The NBA season is now more than halfway over, and as teams have worked to function at the highest possible level on the basketball court, so too have a select group of players that have kicked it up a notch once again in 2019-20. While there may not have been a massive change in the names on this list as compared to November’s rankings, most of said names have trended upwards or downwards, keeping this year’s MVP race fresh and interesting throughout.
There are 10-15 players who have a legitimate claim to a top-five spot this season, and only five could be included in this ranking (aside from the honorable mentions listed). This meant that some big names had to be left off the list for logistics’ sake. Although “most valuable player” and “best player” seem to be synonymous terms, they don’t necessarily represent the same concept – creating scenarios where a superior player (such as Kawhi Leonard) may be ranked lower than a slightly inferior player (such as Nikola Jokic) on the MVP ladder due to external factors such as games missed, team record, or statistical inconsistencies. This list shouldn’t be viewed as a definitive ranking of the best basketball players in the world, but it can be utilized to take a look at some of the best individual players of the 2019-20 season.
My last ranking considered nine primary statistics for each player – those being points per game (PPG), rebounds per game (RPG), assists per game (APG), steals per game (SPG), blocks per game (BPG), field goal percentage (% FG), three-point percentage (% 3PT), free-throw percentage (% FT), and overall team record. While these nine statistical categories generally offer a wholistic view of what any given basketball player is accomplishing on the court, they’re still largely surface-level statistics that don’t explore deeper analytical impacts that said players have on the court. For this ranking, all nine of those primary statistics were still considered, with an added focus on player efficiency rating (PER), effective field goal percentage (eFG%), true shooting percentage (TS%), turnover percentage (% TOV), offensive rating (ORTG), defensive rating (DRTG), and defensive win shares (DWS). Although the added categories still cannot fully capture a given player’s impact, they do a better job at highlighting offensive efficiency and defensive prowess as a whole.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Season Statistics: 22.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 44.3% FG, 38.2% 3PT, 81.3% FT
Advanced Statistics: 19.5 PER, 51.5% eFG, 55.4% TS, 9.7% TOV, 109 ORTG, 105 DRTG, 2.8 DWS
Team Record: 38-16 (3rd in Eastern Conference)
Jayson Tatum has exploded onto the MVP scene and is finally proving to be the centerpiece Boston always hoped he could become. The final honorable mention spot was between Tatum and Pascal Siakam, and while Siakam has a better team record and an impressive resume of his own, Tatum’s advanced numbers are even stronger than those boasted by the Toronto power forward. The statistics are close, but Tatum has the higher PER, eFG%, TS%, ORTG, to go along with a lower turnover percentage, higher defensive win shares and better shooting from both the three-point line and the free throw line. While the margin between the players closer to bottom of the rankings is extremely small, Tatum snags this spot due to the fact that he’s played more games than Siakam, performing at an extremely high level on the offensive and defensive end of the floor. Tatum’s offensive leap shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who watched his run through the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2018, but the strides he’s made on defense have surprised everyone from casual fans to members of Boston’s coaching staff and front office alike. His relatively cold start to the season has been largely forgotten, as he’s improved his shooting percentages to a more respectable 44.3% from the field and 38.2% on three-point attempts. Despite the fact that his offensive game benefits from sharing the floor with Boston’s other versatile perimeter weapons, anchoring a top-three Eastern Conference team on both ends of the court at 21 years old is a noteworthy accomplishment nonetheless.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Previous Rank: Unranked
Season Statistics: 20.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 6.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 51.8% FG, 32.9% 3PT, 81.0% FT
Advanced Statistics: 25.3 PER, 55.8% eFG, 59.7% TS, 14.8% TOV, 119 ORTG, 105 DRTG, 2.8 DWS
Team Record: 38-17 (2nd in Western Conference)
The Denver Nuggets, after a relatively rough start to the season that saw the NBA world largely forget about their collection of talent, are now showing why some experts were picking the squad to make the Finals over the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. The most important piece of their impressive record has been Nikola Jokic, the fifth-year center known for his offensive versatility and passing ability. Jokic’s scoring average, at 20.6 points per game, is relatively low for a typical MVP candidate. Despite this, his shooting efficiency and exceptional passing (6.9 assists per game, 1st among non-guards) make him one of the most dangerous big men in the NBA. Jokic’s offensive prowess has been well documented after his previous few seasons, but his defensive numbers have also taken a significant step forward this season, as his defensive rating and win shares place him among the top 30 defenders in the NBA. While these statistics fail to showcase his struggles with weak-side help and on-ball lockups, he’s clearly found positive ways to contribute on that end of the court, disrupting passing lanes and occasionally blocking shots while remaining a consistent rebounder. The argument that a center cannot be the best player on a championship team in today’s NBA may perhaps reign true – but Denver is a Western Conference powerhouse once again, and Jokic has played a huge role in that success.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Previous Rank: Honorable Mention
