NBA MVP Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo on top; LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic not far behind
Also, don't you dare forget about Pascal Siakam
We're right about the quarter pole of the NBA season. Ratings are down, but for the real NBA nerds, interest is as high as ever with multiple teams in a spot to compete for a championship and truly historic individual performances happening seemingly every time you turn on the TV.
As we watch these performances happen and see the league hierarchy slowly taking shape, the necessary context to have a real MVP discussion is at least beginning to form. Yes, it's early. But it's not that early. If you're not in the MVP discussion right now, it would take something pretty drastic for you to end up winning the award.
With that in mind, here are the initial CBS Sports NBA MVP rankings with the calendar turned to December.
At this point, Giannis is the clear front-runner to win his second straight MVP. The normal logic applies: He's the best player on the best team. Entering Tuesday, the Bucks and Lakers have identical 17-3 records, but the Bucks lead the league with an 11.8 net rating. Giannis ranks second in the league in scoring at 30.8 a night, fourth in rebounding at 13.4 per game, and he's assisting on more than 32 percent of Milwaukee's made shots, which is a top-five mark in the league. Translation: When he's not scoring he's setting up someone else to score, which is a product of both the attention he draws and his improved court awareness and playmaking instincts.
He's also starting to take, and make, 3-pointers at a legitimate rate, which is terrifying for a guy who already shoots nearly 80 percent in the restricted area. This is to say nothing of Giannis' defense, which remains one-man-wrecking-crew stuff -- worthy, again, of top-tier DPOY consideration. Giannis has also carried the Bucks to nine straight wins with Khris Middleton being out for most of that time. Any way you want to slice this argument right now, Giannis comes out on top.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron, by a hair, gets the nod over James Harden and Luka Doncic for the No. 2 slot in these early rankings. As mentioned above, the Lakers are tied with the Bucks for the best record in the league at 17-3. They've had to squeak out a lot of wins against bad teams, but they're squeaking those wins out in large part because they have LeBron James, who is just dominating, on both ends, in fourth quarters and clutch situations. LeBron continues to lead the league in assists at 10.9 a night entering play on Tuesday. He's tied with Kawhi Leonard for 10th in scoring at 25.7 points per game, and his five triple-doubles rank second to Doncic's seven.
Anthony Davis is definitely a big factor in the rise of the Lakers, obviously, but it's LeBron really driving this train. Consider: As long as LeBron is on the court, the Lakers' net rating remains virtually unchanged whether Davis is on the court with him or not (plus-11.7 with both of them, plus-11 with just LeBron). However, when LeBron goes off the court and Davis is left alone, the Lakers' net rating falls some 17 points per 100 possessions to minus-6.3, per NBA.com. There's some mud in those numbers -- the lineups Davis is playing with, perhaps a bit of a small sample size -- but the point is clear: LeBron is the best player on the team that is tied for the best record in the league.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden and Doncic are remarkably similar players having similarly spectacular seasons. Because of the way both these stars play, the Rockets and Mavericks are very similar teams, as well. Both are working with a second "star" in Russell Westbrook and Kristaps Porzingis (if you want to call those guys true stars) and a solid group of role players that feed almost entirely off the attention Harden and Doncic receive. Entering Tuesday, Dallas and Houston have identical 13-6 records. The point is: It is almost impossible to differentiate between these two guys right now, but I'm going to give Harden the edge for the simple fact that his scoring, his volume shooting notwithstanding, just continues to boggle the mind. The guy put up 60 points in three quarter against the Hawks for crying out loud. He had 59 earlier this year against the Wizards. He's gone over 40 points seven times already. His 38.9 points per game are more than eight points a night better than the next-leading score, which is Giannis at 30.8. That is a ridiculous margin at the top of a scoring board.
Also, if you're wondering whether the Rockets truly need Harden to score and play like this, understand that they are 18 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court as opposed to when he's off the court, when their net rating plummets from plus-10.4 to minus-7.7. The Rockets, quite simply, are absolutely nothing without James Harden.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic is so amazing it's difficult to put into words. That he's only 20 years old is silly. As mentioned above, Doncic leads the league with seven triple-doubles. He's basically averaging a triple-double, in fact, at 30.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists per night. The Mavericks are one of the surprise teams of the year pretty much entirely because of Doncic. They came in as a fringe playoff team in most people's minds. Now they're a legit top-four-seed threat and it's not entirely crazy to question whether they could end up in the conference finals.
Doncic plays at such a smooth pace. He's a world-class facilitator who not only sees and feels the floor at a genius level, but has the skill and strength to physically makes the passes. He is much quicker than people think in getting a step on his man, and his shiftiness with both his footwork and his handle are so elite. It's nearly impossible to stay in front of him, and even when you do, his step-back 3-pointer is a spitting image of Harden's and equally deadly. Luka is already a top-10 player in the league, and even that feels pretty conservative. He and Giannis are going to be battling it out for the "best player in the world" for many years to come.
So much for those questions about whether Siakam was worth a max contract. At this rate, he looks like a bargain. Gone are any doubts as to whether Siakam could thrive as a true No. 1 option without the like of Kawhi Leonard soaking up defensive attention. Siakam is averaging 25.7 points and 8.4 rebounds a night. He's shooting a career-high 39 percent from 3 on 6.5 attempts a night, which is up from 2.7 attempts a game last season.
Still super long-armed and unconventionally talented as a creative finisher, Siakam is continuing to expand his game at such a rate that you could make a case he deserves Most Improved Player for the second straight season. Most importantly, he has the Raptors cooking. Even with Kyle Lowry having missed the last three weeks, Toronto has won seven straight games and sits second in the East with a 15-4 record entering Tuesday. I guess it wasn't all Kawhi Leonard, after all.
Keep an eye on ...
- Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers: His shooting is down and he's sitting out games again, and he and Paul George could, theoretically, split some votes. But Leonard's numbers are still MVP-caliber, the shooting will likely improve, and if the Clippers make a run at the No. 1 seed he'll be in the conversation.
- Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics: The Celtics are a surprise team, and so much of it, from just a narrative standpoint, has been attributed to the influence of Kemba Walker, whose game and personality are both galvanizing forces.
- Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: His numbers are off the charts. He's shooting 42 percent from 3 on over nine attempts a game, which is awesome for anyone but downright ridiculous for a big man. He's protecting the rim and assisting on over 22 percent of the Wolves' made buckets, which is a career high. If the Wolves -- currently 10-9, seventh in the West -- get up into the top-four range, Towns could be a real MVP threat.
- Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers are 15-6 and are still an average team when Embiid isn't on the floor, even with the addition of Al Horford. After being held scoreless for the first time in his career, Embiid recently bounced back with games of 33 points and 16 boards, 27 and 17, and 32 and 11. I think Philly would have to get the No. 1 seed in the East for Embiid to have a real case, but that's not out of the question.
- Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers: I'm putting him on this list because he's been great this season. But unless LeBron gets hurt for an extended period, any success the Lakers have is going to be disproportionately credited to LeBron -- as it should. Davis is not going to win MVP, but he's in the race for DPOY and is having a season that is worthy of being in the MVP discussion.
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