The 2020-21 NBA playoffs have started off with a bang.
One team is already eliminated, and they were the Eastern Conference champions last year. (If we were doing a Not-Playoff-MVP ranking, that team would feature two players at the top of the list.)
Another franchise has already clawed back from a 2-0 series deficit after both losses took place at home.
The Western Conference champions, meanwhile, suffered two major blows this weekend, losing a crucial Game 4 as well as potentially one of their two best players.
Regardless, today, we begin a new series in which we rank the Top 15 players in the Playoff MVP race, as voted on by all of our writers.
(You can vote too in our poll at the bottom of the article).
Let’s jump right in.
Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)
Playoff stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.3 spg, 62.7 FG%
After dropping Games 1 and 2 at home, many thought the Los Angeles Clippers’ season would be ending soon.
Even after losing Game 1, however, former two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard didn’t lose confidence, saying that the team’s spirits were still high after the defeat (via ESPN):
The Clippers have now lost four straight playoff games dating back to last postseason in the NBA bubble, where they blew a 3-1 lead and lost to the Denver Nuggets in the second round. “It’s based on us, what we want to do,” Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard said. “Everybody was pretty up. Nobody was really down on the game. Obviously, nobody wants to lose.” “But our spirits are still high, and we believe in ourselves,” he added. “Nothing good comes easy.”
Leonard couldn’t have expected how much more difficult the Clippers would make things for themselves, though, as losing Game 2 made it feel like the series was over with the matchup headed to Dallas.
Now that clearly isn’t the case, as Los Angeles, led by Leonard, swept Games 3 and 4 on the road by a combined 35 points. Over those two contests, Leonard has averaged 32.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.0 blocks while shooting a monstrous 75.0 percent from the floor and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc.
That, coupled with Leonard’s absurd defense on a variety of Mavericks, including the player coming up at No. 2 on this list, is why Leonard ended up in the top spot of our inaugural rankings of this series.
For the latest Kawhi Leonard rumors, click here.
Luka Doncic (Dallas)
Playoff stats: 33.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.3 apg, 1.0 spg, 48.6 FG%
Had the Mavericks-Clippers series continued down the path it started on, with Dallas dominating the series score through two outings, there’s no doubt Luka Doncic would be in first place on this list.
But dropping the two games in Dallas forced Doncic a spot down the rankings, as has the nerve strain in his neck that the young Slovenian star has been dealing with, which has clearly slowed him down.
Now, Doncic refused to blame the injury for his poor Game 4 performance (19 points, six assists, four turnovers, 9-of-24 shooting and a -16 plus/minus), but Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle was quick to point out after the defeat that Doncic did not look like himself in the contest (via ESPN):
“He’s in pain,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It appeared to me that he couldn’t turn left, couldn’t look to his left. He couldn’t turn his neck to his left, and that’s difficult for a guy that relies on peripheral vision and basically has played his whole life with his head on a swivel.We’ve got to hope in the next couple of days that he can get better, hopefully substantially better. There is a two-day break between games, which is a positive in this case.”
Dallas will need to hope Doncic can get healthy quickly, as Game 5 on Wednesday looms large for the hopes of the Mavericks’ season.
For the latest Luka Doncic rumors, click here.
Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)
Playoff stats: 34.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.8 spg, 2.0 bpg, 55.6 FG%
The 2021 playoffs’ leading scorer, Kevin Durant looks every bit like the MVP candidate he would have been this season had he not sat so many contests due to injury or load management.
Nevertheless, we’re now seeing why the Brooklyn Nets used that strategy with Durant this campaign, as the way they rested their superstar in 2020-21 is paying major dividends in playoff time.
The only reason Durant didn’t finish in a Top 2 spot in our inaugural MVP rankings is that the level of competition he’s facing, a severely outmatched and injured Boston Celtics squad, isn’t anywhere near as tough as the challenges presented to Leonard and Doncic by Dallas and Los Angeles respectively.
Even so, three of our seven voters actually did have Durant at No. 1 in their MVP rankings, so don’t be surprised if he makes a jump up this list this time next week, depending on how the Nets close the series out.
For the latest Kevin Durant rumors, click here.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
Playoff stats: 29.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 spg, 67.4 FG%
The Philadelphia 76ers could (should?) become the second team to earn a first-round sweep tonight when they face the Washington Wizards, and their best player without a doubt has been Joel Embiid.
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks had huge praise for Embiid after Game 3, telling collected media that the Sixers big man reminds him of a former teammate of his, Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon:
Scott Brooks on Joel Embiid: "I was fortunate enough to play with [Hakeem] Olajuwon for three years. He's doing things that I haven't seen since then."
— Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughesNBCS) May 30, 2021
Embiid’s dominant defense, underrated playmaking and throwback post-up game do present us with shades of Olajuwon, and it’ll be interesting to see how he performs in a potential second-round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, who the Sixers will be heavily favored over.
Regardless, this year has clearly been the best version of Embiid we’ve ever seen.
For the latest Joel Embiid rumors, click here.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Playoff stats: 23.5 ppg, 15.0 rpg, 7.8 apg, 1.8 spg, 45.0 FG%
In their first-round matchup against the Miami Heat, Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted 16 three-pointers and made just one of them… and yet the former two-time league MVP was still completely dominant on both ends of the floor, and the Milwaukee Bucks still swept the series by a combined 82 points.
The series was that one-sided that Antetokounmpo was wise to work on his outside game ahead of a second-round series between two championship-level teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn, one that will be fascinating to watch unfold.
After Game 4 against Miami, Antetokounmpo discussed no longer forcing the game and allowing himself to influence contests in more ways than just scoring (via Yahoo Sports)
Antetokounmpo had a triple-double in the Game 4 clincher (20 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds), but he wasn’t forcing the action, not even when the Heat reversed the series trend of playing from behind and taking a double-digit lead in the first half. “It’s growth in basketball, you know, I tried to affect the game in any way I can,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I’m blessed enough to — I can affect the game defensively, I can pass the ball, there’s going to be days I’m going to be dominant. And I’m mature enough to understand that there’s gonna be days I’m able to do it and in some days, I’m not gonna be able to [dominate].”
Antetokounmpo and Co. will have their work cut out for them defending three All-NBA-level players in Round 2, but after the way they dominated last year’s Eastern Conference champions, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see the Bucks come out on top.
For the latest Giannis Antetokounmpo rumors, click here.
Trae Young (Atlanta)
Playoff stats: 27.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 10.0 apg, 2.8 3PTM, 47.0 FG%
Many wondered how Trae Young would deal with his first taste of playoff basketball, especially with the first two games of his postseason career coming on the road in front of a completely hostile New York crowd.
Well, Young answered any question people may have had immediately, dropping a game-winning floater in Game 1 against the Knicks…
TRAE. YOUNG. BALLGAME. pic.twitter.com/tk3fZdGL6U
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 24, 2021
…and becoming the first player with a 30-plus point, 10-plus assist performance in a playoff game at Madison Square Garden since… Michael Jordan himself, per Basketball-Reference.
Now, an Eastern Conference semi-final against the Sixers will present Young with far more challenges, especially factoring in he’ll be facing defenders the likes of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle with Embiid protecting the paint, but there’s no longer any doubt Young has proven himself as one of the best point guards in basketball right now.
For the latest Trae Young rumors, click here.
Nikola Jokic (Denver)
Playoff stats: 31.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.5 3PTM, 53.9 FG%
The extremely likely 2020-21 regular-season MVP, Nikola Jokic, finds himself in a tough matchup in Round 1, with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers deadlocked at 2-2 with the pivotal Game 5 coming on Tuesday.
It’s hard to fault Jokic for the Nuggets not having a stronger hold on the series by now, as the star big man is putting up huge numbers at 31 points and 11 boards per game, but his Game 4 (16 points, one assist 7-for-18 shooting and a -32 plus/minus) when Denver had a chance to go up 3-1 headed back home was downright ugly.
After the game, Jokic acknowledged he and the other starters have to be better going forward (via ESPN):
“The urgency has to be there. Maybe this will be a wake-up call for our starting group just to play harder,” Malone said. “Good things happen when we play hard, and we didn’t play anywhere close to hard enough tonight.” The Nuggets’ starters were outscored 49-26 in Game 4, shot just 30% from the field and allowed Portland to shoot 65% when they were on the floor. “Their starters beat us by a lot, and we didn’t respond well,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said. “We need to be much better.”
Odds are, Jokic will bounce back magnificently in Game 5, but the stakes will be quite high; Jokic undoubtedly doesn’t want to become the sixth regular-season MVP to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
For the latest Nikola Jokic rumors, click here.
Ja Morant (Memphis)
Playoff stats: 33.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.3 3PTM, 51.4 FG%
Another explosive young floor general flourishing in his first taste of playoff action, Ja Morant has been excellent for the Memphis Grizzlies through his first three postseason contests, even helping lead the team to a Game 1 win in Utah.
Morant followed up the Game 1 victory with a 47-point Game 2, though in a 12-point loss for Memphis and then with another 28 points in Game 3.
Morant has been so good thus far for the Grizzlies that, according to the Grizzlies, the 21-year-old is just the fourth player since 1970 with 100-plus points through their first three career playoff games, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan on the list.
