NBA MVP Race: Is LeBron James going to be in the mix again?

NBA MVP Race: Is LeBron James going to be in the mix again?

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NBA MVP Race: Is LeBron James going to be in the mix again?

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Each week, HoopsHype ranks the Top 10 candidates for this season’s Most Valuable Player award. This list highlights stars who have entered the 2019-20 MVP discussion thanks to their impressive play. Stephen Curry was a popular preseason pick for MVP, but he’s out indefinitely with a broken hand.

Which stars have stood out through the first two weeks? Who can sustain this production as the sample size increases? Here are our latest MVP rankings:

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

10. DEVIN BOOKER, PHOENIX

STATS: 26.1 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.6 RPG, 2.7 3PG, 53.5 FG%

If you’re surprised to see Booker on this list, you should start paying closer attention to the Phoenix Suns, who are one of the biggest surprises of the season thus far. At 5-2, they have the second-best record in the Western Conference and they’re just a half-game back from the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. Booker is playing the most efficient basketball of his career, lifting the Suns to impressive wins over the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers.

Booker was on some awful teams during the first four years of his NBA career, so it’s no coincidence that he’s thriving the first time he’s surrounded by competent veterans (including Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Dario Saric and Kelly Oubre Jr. among others) and a great head coach (Monty Williams). The Suns will go as far as Booker takes them, and the 23-year-old seems poised for a huge year.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

9. KYRIE IRVING, BROOKLYN

STATS: 31.7 PPG, 7.7 APG, 6.1 RPG, 3.3 3PG, 1.3 SPG, 47.2 FG%

With Kevin Durant out for the 2019-20 season, Irving is putting up some impressive numbers while carrying the offensive load for Brooklyn. Only James Harden is averaging more points than Irving, who also ranks third in Win Shares (1.5), third in Player Efficiency Rating (31.91), fourth in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (9.2) and eighth in Assist Percentage (40.5).

However, this hasn’t translated into wins for the Nets, who are just 3-4 – with losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. Brooklyn has other capable scorers such as Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, so don’t be surprised if Irving’s 22.7 shots per game decrease a bit going forward. The Nets are trying to strengthen their relationship with Irving, which got off to a rocky start after team officials spoke to ESPN about Irving’s “infamous mood swings.”

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

8. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

STATS: 26.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 9.5 APG, 3.2 3PG, 1.5 SPG, 46.4 FG%

After an incredible rookie campaign, Doncic is picking up right where he left off. The only players averaging more assists than Luka are LeBron James (11.2) and Malcolm Brogdon (9.7), and Doncic is averaging more rebounds than Nikola Vucevic, DeAndre Jordan, John Collins and Clint Capela.

Last week, Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to post back-to-back triple-doubles. If Doncic is doing this at 20 years old, can you imagine how good he’ll be in his prime? The Mavericks are 4-2, which is the fourth-best record in the Western Conference and just one game behind the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. Doncic has stressed that his main goal for this season is to make the playoffs. If he continues to produce at this level – and if Kristaps Porzingis keeps putting up 20.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks – Dallas may return the postseason for the first time since 2015-16.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

7. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

STATS: 31.1 PPG, 7.3 APG, 5.0 RPG, 3.9 3PG, 1.3 SPG, 49.3 FG%

Every year, Lillard has managed to take his game to the next level and this season is no different. He’s on pace to average career-highs in literally every major stat category listed above. Also, he leads the league in several advanced stats including Win Shares (1.6), Offensive Win Shares (1.5) and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (10.5).

The Blazers have gotten off to a slower start than expected at 3-4, but they’ve dealt with injuries to key contributors (Hassan Whiteside, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood) and they’re still getting a lot of players acclimated (including Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, Skal Labissiere, Pau Gasol and Nassir Little). Lillard is a terrific leader who holds everyone around him accountable, which will help Portland as they go through this adjustment period. The Blazers are all-in on Lillard, as they owe him $257,429,273 in guaranteed money going forward (by far the most of any player in the NBA).

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

6. JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA

STATS: 23.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 51.1 FG%

Embiid has only played in two full games so far; he was ejected 20 minutes into his third contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves for fighting Karl-Anthony Towns. The Sixers’ first loss of the season came on Monday to the Phoenix Suns (in a game that Embiid missed due to his suspension). He’ll return on Wednesday when the Sixers face the Utah Jazz on the road.

