Every NBA Team's MVP This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 2, 2021

Every NBA Team's MVP This Season

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Now that LeBron James and Joel Embiid are both missing time with injury, the leaguewide MVP discussion is more intriguing and complex than ever*. But if we narrow the lens and focus in on each individual team, it turns out there are 30 separate MVP conversations worth having.

    OK, maybe not quite that many. There are probably a dozen no-brainers when it comes to team MVP status. But you get the idea: There are loads of miniature MVP debates to be had, and that's fun!

    Numbers are key, and we'll go beyond scoring and rebounding averages to try to capture the deeper and more varied ways in which candidates provide value to their teams. In addition, roles will have some sway. The guy shouldering a massive burden and/or producing in ways nobody else on the roster could might have the edge over a teammate whom some advanced metrics like a little more.

    Since we're operating after the trade deadline, several teams no longer have the player who, up until getting dealt, would have been his team's MVP. But we're adhering to a strict rule that says a team's MVP still has to be on the team. Sorry, Nikola Vucevic.

    Let's distribute some hardware.

         

    *Unless you're a Denver Nuggets fan, in which case Nikola Jokic already has the award sewn up.

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

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    The Atlanta Hawks are in playoff position, which is a welcome difference after three straight years in the punchless Southeast's cellar. But their story hasn't changed in one critical way: Without Trae Young, the Hawks just can't score.

    Atlanta's offense performs at elite levels with Young in the game and seizes up entirely, producing points at a rate well below that of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 30th-ranked attack, when he rests. It's as stark of a one-player on-off contrast as there is in the league.

    So if you're going to gripe about Young's infuriating foul-baiting, net-negative defense and tendency to go lone wolf for minutes at a time, just understand that the alternative—a Hawks team without him on the court—is far, far worse.

    Signs of evolution are also present. Young, now surrounded by better supporting talent than ever before, is averaging more assists and fewer shot attempts per 100 possessions than he did last season. Slowly, he's dialing in the scoring-facilitating balance. As he goes, so go the Hawks.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

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    It's good news for the Boston Celtics that we can't just peg Jayson Tatum, who's continued to improve in his fourth NBA season, as the easy MVP pick.

    He's getting the nod, but not without some mention of Jaylen Brown's candidacy.

    Brown surged early, and though his mid-range shot-making predictably regressed, the gains he made as a passer and the development of his offensive craft were real. Even after coming back to earth, Brown is neck and neck with Tatum for the team lead in usage rate and surprisingly still holds an advantage over his fellow All-Star wing in true shooting percentage.

    It's a closer question than ever, but Tatum remains the more complete player. He has narrow edges on Brown in points, rebounds and assists per game, and he turns the ball over less frequently.

    One distinction puts Tatum over the top: He's still the vastly superior shot creator, while Brown remains mostly a dependent scorer. Only 36.9 percent of Tatum's two-point field goals have been assisted, along with just 35.3 percent of his threes. For Brown, those rates are 44.0 and 76.7 percent, respectively.

    Brown's development suggests he might someday catch Tatum as a self-creator. But he's not there yet.

    So with Tatum owning that advantage, plus small edges in Box Plus/Minus and VORP, he comes out ahead.

Brooklyn Nets: James Harden

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Any concerns regarding James Harden's willingness to reprogram himself are gone. He's embraced a facilitating role with the Brooklyn Nets, and he seems to have wiped whatever it was he'd been doing in the Houston Rockets' one-man system from his hard drive.

    Harden is playing actual basketball again. And he's doing it well, shooting less frequently than in any season since 2013-14, still logging league-leading minutes and on pace to challenge his career high of 11.2 assists per game.

    You don't have to look hard for evidence of his new approach. Harden is averaging 68.8 passes per game after managing exactly 49.5 in each of his last two years with the Rockets. This isn't "10 seconds of dribble-pounding, followed by a step-back three while four teammates watch." This is Harden captaining the league's most dangerous offense with the ideal mix of elite get-your-own scoring and unselfish distribution. His offensive genius is on full display with Brooklyn.

