With 12 games already under most teams’ belts, the 2020-2021 NBA season is officially in full swing. Although the season is still early, a handful of players are starting to break away from the pack and solidify themselves as possible MVP candidates. Broken into three tiers, here are the NBA’s early-season MVP candidates.
Stats and predictions are accurate as of the morning of January 17th.
The Early Leaders
Players Who Have Immediately Solidified Themselves as MVP Frontrunners
24.2 PTS, 11.2 REB, 10.4 AST, 5 Triple Doubles
The MVP award hasn’t gone to a true center in over 20 years. Since Shaq won back in 1999-2000, the only big men to win have been power forwards. But early this year the main frontrunner in the media has been one of the most unique centers in the modern game, Nikola Jokic.
Jokic has revitalized, reinvented, and redefined a position that has fallen by the wayside in the three-point crazy modern game. A center serving as an offense’s primary scorer and facilitator is practically unheard of but Jokic has managed to make it look easy. He leads the league in total assists, win shares, VORP, and nearly every advanced category that represents a player’s total impact on the game. The only thing holding him slightly back is the Nuggets 6-6 record but they’ve gone 5-2 over their last seven games and look primed to make a run back towards the top of the western conference.
24.1 PTS, 8.1 REB, 7.7 AST, 2.4 3PM/G
LeBron James has finished outside the top five in MVP voting a grand total of two times during his illustrious career and based on his start this season, it doesn’t look like he wants to add to that total. With LeBron at the helm, the Lakers have suffered no title hangover. Despite having the least amount of rest of any team in the league, they sit atop the Western Conference with an NBA-best 11-3 record.
Even at 36 years old, LeBron has continued to add wrinkles and features to his game. Last season his improved dynamic passing ability helped him to manage an NBA offense in ways he wasn’t able to before. This season he’s brought a more confident approach to his long-range shooting which has paid off in spades. His 2.4 three-pointers made per game is a career-high, and 38.2% from behind the arc is the second-best of his career. Besides these added touches, LeBron has continued to do the thing he does best, contribute to all facets of the game at an exceptional level.
25.0 PTS, 11.5 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.5 BLK
Having one center near the top of the MVP conversation is strange enough in the modern NBA, but two is almost unbelievable. Joel Embiid has taken a major step up this year in all aspects of his game and although he plays much more like a traditional center than Jokic, he deserves every bit of praise for making the most out of an often undervalued position.
While he may play a more traditional center role than Jokic, that’s not to say Embiid doesn’t have his own unique quirks to his game that make him more valuable in today’s league. Embiid is more than capable of banging the ball in down low and bullying his way to the hoop but also is one of, if not the best midrange shooter at this position. On two-point field goals longer than 10 feet, he is shooting a ridiculous 54%. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that over 36% of his shots come from that range.
On defense, Embiid seems to have finally stymied the slow decline in his shot-blocking abilities, which has corresponded with a rise in his overall defensive play. He’s performed like an All-NBA level defender this season, which has been a big part of the Sixers hot start. Philadelphia currently sits at a 9-5 record, including 9-3 in the eastern conference. If Embiid can keep up his individual numbers while securing the Sixers spot as one of the best teams in the east, he has a good chance of walking away with his first MVP award.
In The Conversation
Players who could be frontrunners if not for a few small caveats.
30.7 PTS, 6.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 68.4% TS
Coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, it was far from a given that Kevin Durant would ever play at an All-NBA level ever again, let alone at an MVP one. Yet 12 games into the season, it almost seems as though Durant has gotten better rather than worse.
Many players coming off of serious injuries are forced to adapt their style of play in order to deal with their bodies’ newfound limitations or weaknesses. Durant has seen no such adaptation in the best possible sense. He continues to wow with his incredible array of scoring moves, using his long legs and arms to go over or around anyone who attempts to defend him. Durant has always looked like someone who was made in a lab with the primary goal to score the basketball at will, and if so the experiment is still a massive success. His 30.7 points per game this season ranks second in the league and is his best mark since his 2013-2014 MVP season.
As the leader of the NBA’s newest big three with James Harden and Kyrie Irving, Durant has the talent around him to find massive success at both the individual and the team level. Although the addition of Harden may see a drop in his numbers, Durants hot start must be recognized as a massive success both for him and for the Brooklyn Nets.
26.6 PTS, 10.0 REB, 5.2 AST, .553 Free Throw Rate
At this point, Giannis’ dominance has become commonplace to the point of being expected. The back-to-back MVP is looking to be just the third player in league history to win three straight and he’s put himself in a decent position early in the season to do just that. His averages of over 25 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game as a big man put him in elite company. Every single frontcourt player who has put up those numbers over the course of a season went on to become that years MVP.
