NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Feb. 1

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The NBA season is full-steam ahead, with several players putting up excellent cases for an MVP selection. Two notable centers are currently leading the charge while a handful of former MVPs are trailing close behind. Let’s take a closer look at Basketball Insiders’ third MVP ladder of the season.

1. Nikola Jokic (Previous: 2)

Jokic is the MVP frontrunner a little over a quarter of the way through the season and so far only one other player is challenging for that throne. He’s having a season that not many before him have had, averaging 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game fresh off a 47-point outing in which the Denver Nuggets ended the Utah Jazz’s 11-game win streak.

“The Joker’s” 1.8 steals are almost unheard of for the position, as he’s the only center in the league that ranks in the top-10 in that area. Combine that with his 57.4 percent shooting from the floor and his 38.4 percent mark from downtown and you have an All-Star guard in Jokic’s 6-foot-11 body that was built to play center.

What further aids Jokic’s case for MVP is his team’s play over the last two weeks, including their impressive win over the surging Jazz. The Nuggets also notched back-to-back overtime wins against the Phoenix Suns as well as big wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Miami HEAT. The Nuggets will take on the Los Angeles Lakers twice, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics in their next seven games, setting up a way for Jokic to cement himself as the frontrunner for MVP for the foreseeable future.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: 4)

Embiid and Jokic are revitalizing the center position after years without true dominant center competition. Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers have looked rejuvenated under head coach Doc Rivers, while multiple players have either seen a resurgance or broken out. However, the 7-foot Cameroonian center is having himself a season for the ages and is the primary reason the 76ers have seen so much success this season.

Embiid is averaging a career-high 28.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks to go along with his most efficient shooting season by far, at 54.4 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from deep.

What’s even more telling as to Embiid’s importance to Philadelphia is his plus-23 net rating on the year. The 76ers are 1-4 when Embiid doesn’t play and would be 0-5 if not for a late rally against the Indiana Pacers in the team’s last game. When Embiid does play, Philadelphia is 14-2, their only losses coming against the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets.

3. LeBron James (Previous: 1)

James, somehow, has been nothing short of dominant in his 18th season.. He’s averaging 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists and shooting a career-high 41.3 percent from three on nearly seven attempts per game. Furthermore, the Western Conference is the Los Angeles Lakers’ to lose with James and Anthony Davis leading the way — they look like the undisputed best team in the league once more.

James, regardless of his age, will perennially be in the MVP conversation, but this season’s outing is one of the most impressive of his career.

4. Kevin Durant (Previous: 3)

Kevin Durant would undoubtedly win the Comeback Player of the Year Award if it was still around, as he’s averaging 30.9 points per game, good for second in the NBA, on incredible shooting figures just one season removed from a usually devastating Achilles tear. Very rarely is a player able to come back and be a decent NBA player, let alone look the same or, arguably, even more dominant.

The last time Durant averaged over 30 points in a season was the 2013-14 season when he was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his MVP season. As long as Durant is scoring like he is, even next to Kyrie Irving and James Harden, he’ll be right in this race.

5. Kawhi Leonard (Previous: Not Ranked)

In our last edition of the MVP ladder, Leonard’s teammate Paul George held this spot, and the two allies are neck-and-neck. Leonard gets the nod this week with three back-to-back 30 point outings before he and George were forced to miss time due to the NBA’s COVID-19 tracing protocols.

Alongside George upon their return, Leonard helped push the Los Angeles Clippers to huge wins over the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks. He’s averaging 25.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists. If the season ended today, Leonard would also become a member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club.

It’s a coin flip as to who between George and Leonard will go off each game — while Leonard has staying power, expect to see George quickly climb back into these rankings as well.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 6)

The Milwaukee Bucks are in the middle of a two-game losing streak, but it isn’t the fault of Antetokounmpo, who put up a line of 34 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists in a 12-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets and 38 points with 11 rebounds against the New Orleans Pelicans, a five-point loss.

What’s preventing “The Greek Freak” from being atop the MVP ladder is overall team success and a slight shooting regression from deep. If he can turn his shot around and the rest of the team can step up behind him, Antetokounmpo should shoot up these rankings in future weeks.

Be sure to check out Basketball Insiders’ next MVP ladder update in a couple of weeks, as many players like Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Golden State’s Stephen Curry and the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard are pushing for spots on the ladder by the day.