The NBA season has been entertaining as promised and we are starting to gaze at the early favorites for MVP this season. With so much star power in the league, it could come down to a five-man race by the end of the season. With that said, at least 10 players are playing at the highest level and are deserving of early consideration.
With teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Brooklyn Nets contending for top spots in their respective conferences, the consideration starts with those teams. Outside of them, there is some close competition coming from behind. With nearly half the season in the books, here are the top-10 players receiving MVP consideration.
24.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 11.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Give Harden another month and he could be a top-5 candidate. Harden's biggest issue was how he started the season. If the Brooklyn Nets continue to rise through the Eastern Conference, a valid argument could be made for the man that leads the league in assists. Harden's inconsistent play in Houston has dampened his reputation this season. When he showed up out of shape and demanded to be let go, he wasn't playing at a high level. Now that he is in Brooklyn, we have seen a new James Harden.
If Harden continues to lead the league in assists, that will warrant some MVP votes. His scoring is down but that is partially due to his play at the beginning of the year, while deferring shots to his teammates. Harden has taken over point guard full time in place of Kyrie Irving. Let's see if he can continue this new role of being the lead guard.
10. Kyrie Irving
27.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Since Irving has switched to being the team's primary shooting guard, great things have happened for the Nets. Currently, the team is riding a six-game winning that included a 35-point outburst against the Pacers and a 40-point night against the Kings. If Irving played each night, then he would be higher on the list. When the season started, he was among the top in scoring but he was gone on a hiatus due to his mind healthy.
Irving is not the prime reason for the Nets' success but he is a major contributing factor. His points per game are the highest in his career, including the 27.2 points per game in 20 games last season. By the end of this season, it will be his best overall scoring season when playing a full regular-season schedule.
9. Donovan Mitchell
24.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG
When you look at the Utah Jazz, you see a team that is contending for the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference. For similar reasons to why Clyde Drexler never won an MVP during his time in Portland, the team's success goes beyond one player. Mitchell will be a candidate for All-NBA First-Team this season. His rebounding and assists are career-highs and this three-point shooting is near 40%.
The Jazz is built around their team defense and Mitchell is not the team's best player. Then, on offense, there are guys like Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, and Gobert helping out. Granted, Mitchell could go off for 40 points on any given night but he's not doing that consistently. He is a true team player, which is why the team is doing so well.
8. Kevin Durant
29.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 4.1 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.4 BPG
The Nets are 20-12 this season but Durant has played in just 19 games. While Brooklyn's six-game winning streak is nice, the team is proving they can win without Durant, which hurts his candidacy for MVP. If Durant was playing every night, he would probably be a top-3 candidate. Due to COVID/health safety protocols, a lingering hamstring injury, and a minutes restriction, Durant has been in and out of the lineup this year.
On the floor, his numbers speak for themselves. His points per game are sixth in the league, while his rebounding total is high as well. His importance on the defensive end with 1.4 blocks shouldn't go unnoticed either. If Durant could stay on the floor, he would have a better shot.
7. Steph Curry
29.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Curry is fifth in the league in scoring and leads the league in three-point field goals made at 5.0 per game. We have seen Curry lead the Warriors back from tall deficits many times this season. When he isn't on the floor, we see the Warriors play as a completely different team. If the Warriors had a higher seed in the West, then Curry would like to receive more attention.
At 16-15, the Warriors are a fringe playoff team competing for the No. 8 seed. The team is 5-9 on the road but that's no fault of Curry. On the road, Curry is averaging 30.5 points per game and shooting 41% from the three-point range. Maybe, Curry deserves more respect than we are giving him.
6. Kawhi Leonard
26.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Leonard is having another typical great season where he is a borderline MVP candidate. His 50.6% field goal percentage is his highest since 2015. Make no mistake that this is a great shooting season for Leonard, while his assist total is tied for a career-high. Leonard ranks fourth in all the NBA in player efficiency rating (27.22), with the three players ahead of him on this list ranking higher. He also ranks eighth in win shares among the league.
What hurts his candidacy is that Leonard usually receives more attention thanks to his defense. His defensive rating is not in the top-10, while his defensive win share totals also rank outside. If Leonard is easing up on defense to do more on offense, that is great for the team when they win but bad for his candidacy.
