Assessing the Sophomore WRs
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A genuinely competitive MVP race is a rarity. By season’s end there are typically only one or two realistic outcomes, and it’s been more than a decade since a third-party candidate even managed 10 first-place votes (2008). Only twice since the media was given control over the process in 1981 have the top three players finished within 100 voting points of one another (1990 and 1999).
Two months into the 2020-21 NBA season, however, it’s wide open. An informal poll conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps this month produced seven different first-place choices. Not among those seven were the past two winners or the preseason favorite. With the current betting favorite playing for a team struggling with health-related absences, the field could grow more muddled in the immediate future.
So let’s dig a bit deeper into the candidates and assess not only where they stand at this moment, but how their odds might shift in the coming weeks and months. These are the six biggest questions surrounding the MVP race.
LeBron won the informal Bontemps poll with 53 percent of all first-place votes, and the betting markets are similarly bullish on his chances. James was a plus-125 favorite at the William Hill Sportsbook as of Saturday, putting him just above even money in a race without a No. 2 at even 3-to-1 odds.
Those odds are based on a simple premise: LeBron is the best player. We know he’s the best player. We saw it in the bubble. We’ve seen it in any number of playoff runs. There’s a good chance that we’re going to see it again this postseason. Voters don’t want to feel bamboozled again when Playoff LeBron emerges and a non-LeBron winner fades.
But the award is intended to signify who had the best regular season in a vacuum. What happened in the past or will likely happen in the future is supposed to be irrelevant, and if it is, most advanced metrics scream the same thing: LeBron is lagging behind two contenders who are widely considered to be inferior players but have performed better so far this season. Look at almost any metric and you’ll see James trailing two candidates in particular.
None of these numbers should be viewed as determinative, but together they suggest that even if LeBron is the best player in basketball when it counts, he hasn’t been the most productive one so far this season. His numbers haven’t been particularly special by his own standards, either. James has frequently grumbled about how he’s treated by voters, and historically speaking, former MVPs do tend to get judged against themselves as much their competition. But James has not only struggled to keep up with last season’s pace, but is having one of the worst seasons of his career.
Now, keep in mind we’re talking about LeBron here. One of the worst seasons of his career would be the best of practically anyone else’s. It is difficult to ignore, though, that his numbers have dipped, even if only slightly. His 23.9 PER is the lowest he’s posted since his rookie season. The same can be said of the .192 win shares per 48 minutes he’s posting, assuming you ignore his injury-plagued 2018-19 season. His counting stats are virtually identical to the ones he produced last season (albeit on slightly better efficiency), except he’s gone from leading the NBA with 10.2 assists per game down to dishing out « only » 7.9. Common sense can explain that. With Dennis Schroder in Los Angeles, James isn’t playing point guard anymore. NBA.com tracking data shows that he is touching the ball less frequently and he isn’t holding it quite as long when he does (and the gaps were even bigger before Anthony Davis got hurt. Oh, and the Lakers were 24-7 through 31 games last season. They’re 22-9 this season. Not a huge decline, mind you, but worth noting.
James is a viable candidate regardless. Each season should exist in a vacuum, so where he stacks up against his former self shouldn’t matter. But that former self is informing the betting markets and the ways that voters perceive the race. Despite what the metrics are telling them, many voters appear to be starting from a position that the LeBron they are seeing now is identical to the LeBron they saw last season, and all of the seasons before that, and that if that LeBron was the best player in the NBA, this one must be as well. His performance this season alone should have him in the mix, but without factoring in his prior track record, there just isn’t a compelling reason for him to be the runaway favorite.
LeBron’s history may be working in his favor, but the same can’t be said for the player who beat him for the trophy last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the past two MVPs relatively comfortably. His shooting numbers haven’t budged. He’s posting slightly more assists, but on the same number of potential assists, suggesting that he’s largely benefitting from improved shooting from his teammates. Glance at his box score stats and the only decline you’ll see is a dip of 1.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. Giannis is posting very similar numbers to his last MVP season, but he didn’t garner a single first-place vote in the ESPN poll and his Vegas odds are hovering around 20-to-1. Despite very little change in actual performance, Giannis has fallen from comfortable winner to fringe candidate.
