Handicapping the 2019 NBA MVP Race: Favorites, Dark Horses and More
We have one of the deepest MVP fields in recent memory as we enter 2019. LeBron’s departure from Cleveland has opened the door for a slate of new faces in the East, while no Warrior has snatched the crown out west. A pair of veterans in new cities could win the award in six months, or perhaps we’ll have a homegrown talent take the MVP. Five teams are within five games of first place in the East. That expands to nine teams out West. The MVP race is similarly jumbled.
So who are the top contenders in such a crowded race? We at The Crossover handicapped the field with just over three months remaining.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Giannis has the cleanest path to the MVP as the calendar turns to 2019. He’s the best player on the best team in the league, dominating on a nightly basis to guide Milwaukee to the top of the East. Antetokounmpo is a one-man wrecking crew of the highest order, unleashing a fury at the rim unlike perhaps any player in league history. He’s second in dunks with 138 (recently passed by Rudy Gobert) and first in two-point field goal percentage. Antetokounmpo is a point-forward with a center’s statistical profile.
Antetokounmpo will benefit from a lack of co-star in his MVP run. Nobody will mistake Milwaukee for a super team. But don’t assume the infrastructure around Giannis isn’t strong. Head coach Mike Budenholzer rebooted the Bucks’ attack after the Jason Kidd-Joe Prunty era, unleashing the best version of Giannis. Brook Lopez is canning an outrageous 6.9 threes per game. Khris Middleton is in line for a fat summer payday. Both Bledsoe and Brogdon have been solid, with the latter shooting 44.2% from beyond the arc. Milwaukee could very well take the first seed in the East.
Holding home court in the East playoffs could be the key to Giannis joining LeBron James and Derrick Rose as the only under-25 MVPs since 2000. But if Milwaukee sinks below Toronto, Boston or Indiana, a more-established superstar could snag the crown.
James Harden, Rockets
It’s a testament to The Beard that he’s now firmly in the MVP discussion for the fourth time in five seasons. Harden finished second behind Steph Curry in 2014-15, falling just short in a battle with Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. He waltzed to his first MVP last season, and now, he could very well match Curry and win the award for a second-straight year.
This wasn’t the case three weeks ago. Houston sat 14th in the West on Dec. 9, reeling after a blown lead against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks the night before. The Rockets had a sagging offense and a turnstile defense compared to last season’s No. 6 ranking. Harden was solid, but not superman.
So what’s been the difference in the Rockets’ 9–1 tear over it’s last ten games to land them fifth in the West. Harden’s gone nuclear. The game’s premier isolation scorer is averaging 39.4 points and eight assists per game since the loss to Dallas, with 40-plus point efforts in each of his last three contests. Harden is shooting 40.7% from three over his last ten games, making 5.5 per game. He’s getting over 11 points per game at the foul line. The magic of 2017-18 is back.
The questions surrounding Harden’s supporting cast will linger into April, as will concern over Chris Paul’s health and effectiveness. Yet for the next three months, Harden looks primed for a slew of eye-popping statlines. Dethroning the reigning MVP won’t be so easy after all.
In Striking Distance
Joel Embiid, 76ers
There’s no question as to who’s the league’s best center in 2018-19. Embiid has lept past Marc Gasol and Karl-Anthony Towns as well as the sidelined DeMarcus Cousins. He’s had a better year than Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis, although AD is more of a forward anyway. Amid a season of change in Philadelphia, Embiid has been an anchor, one of the league’s most dynamic offensive weapons. Embiid is a balletic bully, dominant inside with impressive versatility, a nightmare matchup through Philly’s first 37 games.
Embiid has jumped to 26.5 points per game this season, averaging a career high in both points and rebounds. He’s a middling three-point shooter but makes 39.3% from outside 16 feet, enough of a spacer when sharing the floor with Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. The trio isn’t a perfect fit. Butler isn’t a sharpshooter, yet he’s adapted reasonably well, working effectively as a cutter and shooter. The adjustment to three high-usage stars has primarily hurt Simmons, who looks lost when sharing the floor with Butler. Yet when all else fails, Philadelphia can dump the ball to Embiid and let him feast. Embiid’s offensive tool kit continues to grow, and a first-team All-NBA appearance is on the way. An MVP campaign is likely on the horizon in coming seasons.
LeBron James, Lakers
The machine keeps rolling in year 16, and LeBron may be the best he’s ever been. Does the team or supporting cast really matter at this point? James could likely take any band of misfits and form a playoff team, unmatched by any force in the league. James is the only player to average over 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game this season. He’s making two threes per game for the first time in his career. He refuses to decline.
James’ constant dominance is similar to fellow Los Angeles athlete Mike Trout, who’s finished in the top two of the American League MVP voting in six of the last seven seasons. Both are accepted as the best in their respective sports, but only receive the league’s highest honor for an exceptionally spectacular season. They’ve raised the bar, competing against their prior excellence.
So has James topped his usual dominance enough to win his first MVP since 2013? Not thus far. There haven’t been many signature moments for The King, and Los Angeles has been solid and steady, albeit unspectacular. James’ play has ended the speculation that Los Angeles would miss the playoffs, yet until the Lakers look like a true threat for the conference title, the MVP talk won’t begin for James. There’s still time for LeBron to seize the season and take home a fifth MVP. Yet he’s more likely to save some bullets for the postseason, nurturing Los Angeles’ young talent before his first Western Conference postseason run.
