Updated NBA MVP Rankings and Odds: Who Would Win the Award Today?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2021

Updated NBA MVP Rankings and Odds: Who Would Win the Award Today?

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    It is time to start winnowing down our NBA MVP ballots, which also means it's time for some serious self-loathing.

    Much like other Maurice Podoloff Trophy ladders, this exercise is not presented as predictions etched in permanent ink. These standings can still change. They will change, at least in some spots. Players will not be included if they so obviously don't have staying power, but this is first and foremost a reflection of where the MVP pecking order should stand, not necessarily where it's going.

    Approach it this way: If the NBA season ended right now, how should the ballot shake out?

    Though this year's MVP field has more so resembled a jam-packed free-for-all, the season is heading into its closing kick. This is no longer the space to consider a dozen or more names. The actual ballot has five spots, so our scope will be narrowed to—you guessed it—the top-five candidates, with their betting odds coming from FanDuel.

    And now, we rank. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The door is still open for Damian Lillard to claim a top-five spot. A recent slump, by his standards, has hurt him, but he kept the Portland Trail Blazers above water while they navigated lengthy absences from CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic and is just generally nuclear.

    No player has fared better during high-leverage moments. Lillard leads the league in clutch win probability added by a comically, cosmically large margin, according to Inpredictable. His shooting slash inside the final two minutes of one-possession games is mythic: 68.8 percent on twos (11-of-16), 35.7 percent on threes, 96.3 percent at the foul line (26-of-27).

    Jimmy Butler, James Harden, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are in play but much tougher sells. Almost everyone inside the top five will have a few hundred minutes on all of them by season's end. That matters when the pool of periphery candidates is so damn deep. The Kevin Durant ship sailed months ago.

    Julius Randle has started to crop up, mostly among New York Knicks fans. A top-five bid is a big ask. I'm not sure he's improved enough defensively to get the nod over anyone to come, but a strong finish from New York amid the league's seventh-toughest schedule, per Positive Residual, would go a long way.

    Rudy Gobert deserves a mention as the basis for everything the Utah Jazz do. Nominating Chris Paul gets tricky when Devin Booker is just as if not more important to manipulating defenses both on and off the ball.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (+3600)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic went from ranking as the odds-on MVP favorite to seldom getting a hat tip in this discussion. It isn't quite clear why. Or rather, it's pretty clear. It just doesn't make sense.

    The Dallas Mavericks have for the most part whiffed on preseason expectations. Conceptually, they should be fringe contenders. In actuality, they're hovering around play-in territory. 

    That isn't on Doncic. He's putting up 28.4 points and 8.7 assists on 56.5 percent shooting inside the arc and a career-best 35.8 percent clip from long range. The threat of his step-back three opens up all sorts of space in the half court, and he continues to leverage the attention he receives from the outside into opportunities closer to the basket. He is canning 54.8 percent of his floaters, flirting with a 70 percent success rate at the rim and shooting 56.6 percent on post-ups.

    Holding the Mavericks' position in the Western Conference against Doncic is fair game. Sort of. Voters generally aren't drawn to MVP candidates on teams that don't place inside the top three of their own conference.

    This rings hollow knowing how much Dallas' offense improves with Doncic on the floor—not to mention how much better the team has played since a cold start to the season. The Mavericks are 12 games over .500 after beginning the year 9-14, with a top-seven offense and net rating.

    Making that much of a midseason jump is a miracle under the circumstances. Doncic hasn't enjoyed the safety net of a clear-cut No. 2. Kristaps Porzingis' availability and overall play have waxed and waned. Dallas' second-best player this season might be Jalen Brunson. The night-to-night answer might not exist and depends on who's putting in their uncontested looks. The Mavs are 27th in efficiency on wide-open threes.

    General uncertainty behind Doncic is reflected in his workload. When accounting for his total scoring and the points he creates off assists, he represents more than 41.8 percent of the Mavericks' offensive production—the largest share in the league. And he couples this with improved defense. He is a threat to jump passing lanes and has added trailing blocks to his armory.

    Few advanced metrics will make a definitive case against Doncic. He is ninth in estimated plus-minus (EPM) from Dunks & Threes, fourth in total points added (TPA) from NBA Math and fourth in value over replacement player (VORP). Both ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) and NBA Shot Charts' real adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) have him outside the top 25.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (+1200)

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Absent concrete MVP criteria, something The Athletic's Seth Partnow wrote on the subject stands out as the best baseline for the award: "But the MVP in any given season isn't necessarily the best player in the world. It's usually the guy for whom everything broke right in terms of health, team quality and his own performance."

