MVP Race: Damian Lillard moving up

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

MVP Race: Damian Lillard moving up

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MVP Race: Damian Lillard moving up

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We have arrived at the fifth installment of our 2020-21 NBA MVP Race series.

Every member of our team voted on their personal Top 15 rankings for the prestigious award, and we averaged out the results to get a cumulative team ranking.

Things have held steady at the top this week, with the Top 3 remaining unchanged from last week, but a certain Blazer moving four spots.

Check out our new MVP rankings down below.

1
Nikola Jokic (Denver)

Despite an already insanely strong start to the campaign, Nikola Jokic has somehow been even better recently, averaging 41.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists over his last two games, which includes a masterful 47-point, 12-rebound outing against the Utah Jazz, who had won 11 in a row to that point, and featured former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Jokic made short work of Utah and their sixth-ranked defense that night.

Detroit Pistons head coach had high praise for Jokic, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, recently, stating:

Jokic has been so great this season that if he maintains these statistical clips, he’ll be the first center since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68 to rank Top 12 in points, rebounds and assists for a full season.

There’s no doubt that at this point in the campaign, Jokic remains the MVP favorite.

2
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)

Over his prior five games before missing Sunday’s outing against the Indiana Pacers with back tightness, Joel Embiid was on an absolute tear, averaging 35.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 56.0 percent from the floor, 42.9 percent from three and 83.3 percent from the foul stripe.

Embiid’s absurd efficiency recently is nothing new, as for the campaign, the big man is posting a pristine 66.9 true shooting percentage, the ninth-tidiest clip in the league this year and by far the highest mark of his career.

The Philadelphia 76ers have the sixth-best net rating in basketball this season (+4.4), and a lot of that has to do with the play of their superstar center.

3
LeBron James (LA Lakers)

LeBron James remains in excellent form, averaging a 24.5/6.8/8.3 stat line over the past week, but his name was in the news recently for different reasons.

Near the end of Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, James got into a verbal battle with fans sitting courtside, one that concluded with the fans being kicked out and James tweeting the following:

James even went so far as to say he disagreed with the fans being ejected, and that he missed having that sort of interaction since the start of the pandemic (via ESPN):

James was not asked postgame about Carlos’ name-calling allegation, but he was not fazed by the incident and said he felt like an ejection was unnecessary. “At the end of the day, I’m happy fans are back in the building,” he said after putting up 21 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to help L.A. to the road win. “I miss that interaction. I need that interaction; we as players need that interaction. I don’t feel like it was warranted to be kicked out.”

Fun back-and-forth aside, probably not a great idea to have fans sitting courtside close enough to the players to argue with them right now.

4
Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

Even missing two games due to COVID-19 protocols wasn’t enough to slow Kawhi Leonard down, as the two-time Finals MVP is putting up 29.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals over his last five appearances, all of which were wins for the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers are arguably playing their best basketball since signing Leonard, as their net rating (+7.8) ranks second league-wide at the moment and is 1.5 points better than their net rating from last season (+6.3).

Next up for Los Angeles, an exciting matchup against the Nets, one that could very well be a Finals preview. On Sunday, Leonard said of the big game: It’s going to be tough.

Tough for the two teams involved, but likely thrilling for those of us who get to enjoy the action.

5
Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)

A case could very well be made that Kevin Durant is currently posting the greatest comeback season ever, averaging 30.9 points (the second-best mark in the league this year), 7.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists to go with 1.4 blocks nightly.

The Nets, owners of a negative net rating right now, haven’t capitalized on his MVP-level play yet, but it should only be a matter of time before Brooklyn starts seeing better results.

Durant recently made news by liking an Instagram post calling Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, two of his former teammates, unprofessional and not classy after their unnecessary verbal evisceration of Detroit Pistons forward Rodney McGruder (via Fansided):

The McGruder-Warriors beef simmered on social media after the game with McGruder’s teammate Wayne Ellington speaking up in his defense, calling Klay and Draymond ‘unprofessional’ and ‘not classy.’ And, thanks to one eagle-eyed NBA Redditor, we know that Kevin Durant smashed the like button on an aggregation of Ellington’s comments. Whether Durant is holding onto grudges from his time with the Warriors’ or simply poking the bear, he knows exactly what his doing. Durant’s social-media presence sometimes presents as chaotic but he’s smart enough to know that this would be noticed by somehow, and smart enough to know that it would get aggregated and make it’s way back to the Warriors, and smart enough to know that we all know what kind of effect that would have. Gamesmanship or petty for the sake of petty, Kevin Durant is definitely playing games.

The pettiness we see between NBA superstars will never get old.

6
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)

Individually, it’s been business as usual for Giannis Antetokounmpo recently, as the two-time league MVP has put up 28.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists over the past week, but for the Milwaukee Bucks as a whole, the team success has fallen short of the levels they reached in previous seasons.

The Bucks are 12-8 on the season and just 3-4 over their last seven games, but even so, their net rating is still first overall at +8.4. That’s a full point lower than their net rating from last year, however.

Antetokounmpo recently discussed the team’s relative struggles, saying that the team has to lean on one another and that it can’t all fall on one person (via The Athletic):

We just got to lean on one another,” Antetokounmpo said after Saturday’s loss to the Hornets. “Obviously, we’ve been struggling. We were supposed to win yesterday — supposed to — we were supposed to play better. Whatever the outcome, we got to focus on the process. We were supposed to play better yesterday; we were supposed to play better today. But we got to lean to one another. One person cannot do it on his own; we got to trust one another.”

