Way-Too-Soon NBA MVP Rankings

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2021

Way-Too-Soon NBA MVP Rankings

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    You can't win or lose the MVP award two weeks into an NBA season, but every game still matters in the pursuit of the league's highest individual honor.

    The players we'll cover here have started off their MVP chases on the right foot.

    This isn't a prediction of who'll ultimately fill out the top spots on official ballots. Instead, this is more of an acknowledgment of who's been most impactful so far. As we'll quickly see, a single hot game can have outsized influence on overall numbers with so few games played, and that'll make things tricky.

    Fortunately, we don't have to contend with the complicating narrative factor. To some extent, the "story" of a player's season still weighs on voter's minds, but we've only seen a fraction of this year's action. The vast majority of 2020-21's chapters are still unwritten.

    We'll keep this as close to a numbers-based meritocracy as possible, but we have to go into this knowing most of the stats will regress. Small sample sizes are the only ones we've got, so a little gut instinct will sometimes wedge its way into the picture. Team success is a factor, but not the biggest one just yet—even if that often matters most in the end. 

    This is the baseline we'll look back on as we keep tabs on the MVP hierarchy throughout the year.

Honorable Mention

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

    Jaylen Brown is fifth in the league in player efficiency rating (without spoiling it, that's ahead of the guy we're going to rank first) and is averaging a career-high 26.9 points per game on 58.1 percent shooting from the field. Even if Jayson Tatum remains Boston's alpha, Brown has been better than his teammate through the early part of the season.

           

    Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

    If foul-drawing craft is an art, Trae Young is Picasso—complete with a love of unconventional angles and jarring perspective shifts. Case in point: Nobody else turns a defender barreling in from the blind side into an advantage like Young.

    Though it can feel unsporting, Young's tricks produce results. He's averaging 28.6 points with a 61.2 true shooting percentage fueled in large part by an 87.1 percent hit rate on 12.1 free-throw attempts per game. His Atlanta Hawks may be playing above their heads and benefiting from unsustainably poor opponent three-point shooting, but they're 4-3 with three double-digit wins.

           

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

    Voter fatigue was thought to be Giannis Antetokounmpo's biggest obstacle in this year's MVP race, but that's not a factor here. Giannis falls short of the top five for non-narrative reasons. He's averaging his fewest points per game (26.3) since 2016-17, and he's hitting just 25.7 percent of his shots from deep, worse than last year's meager 30.4 percent effort.

    Giannis' free-throw percentage is all the way down to a career-worst 62.5 percent.

    It says a lot when a down year includes averages of 26.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists. And the Milwaukee Bucks have the league's top net rating, even if that's fueled by a handful of blowout wins and only comes with a 4-3 record. Antetokounmpo just hasn't met his own high standards in the early going. 

           

    Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

    Averages of 20.6 points 11.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists are too hard to overlook, as are accuracy rates of 56.7 percent from the field and 52.9 percent on 2.4 three-point attempts per game. That said, although the Indiana Pacers are 5-2, they've been just 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with Domantas Sabonis on the floor. That number is sustainable, but it's not up to the levels most of the guys in the top five have produced so far.

    Keep an eye on Sabonis and the Pacers, though. They're playing a different brand of ball under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, and it's working. 

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry's career-high 62 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday showed how fickle these early-season scans across the league can be. In the span of a couple of incendiary hours, Steph went from purportedly overrated to certifiably legendary.

    Yes, life will be harder for him with this version of the Golden State Warriors than it ever was with past ones. The Dubs don't have the shooters or high-IQ decision-makers to maximize Curry's on- and off-ball brilliance. Golden State wants to play advanced calculus offense with supporting talent that's still struggling to grasp long division.

    That may actually feed into his MVP case. Those five games prior to the 62-point eruption showed just how high the degree of difficulty is for the 32-year-old guard.

    Even with suboptimal teammates and opponents knowing they can get away with shading two or three extra defenders toward Curry, the two-time MVP showed he could break containment. Curry has a head-down attack mode, though he's rarely had cause to utilize it. This year, he'll have no choice but to hunt his own shots inside and outside the arc.

    Curry's explosive effort moved him into the league lead in scoring, though James Harden overtook him Monday, and we should expect him to stay north of 30 points per game for the duration—something he's only ever done once. That was 2015-16, when he was the unanimous MVP.

    Golden State has been on the wrong end of several blowouts and may struggle to play .500 ball as defenses continue to dare everyone other than Curry to beat them. Sunday's game proved that even with odds and schemes and expectations stacked against him, Steph is still among the league's most impactful superstars.

4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets defense may have slept through the start of the season, but Nikola Jokic showed up on time and wide awake.

    In addition to leading the league with 12.8 assists per game, Jokic, looking slim and spry, is also averaging 22.3 points and 11.2 rebounds. Both are career highs, as are his hit rates from two (66.2 percent) and three (43.8 percent).