Season Statistics: 20.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 45.7% FG, 24.8% 3PT, 83.6% FT
Advanced Statistics: 24.0 PER, 47.9% eFG, 58.7% TS, 11.5% TOV, 123 ORTG, 107 DRTG, 2.2 DWS
Team Record: 35-19 (4th in Eastern Conference)
Jimmy Butler finds himself just outside of the top five once again, as his stellar play has kept his name in the MVP conversation all season. Butler isn’t realistically fighting for the title of “best player in the world” like the five players above him in these rankings, but his team has exceeded expectations this season, and his play is a major contributing factor in that resurgence. While his struggles from three-point range have dragged down his effective field goal percentage, his true shooting percentage remain relatively elite due to the 9.2 free throws he attempts per game, on average. His ability to draw fouls, coupled with an acute playmaking ability (6.1 assists per game, a career high) have made Butler one of the best offensive weapons in basketball. His 24.0 PER ranks 13th in the league, and his elite offensive rating has been the primary reason as to why Miami owns the league’s 9th best offense. On the defensive side of the floor, Butler is in the midst of a down year relative to the consistent defensive stalwart he’s been in seasons past. Drop-offs in defensive win shares and overall defensive rating relative to Butler’s peak during his final seasons as a member of the Chicago Bulls stand out, but the versatile swingman has still performed at a high level on the defensive side of the ball. The tenacity Butler brings on a daily basis is just what the Heat needed, and his presence in South Beach has seen the team transition from postseason hopefuls to legitimate playoff threats in one season. He deserves to be in the MVP conversation, even if there is a gap between himself and the top five candidates of the race.
Other players garnering consideration: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers, Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz, Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
The Top Five
5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Previous Rank: Honorable Mention
Season Statistics: 26.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 2.4 BPG, 51.9% FG, 31.6% 3PT, 85.3% FT,
Advanced Statistics: 28.3 PER, 54.8% eFG, 61.9% TS, 10.1% TOV, 122 ORTG, 101 DRTG, 3.3 DWS
Team Record: 41-12 (1st in Western Conference)
The only reason Anthony Davis doesn’t rank higher on this list is because he shares the court with an all-time great player. LeBron James’ presence makes Davis’ time on the floor so much easier, and the duo has accumulated the most wins in the Western Conference due to the absurd amount of talent they have at their disposal every game. Regardless of who he’s playing with though, Davis has been remarkably consistent on offense, as well as an absolute monster on the defensive side of the floor. His 101 defensive rating and 3.3 defensive win shares rank among the highest in the NBA, and he’s averaging a career-high in steals per game while contributing 2.4 blocks per game on top of it all. Davis’ ability to adequately defend perimeter players has helped Los Angeles’ overall team defense immensely, and his relentless interior attack physically wears out opponents tasked with guarding him.
While his three-point shooting percentage ranks below the league average, he spreads the floor well enough to keep defenses honest, reflected in his effective field goal and true shooting percentages. On top of his passable outside shooting and phenomenal finishing ability around the basket, he knocks down his free throws at an incredibly efficient clip and only turns the ball over approximately ten times per 100 plays, a better percentage than all four of the players ahead of him in this ranking. If the situation were different, and Anthony Davis was leading his own team to a top-four record in either conference, he might be a top-two MVP candidate right now. Despite his stellar numbers though, the fact that opposing scouting reports have to focus so much on LeBron James is a huge advantage for any power forward or center in regards to putting up impressive statistics, and has to be taken into account. The four players above Davis on this list are individuals that cannot rely so heavily upon another all-time-great teammate in order to succeed. Davis moved from the honorable mentions into the top five due to the way he’s been able to maintain his remarkable statistical prowess since his hot start to the season, but he needs to truly take the reigns of the Lakers organization if he wants to win an MVP award.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Previous Rank: 2
Season Statistics: 28.9 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 8.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 46.5% FG, 32.3% 3PT, 76.5% FT
Advanced Statistics: 29.2 PER, 53.7% eFG, 59.2% TS, 14.6% TOV, 118 ORTG, 109 DRTG, 1.7 DWS
Team Record: 33-22 (T-6th in Western Conference)
Luka Doncic, after a truly unbelievable start to the 2019-20 season, has cooled off just a bit, and has accordingly fallen two spots in these rankings. Some might even argue that Doncic isn’t a top five MVP candidate at all anymore after the Mavericks have fallen slightly in the standings and the young point guard missed several games. However, Doncic still deserves a place in these rankings, based on both his statistical effectiveness and the roster that surrounds him.
