Once LeBron James decided to take his talents to Los Angeles and don the purple and gold, fans across the league knew this was going to be one of the most anticipated basketball seasons of the decade. That includes the race for NBA MVP.
The two-time defending champions from the Bay Area are looking for a three-peat, and a major superstar was dealt out of San Antonio for a bonafide star from Toronto. This season has been full of surprising play, shocking trades, and at times a wide-open MVP race.
Which players have stood out this year and are trying to lift up the Maurice Podoloff trophy? Here’s our list of the top five candidates for the 2019 NBA MVP.
5. Joel Embiid — C, Philadelphia 76ers
You could make the case that Anthony Davis deserves inclusion on this list, but with Pelicans barely scraping into contention for the final playoff spot in the West, Embiid is the easiest choice to make. The 76ers have made two big trades this season, acquiring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris as they gear up for a long playoff run.
Former No. 3 overall pick Embiid has been one of the most consistent big men in the NBA, averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds per game, and he is a force on the defensive end with two blocks per game. If Embiid stays healthy, the 76ers have a real opportunity to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, and a strong second half could see him climb higher up this list.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo — SF, Milwaukee Bucks
The NBA 2K19 cover star has been one of the most impactful players in the league this season. While the Bucks have another All-Star in teammate Kris Middleton, it’s clear that the Greek Freak is the X-factor for the Bucks on both sides of the ball.
Sporting a Player Efficiency Rating of 29.85, Antetokounmpo is averaging 27 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists per game, while also making plays on the defensive end. The Bucks sit at the top of the East and Giannis is a big reason the Bucks could end up in their first NBA Finals since the 1973-74 season.
3. Kawhi Leonard — SF, Toronto Raptors
When Kawhi Leonard is healthy, he can make a clear case for the NBA’s best player. Dealing with a quad injury for most of last season, Leonard sought a change of scenery and was traded to the Raptors. He quickly turned Toronto into a legitimate threat to come out of the East.
Averaging 27 points, eight rebounds and nearly two steals per game, Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA not named LeBron James. The Raptors are currently two games out of first in the East and will challenge the Bucks for the No. 1 seed coming down the home stretch. If Leonard stays healthy and doesn’t miss much more time this year, then he could end up in the top three for MVP votes.
2. Kevin Durant — SF, Golden State Warriors
While some fans are still clamoring about Kevin Durant joining the Warriors, the casual NBA fans have moved past it and are now appreciating the absurd numbers Durant puts up on a nightly basis. The reigning NBA Finals MVP is near the elusive 50/40/90 (field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentage) mark while averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game.
Durant would need to go on a scoring tear to really be a legitimate threat for the award, but he is clearly playing like the second best player in the league up to this point.
1. James Harden — SG, Houston Rockets
James Harden is running away with the NBA MVP trophy for the second straight year. Chris Paul’s injury simply meant Harden would have the ball in his hands more, and he has dominated the competition to the tune of multiple 30- and 40-point games on a regular basis. He joins Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and Rick Barry as the only players to score 40 or more points 20 times during the first 50 games of the season.
He is averaging 36.5 points per game and if he keeps this pace it will be the highest for a player since Kobe Bryant (35.4) and Allen Iverson (33.1) in 2006. He’s also averaging nearly eight assists and seven rebounds per contest for the leaders of the Southwest Division.
Expect Harden to keep putting up numbers at a dizzying pace, and expect him to have the inside track toward becoming the second unanimous MVP in league history. When you look at that way, he deserves to be one of the highest-paid players in the NBA.