Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 5, 2021

The NBA MVP race is still close as second half of the season begins

By ERIC LYNCH | February 17, 2021

593px-joel-embiid-crop

Keith Allison/CC BY 2.0

Joel Embiid is widely considered to be a top MVP candidate this season.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award is the most prestigious individual honor given to an active player. While many try to predict each year’s winner, most of the players projected to be the MVP this season have fallen out of the conversation completely. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo won the previous two MVP Awards, but after a lack of playoff success, most of the media has soured on him. James Harden has been an MVP finalist several times now, but after his messy departure from Houston, he has lost the media’s favor as well. Additionally, he’s not even the best player on his team anymore, as Kevin Durant is playing alongside him. 

Nevertheless, the mid-season candidates for this year’s MVP are familiar to any NBA fan. I will go through four names who I think stand far above the rest of the competition: Nikola Jokić, LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Durant. 

Nikola Jokić

I will start with Jokić because I think his chances of winning the MVP are the lowest of the group. Jokic is averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds and almost nine assists. These numbers, specifically the assists, are insane for a center, and it’s easy to see how much value Jokić provides to his team. In fact, he leads his team in all three of these statistics by a wide margin.

On paper, this sounds like an amazing MVP resume; Jokić is nearly averaging a triple-double as a center, and he has been in the MVP conversation several times before. What’s holding him back? Notably, his team’s success is not on par with the rest of these candidates. Historically, the MVP Award is often given to the best player on the best team. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are only a few games above .500. The past few seasons, however, the Nuggets have finished at the top of the Western Conference, and if they pull that off again, Jokić‘s chances could be much higher. 

LeBron James

LeBron has won the MVP Award four times in his career, but it would be impossible to argue that he doesn’t deserve more. LeBron has been the uncontested best player in the league for nearly all of his active seasons. This season is no different; I would argue that he is still the best player in the league. But that’s not necessarily how the MVP Award is given out. 

LeBron is averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. These numbers aren’t insane, but they’re still extremely good while also misrepresenting his actual impact. His intangibles have been lauded for decades, and his ability to close tight games is unmatched.

Unfortunately, LeBron also has several things working against him. Voter fatigue is the oft-cited reason he hasn’t won the award more; voters get tired of awarding the same player every season, so they give it to the next best guy instead. However, this season seems to be different for some reason. Many media outlets are picking LeBron as the favorite, showing the voters may have gotten their fill of variety.

Another factor that may work against LeBron is his team. While the Lakers are clearly one of the best teams in the league, and LeBron is clearly their best player, he isn’t quite doing the same carry job that players like Jokić are attempting. Without LeBron, the Lakers would still be a top-five team in the Western Conference. And while I don’t necessarily think that should hurt his MVP case, I think it might be counted against him in the minds of some voters.

Similarly, there is a perception that LeBron isn’t trying very hard so he can save his energy for the playoffs. Ironically, the voters get mad when a player doesn’t have playoff success, but they also get mad when they save energy for the playoffs. Nevertheless, this type of reputation has hurt players like Kawhi Leonard in the past, and it may hurt LeBron this season as well. 

Joel Embiid

As I said before, the MVP Award is often given to the best player on the best team. Right now, Embiid fits that description. The Philadelphia 76ers are in first place in the Eastern Conference, and Embiid is averaging nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds, a block and a steal. I would argue Embiid’s case for MVP is the most well-rounded out of anybody in the NBA this year.

Embiid has shown individual success, team success and isn’t weighed down by many of the factors the other candidates are. His team is good, but without him, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris wouldn’t be carrying the team very far. He has had limited playoff success, but he is only 26 years old, and it’s hard to fault him for being unable to carry the team in his younger years. Besides, if it wasn’t for a fortunate bounce, the 76ers would have made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. 

In the past, Embiid had been in the MVP conversation but was often held back by injuries that limited his playing time. This season, he has shown what he can do without these limitations. And while Embiid clearly has the skill and resume to win the award, I would argue he lacks a compelling narrative, which is often a factor in MVP voting.

Kevin Durant

Durant is certainly not the best MVP candidate right now. Embiid and LeBron have both certainly done more to earn the award so far. But I believe that by the end of the season, Durant will have secured that top spot. Durant is averaging nearly 30 points, over seven rebounds and five assists. Like LeBron, these numbers are not insane, but Durant also has a number of intangibles that aren’t represented by these numbers. The Nets are a clear top-three team in the Eastern Conference as well.

Durant has individual success and team success, but he is also on the only team with a “big three” right now. Durant alongside Harden and Kyrie Irving are clearly the best trio in the NBA. Normally, this would hurt a player. Like LeBron, it’s obvious that Durant’s team would still be good without him. However, in this case, Durant doesn’t suffer as much because of the way Harden and Irving are perceived.

Harden has long been seen as a selfish player and has earned an even worse reputation thanks to the way he departed Houston. Irving, during his time as a Boston Celtic, showed inconsistencies in his ability to lead. If Durant can lead this team to success despite this mix of personalities and playstyles, some would argue that actually adds to his MVP resume.

But the real reason Durant’s MVP argument is so strong is because of his narrative. Over half a decade ago, Durant was a perennial MVP candidate, even winning the award in 2014. However, in 2016, Durant became the most hated player in the NBA when he joined the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were already an unbeatable dynasty, and it felt like Durant only joined them to get an easy championship or two. And for those three years, NBA fans sort of forgot just how good Durant was. His talent was being hidden due to him sharing scoring duties with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

And at the end of his tenure with Golden State, Durant tore his Achilles tendon and had to sit out the next season. Achilles injuries are often the beginning of a dramatic decline in a player’s career. At this point, NBA fans had not only forgotten how good Durant was, but they also expected him to never be as good as he once was.

But this year he is back and healthy, and he is playing out of his mind. Watching the 7-foot tall “Slim Reaper” shoot effortlessly over any defender is an incredible sight. This season is a pseudo-comeback story for Durant, a narrative that any media member would love to cling to. If the Nets continue, secure a top-two spot in the East and Durant can keep up his individual play, I think it will be hard to give the award to anyone else.

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