2021 NBA Playoffs MVP Rankings: Luka Doncic Is Stealing the Show Early
MVP awards are contentious by nature, mostly because it's so easy to disagree about the definition of "valuable."
Playoff eliminations add some clarity to that inherently fuzzy term by sending teams packing if their best players don't provide enough value over the course of a series. Then again, the postseason is a tiny sample and, at least at this stage, we're judging MVP candidates' worth against a single opponent. Imperfect conditions, to be sure.
The best approach is to keep it simple. The playoff MVP is the guy dominating most consequentially. Production comes first, but any ties will be broken in favor of the player whose numbers are contributing more to his team's success. Framed another way, we can just ask how much worse off the candidate's team would be without him.
With most first-round series still unfinished, we've got a long way to go. These players have been the best so far.
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
We have to dock Kawhi Leonard a figurative point or two for the way his Los Angeles Clippers stumbled out of the gates against Dallas. His individual work in Games 1 and 2 was stellar, with averages of 33.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.0 steals. But Leonard didn't spend much time guarding Doncic, and he didn't exactly draw out the best from his teammates in the intensity and effort departments.
It's generally out of bounds to pin the failures of supporting players on a star, but when the entire narrative surrounding the Clippers is about a lack of leadership and chemistry, well...it's closer to fair game than usual.
As L.A. righted the ship in Games 3 and 4, Leonard continued his hyper-productive play. Through Game 4, he owned averages of 33.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists on a patently obscene 74.1 true shooting percentage.
With a better showing in Wednesday's 105-100 loss to Dallas, which put L.A. nose to nose with elimination, Leonard would have cracked the top five. Twenty points on 19 shots just doesn't cut it in a game that meaningful.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
It's a testament to LeBron James' greatness that his playoff averages of 22.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists (at age 36!) register as a disappointment. He's the only player in league history to post those playoff averages this late in his career, and yet he's spoiled us so rotten that we react with frustration when he doesn't just bulldoze his way to 10 layups a game like he did a half-decade ago.
James is the only rotation player on the Los Angeles Lakers with a positive on-court net rating, and when he rests...things get ugly in a hurry. The Lakers have been smashed by 31.0 points per 100 possessions without LeBron on the floor.
If Anthony Davis remains sidelined or is compromised upon his return, James almost certainly won't have enough support to avoid elimination. But the numbers show there's no denying his value.
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
The Miami Heat went down easy in a 4-0 sweep, and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday averaged "just" 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists on uninspiring efficiency in that brief first-round series. But nobody in this postseason tops his plus-98 plus/minus.
With a sample this small, the risk of confusing correlation with causation is through the roof. Let's at least agree that an inordinate number of good things happened for the Bucks when their defensive dynamo was on the court against the Heat.
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers blew the doors off the Washington Wizards whenever Joel Embiid was on the court, but the superstar center's availability was limited in the first round by a sore right knee.
With ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reporting Embiid is dealing with a small meniscus tear, that limitation will persist a while.
Sadly, you could delete the opponent and specific injury from above, fill in the blanks with whichever replacements you wanted from several of the last postseasons and get an accurate depiction of the Sixers' status. Embiid always crushes it when he's on the floor, and this year is no different. Philly is an absurd plus-34.7 per 100 possessions with its unguardable big man on the floor. It merely broke even over five games against the underwhelming Wizards without him.
We've got a perfect recreation of the argument against Embiid's case for regular season MVP. His dominance is beyond question, but Embiid just hasn't been on the court often enough to be a serious candidate.
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
The Portland Trail Blazers have made Nikola Jokic a scorer, denying teammates off the ball and single-covering the prohibitive favorite for regular season MVP in an effort to minimize the impact of his world-class passing.
Deep in his bones, he must hate this.
Every good playoff defense tries to take away the opponent's first offensive choice, but Jokic is being forced to play against type to an extreme degree.
As a result, his assist-per-game average is down from 8.3 during the regular season to 4.2 through five playoff games. Though he logged nine assists in that thrilling double-OT Game 5 win, Jokic managed just one in Games 1 and 4—both Nuggets losses. He didn't have a single one-assist outing during the regular season and has a grand total of four such games since 2016.
