NBA MVP candidates for the 2020-2021 season, ranked
If we had an NBA MVP ballot, this is how we would vote. 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.
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 historyf. 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 tie him with his sixth 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
Photo by Brandon Todd/NBAE via Getty Images
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
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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
May 5, 2021 - SB Nation
If we had an NBA MVP ballot, this is how we would vote. 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..