NBA MVP Race: Who’s in the conversation?

We’ve already passed the halfway mark of the regular season, but the 2018-2019 NBA MVP Race remains wide open. Past years have been pretty much just two or three horse races, but the ever-changing landscape of the NBA has opened the door for a hoard of fresh faces to enter the discussion this season.

The questions is: how many players can legitimately be in this MVP conversation?

On the December 20 episode of The Starters on NBA TV, J.E. Skeets put it best when he compared the MVP conversation to most typical group dinner conversations.

He said that groups of 10 or more are often seated on those long tables, making it just too difficult on opposite ends to hear each other. Therefore, a single conversation just doesn’t properly develop. However, a dinner table conversation of about 6 to 7, maybe 8 people tends to have those free-flowing, singular conversations where everyone is involved and together.

It’s honestly a brilliant analogy, and one perfect for this season’s MVP race. So in the spirit of J.E. Skeets’ beautiful analogy, here is my dinner table for 8 of NBA MVP candidates.

Stephen Curry

Stats: 29.4ppg, 5.1rpg, 5.2apg, 1.3spg, 49.1% FG, 45.0% 3PT, 91.3% FT

If the season ended after the first 10 games, Steph Curry would’ve probably walked away with his third MVP award. But as it has many times in his career, the injury bug bit Chef Curry, and he’s been relegated down to the last seat on this dinner table.

But the Warriors still sit at second in the Western Conference, and would probably be miles ahead of the pack had they not gone 5-6 without their Most Valuable Player (yes, I said it, KD stans).

At this point, winning MVP this season may be a pipedream for Steph, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he’s having a monster year. He’s averaging the most points since his second MVP year, and is just a few percentage points away from notching his second 50-45-90 season.

Paul George

Stats: 26.8ppg, 8.0rpg, 4.0apg, 2.2spg, 45.0% FG, 38.4% 3PT, 83.3% FT

It’s nearly unheard that another player on a team that already has one MVP could find himself in the conversation for the MVP award, but that’s just how good Paul George has been on both ends of the court this year.

OKC has figured out the ideal way to deploy PG within their offense, as Westbrook has tempered down enough to properly share the burden with his more efficient teammate. On the other end, George leads the league in defensive win shares, and is the lifeblood behind OKC’s league-leading defense.

PG’s stats just don’t seem to jump off the page, and that, together with his ties to Westbrook, is what’s holding him back from stronger consideration for the MVP award.

Nikola Jokic

Stats: 18.9ppg, 10.1rpg, 7.4apg, 1.5spg, 50.2% FG, 32.3% 3PT, 83.8% FT

While The Joker may not carry the same name value as the rest of the players on this list, he deserves his place here by virtue of being the best player on the Western Conference’s top-seed. Jokic is the only Nuggets player that has started all of their games this year, and has been the steady force driving Denver’s quiet dominance despite what has been an injury-riddled season for his ball club.

His ability to double as a scorer and distributor has allowed the younger players to insert themselves smoothly while veterans like Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton have been in and out of the line-up. If the Nuggets are somehow able to pull away with the number one spot in the West late in the season, Jokic could likewise find himself a major topic of conversation at this table come season’s end.

Joel Embiid

Stats: 26.9ppg, 13.5rpg, 3.5apg, 1.9bpg, 48.4% FG, 29.7% 3PT, 80.5% FT

Since Jimmy Butler has carried over his diva issues to a third team, and Ben Simmons continues to be allergic to three-pointers, the 76ers have suddenly found themselves facing a ton of big questions. But if Elton Brand and the rest of the Sixers are smart, they should know that they have one absolute certainty: Joel Embiid is the star of this team.

Take a look at those statistics again, then remember that Embiid has only played 134 games in his entire NBA career. That’s less than two full seasons. It’s no wonder The Process has drawn deserved comparisons to Shaq in terms of dominance on the court.

