It’s only been seven weeks since this NBA season began, with Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic installed as the betting favorite to win MVP honors.
But, like almost everything else in this pandemic-shortened season, nothing went as planned.
Doncic’s Mavericks are 14th in the Western Conference, opening the race for the Most Valuable Player to a wide field of candidates and potentially paving the way for LeBron James to win a historic fifth Most Valuable Player trophy.
After finishing second a season ago to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became the 12th player in NBA history to win consecutive MVP trophies, James returns to the top in ESPN’s first poll of the season for MVP.
To gauge where the race stands at this point in the season, ESPN asked 100 members of the media to participate in an informal poll that mimics voting for postseason awards. To make the vote as realistic as possible, there are at least two voters from each of the league’s 28 markets, as well as a representative sample of national and international reporters.
As with the official NBA vote at the end of the season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot and the results were tabulated using the league’s scoring system – 10 points for each first-place vote. , followed by seven points for the second, five points. for the third, three points for the fourth and one point for the fifth.
While James currently has the inside track in his push for a fifth MVP trophy for what he hopes will be a fifth NBA championship this summer, getting 54 out of 100 possible votes, the race up to this point in the season is so competitive. Like Anyone in recent memory, with a pair of crosses – Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid and Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic – on his heels.
Now in his 18th season, the 36-year-old James remains remarkably consistent, playing in every one of the Lakers’ 25 games so far and averaging more than 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists for the fifth consecutive season. James is shooting 41%, the best of his career, from 3-point range. This is the first time since 2013, the year he won his last MVP award, that James has shot more than 40% since 3. That was also the only season of his career in which he reached that mark; He has shot below 37% from 3-point range in each of the last six seasons.
James was named on 99 out of 100 ballots and finished with a total of 760 points, ahead of Embiid (23 first-place votes) by just 95 points. The last MVP race to have such a small final margin was in 2004-05 when Steve Nash edged Shaquille O’Neal by 34 points. Jokic was third, getting 18 first-place votes and a total of 596 points.
That puts the difference between James in first place and Jokic in third with 164 points. By comparison, Antetokounmpo led James to second place by 152 points in the initial version of last year’s poll. No final MVP vote has seen such a small margin between first and third place since the 1998-99 season shortened by the lockout, when Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan finished 100 points behind MVP winner Karl Malone.
Embiid is having by far the best season of his career, averaging career-best 29.3 points per game, while also shooting career-best from the field (55.3%), 3-point range (39%) and the free throw line (85%) for Philadelphia, which has the best record in the Eastern Conference and is a staggering 15.2 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the court, compared to when he is. seated.
Philadelphia is also 16-3 in games Embiid plays this season and 1-4 in games he doesn’t.
Jokic is currently the only NBA player in the top 10 in points (27.6), rebounds (11.5) and assists (8.6) per game, and briefly led the league in assists, something no center has ever seen. done in the course. a full season since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1968. Jokic and Embiid aim to be the first center to win the NBA MVP award since O’Neal won in 2000.
The depth of the race is reflected in more than just the competition at the top of the ballot. Seven players received at least one first-place vote, more than in any previous edition of the poll. Beyond James, Embiid and Jokic, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant got three first-place votes, while LA Clippers teammates Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each received a first-place vote. place, as does Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
Durant, after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, finished fourth in the vote with 272 points and appeared on 75 ballots, while Leonard (153 points, 64 ballots) finished fifth.
Antetokounmpo, the two-time defending MVP, was a distant sixth, garnering a handful of votes as it seems highly unlikely that he will win for the third time in a row. Doncic, the preseason favorite, received just two third-place votes, as his brilliant statistical resume was easily surpassed by the Mavericks’ disappointing record.
A total of 15 different players received at least one vote, including three players from the same team who obtained at least one vote for the first time in any iteration of this poll.
Center Rudy Gobert and guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley have led the Utah Jazz to the best record in the NBA, but received only a handful of votes (four for Gobert, two for Mitchell and one for Conley), speaking of the nature of set of the team’s success this season. The last team to have three players who received MVP votes in the same season were the 2004-05 Suns (Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion).