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3 Low-Key Candidates for Every Major NBA Award

Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty Images

Projected Finalists: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James

Low-Key Candidates

Luka Doncic

Low-key feels like a funny description for anything related to Doncic, because the story of his early career is best told in bolded, all-caps text. He had a rookie season for the ages, and he has followed it up with another round of historic production. He went from a great freshman to a great player overnight, and he helped turn the Dallas Mavericks into a playoff team with an all-time great offense.

This is only the 12th time in league history that a player has boasted a 36-plus usage percentage across at least 30 minutes per outing. Doncic has met that massive challenge with the NBA’s fourth-highest PER and sixth-best BPM this season.

“He’s already showing he’s one of the best and he’s only [21] years old and he’s putting up the numbers like, it seems crazy to say it, but the next Michael Jordan,” fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic told NBA.com’s Sekou Smith.

                     

Nikola Jokic

Some might reserve this spot for Anthony Davis, but here, it’s subtraction by affiliation. In other words, his MVP case loses steam because LeBron James’ is so compelling.

But this isn’t a consolation-prize honor for Jokic. The seventh-highest-rated player by RPM (sixth if you exclude those five games from Stephen Curry), Jokic is the reason the Nuggets have the third-best record in the West. Denver has depth and solid complementary pieces, but the big fella is the solo star.

He’s probably the best passing big man we’ve ever seen, and he’ll soon become only the fifth player in league history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in multiple seasons.

                    

Kawhi Leonard

Three players have top-30 RPM rankings both on offense and defense: James, Antetokounmpo and Leonard. If anyone wants to gripe about the occasional load management for Leonard, just keep that two-way dominance in mind.

The Los Angeles Clippers might be a superteam, but Leonard is the key to their super powers. With him, they steamroll opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they barely tread water at plus-0.6 points per 100 possessions. Among their 11 players to log 500 minutes, Patrick Beverley has the second-best net differential at plus-6.0 (nearly five points per 100 behind Leonard’s plus-10.8).

Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but this is the best we’ve ever seen him. His 26.9 points and 5.0 assists are both career highs, and his 7.3 rebounds match his previous best. Add Leonard’s 1.8 steals to the mix, and this is production only previously seen from James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook and Clyde Drexler.

                     

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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