Top 5 NBA MVP Candidates Through the First Month of the 2019-20 Season

The opening month of the 2019-20 NBA season has given us some great basketball thus far. We’ve seen teams like the Suns, Mavericks, and Heat jump out to fast starts and surprise everyone, while other teams that were projected to be serious playoff contenders have struggled mightily out of the gate, like the Trail Blazers and Spurs. Outside of just team success (and failure) though, we’ve also witnessed some outstanding individual efforts from dozens of different players so far, culminating in an intriguing MVP race through one month.


​These MVP rankings will take into account individual statistics and, to a lesser extent, team performance. Any player who’s team is currently sitting outside of the playoff picture was not considered (sorry, Bradley Beal). But team isn’t everything in the MVP race, and individual statistics and impact matter a bit more than team success for this award. Like always, “most valuable player” does not necessarily mean “best player” – that crown might still belong to Kawhi Leonard, even though he’s missed several games already this season. This list is a look at the five NBA players who have impacted winning the most to this point in the season – both through individual play and leadership alike.

Key:
PPG: Points Per Game
RPG: Rebounds Per Game
APG: Assists Per Game
SPG: Steals Per Game
BPG: Blocks Per Game
% FG: Field Goal Percentage
% 3PT: Three-Point Percentage
% FT: Free Throw Percentage

Honorable Mentions

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Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

2019-20 Season Statistics: 25.5 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 3.0 BPG, 48.2% FG, 36.0 % 3PT, 87.8% FT
Team Record: 14-2, 1st in the Western Conference

​​It’s pretty simple – Anthony Davis is averaging almost 26 points to go along with 9 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks per game for the league-leading Lakers (14-2). AD has put up some great numbers so far, registering career highs in three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, and blocks, while the advanced stats point to the Lakers being a much better team when he’s on the floor (7.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, to be precise). Despite a few statistical dips in some areas (a 27.1 Player Efficiency Rating, or PER, being his lowest since 2015-16, as well as averaging a career low in field goal percentage and a career high in turnovers), he’s still performing at an extremely high level and, most importantly for the Lakers, the team is winning games while still meshing and learning to play together. Davis has had as great of a start to the season as the Lakers could have hoped for, and the only reason he’s not a top five MVP candidate is due to the fact that he’s the second option behind one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

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Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

2019-20 Season Statistics: 21.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 40.0% FG, 38.9% 3PT, 91.7% FT
Team Record: 11-4, Tied for 2nd in the Eastern Conference

Kemba Walker’s impact on the Celtics has seemingly been astronomical. His overall statistical averages haven’t raised too many eyebrows, and his abysmal 40% shooting from the field should absolutely be subject to criticism – but Walker’s impact on team culture and winning is what really matters here. The Celtics, at 11-4 with a few VERY close losses, have outperformed expectations through the first month of the season, and Walker’s leadership has made all the difference. Jayson Tatum is budding into a superstar before our eyes, Gordon Hayward is having a fantastic bounce-back year after the complete dud that was 2018-19, and Jaylen Brown is basking in his huge contract by averaging a career high in points. Funny how, minus Al Horford and his measley 10.6 field goal attempts per game last season, the Celtics still have a bunch of weapons who want their fair share of shots like last season and, yet, have no trouble spreading the ball around evenly and keeping everyone happy after they removed one particularly prickly superstar point guard from the equation and added a selfless one instead. And the numbers aren’t all bad either – the team is 7.7 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court, and while his percentages from the field aren’t great, he’s shooting a highly respectable 38.9% from the three-point line (on almost 9 attempts per game) and a career-high 91.7% from the free throw line.  From encouraging teammates to continue putting up shots, to knowing his place in the offense and rarely forcing bad looks, to keeping it light in the locker room and staying confident and consistent in his approach, Walker seems like everything Boston needed last year, and the fact that they have him now bodes well for their future.