5. Nikola Jokic
26.6 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 8.5 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Jokic could very well get the nod for the fact that he is a 7-footer nearly averaging a triple-double. If Jokic continues to average this type of production, it will be hard not to give him the award. For starters, Jokic leads the NBA in win shares (6.6) and it's not even close. His leading total is 1.5 more than Joel Embiid. Then, he ranks seventh in the league in defensive win shares (1.7) and first in offensive win shares (5.1). His 30.96 player efficiency rating is second in the league, while his 27 double-doubles also lead the NBA.
Like all great players, they can get dinged for their team performance. After making the Western Conference Finals last season, the Nuggets are just 16-14 and rank seventh in the West. When Russell Westbrook led the Thunder to a mid-playoff seed in 2017, he won the MVP because he averaged a triple-double. It might take the same for Jokic.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
28.4 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG
The two-time defending MVP is trying to become the first player since Larry Bird to win three straight MVP awards. We haven't seen this happen since Bird accomplished this feat from 1984-1986. In terms of defense, Giannis is on the right path. His 28.33 player efficiency number is high due to his defense. His 1.8 defensive win shares rank third in the league, and his 4.8 total win shares rank third as well.
His offensive numbers have slipped this season. His 28% three-point shooting percentage is worse, while his overall field goal percentage is down. His overall rebounds rank in the top-5 but they're nearly two complete rebounds less per game compared to last season. Giannis is making a great case for Defensive Player of the Year, especially with Anthony Davis out, but his MVP trek is very shaky.
3. Damian Lillard
30.0 PPG, 4.5 RPB, 7.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
As long as the Trail Blazers keep winning, Lillard's stock will continue to rise. Then again, he is also the main contributor to why the Trail Blazers are winning. Despite the Trail Blazers facing injuries with CJ McCollum and Jusef Nurkic this season, Lillard has been a one-man show leading the team to an 18-12 overall record. Lillard was the MVP of the bubble last season when he averaged over 36 points per game but it appears he wants a taste of a regular-season award.
His 30.0 points per game are tied for a career-high from last year. In terms of offensive usage, he is used 32.5% of the time, which is the fifth-most in the league. What's more impressive is that his 4.4 offensive win shares rank second in the NBA. The offensive win shares leader, Jokic, is used nearly 4% less than Lillard. Those are MVP-caliber numbers.
2. Joel Embiid
30.3 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.4 BPG
Speaking of MVP-caliber numbers, Embiid might not just win Most Improved Player of the Year but also the MVP if he keeps this up. Embiid is scoring nearly seven more points per game compared to last season. He is coming off his first 50-point game over the Chicago Bulls. The Philadelphia 76ers are No. 1 in the East right now. Everything is going well for Embiid and the advanced stats back him up.
Embiid is second in the league in scoring, just behind offensive workhorse Bradley Beal. The Washington Wizards guard is taking more shots than Embiid, while Embiid is flat out more efficient. Embiid leads the league in player efficiency (31.78) and his 4.9 total win shares are second in the league. If the 76ers finish with the one seed, Embiid will likely have locked this award up.
1. LeBron James
25.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG
If LeBron has anything to say about it, he will go down as the oldest MVP to ever play the game. At 36 years old, we should take a moment to marvel at what he has done so far this season. For starters, the Lakers remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed despite Anthony Davis missing significant time. James remains one of the top leaders in assists even with the addition of Dennis Schroder manning the point. Finally, which is the most impressive stat of them all, LeBron is second in the league to only Rudy Gobert in defensive win shares (2.0).
The battle for the MVP award could easily come down to which team has the better record by the end of the season. If the 76ers have the edge, Embiid will likely win, and vice versa for the Lakers. LeBron's points and rebounds don't match up with Embiid well but Embiid is used 34% of the time on offense (third in the league), while LeBron is used 31.7% of the time (ninth in the league). The fact that the Lakers are 22-10, with Davis playing in only 23 games and is expected to miss more, should be highly considered.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of NBA.com (February 22, 2021)