NBA MVP Race: Nikola Jokic enters the picture

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

NBA MVP Race: Nikola Jokic enters the picture

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NBA MVP Race: Nikola Jokic enters the picture

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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:

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10. JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA

STATS: 23.7 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 BPG, 47.7 FG%

The past week-plus has been the perfect encapsulation of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2019-20 season. The team was able to start off that stretch with a massive win on Christmas against the Milwaukee Bucks, on a night where Joel Embiid dropped 31 points and 11 rebounds against one of the league’s title favorites, but followed that up by losing their next three games, two on the road by one point apiece, and then a blowout at the hands of the Indiana Pacers in a game Embiid was forced to sit due to injury. Prior to going down, Embiid was averaging 30 points and 11 boards over a three-game stretch, so Philadelphia has to hope their star center doesn’t miss much time with what’s being described as left knee soreness.

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9. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER

STATS: 18.1 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 6.7 APG, 50.1 FG%

There’s no question Nikola Jokic got off to a frighteningly slow start to his 2019-20 campaign, but recently, the stud Serbian center has started to resemble his old self again, which is great news for the Denver Nuggets and bad news for teams in the Western Conference below the two-L.A.-team tier. Over the past three weeks (a 14-game span), Jokic has averaged 22.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game on fiery shooting splits of 55.9/41.4/84.6.

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8. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

STATS: 26.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 7.6 APG, 3.4 3PTM, 43.8 FG%

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has been performing at an elite level this season, and yet, his team can’t seem to garner even the slightest amount of momentum in 2019-20. Portland – losers of five straight, including an embarrassing 117-93 loss to the New York Knicks – are 14-21 on the season and have the league’s 12th-worst net rating at -2.0, which puts them behind the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls this year. What has to be especially frustrating for Lillard is the fact that with him on the floor, the Blazers are 11.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s on the bench, meaning the team gets absolutely destroyed in the minutes they’re without their All-NBA-caliber floor general. Luckily for Lillard and Co., however, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is a mess right now, so they’re still merely 1.5 games out of the eighth seed. They can thank Lillard for that.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

7. JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI

STATS: 20.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 6.6 APG, 2.0 SPG, 43.0 FG%

Even though he’s shooting at pretty horrific rates, primarily from three where he’s sinking just 27.6 percent of his looks, Jimmy Butler still ranks 10th in VORP this season, as well as 10th in BPM, ninth in WS/48 and 12th in PER, proving what an immense impact he’s having for the Miami Heat. It’s scary to think about what would happen to those marks if Butler is able to relocate his formerly semi-respectable outside stroke, too. Regardless, Butler is a lock to regain All-Star status this season after he missed the festivities last year, as his Heat boast an impressive (and unexpected) 24-9 record through 33 contests.

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6. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

STATS: 25.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 45.2 FG%

As far as statement games go, no one on this list had a more important one over the past week than Kawhi Leonard on Christmas. Facing off with the Los Angeles Lakers and their two own MVP candidates, Leonard was spectacular, dropping 35 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five triples while shooting 11-for-19 from the floor. Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers came out on top against the Lakers for the second time this season that night by a final score of 111-106, raising questions about what a series would look like between these two super talented teams. One thing is for sure, though: Leonard has been playing at a scary level over the past month and a half.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

5. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

STATS: 25.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 10.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 48.7 FG%

Since sustaining the groin injury in mid-December, LeBron James’ shooting marks have plummeted, as the four-time league MVP is shooting 39.8 percent from the floor and 24.2 percent from three in those five contests. Regardless, James is still playing insanely well on the year as a whole, especially when you consider the fact that he just turned 35. James leads the league in nightly assists this year, and as he’s taken a bit of a backseat to his new super teammate, he’s posting a career-best 51.2 percent assist rate. Leave it to LeBron to set career marks in his 17th season.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

4. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

STATS: 27.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.5 BPG, 50 FG%

That aforementioned super teammate of LeBron’s we referenced, of course, is Anthony Davis, who, for the first time in his career, gets to play for a legit title contender. And with the way Davis is playing on a team expected to compete for a championship, it’s a shame we haven’t gotten to see this version of the superstar power forward sooner. Davis is shooting more than eight free throws nightly and sinking them at an 85.3 percent rate, which is insane for a big man, and just part of what makes him such an efficient/special scorer. Couple that with his otherworldly defense and it’s easy to see why many thought Davis could one day become a perennial MVP candidate. That day seems to have arrived.

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3. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

STATS: 29.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 47.1 FG%

In the four games he’s played since returning from an ugly ankle injury, Luka Doncic is putting up 27.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, so it looks like the Dallas Mavericks didn’t rush their burgeoning superstar back too quickly. On the year, the 20-year-old ranks third league-wide in scoring, 22nd in rebounds and third in assists, an absolutely absurd feat for someone in just their sophomore campaign. It hasn’t taken long for Doncic to become one of the most entertaining players in the league, thanks to his audacious step-back jumpers and wonderful playmaking prowess.

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2. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

STATS: 38.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 7.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 46.1 FG%

As the decade came to a close this week, it was fun to look back at some of the absurd numbers James Harden put up in the 2010s. Two immediately stand out: The Beard ranks second in wins over the last 10 years, trailing just LeBron, with 502, and he leads the entire league in points scored over the decade with 19,578. People may complain about his style of play, but there’s no doubt Harden is one of the most special talents the NBA has ever seen. Also noteworthy: Harden is shooting 45.3 percent from three over the past 13 games and shooting just 8.4 free throws nightly in that stretch, so it looks like his game continues to evolve, which is downright scary for opponents.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

STATS: 30.3 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 55.5 FG%

The no-brainer MVP favorite at this point in the season is still Giannis Antetokounmpo. Harden’s individual numbers (at least scoring-wise) might be more impressive, but Antetokounmpo is also one of the most impactful defenders in the league while averaging over 30 points per game – a ridiculous combination for a single player to possess. Antetokounmpo is even becoming a respectable outside threat, hitting over a third (33.1 percent) of his outside looks on the year. But by far the most impressive aspect of the Greek Freak’s campaign so far is the level at which he has the Milwaukee Bucks performing, who are 31-5 and have by far the league’s best net rating at +12.5. The next highest team in that stat, the Boston Celtics, are at +7.8, which goes to show Milwaukee’s level of dominance on the year.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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