Updated NBA MVP Ranking: Can Anyone Catch Nikola Jokic?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2021

Updated NBA MVP Ranking: Can Anyone Catch Nikola Jokic?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    We have reached the closing arguments portion of the 2020-21 NBA MVP race.

    There's a single week left in the season. Statistical eruptions don't move the year-long averages much anymore. Narratives have at least their rough drafts completed, and it's hard to imagine more than minor edits at this point.

    The process isn't complete until the final whistle blows, but voters have most of the information they need to make an informed, thought-out decision.

    We feel confident submitting our top-five ballot here. Now, that's partly because we can slap a subject-to-change disclaimer on it, but it's more so due to how little we see changing between now and the final curtain drop.

Honorable Mention

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Whittling an MVP player pool down to a final five is always tricky, but this year feels especially exhausting.

    LeBron James didn't crack the quintet, which seems almost impossible when it looked for a while like this would be his award to lose. Same goes for James Harden and, to a lesser extent, Kawhi Leonard, but they just don't quite measure up to the last group standing.

    James lost his candidacy to a right ankle sprain that has limited him to a pair of appearances since March 20. Harden can blame the right hamstring strain that has sidelined him for all but four minutes since March 31. At this point, Leonard might be closest to the top five, but he's close to 20 absences and might not even be having the best year by a member of the Los Angeles Clippers (Paul George, another in-the-discussion candidate).

    Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic both could crack the top five by going nuclear through the final week, but they're still a half-step behind the pace. Lillard seemed to let off the gas a bit once the Portland Trail Blazers finally got healthy—if anyone had earned a breather, it was him—and now he's racing to make up for lost time. Doncic's volume is silly, but all-encompassing stats like player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes liked him more last year.

    Rudy Gobert might work his way onto the ballot with a credible argument as the best player on this season's best team. But the Utah Jazz work best as an ensemble, in part because there isn't major separation among their players. The degree by which Gobert is more valuable than healthy versions of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley is debatable.

    Julius Randle might make some noise at the ballot box, but his year feels more like a really good story than MVP greatness. The opposite might be true for Jimmy Butler. He looks incredible (third-most win shares per 48 minutes overall), but the impact fails to impress when the Miami Heat have lagged behind expectations all season.

5. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The word narrative is about to have its moment under the sun.

    It happens every NBA award season as voters tackle the question of what should matter in the MVP race. Some will go with the best player on the best team or the one with the best stats. Others might use their vote to pinpoint the player with the season's best story.

    Those are the voters likeliest to land with Chris Paul. He was the biggest offseason addition for a Suns team in the process of snapping a decade-long playoff drought with a .700-plus winning percentage and a top-two seed in the Western Conference. The turnaround isn't all about the point god, but it's hard to overstate his importance to this up-and-coming club.

    "[Paul] has so much wisdom he brings to this team," Suns center Deandre Ayton said, per SI.com's Michael Shapiro. "He's always quick to point out the details, the little things. It's what makes him great. And he's vocal. Every day he's working with us, helping make [Devin Booker] and I great."

    Paul doesn't have the numbers to win this award, but his stats can support a top-five finish. He is one of six players averaging 16 points and eight assists, and he has the best assist-to-turnover ratio among starters. The Suns have fared 3.0 points better per 100 possessions with him than without, which might be even more impressive considering Phoenix's second teamers have the Association's best per-game point differential (plus-2.0).

    Tack on the fact this is Paul's second successive season with a Midas touch—remember how good he was for the Oklahoma City Thunder?—and his story seems too compelling for voters to not give him serious support.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    To some, the fact the Golden State Warriors are clinging to a play-in tournament ticket will rule Stephen Curry out of this race. To others, the fact he has carried this Klay Thompson-less team this far is reason for support.

    To many, a vote for Curry is a vote for perhaps the most brilliant basketball played all season.

    If opposing coaches wrote their defensive game plans in novel form, they'd get several chapters deep without a mention of anyone other than Curry—save perhaps for Draymond Green, whose primary offensive duty is positioning Curry to score. Green built a top-five assists average almost exclusively off his two-man work with Curry. Green has assisted Curry 176 times; his next most productive receiver is Andrew Wiggins (84 assists).

    A workload this back-breaking should, in theory, torpedo Curry's efficiency. In actuality, he has the third-best true shooting percentage of his legendary career (65.8). His 31.9 points per game have positioned him for his second-ever scoring title, and if he catches a bit of fire from the field, he'll make his second entry into the 50/40/90 club (he's at 48.7/42.9/91.6).

