5. Luka Doncic – What would you set the Over/Under at for Luka MVP trophies? 1.5? Is 2.5 crazy? If I had to pick a number I would say he wins 2 regular season MVP awards. Might seem like I am going too low but MVPs are hard to come by. KD only has 1. Kobe and Shaq both only got 1. Luka is Larry Bird meets James Harden. There was an idea around the time of the 2018 NBA draft that yes, Luka was an amazing prospect, but that he didn’t have much room to grow. He was close to a “finished product.” In retrospect that seems ridiculous considering that he was 19 at the time but that was one knock on him. Even when I did the extensive scouting research of watching a few Luka highlight tapes on Youtube I wasn’t 100% sure he was going to be a perennial All-star. I’m loath to admit it but part of me thought … hmmm … maybe he’s just going to be a cross between Hedo Turkoglu and Goran Dragic? To be fair (to myself), that was more an idea of what Luka’s “floor” might look like but there was a part of me that thought there was a chance that’s where he would end up. He didn’t jump off the screen athletically and I thought that maybe he would have trouble driving past the NBA’s best perimeter defenders. So much for that. Here we are, in only Luka’s 2nd season, with him having just recently become old enough to order a drink at the bar, and he’s already one of the best players on Earth. The idea that he’s having the best season ever by a 20 year old isn’t out of the question. The Mavericks have the best offense, by far, in the league. When you watch him play he’s never flustered. Never rushed or out of control. He plays like a 12-year veteran. He’ll never make an All-Defense team but when you consider the load he carries on the offensive end, his defense is perfectly acceptable. I can’t decide whether the nickname Wonder Boy is the coolest or lamest one ever. Nobody really uses it but it is listed on his basketball reference page. Luka and Kristaps, as long as Kristaps’ health holds up, are going to be a force to be reckoned with for the next decade. They are both super easy to build around and the Mavs are one stud wing player away from making serious noise in the Western Conference. Part of me wonders if the Mavericks might suffer the same fate as the first era of the LeBron Cavs. LeBron made the Cavs so good, so soon, that the non-lottery draft picks the team got every year made it tougher to build around LeBron. The Mavericks are a much better organization than the Cavs of course, and the presence of Kristaps on a long term deal, makes me not too worried that the Mavs may get stuck in, “pretty good but not amazing” NBA purgatory. The Mavs are the 7th seed in the West, with a 7.5 game cushion on the 8th seeded Grizzlies, and are only 2 games back of the 4th seeded Jazz. I don’t know too many people who were predicting the Mavs would be in contention for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs this year. One part of Luka’s game that I’ll point at to nit-pick: His 3pt shooting. For his career he’s at 32% on 8 attempts per game. Sure, a lot of those 3s are off-the-dribble, and as mentioned, the Mavs have the best offense in basketball. But it’s just something to monitor. If Luka can get that number up to 35-36%? Watch out.
4. James Harden – Harden is the most maligned superstar the NBA has seen in some time. With LeBron and KD, for the most part, the criticisms were about things they did off the court. Their personalities got most of the hate rather than their games. With Harden, it’s his playing style that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. The constant dribble-dribble-dribble-between-the-legs at the top of the key. Spamming step-back threes when he’s already 3-15 from 3 for the game. The constant hunting for contact to draw fouls. The exaggerated snapping his head back to draw a whistle when he gets the slightest contact from the defender. When you throw in Russ as his backcourt mate, Daryl Morey in the front office and Mike D’Antoni as the coach, you get a Molotov cocktail of public perception that Harden and the Rockets are whiny, all-offense and no-defense, overly reliant on 3-pointers, and perennial playoff underperformers. That all contributes to the general dismissiveness towards Harden and his accomplishments. Every time Harden has another 50-point game, the knee-jerk reaction is to roll your eyes, and think Let me know how it goes in the playoffs. It’s not completely fair but it doesn’t change the fact that a large portion of NBA fans and even some media, and probably fellow players and other team’s front offices, feel the same way. Harden is putting up 35/7/6 this season on 44/35/87 shooting splits. The Rockets are currently 5th in the West, 2 games back in the loss column of the 3 seed Nuggets. Whether you like it or not, what the Rockets have been doing works in the regular season. Harden won’t win MVP this year and he doesn’t deserve it. That’s not some media narrative it’s just the truth. As for the playoffs? Wellll some of the criticism of Harden is warranted. His playoff averages with the Rockets are 28/7/6 on 41/32/88 shooting splits. There’s a clear drop in his efficiency from the field and from 3. He also shoots around 1 less free throw per game in the playoffs with the Rockets as he does during the regular season. What explains these drops? Maybe Harden gets tired? Maybe the refs tighten their whistle and don’t give Harden as much leeway for his foul-drawing shenanigans to flourish? Maybe he’s had some bad luck? Maybe he gets nervous? Is he high right now? Does he love this shit? Is he single? I heard heard he fucked his girl, is it true? The point is, if Harden wants to get the public on his side he needs a signature playoff run. A year where he doesn’t brick his 3s, where his efficiency doesn’t plummet, and the Rockets AT LEAST make the Finals. Anything short of that and I think the “branding” that Harden has is going to be hard to shake. Mayybeee a loss in the Conference Finals or Finals against a better team, where Harden plays amazing but the Rockets fall short will win him some good will. Harden and Russ are both on huge contracts and aren’t getting younger. Ownership seems to be chomping at the bit to fire D’Antoni (which would be a shame and a dumb move). It’s up to Morey to swing another move because even with how they’ve been playing lately the Rockets feel one piece short. I can’t see them beating the Clippers or the Lakers, or the Bucks if they somehow were to make it out of the West. The degree to which some people downplay or just ignore Harden averaging 36 and 35 points per game in back-to-back seasons as, “business as usual” speaks both to Hardens’ greatness, and the public’s fatigue of it.
