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What’s popping on Air-Ball

Well, we’ve made it to the All-Star break which in this weird NBA season is roughly halfway. Due to this, it seems only fitting to check in on the MVP award to see who the best contenders for basketball’s biggest regular season award are at 2021’s All-Star break.

1. Joel Embiid

StatPERVORPUsageOffensive Win SharesDefensive Win SharesWS/48Offensive Box +/-Defensive Box +/-Box +/-
League Rank2nd6th 3rd5th6th2nd4th16th2nd

For all of his career, NBA fans have wondered what a motivated, healthy and in shape Joel Embiid would do. 30 games into his 2020-21 season and we have the answer: dominate. So far, Embiid has been the best player in basketball. The Sixers have an almost sixteen-point swing between when he’s playing and not, he’s top two in all of PER, win shares per 48 and box plus-minus and his team is in first in the conference. What he’s been doing on a nightly basis is nothing short of remarkable. He’s the first player since 2016, Stephen Curry, to average over 30 a game on 50 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three. The individual numbers go on and on and when couple with those differential numbers and the Sixers record, you can’t find a player more valuable to his winning team than Embiid is to the Sixers. 

2. Nikola Jokic

StatPERVORPUsageOffensive Win SharesDefensive Win SharesWS/48Offensive Box +/-Defensive Box +/-Box +/-
League Rank1st1st22nd1st5th1st1st4th1st

The only thing holding Nikola Jokic back from the MVP is his team’s record. While the Nuggets sit sixth in the Western Conference, their star centre sits first in basically every advanced stat. Jokic is clearly the only player in basketball right now close to Embiid’s MVP case and it isn’t even his fault he’s behind him. When Jokic steps off the court the Nuggets offence goes from a rating of 120 to 102.7, an almost 18 point difference per 100 possesions. The Nugget’s defence improves with Jokic off the court but that offensive difference shows just how impactful he is to his team and how little the rest of the roster has given this year without him handing them easy opportunities. It appears Jokic’s MVP case rests on one of two things. Either the Nuggets go on the win streak we’ve all been waiting on all year thanks to his current teammates stepping up or, management pulls the trigger on a trade to help this group. Regardless, Jokic has been more than good enough to sit at the top of these rankings. Unfortunately, with his team’s record being what it is, his second-half campaign likely lies in the hands of his teammates more than his own. 

3. Damian Lillard

StatPERVORPUsageAST %Offensive Win SharesWS/48Offensive Box +/-Box +/-
League Rank6th7th6th10th2nd5th2nd10th

Damian Lillard in the clutch is the best show in basketball right now. Lillard is shooting over 60 per cent from the field in those minutes, carrying an injury-stricken Blazers team to respectability. The Blazers are so thin thanks to CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins injuries that their second, third and fourth scoring total leaders are Gary Trent, Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. You would think that would spell disaster and yet, Portland has the fifth-best record in the West and is only a couple of games out of third. There’s no reason for this other than the specialness of Lillard. Last night Twitter blew up when he closed out Team Durant with relative ease in the All-Star game. What was most funny about the reactions was people were surprised. For those who have been watching him all year we know, Dame Time is a real thing. So real in fact, it’s the only reason Portland is treading water right now and is also why he’s third on my list. 

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo

StatPERVORPUsageOffensive Win SharesDefensive Win SharesWS/48Offensive Box +/-Defensive Box +/-Box +/-
League Rank3rd2nd4th7th3rd4th10th6th3rd

If your perspective of Giannis Antetokounmpo this season was exclusively based on Twitter, you’d think he had been awful. Sure, he had a weird first couple of weeks but now he’s been back to two-time MVP form for a vast majority of the season since. As you can see above, his advanced stats are stupid as always, his traditional numbers are as wild as usual and yet some will be surprised to see him on my list. The truth is, he can’t win the MVP this year because of the playoff disappointments. Those who vote will never do it and frankly I don’t think I could either. That said though, the swing back on his public perception is also way too much. He’s easily a top five player in basketball and this season, in my opinion a top three MVP candidate. Not only are the numbers great but for the first time in his prime, the Bucks are a negative with him off the court. Thanks to the Jrue Holiday trade, this team is thinner than ever and asking more of their star. He’s returned them another spectacular season that’s easily deserving of this list.  

5. LeBron James

StatPERVORPUsageOffensive Win SharesDefensive Win SharesWS/48Offensive Box +/-Defensive Box +/-Box +/-
League Rank14th3rd9th26th2nd23rd8th13th4th

LeBron James has been exceptional this season, do not get me wrong. But, the idea he’s a legitimate MVP candidate with what Embiid, Jokic, Lillard and more are doing this season is pretty laughable. His advanced numbers above are meh at best and the Laker’s lack of success since Anthony Davis left the lineup is a massive strike against his case. Lillard has spent the entire season without his second, third and probably fifth-best player and yet he’s found a way to stay a float. Meanwhile, since Davis went down the Lakers offence has sputtered and although I wouldn’t put all or even most of the blame on LeBron when compared with his contemporaries his case doesn’t stack up. He’s certainly an All-NBA First Team lock and in my opinion still the best player in basketball after what we saw in the bubble. However based on just this season, which is literally the entire point of this award, arguing if LeBron is top five is much more interesting than the top. Right now he has a ton of work to do to get to those places. 

HM: Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Luka Doncic    


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