Updated 2021 NBA Playoffs MVP Rankings
The NBA playoff field has been whittled down to less than half of its original number, and each of the seven teams still in contention for a title has at least one player worthy of MVP consideration.
Unfortunately, in this postseason of attrition, virtually every one of those candidates has struggled or is struggling with injury. In the end, the last star standing might win our unofficial postseason MVP by default.
The ranking criteria are the same as they were two weeks ago, even if the updated list looks dramatically different. The most valuable players are the ones whose individual dominance is most consequential to team success. Statistical production is key, but timeliness is also a factor. Players who show out when their teams need them most get extra boosts.
Related: Players whose teams have been eliminated from the postseason are no longer eligible. That might seem unfair to the likes of Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic, both of whom still rank among the top 10 in playoff win shares while sitting at home.
But these are the playoffs, where winning is everything. Those are the breaks.
James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
Volume is an issue for James Harden, who has played in just seven of the Brooklyn Nets' 10 postseason games due to a hamstring injury. But his averages of 20.6 points, 8.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds on a ridiculous 70.1 true shooting percentage show efficiency has been no problem.
His gutsy 46 minutes in Tuesday's 114-108 Game 5 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, essentially performed on one leg, will always get second billing to Kevin Durant's 49-point effort. But it's fair to argue that KD wouldn't have enjoyed such success without the shell of Harden on the floor as a critical secondary ball-handler.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
There are no longer any questions about whether Trae Young can hold up against the increased physicality and more precise defensive scheming of the playoffs. Though he hasn't shot the ball as well as he did during the regular season, the Atlanta Hawks point guard has compensated by becoming a layup-creation factory.
Young's panoramic passing vision and innate timing have made him the postseason's most dynamic facilitator, as evidenced by his 18 dimes in Atlanta's Game 4 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. He leads all remaining playoff participants in assists and potential assists per game.
And then he hit the Sixers for 39 points in a thrilling comeback from a 26-point deficit to steal Game 5 on Wednesday.
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell has put up at least 30 points in six straight playoff games, something that has only happened a handful of times this century, and he's doing it with a nagging ankle sprain that has reduced his finishing ability inside the arc.
Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert is leading all postseason players in blocks and total rebounds while making nearly three-quarters of his shots from the field. The Utah Jazz have gotten the job done as a collective all season, so it felt right to lump their two most impactful playoff performers together.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
If the Milwaukee Bucks don't win their next two games against the Brooklyn Nets, triggering yet another disappointingly early postseason ejection, we're going to remember all the bad stuff first.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's missed free throws and ill-advised, early-shot-clock threes will be top of mind. Right behind will be the lack of craft in his off-the-dribble game and the way the Nets exposed his half-beat-late decision-making. Yes, head coach Mike Budenholzer will bear the greatest portion of blame for a mechanical offense that hasn't found a way to pour in points against a suspect (but cleverly switching) Nets defense. But Antetokounmpo will take some heat as well.
That's a (hypothetical) shame.
Antetokounmpo has been a disruptive defensive force throughout the playoffs, and those criticizing his lack of reps as Kevin Durant's primary defender should consider the possibility that Giannis isn't the one dictating assignments. Moreover, Antetokounmpo's statistical production has been brilliant.
He's averaging 27.4 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. If Durant hadn't given the best playoff performance of his (or almost anyone else's) career in that Game 5 win on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo would have been the headliner, and his Bucks would be up 3-2 heading home with a chance to punch their ticket to the conference finals.
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
As always, Joel Embiid's centrality to the Philadelphia 76ers is beyond doubt.
Philly is hammering playoff opponents by 21.6 points per 100 possessions with its dominant big man on the floor and getting outscored when he rests. On-off splits are noisy by nature, but when they keep telling the same story year after year, it's a lot easier to trust them.
It has also become dispiritingly easy to trust in something else: the annual injury bug that bites Embiid.