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Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

2019-20 Season Statistics: 18.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 6.7 APG, 2.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 42.9% FG, 27.3% 3PT, 85.7% FT
Team Record: 11-4, Tied for 2nd in the Eastern Conference

​Pretty much everything I just wrote about Kemba Walker and the Celtics (in regards to individual leadership) applies to Jimmy Butler and the Heat as well. Butler’s 18.8 points per game on 42.9% shooting from the field and 27.3% from three-point range aren’t typical MVP numbers, but his impact on Miami’s culture has been undeniable. His 6.7 assists per game (should that number hold for the rest of the season) is easily a career high, and his impressive work ethic has seemed to infect his Heat teammates. Miami is 11-4 (tied for 2nd in the Eastern Conference), and the Heat’s rag-tag roster has thoroughly impressed through fifteen games, led by Butler and his hard-nosed style of basketball. The team is an absurd fourteen points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (near the top of the league), while his 24.9 PER is his best in over three years. The bottom line is that Butler makes the players around him better – with relatively under-the-radar rookies like Tyler Herro and (especially) Kendrick Nunn showing out at multiple points in the season with Butler in the lineup. Butler is sitting at just 12.8 field goal attempts per game – his scoring numbers will undoubtedly improve, and if Miami still finds themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference once his average number of attempts increases, we might just be talking about Butler as a true threat for the MVP award.

The Contenders

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5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

2019-20 Season Statistics: 25.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 47.4% FG, 37.6% 3PT, 82.8% FT
Team Record: 11-4, Tied for 2nd in the Eastern Conference

The Raptors were supposed to take a step back. Such would be the case with any team after losing an insanely talented player like Kawhi Leonard – and after Leonard’s departure in free agency, many expected the Raptors to take a dive down the Eastern Conference standings, even if the conference was  weak enough for the team to make the playoffs. But now? Now everything has changed, and the league is looking at the Raptors as just as much of a threat as some of other top teams of the East. The biggest reason for that is Pascal Siakam, the vastly disrespected power forward that has spent the entirety of his early career in Toronto and has consistently improved in every single season since he entered the NBA. Siakam is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, and free-throw percentage – and although his percentages from the field and behind the three-point line have fallen, such is to be expected when a player ramps up their offensive volume by nearly 9 additional field goal attempts per game.

This isn’t a list about the Most Improved Player in the league though – it’s a discussion of who belongs in the MVP race, and at this point in the season, Siakam might be in the running for both awards. The Raptors are 12.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, and of the five candidates and 3 honorable mentions on this list, Siakam might have the least amount of talent around him. Marc Gasol, although still able to perform in big moments, is aging rapidly, while Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka (two of Toronto’s eight key rotation players) have missed extended time due to injury. Siakam is still so young and has so much room to improve, and I don’t think anyone was expecting this type of explosion (except for maybe the people who hang out in Toronto’s “Jurassic Park”  outside the stadium during the games). It’s been undeniably impressive to watch his growth as a player, and his game looks even more developed than what we saw in the playoffs last year (where he already looked great at many times). Siakam is going to be a fixture of the NBA All-Star game for the foreseeable future – and although his scoring average will likely decrease when Lowry and Ibaka come back and there are less shots to go around, he absolutely deserves to be in the MVP conversation at this point in the season.

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4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

2019-20 Season Statistics: 37.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 8.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 43.6% FG, 33.8% 3PT, 86.3% FT
Team Record: 11-6, 6th in the Western Conference

A player averaging 37.9 points per game is 4th in the MVP race?

You read that right. James Harden is a phenomenal, unstoppable, generational scorer. He’s putting up the best scoring performances we’ve seen since Michael Jordan – better than Kobe Bryant, better than LeBron James, better than Kevin Durant or Tracy McGrady or Carmelo Anthony or anyone else you could name from the past twenty years of NBA basketball. We haven’t seen an offensive output like this in a long time – but putting aside the absurd statistics, Harden is not the most valuable player in basketball because his style of play is very rarely the most efficient way to win games. Harden is talented enough to win NBA basketball games almost entirely on his own – and he does just that. He can single-handedly drag the Houston Rockets to victories – but with that comes the horrible shooting nights, the double-digit losses where he can’t get it going like he needs to and the team folds over.

His shooting percentages (43.6% from the field, 33.8% 3PT) are his lowest since 2016-17 – and while a lower percentage from the field can be expected when a player launches 13.8 (!!!) three-point attempts per game, it’s the team leader’s job to perform efficiently, to not force up bad shots and limit the offense with over-dribbling and constant isolation plays and low-percentage, step-back threes. And this is more than likely a Mike D’Antoni problem rather than a James Harden problem – but Harden doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with it, even despite the fact that the Rockets continue to lose in the playoffs year after year while refusing to change the offensive scheme. Russell Westbrook is on the roster now, and instead of playing a more free-flowing style of basketball, the two are taking turns trying to make plays, with Harden getting the nod more than Westbrook. He would rather continue to dance around on the court, heaving 30 footers and chucking up 25 shots per game (on top of the 14 free throws he shoots per game).

37.9 points per game is 37.9 points per game. Harden deserves to be on this list simply due to the fact that he’s averaging the most points per game since Wilt Chamberlain’s 44.8 PPG average in 1962-63 (which is crazy in and of itself). But the way Harden plays, whether it’s D’Antoni’s fault or not, is sometimes detrimental to his team – which is something you cannot say for any other player on this list. It’s not just that Harden makes mistakes and misses shots – everyone does that. It’s the fact that his billion dribbles per game and historically high usage rate and massive amount of shot attempts keeps his teammates out of rhythm sometimes, greatly limiting the flow of the offense. It works more times than not. But for the guys ahead of Harden on this list – their play styles work all the time. They’re miss shots and make mistakes, but they’re highly efficient and they don’t dominate the ball to the point of slowing the offensive tempo to a halt. They get their numbers within the flow of the game, instead of trying to control the pace to such an extent that it makes the entire team one-dimensional. And yet, James Harden is still the 4th leading candidate for the NBA MVP award so far. He’s an enigma, and as long as the Rockets are in the playoffs, he deserves to be in this conversation.

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3. Lebron James, Los Angeles Lakers

2019-20 Season Statistics: 25.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 10.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 48.9% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 70.8% FT
Team Record: 14-2, 1st in the Western Conference

Some things never change. In his seventeenth year, Lebron James is still dominating the NBA, with his Lakers sitting at the top of the NBA at 14-2. James is leading the league in assists at 10.8 per game, and his scoring numbers have dipped slightly but are still extremely competitive (over 25 points per game). James’ shooting percentages are among his personal worst since he first returned to Cleveland in 2014-15, but 48.9% from the field is still a great percentage, while his 33.3% from the three-point line is, well, good enough to get by. James seems to care about setting up his teammates more than he ever has this season, likely realizing that as he gets older, he needs to share the load more on offense – and he’s done just that, with teammate Anthony Davis averaging more points than James himself (the first time that a teammate of James has held a higher scoring average). And to everyone’s surprise (when considering the last few years), James is exerting a lot of effort on the defensive end of the floor as well. The Lakers are 13.8 points per 100 possessions better with James on the court, and his positive impact goes beyond just statistics and defensive ability, as his will to win and dedication to his craft bleeds into the rest of the roster around him.

There’s really not much to say here – just the same old LeBron season we’ve come to overlook just because we’re so used to his dominance at this point. The Lakers should be title favorites right now, and it’s due to the two MVP caliber-players they have on their roster. With all due respect to Anthony Davis (and he most definitely deserves respect), this roster (without James) isn’t any better than those New Orleans rosters that Davis missed the playoffs with so many times. But add James, and this is the best team in the NBA, a force to be reckoned with. The fear that LeBron James puts in the eyes of his opponents is just as palpable as it was 10 years ago, and it’s incredible that at age 34 (going on 35 next month), his athleticism hasn’t taken a significant step back yet. He’s still not quite the ultra-efficient, unstoppable force of nature that he was in Miami or Cleveland (for the second time), but once he retires, his first few Lakers years will still be regarded as the twilight of his “prime”. It’s going to end eventually – but when? And who plans on stopping him when he has a running mate as talented as Anthony Davis?

