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The Whiteboard: Top 5 MVP candidates heading into NBA All-Star break

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Realistically, the MVP race for the 2020-21 NBA season has been a two-horse race between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid up to this point. People have tried to push the LeBron James narrative because of how late in his career he’s still playing at an elite level, and we’ve even pushed our own cases for Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry, but at the midway point of the season, the Joker and the Process are the two main frontrunners.

Whether that changes in the coming months remains to be seen. One injury can change the conversation in an instant, as can a big winning or losing streak for a team, a timely individual hot streak that catches the national spotlight or even a teammate‘s injury that makes a star’s contributions shine even brighter.

After a slower start, Western Conference Player of the Month Devin Booker has come on strong and could suddenly find himself in the running if the Phoenix Suns (winners of 15 of their last 18 games) continue their bold ascent up the standings. Maybe Luka Doncic and his gaudy numbers make a late push if the Dallas Mavericks catch fire. Our last three honorable mentions in Curry, Dame and Kawhi Leonard could easily bolster their cases if their teams start winning more games, and Kevin Durant could seriously enter the mix if he stops missing games.

But for now, as we head into the “halfway” point of the season with the All-Star break, it’s time to take a quick look at the current MVP ladder with the league’s top-five candidates.

Honorable mentions: Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant Luka Doncic

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis won’t win because of the fatigue that comes with any player winning back-to-back MVPs … especially when said player’s team flamed out in the playoffs both times. The narrative has shifted to “prove it come playoff time,” which means, given what we’ve seen thus far, Antetokounmpo won’t be a serious MVP candidate again until next season, and that’s only if the Milwaukee Bucks go on their long-awaited Finals run here in 2021. It’s unfair criteria for a regular-season award, but voters will hesitate to award it to him a third time after watching Milwaukee wither away sooner than expected in the postseason.

Even so, the Greek Freak still belongs high up on the MVP ladder, because what he’s doing — somehow under the radar — is pretty ridiculous. He’s averaging 29.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor. He still can’t hit 3s (27.9 percent on 4.0 attempts per game), but he’s also fifth in the league in scoring and fourth in rebounds, and the Bucks wouldn’t be third in the East while missing Jrue Holiday for so many games if not for Giannis. Case in point: They boast a 10.9 Net Rating with him on the court, compared to a dead-even Net Rating when he rests.

4. LeBron James

After a red-hot start for him and the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James saw an opening for his fifth MVP award in his 18th(!!) season. Last year proved the power of the “Can you believe what he’s doing at this age??” narrative was on his side, and after winning his first ring with the Lakers, kicking off the new season with a league-best 14-4 start and shooting a blistering 41.3 percent from deep on a career-high 6.8 attempts per game through January, his case swiftly built momentum.

Since then, however, the Lakers have gone 10-9, and LeBron’s 3-point percentage has nosedived to 27.8 percent since the start of February. Anthony Davis’ injury provided the King a chance to bolster his MVP case, but he’s been unable to carry LA in the Brow’s absence; the Lakers are 7-7 without AD, compared to 17-6 with him. Entering the break, Los Angeles now finds itself in fourth in the Western Conference, so even with LeBron posting 25.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in Year 18, his stat line, team record and potential narratives (3-point shooting, carrying the team without AD) don’t quite measure up to the rest of the MVP playing field.

3. James Harden

Harden won’t get the requisite votes because of the unsavory manner he forced his way out of Houston (and his general COVIDiot tendencies during the pandemic), but the way he’s altered his functional role on the court is the reason the Brooklyn Nets‘ Big 3 is working so far. Despite Kevin Durant missing nearly half the season, Harden’s arrival has kept this team on pace for a top seed in the East.

The Nets are 17-6 in Harden’s 23 games, and while he’s “only” averaging 25.3 points per game, he’s also leading the league in assists with 11.1 per game, chipping in 7.8 rebounds a night and shooting with deadly efficiency. A 25-11-8 stat line for the No. 2 team in the East is nothing to sneeze at, especially when those numbers are coming on .484/.401/.859 shooting splits. His agreement with Kyrie Irving to buck positional norms and play where they truly belong has unlocked an efficient, deadlier Harden than we’ve seen in a while, and even if his public approval rating is in poor shape, there’s no denying he’s been Brooklyn’s most valuable player so far.

2. Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has been the best individual player in the NBA this season. His 27.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game speak for themselves. So does his 56.9 field-goal percentage, his 41.7 3-point percentage (on 3.8 attempts per game) and his 88.5 free-throw percentage. He ranks ninth in the league in scoring, 11th in rebounds and sixth in assists, making him the only player in the league to even sniff the top-10 in all three categories. Heading into Wednesday’s action, Jokic boasted a league-best 8.3 win shares. In second place? Giannis and Embiid, at a mere 5.6 win shares each.

Unfortunately, team success factors in heavily when it comes to the MVP discussion, so even if he’s been the best player in the league this year, he can’t be its Most Valuable Player when his team is only five games above .500, ranking seventh in the West. In the last 40 years, Moses Malone (1982-83) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17) are the only players to win MVP while playing for a team that wasn’t a top-three seed in its respective conference. One had to average a triple-double and harness the narrative power of Kevin Durant’s departure to do it, and the other case happened nearly 40 years ago.

As absurd as Jokic’s numbers are, he doesn’t quite have that same narrative power on his side that Russ had when KD left the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Joker is frighteningly efficient as a scorer and passer, and the Denver Nuggets‘ Net Rating plummets by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits, but he hasn’t created quite enough buzz to overcome his team’s 20-15 record just yet. There’s still time, but as it stands, this is as high as we can place him on the MVP ladder.

1. Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid fits every criterion for MVP. Incredible individual numbers? The Process is putting up 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, ranking second in the league in scoring and sixth in rebounds. Efficiency? The seven-footer is shooting 52.1 percent from the floor, 41.6 percent from 3 (on 3.0 attempts per game) and 85.6 percent from the free-throw line. Team success? The Philadelphia 76ers are 24-12, giving them the best record in the East and third-best record in the NBA.

What if you prefer the “If you took Player X away from his team, how good would they be?” question to judge your MVP? Well, the Sixers boast a Net Rating of 11.1 with Embiid on the court, and that number shrivels to minus-6.3 when he rests — a massive swing of 17.4 points per 100 possessions.

Throw in his defensive prowess as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate and it’s hard to see anyone submitting a better MVP resume at the season’s halfway point. Jokic has been the better individual player, but if the 2020-21 campaign ended today, Embiid would have the edge in the MVP debate.


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