Halfway through the NBA season, the 2020/21 Most Valuable Player race is shaping up to be a competitive one.
As David Purdum of ESPN details, Lakers forward LeBron James had been the betting favorite to win his fifth MVP award, but he was surpassed over the All-Star break by Sixers center Joel Embiid, who is the new frontrunner at Caesars Sportsbook. Embiid is followed closely by LeBron and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
All three All-Stars have compelling MVP cases. Embiid hasn’t played enough games in past seasons to warrant serious consideration, but he has missed just six of Philadelphia’s first 36 games this season and is posting the best numbers of his career — 30.2 PPG, 11.6 RPG, and 3.3 APG, with an outstanding .521/.416/.856 shooting line.
Embiid is getting to the free throw line more than any other NBA player (11.6 times per game), has anchored a top-five defense, and is the best player on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. His on/off-court numbers offer a clear-cut picture of his value, as the 76ers have a +11.1 net rating when he plays, compared to -6.3 when he doesn’t.
Of course, Embiid isn’t the only player whose team crates when he’s off the court. The Lakers are a +9.1 when James plays and a -4.4 when he doesn’t. And LeBron, at age 36, is still improbably putting up his usual monster numbers, including 25.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 7.8 APG on 50.9% shooting. He has helped keep the Lakers (and their top-ranked defense) afloat despite Anthony Davis‘ recent absence, and L.A.’s 24-13 record puts the club just a half-game back of Philadelphia.
The Nuggets’ net rating is about 10 points higher when Jokic is on the court, and the big man is showing off the kind of offensive game rarely seen from a center — in addition to his impressive scoring (27.1 PPG) and rebounding (11.0 RPG) numbers, Jokic is averaging an eye-popping 8.6 assists per contest and is knocking down 41.8% of his three-point attempts.
The Nuggets are currently sixth in the West, and if that doesn’t improve, it’ll hurt Jokic’s case, but Denver was rolling before the All-Star break and is only 2.5 games back of the third-seeded Lakers.
Embiid, James, and Jokic look like the MVP frontrunners for now, but none of them are running away with the award and there’s plenty of time for others to enter the mix. According to Purdum, Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Warriors guard Stephen Curry, and Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo make up the next tier of betting favorites.
It’s hard to imagine Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert receiving serious consideration, even if the Jazz hold the No. 1 spot. Meanwhile, the Nets are knocking on the door of the East’s No. 1 seed, but Kevin Durant will probably miss too much time to get a ton of MVP votes, and James Harden‘s case will be hurt by his start to the season in Houston. But Harden deserves a look, as do Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.
In a shortened season, things could change quickly. Injuries, hot streaks, and slumps could shake up the race in the coming weeks. The power of narrative shouldn’t be understated either, as some voters may like the idea of LeBron getting a fifth MVP award, while others may gravitate toward a first-time winner like Embiid or Jokic.
What do you think? Who has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player so far? And do you think that same player will win the award at season’s end?
Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts!