A clear front-runner has emerged in the 2020-2021 NBA MVP race, but rarely have the other four spots on the ballot felt so difficult to fill out. The season has been compromised from the very start by a global pandemic and a condensed schedule meant to squeeze as many games as possible into an abbreviated window. Add in the shortest offseason in league history — just 71 days for the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat — and the result has been a year full of regular absences from the game’s biggest stars.
Availability has been the buzzword of the season with so many injuries and Covid-related absences. In filling out our top-five, we decided that if Joel Embiid — who has played 46 games at time of publish — is going to be on the ballot, then LeBron James (43 games), James Harden (42 games), Kawhi Leonard (47 games) and Jimmy Butler (48 games) all deserved equal consideration. It just didn’t seem to make much sense to include Embiid but rule out any of those other players.
May 21 update: The NBA has released the finalists for the 2020-21 MVP award.
With apologies to Chris Paul, Leonard, Luka Doncic, Harden, and Rudy Gobert, this is how we would vote if we had an MVP ballot.
5. LeBron James, F, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James clearly wanted to win his fifth MVP this season. Before he missed the last game before the All-Star break with a sore ankle, James had played in the Lakers’ first 36 games despite coming off the shortest offseason (only 71 days) in league history. James’ ankle eventually buckled from the stress on March 20, and he’s just recently returned to the lineup, not yet looking like himself.
James developed a reputation for using the regular season to coast a few years back, and it would have been completely forgivable this season after carrying the Lakers to the championships in the bubble. Instead, LeBron seemingly dragged the Lakers’ offense to competence every night while also contributing to their top-ranked defense, all while Anthony Davis missed the majority of the season with a calf strain.
James’ regular season numbers have fallen since his peak, but his peak was so high that he remains one of the most productive players in the league. He’s third in Estimated Plus-Minus, and fifth in RAPM, two all-in-one stats that measure on-court impact. LeBron doesn’t attack the rim as much anymore and settled for threes at the highest rate of his career this season, but his ability to dictate the tempo of any game and find open teammates as a playmaker has kept him near the top of the league hierarchy. When it’s playoff time, there’s LeBron and then there’s everyone else.
LeBron won’t tie Michael Jordan with his fifth MVP this season, but he still has a chance to win his fifth NBA championship even if the Lakers look shaky right now. James has said he’ll never get back to 100 percent in his career after the ankle injury, but maybe that will only serve as more motivation for the self-proclaimed ‘washed king.’
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
No NBA player has won MVP in three straight seasons since Larry Bird, and Antetokounmpo won’t be the player to break that streak. While voters will remember the Bucks’ playoff flameout in the bubble last year and point to a Bucks team that hasn’t been as dominant in the regular season this year, Giannis remains nearly as good as he’s been the last two seasons when he took home this hardware.
With Jrue Holiday adding a new dimension to the offense this season, the Bucks have played Giannis as a big slightly more often. His usage rate is down, and he’s attempting three-pointers less frequently than last season, but he’s actually scoring unassisted more often than he ever has in his career. Holiday and Khris Middleton have occupied enough attention as legit co-stars to make Giannis more unstoppable than ever isolations, going from the 59th percentile to the 88th percentile in scoring efficiency on those plays since last season.
Antetokounmpo is still terrific defensively, and he’s actually raised his block rate and steal rate from last season when he won Defensive Player of the Year. His 49-point performance against the Nets over the weekend showed the type of two-way force he can be. The hope is that Holiday can make the Bucks’ offense less predictable in the playoffs, and Giannis can find some openings that he didn’t have a year ago. As long as he’s in Milwaukee, the Bucks are real title contenders.
3. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers were among the most disappointing teams in the NBA last season. Daryl Morey arrived during the offseason to takeover as the franchise’s lead decision-maker, and emphasized finding players that were a better complement to Joel Embiid’s game. The result is a Sixers team that currently holds the No. 1 seed in the East thanks to the best season of Embiid’s career.
In an era that has devalued post play, Embiid has become an unstoppable force on the block. He leads the league by a mile in post possessions (9.3 per game, the next closest is Nikola Jokic at 5.9) and points scored in the post (10 per game, Jokic is next closest at six). If Embiid isn’t getting buckets on his endless series of counters, he’s likely getting to the foul line. His 17.1 free throw attempts per 100 possessions would be the second most in league history, per Basketball Reference, only eclipsed by Shaq in 2001. While Shaq hit 51.3 percent of his shots at the line, Embiid shoots 85 percent from the charity stripe.
Embiid has also made massive improvements as a shooter. From mid-range, Embiid is making 48.2 percent of his shots between 10-16 feet (last year: 40.7 percent) and 51.4 percent of his shots between 16-feet and the three-point line (last year: 35.5 percent). He’s also raised his three-point percentage from 33.1 to 37.7 percent.
Embiid has a case as the best two-way player in basketball right now, performing at a level that ranks in the 98th percentile offensively and 93rd percentile defensively, per Estimated Plus-Minus. While some would argue he’s not the most impactful defensive player on his own team, Embiid remains one of the very best players in the league on that end as a massive 7-foot, 280-pound center who can protect the paint and deter shooters from even thinking about taking shots at the rim. He rates as a top-10 defensive player by the RAPTOR metric.
Embiid has been limited to 46 games so far this season which hurts his MVP case, but his value to the Sixers is obvious to anyone who has paid attention this year. If he isn’t the MVP just yet, Embiid is unquestionably now one of the best players alive.
2. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry said it best himself at the start of the season: he had nothing to prove at age-33, but still had plenty to accomplish. So much has changed for his Golden State Warriors over the last two seasons: Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn, Klay Thompson has missed consecutive years due to injury, and the team has gone from winning championships to competing for a spot in the play-in tournament. Just about the only thing that has remained the same is Curry’s greatness, which he reminded us of again and again this season.
Curry leads the NBA in scoring at 31.3 points per game on the highest usage rate of his career while still posting a ridiculous 65.8 true shooting percentage that ranks No. 10 in the league (he’s the only guard in the top-20). Curry scored a new career-high 62 points in his fifth game of the season, he hit 10 or more three-pointers in a game five times, and he averaged more than 37 points per game in April on 51.8/46.6/90.8 shooting splits.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Curry’s season is that he’s done it while opposing defenses focused their full attention on him every night because the Warriors don’t have another player who can reliably create his own shot. With Curry on the court this season, the Warriors have an offense that ranks right at the edge of the top-10. With him on the bench, the offense performs at a level at would be the worst in the league over the last five years. That about sums it up.
Curry’s scoring explosions have been one of the true joys of the season, but there’s also something a little disheartening about him being stuck on a Warriors team that would again be the worst in the league without him. A player this good deserves to be competing for championships again, not praying to get out of the play-in tournament.
1. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Jokic is the MVP because he’s been the best player in the NBA during the regular season. It’s as easy as that.
Jokic entered the season in great shape and was dominant from the first month of the season until the very end. He pulled off one of the most difficult tasks in basketball this year: raising his usage to career-high levels while also scoring more efficiently than he ever has before. Jokic averaged 37.2 points per 100 possessions (previous career high: 31.5) on 64.5 percent true shooting, buoyed by his 41 percent three-point shooting, which is nearly 10 percentage points better than it was last year. He also significantly improved his long two-point shooting ability by making 51 percent of shots between 16-feet and the three-point line.
Jokic has grown into a great scorer, but it is of course not the best part of his game. This is the best passing big man of all-time, and perhaps one of the best pure passers in league history. His 40.3 percent assist rate is No. 6 in the league, and he’s been passing teammates open — not just passing to open teammates — all season. His impact as a passer has helped unlock teammates Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon in particular since the latter arrived from Orlando at the trade deadline.
Jokic is blowing away the competition in just about every all-in-one stat that measures a player’s impact. He’s first in Estimated Plus-Minus, first in overall RAPTOR, and first in Box Plus-Minus, win shares per 48, and VORP. Jokic grades out as a slight positive defensively in most metrics while being a massive positive on offense. Basically every reputable metric shows that Jokic has been the league’s best player during the regular season.
When Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets outscore opponents by nearly eight points per 100 possessions. When he’s off the floor, they get outscored slightly per 100. Unlike everyone else on this list, Jokic hasn’t missed a game all season. While the season-ending Jamal Murray injury is a brutal blow for Denver’s playoff chances, they still won’t be an easy out with Jokic playing like this. Regardless of what happens in the postseason, MVP is a regular season award, and Jokic has been this season’s top player.