NBA MVP race: Contenders closing gap on Giannis Antetokounmpo

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The last time we examined the NBA MVP race back in November, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had jumped out to a sizable early lead. The owner of the No. 1 position hasn't changed, but the players behind him are starting to make up some ground.

It's far too early to make any definitive statements about the battle for MVP. There are plenty of worthy candidates as we approach the halfway point in the 2018-19 season, so consider this more of a snapshot than a ballot being sent to the league office.

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A few of the honorable mentions below have cases to jump into the top five. Don't get upset, fans who think "the media" hates your team — this list will change as the season progresses, and it will likely look much different even before the All-Star break.

With all of that said, here are the top MVP candidates so far ...

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Stats: 26.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 59.0 percent shooting

"The Greek Freak" isn't slowing down. If he stays at his current pace, he would be only the second player in NBA history to average more than 26 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists over a full season, per Basketball Reference. The other? Some guy named Oscar Robertson. He was pretty good.

Antetokounmpo is dominating around the basket like prime Shaquille O'Neal, averaging 18.4 points in the paint per game. He leads the NBA in dunks, which is no surprise to any defenders who have tried to stop him.

He is also a menace on the defensive end. Antetokounmpo is one of five players currently averaging at least 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, and he's top five in defensive rating, defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus.

As long as the Bucks stay near the top of the East, Antetokounmpo will maintain a solid case for his first MVP award.

2. LeBron James, Lakers

Stats: 28.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 52.0 percent shooting, 36.7 percent 3-point shooting

Oh. This guy again. It's starting to feel like a "we can't deny how good LeBron James is" kind of year.

James is posting his usual ridiculous numbers, but here's the scary part: He's learning to evolve as he approaches his 34th birthday. James is now shooting pull-up 3-pointers like James Harden and Stephen Curry, as The Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen notes. He's launching more frequently, and he's doing so from farther behind the arc.

James is shooting a career-high 5.8 3-pointers per game, hitting 36.7 percent of those attempts. That would be the third-best mark of his career if it holds for the entire season. His willingness to take (and make) these shots only makes him that much more of a nightmare matchup.

LeBron's game should only improve as he continues to grow with his new Lakers teammates, and if Los Angeles can grab a top-four seed in the Western Conference, James could be staring at his fifth MVP trophy.

3. Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

Stats: 26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 49.1 percent shooting, 37.2 percent 3-point shooting

Are there any questions left about Leonard's health?

Didn't think so.

The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has numbers eerily similar to his 2016-17 season with the Spurs in which he finished third in MVP voting behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook. His strength, balance and ball-handling skills have improved across the board, and Raptors fans are seeing the difference between an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan and a top-three player in Leonard.

One problem for Leonard: His team might be too good. Toronto (24-9) smacked the Clippers and Warriors by 20-plus points in December without Leonard available. This is often when the argument about taking a star off a team and weighing his overall impact comes into play.

Still, he's the best player on the best team. That's a big bullet point on the resume.

4. Stephen Curry, Warriors

Stats: 29.0 points, 5.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 50.1 percent shooting, 47.7 percent 3-point shooting

If not for injury trouble this season, Curry could easily be at the top of this list. He's the single-most impactful player in the NBA in terms of how he forces opposing defenses to change and react when he is on the floor.

Curry is often like a little kid on a sugar high. He's constantly scampering around the floor, and as soon as you lose him, boom. Three more points.

It's also hard to overstate how much he means to the Warriors. Just take a look at what happens when he's on the bench:

2018-19 Warriors Off Rating Def Rating Net Rating Eff FG %
Curry On 115.2 103.5 11.7 57.2
Curry Off 108.7 110.5 -1.8 53.7

Yes, Kevin Durant is an MVP candidate as well. Yes, Curry has the benefit of working with three other All-Stars. However, if he can log enough games, Curry can't be ignored.

5. Paul George, Thunder

Stats: 25.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 44.7 percent shooting, 38.2 percent 3-point shooting

Hey, PG-13 crashing the party over here. George is displaying a new sense of comfort and confidence alongside Russell Westbrook this season. Give Westbrook credit for deferring more often, and George for taking advantage of his opportunities.

What's really pushed George into the MVP conversation is his performance over the course of December: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals on 50.8 percent shooting and 44.0 percent 3-point shooting. His 47-point explosion against the Nets certainly stands out.

George is scoring in bunches, and he's the best defender on the league's top defensive team. He will eventually cool off, but for now, he has earned his spot.

Honorable mentions: Anthony Davis, Pelicans; Nikola Jokic, Nuggets; Joel Embiid, 76ers; Kevin Durant, Warriors; Russell Westbrook, Thunder; James Harden, Rockets

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