Some of that is perception. Voters are tired of watching Milwaukee crumble in the playoffs. Some of that is a double standard. Milwaukee’s 18-13 record is disappointing, but can be attributed largely to its 2-8 mark in the clutch. Voters might be able to accept the proven randomness inherent to such situations if Milwaukee didn’t keep finding itself on the wrong end of them when it counts. Denver, for example, is 5-8 in the clutch, and the Clippers have the NBA’s fourth-worst clutch net rating. Jokic and Kawhi Leonard get passes for their postseason heroism. For Giannis? It’s a defect. The perception of Giannis as a regular-season player is somehow hurting his chances at winning a regular-season award.
But dig a bit deeper and the red flags start to emerge. Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense has slipped to 10th so far this season. Most of that is the result of experimentation meant to make the Bucks more versatile in the playoffs, but Giannis won Defensive Player of the Year last season in part because of his perceived versatility. He’s struggled to spread his wings defensively, and his offensive role has changed as well. With Jrue Holiday and DJ Augustin in place, he’s handling the ball less and operating as a screener in pick-and-roll more. That’s a fundamentally less valuable role even if it’s one he’s better suited for. Antetokounmpo won running away last season. There are valid arguments against his candidacy this time around, but the traits that won him the award in the first place are still there and have been seemingly overlooked.
But Giannis isn’t the only former winner fighting a losing battle against his own image. On pure merits as a player, James Harden belongs in this race. Since arriving in Brooklyn, he’s reached 50/40/90 shooting splits while leading the NBA in assists. The Nets are a staggering 12.9 points per 100 possessions worse when he goes to the bench, and despite his reputation, roughly half of that decline is coming on defense.
Harden obviously hasn’t played the entire season in Brooklyn. What happened in Houston counts. Even if you ignore the negative value his trade demand created for the Rockets, his performance in Houston was significantly worse than it’s been in Brooklyn. Overcoming that in such a tightly packed race won’t be easy. Considering the nature of human voters, it might not even be possible. He’d lose a tie to any other candidate, so winning the award would mean blowing out the field in a way that probably can’t happen with two other star players. But inferior players are gaining traction in a race Harden belongs in largely because of what transpired in only one-eighth of the season. There are going to be candidates who miss more time than that due to injuries. His Houston hijinks shouldn’t be ignored, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all, either.
The most comforting part of voting for LeBron is his inevitability. His numbers tend to remain largely stable over time whereas other candidates tend to be outliers. This race is full of them. There is no set timeframe for regression. Some of these numbers are going to normalize, some of them last the entire season and others are based on genuine improvement that will sustain over multiple seasons. But so far, several candidates are being boosted by numbers that we shouldn’t expect to last forever.
Joel Embiid made 40.2 percent of his mid-range jumpers last season. His career-high was 44 percent. Emphasis on the word « was » because this season, he’s up to 53.1 percent on 5.8 attempts per game. NBA.com has tracked shooting zones since 1996 and that is a feat that has been matched only once: by 2018-19 Kevin Durant, playing for a roster widely considered to be the greatest in NBA history. This doesn’t mean that Embiid is necessarily having the best mid-range shooting season ever besides Durant’s. Defenses are comfortable letting Embiid shoot because the alternative of his post-ups are so frightening. But nothing in Embiid’s history suggests that he’s a Durant-caliber shooter or anything close to it. That number is likely to decline, and so is his 39.7 percent 3-point shooting, which is yet another career high.
The Portland Trail Blazers are 18-11, a remarkable record considering their injuries, but their point-differential paints them as a 15-14 team. They’ve overcome that mediocrity because Damian Lillard is shooting a staggering 61.5 percent in clutch situations, and as a result, the Blazers have a 12-4 clutch record. Lillard wouldn’t be the first player to ride an outlier season in the clutch to an MVP if he winds up sustaining this. Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 Thunder vastly outplayed their point-differential because of his clutch excellence. But 61.5 percent shooting is something out of a comic book. Of the 14 players that matched Lillard’s 2020-21 volume in the clutch last season, only Antetokounmpo reached even 46 percent shooting.
Nikola Jokic’s scoring is something of an outlier as well, but his uptick is a bit more explainable. He is averaging 26.6 points per game, well above his 20.1 career high, but he averages 24.7 per game in the postseason, so he has a history of shooting more when the need arises. Denver’s injuries have forced his hand this season. His shooting percentages are slightly higher than normal, but not in entirely unexpected ways. Jokic already had a 39.6 percent 3-point shooting season under his belt, so getting up to 40.4 percent this season isn’t entirely unexpected. Plus, as we’ve mentioned, Denver’s bad luck in the clutch is contributing to its poor 16-14 record. They’ve also had the worst shooting luck in basketball with opponents making 43.3 percent of their wide-open 3s, so even if Jokic’s numbers take a dip, his overall candidacy could improve through team-wide improvement.
And then we have the old stalwarts. James has been slightly below his typical level, but he’s 36 years old, so that’s par for the course. Stephen Curry’s numbers are right around where he left off in 2016, before Golden State added Durant and lightened his workload. Kawhi Leonard is the steadiest performer in the NBA, and sure enough, his box score numbers have barely moved since last season. He’s been slightly more efficient, but is playing with slightly more shooting and in a system that maximizes spacing, so his moderate leap makes sense.
Having the best record in the NBA is the easiest path into the debate as 10 of the past 14 MVPs have played for the regular-season wins leader, but the value in Utah is so widespread that nailing down a single candidate is almost impossible. Mike Conley was the NBA’s plus-minus leader for much of the season and now trails only Patrick Beverley among full-time starters in net rating, but his counting stats leave plenty to be desired, and Utah’s 5-0 record without him suggests only 1.9 relatively limited value. Donovan Mitchell’s counting stats are better, but have hardly budged from where they were last season, when he didn’t even make an All-NBA team. The Jazz are only 1.9 points worse per 100 possessions when he goes to the bench, so like Conley, he faces questions about his value to the team. The two overlap enough that either could pick up the other’s slack when necessary, as Mitchell just proved when Conley was injured. Neither are realistic MVP candidates.
But is Rudy Gobert? There is a precedent for non-scorers winning MVP. Steve Nash did so at 15.5 points per game in 2005. His case revolved around his offensive genius transcending counting stats. His Suns had the NBA’s No. 1 offense by a mile, and Gobert has a similar impact on defense, where Utah is currently ranked second, thanks almost entirely to his rim protection. The Jazz allow the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game in basketball because their four other defenders never have to venture into the paint. Gobert alone limits opponents to only 61.6 percent shooting in the restricted area, the ninth-lowest figure in basketball, and unlike Nash, Gobert’s impact isn’t confined to one side of the ball.
The Jazz are ranked fourth, but have scored more points per 100 possessions (116.3) than any offense in history prior to this season. They just happen to exist in the same season as the three other best offenses in basketball. When Gobert leaves the floor, their offensive rating dips to 110.8, worse than the No. 17-ranked Bulls. Gobert isn’t Utah’s best offensive player, but he’s arguably its most irreplaceable. The Jazz live off Gobert’s ball screens. He finishes the seventh-most pick-and-roll possessions per game as the driver in basketball, and he ranks second in screen assists.
Does that make him an inner-sanctum candidate? Probably not. Embiid, for example, is only slightly less valuable on defense, but because of his position as a primary scorer and initiator, is substantially more valuable on offense. The Lakers and Nuggets are utterly reliant on the unique gifts James and Jokic bring to the table. Replace them with practically anyone, regardless of skill, and those teams would implode because they are built around the specific tools of their superstars. Gobert might not even be the pinnacle of his archetype. A healthy Anthony Davis could perform Gobert’s duties with far more offensive versatility, and there’s hardly a shortage of inferior but stylistically similar centers to Utah’s goliath. For now, he’s probably a down-ballot candidate.
There isn’t an objective measure of how much help a superstar gets from the rest of his roster, but an instructive starting point would be comparing how their teams perform with them and without them.
As you’d expect, most teams play significantly better when their MVP candidate is on the floor. The one exception here seems to be Curry, which is doubly surprising as he shares the majority of his minutes with Draymond Green. Yet when that pair goes to the bench, Golden State’s defense improves to cover up for its offensive collapse. Some of that is based in shooting luck. Some of it revolves around playing against bench offenses. Some of it is a testament to Golden State’s collective athleticism and commitment to defense. Some of it is sub-optimal lineup building, which Steve Kerr has admitted to. Overall, it’s a strike against Curry in this race.
Otherwise, the candidates follow a formula that has been true for most of their careers: Their teams are good with them and bad without them. The possible exception to this rule is Leonard. In games that he plays, the Clippers fall off a cliff when he goes to the bench. Yet in games that he doesn’t? They’ve acquitted themselves quite well at 4-3 and have even gone 3-2 in games without Leonard and Paul George. That sample will likely grow given Leonard’s history of missing games. The easiest explanation is that the Clippers have a roster full of players who are comfortable scaling up. Take Marcus Morris. He was New York’s leading scorer before the Clippers acquired him. He can function in an off-ball role, but the fact that he averages 18 points per game with Leonard sidelined shouldn’t be too surprising. Asking players to vacillate between roles during games is harder than changing their role for the entirety of one. When the Clippers have asked their role players to assume greater roles, they’ve largely been able to do so.
That’s a knock to Leonard’s candidacy considering how poorly Embiid’s 76ers have fared without him. Missed games are more damaging than ever this season due to the condensed 72-game schedule. Leonard has missed over 20 percent of his team’s contests so far. Embiid is in similar territory, but what happens when he sits out is arguably a positive to his candidacy. The same can’t be said for Kawhi. It’s hard to argue that someone is the single-most valuable player in all of basketball when his team consistently wins without him.
The opposite side of that coin is the burden placed on players with injured teammates. Lillard has handled it extremely well. The Blazers are now 10-6 without CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, and if they keep that up, it will be a feather in his cap when voting time arrives. The Lakers started 5-1 without Anthony Davis, but have dropped their last two without Dennis Schroder as well. This is going to be a key period in LeBron’s campaign as well. He won his first two MVP trophies in Cleveland without a star like Davis even on his roster. There is an expectation that merely having him should be enough to win regular-season games consistently. While we’re on the subject, Curry has played his entire season without Klay Thompson. That can’t be forgotten just because he missed last season as well. These teams devoted major resources to acquiring and retaining players who are not currently playing for them. Winning despite those absences is a testament to the stars they left behind.
What makes this race so compelling is that the candidates involved all have different paths to victory. Each contender has something that another lacks, and the one with the most complete resume in the end is probably going to be the one who wins.
James has the clearest path forward. If he can keep the Lakers afloat without Davis, his reputation is going to overcome his relatively underwhelming numbers. A No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference probably clinches the victory. A No. 2 seed keeps him in the hunt. Getting a marquee win over Utah on Wednesday would go a long way toward cementing him in the consciousness of voters.
LeBron isn’t the only candidate relying on team success. At a bare minimum, Jokic, Curry and Lillard all need to avoid the Western Conference play-in if they want to be taken seriously. With Utah, Phoenix and the two Los Angeles teams seemingly entrenched in the top four spots, only two of them will be able to do it. Denver figures to stand the best chance at doing so and securing the highest-remaining seed at No. 5 considering its poor luck with injuries, opponent shooting and clutch situations. As Jokic has the best statistical case among that group, getting up to the fifth seed should give him a real shot at the award.
Embiid and Leonard have viable statistical arguments and their teams are near the top of the standings. Health is going to determine where they finish. If Embiid doesn’t miss another game and maintains his current level of play, he probably becomes the favorite. Leonard is probably slightly lower on the totem poll, but staying on the floor is especially important for him given how well the Clippers have played in games he’s missed. Embiid can more easily argue that his team needs him to attain even basic competence than Leonard can.
As for Harden and Antetokounmpo? A whole lot of luck. Not only will they need to dominate the remainder of the season, but they’ll need other candidates to fall off. Both could put themselves in position as a darkhorse candidate by snagging the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Harden has a better chance at it, and given Brooklyn’s overall upside, likely has a better chance at making the « most valuable player on the best team » argument if Utah falters. The Jazz would need to win at a historic pace to get Gobert into the conversation. They are playing at the pace of a typical 65-win team right now. It would take a 38-4 finish to reach a typical 70-win pace. The Jazz probably need to come close to that if he is going to have a real chance at winning.
That’s nine players whose candidacies need to be accounted for. If Kevin Durant doesn’t miss another game, he’ll probably push to make it 10. This is one of the very rare occasions in which an MVP trophy is truly up for grabs, and almost every superstar in the league is making a genuine push for it.
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