About 20 games through the NBA season, some storylines are starting to take hold. The Lakers will be a rollercoaster. The Celtics have issues offensively. The Rockets aren’t the same. Of course, none of these thoughts are set in stone—much can change between now and the playoffs—but narratives about certain teams are being formed. And perhaps more importantly, narratives about certain players.
While a furious finish to the season can influence the MVP race, the candidates are often made around this time of year. So with a quarter of the NBA season in the books (and Christmas Day rapidly approaching!), it feels appropriate to take a look at which players are making compelling MVP cases for this year’s award. And when it comes to MVP, stats only tell a part of the story.
(Apologies to James Harden and Steph Curry, who can’t really be seriously considered for the award right now. But we’ll check back in on them at the halfway point.)
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
Stats: 25.0 points / 8.5 rebounds / 3.1 assists / 58.3% true shooting
Kawhi has an interesting case. The Raptors finished first in the East last year, which could hurt Leonard’s candidacy even though Toronto is clearly better it was than a year ago. Also, will voters want to reward someone who seemingly bailed on his former team? What could win Leonard the award is a historic season for the Raptors. And the good news is, Toronto is currently playing at a 68-win pace.
For a team that faced some questions headed into the season—and was largely considered a step behind Boston and Philadelphia—that’s no small feat. Kawhi’s numbers are currently very good, though not eye popping. He will also get the benefit of his defensive reputation. For now, Kawhi could use a little scoring uptick and maybe a big winning streak to boost his chances of winning MVP. While he and the Raptors have exceeded early expectations, Leonard hasn’t always felt like a dominating presence. As long as Toronto stays ahead of Boston and Philly, however, Leonard’s chances of winning will increase.
Narrative Status: Praiseworthy but not exciting enough.
Kevin Durant, Warriors
Stats: 30.1 points / 7.9 rebounds / 6.1 assists / 62.4% true shooting
This is what makes the MVP award tricky. Right now, at this very moment, Durant may be the best basketball player in the world, but he probably has the worst chance of winning MVP out of anyone I’m mentioning here today. The Warriors’ losing streak without Stephen Curry may have already eliminated Durant from contention. Despite Durant putting up some comical scoring numbers, Golden State’s struggles without Steph will really hurt Durant’s case. (Some will even use the rough patch to argue Curry for MVP.)
Forget about Steph and KD cannibalizing each other’s votes. KD needs to dominate every stretch in which Curry isn’t playing to factor into the MVP conversation. Even with crazy numbers, KD didn’t pass that test the first time. And voters will have no sympathy for the Dubs. No matter how many players are injured, they will be expected to win every game. Durant isn’t completely out of the running—no one with his level of talent ever will be. But frankly, he’ll need to either go supernova for the next 20 games or carry the team to a lot of wins in the wake of another Curry injury to start earning some buzz.
Narrative Status: You can’t afford any losing streaks.
LeBron James, Lakers
Stats: 28.1 points / 8.0 rebounds / 6.7 assists / 60.9% true shooting
The Lakers have been riveting. JaVale McGee has somehow defied all expectations and turned into a serviceable player, while Brandon Ingram is drawing criticism for his decision making. Things will probably just never make sense for this team. The bottom line is that L.A. has actually looked slightly better than I imagined early this season, and LeBron will have a chance to push this team to something close to 45 wins. Will that be enough for MVP? If James plays in every game, and continues to put up big-time numbers, he’s going to draw serious consideration. But he will be hurt by his defense, and he’ll have to pay the LeBron Tax, because many of our expectations will always be unfairly high.
Right now, I think the Lakers are hitting the ceiling of what they could be. They need to burst through that ceiling for James to win MVP. Forty-five wins would legitimately be an impressive accomplishment for the Lakers. But it’s not enough for LeBron to take home the game’s biggest individual award. He needs to start playing defense, and he needs to turn his squad into a contender, not just a pleasant surprise.
Narrative Status: People are looking for reasons to make this happen, but Finals trip to 45 wins ain’t gonna cut it.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Stats:28.0 points / 13.3 rebounds / 2.0 blocks / 58.8% true shooting
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Embiid has all the makings of an MVP. His numbers are incredible. He’s third in scoring, third in rebounding, and seventh in blocks. The Sixers have a 102.2 defensive rating with Embiid on the floor, which is the equivalent of the second-best defense in the league. In addition to the stats, Embiid has a great story: A budding star in his third year putting it all together. A two-way menace leading a team on the rise. A big man who is a throwback to yesteryear but can also dominate and thrive in the modern era. An MVP for Embiid would be a signifier that the unicorn generation is ready to take over.
I mean, we’re talking about a center who is practically scoring on par with Kevin Durant and James Harden while playing elite defense. Embiid has also played in every game this season, and if he plays in something like 75, it may be too tantalizing to ignore the transformation he’s made from injury prone to consistent MVP-level production on a nightly basis. Embiid’s case is hurt slightly by two factors, however. The Sixers have been very good, but eyebrows will raise if they finish behind both the Bucks and Raptors. Also, the addition of Jimmy Butler could hurt Embiid personally in the long run. Embiid is the team’s best player, but voters could have their minds filled with vivid memories of Butler hitting game-winners all year long. If you want to win MVP, you need to have the most signature moments on your own team.
Narrative Status: After an amazing start, a great number of people will be arguing in your favor all season long.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Stats: 27.3 points / 12.9 rebounds / 6.0 rebounds / 61.9% true shooting
Giannis has the best MVP case right now. His numbers are incredible. He meets the benchmarks of an MVP candidate, and he sure as hell meets the eye test. The Greek Freak looks unstoppable, and at least once a night you more or less see a defender almost smile at how useless it is trying to guard him. In addition to the production, Antetokounmpo’s candidacy hits the right plot points: A young star putting his stamp on the league? Check. An ascendant team currently overtaking the established favorites? Check. A fresh face who has no interest in rest and doesn’t fear of voter fatigue? Check. A dope nickname? Hell yeah.
What separates Giannis and Embiid is that a) the Bucks have taken a larger step forward and b) Giannis is more responsible for his team’s success. Khris Middleton is awesome, Mike Budenholzer is a great coach, and Milwaukee’s supporting cast is seeing everyone play their roles perfectly. But the Bucks don’t have the same star power or name recognition as the Raptors, Celtics or Sixers. It’s much easier to point to Antetokounmpo for the reason Milwaukee is making a leap, and those kinds of players—when they have the stats Giannis does—are often richly rewarded for their efforts.
Narrative Status: The favorite.