The struggle with Giannis’ case for MVP is the perplexing case of voter fatigue. Even though he may be putting up numbers that are deserving of the award, voters will constantly look for the next storyline or player whose narrative better fits that of an MVP. Michael Jordan lost a few MVPs to this phenomenon and Giannis might be the next big casualty of it. The point is, if Giannis wants to win be this years most valuable player, he needs to improve on his already gaudy numbers. While he may be putting up his usual stat-line and leading his team to one of the best records in the league, it just might not be enough this time around.
27.5 PTS, 9.6 REB, 8.8 AST, 49.7 Assist Percentage
Since bursting onto the scene during his rookie season, the European phenom Luka Doncic has captured the hearts of basketball fans around the globe. His world-class technical skills and playmaking wizardry seem like they should be well beyond the reach of a player who only just turned old enough to buy a drink.
Doncic has had some significant struggles this year, most notably with his long-range shooting, which seems to be getting worse rather than better. This has coincided with a dip in the performance of the Mavericks offense as a whole. Coming off a league-leading team offense last year, they now sit at a measly 20th in points per game. But that’s not to say that Doncic hasn’t gotten better in many ways. To help make up for his long-range game faltering, he’s upped his quality in the midrange. Doncic takes nearly 20% of his shots between 10 and 16 feet and makes over 46% of them, numbers that last season were sitting at 6% and 37% respectively.
It is a testament to Doncic that despite some of his early-season struggles, he still easily finds himself among the NBA’s best players. If his three-point shot starts to land, Doncic has a chance of becoming the youngest MVP in league history.
Players who have an outside shot of making an MVP run.
21.9 PTS, 12.8 REB, 5.8 AST, 37.8 MPG
Going into the season there were was a minuscule number of people, if any, who had Domantas Sabonis down as a legitimate MVP candidate. But the momentum that carried Sabonis to his first all-star appearance last season hasn’t slowed down one bit and he’s helping to lead a surprising revitalization of Indiana Pacers basketball.
Sabonis may not have the gaudy numbers of someone like Luka, or an eye-popping unique playstyle of Jokic, but what he does bring is the ability to carry a mediocre team to new heights. Team record is always an important part of the MVP award and under Sabonis’ stewardship, the Pacers are out to a white-hot 8-4 start, not bad for a team who crashed out of the first round of the playoffs last year.
Coming from such a small market, it will be an uphill battle for Sabonis to get any legitimate MVP buzz. He’ll either have to improve on his individual stat line or lead the Pacers to an incredible record, possibly both. But his performance is at the very least worthy of mention.
28.4 PTS, 5.6 REB, 6.2 AST, 62 PT Game
When Klay Thompson went down during a pickup game in November, it wasn’t hard to foresee the Golden State Warriors having a rough go of it this season. The roster around Stephen Curry was (and still us) a shell of what it was during the Warriors’ five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Their only chance of success would be a truly herculean individual effort from Curry.
While his performances have been admittedly inconsistent, Currys’ effort to carry this Warriors roster to relevancy deserves plenty of plaudits. He’s third in the league in scoring and second in three-pointers made, with both those numbers likely to rise rather than fall after he gets back into his three-point shooting groove. What is holding Currys’ MVP case back so far is consistency. He’s had a 62 point outburst versus Portland, a 13 point stinker against the Clippers, and everything in between. With consistent performances from Curry, the Warriors record, just like Stephs MVP stock, should rise.
25.3 PTS, 6.1 REB, 5.2 AST, 50/50/90 Club
After a humiliating loss both for his team and personally in the 2020 playoffs, Paul George has jumped into the 2020-2021 NBA season with a newfound confidence that we hadn’t yet seen from him during his time in Los Angeles.
The Clippers are once again keeping pace with the Lakers and are quickly solidifying themselves as a top-two team in the Western Conference. A lot of that has to do with the improved performances of George. He struggled with shooting inconsistency much of last season, capped off by his woeful game seven performance versus Denver. Not only has George kicked the inconsistency bug, but he’s also flipped all the way around to become one of the most consistent and reliable shooters in the league this year.
The main argument against any sort of Paul George MVP campaign is that he is debatably not even the best player on his own team. Kawhi Leonard has been very bit as effective on offense to start the year while providing even more of a defensive edge. In order for George to become a serious contender, he needs to prove that he’s the true alpha dog and primary scorer on the team. Until then, it’s hard to have him any higher on the list.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com
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