2019-20 NBA Awards: The Case for Every MVP Candidate

Ben Ladner

Even in the unlikely event that the NBA season resumes, it won’t leave enough time to meaningfully alter its basic framework. By this point, we have a clear idea of how the regular season would have unfolded and the forces that most heavily influenced the results. We trace the arc of a season, in part, in the form of awards, and we’ll use this space to put a finer point on the discussion around them in the coming days.

I don’t have an official NBA awards ballot, but going through the thought exercise is a useful way to make sense of a season. First up: Most Valuable Player.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. James Harden

4. Damian Lillard

5. Kawhi Leonard

The term "MVP candidate" applies only loosely here with Antetokounmpo so firmly planted at the top of the discussion. It’s a testament to Giannis' greatness that LeBron James -- who averaged nearly 26 points, eight rebounds, and 11 assists while leading the Lakers comfortably to first place in the West -- likely stands no chance of winning MVP this season.

Giannis scored slightly more prolifically per possession than the prodigious Harden, anchored the league’s best defense and fourth-most efficient offense, and may be the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. He is a one-man, two-way wrecking crew who bends the game to his will, playing in the perfect system to augment his considerable strengths and mask his few weaknesses.

Milwaukee blitzed teams by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor and only four with him off; that difference is arguably more important than lifting a bad team to mediocre, or even good, heights. He played significantly fewer minutes than James, Harden, or Jokić, but was more impactful when on the floor and often didn’t need to play down the stretch of games the Bucks only needed three quarters to win. There really isn’t much to discuss at the top of the ballot.

That’s a shame for James, whose season would have been MVP-worthy in almost any other year. He had the best passing season of his career, which galvanized L.A.’s sixth-ranked offense, and noticeably dialed up his defensive engagement, which allowed the Lakers to sustain a top-three defense. Everything about James’ game was sharper this season, and it reflected in his unwavering command of every possession.

He has weaponized every part of his offensive arsenal, and with the NBA’s best roll man and a cast of (mostly) reliable shooters in tow, there’s just no real way to deal with James. The Lakers mashed opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but were outscored with him off -- including 1167 minutes with Anthony Davis playing without James. He was arguably more integral to his team’s success than Antetokounmpo, but Milwaukee had more of it, and it’s hard not to reward the clear best player on a historically dominant team.

Five players -- Harden, Lillard, Leonard, Nikola Jokić, and Luka Dončić -- had strong cases for making the ballot behind Antetokounmpo and James. Splitting hairs between those five is nearly impossible and they could be convincingly arranged in virtually any order. Which three make the cut and the order in which they appear is as much a matter of what a given voter prioritizes as what the players did on the floor.

Harden carried the bulk of the weight for a top-three offense while playing the most total minutes of anyone in this group. Even in an era of increasingly star-centric offenses, no player in the NBA combines volume scoring, playmaking, and efficiency quite like Harden. There’s no good way to defend a player who can stretch defenses, finish at the rim, get to the foul line, and set up teammates at an elite level that doesn’t involve sending an extra defender and ceding an advantage elsewhere.

He made an unremarkable 35 percent of his 3s, but the degree of difficulty on Harden’s jumpers eclipses that of nearly any other star, and he recouped over 10 points per game at the foul line. His scoring cooled off after a historic start, but Harden still posted one of the best scoring seasons in recent NBA history to help keep an inconsistent roster afloat.

jokic luka

Dončić may have outdone Harden on a per-play basis, but he had a better offensive supporting cast and played over 400 fewer minutes than Harden (and 300 fewer than Jokić). Some voters might view that margin as inconsequential, but with five players jostling for three spots, I used it to split hairs.

Still, 20-year-olds in their second NBA seasons should not be able to do what Dončić did this year. He may be the single most dangerous regular-season offensive player in basketball. The Mavericks scored 118.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor -- more than the Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets, Blazers, or Clippers scored with their respective MVP candidates on the floor -- and led the NBA in offensive efficiency by a wide margin.

Dončić was the clear driver of that production, and thus Dallas’ success. He puts opponents at his mercy in the pick-and-roll, setting up lobs, kickout 3s, and shots for himself with a dazzling combination of size, strength, feel, and precision. He shot an incredible 73 percent at the rim and developed into one of the savviest foul-drawers in the NBA, which helped overcome a poor shooting season from beyond the arc. The Mavs touted a near-perfect cast of complementary players, but that offense doesn’t hum without Dončić setting them up.

