent clip is manageable. New-age MVP darling Luka Doncic is at 32.4 percent. His efficiency comes on significantly more volume, but Antetokounmpo has upped his three-point-attempt rate by close to nine percentage points since last season.

    This increase is a weapon on its own. A willingness to shoot is an asset, almost regardless of the success rate. Defenses can plan around low efficiency, but they also instinctively react to volume. Think: basically Marcus Smart's entire career.

    Antetokounmpo puts even more pressure on defenses with the types of triples he's jacking. Nearly 80 percent of his outside looks come off the dribble. He's knocking these shots down at a sub-stellar 30.4 percent clip, but he's already made more pull-up treys this year (38) than all of 2018-19 (37).

    All the other, usual stat-line trappings apply to Antetokounmpo's MVP case. It still looks like someone tinkered with the HTML code on his Basketball Reference page. He's racking up 12.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks to go along with his scoring totals.

    Monster defensive efforts continue to separate him from so many superstars. He guards players, of all sizes and skill sets, like someone with an emotional attachment to the outcome of each and every possession. And while this isn't exactly breaking news, the Milwaukee Bucks are putting a fresh spin on his infinite utility.

    Lineups with Antetokounmpo at center are more common than ever. He has already set a career high for the number of possessions he's logged at the 5. Milwaukee has a defensive rating in the 100th during that time, through which opponents are shooting an absurdly low 53.6 percent at the rim. It'll get harder for these combinations to survive in the playoffs, but for now, they're a cheat code's cheat code.

    If anyone is trying to poke holes in Antetokounmpo's argument, they'll zero in on the Bucks' performance without him. They're outscoring opponents by seven points per 100 possessions when he's off the court. That does little, verging on nothing, to debunk his indispensability.

    Depth should not be a detraction in these discussions—particularly here. Milwaukee's net rating jumps by nine points with Antetokounmpo on the floor. Dragging a team out of the doldrums is impressive. It's also a prerequisite of superstardom. That Antetokounmpo elevates the best squad in the league by such a demonstrative margin despite its competence without him is more of a singularity.

          

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Monday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    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.

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