EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker finds himself in a mess of an NBA MVP race

Dec 1, 2022, 12:05 PM | Updated: Dec 5, 2022, 4:14 pm
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Sun...
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on October 19, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Somehow we’ve reached the quarter mark of the NBA season.

The Phoenix Suns (15-6) can’t say it’s gone on without a hitch, but their basketball in this 2022-23 season sure as hell looks like a primo product. Lately, without Chris Paul and Cam Johnson, a more forceful Deandre Ayton stepped up.

Devin Booker, however, has not let us forget that he’s been a constant throughout this season.

He is having a week. Although it was already enough for the Chicago Bulls to come out blitzing him Wednesday night, the Suns two-guard has thrust himself into the heart of the very early MVP conversation with a 51-point reminder that he’s that guy on Wednesday.

After scoring 44 against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Booker told The Athletic’s Sam Amick he is “not even in that race,” mostly because he does not really care. He is incorrect.

Yahoo! Sports’ Jake Fischer told Bickley & Marotta on Arizona Sports that he was working the phones to learn of any new trade scuttle on Tuesday. There was nothing in that regard. But there were conversations about how Booker’s reputation has changed.

“Honestly even before the 51-point game, after what he did against Sacramento on Monday night, I just heard a lot of people start to talk about how this ‘losing player that hasn’t done it in the playoffs’ label that got affixed to Booker has clearly melted away,” Fischer said.

“I don’t really like the award culture and the debate around it, but to me right now, he’s the MVP of the league doing what he’s doing, keeping Phoenix No. 1 in the West without Chris Paul, without Cam Johnson, without Jae Crowder … He’s really, I think, turned a lot of naysayers into supporters.”

Last night alone cast a spotlight on just how competitive the MVP race will be.

Booker had his 20-of-25 shooting night for 51 points before the third quarter ended.

The NBA’s best team, the Boston Celtics (18-4), saw Jayson Tatum go off for 49 points on 25 shots, plus 11 boards. He hit eight threes and got 11 points from the foul line.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 37 to go with 13 rebounds and seven assists. He also took 25 shots.

The parity in the Western Conference, along with the Celtics and Bucks trying to pull away in the East, has set up what will be an unpredictable season when it comes to MVP voting.

You could call it a mess. You could also call it a super fun collection of star talent, where at this point, nearly half of the league could turn out an MVP candidate.

Here’s a quick look at the top cases so far, loosely ordered by one guy who, like Fischer, wants to educate about good basketball players rather than reinforce the worst parts of debate culture.

NBA MVP leaders, a clear top 5

(Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Stats: 34 PPG, 9 RPG, 9 APG, 2 SPG (51 FG%, 32 3FG%)

If Dallas wasn’t 10-10 on the year, he’d be the runaway MVP leader at this point. The Mavericks have put a lot on him, and he’s delivered and then some. Notably while taking on tons of offensive responsibility, Doncic has taken his defensive assertiveness to another level, jumping passing lanes and using his anticipation and quick hands to blow up opponent possessions. If there was any season where the dude with a so-so team wins the MVP award, this would be the type of performance needed.

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Stats: 32 PPG, 8 RPG, 5 APG (49 FG%, 37 3FG%)

Boston lost its head coach from an NBA Finals run, and that hardly seems to matter. The Celtics are No. 1 in offensive rating and have become a stellar jump-shooting team — way better than the Warriors and Nets even. Having won 14 of 15 games, the MVP is Tatum’s to lose if Boston runs away with the league. Or does he?

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Stats: 31 PPG, 12 RPG, 6 APG (53 FG%)

Antetokounmpo has a strong case with better numbers and a less-impressive supporting case than Booker with the Suns. He’s been Milwaukee’s scoring leader in 15 of 20 games, the rebounding leader in 12 of 20 and the assist leader in 10 of 20 Bucks games through a 15-5 start. Khris Middleton is just returning, and Antetokounmpo has been flanked in the starting lineup by Jevon Carter and Grayson Allen for much of the season.

Devin Booker, Suns

Stats: 29 PPG, 6 RPG, 5 APG (49 FG%, 38 3FG%)

Statistically, Tatum’s season looks similar to Booker’s, but the team context around the former — having Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart pulling the rope — might help Booker’s case in a one-to-one comparison. Phoenix missing Paul and Johnson has shown how much the team needs Booker.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Stats: 23 PPG, 10 RPG, 9 APG (63 FG%)

Jokic has a full complement of players around him and has taken four fewer shots per game compared to last year. He’s also seeing a minutes reduction this season coming off his MVP campaign of 2021-22. Denver is second in the Western Conference at 14-7 and has a shot at running away with the conference. He might be the favorite if they do, because while the aggression has fallen off, the efficiency is insane.

Guys who could enter the conversation if their teams go on a run

(AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Stephen Curry, Warriors

Stats: 31 PPG, 7 APG, 7 RPG (52 FG%, 44 3FG%)

Golden State is trying to find its legs. At 34 years old and getting better, Curry has already found his. If the season ended now, he would have a career-best true shooting percentage (which factors in three-point value and free throws) despite taking the second-most shots per game in his career.

Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers

Stats: 28 PPG, 5 APG, 4 RPG (49 FG%, 42 3FG%)

Cleveland (14-8) looks for real, and Mitchell has been more efficient than in his Utah days now alongside Darius Garland. But does Garland’s also stellar play take away from Mitchell’s potential MVP case?

Kevin Durant, Nets

Stats: 30 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG, (55 FG%, 36 3FG%)

Durant has moved on from that offseason trade request just fine. Brooklyn has won four of five.

Joel Embiid, Sixers

Stats: 31 PPG, 10 RPG, 5 APG, 2 BPG (51 FG%)

Embiid has answered the bell with James Harden injured this season. Philly just needs to be better.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Stats: 28 PPG, 6 RPG, 8 APG (47 FG%, 38 3FG%)

Memphis might be stuck where it is — a certified top-six team in the conference — until Morant finds ways to take it to another level. He’s got a high turnover rate, which is a sign there’s room for him to grow like Booker has in the past several seasons.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder

Stats: 31 PPG, 6 APG, 5 RPG, 2 SPG (51 FG%, 34 3FG%)

I’m just saying, the Thunder are two games out of a play-in spot. And Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best two-way forces in the league and in line to win the NBA Most Improved Player honor despite being 24-ish point-per-game scorer the last two seasons.

Anthony Davis, Lakers

Stats: Stats: 26 PPG, 13 RPG, 3 APG, 2 BPG, 2 SPG (57 FG%)

I’m really just saying that the Lakers are also two games out of a play-in spot. Davis’s historic night against the Suns was a sign he can still do what made him a perennial MVP candidate. He obviously needs to stay healthy.

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