USA TODAY Network survey reveals top six NBA MVP candidates at season’s quarter-mark

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NBA MVP narratives begin early and, right or wrong, help shape the MVP race for the remainder of the season. Start strong and finish strong, a player can remain in the conversation all season.

But that doesn’t mean the player who is atop the MVP poll early in the season wins the award, which is voted on by media.

Last season, Golden State’s Steph Curry got off to a hot start, cooled off and finished strong. But it wasn’t enough to overtake Denver’s Nikola Jokic who won his second consecutive MVP. Curry finished eighth.

What about this season?

Curry is off to another strong start along with Jokic, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Milwaukee’s two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Dallas’ Luka Doncic among others.

With help from USA TODAY Network staffers Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman, Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic and Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star, we take a look at the top six MVP candidates after a quarter of the season:

Doncic is almost in the same position as Curry: eye-popping stats but on a team that is .500. Doncic averages a league-best 33.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists and 50.5% from the field. His 33.1% on 3s is a dip from last season’s 35.3%. But his true shooting percentage, which accounts for 3s and free throws, is 60.6%, and he has a high assist rate and low turnover rate, which is remarkable considering how much he handles the basketball. Still, there has to be frustration about Dallas’ start. Doncic is one of the best players in the league and headed toward an MVP trophy at some point. But his team needs to win more games. After reaching the West finals last season, barely making the playoffs or missing them altogether won’t do much for Doncic’s candidacy.

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The Jokic scenario has intrigue. Just three players (Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird) have won three consecutive MVPs, and Bird is the only one to win three in a row with media voting. Players voted when Chamberlain and Russell won. Are voters willing and prepared to put Jokic in that exclusive group? Jokic averages 23.0 points, four fewer than last season, but he’s also taking four fewer shots per game with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to the lineup. He posts 9.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game and shoots a career-high 62.3% from the field. He remains a dominant and efficient player and is No. 2 in player efficiency rating which measures a player’s good and bad plays. If the Nuggets, now in second place in the West, finish with the first or second seed, it will be tough to ignore Jokic’s case.

4. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors

Curry’s stats, not surprisingly, are phenomenal: 31.4 points, 7.0 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game, and he’s on pace to reach the coveted 40/50/90 status with his 43.6% shooting on 3s, 51.8% shooting from the field and 90.7% shooting from the foul line. The other time Curry finished 40/50/90, in 2015-16, he won the MVP award. The Warriors also won 73 games that season, and Curry was the best player on one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. Curry is still the best player on the team, but the Warriors are 11-11. Rarely does the MVP come from a .500 team. The Warriors need to win more games to keep Curry in the conservation at season’s end.

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The best player on the best team in the West, that’s Booker. Yes, the Suns had a disappointing 2022 playoffs after winning 64 regular-season games. But Booker appears on a mission to get the Suns back to the Finals like he did two seasons ago. Booker, who dropped 51 points on Chicago on Wednesday, continues to evolve as a superstar. He averages 29.0 points (a career-high), 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds and shoots 48.9% (another career-high) from the field and 37.8% on 3s. He’s also turned into a solid defender. The Suns are No. 2 offensively, No. 6 defensively and No. 2 in net rating. Like Antetokounmpo, Booker has carried the Suns through injuries to key players such as Chris Paul and Cam Johnson. Booker is in the conversation now and will remain in it as long as he continues to play like he has.

The Bucks are right behind the Celtics in the standings. Antetokounmpo has carried the Bucks, who haven’t had Khris Middleton play this season, and other players, such as Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews and Grayson Allen, have been in and out of the lineup. Antetokounmpo has never averaged 30 points for a season, and he’s at 30.9 points per game along with 11.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 53.4% from the field. A career-low 60% from the foul line and 22.9% on 3s are the only drawbacks on his résumé. He won the award in 2019 and 2020.

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1. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

It stands out so clearly two seasons ago when the Celtics eliminated the Washington Wizards from the playoffs and then-Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Tatum will win an MVP soon. How soon is now? If the Celtics continue to win games at this pace (80%), and Tatum continues to play like he has, he will be at the front of the line for his first MVP. Tatum averages 30.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.2 blocks and shoots 48.1% from the field and 34.7% on 3-pointers. Those are career-highs in points, assists, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage (87%) and blocks. The best player on the best team always has a shot.

Others worth considering: Memphis’ Ja Morant, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA MVP candidates include Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic

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