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2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

2019-20 Season Statistics: 30.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 9.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 49.5% FG, 34.7% 3PT, 81.7% FT
Team Record: 11-5, Tied for 4th in the Western Conference

The top three players on this list are in very close proximity to one another, and an argument could be made that LeBron James deserves to be above Luka Doncic in the MVP race so far. The former has a better team record, is averaging (slightly) more assists and plays MUCH better defense than Doncic – three things that have made James the MVP favorite in the eyes of many. But the difference between Doncic and James is that, as mentioned previously, James has the help of an MVP-caliber player, while Doncic’s most talented teammate is a still-struggling-to-gain-his-bearings Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavericks, a team that many projected to miss the playoffs this season, are now a half game out of 3rd place in the Western Conference, essentially all thanks to Doncic and his unbelievable skill level.

Never before have we seen this kind of dominance from a player so young. Doncic is still just 20 years old and is the best player on the court in nearly every game he plays – something we haven’t been able to say since, well, maybe ever. He’s nearly averaging a triple double but with MUCH better efficiency than the shooting numbers put up by Russell Westbrook (during Westbrook’s seasons in which he averaged a triple double). Doncic has seven triple doubles through sixteen games, already breaking Magic Johnson’s record of triple-doubles in a player’s age-20 season and setting the standard for his own play going forward. His season is blowing Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign as a third-year player out of the water, and the control he shows over the game is astonishing for someone with so few years of NBA experience. One knock on Doncic is that his defensive game has a long way to go, but he’s not completely hopeless in that department, averaging a modest 1.4 steals per game and using his frame to disrupt passing lanes. His defensive rebounding, at 8.7 per game, is particularly impressive as well for someone who has spent 77% of their minutes so far this season playing the point guard position, and the Mavericks are a full 8.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. The fact that Doncic has dragged this incredibly average roster (factoring in that Porzingis hasn’t exactly been himself yet) to a top-four seed in the West above conference powerhouses like the Jazz and the Rockets would be a phenomenal feat for any player, let alone a 20-year old.

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​1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

2019-20 Season Statistics: 29.9 PPG, 13.9 RPG, 6.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 56.4% FG, 29.2% 3PT, 59.2% FT
Team Record: 13-3, 1st in the Eastern Conference

Through one month, your NBA MVP is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Again.

Nearly 30 points per game on FIFTY-SIX POINT FOUR PERCENT shooting from the field. 14 rebounds (2nd in the league) to go along with over 6 assists each game. Impeccable defense, both on and off the ball. A 13.6 point improvement when’s he’s on the court, logging 100% of his minutes at either power forward or center and operating as the most dangerous passing “big man” (if you can really even call him that) in the league. A 13-3 record (good for 2nd in the league) for his Milwaukee Bucks.

Seriously? How does this human being even exist? How is it possible that a 6’11 person with a 7’3 wingspan has a 40-inch vertical leap and can move down the court like a 5’10 guard? How can a massive body like this never get tired, never miss games, never play with anything other than 100% effort? And it’s not that Antetokounmpo doesn’t have his flaws in his game. He actually has (what should be) some extremely limiting holes in his skillset, almost entirely revolving around his abysmal jump shooting. His lack of a consistent outside scoring presence puts a lot of pressure on his teammates to space the floor for him – but he’s such a physically imposing force on the court that he makes up for his lack of an outside shot with ridiculous quickness, athleticism, and length, throwing down highlight dunks in nearly every game and putting up better scoring numbers in the restricted area than anyone else in the league. And unlike Ben Simmons, who’s game has the same flaws yet still seems scared to even attempt mid-range and three-point jump shots, Antetokounmpo at least forces the defense to respect his shot to some extent, averaging 4.5 three-point attempts this season. He’s practically un-guardable now – if his three-point percentage reaches the 35% mark, he might turn into the most dominant basketball player of all time.

If you’re a fan of any other team, take solace in the fact that it looks like he might never reach those three-point shooting numbers. If we haven’t seen significant improvements by now (his 7th season in the league), he might never get there. And even if he doesn’t, his dominance inside the arc will put him in the Hall of Fame one day. Non-Bucks fans should be enjoying their team’s success before Antetokounmpo’s reign of terror reaches their city – anyone can be a victim, and no one is safe.

All statistics obtained from https://www.basketball-reference.com/
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Getty Images/Ezra Shaw
Boston Globe/Barry Chin
Getty images/Carlos Greer
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USA Today/Kyle Terada
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