The NBA’s best and brightest will descend on Charlotte this weekend for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. Once the parties, pageantry, and exhibition play are in the rearview, they’ll turn their attention to more serious matters—namely, the stretch-run sprint that determines which teams will make the postseason, which matchups we’ll see in the opening round of the playoffs, and which players can expect to receive some year-end hardware in recognition of their efforts over the 82-game marathon.
As we get set for All-Star Weekend, let’s take a look at the five(-ish) most interesting candidates for the NBA’s most prestigious individual accolade: the Most Valuable Player award.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Case For: It can be tough to say no to the best player on the best team in the league.
The Bucks hit the mid-February recess with the NBA’s best record at 43-14. They own the NBA’s no. 1 defense, allowing just 103.5 points per 100 possessions. They’re outscoring opponents by a league-best 9.6 points-per-100, on pace to be the fifth-highest net rating over the past five years, behind only several iterations of the dynastic Warriors and the pre-Zazassination Spurs. And while Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst has built a dynamite roster that goes two deep at every position, and while coach Mike Budenholzer has done tremendous work in putting his talented players in positions to succeed, absolutely all of that starts with and revolves around Antetokounmpo.
Playing in more space and surrounded by knockdown shooters has opened up a whole new world for the 24-year-old phenom, who is playing fewer minutes than he has since his second season yet is still averaging career highs in virtually everything. Even his 3-point shot has started to come around. Antetokounmpo has hit 35 percent of his long-distance tries over the past month; if that holds up, he’ll basically be Godzilla outfitted with ICBMs.
He’s on pace to become the first player to average 27 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists per game since Oscar Robertson did it 57 years ago, and he’s doing it while producing in the paint like some unholy amalgam of the early-career versions of Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. He also combines disruption and versatility more than perhaps any other defender in the sport; he’s one of just two players with at least 75 blocks and 75 steals this season, ranks fifth among power forwards in defensive real plus-minus, and can handle any defensive assignment on a given possession.
Antetokounmpo combines team success, eye-popping individual statistics, two-way impact, and an ascendant public profile coinciding with him being one of two fan-voted captains in this year’s All-Star Game. Add it all up, and this one might be Giannis’s to lose.
The Case Against: While some advanced stats (player impact plus-minus, player impact estimate, win shares) favor Giannis, several others (box plus-minus, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating, real plus-minus, wins above replacement player) tilt toward James Harden. As unbelievable as Antetokounmpo has been, I wonder if some voters would be hard-pressed to identify the kinds of singular moments—like, for example, Harden’s game-winner over Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to beat the Warriors in Oracle Arena—that would stamp him as a no-doubt front-runner.
Beyond that … um … maybe people didn’t like his airline safety commercial? I don’t know. I can see strong cases for other candidates. (You’re about to read some!) I have a hard time seeing voters building a great one against Giannis, though.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
The Case For: In addition to all those advanced stats that lean his way, Harden boasts one basic box-score number that demands a hell of a lot of attention. He enters the All-Star break averaging a league-leading 36.6 points per game—on pace for the eighth-highest scoring season in NBA history, and the most explosive single campaign since a 23-year-old Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 a night 32 years ago.
Starting with his 50-point triple-double against the Lakers on December 13, Harden has averaged—averaged!—41.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game on 44/37/89 shooting splits. He’s been having a career night for two straight months, waging an all-out assault on opposing defenses the likes of which the sport has rarely seen.
Thanks to his boundary-breaking ability to create 3-point looks with his trademark stepback move, and his much-debated but inarguably effective residence at the free throw line, Harden is authoring far and away the most efficient 35-point season the league has ever seen. He’s also averaging 7.7 assists per game, by far the most ever by a player scoring 35 or more, creating an additional 18.8 points for his fellow Rockets each game.