    Despite sharing the floor with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in only seven contests (Brooklyn is 5-2 with all three available), Harden has propelled the Nets to a 26-7 mark in the games he's played since coming aboard.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

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    Terry Rozier leads the Charlotte Hornets in minutes and points, and he's been an absolute killer in the clutch, hitting a ridiculous 54.3 percent of his field goals and 52.2 percent of his threes in 58 close-and-late minutes. He's the main reason Charlotte's record, which has it in playoff position, significantly outpaces its point differential.

    Gordon Hayward is the team's most complete player, and Devonte' Graham owns the largest positive on-off differential.

    But when we look back at the Hornets' 2020-21 season, we're only going to remember one thing: LaMelo Ball's franchise-altering play.

    A fractured wrist will cost the rookie point guard precious weeks down the stretch, but his impact is already obvious. Ball's creativity, confidence and vision fundamentally changed the way the Hornets operate. He spurred them in transition, fostered confidence in shooters who knew he'd always find them and capitalized on Miles Bridges' zero-g bounce to spectacular effect.

    Ball is Charlotte's leader in PER, assist percentage and Box Plus/Minus. Other metrics, like RAPTOR, favor Hayward, Rozier and Graham. But we can't always get caught up in the numbers when assessing value. Only one player on the roster parted the clouds and let gleaming rays of hope shine down. Ball's feel, enthusiasm and style mean everything to Charlotte. When the numbers are relatively close, as they are in this case, that critical intangible wins out.

Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine

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    Somebody out there is going to cape for Thaddeus Young. Bet on it.

    Sure, Young (and to a nearly equal extent, Garrett Temple) is the Bulls' on-off king. Chicago's net rating leaps by double digits when he's on the floor. It helps that Young sees big minutes against backups, but it's objectively true that his reliable interior scoring, intelligent defense and out-of-nowhere leap as a passer have been valuable.

    But pose a hypothetical to the 29 other teams in the league. Ask them to name the first Bulls player they worry about on the scouting report, and none of them would list Young over All-Star Zach LaVine.

    The 26-year-old wing is a genuine offensive star. He's a deadly high-volume three-point sniper whose length and springs produce high conversion rates at the rim. LaVine is one of only three players in the league to own a true shooting percentage north of 64.0 percent with a usage rate of at least 30.0 percent. The others are Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid.

    Defensively, LaVine is still closer to "bad" than "passable," but he's the Bulls' leader in ESPN's RPM and RAPTOR wins above replacement. His offense is more than good enough to offset the defense.

    Maybe with Nikola Vucevic around, LaVine will finally shed his "good stats, bad team" reputation. Either way, his production and central role for the Bulls deserve MVP recognition.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton

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    For much of the season's first half, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a pleasant surprise. Though their modest success stemmed mostly from an unsustainably stingy defense that thrived by forcing turnovers, those stops wouldn't have meant as much without Collin Sexton leading the charge on the other end.

    Cleveland is better with Sexton in the game, with the bulk of the gains coming on offense.

    He's one of just nine guards with at least 350 made field goals and 180 made free throws this year. That's some obvious cherrypicking, but the other names on the list underscore where Sexton resides in the league's ranks of backcourt scorers: LaVine, Curry, Beal, Lillard, Doncic, Booker, Fox, Mitchell...and Sexton.

    Not bad.

    Three straight years of gains in true shooting percentage and usage rate mark Sexton as an increasingly useful offensive weapon. Whether his defense, which is still longer on intensity and shorter on actual effectiveness, ever comes around is a separate question. But it's not like we're choosing from a bunch of great options. Cleveland is dead last in net rating.

    Had Larry Nance Jr. been healthy all year, his two-way contributions would have warranted more consideration. But Sexton is the mainstay and leading scorer. No need to overthink this one.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks aren't setting offensive records like they did a year ago, but that is more due to the chemistry-killing impact of health and safety protocols and the rest of the NBA's broader offensive surge than any shortcoming of the man running the show.

    Luka Doncic remains one of the game's premier generators of good shots.

    Dallas' effective field goal percentage climbs by 5.8 percent when Doncic is in the game, with the gains coming mostly from an increase in shot frequency at the rim and from the deep corners. You know, basically the exact shots every offense wants.

