The last time we looked at the MVP race, Joel Embiid was far and away at the top of the standings, LeBron James and Nikola Jokic had chokeholds on the second tier, and James Harden and Stephen Curry aimed to inch their ways towards top-three contention.
If this is your first time here—first of all, welcome. This should be fun. The intention of this series is to track the real Most Valuable Player of the 2020-21 NBA season in a real way. There's a fool-proof system in place—not really, but kind of—in order to determine who is truly the most valuable player in the league.
The Most Valuable Player equation:
1. The Eye-Test. This should be the first thing that every voter addresses because it's as subjective as subjective gets and is entirely dependent on your respective basketball knowledge. If the league did this, then they could trim the fat on all the voters and cut everyone who voted for Andre Drummond for any end-of-the-year awards. It’s also the easiest way to digest basketball. It’s pretty easy to tell who the best player on the floor is without ever having to look at the numbers.
Who’s dominating the game on both sides of the ball? Who’s controlling the game? Who’s seeing things that others aren’t and then executing on those extraordinary visions? Who’s posing the most problems for the opposing defense on a night-to-night basis and also asserting themselves defensively? In other words: Who’s making the coach shit themselves at halftime, and then coming out in the second half, and making the coach purge himself when the final buzzer sounds?
2. Digest the statistics and analytics; ignore the talking heads. Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, etc. all have their respective television spots because of one thing: ratings. Not knowledge or legitimacy as basketball connoisseurs, but as people who can entertain and boil the internet’s sensitive bloodstream. I realize that they all have journalistic backgrounds, and good for them. But their personalities are what've gotten them to where they're at. Do they know who the top five teams are according to net rating? Or who the top three players are according to John Hollinger of ESPN’s PER model? I highly doubt it.
Those aren’t the only statistics that are going into effect here. I’ve also attributed the average box-score numbers (points, rebounds, assists, free throw attempts, steals, blocks, field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages), team record—DON’T REWARD LOSERS—with and without a player, individual offensive and defensive rating with a slight nod in favor of the offense, and a dash of Real +/- in order to dissolve the reprehensible Fake +/-.
3. Ask yourself: How much worse would this team be without this player? Now, although this is last on the list, it may be the most vital one strictly because of the name of the award: Most Valuable Player. The award is given to the player who is most valuable to their team. That’s why we so often see the NFL hand the trophy to the best quarterback; he’s irreplaceable. The same can be said about the NBA. The Nuggets couldn’t replicate what they do on offense without Jokic being their Point God. The Jazz couldn’t replicate their defensive model if they lost Gobert and had to replace him with Derrick Favors.
The questions you then have to ask yourselves are the big ones: What’s this team’s ceiling with this player? 50 wins? The Conference Finals? Awesome. Now, what’s this team’s ceiling without this player? 25 wins? A top-five pick? And on and on until you’ve dug yourself into a theoretical hole that only more basketball can save you from.
1. Nikola Jokic
27.3 points, 11.2 boards, 8.5 assists, 2.2 stocks
56.2% FG, 41.4% 3PT, 87.2% FT, 31.6 PER
24-16 (5th in Western Conference)
This may be burying the lead here, but can Nikola Jokic become the first white guy to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007? For my money's worth, there hasn't been a player that's been more dominant on the offensive end than the big man in Denver this season.
He may be the biggest man on the floor nine times out of ten, but Jokic is almost always the best playmaker in the game. As someone who prides himself on his passing ability in pick-up games, watching Jokic has been a dream come true. I wouldn't say that I've grown fatigued by the brilliance of LeBron and CP3, but after witnessing it for so many years, I naturally began to take it for granted.
With Jokic, there's no semblance of predictability when it comes to cutting off passing lanes. No back-of-somebody's-head is safe when the Joker is on the floor. If you're as big of a passing dork as me, then let me present to you the holy grail of big man wizardry—12 minutes of Nikola Jokic absolutely dealing to his teammates:
Denver would be a top-five team in the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes if it wasn't for Jokic, who's currently eighth all-time in PER standing right between Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James. If Jokic can remain healthy, unlike the majority of his unicorn contemporaries (Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Durant), and if Denver can secure a top-four seed in the West, then he'll be a shoo-in for this award.
2. Damian Lillard
30.5 points, 4.5 boards, 8.0 assists, 1.3 stocks
45.1% FG, 38.8% 3PT, 93.6% FT, 27.2 PER
24-16 (6th in Western Conference)
Damian Lillard is Portland's MVP every year. He keeps them afloat when Jusuf Nurkic or CJ McCollum are injured, and he elevates them to a title-worthy team when they're all rolling together. Make no mistake about it: Dame has been every bit as influential to Portland as any other player not named LeBron James has been to their respective franchise over the last decade.
Every MVP needs a few moments throughout their season that you can point to at the end of and say, "That motherfucker right there." Dame averages the most this-motherfucker's per game. He continually impresses in clutch situations and seems to rise above heavy waters regardless of the defense thrown at him.
For the second year in a row, Dame's averaging career highs in points, assists and three-point attempts. He's second in three-pointers made behind (only the greatest shooter of all-time), and when we look back on all of the Steph seasons, we should just crown whoever came in second place in three-pointers made.
Dame isn't excellent defensively—it's safe to say he reserves the majority of his energy for defense—but he isn't a liability, either. In reality, he's likely one of the five best defensive guards in the league purely relying on his instincts and knowledge for the other team's systems. Portland has needed every bit of Dame's excellence as they've remained afloat in the Western Conference playoff standings. With C.J. McCollum slowly returning to his pre-injury form, Portland will return to title contention and Lillard's MVP narrative will only grow.