THE NBA IS GROWING MORE AND MORE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT CONTINUING ITS 2019–20 SEASON, but we’re pressing on with 2020 NBA awards season just in case. Even if we do get a few more regular season games, they shouldn’t affect the major award races at this point, especially with all the Coronavirus complications thrown in.
Today we come to the biggest award of them all, the Most Valuable Player. That’s the one we track all year, the one we etch into players’ Hall of Fame plaques when it’s all said and done. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP, but he was pushed all season long by LeBron James, Luka Doncic, James Harden, and others. Did any of them do enough to wrest his crown away?
It’s time for our final 2020 NBA MVP ladder, counting down the candidates from 10 down to one…
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TIER IV — THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
10. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Who could have ever expected this season from CP3?
Chris Paul played all but one Thunder game and was the steady leader of a clear playoff team from Day 1. This was a different CP3 than the dominant one of old, a more egalitarian Chris that shared the usage with his teammates even while leading the charge. The numbers themselves aren’t particularly dazzling: 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game. On sheer counting numbers, this was probably Paul’s worst season; he’s literally had 11 better individual seasons. But he was as efficient as ever and led this team to within a game of home-court advantage in a loaded West, and that matters.
The truth is that Oklahoma City was more balanced than you think. Danilo Gallinari had another All-Star caliber offensive season, and Steven Adams was good as ever. Those three all cleared 60% true shooting. Sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the team in scoring. Add in 19ppg off the bench for Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder and this was a team effort more than The CP3 Show. And it turned out to be just as beautiful.
9. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
The Heat rose early and began to crest as the season faded toward its evening, but Butler was the constant that drove this team’s fight all year. This is Jimmy Butler at his best: as the big fish in a small pond, dragging the seventh best team in the NBA to a spirited second-round out.
Earlier this season, you could have made a case for Bam Adebayo as this team’s MVP, but the Heat actually finished with the #6 offense and #12 defense, and who could have ever guessed this team would have such a strong offensive output? Credit Miami for using Bam as a hub and turning Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn into real NBA players, but Butler was the engine that drove the offense, while also playing his best defense in years. This was the Jimmy Butler Miami pushed all their chips into the middle to get.
As we wrap up the honorable mention section, four others deserve a mention. Bam Adebayo is a worthy mention along with Butler. Jayson Tatum busted out as a bona fide superstar and probably fights his way into the top 10 if the season plays out. Ben Simmons carried the Sixers in Joel Embiid’s absence and was probably the more valuable defender this year, but Embiid was still the better player. And before Rudy Gobert became a punchline, he was a one-man defense who kept the Jazz right in the thick of the race as the offense figured itself out.
They’re the only other names I gave real consideration to for the top 10. Toronto was a balanced team effort without a true MVP candidate, and that’s a compliment, not a diss. Their deserving award winner is a coach.
TIER III — BALLOT-WORTHY IN A LOADED YEAR
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
I adore Dame Time, one of my five favorite current players to watch, and fully expected to push for his case as the last spot on a five-man MVP ballot, but there are just too many strong cases this season. All three guys in this tier are ballot-worthy most years, but this time they come up short.
For Lillard, he’s the only non-playoff man in the top 10, and that’s the problem in the end. And that’s not really his fault. Portland was a two-man effort (and the second man doesn’t have the initials C.J. either) and two men ain’t enough in the West.
There was a two-week stretch around late January when Lillard was the hottest man on a basketball court. Over six games, Dame scored 48.8 points a game on an absurd 75% true shooting — not a typo. One of those games was a 36-point triple-double, and that was definitely his worst outing of the six. Unfortunately, that was the last gas in Lillard’s tank. He ran out of steam and sputtered toward the finish line, missing six games along the way.
Lillard still led the league in offensive win shares and offensive box plus-minus, but with Portland at 29–37, there are just too many worthier names.
