MVP Race: James Harden continues to rise

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MVP Race: James Harden continues to rise

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MVP Race: James Harden continues to rise

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After taking a week off due to the All-Star break, we’re back with the 10th edition of our weekly MVP rankings, which is headlined by a certain Brooklyn Nets guard making a move towards the top of the list.

Below, you can check out the Top 15 players in our MVP rankings for 2020-21, as voted on by our entire team at HoopsHype.

1
Nikola Jokic (Denver)

An excellent stretch of games coupled with an injury to the second-place player on this list was more than enough to get Nikola Jokic back into the No. 1 spot in our MVP rankings this week.

Over his last five games, the big Serbian is averaging 28.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 1.6 steals on 53.7/43.8/80.0 shooting splits. What’s more, Jokic’s Denver Nuggets have won six of their last seven games, easing concerns about their relatively inconsistent start to the campaign.

Jokic recently made it clear that he plans to be a Nugget for life and that winning a title in Denver would mean more than winning one anywhere else for him (via the Denver Post):

After twisting his ankle, insisting on a return and hitting a few more clutch shots en route to a 28-point, 15-rebound effort against Memphis, Jokic shared a new, heart-racing wrinkle in pursuit of a championship. He wants to do it in Denver, super-teams be damned. “If I win it with Nuggets, or if we win it with Nuggets, that’s gonna be, we’re gonna want it more than if I go or if someone else joins us,” said Jokic, well aware of the weight of his words. “That’s even better, maybe someone joins us,” he quipped before getting serious. “My personal opinion is I’d rather win it with Nuggets than … win it with any another team.”

Always refreshing to see a modern star player take that stand.

For the latest Nikola Jokic rumors, click here.

2
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)

Joel Embiid survived a major health scare last week when he turned his knee on an ugly-looking landing following a dunk.

While many expected the worst considering how bad the injury looked, Embiid came through relatively unscathed, suffering just a bone bruise one that is now expected to make him miss two-to-three weeks.

As far as his MVP case is concerned, however, this time off could prove extremely costly for Embiid, as other candidates are starting to hit their stride as we approach the closing stretch of the season.

Regardless, once Embiid returns and as long as he regains his outstanding 2020-21 form (he almost certainly will), the Philadelphia 76ers big man will continue making a strong MVP case thanks to his high-level scoring and defending.

For the latest Joel Embiid rumors, click here.

3
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)

For the second-straight week, Giannis Antetokounmpo finds himself in the Top 3 of our MVP rankings, and with good reason, as the Greek Freak has been spectacular lately in leading the Milwaukee Bucks.

Antetokounmpo is up to fifth in the league in scoring at 29.0 points per game while also chipping in 11.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks nightly on 56.3 percent shooting. The list of players to put up a 29/11/6 stat line historically now only includes Antetokounmpo and the great Oscar Robertson, per StatHead.

Additionally, Milwaukee has won nine of their last 10 games and now sits No. 3 in the East at 25-14 while ranking second league-wide in net rating (+7.4).

Dallas Mavericks head coach recently had very high praise for the two-time reigning league MVP (via USA Today Sports):

 “If you watch him working out before games you can see the things that he’s working on,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “They’re all things that make total sense. Stretching out the game with the three. Some subtle things having to do with his footwork. Every year his touch gets better, his release gets more refined. We have not seen a player like him, really, in the history of this game.”

Antetokounmpo’s MVP case is undoubtedly going to be negatively affected by voter fatigue as well as by his playoff shortcomings in recent seasons, but nevertheless, he really might be building the strongest case to win the award for the third year in a row if we take those two things out of the equation.

His two-way play is that spectacular while his Bucks are an elite contender with championship potential. That’s usually good enough to be considered league MVP in the NBA.

For the latest Giannis Antetokounmpo rumors, click here.

4
LeBron James (LA Lakers)

Even without Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to remain among the NBA’s elite thanks to the play of four-time MVP LeBron James, who is putting up 24.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists over his last four games, three of which were wins for L.A.

James currently ranks fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), sixth in Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and ninth in Win Shares (WS) league-wide, indicating he’s right on the cusp of MVP contention if we’re basing it solely on advanced analytics.

However, couple those advanced marks with the Lakers being strong contenders to repeat as champs, as well as the fact that James is being forced to lead Los Angeles for such a long stretch at 36 years old without their second-best player – a superstar in his own right, Davis – and you see why so many believe James has a legit shot at taking home the fifth MVP award of his career this season.

For the latest LeBron James rumors, click here.