3. LeBron James – LeBron, since I know you’re reading this, let me just say that this hurts me more than it does you. The fact that LeBron is even this high up on the list in his 17th season, at age 35, is insane. With all the minutes he’s played between the regular season and all his deep playoff runs, it defies belief that he is still playing at this level. His line of 26/11/8 on 50/35/70 splits, on track to lead the league in assists for the first time in his career, would be a career year for 99% of NBA players in history. He’s brought a renewed effort on defense this season after mailing it in on that end for the majority of last year’s lost season. Not to say that he’s going to be going on anyone’s All-Defense ballot this year but the Lakers rank 3rd on defense this season and LeBron has played a role in that. The Lakers, to everyone’s surprise including myself, sit atop the Western Conference standings, 5.5 games ahead of the Clippers. It would be shocking if they didn’t finish with 60+ wins, and here I was before the season thinking they would be in a battle for 4th place in the West. AD is playing great this year and obviously a huge reason for the Laker’s success on both ends of the floor, but LeBron remains the straw that stirs the drink. The Lakers are 10 points per/100 possessions better when LeBron is on the floor this year and oftentimes look lost without him, especially on the offensive end of the floor. LeBron getting the Lakers to the 4th ranked offense in the NBA this season is not necessarily on par with getting blood from a stone, but a supporting cast of Javale, Dwight, Caruso, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kuzma, Rondo, and KCP doesn’t scream “Top 5 offense.” LeBron will probably finish 2nd in MVP voting, and there’s really no argument to be made for him to win the award over Giannis, but regular season wins and accolades are not going to define this season for LeBron and the Lakers’ anyway. The one question I have in the back of my mind is this: How much is LeBron keeping in the tank for the playoffs this season? Ever since LeBron left Miami and went back to Cleveland for his second stint with the Cavs, the idea of “Playoff LeBron” has been a discussion point of almost every season. The idea that LeBron, as he’s gotten older, doesn’t go all-out in the regular season, and “coasts” to a certain degree, only to turn on the NeedForSpeedNitrous turbo boost come playoff time, has been proven true. I keep going back to 2018, LeBron’s last season with the Cavs, when he averaged 28/9/9 on 54/37/73 shooting splits only to explode for 34/9/9 on 54/34/75 shooting splits. Could we see a line like, 29/10/8 on 52/35/70 for LeBron in this year’s playoffs? Is that going to be enough to get past the Clippers and the Bucks? Watching Lakers game this year, it seems like LeBron is not going 100%. He’ll put up 26/10/6 in a game where watching him it looked like he was going 75% speed. He’s “load-managing” during a lot of these games rather than just taking nights off completely. He knows his body better than anyone else. You would have to imagine that he’s going to go up a level in the playoffs. Of the 10 best defenses in the league this year, 7 are in the East, and the Lakers make 8. Only the Clippers are a truly elite defense (ranked 5th) that LeBron might have to go up against on the way to the Finals. As of right now, I see the Lakers falling just short of the Finals, but I would love to be proved wrong.