Despite the addition of Kristaps Porzingis and the sharpshooting ability of Seth Curry, the Mavericks don’t have a highly competitive roster such as those boasted by the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and Nuggets. Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks are without any other All-Star caliber players (at least until Porzingis completely rounds back into form), which makes their Western Conference Playoff spot that much more impressive. Doncic’s PER, at 29.2, ranks second in the NBA, and his 59.2 true shooting percentage coupled with a 118 offensive rating places him among the league’s elite offensive weapons. His defense is lackluster, but Doncic isn’t completely hopeless in this regard, staying active enough to record a steal per game on average and clocking in at 1.7 defensive win shares. The fact that Dallas is in the playoffs at all, especially after Dwight Powell’s ACL injury last month, is an impressive accomplishment, and Doncic deserves most of the credit. The way he opens up the floor with his elite vision and playmaking ability is not only fun to watch, but incredibly effective as well. Once Doncic is equipped with the weapons that other superstars have to compete with, Dallas is going to be a legitimate title contender, and his name will be uttered among the best basketball players in the world. For now though, we can recognize that relatively weak defense and the sixth seed in the Western Conference can’t place him higher than fourth in this year’s MVP race thus far.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Previous Rank: 4
Season Statistics: 35.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 43.7% FG, 35.8% 3PT, 86.9% FT
Advanced Statistics: 29.0 PER, 53.6% eFG, 62.0% TS, 13.6% TOV, 121 ORTG, 109 DRTG, 2.2 DWS
Team Record: 34-20 (5th in Western Conference)
Since my last ranking, James Harden’s statistics have arguably gotten worse – and yet, he finds himself moving up one spot. The reasoning for said upward trend is due to an improvement in his defensive numbers, an increase in his three-point shooting efficiency, and an improved team win percentage. Over the course of the season, Russell Westbrook has emerged as a leader in his own right for the Houston Rockets, taking a bit of pressure off of Harden in terms of ball-handling duties and allowing him to conserve more energy. Historically speaking, Harden has looked worn down by the conference semifinals, posting absurdly high usage rates as he carries the Rockets throughout the regular season but failing to hit big shots in the postseason. Westbrook’s ability to push the pace and quickly become the center of attention for opposing defenses has made Harden’s life on the basketball court much simpler, and the shift has led to an uptick in Harden’s three point efficiency (from 33.8% to 35.8%, which is significant when you consider the fact that he’s attempting 12.8 three-point shots per game). He’s attempting less shots overall, while still getting to the free throw line just as much and hitting said free throws at an elite clip.