Harden has been directly responsible for nearly 49 percent of Houston’s scoring output, a staggering total. A team marked by season-long defensive struggles has desperately needed every ounce of that creation: The Rockets have produced the point differential of a 49-win team with Harden on the court, and have played like a 35-win team when he’s off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. Houston required a historic, Herculean effort to get back into contention for a top-four spot in the West. Harden has provided it.
The Case Against: Remember how I said that only seven other players have posted higher individual scoring averages than Harden’s racking up this season? Only one—Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60—wound up winning MVP. The other six came up short behind players with better team records. Barring something close to a 22-3 finish, Houston could wind up a bit too far down the standings for Harden’s remarkable individual numbers to overcome Antetokounmpo. (Also, while Harden has largely moved beyond his past life as a defensive fail meme, if voters factor in his influence on the other side of the ball in comparison with players like Giannis and Paul George, his stock could take a hit.)
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Case For: Hmm? What was that? Oh, what’s up, Giannis? Didn’t see you there.
PAUL GEORGE JUST PUT GIANNIS ON A POSTER (via @NBA) pic.twitter.com/DkTCylhNY9— SLAM (@SLAMonline) January 28, 2019
Alas: A dunk victimizing the Greek Freak does not an MVP campaign make. (Our apologies, Mario Hezonja.) Luckily for George, as I wrote earlier this week, his résumé goes well beyond that. To some degree, George’s case mirrors Kawhi Leonard’s from his last season in San Antonio: When (arguably) the NBA’s best defensive player is also (arguably) one of its two or three best offensive players in a season, then that player very well might be its most valuable overall player. (Arguably.)
George sits second behind Harden in scoring, averaging a career-best 28.7 points per game, to go with 8.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. He has also reached a new level as a high-volume 3-point sniper, drilling a career-high 40.6 percent of his triples on 9.6 attempts a game; only Harden and Stephen Curry test defenses from downtown more frequently than George. He’s been unconscious since the calendar flipped to 2019, putting up scoring, rebounding, and playmaking numbers on par with Kevin Durant’s MVP season, while scorching the nets at a rate and on a number of attempts equivalent to what Curry put together during his unanimous MVP run.
He’s done all that while leading the league in steals and loose balls recovered, ranking second in deflections, and working as the top perimeter defender on the NBA’s no. 3 unit—which has conceded 7.2 more points per 100 possessions with him off the floor than when he’s on it. The Thunder have thrived in minutes where George plays without Russell Westbrook, and have collapsed when Westbrook flies solo without George alongside him. He has cemented himself as the clear best player on a team that’s on pace to win 54 games, as well as Oklahoma City’s single biggest bellwether; according to Cleaning the Glass’s on-court/off-court efficiency leaderboard, no player this season has had a bigger statistical impact on how his team has performed than George.
The Case Against: Well, for starters, George himself recently made the case for Harden to Matt Moore of The Action Network. Humility is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not going to zealously advocate for yourself, Paul, then who will? (The answer? Matt Moore of The Action Network, who did it really well.)
George fares well on a lot of those statistical leaderboards I referenced earlier, but doesn’t actually lead any of them, while Antetokounmpo and Harden do. “Best player on the, say, fifth-best team in the league” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And while Westbrook’s staggeringly bad shooting numbers have drawn their fair share of notices around the league, he’s been largely fantastic in all other facets of the game, giving George the kind of superstar running buddy that Antetokounmpo (with apologies to Khris Middleton) and Harden (sorry, Chris Paul, but you’ve missed like, 60 percent of the season) haven’t been able to rely on. I wonder if that might hurt George’s candidacy, leaving him in second or third place on an awful lot of ballots, but in first place on comparatively few.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
The Case For: Four seasons ago, the Nuggets were a 30-win team searching for something to build around and believe in. Now, they’re fighting the Warriors for the top spot out West thanks in large part to the arrival and development of Jokic, the Sentinel-sized straw that stirs the drink.