    Sure, team success is theoretically important, and Denver is only 2-4. But those individual numbers, combined with Jokic's obviously critical role for the Nuggets, are undeniable. Denver is 18.7 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic on the floor than off.

    Sitting second only to James Harden in player efficiency rating, averaging a triple-double and posting an obscene 70.1 true shooting percentage, Jokic is playing offense about as well as any center ever has. The only reason he doesn't rank higher is his team's bottom-five defense. It's not all his fault, and Nuggets opponents won't continue to hit 40.1 percent of their threes. But Denver is allowing too many good looks at the rim, and that has to fall largely at the center's feet.

    This is progress, though. Jokic usually starts slow on both ends. All he has to do is pick it up on D, and his MVP case will get even stronger.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    No, this isn't just another acknowledgment that, deep down, we all know LeBron James is the league's most valuable player. We're not ignoring numbers and trusting gut. We're not getting out ahead of the angle that crops up every year in the playoffs—you know, the one where we agree that James, despite falling short of the regular-season MVP, was the best all along.

    James has a statistical case to belong here.

    The Los Angeles Lakers are 5-2 and have the second-best net rating in the league. Though they're deeper this season with the additions of Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, James remains the single largest contributor to their success.

    In the 225 minutes James has played this season, the Lakers have outscored opponents by a total of 70 points. That's tied for the fifth-highest net plus/minus in the league, and it's not like James built that figure cheaply. When he's on the floor, so is the other team's first unit. And if James is in the game, chances are the opponent's most accomplished defender is standing across from him.

    Though it may come to pass that James, now 36, will sit out too many games to be a serious MVP candidate, he has yet to miss a contest. And despite playing a career-low 32.6 minutes, he's still averaging 23.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists while raising his three-point and free-throw attempt rates above last year's levels.

    Basically, we're watching a player dominating for a championship front-runner without shifting past third gear.

2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    This all looks delightfully familiar, doesn't it?

    Kevin Durant, roughly 18 months removed from a torn Achilles, looks just like the perennial All-NBA first-teamer he was prior to his injury. Although the Brooklyn Nets have disappointed so far by getting out to a 3-4 start and only ranking ninth in offensive efficiency, no aspect of KD's performance falls into the underwhelming category.

    Unfortunately, Durant will require a seven-day quarantine period starting Monday due to contact tracing/exposure to COVID-19, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. That'll hurt him in future rankings, but it doesn't change what he's done to this point.

    Durant is cooking to the tune of 28.2 points per game on 66.1 percent true shooting. That latter figure would represent a career high if sustained through the season, but not by much; KD has topped 64.0 percent in three other years. Every statistic we cite in this exercise is subject to "can he keep it up?" pushback, but Durant's track record of ridiculous high-volume, high-efficiency scoring is so long that it feels safe to conclude he can.

    While the numbers are nice, the most significant factor weighing in KD's MVP favor is that he looks like the same guy he was two years ago. It started in the preseason with a blow-by drive (against a dreadful closeout, but still), the first evidence that Durant's quick-twitch bursts are undiminished. He's also still putting defenders to sleep before drilling pull-up jumpers with the same deadly languidness.

    The bag stays deep.

    The Nets haven't blown anyone away, but they've been 33.1 points per 100 possessions better with Durant on the floor than off, per Cleaning the Glass. That's the best differential among players who've logged at least 200 minutes on the year, trailed closely by teammate Kyrie Irving's plus-30.5.

    On a related note: Get your bench together, Nets. Sheesh.

    KD is KD, which means KD is an MVP front-runner.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid has never been better, and that's saying something.

    The Philadelphia 76ers' big man was an instant on-off standout from the moment he debuted in 2016-17, but he's taken his impact to a new level early this season. As a result, the Sixers are a perfect 5-0 in games he's played, and they own the league's best defense.

    The basic stats don't leap off the page. Embiid is averaging 23.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 blocks—all figures he's topped in previous seasons. But when you note that 52.3/33.3/79.6 shooting split, which has the big man at a career-best 63.3 true shooting percentage on a career-low 27.0 percent usage rate, it becomes clear that Philly is getting maximum bang for its buck from Embiid.

    Embiid's free-throw rate is at a career-high level, which is also highly encouraging. It's true the big man has mastered the art of baiting opponents into cheap fouls, but all those free throws are also the result of a very strong human physically overwhelming a downsized league increasingly ill-equipped to handle his heft.

    Actually, even old-school bigs with old-school size are overmatched.

    Slow recognition and stubbornness have long plagued Embiid, producing ugly turnover numbers and empty offensive possessions. But his turnover rate has never been lower. And although the Sixers might prefer his shot profile included more close-range looks, Embiid is shredding the net on jumpers and shots outside the lane.

    The combination of bully ball, elite perimeter shooting, defensive impact and team success give Embiid an edge on the competition at this early juncture. Health and conditioning have always been the main factors determining Embiid's (and the Sixers') fate, and only time will tell on those fronts. So far, though, nobody's been more valuable.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Monday, Jan. 4. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.

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