Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reveals his ballots for NBA superlative awards for the 2019-20 season. The ballots were due before the restart of the season at Walt Disney World.
The argument about Most Valuable Player bubbles up every year, with little variance.
Is it the best player on the planet?
Most valuable to his team?
Sometimes one player can check all boxes, other times the answer is so convoluted it becomes subject for bar-room litigation, years after the fact.
It’s hard explaining to someone who wasn’t there why Steve Nash won MVP twice, but watching him engineer the then-revolutionary offense in Phoenix, it’s much easier to explain beyond the stats.
Antetokounmpo’s numbers are astronomical, especially considering the limited minutes he plays relative to his age. Putting up nearly 30 points with 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in barely 30 minutes makes him a statistical anomaly on so many levels, especially when players around 25 are emptying the clip and not saving themselves for the playoffs.
At age 25, James was playing nearly 40 minutes a night for the Cavaliers in 2010.
Michael Jordan turned 25 during the 1988 season, averaging over 40 minutes and putting up 35-5-6 with three steals and nearly two blocks.
It should be a runaway, as the Bucks were slightly off a 70-win pace before the pandemic stopped the world and NBA season. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award, too, a feat only Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon accomplished in the same season.
Like Olajuwon in 1994, he’ll be hoping to add a ring to those accomplishments.
With the Bucks running everything around his talents and usage, it’s easy to see why they want to manage his minutes — and also, why it’s easy to point at his play when the Bucks struggle in the postseason.
It’s similar to James, in a way, during his first stint in Cleveland. Everything revolved around him — well, it still does if we’re being honest — but James’ physical force was much easier to recognize and assess in his 20s.
The MVP case for LeBron James
James is being measured against himself and his own lofty standards, while also getting a push because some will vote on “narrative.” The Lakers’ return to prominence, coupled with them dealing with Kobe Bryant’s unexpected death, has made the Lakers a larger story than usual. James is leading the league in assists for the first time, cementing his place as the game’s premier pace-setter, along with the easy integration of Anthony Davis.
James is taking more threes than ever, which has contributed to his field-goal percentage dipping below the 50 percent mark for the first time since 2015. And his efficiency, while eighth in the league, is the third-lowest of his career.
It’s not impossible to award someone the MVP when judged against himself. Jordan’s final MVP campaign, in 1997-98, featured his fourth-lowest efficiency rating. But Jordan kept the Bulls afloat without Scottie Pippen for a large swath of the season and efficiency wasn’t a huge part of how the game was evaluated then.
James also plays with a man who leads the Lakers in points, rebounds, blocks and efficiency, Davis, who didn’t appear on this ballot.
If one were to look at this differently, perhaps it wouldn’t be as close as some have made it out to be.
The MVP case for James Harden
Harden appeared ahead of Leonard on this ballot simply because of availability, not because he’s a better player from this view. Harden adds another chapter to the book of being one of the greatest scorers this league has ever seen, and of course feels he’s been robbed of multiple MVPs before now.
Harden is again leading the league in scoring — his third straight title — and is still a nightmare for defenses in Mike D’Antoni’s system. He deserves credit for the assimilation of Russell Westbrook, although it took the two awhile to play well at the same time.
He’s improved his defense but isn’t at the level of Antetokounmpo’s or Leonard’s. It still doesn’t feel like merely having Harden on your roster means you have a legit shot for a championship, not like it does for the fifth-place finisher on this ballot.
The MVP case for Kawhi Leonard
Leonard could very well be the most complete player in basketball, his only weakness being availability with the Clippers managing his games and minutes with the expectation he’ll be at his best when it counts the most — the playoffs.
It doesn’t mean he’s a slouch during the regular season, though.
He might not look physically like the best version of himself but he achieved career-highs in points (27.1) and assists (4.9), and just a touch behind his highest marks on the boards. His improvement as a playmaker has allowed the Clippers to operate without a traditional point guard, as he operates between the crevices of defenses to create open shots for a bevy of shooters.
If there’s a player on this list who can win a series with his play on both ends, it’s probably Leonard. He just won’t have the gaudy statistics of Antetokounmpo or James, or even Harden — the game’s best scorer.
The MVP case for Luka Doncic
Doncic proved in the playoffs he’s worth every bit the fuss he commands, but even without those thrilling moments, he’s a franchise player.
His outside shooting needs to come along (31 percent from three), but he’s so good on offense, a system within himself in his just second year. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he averaged a triple-double next season if he pushes himself, but he was close enough with 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists.
Future ballots could have Doncic’s name etched at the top, and he could possibly fill multiple precious categories, at least the most valuable.
But for now, at least, Antetokounmpo should win his second straight award quite easily — which will only ramp up the pressure to live up to his top billing.
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