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
You’re going to argue that Leonard belongs in the top five, and I get it. There’s a fair argument that Kawhi Leonard was the second best player in the NBA this season. But this is not the Best Basketball Player award — it’s Most Valuable. And you have to play to be valuable.
Kawhi played only 51 of 64 games, and only 32 minutes a game when he was out there. And some of those notes were pretty mailed in, saving himself for the playoffs. And that’s OK!! We don’t have to go back more than 11 months to find out why you do that. You just don’t get to do that and also win regular season MVP, that’s all. Kawhi played 1643 minutes this season. That ranks 97th in the NBA, just between Jarrett Allen, Tony Snell, and Bruce Brown.
Sorry, but you don’t get to be Most Valuable if you don’t provide enough value on the court. The Clippers were coasting to the playoffs on the strength of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench and a deep roster as much as anything else. And that’s perfectly fine. It just means you’re not the MVP.
6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Who has the better supporting cast, Kawhi Leonard or Nikola Jokic? And if that answer is such a landslide, then why did the Nuggets finish just one win back of the Clippers in the standings? It’s because Jokic provided more value to his team, of course.
Jokic sputtered out of the gates and everyone sort of moved on, but from December 6 forward, he put up 21, 10, and 7 on 64% true shooting on 123 offensive rating, and he’s the only reason the Nuggets are even in the playoffs, let alone with home-court advantage. That’s back-to-back top-three seeds in a loaded West with one All-Star on the roster. It’s time to put some respeck on Nikola Jokic’s name.
TIER II — THE WORTHY RUNNERS UP
5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Davis is the one player who finishes much higher on this list than I would’ve guessed before digging into things. I would’ve probably guessed something like #8, not really in the race. After all, how high can you finish in an MVP race if you’re not even the most valuable player on your own team?
The answer is pretty darn high, and NBA history tells us so. And so does the rest of the Lakers roster. Who was the third best player on the Lakers this season? Most of the metrics suggest JaVale McGee as the answer. JAVALE MCGEE. Your other options are a bad Danny Green season, washed youth pastor Alex Caruso, an underratedly horrid Kyle Kuzma campaign, or retreads like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dwight Howard. If you take Bron and Brow off this roster, do they even win 10 games?
What happens if you take just Anthony Davis off? Don’t we already have out answer to that question? Last year’s Lakers went 37–45 and missed the playoffs altogether. They got less LeBron but also had a far better supporting cast. Now Anthony Davis shows up and the team coasts to a 1-seed and not far off the Bucks at the top of the league.
Davis’s metrics are a touch behind LeBron overall, and James led the team in minutes, so the answer for Team MVP is clear. Davis was the better defender and a legit DPOY candidate. LeBron was better and clearly more valuable on offense, and I’d argue they needed more help on that end. Davis finishes the season top five in PER, both offensive and defensive win shares, BPM, and VORP on the second best team in the league. That’s a ballot-worthy season.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
A full list of men who have averaged 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists on 57% true shooting over an NBA season:
Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Larry Bird. Oscar Robertson. James Harden.
This is the 10th such season in NBA history, and we haven’t even manipulated the numbers in Luka’s favor. Doncic cleared all of those numbers with ease at 28.7/9.3/8.7 on 58.4%. Raise the bar to those numbers and it’s just him and one Oscar season. AND HE WAS TWENTY!!!
This was an ungodly Doncic season and one of the best two seasons ever by someone who couldn’t even legally drink. Dallas finished with the #1 offense, not just in the NBA but in league history, and with Doncic almost the sole reason for it. In the end, Doncic fizzled a bit toward the end and missed 13 games, and the Mavs went 6–7 without him and slid to the 7-seed. Luka will have to wait another day. But his day is coming.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron isn’t this year’s MVP, and I don’t think he’s the runner up either. And the argument against his candidacy was just a few paragraphs up. Anthony Davis was almost as valuable as LeBron this year, which means James had by far the second best banana in the NBA. When you have two of the five best, most valuable players in an NBA season, you probably should in fact be a top-two team on a 64-win pace.
