Updated NBA MVP Rankings: A Somehow Improved LeBron James Remains King

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2021

Updated NBA MVP Rankings: A Somehow Improved LeBron James Remains King

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The 2020-21 NBA MVP race is crowded.

    Just ask Magic Johnson. The Hall of Famer hit Twitter the other day to lay out his MVP candidates and needed two tweets and two tiers for the 14 players on his hypothetical ballot.

    We'll be a bit more selective here.

    With most teams at or near the one-third mark of this 72-game marathon, it's worth weighing all the data now on hand to track the pursuit of the most prestigious individual honor in basketball.

    This isn't exactly a prediction of who will win, because if this season (and the past year in general) has taught us anything, it's that twists and turns are unavoidable. And given how close this race looks at the moment, slight movement in either direction could have a major impact on the hierarchy.

    Rather, it's an acknowledgement of the MVP-caliber work done so far. Accounting for everything from advanced and traditional metrics to team success and the eye test, this is how our MVP ballot would look approaching February's midpoint. 

Honorable Mention

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    As a 32-year-old two-time MVP, Curry shouldn't feel this close to the peak of his powers. This isn't quite the best campaign of his career—2015-16, when he became the first (and only) unanimous MVP in league history, holds that distinction—but, barring injury, it will make his short list.

    His 29.6 points per game are second-best in the NBA and second-best of his career. Despite being almost the singular focus of opposing defenses, his always absurd shooting efficiency hasn't taken a hit (48.7/42.9/92.9). If the Chef keeps cooking at his current rate from distance (on pace for 348 triples), he'll deliver the fourth-most splashes of all time—in a 72-game season, no less.

    But the one mark against him is big enough to deny him a top-five spot (for now, at least). Golden State sits just eighth in the Western Conference standings and 12th overall with a .520 winning percentage. So, while he's playing at an MVP level, his club isn't providing the necessary support to sway MVP voters.


    Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

    There will be seasons (yes, plural) in which Doncic is the runaway winner of the hoops world's most coveted individual honor. But unless the Mavericks get their act together sooner than later, this won't be one of them.

    The 21-year-old is doing everything in his power to make that happen. He ranks sixth in scoring (27.8 points per game), second in assists (9.3) and 20th in rebounds (8.7). He and Nikola Jokic are the only players with top-20 rankings in all three categories.

    Dallas has dealt with myriad injury and COVID-related absences, so maybe a full-strength Mavericks squad can position itself where Doncic needs it to be to take home the hardware. For now, though, his individual brilliance is worthy of just an honorable mention.


    Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

    Durant is 32 years old and working his way back from a torn Achilles—arguably the worst injury an NBA player can suffer. You know all of this already, but it's worth a refresh because you'd never guess it by watching him.

    There may have been legitimate questions of how Durant would look on this side of his injury, but turns out it's no different than before (minus some baked-in rest to help with his recovery). The four-time scoring champ and 2013-14 MVP is outperforming his career averages in points (29.5), rebounds (7.4), assists (5.2), field-goal percentage (52.9) and three-point percentage (44.9, a personal best).

    He has already missed eight contests, though, and is currently stuck on the sidelines because of the league's health and safety protocols. The absences don't rule him out of the conversation—hence the mention here—but they're enough to keep him out of a hyper-competitive top five.


    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    No CJ McCollum. No Jusuf Nurkic. No Zach Collins. No problem? That doesn't sound possible, but an incredible amount of heavy lifting by Lillard has helped the Blazers keep their head, torso and thighs above water.

    The injury-riddled Blazers occupy the fifth spot in the Western Conference standings, and that almost entirely comes back to Lillard's proficiency. The team leader in points (29.4), assists (7.1) and minutes (36.0), Lillard has made Portland an enormous 11.6 points better per 100 possessions than it has fared without him.

    He's had four top-10 finishes in MVP voting, and he has a decent shot at No. 5. But he has only once landed among the top five, and he could have trouble increasing that number. He might have an MVP-level impact on Portland, but from a leaguewide view, his combo of individual production and team success doesn't quite measure up to the best of the best.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken home the last two MVP awards. In 2019-20, he upped the ante by collecting the Defensive Player of the Year honor, too. Only five players have ever won both in their careers, and Antetokounmpo joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan as the only players to earn both awards in the same season.