5
James Harden (Brooklyn)

It’s going to be extremely difficult for James Harden to actually win league MVP this season – if not impossible – due to his messy departure from the Houston Rockets, but if we base the award solely on his time with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has as strong a case as almost anyone in 2020-21.

Since joining the Nets, the bearded superstar is averaging 25.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game (his 11.1 assists nightly for the season overall is the league-leading mark, actually) and, more importantly, Harden has Brooklyn playing an absolutely elite level even with Kevin Durant out due to injury.

The Nets have won 13 of their last 14 games and sit half-a-game back from first place in the East at 27-13.

Harden recently surpassed NBA legend Larry Bird for the 34th spot all-time in scoring, discussing the accomplishment afterwards (via ESPN):

James Harden has passed Larry Bird on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and now sits at 34th overall. Harden reached the milestone by scoring 24 points on Saturday night in the Brooklyn Nets’ 100-95 win over the Detroit Pistons. “We all know how good Larry was and the things he did in Boston,” Harden said. “A legend. And I think I just play the game the right way, and hopefully good things happen for me passing one of the greatest ever to play basketball is a great honor.” Harden now has 21,792 points, one more than Bird.

It’ll be interesting to see how high up that list Harden finishes his career, as he’s just 31 and showing zero signs of slowing down.

For the latest James Harden rumors, click here.

6
Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

As has been the case for the Los Angeles Clippers over the last couple of seasons, concerns are starting to arise about whether or not, despite all their firepower, they’re actually championship-level contenders.

The Clippers had lost six of their last eight games before last night’s win over Dallas, something that the team’s best player, Kawhi Leonard, recently admitted he found concerning (via ESPN):

The Clippers, a team expected to contend for a championship, have lost five of their past seven games. After starting the season 21-8, the Clippers are just 4-7 since. “It’s very concerning,” Leonard said when asked what his level of concern is at over the slippage. “[If] we want to have a chance at anything, you gotta be consistent. You know, that’s what the great teams do, they’re consistent. They have their nights when, you know, the energy’s not there. But it’s all about consistency, from teams to players to coaches. That’s what makes a team great, players great, coaches great. A consistency of being, wanting to win, and doing pretty much the same habits of winning.”

Maybe the Clippers will find some sense of high-level consistency come playoff time, but if history is to tell us anything, that might not be the case.

Regardless, Leonard individually has been spectacular this season, averaging 26.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

For the latest Kawhi Leonard rumors, click here.

7
Stephen Curry (Golden State)

Another championship-level superstar sick enough of their team’s inconsistency this season to open up to the media about it is Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry.

After the Warriors got blown out by the Lakers last night by an ugly 31 points, Curry said the following (via ESPN):

Following a 31-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night, Warriors star guard Stephen Curry expressed frustration with his team’s recent play, acknowledging it’s time for Golden State to stop having “embarrassing” performances. “We’ve got to play better,” Curry told reporters after the 128-97 defeat. “We have to develop a winning attitude every single night, and honestly, we’ve got to get sick of getting blown out, because that’s embarrassing. We have to have some pride about how we’re playing. You can lose games — that’s going to happen — but not like that.”

Curry has performed like an MVP candidate this year, ranking fourth in the league in scoring at 29.3 points while chipping in 5.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals and shooting 41.4 percent from three, and his teammate Draymond Green is still a defensive monster with strong playmaking prowess, but the rest of the team has proven far too inconsistent to this point.

Maybe a healthy Klay Thompson would have changed things for Golden State and helped bolster Curry’s MVP candidacy in the process, but for now, the team looks like they should be happy to just make the playoffs and not expect much more this campaign.

For the latest Stephen Curry rumors, click here.

8
Damian Lillard (Portland)

Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard has done an incredible job keeping his team afloat in the playoff race out West this year despite a plethora of injuries to the club, with Portland sitting comfortably at sixth with a 22-16 record.

Since McCollum went down 24 games ago, Lillard has put up 31.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists nightly on healthy 44.8/39.1/92.8 shooting splits, missing just one game since January 18.

Like Jokic, Lillard also recently made it clear how happy he is in Portland, especially because he doesn’t find the idea of joining a superteam appealing (via NBC Sports):

“For every person that has that to say, I’m saying if everybody doesn’t think I can do it in Portland and we can’t win in Portland, what does it mean and what happens when we do? If we actually go and do it, then where does that put me? Where does that put my legacy? Where does that put my career?” Lillard said. “My whole career, everybody’s been saying, ‘he should go to this team’ or ‘he should go to a bigger market,’ and all these things, so at the end of the day, if we just go and win it, then what? Where does that put me? And that’s how I see it.

