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The 2020-21 NBA MVP race is the closest it’s been in years, with no candidate standing out as a unanimous option. In turn, this has led to raging debates amongst basketball circles about what constitutes “most valuable.”
The NBA definition of MVP almost always is “the best player on a top 2 seed in either conference.” In recent times, the only exception to that rule is Russell Westbrook‘s MVP season for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017. That year, he was a statistical anomaly, the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for a whole season.
However, should the NBA MVP instead be awarded to the person who adds the most wins to their teams? Such a change in criteria would provide legitimate cases to players such as Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, two of the best floor-raisers in basketball.
This article will attempt to make sense of the 2020-21 season’s chaos and pick the three best MVP candidates in the NBA to date. The methodology will combine conventional statistics, advanced statistics, the team record, and the good old-fashioned eye-test.
NBA MVP Candidate Rank: 3
Points per game: 25.2
Rebounds per game: 8.0
Assists per game: 10.9
Steals per game: 1.2
Blocks per game: 0.7
The case for NBA MVP
James Harden is no stranger to NBA MVP candidacy, having won the award in 2017-18 and placing in the top three in five of the last six seasons. While his scoring numbers as a member of the Houston Rockets were historically elite, Harden’s first season as a Brooklyn Net is arguably his most impressive all-around season to date.
Harden is the straw that stirs the drink that is the #2 ranked offense in the league. As a Brooklyn Net, Harden forces fewer shots and trusts his teammates more than he ever did in Houston. As a result, Harden currently leads the league in assists per game (10.9). He is also shooting at the most efficient clip of his career since he became a starter, ensuring that the team hasn’t skipped a beat despite extended absences to co-stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The Brooklyn Nets have a record of 27-7 in games that James Harden has played for them. In games he has missed, their record is 2-4. Contrast this with the team’s 8-5 record in games without Kyrie Irving and their 23-9 record without Kevin Durant, and it’s clear which superstar has the most significant impact on the team’s success. Harden is a big reason why Brooklyn currently finds themselves equal-first in the East.
The advanced stats reinforce the win-loss column and the eye test.
Harden’s advanced passing stats are off-the-charts. According to Bball Index, he leads the league in High-Value Assists (3’s, free throws, and shots at the rim) per 75 possessions and Box Creation (an estimate of open shots created for teammates by drawing defensive attention). Furthermore, Harden is in the 99th percentile for the following:
- Assist points per 75 possessions
- Potential assists per 100 passes
- Passing creation volume
- Playmaking talent
Although there is no precedent for a player receiving the MVP after being traded during a season, James Harden could prove the exception to the rule. His stellar play over the last two months of the season has him firmly entrenched as one of the three best MVP candidates in the NBA.
NBA MVP Candidate Rank: 2
Points per game: 28.8
Rebounds per game: 11.4
Assists per game: 6.2
Steals per game: 1.1
Blocks per game: 1.3
The case for NBA MVP
After winning the MVP award in consecutive years, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a slow start by his lofty standards. Over his first 11 games of the season, the Greek Freak was averaging 26.2 PPG / 10.1 RPG / 5.5 APG on .520/.296/.618 splits. Great numbers for most people, but a notable drop-off for the young superstar.
Since then, his numbers have exploded to 29.6 PPG / 11.8 RPG / 6.4 APG on .578/.304/.709 splits, thrusting Giannis back into the MVP conversation.
Two things hurt Giannis’ MVP case this season: voter fatigue and the fact that he’s not boosted by Milwaukee having the best record in the league. However, the Bucks are only three games away from the top seed in the East, so they’re within striking distance of the leaders.
Another unfair mark against Giannis Antetokounmpo that arises when discussing his MVP candidacy is his playoff struggles. In consecutive postseasons, after winning the regular-season MVP, coaches such as Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra have game-planned the Greek Freak out of the entire series.
His inability to win in the playoffs is a reasonable strike against Giannis when considering his standing amongst the NBA’s active great players, but it shouldn’t impact his MVP campaign. The award is strictly a regular-season accolade, and he’s been near-perfect in the regular season for nearly three straight years.