A torn meniscus hampered Embiid in the second half of Philadelphia's series-evening Game 4 loss to the Hawks, as he shot 0-of-12 after halftime and admitted he was playing at less than full strength.
Despite that rough half, he still ranks fourth among the remaining playoff participants in Box Plus/Minus, third in Player Efficiency Rating and fifth in points per game. Among players who've defended at least 50 shots inside six feet, only Brook Lopez and Clint Capela have held opponents to a lower conversion rate than Embiid.
Neither of those players carries anything close to Embiid's load on offense. He's averaging 27.4 points, more than those two combined.
Wednesday's Game 5 saw a rejuvenated Embiid eat the Hawks alive in the early going and finish with 37 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. However, after starting the game a perfect 8-of-8 from the field, Embiid appeared to lose some pep and converted only four of his last 10 shots.
As a result, the Sixers are shockingly on the brink of elimination.
3. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
His 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, along with seven assists, three rebounds and two steals completed the Phoenix Suns' sweep, vaulting Paul to the conference finals for just the second time in his career. Clearly all the way back from the bruised shoulder that limited him in the first round, Paul surgically dismantled Denver with mid-range jumpers, pinpoint passes and his "we are not losing this game" attitude.
We'll never be able to logically prove it, and it's probably too dismissive of all the other Suns contributing to the team's success (Jae Crowder leads all playoff participants with a raw plus-minus of plus-124, for example), but it continues to feel like CP3's presence is the biggest reason Phoenix has leveled up this year. He controls the offense, never turns the ball over and imbues the team with an urgency that simply didn't exist before his arrival.
Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have both been stellar; either could have landed in the honorable mention section. But Paul's leadership and production—15.7 points and 8.7 assists on a 50.9/44.4/91.2 shooting split—are undeniable.
Unfortunately, Paul's placement into the league's health and safety protocols puts his future impact in question. Lucky for us, we only have to consider what's already happened in these MVP rankings.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Leonard's two-way impact was at a truly epic level. He shot 61.2 percent from the field in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, and his defense was instrumental in preventing Luka Doncic from commandeering the entire series. Through four second-round games against the Utah Jazz, Leonard was averaging 27.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 50.6 percent shooting from the field.
Per ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry, Leonard's five games with over 25 points on at least 65.0 percent shooting are only one short of the all-time record for a single postseason. If he can get back on the floor, that record's going down.
That's to say nothing of Kawhi turning Derrick Favors into a pile of ash with what will almost certainly be remembered as the best dunk of this postseason.
If Leonard's knee issue ends his run early, he won't stick at No. 2 in our rankings. Then again, at the rate injuries are affecting nearly every team in these playoffs, we might have to recalibrate the entire top five next time around.
1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Losers of two straight and facing the impossible task of beating the Bucks in Game 5 with no Kyrie Irving and a demonstrably compromised James Harden, it seemed the Nets were in need of a miracle.
They got something even better: Kevin Durant resoundingly verifying his status as the greatest pure scorer the league has ever seen.
This isn't some prisoner-of-the-moment overreaction. It's a sober assessment of Durant's bravura performance, a 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece that his team absolutely needed. That stat line is the only one of its kind in NBA playoff history.
Durant was utterly unstoppable for the full 48 minutes—not just because of his obvious physical skill, but also because of his intelligence, patience and demeanor. He understood his value as a screener and a decoy, springing teammates with picks and willingly moving the ball when faced with a second defender. He withstood yet another viciously physical mauling at the hands of P.J. Tucker, never once letting his facial expression reveal frustration or annoyance.
He operated above the fray. Call it paradoxically focused detachment. Or maybe transcendence is the better word. Only when he drilled an otherworldly game-sealing trey in the final moments did Durant allow himself to emote.
KD leads all remaining playoff scorers with 33.1 points per game, and his breathtaking Game 5 showing won't be topped in what remains of this postseason...unless he's the one to do it.