Paul George, Thunder
There’s been a noticeable shift in Oklahoma City’s offensive organization over the last month. As Russell Westbrook struggles to find his shot, George has evolved from a sidekick to the Thunder’s top offensive option, embracing his role as a late-game closer. George leads the Thunder in scoring with 26.6 points per game to Westbrook’s 20.6, holding a higher usage rate than Westbrook since Dec. 1. When the shot clock dwindles, Oklahoma City’s option is often clear: get the ball to George.
The directive has its merits. Indiana’s former headliner has seen an offensive explosion in 2018-19, four points per game above his previous career high. George has canned a career-best 3.4 threes per game, averaging the best effective field goal percentage of his career. He’s been a terror off the catch, an expert at shifting his momentum and careening down the lead after shaking his initial defender. George is a powerful finisher with a silky handle. He’s an expert shot maker with a hand in his face. Oklahoma City once again has a true superstar pairing.
George has melded his terrific offensive season with his typical defensive stoutness. He’s an opportunistic swiper when sagging off his assignment, yet he’s still comfortable guarding the league’s top wing scorers. George’s length is a serious problem. There are few shots he can’t impact.
The Thunder still won’t be considered threats to Golden State until they actually take down the champs, and while Oklahoma City could grab a top-three seed in the West, they aren’t on track for a Rockets-esque 60-win campaign. George is peaking in year two with the Thunder, and has an outside shot at the MVP if the leaders slip. George’s Indiana ending was ugly, but his bromance with Westbrook has made for an ideal second marriage.
Dark Horse Candidates
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
The former Spurs star could ride a similar sentiment to Antetokounmpo for the league’s highest honor after finishing behind Westbrook and Harden for the 2016-17 MVP. He’s been a two-way dynamo throughout the first half of the season, matching the dominance of his final year season in San Antonio. If Toronto is the best team in the East, perhaps Leonard will have both a regular-season and Finals.
Leonard’s interior game has never looked better, and he’s increasingly apt at bullying smaller defenders down low. His array of midrange learners and one-handed push shots are nearly-impossible to block, above the outstretched arms of hopeless wings and guards. Leonard’s explosion is back, a central worry as he came back from injury. It’s been all sunshine in Toronto to start the season.
Leonard has been spectacular while on the floor, yet his nine games missed through Toronto’s first 38 could harm his MVP case. Expect Toronto to proceed with caution regarding Leonard’s knee, following a no back-to-back policy, even despite playoff seeding implications. 70 games and the top seed in the East could land Leonard his first regular-season MVP. 60 games should land Leonard outside the top five.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
The early-season malaise in Boston has seemed to dissipate as we enter 2019, with the Celtics winning 11 of their last 15 games since Nov. 26. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to find their footing, yet Irving is now in a groove, finding the balance between tallying buckets and growing the offense. His 40-point effort on Christmas was a masterclass in guard play, and a reminder just how lethal the former No. 1 pick can be. With Irving locked in, Boston may be the best team in the East.
Irving hasn’t produced the strongest scoring campaign of his career, falling back to pre-2016 levels at 23.3 points per game. Yet his impact on Boston’s offense is undeniable. The Celtics boast a 120 offensive rating with Irving on the floor in December, nearly eight points ahead of Milwaukee’s league-best mark. Boston’s rating drops to 102.6 with Irving off the floor, 29th in the NBA. So much for Terry Rozier being Irving-lite. Last year’s playoff run was a bit of an aberration, aided by Brad Stevens’ genius and a tired Cleveland squad. The Celtics can’t compete for the East title without Irving this season.
Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, Warriors
Don’t shed a tear for Golden State’s dynamic duo, they’ll be just fine substituting championships for MVP trophies. Unless either misses multiple months, they are likely to cancel each other out for the league’s top honor. Perhaps Durant will lift the trophy in Los Angeles or New York next season, or maybe Curry will keep the Warriors machine on cruise control in a post-Durant world. For now, they’ll let other stars battle for MVP.
Before we completely dismiss the pair, we should take a second to remark on their outstanding 2018-19 campaigns. Durant is a shade above Curry at 28.6 points per game, his best mark since coming to the Bay. He averaged 33.7 points per game during Curry’s 11 game absence in November, scoring 144 points in a three-game stretch. The Oklahoma City version of Durant is still available when needed.
As for Curry, he’s cruised to 4.9 made threes per game at 44.9% from beyond the arc. His gravity still collapses defenses and his deep threes still break their heart. He’s become a legitimate terror off the ball, an expert at flying off baseline screens and losing his defender in a crowd of bigs. Curry is a delight to watch. He’s shooting 91.1% from the line and 48.1% from the field. The 50-45-90 club is in play, a feat only reached by Steve Nash, Steve Kerr and Curry in 2015-16 among players with over 1,000 minutes. Keep an eye on Curry’s percentages as the year continues.
Curry and Durant will likely have to wait for their next MVP. Their next championship, however, should come in June.