As Christmas Day approaches and the NBA standings begin to take shape after the first third of the season, the race for end-of-season awards is heating up.
The battle for MVP is as wide open as it’s been in recent seasons with a host of players putting together worthy campaigns, so we’ve got you covered with our top five.
A few players who deserve mention:
- DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
- Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
- Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
- LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
DeRozan narrowly missed out on joining the top five after his blistering start to the season, while missed games for Butler and James have them on the outside looking in.
5. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
His stats don’t necessarily jump off the page, but Paul is the engine to one of the best teams in the league and impacts the most important part of the game: winning.
With a league-leading 10.1 assists per game to go along with 14.5 points, Paul is giving shades of a former Suns point guard who picked up a couple of MVP trophies in Steve Nash.
After leading the Suns to a franchise-best 18-game win streak, Paul is quietly going about his business and has the Suns hot on the heels of the Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
In typical CP3 fashion, he’s making a difference at the end of games and is among the top 20 in clutch scoring this season. Paul ranks first in field goal percentage in those situations, knocking down a ridiculous 60.9 percent of shots in games within five points in the final five minutes.
Playing alongside Devin Booker will make it tough for CP3 to win the award with the duo sharing so much of the team’s offensive responsibilities, but at this point in the season, I don’t think there have been more than four players better than Paul.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The defending champs have somehow slipped under the radar this season and despite their team being ravaged by injuries, Antetokounmpo has kept them afloat, sitting at 19-11 with the fifth-best record in the league.
Across their last 20 games, the Bucks are 15-5. And with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in and out of the lineup, along with the lengthy absence of Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo has been a driving force in keeping their season on track, playing swiss army knife for the Bucks, filling in at center, creating offense and doing just about everything for his team.
He is currently second in the league in scoring (27.0), sixth in rebounding (11.6), 12th in blocks (1.6) and among frontcourt players, only Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are averaging more assists (5.8) than the Greek Freak.
The Bucks’ slow start to the season put his MVP campaign on the back foot, but the way he’s played over the past few weeks has him right back in the conversation.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
ESPN’s Zach Lowe gave an impassioned plea for Jokic’s MVP case this week and while the Nuggets’ 14-14 record doesn’t exactly blow you out of the water, the reigning MVP’s level of play certainly does.
Leading an injury-ravaged Nuggets team, Jokic is putting together a historic season, even better than the one that earned him MVP honors in 2020-21.
Nikola Jokic last 5 games:
27 PTS | 10 REB | 11 AST | 69 FG%
28 PTS | 19 REB | 9 AST | 64 FG%
35 PTS | 17 REB | 8 AST | 63 FG%
22 PTS | 13 REB | 10 AST | 42 FG%
39 PTS | 11 REB | 11 AST | 74 FG% pic.twitter.com/rgbykqakO1
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 16, 2021
Through 26 games, he is fifth in the league in scoring (26.6), second in rebounding (11.2) and 10th in assists (7.5) — the only non-point guard in the top 10. His efficiency while doing so has been next level, connecting on 58.8 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from the 3-point line.
All that combined puts him on track to have the highest Player Efficiency Rating (35.0) in NBA history.
With him on the floor, the Nuggets are a good team. Without him, they’re close to terrible. If that doesn’t scream MVP, I’m not sure what else does.
Nuggets have outscored teams by 13.4 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court. They are -15.7 with him off.
That 29.1 difference is by far the biggest in the NBA (Giannis is 2nd with 22.5).
Nikola Jokic, by this definition, is the most valuable player this season. pic.twitter.com/98Q6J3SkG6
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 12, 2021
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
At the quarter mark of the season, our Sporting News staff unanimously voted Curry as the MVP frontrunner, and while he grabbed the headlines this week, becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made, I’ve got him in second place as of right now… only just.
Curry has arguably been the best show in the league this season, leading the Warriors to a surprising 23-5 record to sit atop the Western Conference, but he has had some ups and downs, with four of his 10 worst career shooting performances coming this season.
Having said that, his numbers so far have been absurd, getting up a career-high 13.4 3-pointers a night and connecting on a career-high 5.4 per game. Is the league’s best shooter getting better?
When it comes to MVP, team success matters, and you can’t ignore how Curry has orchestrated the Warriors this season, winning games and making the role players around him better. On top of that, he has been a plus defender this season, ranking third in defensive win shares and fourth in defensive rating, according to Basketball Reference.
He’s not just benefitting from being on the team with the best defense in the league, he’s improved his one-on-one defense as well as in pick-and-roll situations, fighting through screens and taking more responsibility on that end without Klay Thompson in the lineup.
Curry has done more than enough to stand as the MVP favourite, with the exception of one man…
1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have struggled for lineup consistency this season, with Joe Harris sidelined, James Harden still finding his rhythm and the prolonged absence of Kyrie Irving. But through it all, Durant has kept his team at the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 21-8, papering over a lot of their issues with his elite level of play,
Durant is averaging a league-best 29.7 points to go with 7.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from deep.
His 51-point performance against the Pistons gave him the highest-scoring game of the season, eclipsing Curry’s 50-piece in November. Two days later, he dropped a 34-point triple-double to lead the Nets to victory with only eight active players on the roster, followed by a game-winning performance against the 76ers on Thursday night.
It’s the consistency that sets Durant apart this season, scoring 20-plus points in all but one game, and he leads the league for the most 30-point games with 13.
Despite all the injury and health and safety protocol absences that have affected the Nets this season, Durant has anchored them to the sixth-best defense in the league.
“Defense wins games and gives you a little more of a leash on the offensive side,” Durant said. “If we play great defense, then we’ve got a little bit more freedom on the offensive end. It starts with me as the guy that sets the tone on both sides of the ball, so I try to do that as much as possible.”
As it stands, I think the MVP will ultimately come down to a battle between Curry and Durant. And while there’s still plenty of ball to be played, both the Nets and Warriors will likely finish in the top three of their respective conferences, setting up what will be a back-and-forth battle for the former teammates.