NBA recap: Christmas Day hoops, MVP race and more

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /
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(Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
(Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images) /

Wide open MVP race

Besides the standings and games being competitive more this season than in recent years, the NBA’s top individual award has as many claims to the trophy as one can remember. The award has typically gone to the best player on the best team barring an incredible statistic season a la Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, when he averaged a triple-double for the regular season (the first time since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62).

This season’s list of contenders is extremely deep with several players garnering consideration. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the pack as he guides the Milwaukee Bucks to the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference while averaging 26.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per game with efficiency on offense (58.3 percent from the field) and constant disruption on defense.

LeBron James has the Los Angeles Lakers in the 4-seed after missing the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, averaging 27.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game while playing a career-low 35.1 minutes a night. Kawhi Leonard is playing at an extremely high level on both sides of the floor for the Toronto Raptors, who boast the NBA’s best record.

The defending MVP, James Harden, leads the NBA in scoring (32.0 points per game) while doing his best to carry a much worse Houston Rockets team, with Chris Paul missing plenty of games and not looking like his old self. Stephen Curry is averaging 29.3 points per game while shooting a career best 46.5 percent on 3-point attempts, and could be at the top of MVP lists as he makes up ground for missing 11 games.

Outside of the usual favorites, Paul George is averaging a career-high in points (26.2), rebounds (6.8) and assists per game (4.4) while maintaining his defensive prowess for a dangerous, more balanced and talented Oklahoma City Thunder team. Nikola Jokic has an injury-riddled Denver Nuggets team in first place in the Western Conference, improving his defense mightily without any of his unique offensive talents taking a step back.

Other contenders like Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant weren’t even mentioned in this discussion despite having great years for top-four teams in each conference. Most years, the MVP race comes down to a player or two in the final weeks. This may hold true with a pair of players breaking away from the pack in the closing month of the regular season. Until then, there are a great deal of standout performers who are winning with stats to back them up.