All NBA teams have played more than 20 games in the 82-game regular season, so it’s time to hand out quarter-season awards for Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player and best sixth man, rookie and coach:
1a. LeBron James, Lakers | 1b. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks | 1c. Luka Doncic, Mavericks | 1d. James Harden, Rockets
There’s no definitive MVP through a quarter of the season because there are four equally deserving candidates.
LeBron James is on a mission to prove his critics wrong with his #WashedKing tour. He has the Lakers out to a 21-3 start and is controlling each game’s tempo, manipulating defenses and closing out opponents in fourth quarters.
In his 17th season, James has turned himself into the league’s best point guard, averaging an NBA-best 10.8 assists. At Anthony Davis’ request, he has recommitted himself on the defense and has a plus-14 net rating –- his best since his final season with the Heat. Oh, and he’s still averaging 25.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. James’ name is littered throughout the leaderboards of just about every advanced analytics category too. He has the top assist percentage and is in the top-six of player efficiency rating, win shares, box score plus/minus and value above replacement.
After winning his first career MVP award last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is even better this season. He has increased his scoring from 27.7 to 30.9 points per game and his rebounding from 12.5 to 13.2. He’s still dishing out 5.4 assists per game as well. This is all in only 31.6 minutes a night! On defense, Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares. Oh, and the Bucks are 21-3, tied with the Lakers for best NBA record.
One more fun Giannis stat: If the season ended today, his 33.8 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) would shatter the season record (31.8) set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63, when he averaged 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds.
Luka Doncic also has a legitimate shot at the top PER ever — he’s at 31.6. Few players have made a second-year leap as Doncic has. He has increased his scoring by 8.8 points, assists by 3.2 and rebounds by 2.0 per game. Although he is only 20, Doncic is putting up 30.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game. He also leads the NBA in triple-doubles (7), box score plus/minus and value over replacement.
Doncic plays like a more fun version of James Harden, running spread pick-and-rolls and isolations to near perfection. After playing a hybrid forward-guard position as a rookie, the Mavericks have turned him into a full-time point guard, which is evident by the increase in his usage rate (30.5 to 36.7). If he improves his three-point accuracy (32 percent) and keeps Dallas neat the top of the West (currently third), he could become the youngest MVP in league history.
Speaking of James Harden, if you thought his MVP candidacy last season was polarizing, get ready for some serious drama this spring, especially if he averages 40 points a game (he’s at 38.5). I recently wrote about the sheer statistical absurdity of Harden’s 2019-20 season. Whether you enjoy watching Harden hunt fouls and exploit efficiency loopholes or not (I hate it), he’s going to earn MVP consideration if he averages the most points since Chamberlain in the 1960s.