Over the offseason, Embiid worked on his three-point shooting with skills trainer Drew Hanlen. Through three games, he’s shooting 36.4 percent from deep and making 1.3 threes per game (which would be a career-high). If Embiid has a strong year and Philadelphia finishes near the top of the East standings (as expected), the 25-year-old should have a strong case for the MVP award. Few players can take over a game like Embiid, as he’s capable of dominating offensively and defensively, inside and out.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

5. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

STATS: 28.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 2.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 46.7 FG%

After a change of scenery, Davis is hoping to re-emerge as a perennial MVP candidate. Whenever Davis has been healthy, he’s been one of the NBA’s top players and produced the kind of stat lines that are only found in video games. The 26-year-old is making his presence felt as a scorer, rim protector and rebounder this year (ranking near the top of the NBA in each category).

While playing with LeBron James certainly increases his odds of winning a championship, it may hurt his chances of winning MVP. In recent years, voters seem to dock points from superstars who play together. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are a perfect example, as they didn’t receive serious MVP consideration when they were teammates. Instead, voters have been supporting stars who put their team on their back (like Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden). Even if the Davis posts MVP-worthy stats, he and James may cancel each other out in the eyes of voters.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

4. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, MINNESOTA

STATS: 27.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 4.5 3PG, 4.0 APG, 2.5 SPG, 1.8 BPG

If Towns hadn’t received a two-game suspension for last week’s fight with Joel Embiid, he’d likely be even higher on this list. His stats listed above don’t do his performance justice. Remove his incomplete game against the Philadelphia 76ers and he’s averaging a ridiculous 32.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 5.0 threes, 2.7 steals and 2.0 blocks, while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 51.7 percent from three.

These aren’t empty stats either. Minnesota is 4-2, which puts them just one game out of first place in the loaded Western Conference. They’ve yet to lose when Towns has played the full game. The 23-year-old has a smaller sample size than the others on this list, but it’s hard not to get excited about how he’s looked thus far. It feels like Towns is realizing his potential and becoming one of the NBA’s top-tier players. Towns returns from his suspension on Wednesday when the Wolves face the Memphis Grizzlies on the road.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

3. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

STATS: 29.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.8 3PG, 1.0 BPG

Leonard never seriously entered last year’s MVP race because he missed 22 games due to load management, preferring to save his body for the Toronto Raptors’ playoff run (which worked out remarkably well). It remains to be seen if he’ll play enough to receive MVP consideration this year. Kawhi is the kind of player who could likely win the MVP award if he wanted it, but it just isn’t something he has prioritized. It doesn’t help that the Clippers also have Paul George, who finished third in 2018-19 MVP voting. L.A. will win a lot of games this year, but Leonard and George will split the credit for the team’s success.

Leonard is carrying the Clippers with George sidelined, leading them to a 5-2 start. But once George is back, Leonard’s role will likely change. If the Clippers are as careful with Leonard as expected and rest him throughout the year, it’ll be hard for him to seriously compete for the award – no matter how productive he is when he suits up. The odds of Kawhi adding another Finals MVP trophy to his collection are probably higher than the likelihood of him winning his first regular-season award.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

2. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

STATS: 25.5 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.5 3PG, 47.4 FG%

Everyone wants to predict when James will start to decline, but he continues to hold his own against Father Time. Even at 34 years old, he’s leading the NBA in assists per game (11.2) and nearly averaging a triple-double. Either as a scorer or distributor, James has been involved in 49.0 percent of the Lakers’ baskets, which leads all players this season.

Since dropping their opening-night game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers have won five straight and they’re currently tied for the best record in the NBA at 5-1. Over the last two games, James posted a 39-point, 16-assist, 12-rebound, 4-steal triple-double to defeat Dallas and a 21-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound, 2-steal performance to beat San Antonio. It remains to be seen if James’ MVP candidacy will take a hit now that he’s playing alongside Anthony Davis, but it’s very possible that LeBron will have the stats and wins necessary to be a finalist for the award.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

STATS: 26.7 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 7.7 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 58.8 FG%

Antetokounmpo won the 2018-19 MVP award rather convincingly, receiving 78 of 101 first-place votes to beat James Harden. He impressed voters by filling the stat sheet and leading Milwaukee to an NBA-best 60 wins. This year, Antetokounmpo could repeat as MVP if he keeps the Bucks near the top of the East standings and posts similar numbers.

He’s averaging career-highs in nearly every stat, and we know that he’s capable of sustaining these jaw-dropping numbers. Antetokounmpo is currently attempting a career-high 3.3 threes per game but only making 17.4 percent from deep (after knocking down 25.6 percent last year). If his threes start falling more consistently – even if it’s just at last year’s percentage – it’ll make him even more difficult to stop (and more difficult to dethrone as MVP). We’re only a handful of games into the 2019-20 season, but it’s pretty clear what Giannis must do in order to repeat as MVP.

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