NBA: Race for Most Valuable Player
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 19: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets talks with Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter at TD Garden on January 19, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

As the NBA season enters the final stretch, the race for the league’s Most Valuable Player award is heating up.  Throughout the campaign there have been a number of players involved in discussions, some looking to add to their trophy collection, and others hoping to receive the honour for the first time.  Here are the top five players on the NBA’s MVP ladder heading into the final month of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has cemented himself as the most dominant player in the league this season.  He is currently the favourite to win his third MVP award, following his triumphs in 2021 and 2022.  Since the all-star break, the reigning champion and Finals MVP has led his side to a 9-1 record, which has them second in the Western Conference.  In this time period, Jokic has averaged 26.7 points, 13.6 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game.  This includes a 32-point triple double, his 21st of the season, to secure victory over title favourites and Eastern Conference leading team the Boston Celtics.  He also has produced 53 double-doubles on the year.

With 17 games remaining, Denver are within touching distance of the top seed, level with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but second on head-to-head.  Jokic and his teammates are heating up at the right time, as they look destined to make another deep post-season run.  It seems unlikely that the Serbian’s level of play will dip from the high quality he has produced throughout the campaign, meaning it would be a surprise if this year’s MVP award does not head his way once more.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Right now, Jokic’s biggest competition to the award is Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.  He is playing the best basketball of his career, leading his side to top spot in a stacked Western Conference.  Averaging 31.1 points per game, Gilgeous-Alexander is the second leading scorer in the league, trailing only Luka Doncic.  Following another 30-point outing against the Indiana Pacers, he now has 47 such games on the season.  He is doing this with great efficiency as well, shooting 54.4% from the field.

Prior to the season, few would have predicted the Thunder to be in the position they are, but they have emerged as a dangerous threat in the West, despite their young roster.  This is in large part due to Gilgeous-Alexander’s excellent and consistent play, elevating those around him such as Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams.  His durability has also been a great asset, as he has played in 64 games so far, missing just one.  He may not win MVP this year, but he has taken a tremendous leap which will see him compete for the award in many years to come.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is third in the NBA’s ladder.  The Milwaukee Bucks superstar has unsurprisingly had another exceptional season so far, though his team has underperformed.  The off-season trade to acquire Damian Lillard from the Portland Trailblazers was supposed to put them on par with the Celtics, but it has been a campaign of adjustment and inconsistency.  However, despite changing coach mid-season, firing Adrian Griffin for Doc Rivers, they are still second in the East, though 9.5 games behind the Celtics, which is perhaps the greatest downfall of his MVP argument.  In 63 games, Giannis has averaged 30.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists.  He has actually contributed more points and assists per game so far than he did in both of his MVP seasons in 2019 and 2020.

Within the adaptation and struggles, Giannis has remained consistent.  The last five games has seen him average 32/11/8, but they have lost three in this stretch.  If he continues to play at this MVP-calibre level, the Bucks will always be a threat because at his best he is unstoppable.  It will be up to the rest of the team to follow their leader.

Embed from Getty Images

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum is the best player on the best team this season.  Naturally, this puts him in serious MVP conversations, but he is not likely to win his first award.  Before the season began, Tatum was amongst the favourites to win MVP.  He has stayed in and around the top five throughout, though his case has derailed in recent weeks.  The Celtics have by far the best record, winning 51 and losing 14.  However, he is playing in one of the most dominant lineups in NBA history, therefore his value to the team is not as high as the other candidates. The acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis in the off-season only strengthened an already elite roster, which hurts his argument.  Recent games have seen Tatum and the Celtics blow a 22-point fourth quarter lead to the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers, before they were defeated by the Nuggets later in the week. The forward has struggled in fourth quarters of late, including missing a wide open three to take the lead late on in the game at Denver.

That being said, Tatum has still enjoyed an excellent season, just not one to justify winning this award.  He has averaged 27 points on 47.3% shooting, 8.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.  Although he has yet to win MVP in his career, his eyes are set on the bigger prize of winning a first championship.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic’s stats look like they come from a video game, such is the incredible performances he has displayed so far this year.  Paired in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving, he has averaged 34.6 points, 9.9 assists and 9.1 rebounds.  However, whilst he leads the league in scoring and is third in assists, his production has not always led to wins.  The Dallas Mavericks currently occupy a play-in spot, as they sit in the eighth seed with a record of 37-28.  Despite his numbers being better than the competition, the Mavs’ low seeding has put a significant dent in Doncic’s MVP hopes. With so little time left, it is too late for the Slovenian to make a serious push for the award, but he is almost certainly set for a place in the All-NBA first team. 

Doncic recently won the Western Conference player of the month for the fourth time in his career.  Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls saw him end three points shy of a seventh consecutive 30-point triple double.  Yet he still made history by tying Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson for longest consecutive streak of 20-point triple doubles with seven, according to ESPN.  Whilst Dallas lost three of the first four games of this run, they have bounced back to record a three-game winning streak.  He will be in the running for the MVP award for many years to come, but this season he will fall short.

Embed from Getty Images