Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas
By now, almost every NBA team has played at least 21 games, putting us at the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season. After a few early flashes in the pan (the Suns were good?), the league has settled into a nice rhythm (Andrew Wiggins might actually be good?) and the playoff seeds are starting to take form. We’ve seen another increase in overall scoring, three-point shooting and in James Harden’s case, free throw attempts. Additionally, a small group of the NBA’s elite has separated themselves from the rest, putting their respective teams on their backs and established themselves as MVP contenders. Let’s take a look at the list through the first quarter of the season…
10. Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
9. Joel Embiid (76ers)
8. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
7. Pascal Siakam (Raptors)
6. Anthony Davis (Lakers)
Towns took a nice step forward last year with his outside shooting, defensive awareness, and commitment to being a more mature player. He’s built on that through the first part of 2019, averaging almost 26/12/4 a game on ridiculous 50/43/80 shooting splits. Did we mention he’s almost seven feet tall? These are absurd offensive numbers and the key is his consistency. Towns has scored 20 or more points in all but two contests and is one of two centers (along with Nikola Jokic) to average more than four assists per game. He’s also one of just three players (with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić) to have at least 400 points, 200 rebounds, and 70 assists this season.
Minnesota has fallen a little as of late going just 4-6 in its last 10 games, but as of this writing, they still hold the seventh seed in the West. The good news for Towns and the Timberwolves is that they only really have to hold off Portland, San Antonio and maybe Phoenix for the final two playoff spots, as the other West teams are either severely injured (Warriors), too young (Pelicans, Grizzlies) or just not that good (Thunder, Kings). If Towns can keep up his production on both ends of the floor and Minnesota can go on a run to grab a 5-7 seed, he will have to at least be considered for some MVP votes.
The arrival of Anthony Davis has rejuvenated James, who is posting a career-high in assists as the team’s de facto point guard in year 17. It’s clear through the first few weeks of the season that James has lost another step athletically, and that Los Angeles needs to manage his minutes in order to keep him fresh for the postseason, but James has fully asserted himself in the MVP conversation through the NBA’s first quarter. He’s scoring just below 26 points a game while dishing out around 11 assists and is doing so in just 34.9 minutes each night, the lowest of his career.
Additionally, James has been much more activated on the defensive end, taking his one-on-one assignments seriously and providing help defense in the form of clogging passing lanes and taking charges (already forced eight offensive fouls on defense, one less than last year’s total in just 21 games). He’s seventh in Defensive Win Shares (and is on pace for his most since 2012-13) and is a big part of the reason the Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Los Angeles is 19-3 with big wins over Dallas, Utah (2x), Miami and Denver on the season. James is a big reason for that. His ability to find the open man and still get to the rim for easy baskets cannot be understated, and it appears we have a fully motivated LeBron for a full season. The rest of the league is officially on notice.
Dallas opened the season at just 6-5, including two losses to the *gulps* New York Knicks. Since then, they’ve gone 9-1, with key wins over Rockets, Raptors and recently the Lakers in Los Angeles. Dončić had 27/10/9 in that game against Los Angeles and put it away with a step-back three in the grill of LeBron James, a guy he’s been most compared to this season for their similar leaps in year two. Except he has taken it a step further than James did in his second season, where he averaged a shade over 27/7/7 a night.
Dončić doesn’t have the pure athleticism that the current Lakers star has, instead opting to use his size and knowledge of angles to get himself open on the perimeter or in the lane. He’s shooting over 60% on two-pointers this year (currently 12th-best in the NBA), and he, Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players hitting that mark while taking over 10 attempts per game.
The scary part is that Dončić is hitting just 33% of his three-pointers, putting over 130 qualified above him in that category. If he bumps that number up another 2-4% by the end of the season, we could be looking at him bumping his points to around 33-35 a game. Combined with his playmaking, it’s a terrifying thought for defenses to consider. It’s just a question of when, not if, as Dončić was bound to have an adjustment period to the NBA three-point line. He spent a few years with the European line which is just over 22 feet.
The bottom line with Dončić is that he’s a nightly problem for defenses and seems to have figured out most of the keys to running an efficient offense. If he can keep Dallas winning games, Dončić should continue to climb these rankings.
The Beard lost out to Giannis Antetokounmpo in MVP voting last season despite averaging a league-high 36.1 points per game (seventh-most ever in a single season). He’s responded by upping his scoring to 39.5 points each night, and that’s while playing alongside Russell Westbrook, who was supposed to take away shots from him. Harden is also averaging an absurd 14.9 free throw attempts per night, almost four more than the next closest in Antetokounmpo.
Already this year, Harden has games of 60, 59, 50, 49 and 47 points (Houston is 4-1 in those contests), and he seems to have almost mastered the art of one-on-one ball during the regular season. Houston has tailed off after an 11-3 start, winning just two of their last six games, so Harden’s stability in these rankings will depend on whether he can keep the Rockets in the chase for a top-four seed in a crowded Western Conference.
At this point in his career, we know what to expect from Harden on a nightly basis. He’s going to shoot a ton of three-pointers and free throws. It’s sometimes boring and other times borderline unwatchable. But if it translates to wins, he can’t be penalized for it in the MVP discussion.
Giannis has followed up his MVP campaign from last season with another phenomenal start, averaging 31 points and over 13 rebounds and five assists a game for the 19-3 Bucks. The Greek Freak improved once again this summer and it shows, as he’s posting career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, field goal percentage and three-point attempts (!!), while Milwaukee once again is boasting the league’s best point differential. With the loss of Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers, Antetokounmpo has taken more initiative on offense, increasing his touches per game, frontcourt touches, and post-ups, while only seeing his turnovers per game jump from 3.7 last season to 3.9 currently.
He’s an absolute terror for opposing defenses on a nightly basis and is more consistent than anyone we have in the NBA. Giannis is always going to get his stats, and rarely at the cost of efficiency. He’s shot under 40% in just two games this season, and the Bucks still won those games by a combined 25 points. Then, there’s the three-point shot, which has been a work in progress for a few years now, for which Giannis is shooting at a 31.8% clip (6% better than last year) this season. The key for him has been that he is making 1.6 threes per game, which is almost one more than in any of his previous seasons. It’s pulling defenses further away from the basketball, which in turn is opening more (and easier) driving lanes when he chooses to get to the rim.
Assuming Giannis keeps up his pace this year, he’ll average over 28 points, 12 rebounds and five assists for the second straight season. The only other players in history to do so – Wilt Chamberlain (2x), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson. That’s not just an elite company, it’s an historic one. It’s been said repeatedly, but there’s still another level he can get to with his all-around game. We know about the three-point shooting, but Giannis still has room to improve his post game, as well as overall ball handling to take slower defenders in one-on-one situations. When (not if) he makes those improvements, there could be not just more MVP’s, but also titles in store for Giannis and the Bucks.
*Video clips courtesy of YouTube.
*Feature image courtesy of Rumboys Fantasy Network
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference or ESPN.com unless otherwise stated.
*All stats are updated as of Dec. 5.