NBA MVP Race: Giannis holding steady, LeBron slipping

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

NBA MVP Race: Giannis holding steady, LeBron slipping

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NBA MVP Race: Giannis holding steady, LeBron slipping

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Each week, HoopsHype’s staff gives the Top 10 candidates for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. This list highlights stars who are in the mix for the 2019-20 MVP award due to their impressive play.

Which stars have stood out? Here are our latest MVP rankings:

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

10. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, MINNESOTA

STATS: 26.5 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.3 BPG, 41.8 3PT%

A big man who can do everything at an elite level, Karl-Anthony Towns has made a strong case to be considered the league’s top big this year. Prior to missing the Minnesota Timberwolves’ last three games with a knee injury, Towns was on a nasty run, averaging 28.4 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 55.2 percent from the floor over his final five outings. The Timberwolves need to be cautious with him, but at the same time, they can’t afford to have him out much longer, not with Minnesota free-falling down the Western Conference playoff standings, where the team currently ranks 13th.

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9. JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA

STATS: 23.1 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 BPG, 46.4 FG%

In comparison to the level he was at in previous years, there’s no question Joel Embiid has been a bit disappointing this season. The Philadelphia 76ers, losers in three of their last four games, have been playing scared recently, according to their All-Star center:

“And, after getting blown out by the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks 117-98 at Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Embiid had a simple explanation for what has gone wrong: The Sixers are ‘playing scared.’ ‘I feel like, especially tonight, we were playing scared,’ Embiid said. ‘Basketball is easy. You just shoot it, pass it, move it. If you don’t got a shot just pass it. But tonight, like I said, we didn’t make shots, and defensively we were pretty bad.'”

Regardless, it’s tough to blame Embiid for Philadelphia’s recent skid considering he’s averaging 25.3 points, 16.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over his last three games.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

8. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

STATS: 25.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 46.1 FG%

Despite load management still very much being a thing for Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubting his MVP-caliber play this season, especially recently, when his form has gotten even better. After a slow start shooting the ball in 2019-20, Leonard is knocking down a very healthy 42.4 percent of his three-point looks over his last 14 games. During that stretch, the reigning Finals MVP has led the Los Angeles Clippers to an 11-3 record, and has them looking every bit of the title contenders they were hyped up as over the offseason.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

7. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

STATS: 26.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 7.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 44.8 FG%

The Portland Trail Blazers are far from an elite team this season, sitting at 14-16 and No. 8 in the West through 30 games, but it’s impossible to fault their star point guard Damian Lillard for that. Lillard ranks eighth in the league this year in nightly scoring while placing seventh in assists per game. What’s more, Lillard’s pristine form has also helped the Blazers turn things around recently, with Portland coming out victorious in their last four games, including an important road victory against the Phoenix Suns, a team the Blazers are battling for a playoff spot this year.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

6. JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI

STATS: 20.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 6.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 43.4 FG%

Sitting No. 3 in the East with a 21-8 record, the Miami Heat have surprised a lot of people with their strong play this season. A lot of that is thanks to Jimmy Butler, the team’s prized offseason addition. Butler is the only player in 2019-20 averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals per contest this year, and one of just 10 players dating back to 1973-74 to put up that stat line over the course of a season, joining the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson on the illustrious list. Perhaps the biggest reason for Miami’s success this year has been the team’s extremely unselfish nature, which they get from their best player, Butler, who recently said he’d shoot zero times in a game if it meant a guaranteed win.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

5. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

STATS: 25.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 10.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 49.6 FG%

Over the last two games he suited up in, LeBron James averaged 20.5 points on 41 percent shooting – 23.1 percent from beyond the arc – while boasting a minus-23 plus/minus. The Los Angeles Lakers – predictably, considering how poorly their most important player performed – dropped both contests, and then lost a third in a row on Sunday when James sat out due to a variety of injuries. All that just goes to show how despite being nearly 35, LeBron remains the Lakers’ most impactful player, even if his numbers aren’t as ridiculous as Anthony Davis‘ this season. Los Angeles would be wise to act cautiously with James’ string of ailments because without him, they could be in trouble.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

4. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

STATS: 27.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.7 BPG, 49.9 FG%

In James absence on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets, Davis did his best to keep the Lakers afloat, scoring 32 points to go along with 11 rebounds and four blocks on 56.5 percent shooting. On the season, Davis ranks seventh league-wide in nightly scoring while being tied in first in blocks with Hassan Whiteside. He’s also shooting the sixth-most free throws per game and making them at an 85.5 percent rate, which is absolutely ridiculous for a big man, and part of what makes Davis such an efficient scorer despite being a porous three-point shooter (29.8 percent).

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

3. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

STATS: 29.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 48.1 FG%

Dallas Mavericks blossoming superstar Luka Doncic has missed the team’s last four games with an ankle injury (really, he’s been out for five games, since he played just over a minute against Miami before getting hurt), and though Dallas has performed admirably without him, going 2-2 in that stretch, it’s become clear they miss their ultra-productive forward, particularly in late games, when their offense began to stagnate against good teams. Doncic is apparently making a quick recovery, as Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle recently said the Slovenian ball-handler could return just after Christmas.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

STATS: 38.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 7.5 APG, 1.9 SPG, 44.9 FG%

The league’s leading scorer for the third year in a row, James Harden has been spectacular in 2019-20, to the point he’s making the extraordinary look ordinary. Harden is averaging 41.8 points per game over his last six outings, including a 55-point, a 54-point and a 47-point performance in that stretch. Harden recently came into sole possession of fourth place on the list of most 40-plus-point games in league history, passing Elgin Baylor and trailing just Wilt Chamberlain, Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Pretty decent company there for Harden. The bearded superstar also had a statement game last week, scoring 28 points at Los Angeles against the Clippers, in what was a hugely impressive five-point win for the Houston Rockets.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

STATS: 31.0 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 56.6 FG%

Just when we thought Giannis Antetokounmpo had reached his ceiling during his 2018-19 MVP campaign, he managed to set a new, even higher bar for himself thus far this year. The Greek Freak is still doing absolutely everything during his time on the floor, including running the offense, rebounding and defending at elite levels, now, he’s even become a respectable outside shooter, making him a complete nightmare to defend. Antetokounmpo is making 34.2 percent of his threes last season, including a crazy 5-for-8 performance against the Lakers last Thursday, when L.A. tried to defend him with Davis instead of a more natural wing defender. After one of those outside bombs, which helped propel the Milwaukee Bucks to a 111-104 victory over LeBron and the Lakers, Antetokounmpo turned to his bench and placed an invisible crown on his head, as if to say he’s the king now. And with the way he’s playing this season, it’s hard to argue against that.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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