by Tai Justice
Who’s the NBA MVP? Heading into April, there is usually a good idea or at least a couple guys battling it out for the award. This year is different. There are a bunch of different guys with legit cases across the board. There is not a right answer right now. It’s time to dive in on the potential candidates for the most recognizable award in sports.
Can many people name the last ten NFL MVP’s? What about the MLB MVPs for the last five years in each conference? How many people even know what the NHL MVP is? The Most Valuable Player Award works best for the NBA. Every single player is eligible. Everyone plays games against one another. It’s relatively simple to compare statistics across the board and. By watching the games, the eye test can help too.
Before getting into the candidates, it’s important to discuss what makes an NBA MVP. Ten years from now when thinking back on that particular season, it should be completely defined by that player. Think about Stephen Curry in 2016. The Warriors rolled to 73 wins. It is not like the travesty that was the 2017 NBA MVP which was given to Russell Westbrook out of pure sympathy because Kevin Durant left in free agency. The MVP should define the season. They should not stat pad on a team that eventually was embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s also important to assess how valuable the candidate was to their team. Is their play resulting in winning? Until the Westbrook MVP in 2017, no NBA MVP had ever been on a team that was not a top four seed. The team needs to be winning and a true contender.
If you replace that player with an average level player, how badly does the team drop off? It’s important to the 2021 MVP race as this might be the deepest pool of candidates in a while. There are ten that at very least have an argument. They don’t all deserve it, but they have a case.
10. Stephen Curry
Curry isn’t going to come close to the award this year, but that’s of not fault of his own. He is averaging 29-6-5 on ridiculous shooting percentages. The Warriors as a team are awful around him this year and they won’t win enough games. He still deserves to be mentioned in the top 10 though. He has been awesome yet again this year.
9. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has been ridiculous this year. He is averaging 26-6-5 on over 50 percent shooting from the field. The Clippers are likely going to be a top three seed in the West and Leonard been good enough to be mentioned. With the playoff flame-out last year, there isn’t a real case this year for Leonard and he doesn’t care either. The only thing that matters for the Clippers this year is winning a championship.
8. Rudy Gobert
It’s time to throw the Jazz homer hat on a little bit. Gobert fits exactly the point of “defining the season” as the Utah Jazz have been the best team in basketball from the start of the season until now. Gobert has been the best player on the best team this year. Gobert can never define a game in the way that other stars can just because of the position he plays and the type of player he is. He’s been just as dominant as anyone as he recently became the first player in the NBA this season to crack the +500 plus-minus barrier. He leads the league in plus-minus by an even 100 points over teammate Mike Conley. Number three is Giannis Antetokounmpo (+342).
Almost every second on the floor, he’s been dominating and in complete control of the game. Gobert’s gravity is so impactful for the Jazz as he pulls so much attention to the rim anytime he rolls or dives to the basket. People laugh about the screen assist stat, but they matter. He is first in that category by a wide margin. He is a full point better than the next closest guy. He’s also the best defender in basketball and likely headed for his third Defensive Player of the Year award. He doesn’t absolutely deserve to win, but it’s time to put some respect on Gobert’s name. He has been dominating the league for years now.
7. Luka Doncic
Doncic was everyone’s pick heading into the season as everyone just assumed this was his next step on his path to being an all-time great player. However, a slow start to the season doomed him. He’s been brilliant this year, averaging 28-9-8 on 48.7 percent from the field. However, the lack of wins for the Mavs (currently the seven seed) and the slow start made it so he’d have a lot of ground to make up. While he’s gotten in the conversation, this is not the year Luka wins his first MVP. That’s coming soon, but not this year.
6. LeBron James
Just a few weeks ago it would’ve been absurd to have James this low. However, he’s still dealing with a high ankle sprain that could take him off this list entirely in the next couple weeks as it doesn’t look like he’s coming back anytime soon. Before he suffered the ankle sprain, James was doing what he does. He was dominating every game while still being one of the most physically imposing players in the league even at age 36. Before he got hurt, he was averaging 25-8-8 basically on over 50 percent from the field. It’s likely he would have won it if he never got hurt. He is still the best player in the league. Every time it matters, he shows everyone that. It makes every doubter feel dumb for putting anyone on his level.
There is also the narrative of the Lakers not only coming off the championship, but that LeBron hasn’t won an MVP in eight years. How can that possibly be? When going back through all those years that he didn’t win, he really doesn’t even have much of a case for any of them except 2019 and 2011. That narrative would’ve become powerful this year. LeBron should have more MVP trophies. The story is what matters the most. Think about Derrick Rose in 2011. He is from Chicago and the leader of the top-seeded Bulls. He gets the MVP in a landslide even when he shouldn’t have. The story matters.
5. Damian Lillard
Lillard is the sleeper in this race. He is averaging 29-7-4 on a winning team and the race is wide open. This guy as recently as last year has gone on insane hot streaks. He’s averaging off-the-charts numbers and winning games late. He may have slid up a couple spots higher than he should be right now, but this is a long-term investment. Portland currently sits as the six-seed in the West, but only a half-game behind the Lakers and a game behind the Nuggets for the four and five seeds. If he gets hot or even keeps playing like he has been, which has been a top 10 player in the world, you’ll see him start to shoot up these lists more and more. This will especially be the case if he continues his late game heroics. Lillard in the clutch this year has been on another level. He is shooting an absurd 60 percent from the field and 53 percent from three in clutch situations this situation.
4. Joel Embiid
This is finally the Embiid season everyone has been waiting for. It looks like he finally has the right coach. He might not have the right star next to him. Even if they win the NBA Finals, the argument can be made that the Embiid/Simmons fit isn’t the cleanest for a dynamic duo. Embiid as an individual is clearly a top five player in basketball and the team is a title contender. There were visions of this happening since “The Process” began way back in 2014. Then, an injury happened. His ten-game absence with a bone bruise in his left knee has made him slip out of the top three. When he got hurt, he was averaging 29 points and 11 rebounds per game. It was truly one of the most dominant big man seasons in a long time.
3. Giannis Antetokunmpo
The back-to-back MVP is making a serious run at his third in a row as the Bucks have caught fire recently. They have won nine of their last ten behind just absurd and dominant performances. He is currently averaging 29-11-6 on 56 percent shooting from the field. He’s also been a top five defensive player again this year. It is time to go back to narrative because with it probably matters the most for him. It is difficult to see people with a vote giving the award to him again because once again it’s about the story. Think about the guys who have won this award. They have the numbers, but they have the story as well. Antetokounmpo has better numbers than his first two MVP seasons. However, the story is worse and that matters. After winning the award twice and having two playoff flame outs, he has suddenly fallen into the category that just about every star falls into the second they aren’t the new thing. Giannis’ current numbers scream MVP. However, the narrative doesn’t fit.
2. James Harden
Talk about an MVP caliber season. The only thing holding him back is also the story and the journey to get to this moment. Harden is averaging 26-11-8 on 46 percent shooting from the field and has led the Nets, with their other two stars missing a lot of time, to the top-seed in the East. The case for Harden is simple. He is very good. He’s a walking top-five offense in the NBA by himself. The team he plays for is already good. The Nets were 7-6 when they made the Harden trade and are now 26-7 and 21-2 in games he’s played in. The Brooklyn Nets are going to end up defining this basketball season if they can ever get completely healthy. Harden has been the rock for them as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have both been in and out of the lineup all season long. The dude did disgrace an entire franchise forcing his way out for reasons that still seem to be a little murky. That’s a tough thing to look past when talking about the MVP. No player has ever been traded in that same season and won the MVP award.
1. Nikola Jokic Once James and Embiid suffered injuries that were going to keep them sidelined for an extended period of time, Jokic took a decent lead in the MVP race as he has the numbers and story to back it up. For years, people have watched Jokic suggest he’d be even better if he got himself in better shape. Perhaps aided by the short offseason, Jokic has been in fantastic physical condition. He is not only logging the NBA’s second-most minutes played but also shooting 61.2 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from three in fourth quarters. That final frame is a stage in the game where he’d struggled with his long-range jumper the past three seasons. That was possibly due to fatigue.
The team itself didn’t have the best start to the season as they were a mess for about 15 games. Since then, they’ve turned back into something close to how they performed in the bubble last year. They have the devastating two-man game with between Jokic and Murray. Jokic has done a bit more of everything as he is scoring and assisting at career-high levels while shooting and passing more. He is also passing more efficiently as he contuines to cement himself as the greatest passing big man of all-time. When the other Nuggets struggled early on with a record of 7-7, Jokic kept them afloat by averaging a triple double through those first 14 games. Denver is currently the four seed. In a loaded West and a murky MVP race, that is good enough to be the leader in this race. Denver isn’t a playoff team without him.
Featured image courtesy Hoops Hype