Where is the NBA MVP race headed? We surveyed 100 league insiders

by Gordon Dixon - Luka has the numbers. Tatum has the wins. And Giannis has been, well, Giannis. So who has the inside track for MVP? Early returns are in.

NBA MVP straw poll: Luka? Giannis? Tatum? 100 league insiders make their picks 8:00 AM ET Tim BontempsESPN There is a narrow leader in the early race for the Michael Jordan Trophy . Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum , who is averaging a career-high 30.2 points per game, claimed 47 first-place votes and was on 98 of 100 ballots cast in the 2022-23 debut of ESPN's NBA MVP straw poll, which was conducted from Sunday to Tuesday. Tatum would become the first Celtics player since Larry Bird to win the league's highest individual honor -- now named after Jordan following the NBA's announcement of its newly christened slate of awards earlier this week. Bird is the most recent player to win it three times in a row (1984-86). Tatum led the way with 759 total points, followed by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (36 first-place votes, 687 total points) in second and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (10 first-place votes, 392 total points) in third. The 82-point gap between Tatum and Antetokounmpo is the second-closest between first and second place across the 11 straw polls that have been conducted since the 2016-17 season. New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson , meanwhile, earned a straw poll vote for the first time in his career, as did Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander . Editor's Picks NBA renaming MVP after Jordan in awards update 2d Kirk Goldsberry Pelicans' future riding on more than just Zion 2d Brian Windhorst 2 Related To gauge where the race stands roughly a third of the way through the regular season, ESPN asked 100 media members to participate in an informal poll that mimics the NBA's postseason award voting process. To make the balloting as realistic as possible, there were at least two voters from each of the league's 28 markets, along with a cross section of national and international reporters. As with the NBA's official voting at the end of season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot, and results were tabulated using the league's scoring system: 10 points for each first-place vote, seven points for second, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth. Rounding out the top five behind Tatum, Antetokounmpo and Doncic were Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (six first-place votes, 250 total points) and Denver Nuggets center (and reigning two-time NBA MVP) Nikola Jokic , who had one first-place vote and 195 total points. Tatum, Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Curry and Jokic were the only five players to receive a first place vote. Others receiving votes included Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (sixth), Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (seventh), Williamson (eighth), Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (ninth), Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (10th), Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (11th), Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (12th), and Gilgeous-Alexander, who, with a lone fifth-place vote, rounded out the poll in 13th place. Jayson Tatum, left, and Luka Doncic are among the favorites to capture their first NBA MVP award. Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images While Tatum, who is coming off a sixth-place finish in MVP voting last season, sits atop this first poll, history shows that his lead might not be safe. Last season, Curry racked up 94 of 100 first-place votes in the first round of the straw poll -- the most ever given to a single player across 11 versions of this poll conducted since the 2016-17 season. In 2020-21 , LeBron James ' slim early lead disappeared. He fell to fifth in the final round of the straw poll and wound up tied for 13th in the official MVP ballot. In both seasons, it was Jokic who rallied to win the award. This also is the first time across any of the straw polls that no player tallied 100 total votes. That's not to say Tatum isn't in a strong position to remain on top. The 24-year-old is off to the best start of his career, averaging 30.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 47% from the field. Tatum has led the Celtics to a league-leading 22-7 record without defensive anchor Robert Williams III , who has yet to play this season due to knee surgery. NBA on ESPN+ Get access to exclusive original series, premium articles from our NBA insiders, the full 30 for 30 library and more. Sign up now to unlock everything ESPN+ has to offer . Like in the standings, where the Bucks are 1.5 games behind the Celtics in the East, Antetokounmpo finds himself looking up at Tatum in the straw poll. The two-time MVP has led the Bucks through a challenging opening third of the season, averaging 30.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists with co-stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing significant time with injuries. Antetokounmpo is the only player who has at least one vote in all 11 straw polls that have been conducted. He has finished outside the top three in voting just once in eight polls conducted across the past four seasons. Doncic, meanwhile, has been brilliant in Dallas, averaging a Western Conference-leading 33.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.7 assists for the Mavericks. For both Doncic and Stephen Curry, the biggest impediment to their early-season candidacies is their team's struggles on the court. While Boston and Milwaukee have the NBA's two best records, Dallas and Golden State sit ninth and 10th in the West, respectively. That is a major reason Doncic was only named to 80 of the 100 ballots, and why Curry landed on 58 of them -- both falling in the same range of Jokic (73) in the first round of voting last year before going on to win the award. Specifically, voters pointed to Golden State's .500 record as a reason Curry was either lower on their ballot or left off completely. But the superstar guard's candidacy likely was dealt a fatal blow with the news Thursday, first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski , that Curry would miss the next few weeks because of a left shoulder injury suffered during Wednesday's loss to the Indiana Pacers . Since Bill Walton won the award while missing 24 games for the 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers -- a team that was 50-10 when he suffered a broken foot that ended his regular season -- only Allen Iverson has missed more than 10 games and won that season's MVP. And Iverson, when he won the award in 2001 for the East-leading 76ers, missed 11. Curry is playing for a team that has gone 14-15 to start the season despite his 30.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game while shooting 43.4% from 3-point range. The NBA on ESPN and the ESPN App Friday's games Friday, Dec. 23 *All times Eastern Then there's Jokic, who is having another strong statistical season, averaging 24.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.0 assists for Denver, which sits in third place in the West standings. But after winning the award each of the past two seasons -- the ninth time a player won the award twice in a row since Bird's three in a row -- it was always expected to be difficult for Jokic to be the person to buck that trend. In the lower reaches of the poll, the most notable name to appear is Williamson, who has helped lead the Pelicans to the top of the West. After missing all of last season with a foot injury, Williamson is averaging 25.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists for the 18-10 Pelicans. Anthony Davis saw his recent surge of strong play garner him four fifth-place votes, marking his return to the poll for the first time since the 2019-20 season, while Gilgeous-Alexander's stellar season for the Thunder -- including spectacular performances in New York and Washington in victories -- led to his straw poll debut. ESPN NBA MVP Straw Poll Results PLAYER TEAM 1ST 2ND 3RD 4TH 5TH TOTAL VOTES TOTAL POINTS 1 Jayson Tatum BOS 47 37 7 4 3 98 759 2 Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 36 38 8 5 6 93 687 3 Luka Doncic DAL 10 10 30 21 9 80 392 4 Stephen Curry GS 6 8 16 13 15 58 250 5 Nikola Jokic DEN 1 7 17 24 13 62 195 6 Ja Morant MEM 0 0 5 10 15 30 70 7 Kevin Durant BKN 0 0 6 7 10 23 61 8 Zion Williamson NO 0 0 5 6 12 23 55 9 Devin Booker PHX 0 0 4 5 5 14 40 10 Joel Embiid PHI 0 0 2 3 3 8 22 11 Donovan Mitchell CLE 0 0 0 2 4 6 10 12 Anthony Davis LAL 0 0 0 0 4 4 4 13 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander OKC 0 0 0 0 1 1 1