While LeBron James and Joel Embiid have made extremely strong cases for MVP thus far in the season, let’s not disregard these three sleeper candidates for the NBA’s most outstanding award.
Paul has been counted out ever since the start of the 2019-20 season. Everyone thought Oklahoma City was robbed after the Thunder-Rockets trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Houston and Paul to the Thunder. No one predicted the Thunder even making the playoffs; because of Paul’s leadership and veteran experience, he brought them to the fifth seed in the playoffs.
Paul, voted an all-star, has been one of the best overall players in the league this season. He’s averaging more than 16 points, four rebounds, nine assists, and a steal per game in 34 games (espn.com). His basketball IQ is second-to-none, and he has been the most crucial player on a Suns team who is now 2nd in the west.
So what if Paul is doing something he’s done his whole career? It’s the fact that he’s doing this at age 35: still, the best player on a now-legitimate contender, seemingly not letting age catch up with him.
The fact that Paul hasn’t won an MVP in his 16 seasons is atrocious; although, he is a very similar player to John Stockton, who also never won MVP.
Perhaps not a sleeper, Dame DOLLA has been showing out all season. Lillard is averaging nearly 30 points, eight assists, and a steal per game. With CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić both out for the past seven weeks, Lillard has effectively carried the load. Portland is sitting at number five in the West, thanks to him.
Lillard’s stats from this season and last season are virtually the same; the difference was that he had a much more prominent supporting cast last year. This season, he’s doing it alone (maybe with Enes Kanter and Gary Trent, Jr., as exceptions).
Of course, we all know that the fourth quarter is Dame Time. Clutch time is defined as the last five minutes of five-point games; in clutch time, Lillard is shooting 57.1% from three, 61.4% overall, and 100% from free throw. Additionally, his 92 total clutch points trail only Zach LaVine for most in the league.
Lillard voted as a Western Conference All-Star reserve, hit the game-winning shot for Team LeBron this weekend. Players around the league were shocked when Lillard was not voted a starter, including Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic: “I know that maybe [Damian] Lillard deserved it [a starting spot on the all-star team] more than me.”
The reason Lillard is not getting as much recognition as he should is because we’re talking about DAMIAN LILLARD. People naturally expect him to be this good, so he goes unnoticed for MVP every season. Maybe he’s not on a championship contender yet, but when the Trailblazers start to rise in the West, Lillard’s MVP odds will rise as well.
Another low-key MVP contender from the Celtics is Jayson Tatum. Although Boston has most certainly been underwhelming, Tatum and Jaylen Brown have had to handle all the pressure without veteran point guard Kemba Walker. The Celtics are sitting at number five in the east, barely above .500, much thanks to Tatum. Tatum is averaging 24.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.
Tatum has been a stellar player on both ends of the floor and has really carried the team. His game has improved so much this season, and he has fittingly become an under-the-radar MVP candidate.
So what sets him apart from the rest of the league? There are not many guys in the league that can create their own shot as Tatum can, for starters. His in-n-out crossover, step-back jumper is similar to that of Kevin Durant’s, likely the most unguardable player in the league. Not to mention his ability to get to the rim and throw down emphatic dunks (LeBron James knows how that feels).
What About Other Players?
You could certainly make the case for someone like Donovan Mitchell to win MVP; heck, the Jazz are the number one team in the NBA. But that’s because they have good players all around: three all-stars in Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley, Jr., along with a strong supporting cast of Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Sixth Man OTY hopeful Jordan Clarkson.
The reality is that Paul, Lillard, and Tatum have been top 15 players all season, and no one has matched their clutchness and grit.