The NBA season reaches its quarter pole this week, and a new world order has begun to establish itself. The Golden State Warriors are no longer juggernauts. The Los Angeles Lakers might be. The Zion Williamson era … is on hold.
But amid all the tumult that has defined the 2019-20 season so far, there remains at least one constant: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season’s Most Valuable Player is the early favorite to win the award for a second straight year.
ESPN asked 101 media members to participate in an informal straw poll of where the league’s MVP race stands as the season moves into its second quarter. It was Antetokounmpo who stood above the rest. The Milwaukee Bucks forward received 48 first-place votes and was the only player to appear on all 101 ballots.
To make the balloting process as realistic as possible, ESPN sought to both balance the voting pool and have it conform to the way the league goes about it in mid-April, at the conclusion of the regular season. The pool of media members consisted of at least two people from each of the league’s 28 markets, as well as national and international reporters. In the official vote, the NBA polls 100 media members and gives another vote to fans. Each of our voters put five players on their ballot, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote and one point for a fifth-place vote, just like the NBA’s system.
Antetokounmpo is once again putting up absurd numbers. He ranks in the top five in points (30.8) and rebounds (13.4), is averaging a career-high 5.8 assists and has a player efficiency rating well north of 30. In a typical season, that kind of statistical profile would leave him with little to no competition for the award.
But this isn’t shaping up to be a typical season.
James (29 first-place votes, 651 points, named on 100 ballots), Doncic (14 first-place votes, 569 points, 99 ballots) and Harden (nine first-place votes, 444 points, 97 ballots) have produced the individual achievements and team successes that could make any of them favorites in another season. As it is, that trio, along with Antetokounmpo, has separated itself from the rest of the pack in the eyes of potential voters.
James is on track to lead the league in assists for the first time in his career, and he has the Lakers sporting the NBA’s second-best record, though with a relatively easy schedule. That was enough to comfortably place James in the ballot’s second spot.
The Lakers have a backloaded schedule full of juicy matchups on national television. If they continue to win at nearly their current rate, they remain a top seed in the West and James continues to play this way beyond his 35th birthday (on Dec. 30), his candidacy could gain steam.
It is not surprising to see Antetokounmpo, Harden and James, who’ve combined to win six MVP awards, among this season’s early favorites. That Doncic, in just his second season and not yet of legal drinking age, has already leaped into this conversation is a testament to his brilliant play. Alongside Kristaps Porzingis, he has transformed the Dallas Mavericks into a factor in the Western Conference.
Harden, meanwhile, is within shouting distance of averaging a staggering 40 points per game, a milestone that would give him a strong selling point to take home this award for a second time in three seasons. The Rockets’ continuing to play well after an ugly start wouldn’t hurt, either.
Beyond the top four, the most interesting subplot has been the contest for fifth. Another eight players — Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Pascal Siakam and Karl-Anthony Towns — each got at least one vote. Three received significant support: Davis, Leonard and Siakam.
Siakam wound up getting the nod, finishing with 52 points to edge Leonard (49) and Davis (38). The fact that Leonard has missed several games (six of 22) was mentioned by a few voters as the reason he was placed fifth or left off the ballot, and Davis could suffer in some voters’ eyes from being the second-best candidate on his team.
Meanwhile, Siakam has exploded for the Toronto Raptors, helping the defending champions storm to a 16-4 start and remain near the top of the East.
Rounding out the voting were Towns (nine points), Butler (six), Beal (three), Lillard and Jokic (one apiece).