Nearly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, a hotly-contested and deep MVP race is already shaping up featuring established stars and one rising phenom.
Do recent winners James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have an edge? How do Los Angeles Lakers‘ teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James fit in? And how strong is Luka Doncic‘s case in only his second season with the Dallas Mavericks?
Our NBA experts answer the big questions about the MVP race and what’s next.
1. What do you find most intriguing about the MVP race so far?
Bobby Marks: That Luka Doncic has crashed a party usually reserved for names like Harden, Giannis and LeBron. It’s difficult to describe what the 20-year-old has done one month into the season. He is must-watch TV every night and has turned the Mavericks into a top-six team in the Western Conference.
Kevin Pelton: That no front-runner has emerged nearly a quarter of the way through the season, which suggests we could have a wide-open race like the one in 2017 when four different players received first-place votes.
Brian Windhorst: The depth of it. Despite injuries to a couple of legitimate candidates — namely Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — there are four or five players who could make a claim as the quarter pole approaches. This was billed as a season of parity and this MVP race has it as well.
Tim MacMahon: That a 20-year-old must be included in a conversation that features a few former MVPs who are playing at ridiculously high levels. It’s astonishing to see how consistently dominant Doncic is at such a young age. I mean, the kid had a 41-6-10 line in a road rout of a West contender, and it was maybe his third- or fourth-most impressive performance last week.
Jackie MacMullan: Just as there’s no overwhelming favorite for the title this early in the season, there’s not (yet) a runaway candidate for MVP — but not for lack of choices. The usual suspects are in the mix, but it’s refreshing that Doncic, Pascal Siakam and Nikola Jokic are able to even earn consideration for such a hallowed honor. That’s exciting news for the future.
2. Which player with better than +1000 odds has the most difficult path to winning MVP?
Note: That list includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, James Harden and LeBron James
MacMahon: This feels like a four-player race, so that leaves Davis out. If you’re not the most valuable player on your own team, you can’t be the NBA MVP. (Maybe Kawhi Leonard, whose odds are at +1200 at the moment, can crash the party if the Clippers back off his load management and end up with the league’s best record.)
Pelton: Anthony Davis, since he has a teammate ahead of him on this list. As well as Davis has played this season, LeBron has been better, and I think that’s unlikely to change as long as James is healthy.
MacMullan: He’s not close to that top group, but just think if Devin Booker were playing for a contending team with another All-Star veteran to support him. We might be giving him more love here. Booker is averaging 24.8 points, shooting nearly 52% from the field, hitting 95% from the line and dishing out 6.1 assists. He also provides great highlight reels. But after a surprising start, the Suns have lost six of their past 10. And since we NBA fans have short attention spans, we’re already on to other teams.
Marks: I am going to cheat a bit and say Nikola Jokic — who has +2000 odds at the moment — since he was my preseason MVP pick. Jokic has seen a decrease in every statistical category across the board. Unless he strings together a run of triple-doubles and Denver captures the No. 1 seed in the West, it is unlikely Jokic will even finish in the top five.
Windhorst: All of them? Kawhi Leonard — slightly on the outside at +1200 — is probably the only standout option near the top of the list, but he doesn’t seem to have much interest in chasing anything during the regular season.
3. Which dark horse with worse than +2500 odds has the best chance of rising into the race?
Windhorst: He’s not getting noticed the way he should be, but Pascal Siakam is having a monster season, and the Raptors getting off to such a great start is one of the league’s best stories. But to be honest, even at +5000, I couldn’t in good conscience suggest any sort of real bet.
MacMahon: The short, honest answer: None. For the sake of discussion, I’ll go with Siakam, last season’s Most Improved Player who has made the leap from really good player on a championship team to superstar centerpiece of a surprise contender. Siakam has developed into a legitimate go-to guy and is a dominant, versatile defender.
MacMullan: That’s easy: Joel Embiid. His odds are sitting exactly at +2500. That feels a little disrespectful. The Sixers aren’t going anywhere, and neither is Embiid. If he stays healthy, makes a big push down the stretch and Philly surges to the top of the East standings, he could gain some serious momentum for MVP. He certainly has the skill set to pull it off.
Marks: Siakam. The forward probably will not even earn All-NBA first team (that will go to Giannis and LeBron), but what Siakam has done is stunning. After the loss of Kawhi Leonard, we thought that Toronto was headed toward more of a fire sale than contention. But even with injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors are 11-4 and Siakam is averaging career highs in minutes (37.1), points (25.7), 3-point percentage (37.4), rebounds (8.4) and assists (4.0).
Pelton: Siakam. If the Raptors can somehow win the East, Siakam will get plenty of MVP consideration, even if it’s unlikely he actually wins the award.
4. Is it more likely we have a first-time MVP or a repeat winner?
MacMullan: A repeat winner. Giannis, LeBron and Harden all land on my top-five MVP list and each has won before. The only player who gives me pause is Kawhi Leonard, but his load management plan keeps him from being considered seriously for this award. MVPs play in big games, regular season or not.
Marks: A repeat winner. With all due respect to what Doncic has done so far, I am not convinced yet that he will continue at this pace all season. One of the big three of Harden, Antetokounmpo and James will end up earning another win.
Windhorst: Doncic is going to be an MVP. I don’t know when. It could happen this season, though I can’t bring myself to expect it. Maybe I’m foolish to think he’ll go through a rough patch or two, but I think that’s headed for Doncic and the Mavs, so this won’t yet be his time. But it’s coming.
Pelton: A repeat winner. Of the top four candidates so far, only Doncic is a first-timer, and I would give him the weakest odds of that group to actually win. As a result, I don’t think this is particularly close.
MacMahon: I’ll go with the collective odds of Antetokounmpo, Harden and James. Antetokounmpo and Harden are both putting up stats that are significantly superior than their recent MVP seasons. James cares about defense again, leads the league in assists, and so far has the “best player on best team” title.
5. Who is your MVP pick based on the season so far, and who do you think will ultimately win the award?
Pelton: I would go with Harden at this point. With teammates starting slowly, Harden has again carried a heavy load for the NBA’s fourth-best offense, and he generates additional value by playing more minutes per game (37.3) than the other top contenders. As far as who will win, I think the answer is whichever of the candidates’ teams finishes with the best record, and right now that looks to be the Bucks and a Giannis repeat.
MacMahon: It would be an agonizing choice right now. Put the top four names in a hat and pull one out, and I’d be fine with it. I’m going to cop out and uncomfortably ride a four-way fence for now. Ultimately, I’d agree with the Vegas odds and say that a Giannis repeat is the safest bet.
MacMullan: My MVP at this moment is Giannis, but LeBron is a close second, with Doncic and Harden in hot pursuit. All four of them are playing remarkable basketball, but Giannis is on pace to post the highest PER in NBA history. He’s scoring, he’s defending with impunity, he’s devouring the boards and he has added a keen sense of playmaking that keeps him a cut above the others, whose sidekicks (Anthony Davis, a rapidly improving Kristaps Porzingis and Russell Westbrook) make their jobs that much easier.
Windhorst: I just can’t pick one player with conviction at the moment. What I do think is that it will be a real race this season and we’ll be discussing it for months.
Marks: Harden. Teams have continually had to devise a game plan for Harden, even going as far as to double-teaming him on nearly every possession. While his efficiency has dropped, Harden is averaging three more free throw attempts per game compared to last season and is hovering right around 38 points per game. If the Rockets can stay in the top four of the West, Harden should have his second MVP in three seasons.