MVP Race: LeBron James nearing top spot

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

MVP Race: LeBron James nearing top spot

Ranking

MVP Race: LeBron James nearing 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. Some of them are big men, others are ball-handlers and still, others are wings. Some come from the best teams in the league while others are doing enough to put themselves in this conversation merely by having their squats in a position to fight for a playoff spot.

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

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10. JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI

Last week’s ranking: No. 9.

A poor stretch of play where the Miami Heat lost five out of six games, including an embarrassing defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, and back-to-back missed contests due to personal reasons hurt Jimmy Butler’s position in this week’s rankings, though his body of work for the entire season has been strong enough for him to still be considered a Top 10 candidate for MVP. On the season, Butler is averaging 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game while making 83.6 percent of his over nine nightly free-throw attempts. What’s more, the two-way wing ranks seventh this season in Win shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48), ahead of various players coming up in our list.

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9. RUDY GOBERT, UTAH

Last week’s ranking: No. 10.

First-time All-Star Rudy Gobert has put together a fantastic campaign, ranking second in nightly rebounds (14.4) and sixth in nightly blocks (1.9) while averaging a respectable 15.6 points per contest. What’s more, Gobert’s statistical contributions are far from empty, as the French big man makes his Utah Jazz 14 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. The one problem that could arise for Gobert and Utah later on, particularly in the playoffs, is facing teams who go small and force the center to defend on the perimeter, as was the case last week when the Jazz played the super-small-ball Houston rockets. Gobert was rendered largely ineffective that evening, dropping just 12 points on 3-of-7 shooting and boasting a minus-12 plus/minus in what was a 10-point loss for Utah. The Jazz are going to have to get that figured out if they want to make a big playoff push this season.

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8. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER

Last week’s ranking: No. 7.

Averaging a career-high 20.9 points per game this season to go with 10.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists nightly, Nikola Jokic has been on an absolute tear for over a month now. Dating back to Jan. 16, the big Serbian is putting up 25.1 points, 10.8 boards and 7.9 helpers along with 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Denver Nuggets are 11-6 in that stretch, looking like one of the better teams in the NBA for most of that run. The fact that Jokic has lost 20-25 pounds since the start of the season – remember how worried everyone when he looked out of shape and was playing poorly to start the year? — has definitely helped a ton with his improved play.

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7. KAWHI LEONARD, LA CLIPPERS

Last week’s ranking: No. 8.

One of the most dominant two-way players in basketball who has been averaging 29.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 44 percent from three over his last four games, Kawhi Leonard has been a monster in 2019-20. Even so, the Los Angeles Clippers are just 2-4 over their last six games, raising some concerns about the cohesiveness with the team, though some of that can be pinned to Paul George being in and out of the lineup. The additions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson should help Los Angeles close the season out strong, especially if Leonard maintains this absurd level of play. Spoiler alert: He more than likely will.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

6. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS

Last week’s ranking: No. 6.

Dealing with ankle troubles recently, Luka Doncic has averaged 28.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists in his last three outings. Doncic now has the second-most 30-point games before a player’s 21st birthday in league history, trailing just the player coming up at No. 2 on our list, and ahead of Kevin Durant. Decent company there for the young Slovenian.

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5. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND

Last week’s ranking: No. 3.

A groin injury has kept Damian Lillard out for the past two games and will likely keep him out for a few more, which explains the dip in the ranking this week, but there’s no denying how spectacular the five-time All-Star has been this season. Lillard ranks fifth league-wide in scoring in 2019-20 at 29.5 points per game on potent 46.0/39.3/88.9 shooting splits and makes the Portland Trail Blazers a full 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. Portland has to hope Lillard can get back soon because with the Memphis Grizzlies losing three in a row, the Blazers are merely 2.5 games out of the West’s No. 8 seed, and Playoff Dame can always make things interesting.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

4. ANTHONY DAVIS, LA LAKERS

Last week’s ranking: No. 4.

It somehow doesn’t get talked about much, but Anthony Davis is on an insane run of form recently, averaging 29.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.7 blocks over his last six games, five of which were wins for the Los Angeles Lakers. Perhaps the most interesting development for Davis over that stretch is the fact that he’s shot 44.4 percent from three in those six outings, after hitting a paltry 31.7 percent of his outside looks in his previous 41 games. If he’s able to stay closer to the former mark, the Lakers get even scarier.

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3. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

Last week’s ranking: No. 2.

After a stretch of uncharacteristically bad scoring games, James Harden has gotten right back on track. Over his last nine games, the bearded 2-guard is averaging 33.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 38 percent from three. Harden’s improved play could have to do with the Rockets going all-in on small-ball, as the team’s primary options, Harden and Russell Westbrook, have loads of space now to get to the basket and do their thing. In the seven games since Houston went small, the Rockets are 5-2 with one of the losses coming to the Jazz on a pretty flukish three-pointer by Bojan Bogdanovic.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2. LEBRON JAMES, LA LAKERS

Last week’s ranking: No. 5.

Even at 35, LeBron James continues to defy the odds of how good a player can be despite having a million miles of wear-and-tear on their body. Over his last three outings, James is averaging 32.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, with his most impressive showing coming against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, when the four-time league MVP hit the game-sealing jumper over the excellent defense of Jaylen Brown.

You can almost hear LeBron say Kobeee as he faded away and hit the bucket; that shot looked like a carbon copy of the patented Kobe Bryant fadeaway we’ve all seen countless times.

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1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE

Last week’s ranking: No. 1.

It almost feels like Giannis Antetokounmpo is on such an insane level that everyone is starting to take it for granted, as the Greek Freak doesn’t get enough love for the numbers he’s been putting up recently. In his last eight games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.4 points, 17.4 rebounds (!) and 7.1 assists per contest while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor. Giannis and his Milwaukee Bucks have been so good that they broke the record for the earliest time a team has clinched the playoffs by doing so on Feb. 23, taking the record from the Golden State Warriors of 2015-16. Besides his otherworldly level of talent, Antetokounmpo deserves credit for his focused mentality, something he’s had going for him for years:

Talent is one thing, but greatness requires the right frame of mind, and Antetokounmpo undoubtedly possesses it.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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