For what it’s worth, Harden has become a bit underrated on the defensive side of the ball as well. While he’s nowhere near the lockdown defender that some of his peers are, he’s still unfairly branded as the worst defensive player in basketball, which simply isn’t true. Harden is a lazy defender, and much of his defensive participation comes from sneaking into passing lanes and nabbing the occasional blocked shot. To be clear – just because a given player is averaging 1.6 steals per game and 1.0 blocks per game doesn’t mean they’re a net-positive on the defensive end of the floor. However, like Luka Doncic, these averages indicate that Harden is at least somewhat active defensively, and his 2.2 defensive win shares show that while he struggles both in on-ball situations and as a help defender, he at least has some tangible impact when he’s not playing offense. Overall, despite the fact that Harden is still a volume scorer at heart, he’s established himself as one of the most talented players we’ve ever seen. His efficiency has improved just enough to justify a top-three ranking, especially after Doncic and the Mavericks’ slide down the Western Conference standings.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Previous Rank: 3
Season Statistics: 25.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 10.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 48.9% FG, 34.5% 3PT, 68.7% FT
Advanced Statistics: 25.2 PER, 54.4% eFG, 56.9% TS, 15.5% TOV, 115 ORTG, 106 DRTG, 2.7 DWS
Team Record: 41-12 (1st in Western Conference)
While the “plays with another top-five player” argument reigns true here just as it did for Anthony Davis, the LeBron James side of the argument is a bit different. While James does have the added benefit of playing alongside the most statistically dominant power forward of the past decade, he’s still the primary focus of every opposing team during every game the Los Angeles Lakers suit up for – making his play a bit more impressive than what we’ve seen from Anthony Davis. While Davis benefits from a legendary playmaker and passer to get him the ball (James himself), James has no such playmaker to rely on – essentially conducting the Lakers’ offense by himself at all times. The lack of a second quality playmaker is likely the biggest problem for Los Angeles as currently constructed – and yet, the team’s place in the Western Conference standings doesn’t communicate very many issues. A big part of that 41-12 record can be attributed to the dominance of James in his 17th season, showing off the versatility of his game and once again avoiding the cold grip of Father Time before he finally sees the significant drop-off in athleticism that the rest of the league has been patiently waiting for since 2007.
James is undoubtedly in decline. His scoring average, at 25 points per game, is his lowest since his rookie season. His true shooting percentage, at 56.9%, is his lowest in over 13 years. His turnover percentage, at 15.5%, has only been higher twice throughout his entire career, while his usage rate has remained largely unchanged. Despite the efficiency drop-offs however, one could argue that James is having one of his greatest seasons as a professional. His defense is back to being elite, with a 106 defensive rating in line with some of the better defenders in the game today and a solid 2.7 defensive win shares on top of it all. His PER, while no longer at the top of the league like in years past, still places him among the game’s best players. Most importantly, he’s averaging a career-high 10.8 assists per game, well above his previous career-high of 9.1 per game and leading the league by a comfortable margin. A championship or two with the Lakers may definitively push James past Michael Jordan in the “greatest of all time” argument – but regardless of how the team performs in the playoffs, James has had an all-time great age-35 season, furthering concerns leaguewide involving if his elite play will ever actually end.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Rank: 1
Season Statistics: 30.0 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 54.9% FG, 31.3% 3PT, 61.4% FT
Advanced Statistics: 32.3 PER, 58.7% eFG, 60.8% TS, 13.0% TOV, 117 ORTG, 97 DRTG, 3.9 DWS
Team Record: 46-8 (1st in Eastern Conference)
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s lead in the 2019-20 MVP race is becoming insurmountable. The “Greek Freak” is having an absolutely sensational season, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a league-best 46-8 record and posting statistics scary enough to induce nightmares for the other Eastern Conference contenders. Antetokounmpo’s nightly dominance begins on the defensive end, where he ranks first in the league in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. He can truly defend all five positions on the court, with the strength and length to lock down forwards and centers and the quickness and agility to pester guards on the perimeter. He averages 1.1 steals per game and 1.1 blocks per game, but those defensive plays come from a willingness to defend within his team’s defensive scheme, picking off passes and denying shots as a part of a unit rather than cheating off of his assignment and overplaying passing lanes to the detriment of the defense’s actual effectiveness.
On the offensive side of the ball, Antetokounmpo is arguably just as significant of a threat. His 30.0 points per game rank second in the league, trailing only James Harden, and the 54.9% clip at which he shoots the ball from the field is several percentage points better than any of the league’s other top scorers. His 5.8 assists per game have cemented him as one of the best playmakers in the league from the forward position, and 31.3% shooting from three-point range (on nearly five attempts per game) has helped his offensive game blossom even further. However, if there’s one offensive statistic that encapsulates the ridiculous season Antetokounmpo is having, it’s his PER – which, at 32.3, would be the highest single-season PER in the history of basketball if the season ended today. His current PER is higher than those recorded by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James in their best individual seasons, which in itself is an absurd feat. Antetokounmpo seems poised to have one of the best careers we’ve ever seen – if his dominance continues in this fashion, we may be watching the beginning of one of the all-time greats.
All statistics obtained via https://www.basketball-reference.com/
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