Considering their talent, The Sixers may not be turning as many heads as people thought. But Embiid is the biggest reason that they continue to have one of the highest upsides in the entire league. The Process could still find himself hoisting up that MVP trophy should Philly find a way to put it all together in the second half of the season.

LeBron James

Stats: 27.3ppg, 8.3rpg, 7.1apg, 1.3spg, 51.8% FG, 35.6% 3PT, 68.2% FT

Anyone who isn’t an irrational Lakers fan that thought they would start 18-11 is probably joking.

Anyone who says that the Lakers’ success is mostly due to the positive development of their young players, and not because of the arrival of the (self-proclaimed?) Greatest Player of All-Time, is just flat out wrong.

LeBron James is simply doing LeBron James things once again, elevating an entire team in a way that no other player in the league truly can.

The injury he suffered on Christmas Day was one of the few times in his career that he has looked mortal, and it’s no surprise that the Lakers have gone 2-5 since. He’ll still be out a few more games, but if the Lakers turn the corner again when he returns, The King might just reclaim his rightful seat at head of the table for the first time since ‘12-’13.

Kawhi Leonard

Stats: 27.3ppg, 8.3rpg, 7.1apg, 1.3spg, 51.8% FG, 35.6% 3PT, 68.2% FT

It’s been refreshing to see Kawhi healthy and back on the floor, albeit with a new team located north of the border. Despite practically missing an entire year, Kawhi has not missed a beat, reclaiming his spot as the league’s best two-way player through plays like this.

The several missed games in the beginning of the year have hurt Kawhi’s stock, and his chances could be hampered all the more in the event that the Raptors rest him late in the season. His under-the-radar personality will also damage his odds, much like it did in ‘16-’17 when he placed third (he had my vote!).

But if the Raptors somehow manage to win 60 games this year in a season where it’s looking like no team may even hit the 60-win mark, Leonard could sneak his way into his first MVP award.

James Harden

Stats: 33.7ppg, 5.9rpg, 8.7apg, 2.0spg, 43.6% FG, 38.6% 3PT, 85.1% FT

This time last month, James Harden was probably not even invited to this dinner. But Harden’s just such a regular member of this barkada that he found his way back onto the invite list by having one of the most historic runs in NBA history.

In his last 13 games, James Harden has averaged an insane 40.2 points per game, with Houston going 11-2 in that span. He’s nearly single-handedly lifted Houston from 14th place on December 11th to a tie for 4th, as Chris Paul and Eric Gordon have been sidelined with injuries. Depth has been the biggest qualm for Houston, and Harden’s hot streak has taken place despite the fact that the next best scorers on his team are:

– Clint Capela, the main beneficiary of his assists
– Austin Rivers, who has played a grand total of 6 games with Houston.

Harden has the narrative, the statistics, the shining moment, and the definite desire to win the award (as seen by the “two-time” declarations he mouthed after hitting the game-winner in Golden State). The biggest knock on Harden is Voter’s Fatigue, as some will likely be opposed to him winning back-to-back MVPs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Stats: 26.6ppg, 12.6rpg, 6.0apg, 1.3spg, 1.6bpg 58.3% FG, 16.9% 3PT, 69.5% FT

I have Giannis slightly edging out Harden for the King’s Seat at this point, largely due to his and the Bucks’ consistency throughout the season. The spread out system implored by Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer has allowed for Giannis to roam free, and no one in the league can come close to stopping The Greek Freak’s mix of physicality and athleticism.

The only thing really that’s been missing for Giannis to really cement himself as the outright favorite for MVP has been the lack of a signature moment. Harden, Steph and even LeBron have had their signature games already this year, and it just feels like Giannis is due for the one special performance in a marquee game.

However, securing a sexy signature moment may be a little more difficult for Giannis, who plays like a bulldozer due to his severe lack of a jumpshot. It doesn’t seem as likely that his moment will come as some crazy game winning basket. But if he can somehow muster some type of 45-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist performance in a road win over say, the Celtics, we should see our first European MVP since Dirk in ‘06-’07.