2021 NBA MVP Race: Different year, different rules

In a regular, non-pandemic season, there are two common things to consider when choosing the MVP for the year:

1. Individual brilliance

2. Team brilliance

Ultimately, the MVP is an individual award, but at the same time, it’s common practice to reward those who have contributed the most to their team’s overall success. Having amazing individual statistics simply won’t cut it if you want to win the MVP award. Your team also needs to be good, and it needs to be evident that your production helps with your team’s success.

That’s in a regular, non-pandemic season though. This season is NOT normal and is a pandemic year. Simply relying on the old criteria for MVP picks won’t cut it. That’s why there’s a need to be more nuanced with how each MVP candidate will be evaluated.

This season is practically a free-for-all for MVP. Welcome to the 2021 NBA MVP Race.

Before I list down the current candidates for the award, let me quickly establish what exactly I’ll be measuring before choosing the players in contention.

Team Brilliance will certainly play a factor but relying solely on the standings won’t cut it this year. Races for Playoff spots are incredibly tight, and no team has stood out as a cut above the rest. So on that note, Individual Brilliance will play a huge part in my choices.

That’s not to say that we’ll automatically be plugging in those who large scoring numbers. This is where Advanced Statistics come into play in understanding which individuals are POSITIVELY producing for their teams.

I’ve divided this year’s candidates into three distinct tiers, and they’re listed by order. Let the fun begin!

(EDITOR’S NOTE: All Stats as of March 1, 2021)

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The One’s Knocking

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo – 29.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 5.9 APG
8. Luka Doncic – 28.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 9.0 APG
9a. Rudy Gobert – 14.0 PPG, 13.4 RPG, 2.7 BPG
9b. Donovan Mitchell – 24.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 5.3 APG

My first tier selections are the ones who have had excellent seasons but have certain factors going against them that caused them to be ranked this low in the race.

From a purely individual brilliance standpoint, Antetokounmpo has had a great year. But he hasn’t been as dominant as the previous year, which is a large part why he’s ranked this low. It also doesn’t help that the Bucks have been struggling and are seemingly headed towards another Second Round exit. He’s been great, but not three-time MVP worthy great.

For Doncic, team record and overall reputation have been hurting his candidacy. I could argue he’s actually been better this year. The problem is his shooting from the outside has been terrible and his constant complaining has left a sour taste in some voters’ mouths. Remember this, however: if there’s someone in this tier who has the best chance of pulling off an upset in this race, it’s him.

Then there are the two stars from the best team in the league: Gobert and Mitchell. It’s important to lump both of them into one section because they’ve equally been valuable for the Utah Jazz’s success. But that’s exactly part of why they’re ranked this low in the MVP race: they’re too dependent on one another for the team’s success. That’s not a bad thing in a team setting; Spida having the Stifle Tower protect the rim and setting great screens benefits him, while Rudy having Donovan be an electric creator helps him produce offensively. But for an individual award such as the MVP, it can hurt.

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The Next In Lines

4a. Damian Lillard – 29.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 8.0 APG
4b. Stephen Curry – 29.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 6.4 APG
6. Kawhi Leonard – 26.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.9 APG

Our next tier is for the ones who can’t be considered as favorites just yet, but if there were players who were likely to make the jump to favorites status, it’s these stars.

Lillard versus Curry is a debate that won’t end any time soon, and this year’s MVP Race has done nothing but add fuel to that fire. At this point, it seems only fitting but to lump them together when ranking the candidates. Dame’s arguably been more consistent between the two, but Steph’s highs have been on another level. It’s neck and neck, and if there are two players who could likely go on hot streaks to barge into the top three, it’s like these two.

But don’t sleep on Leonard, who has quietly – in true Kawhi Leonard fashion! – put together a create case as league MVP. Aside from his expected steady play on both ends of the floor, his playmaking is what’s made him such an intriguing MVP candidate this year. He’s not your usual point forward playmaker ala-Luka or LeBron James, but how he creates for his teammates is what could serve as the difference between championship and bust for the Clippers.

Photo from Getty Images

The Favorites

1. Nikola Jokic – 26.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 8.5 APG
2. Joel Embiid – 30.0 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 1.4 BPG
3. LeBron James – 25.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 7.8 APG

Finally, The Favorites. What else is there to say? These are the three players who are most likely to win the MVP by the end of the season. Despite being in this tier, there are certain things that prevent each one from separating themselves from the entire pack.

For Jokic, it’s team record. The Denver Nuggets have been very inconsistent this year and it’s hurt Jokic’s candidacy. However, he’s been INCREDIBLY brilliant as an individual, and it’s why we currently have him ranked atop the rest of the league. Aside from his counting stats, his advanced statistics have painted him as nothing short of brilliant. I mean, just look at this:

This isn’t Russell Westbrook’s 2017 run all over again. The Joker is having a historic offensive season, and if the Nuggets put it together, he’ll likely run away with this award by the end of the year.

Then there’s Embiid, whose number of games missed could end up hurting his candidacy come voting time. He’s only missed six games thus far, but given his history, it won’t be unlikely that he misses more than that. Aside from that, The Process has clearly been the league’s most dominant force. A large part of his rise has been his improved conditioning and dominant scoring, but you can’t forget his ever-reliable two-way brilliance. He’s a defensive savant whose offense has slowly caught up. If he doesn’t miss more time, Jokic may just have stiff competition for the award.

Finally, King James is a candidate again. Of course, he is. But his unbeatable steadiness is what prevents him from capturing his fifth MVP. We already expect this kind of excellence from LeBron, and no amount of mention of “Year 18” will help strengthen his case. If LeBron truly wants to win MVP, he needs to do something otherworldly to capture the hearts of most voters. Is it unfair to expect a 36-year-old to do this much? Sure. However, when you’re up against two big men who are having historically great seasons, you need to do it if you truly want to win the league’s top regular-season award. But hey, The King’s chasing crowns at this point, right?