NBA MVP Race: James Harden closing in on top spot

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

NBA MVP Race: James Harden closing in on top spot

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NBA MVP Race: James Harden closing in on top spot

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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. KEMBA WALKER, BOSTON

STATS: 22.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.2 APG, 3.6 3PTM, 39.8 3P%

Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker is well on his way to earning All-Star honors for the fourth season running, as his play this year has been excellent, even as he deals with minor injuries. Walker is shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc on the year, the second-highest mark of his career, and a noteworthy clip considering the degree of difficulty on most of his shot attempts. What’s more, as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Walker is posting ridiculous numbers, producing 1.081 points per possession (PPP) on those chances, the fourth-highest rate in the league, per Synergy Sports.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

9. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

STATS: 25.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 44.8 FG%

It’s going to be nearly impossible for Kawhi Leonard to ever receive real MVP consideration with the way his teams manage his minutes during the regular season. Even so, when he has played for the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Leonard has been downright nasty, ranking 11th league-wide in scoring and eighth in steals. Additionally, after a slow start to the season shooting the ball, Leonard is nailing 40.9 percent of his three-point looks over his last 14 games, which has helped up his efficiency on the campaign.

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8. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER

STATS: 18.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 6.4 APG, 49.8 FG%

There’s no question that Nikola Jokic hasn’t yet been able to reach his form of previous seasons when he was producing like a legitimate Top 5 MVP candidate. Regardless, over the past month or so, the Serbian center has more closely started to resemble his 2017 to 2019 self, as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists on tidy 54.4/38.5/85.1 shooting splits dating back Dec. 5. Still, that hasn’t quite helped the Denver Nuggets right the ship fully yet this season; the team is 3-3 in their last six games while being outscored by 30 in that stretch, including a 12-point loss to the lowly New Orleans Pelicans, a 26-point blowout loss to the Houston Rockets and a 14-point loss to the Washington Wizards.

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7. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

STATS: 27.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 7.6 APG, 3.4 3PTM, 44.2 FG%

If you only look at the numbers, Damian Lillard would be a lock to be in this year’s MVP conversation. The flame-throwing lead guard ranks eighth in scoring in 2019-20, seventh in assists and is the league’s most productive high-volume pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to Synergy, creating 1.118 PPP on those chances. However, MVP candidates are pretty much guaranteed to come out of winning teams, and with the Portland Trail Blazers at 15-22 and 10th in the West, even despite Lillard’s superhuman efforts, there’s essentially no chance the Weber State legend gets serious consideration for the award at year’s end.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

6. JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI

STATS: 20.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 6.6 APG, 2.0 SPG, 42.9 FG%

A heavy workload finally led to the Miami Heat giving Jimmy Butler a rest for Sunday’s game against the Blazers, though the team officially termed Butler’s absence as being due to back soreness. Butler continues to struggle shooting the basketball this season, as the All-Star forward has made just 14.3 percent of his three-point opportunities in his last 13 games. Perhaps the ailing back could have something to do with that, though. Nevertheless, Butler still ranks as an extremely efficient offensive player thanks to his insane ability to get to the foul line this year, as Butler leads the league (among qualified players) in free-throw attempt rate at 71.4 percent. For reference, James Harden’s free-throw attempt rate this season is 50.7 percent.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

5. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

STATS: 29.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 47.0 FG%

After missing nearly two weeks of action due to a sprained ankle, Luka Doncic has regained his outstanding form recently by averaging 35.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists over his last three games while shooting 44.3 percent from the floor and 81.5 percent on nine nightly free-throw attempts. Even despite Doncic’s excellent level of play, however, the Dallas Mavericks have hit a slight rut in the past week, as the team has lost three of their last four contests, including a shocking three-point defeat to the Charlotte Hornets at home on Sunday.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

4. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

STATS: 24.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 11.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 48.6 FG%

The league-leader in assists per game, LeBron James continues to perform at a ridiculous level for his age (35). It must be noted, however, that since returning from the groin injury, James is shooting just 43.5 percent from the floor and 23.3 percent from beyond the arc, and he’s not making up for it at the foul stripe, where he’s attempting a career-low 5.5 free throws nightly this season (and sinking them at a paltry 67.7 percent). There are obvious signs LeBron isn’t anywhere near his prime form anymore, and even so, he’s still posting a nearly 25/8/11 stat line, which goes to show what a specimen he is.

3. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

STATS: 27.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.6 BPG, 50.7 FG%

It may not be the popular idea, but it’s pretty clear Anthony Davis is the Los Angeles Lakers’ best player this season, and not LeBron James, because only one other player in the Association, who’s coming up at the top of our list, is as destructive as Davis on both ends of the floor. Davis is putting up a Defensive Player of the Year campaign while averaging nearly 28 points nightly, an absurd feat for any player, let alone one playing in the bright lights of L.A. The fact that Davis, a big man through and through, is shooting nearly nine free throws per game and making them at an 86.2 percent rate is an accomplishment that doesn’t get enough credit.

Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

2. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

STATS: 38.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 7.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 38.6 3PT%

For the first time in a while, we came close to placing James Harden first overall in this ranking, as The Beard missed the spot by just two votes. And considering his level of play recently, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Harden overtake the top spot soon. Over his last 11 games, Harden is averaging 39.3 points nighty while chipping in 7.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. That’s not even the crazy part, though. Over that stretch, Harden is shooting 52.7 percent from the floor, 80.9 percent from the foul stripe and 49.6 percent(!) from three-point range. Consider the fact that the former league MVP isn’t the type to settle for spot-up jumpers and is shooting multiple heavily contested step-back triples a night, the fact he’s making nearly half of his chances from deep over such a long stretch is absolutely bonkers. That, plus the Houston Rockets coming out victorious in nine of those 11 games, has helped Harden make the 2019-20 MVP race quite interesting.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

STATS: 30.4 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 55.6 FG%

Being the best player on the top team in the league – by a mile, too, as the Milwaukee Bucks’ net rating of +12.4 is the best mark in the NBA by 4.7 points – is what gave Giannis Antetokounmpo the nod over Harden for us. Antetokounmpo is a monster defensively who is also putting up 30 points nightly and shooting a career-high 33.5 percent from beyond the arc, making him a legit threat shooting the basketball for the first time in his career. That’s a scary proposition for a player who is already so good at finishing around the basket. The only thing stopping Antetokounmpo from an even more efficient campaign is his 61.1 free-throw percentage, but he makes up for that by being so good at every other aspect of scoring.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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