    The Mavs are 1-4 in the five games Doncic has missed this season, a rough mark even before you realize all five of those contests came against opponents with losing records.

    Doncic's individual box-score numbers look largely the same as they did last season, which isn't a knock. He was fourth in MVP voting in 2019-20. Look closer, and you'll see growth in his in-between craft. Doncic has long been the adept at varying his pace and slowing down in traffic to create space, but he's mastered the art this season. He's improved his conversion rate on floaters and those tough push shots out to the foul line while also hitting a career-best 37.7 percent of his threes.

    He's the only player in the league—let alone on the Mavericks, who don't even have another All-Star—averaging at least 28.0 points, 8.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    As a general rule, it's good to make sure the front-runner for MVP, leaguewide, gets the honor for his own team. If Nikola Jokic currently sits ahead of LeBron James, Joel Embiid, James Harden and every other stat-hoarding, net-rating-boosting star, well...he probably also has the edge on Jamal Murray (no shade; Murray is good), Michael Porter Jr. and the rest of the Denver Nuggets.

    Jokic tops the NBA in several catch-all metrics, including win shares, Box Plus/Minus and PER, and the Nugs offense absolutely sings when he's on the floor.

    Few individual players more completely define how their teams operate with the ball than Jokic, whose preternatural vision and creativity basically make any teammate who fails to move and cut with alacrity a perpetrator of basketball crime. If you stand still when Jokic surveys the floor, feinting here and there to open up slivers of free space, you're broadcasting a disdain for open layups and threes.

    And it's not like Jokic just stands around looking for open targets. He leads the team in total points, free throws, field goals, assists, rebounds and steals.

    The Nuggets are among the top 10 in points per play across several key sets: cuts, handoffs, spot-ups and post-ups. That's all Jokic. Though Denver is better defensively when Jokic is off the floor, the offensive gains he provides are more than worth the tradeoff.

    That's a lot of digital ink spilled in service of an obvious point: Jokic is Denver's MVP.

Detroit Pistons: Jerami Grant

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    Those of us who scoffed at the idea that Jerami Grant, heretofore a setup-dependent role player, could scale up and become a ball-in-hand top option are scarfing down crow this season.

    Grant's Detroit Pistons are a lost cause, but the 27-year-old has found a new level. He leads Detroit in points per game and is top-three (now that Delon Wright is on the Sacramento Kings) in total rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

    He's made more field goals than all but two teammates, Josh Jackson and Saddiq Bey, have attempted. And the real growth in his game shows up in self-created offense. Over the three seasons from 2017-18 to 2019-20, roughly three quarters of Grant's baskets were assisted. This season, he's only being set up on 55.2 percent of his two-point buckets.

    Despite inferior surrounding talent (which funnels more defensive attention his way) and a usage rate that blows his previous career high out of the water, Grant is still scoring with respectable efficiency for his role. His 55.9 true shooting percentage is just marginally below this year's overall league average of 57.1 percent. Factoring in the degree of difficulty created by his teammates and the weight of the burden he carries on both ends every night, it's a borderline miracle Grant has been this efficient.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    Start here: The Golden State Warriors are 1-6 in the seven games Stephen Curry has missed this season.

    Continue here: Among players who've logged at least 1,000 minutes, no one has had a bigger positive impact on his team's offensive rating than Curry. He is second in the league in RPM and first by a mile in offensive RPM.

    Conclude here: Curry matters more to his team than any other player. With him on the floor, the Warriors can beat contenders on the right night. Without him, they're a glorified G League outfit that lacks any discernible identity, can't score and is capable of losing to absolutely anyone.

    Not enough of a case? OK, also note that other than Jordan Poole, who only started looking like an actual NBA player about three weeks ago, Curry is the lone Warrior with a PER above the league average of 15.0.

    Draymond Green is indispensable on D, Andrew Wiggins is a quality two-way role player and Kelly Oubre Jr. brings energy and the occasional hot shooting night. But the Dubs would be one of the two or three worst teams in the league without Steph. And we know that because that's exactly what they were last year, when he missed all but five games.

    When you factor in degree of difficulty and lack of help, this is Curry's most impressive season since he was the unanimous MVP in 2015-16.

