Giannis Antetokounmpo is NBA’s MVP through first quarter of the season

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chance to win his third MVP award. (Morry Gash/AP)

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Predictions of parity for this NBA season have proved accurate through the first quarter of the season: Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are barely clinging to a winning record, while the Utah Jazz, fresh off a summer roster demolition, sits atop the defending champions in the standings. Separation has been unusually difficult to come by; the difference between the third seed and the lottery is no more than four games in either conference.

Despite this soupy landscape, the major award races have started to take shape. Here’s a rundown of the early front-runners through roughly 20 games. All stats through Sunday.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Somehow, Antetokounmpo garnered more attention for a meaningless postgame squabble with a ladder in Philadelphia than he has for a month-plus of exceptional basketball, which is fitting given his low-key, deferential personality. But that doesn’t mean Antetokounmpo (30.9 points per game, 11.4 rebounds per game, 5.4 assists per game) should be taken for granted when it comes time to vote for MVP; only four players — Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor — have averaged 30/11/5 for a season. The last time it happened was 50 years ago.

Though the Bucks trail Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics in the standings, Antetokounmpo has led Milwaukee to the NBA’s second-best record and top-ranked defense without sidekick Khris Middleton, who has yet to return from offseason wrist surgery. Meanwhile, he is averaging more points, rebounds and assists than Tatum (30.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 4.6 APG), all while playing four fewer minutes per game. If Antetokounmpo and Tatum switched places, the Celtics would be viewed as overwhelming title favorites and, possibly, a superteam.

Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s best overall player, and Tatum, the best player on the team with the NBA’s best record, should have serious staying power in this race. But don’t count out Curry, who is averaging 31.4 points while posting shooting percentages of 52.2 from the field, 44.1 on three-pointers and 91.1 at the free throw line. The Warriors are slowly shaking off their title hangover, and Curry has picked up where he left off during his sparkling 2022 title run.

An NBA podcaster quit his job to play pickup hoops around the world

Defensive player of the year: Anthony Davis, Lakers

Davis entered this season at a reputational crossroads after two injury-plagued campaigns in which he failed to recapture his Bubble magic. While the Lakers have gotten off to a dreadful start, they could easily have the NBA’s worst record if not for Davis’s consistently excellent defense. Los Angeles ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, even though its starting lineup has several minus defenders and its bench depth has been stretched by early-season injuries to LeBron James, Dennis Schröder and Thomas Bryant.

After looking stiff and slower than usual in recent years, Davis (26.3 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 1.6 steals per game, 2.2 blocks per game) is back to being a disruptive, versatile and imposing presence. The 29-year-old big man’s ability to win this award for the first time will probably require the Lakers to get back into the playoff mix. If that proves impossible, look for Antetokounmpo, Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen and Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges to garner attention.

Most improved player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder

The secret is finally out on Gilgeous-Alexander, who spent the past two seasons creeping toward stardom while buried in obscurity for the small-market Thunder. The suave Canadian guard has enjoyed a Ja Morant-like breakout, though his composed game is predicated on shot-making and on-ball technique rather than sheer quickness and vertical athleticism. A 20-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander was the centerpiece of Oklahoma City’s 2019 blockbuster return for Paul George, and he is outproducing the Los Angeles Clippers forward just four years later. As Gilgeous-Alexander eyes his first all-star nod, he ranks fourth in scoring and seventh in Player Efficiency Rating leaguewide, and he has improved his shooting efficiency at the rim, in the midrange and from beyond the arc.

Surrounded by a young rotation that lost No. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren to a season-ending foot injury, Gilgeous-Alexander (31.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.2 APG) has emerged as a prototypical franchise guard capable of carrying a heavy offensive burden and delivering in crucial moments. He scored a career-high 42 points and hit a deep game-winning three-pointer in a recent road win over the Washington Wizards, and he is tied for second leaguewide with 50 points in clutch situations.

Utah’s Lauri Markkanen, who has made the most of an offseason change of scenery, looks like Gilgeous-Alexander’s top competition for this award.

The Bulls have three all-stars and zero franchise players

Rookie of the year: Paolo Banchero, Magic

The 2022 draft class hasn’t set the NBA on fire; only five of its members have averaged double figures in scoring. With Holmgren sidelined and No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr. relegated to a supporting role in Houston, Banchero is the heavy favorite to become the first top pick to be the rookie of the year since Ben Simmons in 2018.

Banchero, 20, is leading his class in scoring, rebounds and overall buzz thanks to his smooth scoring instincts, physical presence and permanent green light as Orlando’s lead option. The Duke product has struggled from beyond the arc and missed seven games with an ankle injury, but his polish and volume scoring will be difficult for Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin and Detroit’s Jaden Ivey to overcome. There’s a “man among boys” feel to this race that should persist unless Banchero encounters additional injury issues.

Sixth man of the year: Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers

In an unusual twist, Mathurin, the sixth pick in June’s draft, finds himself as a leading candidate for something other than rookie of the year honors. The 20-year-old Canadian guard, who survived a tragic upbringing in Montreal and attended an NBA academy in Mexico before spending two seasons at the University of Arizona, has led all qualified sixth man candidates in scoring. Mathurin (18.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.6 APG) has thrived out of the gate thanks to his fearless approach on the ball and his 42.1 percent three-point shooting, even though the Pacers have gone against NBA norms for rebuilding teams by choosing not to start their prized rookie.

There’s a decent chance that Mathurin won’t be eligible for this award by season’s end; it’s only a matter of time before Mathurin joins 22-year-old Tyrese Haliburton to form one of the league’s most promising backcourt combinations. Indiana guard Buddy Hield has been a regular in trade rumors, and a deal would clear the way for Mathurin and potentially improve the franchise’s draft positioning. If Mathurin winds up as a starter or hits the rookie wall, microwave scorers Jordan Poole and Bones Hyland will face off against savvy veterans Malcolm Brogdon and Bobby Portis in what will be a wide-open race.

The NBA’s only all-Black broadcast crew was 16 years in the making

Coach of the year: Will Hardy, Jazz

There have been plenty of pleasant surprises across the league but none quite as stunning as the Jazz’s 10-3 start under Hardy, their intense and inventive rookie coach. Tasked with cobbling together a starting lineup of players who finished last season on four different teams, Hardy has installed a fun and balanced five-out offensive scheme that ranks fourth in efficiency despite a roster lacking in proven star power.

The Jazz came back to the pack with four straight losses last week, and it’s possible that CEO Danny Ainge, who traded Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale in summer deals, will steer the franchise toward a prime spot in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Still, Hardy deserves his credit, even if the good times don’t last through April.

Looking ahead, Boston’s Joe Mazzulla is the safer pick. Another first-year coach, Mazzulla hasn’t missed a beat since he was abruptly promoted following Ime Udoka’s suspension after an improper relationship with a Celtics staffer. Boston ranks first in wins, net rating and offensive efficiency under the interim coach, who has made the most of his lineup continuity and strong roster.

Loading...
Loading...