2019-20 NBA First-Quarter Awards: The MVP Race Is Heating Up

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo take home his second MVP award? The battle between the Greek Freak, James Harden and Luka Doncic is one for the ages. The Crossover fills out its ballot and dishes NBA first-quarter awards.
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Cameron Chatt/SI

Cameron Chatt/SI

Every team in the NBA has played at least a quarter of its schedule, which means now is a great time (as agreed upon by the content gods) to take stock of the league’s award races. Favorites are starting to emerge, trends are becoming truths, and teams and players can no longer hide behind early season slumps. While circumstances can certainly change, there’s also enough of a sample size for us to start judging the players who will ultimately determine how this season plays out. Let’s get to the awards.

Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Runners-Up: James Harden (Rockets), Luka Doncic (Mavericks), LeBron James (Lakers), Anthony Davis (Lakers)

The gaudy scoring numbers and flashy highlights of James Harden and Luka Doncic ultimately can’t hold up to Giannis’s overall dominance. There is no two-way force in the game like the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo is second to Harden in points per-36 minutes, and fifth in rebounds per-36. The Freak has been an absolute monster, and his per game stats are taking a hit because the Bucks are blowing teams out so thoroughly, he doesn’t have to play as much as other top guys. Giannis may not carry as much of a burden as Luka or The Beard offensively in terms of ball-handling, but you could argue (though I wouldn’t) that of the three players, Antetokounmpo has the worst sidekick. (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, meanwhile, are cannibalizing each other in a way not dissimilar to Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in the past.)

The big point I really want to make here is this: While many players may have an MVP case, Giannis’s team success gives him the edge. Milwaukee is throttling the league even more than it did last season, with a roster most people would say got worse than a year ago after losing Malcolm Brogdon. Among the trio of Antetokounmpo, Harden, and Doncic, Giannis’s team has the best net rating (14.8) when he’s on the floor, elite on both sides of the ball. The Bucks’ net rating of 12.7 is far and away the best in the league. The second-place Lakers are closer to seventh place than first place in net efficiency. Milwaukee, through the first quarter of the season, has been head and shoulders above everyone else in the league, and that begins with Antetokounmpo. Giannis’s PER of 33.72 would be the best single-season mark ever if he continues at his current pace, and that doesn’t even fully take into account his defensive prowess. The other top players in this league may have a chance to catch Antetokounmpo over the next 58 games or so, but they are firmly behind at the quarter mark.

Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Runners-Up: Anthony Davis (Lakers), Joel Embiid (76ers), Bam Adebayo (Heat), Jonathan Isaac (Magic)

The Bucks currently have a 96.8 defensive rating with Giannis on the floor, a completely absurd mark in today’s offensive-focused era, and that defensive rating is an improvement on a defense that’s already the league’s best. Players are shooting only 38.4% when guarded by Antetokounmpo, according to NBA.com, and he can guard any person on the floor, in the arena, or in the known universe. Anthony Davis is another popular pick for this award, and while he‘s been great for the most part, the Lakers’ defensive efficiency is a not-mind-blowing 104.6 with AD on the floor. That number is obviously reflective of the whole team, but the gap between AD’s unit and Giannis’s unit is too big for Davis to overcome. Joel Embiid has also been stout as always, though his individual success is now more difficult to parse on a team uniquely suited to defend pretty much anyone in the league. (The Freak has also played in more games than Embiid.) There are a lot of great defenders in this league, but there’s no shame in finishing second to Giannis in a season that he’s been thoroughly dominating.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Runners-Up: Eric Paschall (Warriors), Tyler Herro (Heat), Kendrick Nunn (Heat) 

Leading rookies in points and assists is a great way to win this award, and Ja Morant is well on his way to finishing ahead of his fellow freshmen in both categories. The Grizzlies—and Morant—are still very much a work in progress, but I’m not sure many prognosticators would have had Memphis within a couple games of the Spurs and Blazers this late into the season. Morant has been a revelation, slick with the ball in his hands, and often making veterans look foolish on his way to getting buckets. Morant is running away with this award, however. Eric Paschall has surprised while being thrust into a bigger role with the Warriors, while the Heat have a pair of rookies who’ve been integral to their success in Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro. Morant has played in only 17 games so far this season—if he keeps missing time, and his contemporaries continue to play well, this race should have some twists and turns throughout the season.

Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

Runners-up: Derrick Rose (Pistons), Goran Dragic (Heat), Dennis Schroder (Thunder), Davis Bertans (Wizards)

It can be difficult to separate Harrell and his fellow benchmate Lou WIlliams, but I prefer Trezz for Sixth Man this season. Harrell can affect the game in more ways than Williams, who is still as talented as ever with the ball in his hands. Harrell is averaging a robust (and career-high) 19.1 points per game, and he provides all-important energy and effort on the glass and defensive end. Harrell and Williams play the vast majority of their minutes together, but if you’re looking for a tiebreaker, the Clips perform much better with Harrell on the floor and Williams off than in the reverse situation.

Elsewhere, Goran Dragic has been revitalized with a move to the bench, turning into a microwave scorer for Miami. Derrick Rose and Dennis Schroder and right there with him, and don’t sleep on Davis Bertans, with whom the 7–15 Wizards have a positive net rating when he’s on the floor.

Most Improved Player: Devonte’ Graham, Hornets

Runners-up: Fred VanVleet (Raptors), Pascal Siakam (Raptors), Bam Adebayo (Heat)

A second-round pick in his second season, Graham has been a bright spot for a surprisingly frisky Hornets team that’s within striking distance of a playoff spot in the East. Charlotte’s success may not be sustainable, and neither may Graham’s for that matter, but if he keeps up this level of play, I’d like to see him win the award over the likes of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet. Graham is blowing away his rookie season numbers, taking on a leadership role on a team that created a massive void by letting Kemba Walker, uh, walk in the offseason.

Graham’s success can largely be attributed to his three-point shooting. He’s launching 8.7 threes per game and hitting them at a 41.5% clip. It remains to be seen if he can really keep that up for a full season, but it would be unfair to rob him of a quarter-season award because of mild skepticism. Siakam and VanVleet have both been great, as well. The former making his second straight leap into a likely All-Star spot, and the latter turning into a playmaking menace after increasing his responsibility in the wake of an injury to Kyle Lowry. Why Graham’s season strikes me as more impressive is because he’s making this jump without any of the institutional greatness that surrounds Siakam and VanVleet. All of these players have made improvements and strides in their game, but Graham has done so under the most difficult circumstances.

Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse, Raptors

Runners-up: Brad Stevens (Celtics), Frank Vogel (Lakers), Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Rick Carlisle (Mavericks)

To lose an historical, MVP-level talent in Kawhi Leonard, have two of your important vets miss a chunk of time with injuries (Lowry and Serge Ibaka) and still be in the conversation for second-best team in the conference is nothing short of spectacular. Nurse has coaxed career performances out of the likes of Siakam and VanVleet, while also getting valuable contributions from guys like Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Obviously, Toronto’s front office also deserves credit for stocking the roster with capable players. But this Raptors’ team could have easily lost focus after a title run, and a subpar start could have put everyone on the trading block. But Nurse has kept the team focused and more than competitive, and a healthy Toronto squad has a good a chance as any other team in the East to make the conference finals. Just for simply delaying the rebuild by another year, Nurse deserves a ton of credit.