NBA

NBA MVP rankings: As James Harden surges, LeBron James falls out of the realistic running

We’re approaching the three-quarter mark of this shortened 2020-21 NBA regular season, and the MVP race, for my money, is on pace for a photo finish. Two names stand out at the top. We’ll get to them shortly. But it’s the 3-5 spots that are getting very interesting with myriad variables in play. 

So let’s get to it. Here’s my MVP Rankings as it stands entering play on Thursday, March 31. 

How one weighs advanced metrics is a personal decision, but when a guy is leading pretty much every encompassing stat in the books, it has to mean something. Nikola Jokic has been sublime all season. A chess master in the way he sees and manipulates the court. He’s shooting 43 percent from 3 on over 3.5 attempts per game. The Denver Nuggets have won 12 of their last 15 and sitting in the No. 5 spot out West, exactly one-half game up on the No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers

That’s important, because I believe the race between Jokic and Damian Lillard is so tight that, at the moment, the most credible way of distinguishing them is whose team has a better record. I just don’t see how you could give this award to Jokic over Lillard if the Blazers, with all their injuries, end up with a higher playoff seed on Lillard’s back. Jokic has been fantastic, but he hasn’t been without his second- and third-best player for 60-plus games. He can’t have that advantage and still not finish higher than the Blazers. So like I said, he has a half-game lead entering Thursday. It’s that tight. 

I will state again: I believe Jokic has been a better player than Lillard this season. Slightly. But what Lillard has done in keeping the Blazers in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race despite CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missing extended time, not to mention Zach Collins missing the whole season, has been remarkable. 

Lillard’s clutch prowess has been well chronicled, and for good reason. The Blazers are a net-negative team this season (-0.7 point differential), but they are 29-18 entering Thursday because they are plus-82 in Lillard’s clutch minutes. They have as thin a margin between winning and losing as any team in the league. So thin, in fact, that you wonder how long these last-minute Lillard heroics are sustainable. 

But so far, they have been. And until that changes, Lillard is a certified superhero making routine work of rescuing his friends from seemingly certain death. He did it again last Thursday to the Miami Heat, getting fouled on a 3-pointer inside the final second with the score tied. He hit all three free throws for a 125-122 Portland win. For the season, Lillard leads the league with 135 total clutch points on 56 percent shooting, including 44 percent from 3 and 100 percent (43 for 43) from the free-throw line, and those numbers, gaudy as they appear, have actually declined of late amid a short shooting skid for Lillard.

Now that Lillard has McCollum and Nurkic back in the lineup, he’s operating on a level playing field with Jokic. The Blazers added Norman Powell at the trade deadline. The Nuggets added Aaron Gordon. Whoever does more with the hand they’ve been dealt from here on out, in my mind, becomes the rightful MVP. 

After posting 44 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in the Brooklyn Nets‘ win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday, Harden pulled no punches when he was asked whether he belongs in the MVP conversation. 

“I feel like I am the MVP,” Harden said. “It’s just that simple.” 

There are probably voters who are going to hold against Harden the way he forced his way out of Houston, but you could also argue what the Houston Rockets have turned into in Harden’s absence is one of the strongest indicators of his value. Another thing working against Harden is the super-team stigma. If Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant effectively cancel each other from consideration for playing on the same team, surely the same can be said for Harden and Durant, right? 

But the thing is, Durant hasn’t played since Feb. 13, a span of 19 games, 18 of which Harden played in, leading Brooklyn to a 16-2 record with a league-best 117.8 offensive rating. During that time, Harden has averaged 29 points, 11 assists and 9.6 rebounds. In lineups without Durant and Kyrie Irving, Harden’s presence alone still keeps the Nets at a plus-3.9 per 100 with an elite 116.6 offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Pretty simply, you can make a legitimate argument Harden has been the best player in the league since he went to Brooklyn, and with LeBron James and Joel Embiid in the middle of extended injury absences, Giannis Antetokounmpo fighting extreme voter fatigue, and Jokic and Lillard playing on current No. 5 and 6 seeds, respectively, suddenly the pieces are falling into place for Harden to become a real candidate. 

Antetokounmpo has to clear an insanely high bar to trump voter fatigue — and in some ways voter regret after watching some of his top-shelf value diminish in the playoffs the last two years — to win his third straight MVP. But he’s playing like a madman. He was voted Eastern Conference Player of the Week amid leading the Bucks to seven straight wins. 

They’ve since lost three straight. Even tiny blips like that are going to be enough for voters to cross off Giannis’ name given their aforementioned fatigue, though numbers like his 37.5 3-point percentage — on 3.6 attempts per game — since the beginning of March draw you back in. All told, Antetokounmpo is the only player in the league averaging at least 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. 

Donovan Mitchell has been on a tear since the All-Star break, but if you want to talk value to the team with the best record in the league, get this: When Mitchell is on the court without Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz are basically a neutral team at plus-0.3 per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. Flip the script and put Gobert on the court without Mitchell, and Utah is outscoring opponents by 20 points per 100 with a 120.4 offensive rating (94th percentile) and a 100.4 defensive rating (99th percentile), per CTG. 

Gobert doesn’t feel like a traditional MVP, which is to say he’s not a go-to scorer. But his value to the best team in the league is off the charts. He should win Defensive Player of the Year. Everything the Jazz do defensively is predicated on his being able to control the paint by himself, allowing everyone else to extend and pressure on the perimeter knowing the ultimate backstop is behind them. 

And Gobert is a much bigger part of Utah’s offense than casual fans might thing. He’s a monster screen setter, and more importantly, his rim rolling forces rotations that leave Utah’s plethora of shooters with virtually unlimited clean 3-point looks.

Keep an eye on …

Joel Embiid was first or second on most people’s MVP board before he went out with a bone bruise in his left knee on March 12. He hasn’t played since, and the Sixers have maintained their thin edge on the Brooklyn Nets for the East’s top seed, going 6-3 over that span. Amid the rise of Jokic and Lillard, Embiid’s candidacy has slipped. His shot at winning the award seems unlikely, but he is reportedly close to returning. If Embiid and the Sixers go on a tear over the last six weeks and somehow Jokic and Lillard fall off, his early case had a strong enough foundation to grow a late second life. 

LeBron James is out with a high ankle sprain and isn’t expected back any time soon, but his case was so strong before he went down — partly for production, partly for narrative — that he remains on the periphery of most conversations. What the Los Angeles Lakers have become (a bad team) in James’ absence speaks to his still being the best player in the world, but the MVP is likely not going to happen this season with this much time on the shelf and the Lakers potentially ending up without home-court advantage in the first round. 



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