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An impossibly, irresponsibly early look at the NBA MVP race

Two weeks is a blink and an eternity in basketball. Two weeks ago we were debating whether the Warriors would be a mid-rung playoff team or miss the postseason entirely. That debate is over. Two weeks ago people had high hopes for the Bulls, Kings, and Pelicans. Those hopes have been dashed. Stephen Curry was a leading MVP contender. Nope. The Lakers were a mystery. Nope. The Suns were in line for the worst record again. Nope.

A lot has changed in two weeks. Has the MVP outlook changed?

Consider this an early opportunity to reassess what we thought the 2019-20 NBA MVP race would look like and what’s changed about six games into most teams’ season. We’ll discuss some players who were expected to be in the conversation all along and whether they remain in it, and bring up some names few had in the mix initially but who warrant further attention as the season strolls along.

Candidate no more

Stephen Curry: Curry will apparently miss at least three months with a broken hand. Between that and the Warriors’ reduced effectiveness, Curry’s MVP campaign is over.

Fading

Nikola Jokic: Jokic had a bad start to the season — out-of-shape, disengaged — and is already at least partially responsible for one Michael Malone meltdown. An MVP case for a idiosyncratic star like Jokic is a fragile thing, and it can’t survive much tumult. It’s still early enough to fix, but Jokic needs strong positive momentum and grassroots support to stay in the conversation and win some votes come April.

Kyrie Irving: We already have a story about Irving’s chemistry issues that seems sourced by Nets personnel. Irving has been really good and the Nets have been iffy. But he was an ultra-longshot to win MVP, and having something about chemistry come out like that early in the season while the team struggles is a killer.

Still alive

James Harden: The Rockets are weirder than I think any of us imagined, and we all knew they’d be weird. Harden is of course the early scoring leader. Here’s something weird: only one player in the whole league (Andre Drummond) has more total rebounds (131) than Harden has free-throw attempts (95). Harden has made 91 free throws. No. 2 on that list is Anthony Davis with 53; No. 3 is Damian Lillard with 39. Harden has made 2.3 times as many free throws as the third most frequent free-throw maker this season! Just unreal. But yes, he could still win MVP even though he’d be atop no one’s list at this point.

Damian Lillard: The Blazers are a mash unit up front and some bad on-court breaks have Portland at 3-3. Dame only has an MVP case if Portland is one of the best teams in the West. We’ve seen the Blazers pull that off in recent years, so it’s still on the table. But they need some healthy bodies in the frontcourt to have a shot.

Donovan Mitchell: Mitchell has been quite good to start the season, but something’s off with the Jazz. As with Jokic and Lillard, if Utah isn’t one of the best teams in the West and a title contender, Mitchell’s case suffers greatly through no direct fault of his own.

Still strong

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Antetokounmpo has been by far the most effective Buck, and the Bucks remain quite good. He remains the de facto Eastern Conference candidate if Joel Embiid misses 15 or so games and Antetokounmpo plays close to all of them, and so long as the Bucks end the season looking like a Finals threat. Antetokounmpo is in late-2000s LeBron James mode right now. He could probably win MVP every year if he keeps it up.

Anthony Davis/LeBron James: The Lakers’ two stars suffer from what Curry and Kevin Durant did the last few seasons. Can you be the most valuable player in the entire league if we aren’t really, totally sure you’re the most valuable player on your team? But if the Lakers end up as the clear No. 1 team in the league (more plausible than it was a few weeks ago), and one of the superfriends has some eye-popping stats or performances, it could happen for one of them.

Kawhi Leonard: Leonard has played a lot and done nothing to dissuade anyone that he is without question of the most talented, productive players in the world. The longer Paul George recuperates from shoulder surgery the stronger Leonard’s early case gets. Because Davis and James share credit and Paul George isn’t around, Leonard has an advantage there.

Joel Embiid: The Sixers are the best team in the NBA, Embiid is their best player. He’s also in a way a mascot for the entire league. There are few people who dislike him, even though he beefs with everyone in the league. He’s a little like pre-Malice Ron Artest or a post-title Metta World Peace. Except one of the best players in the world. If the Sixers keep this up and Embiid plays 70 or so games, MVP just might be his to lose.

Rising candidates

Devin Booker: Phoenix makes the playoffs and Booker is definitely getting some fifth-place vote buzz.

Jimmy Butler: Butler hasn’t even been there for all of the wins, but he has that certain je ne sais quoi that has Miami buzzing. If the Heat win 50 games and come in as a No. 2 or a strong No. 3 seed on par with the Sixers and Bucks, and if Butler is the team leader in points and assists, and if Butler has a few signature performances, and if something goes sideways with Antetokounmpo and Embiid and there’s no clear candidate from the West, Butler could absolutely get in there.

Karl-Anthony Towns: Towns has been among the best players in the NBA this season, and is the biggest reason Minnesota is respectable. His story has been somewhat like that of Anthony Davis: an extremely highly regarded young big man who faces team failure and whose reputation suffers unfairly. (Towns also had the Butler experience hurt his rep.) Put him on the right team and you remember what he can do. Is this Minnesota team the right team? Probably not. But you never know, and Towns is positioned to capitalize.

Luka Doncic: We keep referring to Doncic as a future NBA MVP. Well, April 2020 is in the future, right? This kid is absolutely electric. He has the Mavericks in a great spot, and while he should share credit with Kristaps Porzingis and a well-prepared, high-effort Dallas team, he will get the lion’s share of individual glory in the national conversation because everyone just loves him so much. (And with good reason.) The media loves to be early on the coattails of what’s next, and Doncic is next, and the media votes for MVP. I’m buying on this one.

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