    Stephen Curry has two of those factors working for him. His own performance typifies world domination. He's contending for the league's scoring crown while recording the third-highest true shooting percentage of his career. Recency bias only helps him. He's averaging over 38 points in the month of April on a freakishly high 49 percent clip from beyond the arc. Relative to this season, his health is on point.

    Team quality? Not so much. The Golden State Warriors hold the Western Conference's 10-seed. That just so happens to be part of the appeal here.

    Curry shouldn't receive a haphazard number of brownie points for Golden State's fundamentally flawed roster, but he deserves a ton of credit for ferrying it further than almost anyone else could. The Warriors' offensive rating plunges by 15.5 points per 100 possessions without him on the floor, the biggest swing in the league among every player to record at least 250 minutes.

    To what end this matters is debatable. Dragging a bare-bones supporting cast to respectability—Golden State's net rating sits at plus-3.8 with Curry versus minus-9.9 when he's off the court—is arguably less impressive than pushing a good team toward greatness. In this case, though, the personnel surrounding Curry is that problematic.

    The folks over at BBall Index have metrics for gauging the quality of talent that makes up the lineups in which each player spends time. Look at how the supporting cast around Steph grades out as finishers, playmakers and floor-spacers:

    • Lineup Finishing: D+
    • Lineup Playmaking: D
    • Lineup Spacing: F

    Nobody else on this list plays within a less ideal environment by these measures. (Luka Doncic comes closest.) And yet, Curry still ranks in the top three of EPM, TPA, VORP and RPM. He places 22nd in RAPM. That he has remained one of the most valuable players alive speaks to his impact across all contexts. And it isn't just his circus shot-making. It is his magnetic pull off the ball.

    Every possession in which Curry is on the floor automatically redirects the attention of at least two defenders. This gravity is the author of opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist. The opportunities he tees up for teammates while on-ball is almost beyond compare. He ranks sixth this season in box creation, an estimate of open shots created for teammates per 100 possessions, according to Back Picks. Nikola Jokic is, really, the only other player who matches the quality of looks Curry designs for others with his own scoring impact.

    Whether Curry has the juice to climb higher than No. 4 is in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of people will be uncomfortable seeing him this high. The Warriors get trucked when he plays without Draymond Green, and he doesn't leave the same two-way dent as some of the names to follow. It'll be tough to vault him any higher unless Golden State scraps its way into a top-six seed.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (+2200)

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    To the extent that someone averaging 28.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks while burying 63.3 percent of his twos can actually go unnoticed, Giannis Antetokounmpo is flying under the radar.

    Voter fatigue would prevent him from taking home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy for the third year in a row even if there wasn't a heavily deserving No. 1 option ahead of him. That logic remains the worst. Past playoff shortcomings could also be suppressing his candidacy. This is a regular-season award, but that's at least more understandable.

    There remains some question as to how Antetokounmpo can take on defenses when the pace grinds down and the floor isn't open. Getting more reps as the screener should help, but he's not the most efficient roll threat. And though he's willing to rip off pull-up jumpers and fadeaways, neither counter is falling at an especially high rate.

    This cannot be the reason Antetokounmpo gets bounced from the top three, let alone the top five. He had a viable case for his three-peat after Joel Embiid's bone bruise before a certain someone kept going kaboom. 

    Milwaukee is still better offensively with Antetokounmpo on the court, and his defensive impact has for the most part held up as head coach Mike Budenholzer tests out more switching and zone. Players struggle to finish against him at the hoop. It doesn't matter if he's going step for step downhill, dropping back on switches or rotating over. He can swallow shots. His presence in the passing lane remains ubiquitous, and he has tackled tougher individual matchups as part of Milwaukee's experimental defense and reworked roster.

    Similar to last year, the Bucks are winning the minutes Giannis doesn't play. Also similar to last year, his presence takes them from fine to title contention. Milwaukee is pummeling opponents in the time he spends without both Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton on the floor.

    Kitchen-sink metrics yet again love Giannis A.A.F. He ranks in the top five of EPMTPAVORP and RPM. And his 15th-place standing in RAPM is the second-highest among the five players who appear here. Dominance this steady should guarantee Giannis a spot in the real-life top five.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (+390)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Minutes-played purists will not take kindly to Joel Embiid bagging second place. And indeed, the 18 games he's missed open the door for someone else to slide into this spot. He ranks outside the top 125 in total minutes and, let's face it, probably isn't playing in every one of the Philadelphia 76ers' remaining tilts.