Jokic is a ramped-up remix of the archetypal “big man who can pass”—a clean-shaven, Serbian Walton; the New Adventures of Old Arvydas. Everything the Nuggets’ no. 3 offense does runs through him, and everything they are flows from his unselfishness; everybody sprints out on the break, cuts hard from the weak side, and stays sharp when running through an action, because if you’re open, Jokic will find you, and if you’re not but could be, he’ll throw you into an open look. And with all due respect to his playmaking predecessors, no Goliath has ever distributed the ball quite like Jokic; this season, Jokic has assisted on on 38.4 percent of his teammates’ baskets, by far the highest rate by a center in NBA history.
It took some convincing, but the pass-first-second-and-third big man has also accepted that calling his own number helps his teammates, too. Jokic is shooting more from the field and the foul line, yet has remained one of the most efficient high-usage players in the league. Increased aggression has also opened up his playmaking even further, resulting in some eye-popping numbers: Jokic is on pace to join Wilt, Oscar, and Russ as just the fourth player ever to average more than 20 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists per game.
No contender has had to deal with more injuries this season than the Nuggets, who have lost starters Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Will Barton to the injury list for extended stretches, who finally got free-agent addition Isaiah Thomas on the court this week, and who have still yet to see first-round draft pick Michael Porter Jr. in live action. And yet, they’re 39-18, with their best shot at making it out of the opening round of the playoffs in a decade, because that’s where Jokic has put them.
The Case Against: Jokic has the lowest scoring average of the elite options, which could hurt his curb appeal. (Among the top tier of candidates, though, only Harden creates more points via assist.) He also logs at least a couple fewer minutes per game than the other front-runners—the more you play, the larger the impact you make—and lags behind them in true shooting percentage. And he might get dinged for Denver’s drop back to the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency after a strong start to the season; the Nuggets allow three more points-per-100 with Jokic in the middle, and he ranks 35th in opponents’ field goal percentage allowed at the rim among 45 bigs to defend at least four restricted-area attempts per game.
Those sorts of things might seem like splitting hairs, given that he’s is the focal point for Denver’s surge this season. But this is the kind of conversation in which those hairs get split. A top-five finish feels more likely for Jokic than top-three or higher.
… And a Bunch of Other Extremely Good Dudes
Because I lack conviction and moral fiber, I’m having a hard time narrowing down the last spot. So let’s run through a few perfectly reasonable options, rapid-fire style:
Kevin Durant, Warriors
The Case For: He’s been the most consistently available and reliably productive member of the best team in the Western Conference. He’s flirting with becoming only the ninth player ever to average 27-7-6. He kept the Warriors afloat while Stephen Curry was hurt and has taken another step forward as a facilitator since, showcasing the most complete, all-around offensive game since his 2013-14 MVP season. (And maybe even including that season.)
The Case Against: He hasn’t even been the league’s best player at his position thus far this season thanks to George, which makes arguing that he’s been its most valuable player difficult. Determining his independent value will always be nearly impossible in the context of this literal All-Star team. Even though Golden State has performed a bit better this season in KD-without-Steph minutes than vice versa, the Warriors never feel as much like themselves in those minutes, which might not be quantifiable, but is still the kind of thing that might cause some voters to bristle.
Another: His (completely understandable and defensible!) decision to keep going year-to-year on his contracts has allowed speculation about an exit—and specifically a New York future—to fester. Given the strain that’s seemed to add to the Warriors’ pursuit of perpetual dynasty, resulting in stuff like the Draymond Green incident, his recent media freeze-out, and that nasty press conference, it seems like it’d be kind of a tough year to put KD up at the top of the ballot and back in front of the podium, no?
Stephen Curry, Warriors
The Case For: He’s third in the league in scoring, shooting more 3-pointers than ever, and drilling 44.4 percent of them. He remains perhaps the single most electric and magical offensive performer in the sport, as well as a continually evolving player whose game has become much more multifaceted over the years. He’s the key scheme-incinerating advantage at the heart of the league’s best offense, and the culture-defining centerpiece of the league’s reigning dynasty.