Houston Rockets: Christian Wood

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    Sixty-five players have attempted at least 500 shots this season, and John Wall ranks 63rd among them in true shooting percentage.

    Sure, factor in the myriad drags on his play that exist in Houston. The Rockets are woefully short on supporting talent, they're essentially directionless without Harden, and their curious team-building decisions (preferring Victor Oladipo to Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen stands out) must have the players on the roster wondering what the plan is.

    Even after acknowledging all that, plus Wall's centrality to Houston's offense, he just hasn't been an objectively valuable player.

    Christian Wood has.

    The Rockets' big offseason get has logged nearly 300 fewer minutes than Wall, but the skilled scoring big is the only Houston regular with a positive Box Plus/Minus, and he leads the team in points and rebounds per game.

    There's a case for Wall. He's in a more impactful leadership position than Wood, and it's inspiring that the 30-year-old guard can still resemble his old turbo-button-mashing self once in a while. But we're going with Wood.

    Anybody who takes issue with that should recall the Rockets lost 20 games in a row this year. With a team this bad, any discussion of value is a low-stakes endeavor.

Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis

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    Pop those blinders on, ignore the fact that the Indiana Pacers get hammered by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with Domantas Sabonis on the floor, and this is an easy choice.

    Sabonis is undeniably valuable if you view the game from a fantasy basketball perspective. He's one of just three players currently averaging over 20.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Peel back one more layer, and his lead among Pacers in Box Plus/Minus and win shares bolsters his individual statistical case.

    But if winning is the point, and if value is tied to how much a player contributes to winning, how do we get past the fact that Indy loses—by a lot—with Sabonis in the game?

    On-off numbers can be noisy, and we've already selectively punted on them for a couple of team MVPs in this exercise. Remember Zach LaVine? Sabonis is a similar case. With many reservations, and with apologetic glances toward Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon, we're picking the damaging defender with the ugly net rating who carries the heaviest offensive burden.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard

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    Kawhi Leonard's stellar 10th season, which currently features the highest true shooting percentage of his career, is under-discussed. That probably has something to do with the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers are this year's ultimate "talk to me when they prove it in the playoffs" team. Nobody seems all that interested in what Leonard or the Clips do during the year; they'll be judged on whether they shake off last season's embarrassing postseason collapse...or repeat it.

    Anyway, back to Leonard.

    The five-time All-Star leads the Clippers in scoring and steals, despite picking his spots and sitting out the odd game here and there. He's making everything inside 10 feet, using that brutally effective shoulder bump to create space and rise up for short jumpers.

    Los Angeles has the luxury of another superstar wing, Paul George, who would have given Leonard a real run for his money here if not for some inconsistency and four fewer games played. PG has the advantage on Leonard in RPM, while Kawhi is ahead in RAPTOR, LEBRON wins added and all the catch-alls on Basketball Reference.

    As good as George has been overall, it's still Leonard who inspires the most dread in opponents and ultimately determines his team's ceiling. Though slightly less terrifying on D and maybe an eighth of a step slower than he was at his absolute apex, Leonard is a fringe MVP candidate in a leaguewide sense.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James

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    Is this really necessary?

    The only way to make "LeBron James is the Los Angeles Lakers' MVP" interesting is to zoom out and consider just how valuable he is to the franchise in the biggest of big-picture terms. Because if you're only judging this season, his team leads in most statistical indicators that matter, his massively positive on-off splits and his status as a top-three leaguewide MVP choice until an ankle injury in late March make the case airtight.

    Anthony Davis might have had a shot, but he's 600 minutes behind James after so much missed time with his calf and Achilles issues.

    AD is actually the segue to the broader appreciation of James' MVP credentials. Because Davis probably wouldn't be in Los Angeles if James hadn't shown up first. And the Lakers wouldn't have their 17th championship. And they wouldn't be threats to add No. 18 this summer. Frankly, without James deciding to come aboard, it's likely the Lakers would be little better than they were in the half-decade before he arrived, when their best finish in the West was 11th.

