With the All-Star break behind us and games set to resume Thursday night, the stretch run of the NBA season is upon us. Now the races get real. The chase for playoff spots, for playoff seeds and certainly for the 2019-20 MVP award, which is far from decided, all kick into a higher gear. It might be realistically down to two players, however.
At this point, barring a serious injury, anyone other than LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo winning the award would be a shock. It's not entirely out of the question, as their are a handful of great players having great seasons on teams still within range of a narrative-shifting stretch run. But don't bet on it. Or at least not a lot.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the top five MVP candidates coming out of the All-Star break.
The Bucks are on pace to win 70-plus games with a better net rating than the 73-win 2015-16 Warriors. Giannis, second in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, is posting career highs in points (30) and rebounds (13.5) per game. He's the only player in the league ranked in the top five of both categories.
And he does it on both ends. The fact that Giannis is the front-runner for MVP might be the only reason he doesn't win Defensive Player of the Year. He is the nucleus around which everything the Bucks' top-rated defense does. Ultimately, the "best player on the best team" logic still applies here, but LeBron is, or at least should be, right on Antetokounmpo's heels.
The Lakers are five games clear of the Nuggets for the top seed out West, and LeBron -- no disrespect to Anthony Davis -- has been the main reason for their success all season. James, ranked No. 1 by an appreciable margin in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus -- is still leading the league in assists while also chipping in 25 points per game. Individually, his 8.5 plus-minus mark for the season is third in the league, behind Giannis and fellow Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton.
In fact, it's telling that there are five Bucks players in the top 10 of that metric, while the only other Lakers player in the top 30 is Danny Green. LeBron is carrying a massive load on a Los Angeles team more flawed than James -- and Davis, to be sure -- makes it appear.
As far as LeBron and Davis potentially splitting votes in the way Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry likely did for three years with the Warriors, LeBron is clearly the Lakers' most important player. When he sits, they are 13.8 points per 100 possessions worse. By far, that is the biggest swing any MVP candidate is responsible for on his team.
Harden has, relatively speaking, cooled off from the ridiculous pace he was keeping through December. Over the last couple months, he's averaging 29 points per game on 40 percent shooting, including 29 percent from 3. He's still leading the league at 35.3 points per game for the season. Don't lose sight of what a ridiculous number that is, volume notwithstanding.
And here's the thing: The Rockets could be in position to make a really entertaining post-All-Star run with this small-ball madness. Russell Westbrook has been playing MVP-level basketball himself since the calendar turned to January, and Houston is just three games back of Denver for the No. 2 seed. If they were to make a run and Harden were to heat back up, while I don't think he has a chance to surpass LeBron, his MVP attention would soar once again.
The buzz around Luka Doncic has also cooled as the Mavericks have fallen to No. 7 in West (tied with No. 6 OKC in the loss column), but most of that is just because he missed seven games leading into the All-Star break. Dallas is still 7-3 in the last 10 games Luka has played, and besides that, they weren't supposed to be this good this season.
The reality is Luka probably set the bar a little too high for himself when he had the Mavericks looking like one of the best teams in the West for a good chunk of the season. They're still outperforming all preseason expectations with the league's sixth-best net rating. They're still a historically dominant offense, No. 1 in the league by a good distance over the Lakers, and it's almost entirely because of Doncic, who is sixth overall in scoring, third in assists and remains the only player in the league averaging at least 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
Dallas is only two games back of the Rockets for the No. 5 seed. If they were to jump back up in the standings to at least that spot, and certainly if they were to crack into the top four (not likely, but possible), Doncic would be right near the top of this list.
Quietly, Leonard is averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds per game, and his 89 percent shooting from the foul line is also the best of his career. If he hadn't already missed 13 games, which is a number that could easily approach 20 by the end of the season, he'd be higher on this list.
But he's still climbing for now. Over the last month, Kawhi is averaging over 30 points per game on better that 48 percent shooting and 42 percent 3-point shooting. The Clippers -- despite the fact that Paul George has not been great -- are only one game back of the Nuggets for the No. 2 seed in the West and could be primed to take off with their recent additions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson.
Worthy of discussion
- Nikola Jokic: He's been playing MVP-level ball for a long time now and the Nuggets are rising. I could easily see him jumping all the way to the No. 3 spot by the time votes are cast.
- Damian Lillard: He's probably having the best season of his career, and it is crazy that we can't realistically include him in the MVP conversation unless the Blazers find a way to crack into the playoffs.
- Anthony Davis: As mentioned above, Davis has been fantastic and would be an MVP candidate on any other team. But it's clear LeBron is the guy with the Lakers. If you can't beat out your own teammate, you're not going to win the award.
- Jimmy Butler: He's the main reason the Heat might be the biggest surprise team of the season, but the numbers just aren't there to put him in the top-tier of candidates.