The Top 5 NBA MVP Candidates So Far

By Patrick Hayes   February 17, 2021 

The Top 5 NBA MVP Candidates So Far

Before the NBA season started, these five players had the best NBA betting odds to win the 2021 NBA MVP Award:

  • Luka Doncic, +400
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, +450
  • Kevin Durant, +800
  • Stephen Curry, +1000
  • Joel Embiid, +1000

All five of those players are having great seasons, but team success or lack thereof and other factors combined with strong individual efforts make it unlikely that the top five will shake out that way based on what we’ve seen so far.

Doncic is still a do-it-all force for the Mavs, but the team’s poor defense and Doncic’s poor three-point shooting have them struggling to get back in the playoff chase.

Durant has been brilliant, but he’s played in just 18 games after spending a significant amount of time in the league’s health and safety protocols for COVID-19 exposure. Plus, he’s now playing with a former MVP in James Harden and another star in Kyrie Irving, which could limit some of his opportunities.

Antetokounmpo is having another elite season, but the Bucks haven’t been quite as dominant as they’ve been the last two regular seasons. Plus, Antetokounmpo has won two in a row and “voter fatigue” is a real thing among MVP voters. There hasn’t been a player win the award three times in a row since Larry Bird in the 1984-1986 seasons.

Here is our top five, with a rationale, based on how teams and individual players have performed so far.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Feb 11, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is fouled while shooting by Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) during the second half at Moda Center. Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Embiid has led the Sixers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. He’s third in the NBA in scoring at 29 points per game, 12th in rebounding at nearly 12 per game, and he leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Embiid is hitting 40 percent of his three-pointers this season, by far a career-high, and he’s virtually unstoppable in the post. He’s also a great rim protector and defensive presence inside. He’s led Philadelphia to the top of the East standings despite an up-and-down season from Ben Simmons and several Sixers players out of the lineup at different times due to the league’s health and safety protocols. The attention Embiid requires from the defense has created open looks for several Philadelphia shooters. Tobias Harris, in particular, is reaping the benefits of playing next to Embiid, shooting a career-best 51 percent overall and 41 percent from three-point range, the second-best mark of his career.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Feb 10, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) shoots against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kenrich Williams (34) during the first half at Staples Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA announced loosened load management requirements before the season started, the player most immediately thought of was James. At his age, coming off of an exhausting season in which he had to basically become the Lakers’ point guard in their title run because no other player on the roster had much playmaking ability, James seemed like a good bet to miss some time leading up to pursuing a second straight championship. Instead, he’s been an iron man. With teammate Anthony Davis dealing with injuries, James has led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 21-6 record, has yet to miss a game, and is averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. He’s also making 39 percent of his three-pointers, a 5 percent improvement over his shooting last season. Not only would James winning give him his fifth career MVP, he would also become the oldest player to win the award at 36-years-old. Michael Jordan and Karl Malone won it at 35-years-old.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Feb 10, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) shoots against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kenrich Williams (34) during the first half at Staples Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Curry has already won two MVPs, and after an injury-plagued 2019 season, Curry entered this season with many forgetting his greatness. The Warriors are hanging on in the playoff race, and it is largely because of Curry’s efforts. The team’s second-best player, Draymond Green, barely scores. Kelly Oubre Jr, who was acquired to replace the injured Klay Thompson, spent much of the season in a horrendous slump. Rookie center James Wiseman has been out an extended period of time with an injury. And yet Curry is having one of his best seasons ever, averaging 30 points per game (second in the league), hitting 44 percent of his threes and shooting 49 percent overall. In February, he’s averaging 37 points per game and hitting 50 percent of his threes. If Curry keeps that pace up, he’s going to be firmly in the MVP conversation by the end of the season.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Feb 12, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket on Cleveland Cavaliers forward Taurean Prince (12) during the first half of the game at Moda Center. Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Lillard was one of the stars of the Orlando bubble with his fearless shot-making, and he’s had to carry a depleted Portland Blazers team into playoff contention this season. Lillard is fourth in the league in scoring at 29 points per game and making 38 percent of his threes. He’s also absorbing virtually all of the attention from opposing defenses. Starters C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are out with long-term injuries. Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington have also missed time with injuries, and Covington has had long stretches of ineffective play in his first season in Portland. Lillard has Portland fifth in the Western Conference despite those significant injuries. If he leads this roster to a playoff spot this season without McCollum, that’ll be even more impressive than what he did last season.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Feb 16, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots over Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) during the fourth quarter at TD Garden. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jokic has cooled a bit from when he was averaging a triple-double earlier in the season and threatening to become the first center since Wilt Chamberlain to lead the league in assists, but he’s still one of the most unique players in the league. He’s averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists per game and trails only Embiid in PER this season. He’s also making 39 percent of his threes for the season. It’s hard to make a case for Jokic over Embiid since their numbers are pretty similar. Jokic is the superior passer, but Embiid is a far superior defender, and Embiid’s team has won a lot more so far, so that probably puts him ahead in the conversation for the moment.

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