Who is the 2020-21 NBA MVP? Usually, there is not much controversy and the best player seems apparent to most fans/voters. Specifically, the MVP is usually the best player on the best team. That’s the nice thing about the NBA, the best players historically are on the best teams. There were times when strong narratives regarding nice stories (i.e. Allen Iverson 2000-01) or shear voter fatigue (see Jordan, Michael) changed the vote but, for the most part, it has held. The 2020-21 MVP award seemingly tests the voters more than usual because these general precepts don’t totally apply. The Utah Jazz are the best team but they are marked more by a balanced team then by any superstars.
A few players appear to be having the gaudy stats years for good teams that are definitely in the running. Joel Embiid has been great in leading the 76ers to the best record in the East and, out West, Nikola Jokic has had an incredible season. Jokic appears to be the overwhelming favorite, as his current average odds probability to win is 90.24%. Nevertheless, there is a sense that some don’t consider him a conventional choice. Let’s run through the candidates and see where the numbers and facts lead us. First, the current stats of players likely to receive first place votes:
-Nikola Jokic: 67 gms, 35.0 mpg, 26.4 ppg, .648 TS%, 10.9 rpg, 8.5 apg, 31.1 PER, .301 WS48, 11.8 BPM, 8.1 VORP
-Joel Embiid: 48 gms, 31.5 mpg, 29.2 ppg, .636 TS%, 10.8 rpg, 2.9 apg, 30.8 PER, .274 WS48, 7.6 BPM, 3.6 VORP
-Stephen Curry: 59 gms, 34.1 mpg, 31.6 ppg, .658 TS%, 5.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, 26.2 PER, .201 WS48, 8.2 BPM, 5.2 VORP
-Giannis Antetokounmpo: 57 gms, 33.0 mpg, 28.2 ppg, .630 TS%, 11.1 rpg, 5.9 apg, 29.1 PER, .241 WS48, 8.9 BPM, 5.2 VORP
-Rudy Gobert: 66 gms, 30.8 mpg, 14.4 ppg, .683 TS%, 13.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 23.6 PER, .249 WS48, 4.6 BPM, 3.4 VORP
-Chris Paul: 66 gms, 31.5 mpg, 16.2 ppg, .593 TS%, 4.5 rpg, 8.9 apg, 21.2 PER, .200 WS48, 4.6 BPM, 3.4 VORP
-Donovan Mitchell: 53 gms, 33.4 mpg, 26.4 ppg, .569 TS%, 4.4 rpg, 5.2 apg, 21.3 PER, .167 WS48, 3.5 BPM, 2.5 VORP
Before we turn to our observations of the above players, let’s pause and recognize that there are a few players who have been really good but have a minor quibble that probably disqualifies them from meriting a first place vote. Either they missed too much time or their stats aren’t quite enough to merit a first place vote. Still, let’s briefly give a shout out to Jimmy Butler, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, James Harden, and a few others that could be in the conversation but for poorly timed injuries and other issues are not really there.
With that said, here’s a brief summary of the possible winners:
Chris Paul: Paul is an incredible talent and has been a key component in making the Suns a resurgent team but the notion that he is a first-tier MVP candidate is a stretch. His raw stats are a step below most of the players on the list. He was a huge improvement over Ricky Rubio (Paul has a 4.6 BPM versus Rubio’s 1.0 last season) but CP3’s candidacy rests more heavily on the narrative that the Suns jumped from fringe playoff team to title contender right after they acquired him.
Though CP3 definitely gets a lot of credit for the improvement, we should note that the Suns began to look really good during the Bubble last summer. They went 8-0 in the Bubble and clearly some of the seeds of improvement were pre-Chris Paul. To seriously consider Paul as an NBA candidate with good-but-not-great stats would require us to give him almost all the credit for many inchoate improvements when there is evidence that some of those improvements (but not all) are independent of his presence. At the very least, it’s hard to make a case for him when you see that there are several players with much more impressive stats.
Donovan Mitchell: I can see an argument for Paul but Mitchell’s case is, by far, the weakest. His case is basically that he is the high scorer on the likely best team in the NBA. Mitchell is a good player but he’s well-below Paul, let alone the other contenders. In fact, a case could be made that he is Utah’s third or fourth best player. No disrespect intended but he really shouldn’t be getting any MVP votes.
Rudy Gobert: Utah’s best player and defensive anchor is the most vital player on the best team. Sure, he is not nearly as good offensively as anyone on the list. The only question is whether his excellent defense can vault him over Embiid or Jokic, who are also centers and thus directly comparable to Rudy. As with Paul, the offensive stats gap is too large to be bridged by the argument that Gobert’s defense makes up for the offensive lead. Having said that, Gobert has a legit case between his key to the team defense and the fact that he has missed so few games.
Stephen Curry: Curry’s season has been great and it’s nice to see him putting up stats that are basically consistent with what he did before the Warriors had Kevin Durant six years ago. He’s been the best guard in the NBA this season. He has a pretty strong argument for MVP but his defense isn’t great and Giannis, Embiid, and Jokic have been at least as good and had better team success. Team success isn’t a primary criterion to me (it’s not Curry’s fault that Draymond Green forgot how to shoot or that James Wiseman rawer than sashimi) but, on margins, it is relevant.
Giannis v. Embiid v. Jokic: These three are clearly the top three non-Curry candidates. Of this group, it’s hard not to pick Jokic. He is a monster center who passes like a point guard, hasn’t missed a single game, and is leading significantly in every advanced stat category. Embiid is close but has played nearly 20 fewer games. Similarly, Giannis has missed about 10 more games.
Instead, let’s address potential arguments against Jokic:
-Denver isn’t that good: As noted above, team success is a squishy criterion. The Nuggets are pretty good and the win differential between Denver, Philly, and Milwaukee isn’t greater than the gulf between Jokic’s stats and those of Giannis and Embiid. Currently, Philly is only a few games better than Denver and Milwaukee are a push.
-Jokic isn’t a great defender: He certainly isn’t a dynamic rim protector or a good perimeter defender but Jokic’s DBPM is plenty respectable. DBPM is perfectly reliable and may overstate his defense but he’s certainly not a huge liability on defense. Conversely, his passing is so much better than that of Giannis and Embiid. It’s hard to ding Jokic too much for the fact that he is not a huge defensive disruptor when he brings so much more to the table offensively than the other two contenders do.
-Would you really take Jokic to start a team to win a title for the playoffs? This is a fair point. Jokic leads the NBA in every advanced stat and has been a workhorse but, if forced to choose, most GMs would take a healthy LeBron James (and a few other players) over Jokic as the primary building block to win the 2020-21 title. Can these truths be reconciled? Sure. The MVP is for the best regular season player. If the players being compared are close, we could consider this factor but, frankly, the race is not close. Jokic is dominating the field. It’s also not clear that Embiid or Giannis, the only plausible alternatives to Jokic, are better playoff performers. Having said all this here is my hypothetical MVP ballot:
5. Luka Doncic
4. Stephen Curry
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Joel Embiid
1. Nikola Jokic