Giannis’ playmaking has reached new heights, with a career-high 6.2 assists per game. According to Bball Index, the advanced stats back this notion up, as Giannis’ playmaking talent rank sits in the 93rd percentile.
Furthermore, while he might not be playing at the DPOY level he was last year, his Defensive LEBRON metric ranks in the 96th percentile, and his overall LEBRON number sits in the 99th percentile.
Similar to when Harden misses games for the Nets, the Bucks struggle when Giannis sits. This season, Milwaukee has a .500 record in games he doesn’t play (4-4) compared to 13 games above .500 when he does play.
In many other eras, the Greek Freak would almost be a shoo-in for the NBA MVP. As it stands, he’s one of the three best MVP candidates in the NBA and is only slightly behind the player ranked first.
NBA MVP Candidate Rank: 1
Points per game: 26.3
Rebounds per game: 10.9
Assists per game: 8.8
Steals per game: 1.5
Blocks per game: 0.6
The case for NBA MVP
While James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been a mainstay at the top of NBA MVP voting for years, Nikola Jokic emerging as the MVP frontrunner has come entirely out of nowhere.
Long a meme for his unassuming appearance and unathletic body, the narrative surrounding Jokic was that he’d spend the first few months of the season playing himself into shape, reaching peak form post-All-Star-Break and in time for the playoffs.
However, this season the Joker began the season trim, fit, and in the best shape of his life. The resulting performances have been nothing short of spectacular.
Jokic’s .570/.862/.429 shooting splits are insane numbers that are unparalleled throughout NBA history. Then, factor in his emergence as the best passing big man in the modern era, and possibly basketball history, and you’re looking at the most deadly offensive weapon in the world.
The Denver Nuggets’ offense is completely lost whenever Nikola Jokic is on the bench. When he’s on the court, their offensive rating is 121.2, a mark that would break the all-time single-season offensive rating. When he sits on the bench, it drops to a ghastly 101.4, a mark that would be last in the NBA this season.
The Joker’s net rating for the season is +8.6 when he’s on the court and -3.6 when he sits, an astronomical 12.2 point swing.
The advanced stats paint a kind portrait of Jokic and assist his case for MVP. He’s an elite roll-man in the pick-and-roll, particularly excelling in pick-and-pop situations (99th percentile in scoring). Unsurprisingly, his passing numbers are off-the-charts, leading the league in box-creation along with Harden and ranking in the top 2% for the following metrics (all per Bball Index):
- Assist point per 75 possessions (98th percentile).
- Role-adjusted assist points per 75 possessions (99th percentile).
- High-value assists per 75 possessions (98th percentile).
- Scoring gravity (98th percentile).
- Playmaking talent (98th percentile).
The knock against Jokic over the years has been his poor defensive ability. Nobody will confuse the Joker for Ben Wallace defensively, but he’s drastically improved at that end of the court. For the season, Nikola Jokic is in the 68th percentile in Defensive LEBRON. Of particular note is his surprising ability to contest shots at the rim (97th percentile) and his passing lane activity (88th percentile).
Jokic is the number one ranked player for Overall LEBRON, Offensive LEBRON, LEBRON BOX, Offensive LEBRON Box, Overall Box Plus-Minus 2.0, and Offensive Box Plus-Minus 2.0. More impressively, he’s running the fourth-best offense in the league from the center position and is doing so at unprecedented levels of efficiency.
Before the season, all but the biggest Nuggets fans wouldn’t have dreamed of Nikola Jokic being one of the three best MVP candidates in the NBA. Now, he’s emerged as the frontrunner for the award. Unlike his competitors, he’s new to NBA MVP candidacy, which means that Jokic also has the advantage of having the popular narrative in his favor.
The only thing that will stop him from winning (barring injury) is the Denver Nuggets’ position in the standings. However, despite being the 4th seed in the west, at 34-19, the Nuggets have a better record than the Milwaukee Bucks and would only be two games out of first if they played in the east. Voters shouldn’t hold the Nuggets record against Jokic. Check back to Sports Talk Line for more NBA MVP coverage.
Right now, it’s the Joker’s award to lose.