Many familiar names are in the thick of the NBA MVP race. It is a wide open field a month into the 2020/21 season.
Luka Doncic was the preseason favorite, but he began the season with a shooting slump. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been just short of the standards that earned him back-to-back MVP honors in the last two seasons. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are once again contenders.
We have to go all the way back to 2006/07 and Dirk Nowitzki for the last big man to win MVP. Some would argue Antetokounmpo falls into that category, but he’s his own player type. Early in the 2020/21 NBA season, a couple of true centers are right at the forefront of the MVP race: Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
With teams having played at least 13 games, here are our early NBA MVP rankings.
5. LeBron James
LeBron has been firmly in cruise control so far. The Lakers are still atop the Western Conference, and James has still been impressive. He’s shooting the ball as well as he has at any point in his career, and he came alive on Thursday as the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks.
James’ workload has been eased by the Lakers’ offseason moves, but he’s still in total control of each and every game. The four-time MVP is managing his energy, though doing so while still putting up impressive numbers.
The best player on the West’s best team is always going to be in the MVP mix. A couple more performances like Thursday and the four-time NBA champion will be among the frontrunners.
4. Kevin Durant
Even the most optimistic Nets fans cannot have expected Kevin Durant to immediately look like Kevin Durant. There’s no sign of the Achilles rupture that kept Durant out of competitive action for well over a year – the two-time champion is scoring more efficiently than ever.
Durant’s 60.7% effective field goal percentage is thanks to over 46% from three. Both are career highs. His 31.3 points per game was only bettered in his lone MVP season. Add some impressive defense, a career-high in assists and a handful of clutch buckets to that and you’ve got what is a spectacular start to the season.
Although not relevant when they’ve only played one game together, the presence of James Harden and Kyrie Irving will stand in Durant’s way for MVP. It’s hard to win individual accolades when sharing the stage with superstar teammates, as Durant found during his stint in Oakland.
Durant probably needs to keep scoring 30 per game at an outrageous efficiency to win MVP. How feasible is that alongside two ball-dominant teammates?
3. Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic’s three-point shooting slump wasn’t going to last long (and it didn’t). What’s perhaps more significant is how Doncic has looked as a defender. In the early knockings of 2020/21, we’ve already seen the best defensive performances of Doncic’s short NBA career. He has bought into a Mavericks team which needed, and wanted, to get better on that end.
The Slovenian phenom is averaging a near triple-double. The Dallas offense struggled in Kristaps Porzingis’ absence, and they have been depleted of late, but Doncic continues to put up big numbers. Only James Harden and Nikola Jokic are averaging more dimes. He’s 14th in rebounds per game and 10th in scoring.
A Friday win over the Spurs took the Mavs over .500 – can they challenge the LA teams?
2. Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic continues to make history. All manner of assist records are falling as Jokic picks apart defenses on a nightly basis. If the season was to end now, though, the Nuggets’ record would likely hold back his NBA MVP case (the same goes for Doncic). Despite another evening a delicious dimes and a great Nuggets comeback, the Joker fell below the triple-double average after Friday’s game with Phoenix.
Jokic is playing MVP ball. He’s at 9.9 assists, he’s 13th in scoring with over 25 per game and seventh in rebounding. If Denver are once again a top four seed, and he keeps up anything like this production, he’s going to be an MVP finalist for the first time in his career.
1. Joel Embiid
Scoring at the most efficient rate of his career and leading the Sixers to the top of the East, Joel Embiid earns top spot in our early NBA MVP rankings. The Cameroonian has already humiliated many an opponent on offense, while maintaining his trademark elite defensive standards.
Embiid has scored 38 or more in three of his last four games. He’s recognizing and passing out of double teams far better than previous seasons, and he’s shooting the ball at an incredible rate. If he stays around 40% from three, it’s going to be hard to stop him in this MVP race. He’s also in the 82nd percentile on mid-range scoring percentage – that face-up game is unstoppable right now.
The shooting from outside is probably unsustainable. The Sixers’ schedule will get tougher. For now, though, Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career and doing so on the best team in the East.