Awards races drive much of the conversation each year in the NBA, and the 2021-22 campaign is no different. The competition is heating up for Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and even the All-NBA teams, but the Most Valuable Player pursuit is always in the center of the frame. A few candidates have separated themselves to this point in the calendar, but there is still time for shuffling and, more so than any other award, team successes and struggles can also swing the pendulum.
In this space, we’ll take a glance at the candidates as the race stands, with the leaders coming in alphabetical order.
Doesn’t it feel like Antetokounmpo is being overlooked? He has won the MVP award twice, but after a title run and a Finals MVP honor, it could be argued that Giannis is playing the best basketball of his career. He is Milwaukee’s best defender, even on a team with Jrue Holiday, and Antetokounmpo cannot be denied by virtually any opponent on offense. He is averaging more than 29 points and 11 rebounds per game with strong efficiency and catch-all metrics that are clearly uber-elite. Antetokounmpo may suffer from voter fatigue, but he’s a clear MVP candidate.
Curry was the consensus leader early in the process, which was certainly helped by a red-hot start from Golden State in the standings. Bizarrely, the two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion then endured a brutal shooting slump, at least by his standards, in January, and Curry’s numbers aren’t quite what they were in November and December. Still, he is the best shooter on the planet, and opposing defenses must tailor their approach to Curry more so than any other player in the league. Curry is also capable of an explosion that could carry him to the top of the heap but, at the very least, he remains a contender and the top guard in the race.
We’ll get to the other half of the co-favorite duel in a moment, but Embiid was the recent leader in an intriguing straw poll conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. That poll is usually a good indication of voter sentiment and, as usual, Embiid is the sun, moon, and stars for Philadelphia. With more than 29 points per game, Embiid has the highest scoring average of his career, and he is posting easily the best assist numbers since he arrived in Philadelphia. Embiid is also a top-shelf defender and, even with the Ben Simmons saga dragging on for more than half of the season, the Sixers are a top-five seed in the East at the break.
If the Nuggets were in the top two in the West, Jokic would probably the be the consensus leader right now. That says more about how the voting usually works than Jokic’s performance, though, as the Nuggets have been fantastic when he plays and brutal when he sits on the bench. Denver has a +10.1 net rating with Jokic on the floor and that number dips to a hideous -10.6 when he’s off the court, illustrating his value in plain terms. In addition, Jokic has the best statistical profile of any player, leading the league in almost every catch-all metric with top-10 marks in scoring, rebounding and assists. He may not repeat after winning the 2020-21 award, but Jokic has arguably been better this season than he was a year ago, which is remarkable.
DeMar DeRozan – DeRozan leads the NBA in total points at the All-Star break, which is a pretty good place to start. At age 32, he is turning in the best season of his career, and while he isn’t alone in Chicago, DeRozan deserves a ton of credit for the Bulls’ incredibly strong position. He isn’t likely to win the award without an incredible team finish, but DeRozan should be on plenty of ballots.
Luka Doncic – Doncic had an uneven start by his standards, and Dallas was in the wilderness. The Mavericks are back in the top six in the West, though, and Doncic is on quite a run recently. He would need real heroics, along with team success, to compete at the top of the ballot, but we could look back on this season as MVP quality. His latest salvo included 49 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists in the final game before the break.
LeBron James – Would he be on this list if he wasn’t LeBron James? Probably not. Has LeBron James been incredible this season? Yes. He’s averaging 29-8-7 and posting the best true shooting percentage since he joined the Lakers. He’s on the list.
Ja Morant – It’s been a phenomenal season for Memphis at 41-19. That record is impressive under any circumstances, and Morant makes the machine go at the point of attack. He is averaging nearly 27 points and seven assists per game, entertaining crowds each night, and Morant’s superstar status is no longer in question. He could be knocked by Memphis posting a 12-2 record without him, but Morant is the real deal.
Chris Paul or Devin Booker – There is an ongoing debate about who the MVP candidate should be for the Suns, which probably means they don’t have one that can seriously compete. With that said, Phoenix’s backcourt has been unbelievably good, and the Suns have a multi-game lead on the entire NBA field.