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We’re still months away from seeing an NBA MVP crowned for the 2021-22 season but individual campaigns have a way of codifying earlier, building momentum that sets the narrative and can be tough to overcome as the season moves along. Here’s my entirely subjective assessment of the top five MVP candidates at this point in the season.
5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
You could flip a coin here between DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, who have both been fantastic in splitting primary scoring and creation responsibilities for the ascendant Bulls. I’m giving a slight edge to DeRozan who, at 32-years-old, is having one of the best seasons of his career and doing it with considerable adaptation. He’s playing some of the most engaged and active defense of his career and hitting 36.7 percent of his 3-pointers through 13 games. He’s also maintained elite efficiency levels despite sacrificing plenty of on-ball opportunities to accommodate the fit with LaVine. He’s not the only reason the Chicago Bulls have taken such a massive leap forward but he’s one of the biggest.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
By his own, admittedly lofty standards, Luka Doncic is having a down season. His points and assists per game have dropped from last season and his true shooting percentage is the lowest of his career by a decent margin. And yet he has somehow carried this deeply flawed Mavericks roster to an 8-4 record through 12 games, holding the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Through his assists and his own scoring, he’s had a direct hand in 43 percent of the points the Mavericks have scored this season. He’s been better but he’s still carrying an enormous offensive load for a roster that, on paper, has no business in the top of half of the standings in either conference.
3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
With Kyrie Irving in the aether and James Harden struggling mightily, Kevin Durant has played the first half of the season like it’s NBA Jam. He’s leading the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game on a 68.2 true shooting percentage, the best of his career. And he’s doing it on perhaps the highest level of difficulty of any volume scorer in the league. More than half his shots this season have been pull-up jumpers, on which he’s posted an effective field goal percentage of 57.8 — the best mark in the league of the 31 players who are attempting at least 7.0 pull-ups per game. Even more incredibly, 10.4 of his 18.8 field goal attempts per game have been jumpers that are tightly or very tightly defended (the closest defender within four feet of the shooter), according to the NBA’s player tracking stats. Brandon Ingram is second in the league with 7.1 of these shots per game and only two other players are even attempting more than 6.0. Durant’s effective field goal percentage on these shots, among the hardest in the game, has been 58.9 percent. Defense is essentially irrelevant to him at this point. He can dribble into, and make, any shot he wants.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic, the defending MVP, is posing numbers fairly similar to last season. His scoring is down slightly but his shooting percentages are up. His assists are down but his rebounds are up. The end result is still a stat line that should keep him near the top of the MVP conversation all season — 25.3 points, 13.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game on a 67.1 true shooting percentage. But the context is fairly remarkable. Remember the Nuggets are without Jamal Murray and that Michael Porter Jr. has been a disaster even when he’s been healthy enough to be on the floor. Only one of Jokic’s teammates this season, Will Barton, has made better than 36.0 percent of his 3s. The healthy secondary creators around Jokic are Barton (who has been very good), and then Aaron Gordon and Monte Morris. Wracked by injuries and inconsistent performances, Jokic has still carried this team to a 9-4 record and the No. 3 seed in the West.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Jokic’s stat line, context and team results make for a very compelling case but I think, at this point, Stephen Curry has to be considered the frontrunner. He’s averaging 28.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game on a 62.0 true shooting percentage. And he’s doing it for a team that has almost entirely unexpectedly, looked like the best team in the league thus far. The Warriors are 11-2, with the third-best offensive efficiency and the best defensive efficiency in the league by a decent margin. They’ve played a fairly easy schedule, comparatively, and they could be in for some regression. But this team is another great reminder of the power of Curry to make everything easier on his teammates.
Curry is my pick for the MVP of right now, not just because of what he’s done but because of what he allows the rest of his team to do.
Cole Anthony is in the midst of a completely unexpected breakout season for the Magic. Last week I identified an improved pull-up jumper as one of the keys but Kevin O’Connor has a lot more depth to add.
Dejounte Murray is taking advantage of the opportunities he’s getting in San Antonio, stepping into a lead role on offense.