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Giannis Antetokounmpo leads MVP race in early stages of new season

It's too early to predict a winner, despite one Hall of Famer thinking otherwise

Sekou Smith,

Saturday 9 November 2019 10:56, UK

Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts after scoring during Milwaukee's win over Minnesota
Image: Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts after scoring during Milwaukee's win over Minnesota

Milwaukee Bucks' superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is leading the early-season race for league MVP honours, writes's Sekou Smith.

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It took Hall of Famer Gary Payton just six minutes to break down the complex, six-month process of selecting an MVP.

The metric for Payton is simple: Elite player plus elite numbers plus elite team success equals legitimate finish at the end of the race.

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Never shy about calling his shots, Payton has an answer to the question before it's even asked.

"My prediction of who I think will win it this year is LeBron [James]," Payton said. "I got LeBron winning MVP and he's showing it now. You see he's almost averaging a triple-double now. Look at the way [the Lakers] are playing and what he's doing."

LeBron James elevates to score against the Chicago Bulls
Image: LeBron James elevates to score against the Chicago Bulls

When reminded that a roughly three-week sample might not be enough to make the best choice, Payton didn't relent.

"Him and Kawhi [Leonard], when I saw them play to start the season, I think LeBron was baiting it to see what they got and he didn't play his normal game," Payton said. "After that, he realized what it is and this is how he had to play... now he has picked it up.

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Kawhi Leonard rises to dunk over Hassan Whiteside
Image: Kawhi Leonard rises to dunk over Hassan Whiteside

"But for me, you've got to have the right player on the right team and his team has to be lifted up with him. That's why Giannis [Antetokounmpo] still has a chance, and I agreed with him winning it last year. And I think Kawhi has a chance. That's the three that will be there."

Given the nature of the media beast that accompanies the MVP chase, things aren't nearly as simple to the rest of us as they are to Payton. There's much more nuance to the race (a 24-hour news cycle, the 'load management' factor etc) these days.

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As much as we'd like to keep the MVP formula simple, there's a reason we wrestle with its daily ebb and flow.

As for James Harden and Joel Embiid, Payton says they need everything to go right for them to get into the mix. But his formula works for only four teams this season - the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and Sixers - making it an even tougher climb for Harden.

James Harden advances upcourt against the Memphis Grizzlies 1:31
James Harden torched the Memphis Grizzlies for 44 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 107-100 win.

"Come on man, this is the NBA and we've been watching this for years," Payton said. "This is what it is."

True, the unveiling of the first Race to the MVP Ladder of 2019-20 comes with an air of familiarity while also confirming Payton's analysis.

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This season, the usual suspects, so to speak, have kicked off their respective seasons like men on a mission. Instead of dabbling in predictions, we're prepared to let this race play out to its end.

Sekou's MVP ladder

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Season stats: 29.1 points, 14.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 blocks, 1.3 steals

Giannis Antetokounmpo backs down Patrick Beverley 1:56
Giannis Antetokounmpo starred with 38 points as the Milwaukee Bucks topped the LA Clippers at Staples Center

Anyone trying to wrest that Maurice Podoloff Trophy away from Antetokounmpo should know by now what kind of fight they'll have on their hands. The Bucks won four straight games on the strength of his mind-boggling start. He's the first player in NBA history with 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in the first eight games of a season.

2. LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)

Season stats: 26.0 points, 10.5 assists, 7.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals

LeBron James drives from the perimeter against Chicago 1:55
LeBron James posted his third consecutive triple-double to inspire the Los Angeles Lakers to a comeback win over the Chicago Bulls

Age is clearly nothing but a number as LeBron nears his 35th birthday. His three straight triple-doubles marks the first for a Laker in 32 years. Whoever suggested he was 'washed' and no longer capable of being an elite defender only added fuel to the fire for the Lakers, who boast the best defensive rating in the league.

3. Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

Season stats: 29.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.1 blocks

Kawhi Leonard posts up against the Spurs 2:39
Kawhi Leonard haunted his former team by scoring 38 points as the LA Clippers defeated the San Antonio Spurs

You can waste your time with this 'load management' controversy if you'd like. Just don't let it distract you from appreciating the roll Leonard is on that dates back to his Finals MVP run with the Toronto Raptors. He has settled into his place as the best and most complete two-way player in the league (anyone still debating that?) quite nicely.

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Season stats: 26.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals

Anthony Davis and LeBron James celebrate during the Lakers' win over the Heat 1:59
Anthony Davis and LeBron James combined for 51 points as the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 95-80

That trip home to Chicago brought an unnecessary storyline and the first clunker of AD's Lakers' tenure. But it's best to focus on all the work he did before that game. He has already collected a Western Conference Player of the Week award and should prove to be everything the Lakers thought he would be playing alongside LeBron James.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Season stats: 23.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.6 blocks, 0.8 steals

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts after their 105-103 win over the Atlanta Hawks 2:02
Joel Embiid scores 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting with 13 rebounds, five assists and a block versus Atlanta

Embiid has already vowed never to get suspended again and we've got our fingers crossed for the big fella. The Sixers cannot afford it with Ben Simmons (sprained shoulder) reportedly out at least three games. Embiid returns just in time for a marquee matchup tonight in Denver against Nikola Jokic, who also has a claim on the distinction as the "best big man" in the game.

The next five

6. James Harden (Houston Rockets)

7. Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets)

8. Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)

9. Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)

10. Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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