    LeBron James is the Lakers' MVP. And to answer the initial question: No, this was not really necessary.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

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    Five Memphis Grizzlies rank above Ja Morant in RAPTORSeven top him in ESPN's RPM. At least Kyle Anderson is the only teammate ahead of him in LEBRON wins added.

    Point is: Morant is a dynamic talent with undeniable skill and what look like real long-term leadership chops, but the numbers say he hasn't been especially helpful on the floor this year.

    Know what? Forget the numbers—or at least the ones that say Morant isn't Memphis' MVP.

    No other Grizzlies player puts pressure on the defense, alters momentum with pure athleticism or creates a sense of helplessness among opponents like Morant can. And if we have to rationalize his ugly on-off figures, we only have to note that his positive offensive impact is highest on the team. Memphis just happens to get pummeled by hot opponent three-point shooting with Morant in the game. Point guard defense isn't meaningless, but Morant can't be held responsible for what might only be bad luck.

    He leads the Grizz in scoring and assists, and though Morant is a wretched shooter anywhere beyond point-blank range, his downhill game provides real value. Morant is sixth in the league in points scored on drives per game and fourth in assists.

    It's not a clean case, and it may even require dangerous disregard for some compelling stats. But it seems safe to assume that if you polled the Grizzlies, they'd all name Morant MVP. Watch the team play, and you'll get on board, too.

Miami Heat: Jimmy Butler

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    Jimmy Butler is posting the lowest three-point attempt rate of his career (and only hitting one of every five attempts from deep!), and it doesn't even matter. He's upped his rebound and assist averages to career-high levels, and he's also hitting twos at a higher clip than ever before.

    Yes, Bam Adebayo is vital to the Miami Heat's defensive integrity, and his facilitation skill can't be ignored. The versatile center has even logged nine more games and more than 300 additional minutes compared to Butler.

    But Jimmy defines the Heat. His toughness and competitiveness on both ends elevates his team, as evidenced by the fact that Miami's net rating jumps by a team-high 9.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Adebayo, no slouch, is at plus-5.5.

    It's close, but Butler takes the award because of his identity-defining value to the Heat—along with the fact that they're 4-11 without him.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Anybody else on the Milwaukee Bucks averaging more than 28.3 points?

    How about 11.4 rebounds?

    OK, but is anyone putting up more than 6.3 assists?

    No? Great. That settles it. Giannis Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's MVP. He leads in all three basic counting stat categories, plus every advanced metric that rewards positive on-court impact—which is all of them. Added bonus, Antetokounmpo anchors the defense with his length, speed and high-revving motor.

    Really, when you're the two-time reigning MVP of the league and you're still in the neighborhood of the numbers that earned you those awards, there's not a lot of room for debate. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are both fine players. Giannis is just in a separate class.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns

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    The bar is low for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who reside in the Western Conference basement with little hope of scaling the stairs to the first floor. The first floor is "general respectability" in this analogy.

    Minny has long-term hope, though. Anthony Edwards seems to have busted through the rookie wall lately (check out those 11 points down the stretch of a tight win over the New York Knicks on Wednesday), and Karl-Anthony Towns has produced at rates right in line with his gaudy career averages since returning to the lineup full time.

    We've buried the lede here, but KAT is the MVP pick for the Wolves. He's only fourth on the team in total minutes played, but he leads Minnesota with 23.9 points, 10.7 boards and 1.6 blocks per game. His long-range hit rate is right at 40.0 percent, making it four straight years at or above that elite level.

    Circling back to low bars, Towns' on-court net rating of minus-2.5 might not seem so great. But it's the second-best figure on the team (shout out to Jaden McDaniels at minus-1.3) and looks pretty good when measured against the minus-10.8 figure Minnesota posts in non-Towns minutes.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

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    This would have been a closer call if the New Orleans Pelicans hadn't realized the obvious sometime around early February. It was then when Zion Williamson started seeing more reps as the primary ball-handler. And not coincidentally, it was then when he began his statistical tear.

    It's not like Zion was unhelpful prior to New Orleans' stylistic tweak. He averaged 25.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game in January. But February saw him pass into a new dimension, upping his averages to 27.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and, most notably, 4.5 assists per contest. He also improved his true shooting percentage from 64.1 percent in January to 69.3 percent in February.

