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Friday, October 18, 2019

10 early NBA MVP candidates

Joel Embiid

The NBA season is young, but a number of fascinating storylines have already emerged. Jimmy Butler got his wish and was traded to a contender. The Warriors have managed obvious tension between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. LeBron James and the up-and-down Lakers are figuring things out on a nightly basis. The red-hot league continues to produce compelling storylines.

We are now a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 season, and a handful of players have stood above the pack as the best in the league. Who will win the top individual honor at the NBA Awards in June? Here are 10 early MVP candidates.

10. Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Last season’s Most Improved Player took a big leap when he transitioned from Oklahoma City to Indiana, and he’s taken another leap this season. The former Indiana Hoosier is back to his roots, and he’s become not only a fan favorite but also one of the most dominant guards in the league. After going toe-to-toe with LeBron and the Cavs in the first round of last postseason (it’s still crazy the Pacers didn’t win that series), Oladipo entered this season with newfound confidence. Oladipo’s two-way play makes him so impressive. Yes, he’s efficient and explosive on the offensive end, but he’s also one of the most dynamic defenders in the league. He’s averaging 1.6 steals in addition to his 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game this season.

9. Kevin Durant, Warriors

The rumors are everywhere: Kevin Durant is leaving Golden State! It may seem that way, but there’s still plenty of time for things to change. Maybe K.D. will have a change of heart. Maybe the Warriors will trade Draymond. In the meantime, as the dust settles on the Dubs’ drama, Durant has had his best season with the Warriors. He’s averaging 29.2 points (he hasn’t scored this much since his 2013-14 MVP season), 7.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. Those are all highs for his career in Golden State. Though his outside shot hasn’t been falling (he’s hitting only 32 percent), he has been incredibly efficient inside the arc. Don’t expect Durant to fall out of the MVP chase just because there are locker-room issues in the Bay.

8. Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

Kawhi had a scorching start, but he came somewhat back to earth in early November. Leonard had a minor “slump,” if you could call it that. In his past few games, however, he has returned to early-season form. He is consistently putting up 25 points and 10 rebounds, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 24.2 is one of the best in the league. The Raptors have the league’s best record at 18-4, and they owe much of that to Leonard, who has rebounded nicely from his tumultuous quadriceps injury. But don’t sleep on the efforts of Kyle Lowry, who is also in the MVP chase and belongs in the “honorable mention” category of this list.

7. Kemba Walker, Hornets

Kemba was surrounded by trade rumors all of last season and the offseason. It appeared LeBron and the Cavs were this close to trading for the former UConn star before February’s trade deadline. But Michael Jordan has held onto Walker, and it’s made him look like a genius. The Hornets are only 11-10, but they have a real shot at a mid-conference playoff seed in the weakened East. Walker, who currently makes only $12 million annually but is set to be a free agent in 2019, is having a career year. He’s averaging 27.9 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range.

6. Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Folks expected a lot from the Pelicans this season, but they have underperformed. They’re 11-11 (having lost four of their last five games), and that simply won’t get it done in the loaded West. Folks also expected Davis to emerge as the best player in the game, and that hasn’t happened either – the Greek Freak has been the one to level up – but Davis is still having a phenomenal season. He’s averaging 27.0 points, 2.7 blocks, 12.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game. His rebounding and assist numbers are career highs. Davis is doing all he can, but the Pelicans are headed in a negative direction. Don’t be surprised if Alvin Gentry loses his job this season.

5. Joel Embiid, 76ers

Embiid said before this season that it was his goal to win MVP. It was a lofty goal, but clearly he was ready to pursue it. Though he’s now playing alongside two other All-Stars, Embiid is right in the thick of the chase. His scoring average has increased by more than five (from 22.9 per game last season to 28.1 this season, good for the fourth-highest average in the league). Further, his rebounds (13.3), assists (3.5) and blocks (2.0) have also increased. He’s firing more confidently and frequently from beyond the arc. Embiid is no longer The Process. Now he’s The Present. Knowing the story of how he got here, it’s been so fun to watch his development.

4. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard heard all the noise: the Blazers are a regular-season team, Terry Stotts is on the chopping block, the Blazers need to trade Dame or C.J. McCollum, etc. There wasn’t very much positive Blazers talk this offseason after Portland suffered a sweep at the hands of the Pelicans in the postseason. But Lillard has taken it upon himself to silence his team’s critics. After starting 12-5, Portland has come crashing back to earth, losing its last three, but Lillard has been tremendous all season. He’s averaging 26.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game, and he’s already eclipsed the 40-point mark three times. Dame Dolla still needs to become more consistent from outside, but he continues to blossom into one of the league’s best point guards.

3. LeBron James, Lakers

Would you expect anything less from this guy? What a beast. He’s 33 and soon to be 34. He just willed the helpless Cavs to four straight Finals. And yet here he is, again carrying his team. In his first season with the Lakers, King James is averaging 28.3 points per game – his most since 2009-10, when he was 25 and in his final season (for the first go-round) with Cleveland. He’s also averaging 7.9 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, and his three-point shooting has improved to 38.6 percent. Somehow, even though it doesn’t seem like he’s trying his hardest, he very well could be an MVP finalist yet again this season. Is there anything LeBron can’t do?

2. Steph Curry, Warriors

The Warriors’ drama has distracted from the incredible season Steph is having. Traditionally, small guards in the NBA don’t age gracefully. Chef Curry is bucking that trend. He’s averaging 29.5 points per game, second most in the league and his most since his last MVP season (2015-16). He’s shooting a career-best 49.2 percent from three-point range and 51.5 percent from the field. He could quite possibly have a 50-50-90 season – how insane is that? The Warriors may lose Durant, or Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green, but Curry isn’t going anywhere. That fact must delight Golden State fans given how dominantly the 30-year-old Davidson product has performed this season.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

This is it. This is the season we wanted from Giannis. In last year’s postseason – Milwaukee fell to Boston in the first round – and in last year’s All-Star Game, it was clear the Greek Freak wasn’t quite there. He had all the potential in the world, but he wasn’t one of the league’s best players yet. Now, he’s there. Behind new coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks are 14-6, good for second in the East and second overall in the NBA. Giannis is averaging 26.8 points per game, nearly matching his career best of 26.9, in addition to career-bests of 13.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists. What makes this all the more amazing: he still can’t shoot! He’s hitting only 12.5 percent of his three-point attempts. And yet here he is, atop our list of early MVP candidates. It’s no hyperbole to say this guy, still only 23, is one of the most gifted athletes in the history of pro sports.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]



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