With McCollum set to return from injury tonight, it’ll be fascinating to see where the super backcourt can take the Blazers now that they’ll at least have their two best players.

For the latest Damian Lillard rumors, click here.

9
Luka Doncic (Dallas)

Luka Doncic’s MVP case has been hampered a bit recently by his being forced to miss two of the team’s last five games due to injury, as well as by Dallas dropping two of their last three games, including a much-anticipated rematch against the Clippers in which Doncic did suit up.

Doncic played relatively well against Los Angeles, dropping 25 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists, but requiring 23 shot attempts to do so while turning the ball over seven times and fouling five times.

Speaking of fouls, Doncic was none too pleased with the officiating against the Clippers, as Dallas finished the night shooting just five free throws, tying a franchise record, an absurdly low mark considering Doncic averages nearly eight free throws nightly by himself (via the Dallas Morning News):

On a night in which they shot a franchise-record-low-tying five free throws, the Mavericks certainly couldn’t have counted on attacking the Clippers’ interior more aggressively in the closing minutes and getting the benefit of foul calls. Dallas attempted two fourth-quarter free throws. “I’m not going to say anything,” Luka Doncic said when asked about Dallas’ paltry free throw total. “I’m not trying to get fined. That’s how they called it today; hopefully they call better next game.”

Smart of Doncic to protect his wallet, especially over a mid-March contest.

For the latest Luka Doncic rumors, click here.

10
Rudy Gobert (Utah)

After going on an outrageous tear midway through the season, the Utah Jazz have fallen on harder times recently, losing four of their last six games with their only victories in that stretch coming against the lowly Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets.

Even so, it’s impossible to blame Rudy Gobert for that, as the big man has put up 16.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game in that stretch while hitting 65.5 percent of his shot attempts.

Gobert ranks seventh this season in WS and Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48), which speaks highly of the impact the big French center has made on a Utah team that still ranks first in net rating in 2020-21 (+8.1) and in wins (28).

For the latest Rudy Gobert rumors, click here.

11
Jimmy Butler (Miami)

For the first time this season, Jimmy Butler has found himself in the Top 15 of these rankings, and it’s probably long overdue, as the Miami Heat forward has been absolutely spectacular since returning from COVID-19. On the year, Butler is averaging 21.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.2 steals per contest and shooting 46.7 percent from the floor.

The advanced analytics rave about Butler’s impact this season, as he ranks fourth in BPM, third in WS/48 and fifth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in 2020-21, even despite his shooting under 21 percent from three on the campaign – he’s been that effective in all other facets of the game.

Butler, if you’ll remember wasn’t voted an All-Star this season, has his Heat looking more like the team that made the Finals in 2019-20 than the team who started the year off so poorly:

Butler will likely find his way into the Top 10 of these rankings in the upcoming weeks, at least if we take his recent play and the trajectory he’s been on into account.

For the latest Jimmy Butler rumors, click here.

12
Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn)

Along with Harden, Kyrie Irving has been likewise fantastic over recent weeks in helping carry the Nets in Durant’s absence.

Over his last five games, the fiery ball-handler is averaging 28.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 48.7 percent from beyond the arc.

For the latest Kyrie Irving rumors, click here.

13
Zion Williamson (New Orleans)

Zion Williamson recently became the player off to the fastest scoring start since Michael Jordan and has a chance to become the first player to average 25.0 points before turning 21 years old.

He’s been absolutely unstoppable for the New Orleans Pelicans and has the makings of an unforgettable talent as his career progresses. If the Pelicans weren’t 17-22, the young Duke product would be getting more MVP love.

For the latest Zion Williamson rumors, click here.

14
Chris Paul (Phoenix)

The addition of Chris Paul has proved enormous for the Phoenix Suns, as the Point God has helped lead the team to a 16-12 record and the league’s third-best net rating (+6.4), a better mark than the Lakers.

On the year, Paul is averaging 15.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals per contest.

For the latest Chris Paul rumors, click here.

15
Julius Randle (New York)

Not many expected the New York Knicks to make the playoffs this year, but thanks largely to Julius Randle’s incredible campaign, they’re right in the thick of things, sitting at 20-20 and seventh in the East at the moment.

Randle is putting up 23.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists nightly for New York and shooting a career-best 41.5 percent from three on nearly five attempts from deep per game.

For the latest Julius Randle rumors, click here.

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