2. Kawhi Leonard – Uncle Dennis’ nephew coming in at Number 2. If you are choosing 1 player for 1 do-or-die game, at this exact moment in time, you go with Kawhi barely. Barreeelllyyy. For all the hand wringing about Kawhi’s load management and the Clippers never-at-full-strength disjointed vibe this year, TheOtherLATeam is 2nd in the West. If I had to choose I would pick them as the title favorites. Subject to change next month, next week, or tomorrow. The main question with Kawhi for the past few years has been health. Even in leading the Raptors to the title last season, there were moments in the playoffs where it seemed like he was playing on one leg. He looks healthier this year, especially as of late, and he’s also patched up the one hole in his game you used to be able to point to. In his 7 seasons with the Spurs Kawhi averaged 2 assists per game. Even last year with the Raptors he was only at 3 assists in the regular season and 4 in the playoffs. It seemed like Kawhi, as a robotic basketball terminator, couldn’t quite grasp the read-and-react nuances of advanced playmaking. His one Achilles heel was that, if you swarmed him in the half court, he might not consistently punish you by finding the open man. So much for that. He’s averaging 5 assists a game this year. Seems like Kawhi has updated his hard drive’s programming to include the most recent version of the advanced playmaking software patch. He no longer has any glaring deficiencies. His line for the season thus far is 27/8/5 on 47/37/89 shooting splits. He’ll probably be in the discussion for a spot on 2nd or 3rd team All-Defense. He will most likely never get back to his defensive peak of 2015 and 2016 when he won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. A lot of that has to be with his knee issues and not being able to ramp it up and go all-out on a nightly basis. But for a single playoff game/series/run you would be hard-pressed to find many more feared wing defenders. He’ll probably finish with about 65 games played this year which will take him out of serious consideration for MVP, but the flip side of that is he should be as fresh as any other major player in the league come playoff time. He’s only playing 32 minutes a game but over the course of 24 playoff games last season with the Raptors he played 39 minutes a game so we know he can carry a heavier load when the lights are brightest. I think the difference between LeBron and Kawhi is extremely small, and watching Playoff LeBron and Playoff Kawhi go at it will be one of the all-time NBA moments. We will get a preview of that tomorrow when the Lakers and the Clippers play. Kawhi isn’t quite playing the best basketball of his career this season, but I have a feeling we will see him at that level during this year’s playoffs.
1. Giannis “Had to Google It” Antetokounmpo – Whether Giannis is your answer to, “Which player would you choose for Game 7 of the Finals” or not, he is having the best regular season of any player this year. And as much as I love LeBron, it’s not even close. He is a borderline lock, barring injury, to win MVP. He’s in the discussion, if not the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. He currently leads the NBA in PER, Usage rate, Defensive Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 minutes, Defensive Box Plus Minus, and Box Plus Minus. He’s putting up a 30/14/6 line on 55/31/63 shooting splits. That line balloons to 35/16/7 per 36 minutes. 35/16/7. That would be the best game of 95% of current NBA player’s careers and it is what Giannis AVERAGES over the course of 36 minutes. The Bucks have the 8th best offense and #1ranked defense. They are on pace to win 69 games. Their current plus-12.0 point differential would rank 4th all-time behind the 71-72 Lakers, the 70-71 Bucks, and the 95-96 Bulls. He would become the 12th player ever to win back-to-back MVPs if he brings home the award again this season. I don’t buy into the whole vibe of, “doesn’t matter until we see it in the playoffs” with Giannis either. He’s 25. Last year he put up 26/12/5 on 49/33/64 shooting splits in the playoffs with his usual stellar defense. Not as good as his regular season numbers last year but still a great performance. He got outplayed by Kawhi in the Conference Finals but it’s not like he melted down. I saw a tweet from @BucksFilmRoom on twitter stating that the Bucks have the 22nd ranked offense by offensive rating since January 18th. The Bucks play at the fastest pace in the NBA. What’s their offense going to look like if/when a team is able to slow the game into a half court battle during the playoffs? If the Bucks don’t make the Finals, the Giannis backlash is going to start. Unless he plays incredible in a Conference Finals loss and even then it will probably still happen. Is that really fair? No but that’s the way it goes. When the back-to-back MVP doesn’t make the Finals in either season, the noise begins to start. Just ask LeBron. Something to keep an eye on for the rest of this season into the playoffs: Giannis’ free throw shooting. In that Conference Finals last year against the Raptors Giannis shot 58% from the charity stripe. In Game 3 the Raptors won by 6 and Giannis was 2-7 from the line. Game 5 Raptors win by 6 and Giannis goes 4-9. In the deciding Game 6 the Raptors won by 6 and Giannis missed half his free throws going 5-10. For his career he’s a 72% free throw shooter. Last season he was at 73%. But last playoffs he dropped to 64%, which is also what his playoffs’ free throw percentage is for his career. This season he’s all the way done to 63%. Maybe last year’s playoff struggles at the line have gotten into his head? Something to monitor but as it stands Giannis is the best player in basketball and the Bucks are the best team in basketball. Let’s see if we are still saying that come late June.