In yet another twist in this unorthodox NBA season, the NBA’s annual performance awards will be based on league play prior to March 11th. The news was first reported by NBA insider Shams Charania of The Athletic. With the qualifying period essentially over, the Last Word on Pro Basketball staff will now analyze the most likely recipients of the aforementioned NBA awards in a two-part series. This article will go over the NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year races to determine each award’s top three candidates.
The Top 3 Candidates for NBA MVP and DPOY
NBA MVP Race
3. James Harden
Though Russell Westbrook metaphorically “stole his thunder” following the All-Star break, it would be ridiculous to have anyone other than Houston Rockets guard James Harden as the third MVP finalist. The often-underrated guard led the league in points scored for the third straight season, averaging 34.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists while shooting 43.5 percent from the field. With his deep range and foul-drawing prowess, Harden is the orchestra maestro of the potent Rockets offense.
However, this is a two-man MVP race. Harden is third in the league in PER, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. However, the difference between him and second-place James is larger than the difference between third place and sixth place. This just shows how much better Antetokounmpo and James have been than the rest of the league.
As good as Harden is, he’s fallen back to Earth following his incredible 2018-19 season. There have been some real consistency problems, and as mentioned before, he’s ceded many scoring and playmaking opportunities to Westbrook. While Harden was probably the best guard of the 2019-20 season, he just isn’t in the same tier as Antetokounmpo and James.
2. LeBron James
While he may not win MVP, the historic context of LeBron James’ redemption season cannot be understated. James’ unbelievable mix of volume, efficiency, and older age is quite literally unprecedented. Out of all players over the age of 35, he leads all in VORP (value over replacement player) despite playing 25 percent fewer games. I won’t cite every single one, but there’s an abundance of statistics that demonstrate the enormity of James’ season accomplishments.
Most people would agree that LeBron James is a better player than Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, in terms of single-season performance, there’s no question that Antetokounmpo has been much more dominant. Both the counting and advanced stats indicate this. Nonetheless, James can still avenge a likely second-place MVP finish with a Finals win over the Bucks.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
While many Los Angeles Lakers fans may beg to differ, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was simply the best player leading the best team in the league. In terms of both traditional and advanced stats, his level of domination is jaw-dropping.
On the season, he’s averaging a stellar 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field. Those are obviously amazing numbers, but the most unbelievable part is that he maintained these averages while only playing a minuscule 30 minutes per game. To put that into perspective, he played fewer minutes per game than the sixth man of the year favorite Dennis Schroder. For Antetokounmpo to have such dominant counting numbers in so few minutes is a testament to his astonishing efficiency and well-rounded game.
Antetokounmpo’s advanced stats are even better. He leads the league in Real Plus-Minus, offensive Box Plus-Minus, and net rating. He’s surprisingly done this despite greatly increasing both his usage rate and efficiency, as he leads the league in both usage rate and PER (player efficiency rating). He may not have the best narrative as a defending MVP, but based on statistics and circumstance, there simply isn’t a more deserving candidate than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Defensive Player of the Year
3. Rudy Gobert
Like the MVP race, the DPOY race mainly consists of two players. As a result, the third spot on this list is definitely the most up-for-debate, as Ben Simmons, Brook Lopez, Bam Adebayo, and Joel Embiid each have compelling cases. However, with his past track record of success and staggering advanced numbers, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert needs a lot more love for Defensive Player of the Year.
Throughout the first three months of the season, the “Stifle Tower” had a very strong case for winning his third consecutive DPOY. However, his performance after the All-Star left much to be desired. While blame cannot solely be placed upon Gobert, his team had the 22nd ranked defense in the league following the All-Star game. Consequently, Gobert has fallen out of contention for the award.
While these concerns are certainly valid, it’s important not to forget how impactful Gobert can be at his best. He currently leads the league in block percentage, as well as in defensive plus-minus. He’s undeniably the best rim-protecting big in the league. Overall, though he hasn’t played as well as in prior seasons, Gobert is still a valid candidate to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
2. Anthony Davis
Interesting fact: Anthony Davis has only finished in the top three for DPOY once for his career. That number will go up to two following Davis’ best season yet.
While the advanced stats don’t love Davis to the extent that they do Antetokounmpo, Davis is still an impactful defender for the best team in the West. Out of all qualified defenders, he held opponents to the second-lowest defensive field goal percentage in the league. The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that Antetokounmpo was first in that category. Furthermore, while Davis is an elite post defender and switch defender against stretch fours, Antetokounmpo is a far more superior iso-defender.
Perhaps the biggest concern for Davis defensively is how he handles the fast break. He was dead last (513th) among qualified defenders in opponent fastbreak points. This is particularly concerning given that the top two seeds in the East also lead the conference in fastbreak points. Davis really needs to step up in this regard, especially with the newfound absence of defensive stalwart Avery Bradley. However, don’t let this overshadow Davis’ brilliant defensive campaign. Davis could conceivably win the DPOY, and deservedly so.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The chances that Antetokounmpo will win DPOY are lower than of winning MVP, but it’s still more likely than not that he will win both awards. By every metric, he’s among the most dominant bigs in the NBA.
Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares, both by a large margin. He’s first in defensive rebounds per game and second in defensive rebounding percentage. In short, his advanced defensive numbers are simply elite.
Since he’s so good at virtually all aspects of defense, it’s honestly hard to identify Antetokounmpo’s specific defensive strength. He’s amazing on the perimeter as an on-ball defender. His immense wingspan makes him an immediate threat as an off-ball rim protector. No matter how you slice it, the uber-athletic Antetokounmpo is the closest thing to a perfect NBA defender.
Antetokounmpo seems poised to join Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan as the only players to simultaneously win the MVP and DPOY. Given that both of these players are consensus top ten players of all time, this bodes well for Antetokounmpo’s legacy.
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