The MVP Ladder: Is it really a two man race?

This season will one of the most drawn out MVP races in recent seasons. The 2018-19 regular season sees one of the largest fields of players who are eyeing a mantle that only a select few have ever held. LeBron James has been a perennial candidate for over a decade though the last of his four regular-season MVPs came in 2012-13. His arrival to the Los Angeles Lakers has paved the way for a new crop of players to emerge from the Eastern Conference. As the table currently stands, five teams are atop the East with only a handful of games between them. Though this is nothing compared to the West where the 10th seeded Grizzlies are only 6.5 games behind the 1st seeded Nuggets and are only 2 games back of a playoff spot. Stating that the MVP race is deep is an understatement. This will be a nail-biter of a second half with teams jockeying for playoff positions and superstars aiming for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The best player on the top currently atop the Eastern Conference, the Greek Freak is a juggernaut on both ends of the floor. Giannis has taken the leap from a perennial All-Star to a shore shot MVP candidate for years to come. While his scoring his fairly comparable to that of last season (despite attempting two fewer shots on average), it is his ability to rebound and run the floor on the fast break that took him to the next level. He is a one man wrecking machine and is merciless at the rim. Just under 60% of his shots are coming at or around the rim and he is making a staggering 80% of his shots from the same. He is leading the league in 2-Point FG% and it has made him one of the more efficient scorers this season. For most of the first half of the season, he was leading the NBA in dunks though he was recently surpassed by Rudy Gobert. The recently turned 24-year-old is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen. He is the prototypical point-forward that many teams crave to build to their teams around and he possesses the height and girth of a big man.

Even on a night where his own scoring is on a lull, Giannis can still dominate the game. Despite only scoring 15 points in a win against the Pistons last night, he dished out a game-high 7 assists and 3 blocks (one more than the entire Pistons roster combined). He has the lateral quickness and length to nullify the smaller guard while the sheer strength to slow down any of the league’s most imposing centers. His three-point shooting, on the other hand, has taken a step back. He is making a career-low 15% of this shots from deep though this has not hindered his offensive game at all. When given space, Giannis can still make open 3s. Unlike Ben Simmons (who has yet to show any signs of shooting proficiency), the Greek Freak can still get to the rim at will. He is not a hindrance to Bucks offense. He is the Bucks offense.

Unlike the other superstars in the NBA, Antetokounmpo will benefit by not having another superstar beside him. Khris Middleton (who might still make the All-Star team) has taken a step back this year though the rest of the Bucks roster has stepped up. Milwaukee is not a super team by the modern definition. That being said, the pieces around Giannis are incredibly strong and are molded to his strengths. Mike Budenholzer was the missing piece to take him and the Bucks to the future. Jason Kidd had the organization stuck in the past. Coach Bud has brought the best out of this franchise and of Giannis. Brook Lopez – formerly known for his low post scoring and forever being on the Nets trade block – is now attempting 7 threes a game (at knocking them down at a solid clip of 37%). The starting backcourt of Bledsoe and Brogdon have been effective on both ends of the floor. With one of the best starting 5’s in the east, Milwaukee could quite easily be the first seed coming into the playoffs.

Only two players since the turn of the millennium have won the MVP under the age of 25 (LeBron James in 2008-08 and Derrick Rose in 2010-11). Maintaining home court will be key with the Raptors, 76ers, Celtics, and Pacers right on their heels. The Bucks are projected to win 56 games which would leave them second in the East behind the Raptors. That is good enough for Giannis to win the MVP unless they slow down towards the second half of the season.

James Harden

Oatmeal. That is how I would describe The Beard’s style of play. Effective, efficient, but ultimately boring given the obsessive foul hunting and innumerable crossovers and dribbles between the legs. And yet, he has managed to firmly cement himself in the MVP conversation for the fourth time in five seasons. Twice he finished second behind Stephen Curry (in 2014-15) and Russel Westbrook (in 2016-17). His 2015-16 season was statistically better than the time he finished second to Curry though the Rockets were a 0.500 team. He strolled towards the MVP last season despite second-half surges from LeBron and Anthony Davis. Now, he is at the forefront to repeat, like Curry and LeBron (twice) before him.

Three weeks, the Rockets were the second worst team in the West. Their offense was stagnant and they defended like revolving doors. While many thought that the termination of the Carmelo Anthony Experiment and their defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik returning post-Thanksgiving, smooth sailing would follow. This was not the case. Simply put, James Harden was playing like a regular All-Star. Good, but not good enough for Houston to challenge for home court.

Lead by their MVP, the Rockets have galloped to a 5 game win streak having only lost one of their past 10. In three weeks, they have gone from 14th to 4th. Harden has gone ballistic and has channeled an otherworldly power to push Houston back to relevancy. Since their loss to Dallas on December 9th, he has averaged over 39 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds. He has scored over 40 points in each of their past four games. A good but not great shooter from deep, he is shooting 40% from beyond the arc knocking down 5.5 per game. Now more than ever is Harden getting to the line. He has elevated from his MVP season over this stretch and is carrying a hobbled and thin Rockets roster to the postseason.

