Indiana’s Aspirations Could Require More Help

For most teams, the 2019-20 NBA regular season is but six or seven games old. That said, it’s never too early for a player to put their name in the ring for some end-of-the-season, non-championship hardware.

In fact, the race to Most Valuable Player has already seemed to have established itself.

Giannis Antetokounmpo started the season as the favorite at +300 odds and maintains that position with +250 odds coming from Caesars Sportsbook in Las Vegas. Stephen Curry started the season in a close second with +600 odds to win but has seen his odds for the award plummet in the past week after sustaining a hand injury that will force him to be out for at least 3 months. Despite the season being fairly young, there has been a lot of movement in the race for the regular-season award, including the rise of Paskal Siakam, now in the MVP conversation with Las Vegas odds of +5000.

Front Runners:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+250)

Notwithstanding the Milwaukee Bucks’ slow start, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominant play has kept him in the conversation to repeat as MVP this season.

Already averaging a career-high in assists (7.4) and rebounds (14) per game, Antetokounmpo is now shooting three-pointers more consistently. In his first game against the Raptors since their Game 6 loss last postseason, Antetokounmpo played his best game of the year. Antetokounmpo dropped 36 points and had 15 rebounds in the 115-105 Milwaukee win, saying he was “motivated” by the match up after they fell to the eventual NBA champions.

Antetokounmpo can impact the game on either side of the court, which swayed many voters to pick him over James Harden, who averaged a league-best 30.7 points per game, last season. He has shown continued commitment to defense by averaging 1.8 blocks per game, which is a trait that only two other MVP candidates can hang their hat on: Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.

Of course, Antetokounmpo wants to be the first back-to-back MVP since Curry back in 2015-2016; who wouldn’t? Well, the continued development of his offensive game coupled with his dominant defensive play should make Antetokounmpo a strong candidate to accomplish that feat.

James Harden (+350)

James Harden, at 36.6 points per contest, has unsurprisingly led the league in scoring.

Meanwhile, as last season’s MVP, Antetokounmpo, isn’t even on the top-10 scoring leader board.

Harden is the outright isolation possession leader through seven games at 15 isolation plays per game, but he has coupled that with a three-point percentage of just 25.3 percent. At first glance, his polarizing offensive style requires him to dominate the ball and comes at the expense of integrating new teammate Russell Westbrook, though, who, despite Harden’s dominant playstyle, has posted several impressive box scores.

Harden has also capitalized the most out of any other player in those iso-situations, scoring 12 points per game in isolation. The usage rate leader of last season, Harden is one of the few players to rank above Anthony Davis in the category at 38.2 percent.

Harden’s start to this season has been very rocky, as he hit just 10 of his first 42 field goal attempts. However, he has been vintage Harden since; Harden put up 40 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and racked up 59 in an epic duel with Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards. The main question will be if Harden can shore up the inconsistencies he dealt with to start the year, and whether his play will help the Rockets be successful during the regular season.

Anthony Davis (+600)

Anthony Davis has averaged 28.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.7 assists through his first six games of the 2019-2020 season. That’s 3 points and 1 rebound per game more than the reigning MVP, Antetokounmpo. His three blocks per game lead the NBA and he’s been excellent at the free-throw line, converting 88.3 percent of his attempts and missing just once from the stripe in his last three games.

Davis’s season has been headlined by a performance that included 40 points, 20 rebounds in 3 quarters against the Memphis Grizzlies, planting him firmly at the forefront of the early-season MVP discussion. The 26-year-old is already a 6-time All-Star and playing alongside LeBron James has helped him improve on both ends of the floor, without the added pressure of carrying the whole of his team’s burden.

With Davis having established himself as a primary scoring option and defensive leader for Los Angeles, the Lakers have started strong with a 5-1 record. He has led the Lakers to a winning streak of five games after dropping their regular-season opener 112-102 to the Los Angeles Clippers. If the Lakers end the season as one of the top teams in a competitive Western Conference, and Davis is the primary reason for that success, look for him to be a top candidate to win the MVP award.

Outside Looking In:

Kawhi Leonard (+800) –

After leaving Toronto this summer, Leonard realized that he needed to focus on improving his passing ability in order to become more of a well-rounded player. Even though the Clippers have a deep bench with solid role players that can defend, they do not have a point guard that can manage the game as Toronto had with Kyle Lowery.

In response to this, Leonard has taken over the offense for the Clippers. He has doubled his assists from last year, going from 3.3 to 5.7 assists per game. Leonard, despite that extra offensive burden, has maintained his exceptional scoring efficiency as well; against another former team, the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard dropped 38 points, 12 rebounds while he shot 48 percent from the field.

Leonard has claimed to be the healthiest he has been in the past two seasons, after sustaining a serious quad injury in San Antonio that cost him an entire season and led to his eventual title run in Toronto. But, despite claiming to be in great health, Leonard will still lose games to “load management” and has already missed one game to start the season. It remains to be seen how often Leonard will be sidelined, but frequent absences certainly won’t help the 28-year-old superstar win any award, save for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Lebron James (+1000)

Whatever you do, please do not tell LeBron James that he’s 34 years old. Nor that he’s in year 17 of his career.

Many suggested during the off-season that James was “washed” or “over the hill.” But, after back-to-back triple-doubles against the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, James has silenced many of his critics. Of course, so far along in his career, it natural for questions to arise after last year’s groin injuries.

But, unfortunately for those critics, a 34-year old James posted an incredible 39 point, 16 assist, 12 rebound performance against a young Mavericks squad.

Of course, we’re only 6 games into the Lakers season, but, after his first offseason actually off for the first time in more than a decade, James has looked revitalized. With averages of 25.5 points, 11.2 assists, and 8 rebounds per game, proving that he is still the same, dominant James when it comes to his on-court ability.

The real question will be how James progresses through the season and whether he can continue his current level of play. He will certainly take games off during the regular season to ‘load manage,’ ala Leonard, which could hurt him in the award race. But, if he can sustain his play (and play enough), he could certainly prove another strong candidate for MVP.

Dark Horse:

Pascal Siakam (+5000) Siakam, who signed a four-year, $130 million extension with the Raptors last month, has averaged 26 points and 8.5 rebounds through six games. Given this early impact, Siakam is one of the biggest early risers. His odds have shot up to 40-1 from initial longshots odds listed at 100-1. Through his leadership, the Toronto Raptors have picked up right where they left off last season as one of the hardest-playing teams in the league starting the season with a 4-2 record.

Siakam has progressed in almost every game. But, during the Raptors’ latest loss to the Bucks, he floundered against Antetokounmpo due to foul trouble, something that has proven an issue having already fouled out of two games and having five fouls in two of Toronto’s other six. Regardless of the foul woes, Siakam ranks 12th in the NBA in scoring with 26.0 points per game, a significant improvement from his average last season of 16.9.

Without Leonard, many cast the Raptors out of the Eastern Conference elite. But, if the Raptors end up with one of the best records by the end of the season, it’ll be because of Siakam’s play and his leadership, both of which could prove a boon to his MVP chances.

Of course, take note of the small sample size qualifier; given more time, these rankings are subject to change over the course of the season. That said, these six have stood out from the crowd, and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Make sure to stay tuned for the rest of the Basketball Insiders award watches, and keep on the lookout for future updates throughout the season.

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