The advanced numbers don’t favor Jokić quite as heavily as they did last season, when he finished fourth in MVP voting, but it isn’t hard to see his impact on Denver’s success. The big man played 2100 total minutes (some of which were marred by early-season lapses in effort) -- 300 more than Dončić and about 450 more than Leonard -- and, crucially, all 65 games for a team that had relatively little supporting offensive firepower.

Few centers could play the kind of role Jokić does. He’s a genuine passing savant and one of the few players in the league to marry a usage rate over 25 percent with a true shooting percentage over 60. He makes his teammates better to an astonishing degree and Denver’s constant swirl of cuts, handoffs, and spot-ups is only possible because of Jokić’s unique skill set. He sees windows no one else can and thinks multiple steps ahead of defenses. Opponents must respect his ability to create for himself, which allows him to play in his preferred facilitator mode. (Some teams tried taking away his passing and making him score, and, well, Jokić obliged.)

The Nuggets ranked 10th in offensive efficiency this season, but the margin between them and the fifth-ranked Celtics was just over half a point per 100 possessions. They scored 5.3 more points per 100 with Jokić on the floor than with him off. Even defensively -- Jokić’s weak end of the floor -- the Nuggets were four points per 100 worse without him. That isn’t necessarily a direct reflection of his own impact, but it does support the idea that he can be a passable piece of a strong regular-season defense.

dame kawhi

The best season of Lillard’s career went partly to waste as his team slipped out of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The five-time All Star gets better every season, and this year posted career-highs across the board thanks to one of the greatest high-volume shooting seasons in league history. He shot a shade under 40 percent on 10 3-point attempts per game, led the NBA in 30-foot jumpers, and had one of the most prolific eight-game stretches in league history.

Those numbers become even more impressive considering how often Lillard was boxed into taking difficult attempts at the end of the shot clock or against titled defenses. He carried one of the heaviest workloads in the NBA, leading the league in minutes per game and posting usage and assist rates of 33 percent (plus a miniscule 9.7 percent turnover rate). Lillard travelled the second-most miles in the league on offense (behind his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum) yet sustained a passable effort on the other end of the floor. The Blazers had a 115.9 offensive rating with Lillard in the game and 105.7 with him off -- a Curry-like dropoff.

It’s difficult to reconcile that Herculean individual effort with the team’s shortcomings. It isn’t Lillard’s fault Rodney Hood (21), Zach Collins (3), and Jusuf Nurkić (0) played a combined 24 games this season, or that Portland had subpar wing play for most of the year, or that Carmelo Anthony was effectively dead weight after his first two weeks as a Blazer, or that Portland’s front office has repeatedly failed to maximize its franchise player’s prime. No MVP argument for a player on a 29-37 team will be airtight, but at a certain point, Lillard must be rewarded.

A noticeable playmaking improvement helped Leonard get back into the MVP conversation this year. He showed glimpses of improved passing during his final healthy year in San Antonio, but put those flashes together more consistently this season, bumping his assist rate over 26 percent -- eight points higher than his previous career-best. Like Lillard, he has always taken great care of the ball and this season posted the lowest turnover rate of any high-usage forward despite increased usage and assists. He still lacks elite passing vision and decision-making, but an observable improvement in both areas has made Leonard’s entire game more dangerous.

It’s hard not to see shades of Jordan -- especially in the wake of The Last Dance -- in the way Kawhi methodically works to his spots, creates a sliver of separation, and flicks the ball through the rim with his giant paws. He remains the most indomitable one-on-one scorer in the NBA, a menacing all-around defender, and a threat to punish defenses without the ball. He has the strength to bully all but the sturdiest forwards in the league and the length to get his shot off over anyone.

Athletically, Leonard looked almost like he did in 2017, when he arguably should have won MVP, blowing past defenders and powering through over helpless rim protectors. His defensive engagement and activity were back near peak levels -- though not quite what they were in the middle of his Spurs tenure. That two-way value distinguishes Leonard from offensive savants like James, Harden, Dončić, Jokić, and Lillard. The Clippers were elite on both ends with their MVP on the floor and merely fine without him; he turns a respectable team into a title contender.

Leonard’s load-management approach is smart, prudent, and conducive to prolonging his career and winning championships. The downside is that he can be penalized in regular-season award discussions for lack of availability. Had he played the same minutes Harden or Jokić did, Kawhi might be an easy choice for third on this ballot (assuming he could have sustained his level of play). Instead, his two-way ceiling-raising edges out Jokić and Dončić’s offensive creation for the final spot on this ballot.

Stay tuned for the rest of the 2019-20 awards. 

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