Do you realize we’re essentially one-half of the way through the NBA season? The Jazz played their 40th game this weekend, while other teams have already played game No. 41. So is there a better time than now to break down the MVP race? Let’s make some tough cuts before breaking it out into a top 3.
The tough cuts
There are many who will have LeBron James in a semi-permanent top-3, due to his ongoing battle to be named the Greatest Player of All-Time. And that’s fine. But the truth is that at least three other players have played better this season. Yes, LeBron is averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists per game for the Lakers, and that is awesome. But he’s also leading them to just the 19th best offense in the league, still is taking many possessions off on the defensive end, and even when he was healthy, the Lakers were on a 48-win pace. IMO, that’s not MVP-worthy.
He leads the NBA in PER, is second in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and is averaging 28.7 points and 13 rebounds on some really crazy efficiency numbers. The Pelicans outscore opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and get outscored by 9.2 points per 100 when he’s on the bench. But teammate Jrue Holiday has even bigger +/- splits, the Pellies are just 16-18 in the games Davis has played, and they’re 14th in the Western Conference. Players on lottery teams don’t win MVP.
Steph Curry is having an absolutely excellent year, at second in the league in scoring with 28.9 points per game, and shooting 48 percent from the field 44 percent from 3 and 91 percent from the free-throw line. And he showed how much the Warriors depend on him when they went 5-6 without him — which probably disqualified Kevin Durant’s MVP case as well. But missing 11 games is a big deal, especially through just one-half of the season, and Curry hasn’t affected the game on both ends in quite as many ways as the top 3.
Jokic is the best player on the best team in the Western Conference: the Denver Nuggets. Jokic’s incredible passing ability plus scoring talent makes the Nuggets' offense run, and he had looked to take a leap on the defensive end, too. But the defense has slipped a little in the last month or so, and there are still weird single-digit scoring games where he seems out of the flow of the game. I don’t think people realize he’s just 23.
Kawhi Leonard is having a tremendous season, scoring 27 points and adding eight rebounds per game for a top-2 Eastern Conference team while still being capable of some of the scariest defense in the league. His no-look steal against Minnesota is a play I’ll never forget, a play that no other player would even consider, let alone pull off. But he’s missed nine games due to load management on his quad injury, and in those nine games, the Raptors are 7-2. They’re a pretty good team without him, too, so his value, while incredibly significant, is hard to separate from his roster.
The top three
3. Paul George
Paul George has been the best player on the second-best Western Conference team this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder. As Russell Westbrook has had his worst shooting season since his rookie year, the Thunder have increasingly relied on George to carry the offensive load, and he has. They outscore opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor, and get outscored by 2.8 with him on the bench. And just his raw production puts him in MVP consideration, too: 27 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals per game. It’s a little bit of an upset, but he deserves this spot over what the others have done this season.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo has changed what we thought was possible from wing players. Sure, we’ve had uber-long seven-footers play wing before, see Kevin Durant. And sure, we’ve had tall players essentially lead their squads from the perimeter, think Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons, or LeBron James. But we’ve never had anyone dominate the interior quite like Giannis while playing from the wing, as he’s on pace to set the league record in dunks, many of which are just unassisted beautiful drives to the rim with his impossible-to-stop stride length. The Greek Freak is averaging 26 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists per game, while leading Milwaukee to the top of the Eastern Conference.
1. James Harden
I don’t like watching James Harden just as much as you don’t. You could describe his game with a boring business flowchart: it begins with a slow dribble sequence or a plain-old screen, then either a drive — leading to contact and a game-stopping trip to the line, or an assist to an open 3-point shooter or dunker — or a step-back 3-point shot. It’s predictable, it’s formulaic, it’s exploitative.
But it’s also superlative. The truth of the matter is that he’s been the best player in the league again this season. He’s leading the NBA in scoring with 33.6 points per game, and it’s by the largest margin that we’ve seen in the league since 1988-89, when Michael Jordan finished above Dominique Wilkins. It’s by a large enough margin that even if you took his free-throws down to, say, Danilo Gallinari levels, he’d still lead the league in scoring. That’s true if you dinged his best-of-all-time step-back 3-point shot from 42 percent to 30 percent, too.
Oh, then he’s also kicking out 8.6 assists per game, with six rebounds, too. His 2.1 steals per contest leads his team, and reflects his defensive improvement. He’s leading the Rockets to the second-best offense in the league, and that’s despite the fact that Chris Paul and Eric Gordon have fallen off a cliff. He uses 21 percent more of his team’s possessions than anyone else, but he’s that much more efficient than anyone who’s close, too.
I wish it weren’t the case, but it is: just as he won the league MVP last year, James Harden deserves this year’s first-half award, too.