There’s no argument here against LeBron’s greatness. He was wonderful this season and it was great to see him bringing it every night out again, and on both ends of the court. LeBron led the league in assists, but that was really the only place he showed up on the counting number leaderboards. He ranked fourth in BPM and third in VORP, and he was outside the top 10 in PPG.
LeBron was awesome! But those are definitely not MVP numbers, even more so when you have a guy like Anthony Davis as 1b on the team. This is a case where two other guys did just as much or more with far less help, and where two Lakers are deserving of a spot on the MVP ballot but neither should be at the top.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Somehow, we’ve already forgotten what an absurd season James Harden just completed. Only five men in history have averaged more PPG than Harden did this season. His 34.4ppg ranks 16th all time, and he added 7+ assists a game and did it on 62% true shooting. Harden led the league in scoring, OBPM, and VORP. In a league of booming offense, he was the best offensive player.
And the crazy thing is he did all that even after slowing way down in 2020.
Through 39 games, Harden was averaging 37.8ppg on 65% true shooting. That would’ve been by far the most efficient volume scoring season in NBA history. He was making 5.1 threes a game, on pace to break Stephen Curry’s record of 402 threes in a season. And 39 games is a lot! That’s almost half a normal season and closer to two-thirds of this season.
After that Harden slowed down, but he did so by design because Russell Westbrook was finally contributing. Over the rest of the season, Harden averaged “only” 28.7ppg as he finally got some help. Westbrook was good for about six weeks this season. Harden had virtually no help the rest of the year, and he dragged this roster to 40 wins anyway and the #2 offense. He was basically a better, higher volume version of Luka Doncic, somehow.
Harden had 19 40-point games this season, fifth most in the last 40 years — and didn’t even get to play the final 20 games! His five 50-point games had the same distinction. This was the greatest non-MJ scoring season in modern NBA history, and somehow we’ve already forgotten it.
James Harden was every bit as good as LeBron James this year, and he did it with a far, far worse supporting cast. He did it with a cast not much worse than LeBron’s 3 through 15, but without Anthony Davis. So you tell me — is it more impressive to drag Danuel House, Ben McLemore, and the corpse of Eric Gordon to 40–24 or to add Anthony Davis to the mix and get to 49 wins?
I think most people have the wrong James in MVP contention.
James Harden deserves another top-2 MVP finish, his fourth straight such finish. He’d be a more than deserving MVP in many if not most past seasons.
TIER I — THE ONLY CLEAR WINNER
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo was by far the best player on both ends of the court for by far the best team in the NBA. That’s as open and shut of an MVP case as there is. It’s not even a conversation, and it’s so obvious and boring that we spent our year trying to talk ourselves into alternate candidates just for something to talk about: first Harden, then Doncic, then LeBron.
In the end, it was always Giannis. He finished top three in both points and rebounds per game and barely even needed 30 minutes a game to do it. Antetokounmpo finished 73rd in minutes per game. That was an argument against Kawhi Leonard above, but in the Greek Freak’s case, he was so good in those minutes that the Bucks didn’t even need him for the other 18.
Despite that lack of high-end minutes, Giannis finished top-2 in the NBA in PER, win shares, both OBPM and DBPM, and VORP. He was one of the five most valuable offensive players in the league and the Defensive Player of the Year. He anchored the best team in the NBA with one of the best defenses in modern history, and he did it all without anyone else on his roster even sniffing a top-10 MVP ladder.
Typically, a Box Plus-Minus around 5.0 is All-NBA worthy, while anything north of 7.0 puts you in the MVP race. Doncic and the two Lakers finished this season in the 8s. Harden and Kawhi tied for second in BPM at 9.0. And then Giannis absolutely demolished them all at 11.5 BPM. This was not just a great, clear MVP season. By Box Plus-Minus, it was a top-10 NBA season all time.
Sometimes, in the end, the most obvious answer is also the right one.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is your 2019–20 NBA MVP. ■