Top 5 MVP Race – COVID slows LeBron James’ momentum

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all inside. It makes banal conversations about basketball feel rather pointless. We need to concentrate on looking after ourselves and focus on staying healthy. 

All these things are true. But in times of anxiety and concern, the thing we all want is to focus on things we enjoy, the home comforts.

So while this will be the last Top 5 MVP Race until the NBA is back up and running, it’s important to see who the trophy should be presented to if this season has well and truly ended.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

If Giannis Antetokounmpo had ended up missing a few weeks worth of games due to a joint capsule sprain in his left knee, suffered against the Los Angeles Lakers, it might have given some of the chasing pack in this year’s Top 5 MVP Race the opportunity to catch up.

The Greek Freak missed two games and his Milwaukee Bucks lost against the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets, which shows how much Antetokounmpo is relied upon. Replacing 29 points, 13 rebounds and 5 rebounds is no easy task but the team has survived without Antetokounmpo at tactical moments during the year, and prior to this injury, the Bucks were 5-1 without him. 

A poor performance against the Miami Heat put into question his ability to go back-to-back in picking up the MVP award, but he’s only scored fewer than 18 points three times all season, and the whole product must be taken into consideration. 

Per 36 minutes, he would average 34, 16 and 6, and per 100 possessions he would tally 43, 20 and 8. All these are better than basically every other player in the league. Maybe the final 15-18 games might have seen a dramatic drop off? Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s injury will have allowed someone else to step up? Well, the potential end of the season means that neither of those situations will play out and we can only judge the MVP candidates on what they have put together in the games they’ve played this year – and in these, Antetokounmpo is still a step ahead.

LeBron James

Let’s not ignore what LeBron James has done this year. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the momentum he has built in recent weeks. Most notably, the consecutive wins against the league leading Milwaukee Bucks and the Staples Center rivals Los Angeles Clippers were high profile examples of James clearly putting his stamp on the league.

He matched up against Giannis Antetokounmpo at times against the Bucks and put in the effort to take on Kawhi Leonard for most of the Clippers contest, and the 35-year-old came out on top in both instances. 

Of all the five-man line-ups that have played for the Lakers at least 15 times this season, only one that features James is a minus. It includes Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, but head coach Frank Vogel has recognised its weakness and has only played it for an average of 1.6 minutes across 16 games. Don’t expect to see it often.

But just two line-ups have been trusted to play in more than 15 games without James, and neither of them have a plus-minus of more than plus-0.8. The team simply can’t be trusted without James, and as a result of him playing so much, the Lakers are just two games in the loss column behind the Bucks.

Pascal Siakam

There is some merit to those who say that Pascal Siakam isn’t even the MVP on his own team. Kyle Lowry has put together the type of season we simply do not expect, especially as a 6ft guard approaching his 34th birthday. He has only averaged more than 20 points twice during his career, and didn’t quite reach that mark this season, but without losing shots to Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Lowry averaged 19.7 points per game (the third best of his career) and 7.7 assists (the second best) while still playing at an All-Defensive team level.

But the thing that allows him to do that is knowing that he doesn’t have to carry the team like he was asked to at various points in his career. Lowry is a perfect second fiddle, and the player that is leading the Toronto orchestra this season is Pascal Siakam. He is second on the team in win shares and has the greater responsibility of providing the bulk of the scoring. Being the face is a tougher task that Lowry has often failed to do in his career, and while Siakam’s consistency needs to improve, the 23 points per game shows he is doing enough over the course of the season to give the Toronto Raptors the third best record in the league.

Nikola Jokic

The battle for the second seed in the Western Conference has been an entertaining scuffle all season, with the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and even the Dallas Mavericks all grappling for home court advantage in at least two rounds of the playoffs. In recent weeks, things have started to shake out and while some teams have fallen out of the race slightly, the Clippers have risen since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played more together. 

However, one team that has been in the hunt all season is Denver. The reason for that is Nikola Jokic. His 20 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists will occasionally disappear in certain games, but when engaged he is possibly the best big man in the league. Jokic started the season out of shape, but still managed to hit game winners and keep his team playing for the best record in the West. The Lakers have some distance on the rest of the conference now, but Jokic is still cruising his way to big wins.

The Nuggets’ performance in recent weeks show that there are still questions about his ability to elevate on a big stage, but as we keep having to remind the world, this is a regular season award. And not many players have been better throughout 80 percent of the 2019-20 season.

Anthony Davis

It’s difficult to go unnoticed while scoring 26 points per game, but because of Anthony Davis’ teammate, he has occasionally been underappreciated at times this year. In truth, Davis being so good has also possibly held LeBron James back slightly in the Top 5 MVP Race this year, in the same way that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant did during their years together, but it’s impossible to ignore Davis’ contribution completely. 

This has been shown in recent weeks when James was out against the hapless Golden State Warriors and still destroyed the team by 30 points. He followed this a few games later by putting up 37 points in a big win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Davis is still improving – he has increased his assist average this season – and at 27 he is just entering his peak. This could be scary, and could set up the big man to win MVP awards in the next few seasons… you know, unless his teammate gets in the way.