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NBA MVP Ladder: February 11

It feels like just yesterday the NBA was gearing up for Christmas day games and the start of its COVID-19 shortened 2020-2021 regular season. Now, the first third of the regular season has already flown by. There has been a fair share of weirdness, as one would expect from a season occurring during a pandemic. Very few NBA fans would have picked the Utah Jazz to hold the best record in the league through 25 games if asked before the season started fewer still would have guessed that two of the front-runners for MVP would be centers.

The 2020-2021 season has been the year of the big man thus far. Philadelphia 76ers’ center Joel Embiid is finally having the dominant season so many knew he was capable of having, and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has continued his offensive heroics from last year’s playoffs. They both have proven themselves to be worthy of mention in the top-five players in the league conversation. Outside of these titans, some familiar names have surfaced in the MVP debate in Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and LeBron James. Here is how they rank so far:

C Joel Embiid: Philadelphia 76ers

Notable Stats: 29.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 1.3 BLK, 1.4 STL

The 76ers center has thrived under new head coach Doc Rivers’ tutelage and system, and is putting up absolutely monstrous numbers. Shaquille O’Neal has said before that Embiid has the skills to be the most dominant center in the NBA when he wants to, and Embiid is clearly dialed in on both ends this season so far. A huge part of his scoring output has been getting to the free-throw line a league high 11.4 times a game and shooting 85.5 percent on these shots.

Additionally, he is finally putting together a solid season as a 3-point shooter after struggling with that area of his game in the past. He is currently hitting 37.7 percent of his 3.1 3-point attempts per game. Defensively, Embiid has been a force blocking shots and playing the passing lanes effectively. He is currently 10th in the league with a defensive box plus minus of 1.8. Even if the MVP award evades him, he has a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year as well. Perhaps the most important stat for Embiid however, is that his strong play is producing wins. The 76ers currently sit atop the Eastern Conference with an 18-7 record. Nine of the last 10 MVPs have come from a top two seed in one of the conferences, with the exception being Russell Westbrook in 2017.

C Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets

Notable Stats: 27.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 8.5 APG, 1.7 SPG

Jokic has picked up right where he left off after an incredible 2020 postseason that saw him average 24.4 points per game and face-off against LeBron James in the Western Conference finals. After a couple of seasons in which Jokic looked like he started the season out of shape, it seems as though maybe the shorter offseason has allowed him to maintain his form and continue his offensive dominance.
Jokic is one of the most unique offensive players in NBA history. There has never been another center capable of running an offense the way that Jokic can, and the numbers are showing it. He currently leads the NBA in box plus minus (8.9), offensive box plus minus (10.9), win shares (4.9), value over replacement player (2.7) and player efficiency rating (31.32). Statistically, nobody has had a greater impact on their team’s success than Jokic has.

Not only does Jokic have the advanced stats backing him, but he is top eight in points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game and is shooting a blistering 56.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point territory. He has all the numbers to back him up, but the Nuggets are just seventh in the Western Conference with a 12-11 record. Jokic will quickly move atop this list if the Nuggets start winning more consistently.

F LeBron James: Los Angeles Lakers

Notable Stats: 25.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 8.0 APG, 39.8 3PT%

It has been another year at the office for James, who is in the MVP race despite the fact that the Lakers are coasting through the regular season after getting just a 71 day offseason. In some ways, that makes James’ and the Lakers season even more impressive, as they are still second in the Western conference with a 19-6 record.

There is not a lot to say about James’ game that has not been said before, but the fact that he is putting up such crazy numbers at age 36 is manifestly absurd. Even crazier yet, some might even consider this a down year for him statistically. Looking closer though, one can see how James’ game has evolved as he has gotten older. He has slowly upped his 3-point attempts per game every season since 2016 up to a career-high 6.8 this year, and is shooting 39.8 percent on them, the second highest single season average of his career. While voter fatigue from his previous four MVPs will likely prevent him from taking home his fifth MVP, which would tie him with Michael Jordan for the second most in NBA history, any player putting up these kinds of numbers deserves to be on this list.

F Kevin Durant: Brooklyn Nets

Notable Stats: 29.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 44.9 3PT%

The wonders of modern medicine never cease to amaze. Even just a few years ago, an achilles injury was almost a death sentence for an NBA player’s career. DeMarcus Cousins tore his achilles in 2018 and has never been the same since. Durant has proven that with diligence and time, an achilles injury is a surmountable injury. He does not seem to have lost a step, and is still the unstoppable offensive juggernaut that he was pre-injury. His shooting percentages currently look like something out of a video game, as he is hitting 44.9 percent of his 5.6 3-point attempts per game, and 52.9 percent of his shots overall.

The only thing preventing Durant from rising higher on this list is the Nets’ record. They are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 14-12 record, which is only four games out of the 11th seed. Durant will need to carry the Nets on defense as well as offense to put himself in a legitimate position to win the award and ascend to a higher seed. They currently rank 29th in points allowed per game.

G Damian Lillard: Portland Trail Blazers

Notable Stats: 29.4 PPG, 7.1 APG, 38.9 3PT%

Damian Lillard will go down as the best player that nobody remembers in three decades. He might be one of the best five shooters in NBA history, but he plays in Portland and will likely never have a real shot at an NBA championship. However, That does not diminish the season he is having.

Lillard is currently shooting 10.6 3-pointers per game and hitting them at a ridiculous 38.9 percent clip. In a season in which the Blazers have been riddled with injuries and poor defensive play, Lillard has been a steadying force keeping them afloat. They currently sit at the fifth seed in the Western Conference with a 13-10 record. There are few players in the NBA currently capable of shouldering the kind of offensive load that Lillard does. He does so much for this team night in and night out both as a scorer and a playmaker. While he probably will not win the award this season because of the Blazers’ record and market size, he is putting up numbers worthy of consideration, and certainly admiration.

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