The supporting cast around Harden will continue to be an issue till Daryl Morey is able to find some complimentary players. Chris Paul’s health will also be a major concern and for the first time ever, he looks winded. But until we find the answers to Chris Paul’s effectiveness and their thin roster, the MVP is still the man to beat.

Joel Embiid

This is only the third season where he has graced the court. In his first four seasons combined, Embiid only played in 94 regular season games. Let’s face it, he is the best center in the league and the second best big man behind Anthony Davis (whom he is currently having a better season than). His effectiveness on both ends of the floor is jaw-dropping. He has the size of Shaq in his prime but the footwork of Hakeem Olajuwon. Amid a season of roster turnover, he has been the one constant that has held the fort. He can bully any player on the block. Embiid can also face up and dribble past other big men from the perimeter. And, he is a threat from beyond the arc. The offensive versatility combined with his ability to anchor a defense has made him a nightmare player to face in the Philly’s 38 games so far.

He is averaging a career high in both points (26.5 PPG), rebounds (13.4 TRB), blocks (1.9 BPG), and assists (3.5 APG). While his turnovers continue to be an issue, it might no longer be a product of his carelessness or conditioning. Embiid might just realize that he has an extremely talented yet highly flawed group of players around him. Willing his team to victory might just be the only way for them (as currently constructed) to make a deep playoff run. Speaking of which, Embiid, Simmons, and Jimmy Butler do not seamlessly fit together. None of them can be considered to be marksmen from beyond the arc. Simmons has yet to develop a jump shot altogether. Late in a game, things tend to stagnate for the 76ers. But when things come to a halt, Embiid can always be relied upon to get a bucket down low. His offensive repertoire and basketball IQ continue to grow in the season where he is poised to make the first of many appearances for the All-NBA First Team. A strong run into the MVP conversation could just be the foundation needed for him to possibly win it in the future.

LeBron James

Let’s face it, King James will forever be in consideration for the mantle of MVP of the league. Even in his 16th year at the age of 34, he is among the frontrunners. While a minor groin injury has bumped him down by a spot or two, LeBron might just come back as strong and as good as ever. At this point in his career, the supporting cast is not really important – for at least the regular season. Time and again, he has taken a group of misfit players; rookies and veterans, laughing stocks and untapped potential; and has brought the best out of them. His jump shot has been tweaked and changed over the course of his career. And now, he is attempting the most threes of his career (5.6 attempts a game) and making the most (at 2 per game). That combined with his trademark 27/7/7 stat line. Oh, and he is the only player in the league with this averages.

His dominance over the NBA has taken him from Cleveland to Miami, and back home again before deciding that the next phase of his career would be in Los Angeles. Year after year, he pushes the bar for how excellent an athlete can be and has defied father time better than almost ever professional ever. If anything can be said about the best player in basketball is that he simply refuses to step down a notch.

That being said, the dominance that captured his last MVP in 2013 is something he has yet to replicate (at least during the regular season). That was the last season where he made the All-Defensive First team. While his offensive efficacy and skill set has continued to trend upwards, LeBron has taken a backseat on the other end of the floor. He has been steadily excellent though we are all used to that by now. The streak that James Harden is on is something LeBron has not replicated from October to March over the past few seasons. His performances so far have cleared the notion that the Lakers will miss the playoffs. Though, until he comes back onto the floor and forces Los Angeles as a legitimate threat to Golden State, the real MVP talk will not begin for LeBron. For years we have lamented the fact that LeBron has plenty left in the tank for chase a fifth MVP. But his priorities lay elsewhere, as he looks to make his first playoff run in the West.

Paul George

Only once – during the 2013-14 season – has PG13 (then PG 24) cracked the top 10 in MVP voting. This season, he has a legitimate shot of cracking the top 5. The power dynamics of the Oklahoma City Thunder have changed. While Russell Westbrook still is and will be the face of the franchise, George has taken the next step to marshal the team on both ends of the floor. Previously not known for being a closer, George has evolved into an excellent first option to push the Thunder over the top. He is leading the franchise in scoring with 26.4 points per game (a career high) while Westbrook’s struggles continue (at 21 PPG, his lowest since his sophomore season). His usage rate has also been higher than the former MVPs for the past month. All things said and done the message if simple for OKC when the clock is running down: find Paul George.

Always known for his efficient scoring and competent jump shot, he is having a career year from beyond the arc. George is fantastic off the catch-and-shoot and continues to make strides off the dribble. It has taken time for him to settle alongside Westbrook and his looking better than ever. His finishing at the rim is better than ever and his smooth handle is something Billy Donavan is looking to get the most out of with George running the offense.

He has always had the reputation as one of the best two-way players in the league. Either distrusting shots from the weak side or guarding any player face up, George can do it all. There is not a shot, pass or player he cannot impact.

Until the Thunder can actually make a deep playoff run in the post-Kevin Durant era, they will not be taken seriously. They are currently projected to win 54 games in the West tied second with the Nuggets. The Western Conference is packed with a number of teams projected to win 45-55 games and they are in the mix. Year two with Russ and the Thunder could not be better. While his run with the Pacers ended on a rather ugly note, he has an outside shot to win the MVP with the Brodie by his side.

It is time for the K.A.T Era to officially begin

Pascal Siakam is a Gem