    That speaks to Antetokounmpo's prodigious talent level—he's only 26 years old, folks, so his best could still be yet to come (gulp!)—but it also puts him in a precarious position as far as this award is concerned. He's not just competing with the brightest stars in basketball, but also battling both voter fatigue and the incredible size and scope of his own shadow.

    His MVP credentials speak for themselves. He's the leading scorer (27.3 points), top glass-cleaner (11.1 rebounds) and second-best setup man (5.6 assists) for a Bucks team slotted first overall (by a comfortable margin) in net efficiency at plus-10.1.

    But here's where the weight of his shadow looms over this conversation. His points and rebounds land lower than they've been in the previous two seasons, and his assists match his previous low despite the fact he's playing more minutes (32.9). He's also lost a bit of the best-player-on-the-best team argument, since Milwaukee is just fifth in winning percentage (though maybe that net rating suggests the victories will come).

    He is objectively great, but is he as great as he's been in previous seasons? Catch-all metrics aren't convinced. From player efficiency rating (27.1) to win shares per 48 minutes (.214), box plus/minus (5.8) to real plus-minus (5.36), the numbers all suggest he's not quite as dominant as his award-winning versions have been.

4. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    It was always going to be interesting to see how Kawhi Leonard would respond to the fact his reported request for a playmaking upgrade went unanswered by the Los Angeles Clippers. (No offense, Luke Kennard.)

    Considering Leonard can opt for unrestricted free agency at season's end, the inactivity had the potential to be catastrophically costly. But the lack of a high-level floor general—and perhaps the coaching change from Doc Rivers to Tyronn Lue—has actually expanded what was already an elite arsenal for Leonard.

    He has never been more dangerous with the basketball, because he's never presented such a playmaking threat. He has not only pushed his assists to a personal-best 5.1 per game, but he's also done so while trimming his turnovers to just 1.8 a night. And somehow, this hasn't disrupted his scoring, which still checks in at 26.0 points per game, the third-highest average of his career.

    "Teammates aren't simply hitting more shots off Leonard passes, nor is he possessing the ball or passing it more often," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor observed. "Leonard's improvements are apparent; he knows that his scoring will generate open space for his teammates."

    This is the development—if not full-fledged evolution—of a four-time All-NBA selection, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Finals MVP. Leonard was an established elite long before this season started, but he still took it upon himself to germinate his game.

    The Clippers have needed every bit of that growth, too. Despite boasting one of the deepest rosters in basketball, they've fared a full 17 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

    The fact all of this is true and Leonard still lands outside of the top three highlights how ferociously competitive this season's MVP race really is.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic has a chance to revolutionize the league. Or rather, he would if it was possible to envision more players coming along with his combination of size and skill.

    That's hard to imagine, though, with the Nuggets superstar emerging as the first-of-his-kind elite. Bigs aren't supposed to have these kinds of quarterbacking chops. They've never come close. Hall of Famer Bill Walton, widely (and deservedly) considered one of the best passing centers in NBA history, topped out at 5.0 assists per game and averaged 3.4 dimes for his career. Jokic is up to an astronomic 8.5 helpers this season, slotting him fourth overall.

    "Joker just surpassed everybody," sweet-passing Hall of Fame center Vlade Divac told Sean Keeler of the Denver Post. "He went to the next level. ... He makes things happen before they happen."

    Jokic's role as point-center is redefining the possibilities of what an NBA 5 can do. No center has ever matched his 40.4 assist percentage, and only one topped 29 (Tom Boerwinkle, 33.8). The only center to average more assists in a season (by 0.1 per game) than Jokic's current rate was Wilt Chamberlain. But Chamberlain logged a mind-boggling 46.8 minutes per game that season. Jokic is packing all of this passing into just 36.1.