The fact that Morant is doing this against an elite Utah defense with the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year manning the paint and without much of a three-point shot (he’s hit just four of his 15 three-point attempts in the series) makes his performance all the more noteworthy.
The future is very bright in Memphis, and a lot of that is thanks to Morant’s promise as a player.
For the latest Ja Morant rumors, click here.
James Harden (Brooklyn)
Playoff stats: 26.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 10.8 apg, 2.0 spg, 54.5 FG%
Like with Durant, James Harden’s place in these rankings suffers a bit from the level of competition Brooklyn is facing in Round 1, as well as by how loaded the Nets are as a whole.
Regardless, Harden has been spectacular against the Celtics, dropping 41 points in Game 3 and 18 assists in Game 4, proving what a well-rounded offensive force the bearded 2-guard is.
Harden will need to be in tip-top form in Brooklyn’s impending matchup against Milwaukee, though, as the challenge they’ll present the Nets will be far greater than what Boston has been able to in the first round.
For the latest James Harden rumors, click here.
Damian Lillard (Portland)
Playoff stats: 30.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 9.5 apg, 5.0 3PTM, 40.0 3PT%
You know Damian Lillard is a scary offensive force when he can have a 10-point, one-field-goal-made Game 4 and still be averaging nearly 31 points in the Blazers’ first-round series against Denver.
Even more interesting, though perhaps worrisome for the Nuggets, is the fact that Portland won the game that Lillard did next to nothing (by his illustrious scoring standards), giving us a very interesting Game 5 back in Denver on Tuesday.
Lillard wasn’t remotely worried about his lack of scoring in the contest, however, as he said he saw his teammates had it going from the jump and that he wanted to spread the wealth with the Blazers firmly in control all night:
Damian Lillard on his bad shooting night: "From the tip Norm had it going, CJ was making shots, Nurk was finishing in the paint. When a game is going like that, I just try to manage the game. I didn't shoot it well but once I saw guys had it going, I wasn't going to force it."
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) May 29, 2021
If Lillard’s teammates can keep up that hot shooting while the superstar floor general regains his scoring touch, Game 5 could be very interesting for the two Western Conference foes.
For the latest Damian Lillard rumors, click here.
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee)
Playoff stats: 15.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 9.8 apg, 2.3 spg, 48.1 FG%
Bucks guard Jrue Holiday showed exactly why Milwaukee gave up so much to pick him up last offseason, dominating as a distributor and defender in the team’s first-round sweep over the Heat. For the series, Holiday was a +98 plus/minus. It’ll be exciting to see what the former UCLA standout is able to do against guys like Harden and his backcourt partner in the second round of the postseason.
For the latest Jrue Holiday rumors, click here.
Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn)
Playoff stats: 24.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.8 3PTM, 100.0 FT%
Kyrie Irving had an eventful weekend, effectively sealing up the series against his former team in Game 4 with a 39-point, 11-rebound performance, aggressively stepping on the Celtics logo after the contest and then getting a water bottle thrown at his head. Nevertheless, Irving and the Nets looks scary good and Milwaukee-Brooklyn will be a fantastic basketball theater.
For the latest Kyrie Irving rumors, click here.
Paul George (LA Clippers)
Playoff stats: 25.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.0 3PTM, 50.0 FG%
Fans were ready to jump all over Paul George for saying, after going down 2-0 at home to Dallas, that there was no concern on the Clippers’ end. Well, it looks like the star swingman was right not to be overly worried, as Los Angeles has stormed back and evened the series, and look like heavy favorites over the Mavericks again with Game 5 back in L.A.
For the latest Paul George rumors, click here.
Jayson Tatum (Boston)
Playoff stats: 30.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg, 40.0 3PT%
Despite his team being severely outmatched against the Nets, Jayson Tatum individually has been spectacular, dropping 50 in Game 3, Boston’s lone victory of the series so far, and following that up with another 40-point bomb in Game 4. Tatum had already proven to be a top playoff performer prior to this year, but 2020-21 has done nothing but further cement that.
For the latest Jayson Tatum rumors, click here.
Mike Conley (Utah)
Playoff stats: 23.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 11.3 apg, 4.3 3PTM, 100.0 FT%
Besides the obvious, Mike Conley undoubtedly had some added motivation for Round 1 due to the fact he’s facing his former club, where he’ll one day have his number retired, in Memphis. Making matters even more interesting? The player who now plays his position for the team, Morant, looks like a future superstar. Conley has responded extremely well, though, putting up huge numbers for the Jazz and helping lead the team to a 2-1 lead so far in the series, with Game 4 ahead tonight.
For the latest Mike Conley rumors, click here.