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One key stat for every early NBA MVP candidate

A week into the season, the NBA MVP race looks wide open. Here’s a look at one key stat for each of the top candidates so far.

By the time we get to March and April, the NBA MVP race will have likely winnowed to one or two key frontrunners. But for now, the field looks unbelievably crowded.

We have at least two players in the ballpark of triple-double averages. Nine different players are averaging 30 or more points per game and eight are working with 25-5-5 averages. Basic box score stats aren’t offering much separation so we’re going a bit deeper and looking at some other numbers that tell the story for each NBA MVP candidate. For the sake of brevity, I’m leaving out Damian Lillard (out for a week or two with a calf injury)

One key stat for every early NBA MVP candidate:

Luka Doncic — 62.1 points created per game

Doncic has always been an outlier for offensive primacy but he’s started this season in outlier territory, even by his own absurd standards. Through four games, he’s averaging 36.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game. Those 9.3 assists have been producing an average of 25.8 points per game, second-most in the league.

That means, between his scoring and passing combined, he’s had a hand in an average of 62.1 points per game for the Mavericks. It’s only possible to track this stat back to the beginning of the player-tracking era but over those nine seasons, only five players have finished a season creating an average of 50 or more points per game — Doncic, Trae Young, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.

No one has ever broken 60 before.

Giannis Antetokounmpo — 4 coast-to-coast, solo fastbreaks

This stat is not so much evidence of Giannis’ overwhelming dominance as a reference to his signature play. By the box score, he has arguably never been better — 36.0 points, 13.0 points, 5.3 assists and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 67.7 percent from the field and 4-of-10 from beyond the arc for the NBA’s last undefeated team. But his most striking advantage is still his ability to outrun and overpower everyone else on the court and the solo fastbreak is the most visceral example.

In the Bucks’ first three games, we’ve already seen Giannis take a defensive rebound end-to-end in under six seconds four separate times.

Donovan Mitchell — Scoring opportunity on 75.4 percent of his drives

Mitchell has given the Cavaliers everything they could have hoped for, particularly in the absence of Darius Garland who is recovering from an eye laceration. Through four games, he’s averaging 28.5 points, 7.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, all career highs. But the most impressive part of his game thus far has been his discipline and precision in making things happen off the dribble.

This is a somewhat obscure permutation of drive stats but so far 75.4 percent of Mitchell’s drives this season have resulted in a scoring opportunity (an assist, a shot attempt, or a trip to the free-throw line), up from 65.1 percent last year. On 65 total drives, he has turned the ball over just once and he’s recorded an assist on 12.3 percent of his drives this year, up from 7.6 last season. Oh, and he’s shooting a career-high 54.1 percent on drives so far. Simply put, he’s been aggressive and making positive things happen for the Cavs.

Ja Morant — 8-of-15 on pull-up 3s

Morant has been an absolute beast — 32.6 points, 6.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds per game — but his scoring efficiency has been the most interesting development. Through five games he’s hit 5-of-8 catch-and-shoot 3s and, more importantly, 8-of-15 pull-ups. He’s already figured out how to punish teams for going under screens or playing drop coverage, simply by using his elite speed and explosiveness to chew up that empty space and get to his spots.

But if he’s making this shot at anything close to 40 percent, he’s completely unguardable.

Nikola Jokic — 9.4 assists per game

Passing is Jokic’s most unique skill but he’s in new territory so far this season, averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game. He’s averaged 19.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for his career and you can pretty much pencil him in for a double-double average for the season. However, with so many new and returning offensive weapons in the Nuggets’ rotation, double-digit assists are in play as well — he’s currently averaging 22.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game.

Jokic has won the last two MVP Awards but if he joins Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a full season, he could overcome any voter fatigue and end up with three in a row.

Jayson Tatum — 1.29 points per possession on isolations

The Boston Celtics’ offense really took off last season when they committed to increased ball movement and away from stagnant isos for Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The offseason addition of Malcolm Brogdon is another move in that direction but sometimes you just need your star to get a bucket and Tatum is doing that better than ever.

Tatum is averaging 32.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 blocks per game on a career-high 68.7 true shooting percentage. He’s been fantastic in myriad ways but particularly in 1-on-1 situations where he’s averaging 1.29 points per possession and ranks in the 85th percentile in scoring efficiency. Only James Harden and DeMar DeRozan have scored more efficiently in isos among the 15 players averaging four or more possessions per game.

Tatum’s previous career-high was just 1.00 points per possession out of isolations so it’s likely this number comes down a bit. But if he is scoring like this on his own against set defenses it’s only going to make the Celtics even more dangerous in the playoffs.

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Content from around the FanSided NBA Network

  • Tyler Watts at The Smoking Cuban on why the Mavericks need Tim Hardaway Jr. and why fans should be so encouraged by his performance against the Nets.
  • Pete O’Keefe at Valley of the Suns on how Devin Booker is getting to the rim more than ever before, the next evolution in an already scary offensive game.
  • At Raptors Rapture, Mike Luciano turns to All-NBA comparisons to illustrate just how good Pascal Siakam has been this year.

NBA 2K League gets hit with gambling scandal

The NBA 2K League announced Thursday that it had “indefinitely disqualified” six players and a coach for violating gambling rules. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Christopher Lafanette, Dorian Earl Miller and Robert Nastasi of Blazer5 Gaming, Kimanni Ingram of Jazz Gaming, and Zekirri Dennis of Mavs Gaming all wagered or attempted to wager on NBA 2K League games through third parties, according to the league’s investigation.
  • Another player and coach from Blazers5 Gaming were disqualified for failing to report violations and cooperate with the league’s investigation.
  • Yes, betting on NBA 2K League does exist, with most of the same standard betting options available as regular NBA games — moneyline, spread, over/unders and prop bets.

Damian Lillard will be out 1-2 weeks with calf injury

After a red-hot start to the season. Lillard will be out for a while as he recovers from a calf injury. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Lillard suffered a grade 1 strain of his right calf in Wednesday’s game against the Miami Heat. He will be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks.
  • Lillard had been averaging 31.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for the 4-1 Portland Trail Blazers.
  • Rookie Shaedon Sharpe may replace Lillard in the starting lineup, with Anfernee Simons picking up increased scoring and creation responsibilities.

Last night’s NBA scores:

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