MVP Race: Jimmy Butler slipping, Kawhi Leonard rising

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

MVP Race: Jimmy Butler slipping, Kawhi Leonard rising

Ranking

MVP Race: Jimmy Butler slipping, Kawhi Leonard rising

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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:

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

10. JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI

STATS: 20.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.4 APG, 1.9 SPG, 44.1 FG%

Jimmy Butler’s play has taken a slight dip recently, which would explain why he’s ranked lower on our list this week than he has in a while. In his last three games prior to missing the Miami Heat’s Monday night contest against the Sacramento Kings, Butler averaged 14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds on porous 36.4/28.6/80.0 shooting splits, so maybe getting that last game off to rest what was described as a hip injury was for the best, and could help the All-Star get back on track. At the same time, Butler’s jumper has been off all season long, so Miami is going to have to hope he finds his groove from the outside if they want to be at peak form when the playoffs roll around.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

9. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

STATS: 27.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 44.6 FG%

On Monday, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard set a career-high and MLK Day record scoring clip when he dropped 61 points against the Golden State Warriors, to go with 11 triples, 10 rebounds and seven assists on the evening.

It was yet another magnificent outing for Lillard, who is the sole reason the Blazers are within two games of the Western Conference’s eighth seed despite what a tumultuous campaign they’ve had so far. With their All-NBA floor general in the game, Portland is 11.2 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s on the bench, which speaks to the heavy load Lillard has had to carry this year.

Usually, players on sub-.500 teams don’t get much of a look for MVP, but Lillard’s individual brilliance this year warrants a lot of credit. Without him, the Blazers would be battling for higher draft lottery odds and not for a spot in the postseason.

Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

8. DONOVAN MITCHELL, UTAH

STATS: 24.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.0 FG%

According to multiple advanced metrics, including Win Shares per 48 Minutes, Box Plus/Minus and Player Efficiency Rating, 2019-20 has easily been Donovan Mitchell’s best career season, as the talented young 2-guard has finally made the jump many expected him to make as a sophomore last year. Last week, Mitchell posted a ridiculous road performance, dropping 46 points and six rebounds while sinking seven three-pointers, many of the beyond difficult variety.

Mitchell’s high level of play has helped catapult the Utah Jazz to ranking sixth in net rating past the halfway mark of the season after a slow start to the campaign for the team. If Mitchell keeps it up, Utah is only going to get tougher.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

7. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

STATS: 26.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 5.1 APG, 2.0 SPG, 46.8 FG%

It’s somehow flown under the radar even despite playing in a massive market, but Kawhi Leonard has been performing at an absurd level recently, averaging 36.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.8 steals over his last five games on fiery 55.8/42.9/86.1 shooting splits. The Los Angeles Clippers are 4-1 in that stretch, with the only loss coming on the road to a tough Denver Nuggets team. Leonard’s been so great this year that the Clippers rank fifth in net rating league-wide, despite the fact that Leonard and Paul George have only suited up together 18 total times this entire season, with a 14-4 record to show for it in those contests. Once that duo manages to string together a few weeks’ worth of games together, it’ll be interesting to see how the Clippers are performing. Could be scary.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

6. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER

STATS: 19.4 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 51.2 FG%

A lot of the talk centered around the Nuggets recently has been about 21-year-old phenom Michael Porter Jr.‘s recent breakout, which is a shame because that has somewhat overshadowed All-Star big man Nikola Jokic’s impressive uptick in play. Since the start of the month, Jokic is averaging 23.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game while sinking a steamy 40 percent of his outside looks. Jokic has been so good that even despite a lot of injuries to the top of their rotation, Denver is currently second in the West with a 30-13 record. The Nuggets’ future with Jokic and Porter in their frontcout is looking scarily promising.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

5. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

STATS: 26.6 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 2.6 BPG

Ranking ninth in the NBA in points per game and third in blocks, the only reason Anthony Davis has taken a slight tumble in our rankings this week is due to the fact that he missed five games with a bruised tailbone. In his return outing for the Los Angeles Lakers, Davis had a quiet outing, dropping just nine points and four rebounds in under 23 minutes in what was probably L.A.’s worst performance of the season. No need to fret, though, as Davis will likely be back to his dominant self before too long.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

4. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

STATS: 28.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 9.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.7 FG%

After some up-and-down play since returning from an ugly ankle sprain, Luka Doncic was outstanding against Portland on Friday against the Blazers, exploding for 35 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, a performance that included multiple clutch shots, like the dagger three that effectively put the game to bed:

That was just one of Doncic’s eight three-pointers on the night, too.

With recent changes the Dallas Mavericks have made to Doncic’s minutes (he’ll no longer play entire first and third quarters like he was earlier in the season), expect to see many more clutch moments coming up for the Slovenian superstar, now that he’ll have more energy late in games.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

3. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

STATS: 25.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 11.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 49.1 FG%

After somewhat struggling in the month of December after missing some time with injury (and we use struggling here in comparison to his otherworldly standards), LeBron James has bounced back in a big way thus far in January, averaging 25.7 points and 11.3 assists over the past three weeks while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. James’ best recent performance came on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, when he dropped 31 points and 12 assists as he was serenaded by MVP chants…by a road crowd in Houston. Shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that James is the leading All-Star vote-getter this season.

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

2. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

STATS: 36.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 44.1 FG%

There may not be a full-blown crisis quite yet in Houston, but things are teetering as the team has lost five of their last six games and fallen to sixth in the West. It may not be so coincidental that over that stretch, James Harden has been struggling mightily, averaging 27.7 points per game while shooting 34.8 percent from the floor, and 23.9 percent from beyond the arc. As has been the case for years, the Rockets will only go as far as Harden takes them, so they’re going to need their superstar 2-guard to find his jumper, and soon, because you don’t want to fall too far behind in the Western Conference playoff race at any point of the season.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

STATS: 30.0 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 55.4 FG%

On the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks second league-wide in scoring and fifth in rebounds while placing second in field-goal percentage among ball-handlers. His Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are second in offensive efficiency, first in defensive efficiency and first in overall net rating – by a mile. Things are going so well for Giannis and Co., in fact, that the reigning league MVP and 2019-20 MVP frontrunner recently told The Athletic that there isn’t a team in the league that the Bucks can’t beat. Bold statement, but one that Milwaukee has very much backed up thus far this season.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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