The record might not reflect it, but judging by points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, it’s way too early to push any sort of panic button on the Bucks quite yet.

7
Damian Lillard (Portland)

As has become almost customary over recent years, the Portland Trail Blazers have experienced a bunch of injuries and now the bulk of the load has fallen on Damian Lillard’s shoulders.

As usual, Lillard has responded magnificently, averaging 32.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists over his last seven games, though that hasn’t been quite enough for the Blazers, who have a -7.6 net rating over that stretch, the fifth-worst mark in the league.

Nevertheless, Lillard created yet another incredibly clutch highlight recently, hitting a three while fading away with his team down two as the clock expired:

It’s scary to think about where Portland would be without Lillard over the past few years.

8
Stephen Curry (Golden State)

After a slow start to the season from deep, Stephen Curry has really heated up over his last 12 games, hitting 44.5 percent of his three-pointers in that stretch while averaging 26.4 points and 5.9 assists.

Overall, the Golden State Warriors haven’t quite looked like contenders this year, but they do boast a solid 11-9 record and sit 16th in net rating. Regardless, that hasn’t changed Curry’s championship aspirations one bit, as the former two-time MVP recently said:

Although it seems unlikely right now, a Curry-led team should never be counted out come playoff time, especially if his supporting cast continues to improve.

9
Paul George (LA Clippers)

After an unsustainably hot start shooting the basketball this year, Paul George’s outside shooting marks have taken a dip recently.

The All-Star forward is sinking just 28.1 percent of his outside looks over his last four games, way down from the 50.5 percent mark he was converting over his first 14 games of the season.

Nevertheless, George is still averaging 20.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals in his last four outings while playing elite defense on the perimeter.

Between Leonard and George, the Clippers have an embarrassment of riches at the wing.

10
Trae Young (Atlanta)

Trae Young has been in otherworldly form recently, with the diminutive floor general averaging 35.5 points and 9.2 assists on fiery 48.4/51.1/88.3 shooting splits over his last six games.

Young has more than earned the respect of his peers, too, as Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said before his team’s matchup against the Hawks that L.A. would pay Curry- and Lillard-level attention to Young in the game, which says a lot about where Young’s game stands among his NBA counterparts.

The results have been there for Atlanta, too, as the team is 10-10 through 20 games and their +2.2 net rating is the 12th-best mark in the league.

11
Anthony Davis (LA Lakers)

Anthony Davis has been filling up the stat sheet of late, averaging 25.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.8 blocks in his last five games, though his three-point percentage has fallen to 23.1 percent over that span, too.

Regardless, Davis continues to be the perfect second fiddle for the James-led Lakers, providing the team with elite secondary scoring and shot-blocking, so Los Angeles should continue to roll along in their title defense this season.

12
Luka Doncic (Dallas)

Frustrations continue to amount for the Dallas Mavericks, who have now lost six games in a row and boast the 19th net rating in the league at -2.0. It’s hard to blame Luka Doncic for that, though, as the Slovenian star has put up a 28.3/6.5/8.7 stat line over that stretch.

Doncic preached patience and calm after Dallas’ latest loss to the Phoenix Suns (via EuroHoops):

As the dust settled, the Slovenian sensation accepting the loss and the drop to 8-13 shifted his focus to the upcoming fixtures.“It’s tough, but there is always another game coming,” he mentioned, “We’ve got to stay positive. I think this is where you can see who we are, in the tough moments. We’re standing together. I think the last two games were way better than before, and this is where the big teams come together.”

Doncic has a point considering the Mavericks lost their back-to-back set against Phoenix by a combined seven points, with the latter defeat coming at the hands of a game-winning three from Devin Booker, so Dallas really might be close to turning things around.

They better hope so, at least, because the West is unforgiving and an extended losing streak, even this early in the season, could really doom the Mavericks’ playoff hopes.

13
Jaylen Brown (Boston)

Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown is averaging 27.8 points and 1.5 steals over the past week while hitting 58.8 percent of his three-point looks.

That last number is obviously not sustainable but goes to show just how excellent of a shooter the 24-year-old has blossomed into this season.

14
James Harden (Brooklyn)

Nets guard James Harden is really starting to acclimate nicely to his new role in Brooklyn, as the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week has averaged 25.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists over his last three games.

Now, we await to see how he does against a Clippers team tonight that boasts two of the league’s top perimeter defenders in Leonard and George.

Should be great fun.

15
Jayson Tatum (Boston)

Since returning from a long COVID-19-related layoff, Jayson Tatum has picked up where he left off, averaging 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the three games since his return.

The Celtics are just 1-2 in that stretch, however, leading Tatum to talk about the importance of helping get the struggling Kemba Walker on track (via The Athletic):

“I feel like we just need to look for him more, get him more involved,” Tatum said. “Obviously coming back from rehabbing and then being on a minute restriction, it’s tough just trying to find your rhythm. And not playing your normal minutes, anybody that’s played this sport, played basketball, knows how tough it is. So I think we just need to do a better job of getting him involved while he’s out there and looking for him, because he’s one of the best players in the league. Once he finds his rhythm we’re going to be clicking on all cylinders.”

Tatum and Brown have been fantastic all year long, but they’re going to need Walker to at least somewhat resemble his All-Star self if the Celtics want to make a deep playoff push in the top-heavy East this year.

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