Excuse me for a moment while I yell at a cloud, but the way some people in the NBA play basketball these days, it seems like winning a championship isn’t the top prize. Individual stats, highlight plays, and trying to hit unnecessary game-winning buzzer beaters while rolling around on the floor – you love to see it. But aside from one or two outliers in NBA history, the league’s Most Valuable Player award goes to the leader (usually, but not always, in scoring) of a team with one of the best records.
So while Kyrie Irving’s 50-point performance (in a loss) was exciting, the losing record suggests his style of play isn’t helping the team just yet. Leading the league in scoring is fine for James Harden, but the frustration of not barely sitting inside the playoff race amounts to slamming the ball in his own face. And while Kawhi Leonard might be the best player in the NBA, if missing one in every five games become a habit, he will miss far too many by the end of the season to warrant a prize.
There is a lot of basketball to come, but the best players on winning teams are earning their early plaudits.
1 – Joel Embiid
He very nearly got dropped a spot for getting banned for two games as a result of his squabble with Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the Philadelphia 76ers remained unbeaten longer than any other team, in part because of good coaching, but with a huge thanks to the excellent presence Joel Embiid – on both ends of the floor – Brett Brown’s team has built up good momentum.
Embiid’s averages of 23 points leads the team, and while his rebounds and assists are slightly down, his supporting cast is bigger with more ball handlers. The ways in which the center has made leaps in his efficiency. Shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three (the latter being his most accurate in since his rookie year, when he managed just 31 games), you can understand why defenders respect the glacial speed in which he fakes a shot from behind the arc, even if it is frustrating to see them jump out of position and let them drive in to posterize helpless players protecting the rim.
Joel Embiid wrecks John Collins. Shimmies right in his damn grill. pic.twitter.com/FLVttjGnxQ
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 29, 2019
2 – Karl-Anthony Towns
If Joel Embiid said he was raised by lions in the post-kerfuffle Twitter beef with Karl-Anthony Towns, he has certainly become the leader of his pride.
However, in a wolf pack, the leadership is more nuanced. It changes from year to year, with new challengers but a more defined hierarchy with different roles. That is what the Timberwolves have constructed in Minnesota. It’s taken a long time for the right alpha to become the leader, but for Towns and the Timberwolves, it is finally paying off.
Prior to the two-game suspension, Towns was posting a career best 27 points per game, with 11.5 rebounds and 4 assists. He was taking 8.5 three-point shots per game – those are Stephen Curry numbers – and he was hitting 52.9 percent of them. What?! What is that? The dude is 6’11, but he can bang in the post with the strength of Tim Duncan and the footwork of Kevin Garnett. And it’s not like he’s only shooting from distance, he is also averaging nearly 7 free throws a game, the best of his career.
With some help from a few clutch moments by Andrew Wiggins (WHAT?!) this Minnesota team is on the prowl for a playoff spot.
Listen to Mike Tuck and Mike Miller discuss the season so far on the Double Clutch podcast
3 – Anthony Davis
The new big man of Los Angeles came ever so close to pushing Karl-Anthony Towns out of the second spot on this list, because Anthony Davis is averaging the best scoring output of his career so far this season. The reason he doesn’t make the top spot, however, comes down to efficiency (just 46 percent from the floor and 18 from three), and the fact that the game does get slightly easier when you are being fed the ball by the second greatest player of all time.
This will be the knock that Davis faces all season. He managed very little as the lead man with the New Orlean Pelicans, and since teaming up with LeBron James, he has discovered how simply basketball can be (just like Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love before him).
He is playing the power forward position, and while Davis’ defense has been good, he has hardly played without a true center next to him doing all the dirty work on that end against the opposition’s best trouble maker.
To achieve true MVP status on a team with James, Davis will have to be the lead guy throughout the playoffs, and not shy away from being the best player on both ends.
Still, 29, 11 and 3 so far is pretty damn good.
4 – Devin Booker
To begin the year, Devin Booker is averaging 24, 3 and 5 but his shotmaking has taken on another level. From the field he his averaging 49 percent, but from three it is 47, making him one of the most efficient high scoring guards. He is definitely the MVP of the Suns, but Booker’s personal MVP might be Ricky Rubio. It’s amazing what a point guard can do to a team.
Pascal Siakam, Leonard, Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and one or two others were in the running to make the inaugural top five MVP list for the 2019-20 season, but they are more likely to be recognized throughout the season and in those receiving votes in the final ballot. But there is quite a high possibility that we will not get an opportunity to put a member of the Phoenix Suns on any ranking like this for several years.
5 – Jayson Tatum
This spot could arguably have gone to the Boston Celtics’ leading scorer, Kemba Walker, who is showing that he can be the best player for a winning team. But simply put, Jayson Tatum brings more to the table.
The third-year forward is not too far behind his new point guard in the scoring column, and he has been more efficient while doing so. The one area Tatum is lagging behind Walker (and one that he probably shouldn’t) is free throws. The 6’0 guard is getting to the line 8.2 times per night and hitting well above 90 percent, meanwhile the stronger, taller slashing talent that is Tatum is still settling slightly and only shooting free throws 3 times each game and hitting three-quarters of them.
Despite this one area of frustration, the team is simply better when Tatum is on the court. With a +/- of 10.6, Tatum is becoming a far more trustworthy player in Brad Stevens’ system, and is clearly the go-to player with the game on the line.
For all the arguing over who’s the best point guard between Kyrie Irving and Walker, or whether the expensive free agent Gordon Hayward is doing enough, it turns out the best thing the Celtics do is draft, build and develop their own talent, as Tatum is proving.
Featured photo – Richard Mackson / Reuters / USA TODAY Sports / Getty Images / NBA Sports / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington