April 21, 2021

Ranking the 5 Most Deserving 2021 NBA MVP Candidates

As the shortened 72-game NBA season winds down, it’s time to start seriously surveying the MVP field. And, boy, is it a fun one.

Despite losing several MVP candidates to injury this season — from LeBron James to Anthony Davis to James Harden — there are plenty of players worthy of the honor. 

The Nuggets' Nikola Jokic is currently the heavy favorite, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, but there are plenty of other players who are deserving of the honor. 

Chris Paul has led the rising Suns to a potential No. 1 seed in the competitive Western Conference while players such as Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid have put up jaw-dropping numbers in career-defining campaigns. 

With a field this wide open, let's rank the five players who deserve to be named NBA MVP this season. 

5. Chris Paul

MVP Odds: +15000

We know what you’re asking yourself: Chris Paul? The dude averaging just 15.7 points this season? But the MVP is more than just eye-popping stats. 

Paul is a perfect example of traditional numbers not doing a player justice. After getting traded from Oklahoma City this offseason, Paul arrived on a young and unproven Suns squad coming that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010. 

CP3's impact on this roster is undeniable. It’s a minor miracle he’s still effective at 35 in his 16th season, which is usually when most players have lost a step. But Paul keeps chugging along, serving as the floor general and crunch-time lynchpin. 

Paul's averaging 8.8 assists to just 2.1 turnovers, a microscopic assist to turnover ratio. The Suns rank fifth in fewest turnovers per game after ranking 18th last season.

When Paul is on the floor, Phoenix outscores opponents by more than seven points per 100. Even in his advanced (basketball) age, Paul still roasts defenders, ranking 75th percentile among all pick-and-roll ball handlers. He’s even leaning more into his fatal post-up game, which he uses to find open teammates and create mismatches. He ranks in the 98th percentile, producing 1.3 points per possession in such looks.

He’s also uncorking some impossible-looking passes: 

Paul might not have the best traditional stat-based argument, but the way he transformed Phoenix from a bottom dweller to a potential NBA Finals contender needs to be commended.

4. Stephen Curry

MVP Odds: +1700

The Warriors are currently the 9th seed in the Western Conference, we know. But it’s not like we have Stephen Curry at the top of our ranking for heaven’s sake. So with that being said, and despite the Warriors’ average record, Curry deserves to be on this list. He’s been that great.

The Dubs might not have a stellar record for an MVP contender, but they’re 28-22 when Curry suits up. What makes the sharpshooter such a strong candidate is that the Warriors crumble without him. When Curry is resting, the Dubs are more than 10 points per 100 possessions worse and boast an abysmal 101 offensive rating.

While that discrepancy obviously indicates Curry’s immense value to the Warriors, it also exposes a flaw in conventional MVP thinking. Should Curry really be rewarded for having bad teammates? This would inherently devalue what Paul is doing because the Suns are just a few points per possession better with him on the court than off, but that’s a product of their quality supporting cast. Should Paul really be punished for having good teammates? 

Back to Curry, because the man has been lights out, especially the last 10 games, where he is averaging an eye-popping 41.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 55/50/89 shooting splits. Sheesh.

Curry is the Human Torch reincarnate, with the ability to get red-hot at any moment. Teams are double-teaming him, and it’s still not working. The way Curry effortlessly creates separation and launches a quick flick of the wrist three-pointer is astonishing. He’s scoring 1.23 points per possession in isolation opportunities, good for the 95th percentile.

Curry is now the league leader in points per game after this month's outburst. Even though the Warriors aren’t even a top-8 seed, nobody will want to deal with them in the play-in game because of how lethal the Dubs' baby-faced assassin is.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo 

MVP Odds: +2000

The Greek Freak has had another excellent season, but he suffers from voter fatigue combined with some superior peers. It doesn't help that the Bucks haven’t been nearly as dominant as they were a year ago as they currently have the seventh-best record in the league.

But despite all of that, Giannis Antetokounmpo has remained dominant, averaging 28.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and six assists on 56% from the field. The Bucks crush opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor, boasting elite offensive and defensive metrics. 

He’s still a menace on both ends of the floor, too, constantly applying pressure on the defense with his bulldozing drives and guarding all five positions while wreaking havoc on defense:

He uses his incredible length and strength to his advantage when a poor soul is forced to guard him in isolation. In the regular season, Antetokounmpo’s lack of a reliable jump shot isn’t a problem because he just overpowers people. He’s in the 84th percentile among isolation scorers.

After two years of winning the MVP and subsequently getting bounced in the playoffs, Antetokounmpo doesn’t exactly have a lot of momentum, but he deserves plenty of praise for turning in another dominant season.

2. Joel Embiid 

MVP Odds: +340

Joel Embiid has simply ascended to another level this season. Every single game he plays, the Sixers big man makes his presence known by bullying defenders in the post, barricading the rim on defense and forcing opponents to either concede layups or hack him, where he’s now an 85% free-throw shooter.

For those of you that missed seeing prime Shaquille O'Neal, Embiid’s dominance is very reminiscent of the former Lakers center. Embiid is averaging 29.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks on career-high 51/38/85 shooting splits.

Embiid has guided the 76ers to the league’s second-best defense (they rank first in Embiid-only minutes). His block averages aren’t indicative of just how impactful he is because his mere presence deters so many drivers from even attempting shots. And those that do get shots up are still fearful of the 7-footer, as opponents are shooting 3.5 percentage points worse than their averages when Embiid is their primary defender.

Embiid doesn’t just dunk the ball, though. His pristine footwork lets him score in a variety of ways, from face ups to nimble drives and smooth fadeaways:

So, if Embiid is so dominant on both ends, why isn’t he leading this list? That’s because when you have such incredible candidates, you have to split hairs, and Embiid’s one flaw is that he’s missed 18 of the Sixers’ 57 games thus far this season, which is nearly 30% of their contests.

There’s a famous — and true — saying that the best ability is availability. Unfortunately, Embiid has not been available enough, thanks to sitting back to backs and suffering a hyperextended knee. It’s unfair to penalize Embiid because someone crashed into his leg and he had to recover, but life is not fair, and this was a really close race.

Embiid hasn’t just pulverized opponents, coasted the rest of the game and called it a night. The 76ers have had a lot of close games, and when Embiid is on the floor in crunch time, they outscore opponents by 19 points per 100 possessions and have a 17-4 record in those situations. 

If people vote Embiid for MVP, it’s certainly understandable considering he probably has been the best player when healthy this season. 

1. Nikola Jokic

MVP Odds: -360

In such a shortened season with players either getting injured or forced to sit out games to preserve their health, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has been absolutely relentless. He hasn’t missed a single game this season, an incredible stat. Compared to Embiid, he’s played 800 more minutes than the 76ers center.

He’s pouring in 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists on 57/42/85 splits. Jokic is not only always available, but he’s always dominating and stamping his trademark on every single play he has the ball.

Jokic is simultaneously Denver’s center and point guard. He sets up shop in the post or at the top of the key, and can pretty much do anything he wants. He’ll use his burly body to mush defenders in the post, engage in pick-and-pops and drain three-pointers at an efficient clip or find a cutter with a beautiful pinpoint pass.

The Joker’s offensive value is simple when the Nuggets run most of their plays through him on offense, and the numbers back that up to an almost concerning extent. When Jokic is on the floor, Denver scores over 121 points per 100 possessions, which would be the greatest offense of all time. But when he’s off the court, that number plummets to 102, which would rank below Oklahoma City for dead last in the league this season.

Jokic is also a beast in crunch time, and potentially the clutchest player in the league. Just look at one of the shots he made Monday in a thrilling victory over the Grizzlies:

The Nuggets outscore opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the floor. His ability to get his shot off against any opponent is such a valuable skill. He can do everything on offense, including get his hands on second chance tip ins, which are becoming a lost art in a league that has become determined to run back on defense and concede offensive rebounding opportunities.

Jokic opposers might point to the Nuggets’ fourth seed compared to the 76ers top seed, but looking at it through the conference-seeded prism is misleading due to how strong the Western Conference is. The Nuggets and 76ers are just two games apart, so that shouldn’t be a legitimate slight against Jokic, especially since he’s having to play more games against Western Conference teams.

Jokic has powered the Nuggets to three wins in a row after losing Jamal Murray to a torn ACL and has been a force all season long. His ability to play every damn game thus far is the icing on the cake for an MVP-worthy campaign.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration