MVP Race: Kevin Durant flying up the rankings

The third installment of our 2020-21 NBA MVP rankings has arrived.

Although it still may be a bit early to make any major proclamations about who is going to win the award, certain players are definitely starting to stand out from the pack and separate themselves by posting ridiculous numbers, by leading their teams to impressive win-loss records, net ratings or by coming up clutch in important games.

Below, find out how our entire team’s MVP vote averaged out for this week.

Nikola Jokic (Denver)

Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic has been an absolute monster this season, averaging 25.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists per contest to go with 1.9 steals and 1.3 three-pointers nightly. Jokic has been so good that he still finished this week’s MVP ranking in first place despite Denver getting off to a disappointing 6-7 start. Even so, the Nuggets rank eighth in net rating at +2.9, a better clip than a lot of the teams with better records than them, so their below-.500 rate to start the campaign may be a bit misleading. Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder recently provided an interesting analysis of Jokic’s game this season:

“Right now, he’s posting up almost double what he did [against us in the playoffs]. He’s more aggressive and willing to score. But given that he’s averaging double-digit assists, that almost flies in the face of what I’m saying.”

Steve Kerr likewise had high praise for the big Serbian in regards to a matchup between him and rookie James Wiseman:

“Jokic is one of the best centers in the league. The main message for James (Wiseman) is don’t bite on the pumpfakes. Very easy for me to tell him that. It’s very difficult for him to absorb that. More than likely, he’ll learn some hard lessons tonight.”

Jokic remains the league-leader in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares (WS), Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), an insane accomplishment through 13 games of the season.

Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)

A lot has been made of James Harden’s arrival to the Brooklyn Nets and his excellent play two games into his career with his new team, but it’s Kevin Durant who has been on an absolute tear to start the campaign. Overall, Durant is averaging 30.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists while posting an outrageous 67.5 true-shooting percentage, which factors in his borderline scary 48.4 three-point percentage. What’s more, over two games with Harden on the roster, Durant has put up 36.0 points and 6.5 rebounds while hitting 55.3 percent of his shot attempts, an absurd mark considering the average degree of difficulty on his shot attempts. Harden recently praised his new teammate: https://twitter.com/MikeAScotto/status/1351372984544538626 And Portland Trail Blazers 2-guard and MVP candidate in his own right, CJ McCollum, also heaped praise on the former league MVP: https://twitter.com/CJMcCollum/status/1351366368931635201 When two of the best scorers the league has seen in its recent history make those types of comments, it becomes difficult to ignore them. Don’t be surprised to see Durant take over the top spot if he’s able to keep up this absurd level of play.

LeBron James (LA Lakers)

LeBron James is smartly taking things slowly to start this season, a wise decision considering the short turnaround between the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship run a couple months ago to the start of this campaign and the fact that he’s the league’s second-oldest player at 36, and even so, he still ranks third in our MVP rankings. Why? The fact that the Lakers have been the NBA’s best team to start 2020-21, with a league-leading +10.0 net rating to show for it, is part of the reason. Plus, James’ 23.7/7.9/7.5 stat line is nothing to scoff at, either. Only three players are posting a 23/7/7 stat line this season, and one of them is Jokic, the first-place finisher in these rankings, so even despite a slight slip in averages, James’ production is still elite. Recently, a first-look clip of James in Space Jam: A New Legacy was released: https://twitter.com/thecartooncrave/status/1350505097546129410 Should be fun to see James share the big screen with Bugs Bunny this year.

Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)

Joel Embiid has quietly gotten off to a fantastic start to the season, averaging 25.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.5 blocks per contest. He’d likely rank a bit higher on this list if he didn’t just miss a game to nurse soreness in his right knee. Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers says the team is going to be smart about treating any knicks and scrapes Embiid may pick up over the course of the season: https://twitter.com/JGrasso_/status/1350587898798755840 That’s obviously the right decision for Philadelphia to make, as Embiid is way too important for the team’s title chances to be making him play through pain when the calendar still reads January.

Paul George (LA Clippers)

Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George recently made interesting comments to the media about his approach to this season, informing the public:

“I’m coming back with vengeance,” George said of his mindset entering this season after he and the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round to Denver last postseason. “I didn’t like, not so much of the noise and everything around [the way last season ended], but just the fact that people saw weakness. “And I had to address that. I had to answer that. That fueled me. That put me in a place where I wanted to come back and be myself again.”

George’s superstar teammate Kawhi Leonard also mentioned that the fact George was healthy this offseason and able to work on his game has been a huge help for the 30-year-old. Last offseason, recovering from double shoulder surgery, George could only shoot a basketball 10 times daily, according to Leonard. The renewed mindset and extra practice time have been huge for George, who’s averaging 24.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting a league-leading 51.0 percent from three on 8.0 nightly attempts.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)

Although it rarely even gets discussed anymore due to how expected it is at this point, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still putting up monstrous numbers, averaging a 27.2/10.2/5.3 stat line along with 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. The one major area of concern, however, is that Antetokounmpo is shooting a career-worst 58.6 percent from the foul stripe on his nearly 10 nightly attempts from there. Antetokounmpo recently discussed his issues from the foul line, claiming that it’s not an issue of overthinking:

Antetokounmpo says it’s not a case of thinking too much when he’s at the line. “I don’t think at the free throw line,” Antetokounmpo said. “I just shoot shots. I’ve done this since I was like 12 years old. There are players that probably think when they shoot or whatever the case might be. I just go to the free throw line and say the stuff I say always to myself, try to have a good technique and just try to shoot the ball high and give it a chance because most of my [missed] shots are short.”

Maybe picking up a more consistent free-throw routine would help the Greek Freak become a better foul shooter, the main area of his game where he’s really lacking. Granted, not hitting threes consistently is a problem for the two-time league MVP, too, but if Antetokounmpo were an 80 percent free-throw shooter, it would matter far less due to the huge payoff efficiency-wise of making free throws.

Luka Doncic (Dallas)

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Dallas Mavericks, a fact best evidenced by their perfectly mediocre +0.4 net rating on the campaign. Dallas currently sits at 10th in the West with a 6-7 record, losers in their last three games in a row. Of course, injuries and COVID-protocol issues have played major factors in that, but that doesn’t mean the ultra-competitive Luka Doncic isn’t beginning to get frustrated with the results. After a tight loss to the Bucks recently, Doncic was visibly upset after Dalla didn’t call a timeout to set up a play on the final possession:

“It’s Coach’s decision, but if we would have made the shot, everything would be good,” said Doncic, who had 29 points, 9 rebounds and 13 assists in the loss, accounting for 61 of the Mavs’ 81 points when he was on the floor. “… But I don’t know. It’s Coach’s decision to call a timeout or no, so I think it’s good.” Doncic said he had not discussed the situation with Carlisle yet and declined to say if he intended to have that conversation with his coach. “If we talk, we’re going to talk,” Doncic said. “It’s not going to be in the media. It’s between us.”

Doncic also blamed himself for another Mavericks’ loss, where he says he got too selfish seeking out his own shot after a spectacular 30-point first half:

Doncic had 36 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists to post the 29th triple-double of his career, breaking a tie with Michael Jordan to move into 15th on the league’s all-time list. However, Doncic blamed himself for the loss, suggesting that he got caught up with his statistics after a spectacular first half. “The second half, I played terrible,” Doncic said. “That’s on me, that game. I was being selfish a little bit because I had 30 points in the first half. That wasn’t me in the second half. I’ve got to do way better in the second half. That’s just on me. I’ve got to do way better.”

Doncic has been great this season, averaging 27.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, but there’s no doubt both his and the Mavericks’ overall campaign has been a bit disappointing relative to expectations. A nice little winning streak would turn that around quickly, though.

Anthony Davis (LA Lakers)

LeBron James’ sidekick with the Lakers, Anthony Davis, is posting yet another All-Star-worthy campaign so far in 2020-21, averaging 21.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting a career-best 36.1 percent from three. What many don’t realize is that Davis is actually outpacing James this season in multiple advanced metrics, including VORP (1.0 to 0.8), BPM (7.0 to 4.8) and WS (2.0 to 1.8), indicating that he has actually been the Lakers’ best player early on this season. Regardless, James is still the engine that makes Los Angeles go, so he’s going to get the bulk of the credit for the team’s soaring start to the campaign. And unless Davis’ raw averages really explode, it’ll continue to be that way for the foreseeable future.

Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

The Clippers presently rank second in the West at 10-4, trailing just the Lakers, and their net rating (+6.6) sits third league-wide, slightly outpacing their mark from last season of +6.3. Leonard said that consistency from the club has been more important than anything so far:

Consistency is key, and the Clippers did what they had to do this week. They hadn’t put together an undefeated week this season, and now they have. It will mean more when they can continue to meet challenges and handle them accordingly going forward. “It helps when guys feel comfortable when they’re playing and not just thinking the game the whole time,” Leonard said. “It’s early still. We still want to get better. We’re not where we want to be. And that’s all I really got to say about it.”

Leonard has been quite consistent in his own right, averaging 24.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals per contest while shooting a pristine 43.4 percent from three, the second-best mark of his career.

Stephen Curry (Golden State)

Even despite a very challenging early schedule to this point, the Golden State Warriors still sit 7th in the West with a tidy 7-6 record, which includes a gutsy win over the Lakers in a game where Golden State trailed by as many as 19 points. Of course, Stephen Curry has been the Warriors’ best player to this point, and his MVP-level play has been the biggest reason why Golden State is off to such a solid start. Curry is averaging 28.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists thus far in 2020-21, and he’s doing that with his three-point shot not going down at its usual rates. Curry is shooting merely 36.6 percent from beyond the arc this campaign. His numbers could get truly scary if Curry’s three starts falling at a rate closer to his 43.3 percent career mark.

Damian Lillard (Portland)

In what has felt almost like a trend over recent years, the Portland Trail Blazers have been devasted by injuries this season, leaving Damian Lillard in charge of taking over the offense for the team on a nightly basis. With McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic now out, Lillard will be asked to do what he did late last season: Take over on offense every single night. Lillard, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, just had his first game sans McCollum in the lineup and performed admirably, dropping 35 points and six assists in what was a blowout loss for Portland against the San Antonio Spurs. Lillard and the Blazers’ bad injury luck has to turn around at some point.

Nikola Vucevic (Orlando)

It rarely gets discussed due to the Orlando Magic being a small-market team struggling through injuries this season, but Nikola Vucevic actually ranks second in VORP in 2020-21, second in BPM and second in WS, trailing just Jokic in all three advanced metrics. For a player that has shown so much improvement over recent seasons, it’s extremely impressive to see Vucevic get even better this year, averaging 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists behind fiery 52.0/42.5/80.0 shooting splits.

Jaylen Brown (Boston)

Another player showing continued improvement this season has been Jaylen Brown, who’s averaging a career-high 25.8 points per game to go with 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals. Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker was recently asked about how he thought Brown would have to acclimate his game to Walker’s return, but Walker said he didn’t want him to change a thing: https://twitter.com/JaredWeissNBA/status/1350911751081103368 A smart, unselfish answer from Walker, considering how good Brown has been this campaign and how important of a piece he’ll be for both the Celtics’ immediate and long-term future.

CJ McCollum (Blazers)

McCollum was on an MVP-like tear to start the season, shooting more threes as opposed to long-2s, an adjustment that helped him to put up a career-best 26.7 points per contest while hitting a ridiculous 44.1 percent of his 11.0 nightly three-point attempts. Unfortunately, McCollum has been bit by the Blazers’ injury bug and will now miss at least a month due to a hairline fracture in his foot: https://twitter.com/ChrisBHaynes/status/1351426902074957827 Here’s hoping McCollum will return as soon as possible and continue on the torrid pace he was on before going down.

Domantas Sabonis (Indiana)

Intensely competitive big man Domantas Sabonis took his first career All-Star campaign from last season and improved on it this year, putting up astonishing averages of 21.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per contest for the Indiana Pacers. Sabonis has been so good he has even made a bit of history, joining an illustrious list of players to have at least 263 points, 153 rebounds and 69 assists over the first 12 games of a season: https://twitter.com/jkubatko/status/1350091871360483329 Sabonis has blossomed into a franchise cornerstone for Indiana, coming a long way from the rookie who averaged 5.9 points with the Oklahoma City Thunder way back in 2016-17.

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