As we approach the All-Star break, most teams are getting close to playing 50 games, more than half the season. That isn’t to say the MVP race is over, but the playoffs are starting to take an element of shape, and it would take a dramatic change to see anyone catching the Greek Freak – in which case: who is jostling for position to make that run at the MVP award?
1: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak has probably been in cruise control for the past week or so, and still he leads the chasing pack in this MVP race. His contribution on the season has been too big so far.
But even in this more relaxed two week stretch, during which he took one game off, and his team played a majority of games against fairly weak opponents, Giannis Antetokounmpo has not scored fewer than 28 or grabbed fewer than 12 rebounds in the past five games.
The Milwaukee Bucks had a rare loss at home against the Denver Nuggets in the past few days, but aside from that, the team could still win 70 games this season and run the Eastern Conference ragged. And it’s largely because of Antetokounmpo.
2 LeBron James
It’s not been an easy week for LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers. Given everything they have gone through, it’s worth giving the team a pass for being overwhelmed by emotion in their first game back since Kobe Bryant died tragically. They were also bowled over by Damian Lillard.
But James has still been excellent. Against the Sacramento Kings, his shot wasn’t falling, so instead he impacted the game by grabbing 10 boards and dishing out 11 assists to go with his 15 points.
James reaches his athletic peak a few years ago, but he still finds the game so easy, and his ability to impact it in different ways might end up being overlooked when he becomes the league’s all-time leading scorer, but it’s a joy to watch right now.
3 Pascal Siakam
The Toronto Raptors have been up against it. Not only did they lose their best player and a key rotation wing after winning the championship last summer, the team has also been decimated by injuries to the point where the league has already started etching Nick Nurse’s name on the Coach Of The Year trophy.
But sitting second in a competitive Eastern Conference playoff race this year requires more than just good coaching. While he’s been in and out of the line-up with health issues, Pascal Siakam has firmly established himself as the go-to talent in this team, offensively and defensively.
He still needs to work on consistency, but there will be nights where he is the reason the Raptors won, just like against the San Antonio Spurs, when Siakam scored 35 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.
When fully healthy, he is the player who can lead a good team, but occasionally, with several teammates out, the extra attention makes life harder for him. If he can take that next step and perform night-in, night-out, on a Giannis-like level, an MVP trophy might not be out of question in future seasons.
4 Damian Lillard
The Portland Trail Blazers might not have the win-loss record required for their best player to appear on an MVP candidates list, but due to injuries, bad stretches and Damian Lillard’s ridiculous performances in the past two weeks, he simply cannot he refused a spot.
Dame Dolla is averaging 48 points over the past six games, five of them wins. He kept his focus on the emotional first night back at Staples Center for the LA Lakers after Kobe Bryant’s death, and he followed it up by increasing his scoring output against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Lillard cannot be stopped. And he will not be left off this list.
5 Jimmy Butler
There was a queue of players that could have nabbed this spot. Luka Dončić is out with an injury, Anthony Davis has played well since returning from his but wasn’t good enough, James Harden is getting back to form but you can’t ignore the dip. All of those leaves Jimmy Butler.
The Miami Heat guard has had a rough shooting performance from beyond the arc in recent weeks, but he has still managed to get the job done, in part thanks to his defensive brilliance. He has scored at least 20 points in five of his past six games, and went off against the Philadelphia 76ers for 38 points and 7 rebounds in an easy win over. The team has dropped some clangers, in recent weeks but only against good teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and the Boston Celtics.
Butler is still leading the Heat while they battle for the second seed in the playoffs. It won’t be easy, he has inspired the talent around him to play up to his level, and it’s working.