    The trend continued in March, with his usage rate climbing even higher. There's no denying it now: Williamson is in control of the Pelicans offense. The results are undeniable, as New Orleans is comfortably first in points per 100 possessions since Feb. 1 after finishing January ranked 16th.

    It's true Williamson bears outsized responsibility for the Pelicans' defensive shortcomings. He's still learning where to be and when to be there on that end. That's to be expected for a 20-year-old.

    It's hard to quantify the value of a star player finding the role that most helps his team, but the Pels now have a clear identity with Zion as a ball-in-hand playmaker. Statistically, the task is easier. Williamson leads New Orleans in scoring and has a stranglehold on the team high for Box Plus/Minus and win shares.

New York Knicks: Julius Randle

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    New York Knicks observers will remember 2020-21 as the year Julius Randle broke out beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

    Randle leads the Knicks in total points, rebounds and assists while also topping his team in whichever catch-all metric you prefer. Perhaps most remarkably, Randle suddenly became a deadly high-volume three-point shooter this season. Of the 78 players who have attempted at least 200 threes this season, Randle's 41.9 percent hit rate ranks 11th.

    If we stick with that group of high-volume shooters, only Randle and Nikola Vucevic are combining averages of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game with better than 40 percent accuracy from deep.

    RJ Barrett has been lights out since the middle of February, and his growth still matters more to the Knicks' future than anything else. But without Randle on the floor, New York's offense craters. He's the reason the Knicks' defensive renaissance under Tom Thibodeau matters. If not for Randle's work on the other end, all those stops wouldn't be producing wins.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    Even among diehard NBA fans, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander doesn't get his due.

    That's understandable given the Oklahoma City Thunder's early-stage rebuild, small market and SGA's relative newness to the blossoming superstar scene. Newsflash for the uninitiated: There is zero doubt Gilgeous-Alexander is OKC's MVP this season.

    He's the Thunder's leader with 23.7 points per game (no teammate is even above 15.0) with 5.9 assists thrown in as a bonus. An indispensable shot creator on a team that lacks anyone else to capably fill the role, SGA is hitting over half his shots from the field an 40.8 percent of his treys.

    Considering the attention he commands on a talent-poor team, his scoring efficiency is even more impressive than the numbers show.

    If you need to know just one thing about Gilgeous-Alexander, it's that he's the game's preeminent driver. Nobody averages more field goals or passes per game off drives than SGA, whose herky-jerky, off-time cadence makes his quick bursts even more devastating. It's impossible for defenders to stay balanced against him, and if he's not blowing by an opponent, he's stopping short or sidestepping before choosing from a vast array of scoops, flips or floaters.

    Hopefully laying out his bona fides helps acquaint a broader audience with his gloriously refined and devilishly crafty game.

Orlando Magic: Khem Birch

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    The Orlando Magic haven't exactly had a banner season. They have the second-fewest wins in the East and own a bottom-three offense. But at least they have several notable names who have produced solid numbers.

    Clearly Nikola Vucevic is Orlando's MVP. Sorry, what? He's not on the team anymore? That's fine, Evan Fournier is a great fallback. Also gone? OK, Aaron Gordon isn't typical MVP material, but he'll do. Wait, he's out, too?

    Congratulations to (scans columns of wholly unremarkable stats) Khem Birch!

    He's averaging about 20 minutes off the bench and might only be familiar to 10 percent of NBA fans outside central Florida. But that's where we are after Orlando's deadline teardown.

    Terrence Ross is just about all that's left of a veteran core, and he may be the captain now. But Birch has him beat in PER, win shares and Box Plus/Minus. Ross leads the remaining Magic players in minutes, but Birch has been available for more games than anyone but Dwayne Bacon, whose shot selection barred him from MVP consideration—even in a field this thinned by trades.

    Take Ross, the superior scorer, if you want. It doesn't matter. The best thing Orlando did was finally rip off the Band-Aid and start fresh. The talent base is limited, but the Magic finally have a shot to replenish it with the extra picks and assets that came back in deals for Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

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    Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris have had hundreds of extra minutes to catch Joel Embiid, out since March 12 with a knee injury, in the metrics that measure cumulative impact.