That he's still finding ways to dominate against a defense built to keep him from his preferred style speaks volumes to Jokic's completeness as a player. He's averaging 32.4 points per game against Portland and is one made free throw away from that magical 50/40/90 threshold.
Jokic averaged 26.4 points per game during the year, so maybe none of this score-first shift is all that hard for him. Still, some degree-of-difficulty points seem in order.
3. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets handily dispatched the Boston Celtics in five games, averaging a differential of plus-11.2 points per contest. All due respect to the Celtics, whose coaching and front-office turnover immediately following elimination suggest all wasn't well, but it was light work.
That's the case against James Harden ranking first here. Well, that and the fact that his two superstar teammates, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, were also good enough to deserve honorable mention. We've just noted them here for posterity.
If we're looking at numbers alone, Harden has been the class of the playoffs to date.
He is second in RAPTOR WAR, and he's averaging 27.6 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds. A remarkable 85.0 percent of his field goals have been self-generated and meanwhile, he's setting up 42.7 percent of his team's buckets when he's on the court.
Whoever ranks ahead of Harden on this list will need the numbers and the intangibles—like, say, scene-stealing clutch heroism or era-defining greatness—to deserve it.
2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
History says the Portland Trail Blazers have just a 17.5 percent chance of advancing to the second round after their Game 5 loss Tuesday put them in a 3-2 hole against the Denver Nuggets. So if the question guiding Damian Lillard's playoff MVP status is the one we laid out in the introduction—Where would the Blazers be without Lillard?—this ranking feels generous.
Portland certainly would have lost this series without Lillard, and it's likely going to lose it with him. In an absolute sense, his value hasn't been all that high.
But, I mean...come on.
Lillard's performance in that double-overtime Game 5 loss is going to be among the most memorable of these playoffs. He drained a cold-blooded step-back three to force the first overtime, then ran off a dozen points in the final two minutes of the first OT. His 27-foot spinning step-back trey to cap that surge was otherworldly. It sent the contest, which Denver led by nine with 2:11 to play, to a second overtime.
Portland couldn't close the deal, but Dame finished with 55 points (on only 24 shots) and 10 assists, totals no player had ever produced in a postseason game. His 12 made triples were also a record.
As seems to be the case every postseason, Lillard's late-game heroism has dominated the news cycle. And while that doesn't necessarily factor into the MVP discussion, the fact that Lillard leads all postseason participants in RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement sure does.
It's true the Blazers have lost Lillard's two best games of this series; they also fell by 19 points on May 24 when Dame had 42 points and 10 assists. But the advanced metrics and the eye test are in lockstep on this one: Lillard has been phenomenal.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Other than an injury-impacted Game 4 dud (and we're using the term loosely; he had 19 points, six assists and six rebounds), Luka Doncic has been the most breathtaking playoff performer of them all.
The 22-year-old was positively unsolvable for the Clips early in the series, shredding them with pinpoint passes whenever he wasn't coaxing a switch and embarrassing whatever poor sap got stuck trying to prevent isolation buckets. Doncic racked up averages of 35.0 points, 9.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds in two wins, hitting 50.9 percent of his shots from the field and 41.7 percent of his threes.
It felt like we were witnessing an ascendency, a realization of everything we thought Doncic would become.
And then things changed. The seemingly fated course of the series shifted.
The Dallas Mavericks' hot three-point shooting cooled, the Clippers summoned the urgency they should have brought with them to start the series and Doncic struggled with a neck strain. He was still brilliant, scoring 44 points in Game 3, but it was also clear L.A. made it a point not to let him run amok any longer. Doncic managed just 19 points on 9-of-24 shooting in Game 4 as the Clippers evened the series.
Game 5 was a restoration of order, as a healthier Doncic scored or assisted on 31 of his team's 37 field goals, finishing with 42 points, 14 assists and eight boards.
Update: Doncic's ascendancy remains on course.