    The Warriors are 10.3 points better per 100 possessions with Curry than without him. On the offensive end, it's a 12.7-point swing. He leads the NBA in 30-point games (36), 40-point games (10) and 50-point games (three). He has almost 60 more triples than the second-most productive shooter (324 to Buddy Hield's 265).

    He paces everyone in offensive real plus-minus and overall real plus-minus. He ranks in the top three in both box plus/minus and in value over replacement player, and the only players he trails are ones ranked higher on this list.

    While the lack of team success denies him entry into our top-three, it doesn't diminish what has otherwise been an MVP-caliber campaign.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    There comes a point at which consistent domination begins to feel inevitable. Giannis Antetokounmpo arguably reached it sometime over the past two seasons, when he collected consecutive MVP awards and paired the second with Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    Normalizing greatness might be the single biggest accomplishment in all of sports, but it comes with a price. When fans, media and award voters expect the incredible, they're no longer impressed by it. In the MVP lexicon, this produces voter fatigue, which shouldn't exist but sure seems real considering the league hasn't awarded MVP to the same player three years in a row since Larry Bird (1984-86).

    Antetokounmpo is fighting some of that. There isn't much statistical difference between this version and the one who took home the hardware, but his name hasn't generated quite the same buzz.

    Maybe it's because Milwaukee is really good after being great for two seasons. Perhaps voters are holding previous playoff struggles against him. This might be a regular-season award, but for some, the narratives reach back further than opening night. Maybe he's hidden by the enormous size of his own shadow.

    Whatever the case, something is stealing some of his shine. Not here, though. Here we're giving proper due to a player ranked second in box plus/minus, third in player efficiency rating and fourth in win shares.

    Those are the marks of a heavyweight MVP contender. The fact he "only" slots into the No. 3 spot shows not failure on his part but brilliance by our top two.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    While the field is thick with deserving candidates, this is really a two-man race between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. Arguing for Embiid as the pick isn't hard.

    The injury bug has finally allowed him to have a mostly healthy season, and the results are every bit as absurd as anticipated. He has himself and the Sixers looking like the absolute best versions of themselves. For him, it's a Hakeem Olajuwon reboot for the modern game. For the team, it's a defensive juggernaut with enough offensive punch to sit atop the Eastern Conference standings.

    "If we keep winning and end up the No. 1 seed, I don't know how you can argue [against] Joel Embiid being the MVP," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said, per Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He affected winning as much as anybody else."

    To that end, Philly has gone 38-11 with Embiid on the court. That's a .776 winning percentage, a success rate this league hasn't seen since 2017-18. Without him, the Sixers are 9-10 (.474), or roughly the equivalent of the Washington Wizards (.471).

    Statistically speaking, Embiid is either a gift from the basketball gods or a hoops deity himself. He's on course to join Hall of Famers David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo as the only players to average 29 points, 10 rebounds, one steal and one block. Embiid is also the season leader in player efficiency rating and player impact estimate.

    His case is almost ironclad. The only problem is he couldn't escape the injury bug for the entire season. With load management added in, he's about 20 games and 900 minutes short of where Jokic sits. With the race otherwise too close to call, the playing time discrepancy seems a logical tipping point for a significant chunk of the voting populace.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When the Nuggets lost Jamal Murray to an ACL tear in his left knee, the injury threatened to derail their entire season. In terms of championship chances, it probably did.

    But as far as the regular season goes, there has been almost zero disruption. When Murray went down, Denver had a .630 winning percentage and plus-4.8 net rating. In the nearly one month since, those numbers are up to .714 and plus-5.6, respectively.

    Nikola Jokic had a loud argument for MVP before this Murray-less stretch, but this could be the one that convinces any undecided voters.

    "Clearly, Jokic is the MVP this year," Nets coach Steve Nash said, per Kyle Fredrickson of the Denver Post. "He's kind of gone wire-to-wire at this high level. He makes his teammates better and everything go. They lose Jamal Murray and they haven't really skipped a beat. That shows how good he is."

    Jokic's numbers can rival anyone's, and they bury most by a massive margin. He's about to join backcourt initiators Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook as the only players to average 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He'll do so as a 6'11", 284-pound center who is shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from deep.

    He lands atop more all-encompassing stat categories than anyone, enjoying pole position in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He makes the Nuggets, the No. 4 seed in the fully loaded West, 8.2 points better per 100 possessions just by taking the floor. He is already the best passing big man in history, and he has never been harder to handle as a primary scorer.

    His work isn't quite finished, but he is our MVP pick heading into the marathon's final turn.


    All stats current through May 8 and courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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