    But he's much more than a table-setting virtuoso. While sometimes appearing reluctant to handle primary-scoring duties in the past, he's embracing life as a No. 1 option and shattering his previous high with 27.5 points per game. He's also never been more forceful on the glass, where he's pulling down 11.5 rebounds per outing.

    This across-the-board dominance has only been matched by triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, who wasn't nearly as efficient as Jokic. Denver's center is shooting a blistering 56.5 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from three and 84.7 percent at the line.

    His stat sheet—which includes league-leading marks in PER, BPM and win shares—is arguably as good as it gets. But he needs the rest of the Nuggets to do their part to climb any higher on the MVP ladder. As long as Denver is stuck at seventh in the conference standings, Jokic's MVP argument will lag just behind those of the top two players on our list.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Somewhere, Sam Hinkie should be toasting himself with a big glass of his beverage of choice. Philadelphia's former general manager and his famed Process might be a polarizing approach to roster construction, but Hinkie absolutely aced the selection of Joel Embiid with the third overall pick in 2014.

    A modern reboot of Hakeem Olajuwon, Embiid took the fast track to NBA stardom, but he'd been previously held outside the group's highest heights due to injury issues and some bouts of (relative) inefficiency. He has buried all previous concerns and unleashed a brand of basketball dominance that has the Sixers perched atop the Eastern Conference with an 18-7 record (with four of those losses among the five games Embiid has missed).

    Offensively, he forces the opposition into pick-your-poison scenarios each possession. His shot chart is just a red basketball court with connection rates of 65.9 percent in the restricted area, 52.8 percent on paint shots outside of the restricted area, 56.8 percent from mid-range, 37.7 percent from distance and 85.5 percent at the line. He ranks in the 73rd percentile or better on post-ups, isolations, transition attacks and putbacks.

    He's hitting 37.5 percent of his catch-and-fire threes and 50.9 percent of his pull-ups. His free-throw attempts (11.4) and makes (9.8) are at personal-best (and fully elite) levels. Defensively, he's the leading shot-blocker and rebounder for Philly's second-ranked unit. He's tied with Jokic for the best PER and first in win shares per 48 minutes.

    The Sixers have found a serviceable backup big man in Dwight Howard, and yet they still can't survive without Embiid. When he plays, they steamroll opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they get outscored by 3.7 points per 100.

    Everything about Embiid screams MVP behavior. But he's learning, as so many have for the better part of two decades now, that dethroning the King is an almost impossible task.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    I'm old enough to remember when the safest bet to defend LeBron James was daring him to beat you with his jump shot. Look, it's probably still preferable to seeing the 6'9", 250-pounder hard-charging toward the basket en route to a highlight finish, a trip to the foul line or an on-target delivery to an open teammate, but giving him the jumper now is basically conceding that there's no way to stop him—or even contain him.

    He has made an absurd habit of pushing different areas of his stat sheet to career-best levels well into his 30s. With four MVPs and four championships on his resume, James must need something to challenge him after most would (or should) concede he has either caught up with or surpassed "the ghost [who] played in Chicago."

    A few seasons back, he played all 82 games for the first time and established another first by pacing the league in minutes per game across back-to-back marathons. In 2019-20, he took home his first assist crown by dropping 10.2 dimes per night. This season, the 36-year-old is pairing career-high marks in three-point makes (2.7) and attempts (6.8) with his second-best perimeter connection rate (39.8 percent).

    "You still have got to keep him out of the paint because his paint attacks create fouls, create other threes for other people and create easy twos. If you have to pick a poison, you still have to pick it," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of James' jump shooting, per Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times. "It's just more poisonous."

    James isn't turning back the clock—he's evolving with age. He can still dazzle above the rim and get there whenever he wants, but he looks just as comfortable launching from long range. Add to that genius-level intelligence, tremendous quarterbacking talent and the ability to ace virtually any defensive assignment, and the King's crown fits as well as ever.

    With the Lakers well-positioned in the hoops hierarchy and the ageless James having done the heaviest lifting for their success, he's a half-step ahead of Embiid and Jokic for MVP honors.


    All stats current through games played on Feb. 9 and used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.