The Case Against: He’s missed 11 games, which won’t matter if that’s all he’s missed come season’s end, but matters now because it constitutes about 20 percent of the Warriors’ games played thus far. He’s subject to some of the same vote-splitting “how valuable can he really be on this team?” skepticism that’ll likely dog KD. And some of his advanced numbers are down a tick this season from both last season and his two MVP runs. That’s not to say that Steph’s having a down year. (We know Steph doesn’t care for that term.) But the downside of absurdly elevated expectations is that sometimes you don’t quite reach them.
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
The Case For: He’s been the best player on the team with the league’s second-best record, returning from his lost final season in San Antonio as a renewed, and perhaps even more fearsome, individual scoring threat. Leonard’s averaging a career-high 27 points per game on 49/36/86 shooting splits, using his mini-Mailman-esque frame and pristine footwork to render defenders almost irrelevant to the conversation he’s having with the ball and the basket. The Raptors are 30-13 with him in the lineup, a .698 winning percentage, and have outscored opponents by five points per 100 with him on the floor, a strong net rating.
The Case Against: Toronto is also 13-3 (an .813 winning percentage) with Leonard out of the lineup, and has outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 with him off the floor. Maybe we shouldn’t penalize Kawhi for the Raptors having one of the deepest and best-constructed teams in the NBA, but I suspect more than a few voters will factor Toronto’s steady performance in his absence into their definitions of “valuable.”
Like Curry’s situation, the fact that this isn’t the best Leonard we’ve seen could matter. (There have been flashes of the old defensive stuff, but we’ve yet to really consistently see the full, all-enveloping terror of pre-injury Kawhi.) And, as with Curry, the fact that Leonard has already missed 16 games has to matter. Taking the long view on Leonard’s health after he missed nearly all of last season with left quadriceps tendinopathy is a wise course of action. But when you miss more than 27 percent of your team’s season in a year when there are so many other great candidates, you might find yourself on the outside looking in.
Joel Embiid, Sixers
The Case For: Before this season, only six players ever had averaged more than 27 points, 13 rebounds, and three assists per game for a full season. The Philadelphia 76ers mauler is on pace to join them. (So is Anthony Davis, but, um, we’re going to consider him out of the MVP race right now.) On a Sixers squad teeming with talent, Embiid is the clear top dog, the sun that all of Philly’s activity orbits around.
Embiid is a low-post Sasquatch. With few exceptions, single coverage can’t keep him from stomping from the block to the front of the rim or facing up and using his array of feints to get opposing bigs off balance, which he can then exploit by blowing past them to the cup or creating contact to draw fouls; no high-usage player, not even Harden, gets to the line more frequently. He’s also one of the most vital defenders in the league. The Sixers allow nearly 10 more points per 100 when Embiid’s off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass; opponents shoot far less often and far less successfully in the paint when he’s around to deter and dissuade. Philly has produced the point differential of a 62-win juggernaut when Embiid’s playing this season and has looked more like a 28-win also-ran with him on the sideline—one of the largest spreads in the league.
The Case Against: Galumphing about awkward role definitions aside, nobody’s making JoJo take four 3-pointers a night when he’s shooting them at a 29.5 percent clip. As efficient as he’s been this season as a high-volume scorer, you get the sense that he’d do even more damage and put even more pressure on opposing defenses if he’d pocket a couple of those per game. His early-season playmaking progress has stalled some, as he’s once again got more turnovers than assists (albeit by a smaller margin than he used to). He shares George’s “best player on the fifth-best team” impediment, too.
LeBron James, Lakers
The Case For: He’s LeBron goddamn James.
The Case Against: They don’t give MVPs to guys who have missed more than 30 percent of the season on a team with a losing record that might not make the playoffs, I don’t think.