A new year brings new optimism. A new decade brings a changing of the guard. No longer are you the player coming up through the ranks of NBA stars, gone are the MVP candidates of old, your time is now, and some of this week’s Top 5 MVP race – the first of 2020! – are taking this mindset pretty seriously.
The Milwaukee Bucks kindly gave Giannis Antetokounmpo a couple of nights off on a back-to-back against the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, but you can’t say he didn’t deserve it. A week earlier he scored 48 against the Dallas Mavericks, then grabbed 19 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers, and managed multiple games of more than 30 and 11. What’s more scary is that in the few games he’s played since taking the break, he is averaging 41 percent while shooting more than five threes per game.
Antetokounmpo might have just cracked the code: he can score from anywhere, is averaging more rebounds than any time during his career, his passing is better and he’s great on defense. On top of that, no team is coming close to his Bucks in terms of record so far this year. This award is his to lose.
Wilt Chamberlain. That’s how far you have to go back to even come close to what James Harden is achieving in the scoring column. With 38.4 points per game, you could wonder if the big scoring nights are really resulting in the Houston Rockets’ most successful performances. But, yes. Yes, they are.
The only games the Rockets have lost since 7 December, Harden has scored 27, 24, and did not play. They are all the lowest scoring outputs during that stretch, and it included two games, back-to-back, in which he personally scored 109 points.
Houston are currently floating between second and third in the Western Conference, and while his second leading scoring teammate, Russell Westbrook, is managing an impressive 24 points per game in support, it is on an effective field goal percentage of .453 – that’s a lot of misses.
Harden is carrying this team, and while his style is divisive and not always popular, it works, and the Rockets are contending again because of the perennial MVP candidate.
It didn’t take long for Luka Dončić to lead the league in All-Star Game public voting. It hasn’t taken him long to approach the top 20 in all-time triple doubles. It is just his second season and even #NBATwitter feels that the 20-year-old Slovenian is well on his way to becoming the best player in the league.
The Dallas Mavericks are well in place to return to the playoffs this season after missing out for three straight seasons. You could argue that Dončić is leading his team in the same way that James Harden does down the road in Houston, and while that might seem the case in highlights, their games are actually quite different. The Maverick is pushing the ball more and getting players involved earlier in the shot clock, with more than 60 passes per game, whereas Harden is managing just 48.
As such, the team is more involved. Houston and Dallas are first and third, respectively, on offense, but the real difference is on defense where Dončić possibly has the edge. He is still slow playing his man straight up, but his positioning is not bad and he is at least engaged for more of the game than not.
All of this might sound like a case for Dončić being ahead of Harden, but the Rockets still have the edge in winning, which still matters in this NBA.
To borrow a phrase from The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, we need to stop taking LeBron James for granted. Only two players have been in the NBA longer than the Los Angeles Lakers forward: 2001’s Tyson Chandler, who is averaging 8 minutes per game, and the immortal Vince Carter from the 1998 draft class, who is still managing 15 minutes each contest.
James’ 35 minutes per game in year 17 of his career is almost as impressive as the 25, 8 and 11 he’s averaging in that time. Nearly as amazing as the fact that he chose now, at age 35, to lead the league in assists for the first time like we all knew he could.
What’s more incredible than it all, however, is that he hasn’t missed a game to lead his Lakers to first place in the Western Conference, after receiving stick for only being able to compete in the easier East his whole career. He is still winning.
Stephen Curry nor Kevin Durant won one while playing together. Once Kobe Bryant reached his ascendency, Shaquille O’Neal never won a second. Even LeBron James only got back to winning his MVP awards once Dwyane Wade took a step back in their second season together. It’s just hard to claim you’re the best player in the league when you might struggle to win the argument of being the best player on your team. And sadly, for Anthony Davis, he wears the same colors as James each night.
That’s not to say Davis isn’t more talented at this stage of their respective careers, but this Los Angeles Lakers team was built to suit James’ talents. As a consequence, it is still incredibly productive when James is on the floor without Davis, but the same can’t always be said going the other way.
Davis is posting MVP type numbers, but much like every other big man that has been successful alongside The King, he has to take a back seat.
Huw grew up in Wales and was too much of a wimp to play rugby. He fell in love with the quiet brilliance of Tim Duncan and ended up a San Antonio Spurs fan. Huw is a Lead Writer for Double Clutch and also contributes to Sky Sports (NBA/WNBA) and Sporting News (FIBA).