    They are still nowhere close. Embiid remains well ahead as team leader in RAPTOR wins above replacement, win shares and ESPN's RPM wins

    Prior to hyperextending that knee, Embiid had the inside track to the league MVP award. His interior dominance was overwhelming, producing a league-high 11.4 free-throw attempts per game. His averages of 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds with a 65.0 true shooting percentage are unequaled in NBA history. Throw in fearsome interior defense and a plus-14.0 boost to Philly's net rating when he's on the floor, and Embiid's obvious status as team MVP needs no further justification.

    Assuming Embiid returns to the floor sometime in April, Simmons and Harris won't have any shot at closing the gap.

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul

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    Thought exercise: What's the difference between this year's Phoenix Suns, who are legitimate title threats, and last year's, which closed with an unexpected 8-0 bubble run but still finished under .500?

    Sure, Mikal Bridges made a leap. Yes, Jae Crowder has helped. Deandre Ayton is more efficient.

    But what's the hit-you-over-the-head-obvious change? It's Chris Paul. Obviously.

    Aside from a predictable dip in assists, Devin Booker is basically the same player he was a season ago. Which is to say he's a deserving All-Star and a credentialed bucket-getter at all three levels. His lead on Paul in RAPTOR WAR is notable, but Paul bests Booker in PER, Box Plus/Minus, B-Ball Index's LEBRON wins added and ESPN's RPM wins.

    That's persuasive.

    And circling back, it's Paul's seen-it-all influence that appears to have elevated Phoenix. His competitiveness, poise and total control over the game stabilizes the Suns. He has to be credited to some degree for the steps forward made by so many young teammates.

    None of this should be a surprise. Paul hauled a Thunder team with much less supporting talent to the playoffs last year. This is what he does.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Isn't it weird that the Portland Trail Blazers have outperformed their point differential to the largest extent in the league? It's almost as if they have some kind of secret weapon, an unfair advantage that tilts the odds of what should toss up close-and-late situations in their favor.

    They do. His name is Damian Lillard.

    Dame is on track to log his fifth career finish among the top 10 in MVP voting (and possibly his second in the top five), and nothing illustrates his value like his trademark clutch excellence. He leads the NBA in clutch scoring, and his 55.9/44.4/100.0 shooting split in those situations has produced a league-best 20 wins in games where the score is within five points in the final five minutes.

    Lillard's overall stats would be more than enough to earn him Blazers MVP honors. He's scored more than twice as many total points as Carmelo Anthony, Portland's No. 2 scorer, and he has more than three times the total assists of CJ McCollum, who missed nearly two months with a fractured foot. Lillard played in all of the 25 games McCollum missed, and Portland went 14-11 in that span.

    Short of Curry in Golden State and Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Lillard might be the most clear-cut team MVP in the league.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    His recent Western Conference Player of the Week honor (that makes two this season) could blow the lid off things, but De'Aaron Fox's fourth-year leap has flown mostly under the radar.

    That's life as the star of the Sacramento Kings, California's fourth-favorite NBA team.

    Fox's award-worthy stretch included averages of 36.8 points, 5.5 assists, 64.0 percent shooting from the field and a 4-0 record. On the year, he's posting a career-high scoring average of 24.7 points with a 57.1 true shooting percentage. Added volume from three and a barely respectable 33.0 percent hit rate gives the blindingly quick Fox all the advantage he needs to get into the lane in half-court sets, and you won't find a faster end-to-end bullet in transition.

    Richaun Holmes is even more overlooked than Fox, and Harrison Barnes is "solid two-way play" personified. But Fox is Sacramento's most indispensable component. He's maturing as a leader, doesn't shy away from big shots (or passes) and provides a defense-piercing threat that doesn't exist anywhere else on the roster. No wonder the Kings, who are inching their way back into the play-in conversation, lose 4.5 points per 100 possessions from their offensive rating when he rests. Fox also ranks 14th in ESPN's RPM, while no other Kings player cracks the top 70.

