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MVP Race: Early Intrigue Among Top Candidates

Two former teammates are battling it out for the league's top individual honor.

I do not have an MVP vote. And the most games any team in the league has played is 11, or roughly 13.4% of a full 82-game season. Is that going to stop me from subjecting you to a way-too-early MVP conversation? Absolutely not. So as we approach the (kind of) halfway to the quarter mark of the NBA season, I’m going to fill out my nonexistent ballot, mostly because I think it will be fun to revisit this list at the end of the year and see how well it held up. Can the best players from the first 11 games keep it up for a full season? In order to find out, we first have to determine the current top five…

(All stats through Nov. 8 unless noted otherwise.)

Honorable Mention: Ja Morant, Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo

A week ago, Morant may have been near the top of this list, as he was extremely hot offensively the first three games of the season. Since then, both he and Memphis have cooled off. (The Grizzlies confoundingly are 25th in net rating despite their 6–4 record.) Gobert’s hat is in the ring, because for all the postseason concerns, MVP is a regular season award, the Jazz are always spectacular during the regular season, and Gobert is a massive driver for their success. He will just never really have the scoring numbers (or reputation) to win. Giannis remains Freaky as ever, but he has set the bar ludicrously high for himself, and with the Bucks dropping some early games due to injuries, I’m not sure Milwaukee can have a season dominant enough for Giannis to take home his third trophy.

5. DeMar DeRozan

26.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 50.3% FG, 39.1% 3PFG (2.3 3PA)

For all the discussion after his controversial signing about how much he impacts winning (from myself included), DeRozan has been a major catalyst for the Bulls success this season. Through Chicago’s first nine games, the Bulls were 18.3 points per 100 possessions better with DeRozan on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That is by far the best on/off mark of DeRozan’s career, and the first time he’s been a positive since 2012. The ecosystem Chicago has cultivated is paying off handsomely for DeRozan. Zach LaVine has also played great and perhaps has an argument here. LaVine is only slightly behind DDR in scoring, and has practically the same true shooting percentage and usage rate. His on/off numbers are nowhere near as drastic as DeRozan’s, though. And after a win over the Nets on Monday, the Bulls are currently third in the East. If Chicago really does finish that high in the standings, the team probably deserves some representation on the MVP ballot.

4. Jimmy Butler

25.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 53% FG, 2.1 STL, 7.4 FTM

Jimmy Butler has been a two-way menace for the surprising Heat, who are second in the East even after a loss to the Nuggets on Monday. He is a bully on offense, hunting mismatches in the post and roughing his way to the free-throw line on a nightly basis. Butler continues to eschew three-pointers (he’s made only five in 10 games), making up for his lack of outside shot by connecting on his twos at a high rate. And on the other end of the floor, he is typically matched up with the opponent’s best perimeter player from the opening tip, not waiting for the fourth quarter like many stars of his caliber. Once again team success plays a role here. Miami is third in the league in net rating, with the No. 3 offense and No. 6 defense. Even though he plays with other deeply talented players in Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo, Butler deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Miami’s brilliance on both ends of the floor to start the year.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) controls the ball as Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) guards in the fourth quarter

3. Nikola Jokić

25.4 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 5.7 APG, 60.9% FG, 40.0% 3PFG (4.0 3PA)

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Here is the entire list of players averaging at least 25 points a night on at least 60% shooting: Nikola Jokić.

Here is the entire list of players averaging at least 25 points a night while shooting at least 40% from three: Nikola Jokić.

Here is the entire list of players averaging at least 25 points a night while also collecting at least 13 rebounds: Nikola Jokić.

Okay, you get the point. No matter how you slice it, Jokić has been one of the best players in the league this season. He is carrying an ungodly burden for a Nuggets team missing Jamal Murray that also has one of the most suspect benches in the league. Seriously, do you want to know just how rough Denver’s bench has been? Are you sitting down before this next stat? Per Cleaning the Glass, through the Nuggets’ first nine games, they were 39.4 points per 100 possessions better with Jokić on the floor. THIRTY. NINE. POINT. FOUR. It’s one of the all-time “team on my back” performances. The Joker would probably have more assists too if his teammates could hit some threes. (Denver is second-to-last in three-point percentage as a team.) The biggest thing holding Jokić back from repeating will likely be team success. The Nuggets aren’t awful at 6–4, but if they finish in the bottom half of the West playoff bracket, Jokić will have a tough time repeating, especially after some unfairly cast a pall on his 2021 win.

(It feels weird not noting Jokić may also miss some games now due to suspension after his shot to the Heat’s Markieff Morris on Monday. Morris undeniably hit Jokić with an unnecessary hip check of his own first, but you cannot run up and deck someone from behind while they have no idea what’s going on, as Jokić did to Morris. I don’t even have a problem with Joker reacting, because Morris is no saint. But that one felt dangerous, particularly when it initially looked like Morris may have had to leave on a stretcher. It also kicked off the best kind of internet discourse, which is various fan bases hurling insults at each other trying to determine who was the worst actor. Hopefully whatever time Jokić misses, which deserves to be brief, doesn’t take away from how brilliant he’s been this season.)

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2. Stephen Curry

27.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 6.6 APG, 42.9% FG, 38.8% 3PFG (13.4 3PA), 98.0% FT

I think this is my favorite Stephen Curry stat from so far this season. After his 50-point outburst against the Hawks on Monday, Steph is currently second in the league in scoring, even though his 38.8% three-point percentage would be the worst mark of his career across a full season. (His five-game 2019-20 campaign doesn’t count for this purpose, come on.) The point is, Curry has never shot under 40% from three in a real season. Right now he’s second in scoring and may be in the midst of a shooting slump! Curry is obviously the driver for Golden State’s success, and oh how successful the Warriors have been. The Dubs are first in net rating, with the No. 5 offense and No. 1 defense. While Curry’s numbers may not be quite as high as his 2016 MVP campaign, they compare favorably to his 2015 one. When you consider Curry’s dominance, Golden State’s comeback narrative, and the very real possibility the Warriors finish with the best record in the league, Steph may be more of a 1B than a true second in the current MVP standings. The top guy on this list has just been so good...

1. Kevin Durant

29.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 5.3 APG, 56.7% FG, 38.2% 3PFG (5.0 3PA)

My Open Floor co-host Michael Pina recently outlined the burden Durant has carried for the Nets so far this season, as KD has seen his responsibility for Brooklyn grow immensely with Kyrie Irving away from the team and James Harden not quite looking like James Harden. My argument for Durant is much more simple: I just don’t know if there is a player in the league who feels as inevitable as Durant right now. KD makes everything look effortless. How do you stop this guy? He can shoot over every great wing defender in the league. And if you really try to match his size, he has the athletic ability to blow by just about anyone too. Durant feels unfair. His combination of size, skill, shooting, and athleticism is what you create in a video game, not something that’s supposed to exist in real life. He sinks contested midrange jumpers, the shot every defense craves, with the nonchalance of someone brushing their teeth after waking up.

Ultimately, I have Durant ahead of Curry on my list right now because I believe KD is being asked to do a little bit more than Steph. And if I’m projecting forward, I would bet Klay Thompson is more likely to make an impact this season than Irving. Whatever the case may be, we already have some early MVP intrigue. The league could do a lot worse than three former winners—including two former teammates—battling for the award the rest of the way.

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