    Still, for the time being, the quality of Embiid's floor time is too overwhelming. This isn't someone simply dominating. It is dominance expanded.

    Everything he does on defense is roughly the same as ever: deter, deter, deter. Opponents must think twice and then a third time about their next move when he's on the floor. He erases shots around the rim but also scares players out of taking them in the first place. Rival offenses see their clips at both the basket and from floater range implode when he's on the court.

    What Embiid's doing on offense is more novel—and equally, if not more, impactful. His efficiency has dipped since returning from his left knee injury, but he's still averaging 29.8 points and 3.1 assists for the season while converting 54.3 percent of his twos and 37.6 percent of his threes—both career highs.

    It would take less time to rattle off all the ways in which Embiid cannot punish defenses. He retains his bully status inside the arc. His 1.09 points per post-up possession rank fifth among everyone who has finished at least 100 such plays, and he's attempting more free throws per 36 minutes than anyone in NBA history.

    Embiid isn't just partnering his interior dominance with better outside touch. He is now a functional shooter. Last year, he put down 33.3 percent of pull-up two-pointers. This season, that number has mushroomed to 47 percent.

    Murky solo minutes—the Sixers are a slight negative when he's running without Ben Simmons—are easy to forgive when viewing his season through that lens. Only five players who have cleared 250 have a higher net-rating swing, and he ranks no lower than ninth in EPMTPAVORPRPM and RAPM, making him the lone player to crack the top 10 in all five.

    Philly's offense can still bog down during crunch time, and it isn't entirely clear whether Embiid alone can playoff-proof it. He is shooting 4-of-10 during the final two minutes of one-possession games and isn't a born table-setter. But he still gets to the line with bonkers frequency in those situations, and regardless of how he shakes out down the stretch of close games, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone making such a stark impact at both ends of the floor.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (-450)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Members of Nuggets Twitter will insist this has been the case forever. They might be right. I still think Joel Embiid led the pack, ever so slightly, prior to the bone bruise he suffered in his left knee, and that there was a moment in time, following his absence, when the choice remained a toss-up between a handful of different names.

    It doesn't much matter at the moment. Kudos to everyone who arrived here first. We should all be here now. 

    Nikola Jokic's per-game numbers—26.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 60.3 percent shooting on twos, 40.9 percent clip on threes—are hard to fathom even when adjusted for video game mode. Only one other player has ever averaged 20 or more points on this type of efficiency from the floor: 2012-13 LeBron James.

    There is no overstating how much he means to the Nuggets offense. They pump out 14.3 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor, the second-largest swing in the league among everyone who has logged at least 250 minutes, trailing only Stephen Curry. 

    This absurdity jibes with the workload Jokic carries. His vision is telepathic. Assists aren't enough to measure the impact of his passing; they are but a snapshot of the high-percentage opportunities he manufactures. Jokic and James Harden are the only players who place in the top 10 of both box creation, an estimate of open shots created for teammates per 100 possessions, and passer rating, an estimate of a player's passing ability, according to Back Picks

    That Jokic manages to pair standard-bearer playmaking with lethal scoring verges on incomprehensible. His efficiency doesn't track with his shot profile. He's not feasting on bunnies at the rim. He's downing 53.3 percent of his two-point jumpers, including 47.8 percent of his fadeaways inside the arc.

    Conventional wisdom suggests the Nuggets need a different type of scorer to skate by in crunch time, a la the injured Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. Perhaps that'll be true in the playoffs. For now, it's not. Nobody has made more shots than Jokic in the final two minutes of one-possession games.

    Harp on his defensive limitations as you will. They exist. He is a fantastic rebounder and has great hands for a big. The effort level is there, as well. But he isn't the quickest rotator around the basket and can be barbecued when pulled outside the paint. Even when he holds up versus ball-handlers, he's a coin toss to dissuade looks at the basket without fouling.

    Splitting hairs is part of the MVP process. But Jokic's warts can mean only so much when he checks every other imaginable box—including the advanced metrics criteria. He is a top-10 staple almost across the board and leads the league by wide margins in EPM, TPA and VORP. He also accounts for over 41.3 percent of Denver's offense by his total scoring and the points he's generated off assists. Luka Doncic is the lone player who represents a larger share of his team's attack.

    Anecdotal evidence to some extent drives MVP discourse. Jokic has that going for him, too. Not only is he keeping the Nuggets afloat following Murray's season-ending torn left ACL, but he has played in every single game while coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance and then the shortest offseason in sports history.

    What once felt like a tightly contested MVP race with a high variance of potential outcomes now profiles as a runaway result. Jokic should win.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate heading into Tuesday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.


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