    Fox still has to become a more reliable three-point shooter, get down in a defensive stance more often and play at peak levels more consistently. But he was a fringe All-Star consideration who has only gotten better since missing out on that honor.

San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    If you ignore one critical piece of evidence, DeMar DeRozan should win the San Antonio Spurs' MVP in a landslide.

    He's the team's leading scorer and facilitator, and he's gotten to the foul line nearly twice as often as Keldon Johnson, who has taken the Spurs' second-most free throws. San Antonio's win shares, Box Plus/Minus and PER titles also belong to DeRozan.

    But if the point of playing NBA games is to win them, and if winning them requires scoring more points than the other team (sorry for the deep analysis here), shouldn't a team MVP's time on the floor not coincide with an enormous negative point differential?

    San Antonio's net rating is minus-7.0 with DeRozan in the game. A charitably deeper look at that number shows the Spurs score just fine with DeRozan on the court but that their defense comes undone. DeRozan has long been a poor defender, but that can't be all his fault.

    Reserve Patty Mills has the highest on-off differential among Spurs regulars, and you can set your watch to San Antonio's backups erasing deficits created by the starters. The success of Mills and a deep cast of backups contribute to DeRozan's ugly differential, but it's still tough to look past it entirely.

    DeRozan still gets the nod, but it's a hesitant one.

Toronto Raptors: Fred VanVleet

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It hurts to choose anyone other than Kyle Lowry, who in addition to being one of the great leaders and tone-setters in the league also tends to grade out among the elites in advanced catch-all metrics. Things are a bit different this year, as Lowry's statistical production has dipped in his age-34 season.

    He's posting his lowest Box Plus/Minus since 2009-10, and though ESPN's Real Plus-Minus has him ranked 18th, this is the first year since 2014-15 that Lowry has been lower than seventh. Teammate Fred VanVleet bests Lowry in RPM, RAPTOR wins above replacement, B-Ball Index's LEBRON wins added and VORP.

    It's admittedly hard to get past the fact that VanVleet is shooting under 40 percent from the field. But his relentless defensive pressure, shot-making and availability (he's the easy winner in minutes played among Raptors) give him the edge.

    VanVleet is no slouch in big moments, but you still might rather have Lowry with a game or playoff series on the line. That's not what this is about, though, and VanVleet has done enough to wrest the Toronto MVP award from his veteran backcourt mentor.

Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    This isn't a shot at Donovan Mitchell, who has the gaudier scoring average and fills the all-important (and typically more heralded) role of late-game offense-generator. Mitchell is a bucket; no argument here.

    But Rudy Gobert is the one driving the Utah Jazz's success on both ends.

    Already a two-time winner, Utah's center is a good bet to secure his third DPOY. The Jazz's entire scheme is built around running opponents off the three-point line and funneling them into the lane where, because of Gobert's blot-out-the-sun rim coverage, quality scoring chances go to die.

    Gobert knocks roughly 10 points per 100 possessions off Utah's defensive rating, and none of that difference is noise. He's defended the second-most shots inside six feet in the league, and opponents are hitting 50.0 percent of their attempts from that range against him. Among high-volume rim-protectors, only Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen and Jakob Poeltl are in Gobert's stratosphere as deterrents.

    The Frenchman is also averaging 14.6 points and 13.3 rebounds while hitting 64.8 percent of his shots from the field and providing vertical gravity for Utah's top-five offense. His offensive contributions feel like afterthoughts, but that's only because Gobert is the league's most effective defender.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    On March 18, the Washington Wizards won a game in which Bradley Beal scored 40 points. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was the first time Washington had managed to make its best player's big-scoring night stand up since Nov. 15, 2019.

    In the interim, Beal popped for 40-plus in 11 different games and lost them all.

    That gives us two qualities that contribute to Beal's status as the Wizards' most valuable player: unsurpassed scoring ability and Olympic-level patience. Most guys in his situation would have tried everything to get out of town by now, but not Beal. He has yet to tweet from a hair salon or sport unsubtle Looney Tunes apparel as a way to broadcast his desire for escape.

    Beal leads his team (and the league) in scoring at 31.3 points per game and has twice as many win shares as his next-closest teammate.

                   

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, April 1.

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