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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Jan. 4

Basketball Insiders releases our first MVP rankings of the 2020-21 NBA season, with some surprises high on the board.

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It’s still early in the 2020-21 season, yet there have been amazing performances every night across the NBA. And, because of those performances, fans have started to see which stars are have shone brightest and separated themselves from the pack early in the MVP race.

And so, each week at Basketball Insiders, we will be taking a look at our top candidates for the MVP award — here are a few that caught our attention through the first week of play.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Despite a rollercoaster start to the year, Antetokounmpo is the MVP frontrunner through the first week of play. The Milwaukee Bucks have had a curious start, losing by 20 to the New York Knicks, proceeding to set the NBA record for 3-pointers in a near-50-point win over the Miami HEAT just to lose to the same team the very next day.

And yet, Antetokounmpo has continued to dominate every night while the Bucks’ highs have been high, as evidenced by their record-breaking performance against Miami. Elevated teammate play should help him win more down the stretch and Antetokounmpo will likely push for a triple-double on most nights. It also helps that Antetokounmpo is defending the award in a year where his prime competition hasn’t pushed too far forward quite yet.

2. Stephen Curry

Curry kicked off 2021 with a bang, giving fans the first 50-point game of the season and then some, going off for a career-high 62 points. Entering the game, Curry and the Golden State Warriors appeared to be in a lull despite Curry averaging well over 25 points per contest. Now, with Draymond Green back in action, the Warriors should push for a playoff spot if Curry can continue to go off.

Curry is averaging 32.3 points, 6.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game on 45.8% shooting from the floor. Many across the NBA landscape pointed to the Warriors’ cold start and claimed that Curry couldn’t carry this roster to the playoffs. Clearly, he took notice, and will likely do everything in his power to help muster this team into the postseason.

3. Trae Young

Young has slowed down in the last couple of games, but there’s no denying the sheer impact he has had on turning around the Atlanta Hawks’ culture. The Hawks are 4-2 and Young is averaging 28.2 points and 8.3 assists per game on respectable efficiency.

There are two big tests that will determine the legitimacy of Young’s MVP campaign: the first being whether or not he can win against tougher competition, the second being the consistency with which he can get to the free throw line.

For the first point, three of the four Hawks wins have come against teams that weren’t expected to be very good this year: the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Bulls could feasibly make the play-in tournament in the East, but that’ll be an uphill battle. Detroit is a pleasant surprise with its competitiveness but is still 1-5 while the Grizzlies have been without Jaren Jackson Jr.

The fourth win came from a game against a Brooklyn Nets team that just lost Spencer Dinwiddie and is currently 3-4. If Young can come away from a stretch next week that sees the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns, the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers with numerous wins, it’ll boost his MVP stock tremendously.

As for the second point, Young has struggled with getting to the foul line recently and it has noticeably affected his scoring output. In the first four games, Young averaged over 15 free throw attempts per game and averaged 33 points. In the last two games, however, he’s averaged just four free throw attempts and put up just 18.5 points per game.

Obviously it’s a small sample size. But, if this trend continues, it will affect Young’s MVP eligibility going forward.

4. Joel Embiid

It might be a surprise to some to see Embiid this high. And, while it is early in the season, Embiid has the Philadelphia 76ers tied with the Phoenix Suns for best record in the league. Embiid has been simply unstoppable, finally armed with a roster that suits his skillset.

Embiid is currently averaging 25 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 blocks per game on 53.9% shooting from the floor and a 40% clip from deep. Combine that with the fact that the Sixers are 5-0 when Embiid plays, with their only loss being a 24-point blowout against the Cleveland Cavaliers without him, and his MVP case is rock solid.

It’s still too early in the season to determine whether or not Embiid will remain this high for long, but a different coaching culture and teammates like Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris have helped spark what seems to be a 76ers turnaround after they disappointed last year.

5. James Harden

Harden would likely be higher on this list if the situation regarding his trade demand wasn’t so murky and if he had more games under his belt. Alas, Harden has only appeared in three games due to game postponements and COVID-19 tracing protocols.

When the Rockets are fully healthy, however, the lineup is loaded with its guard and center rotations. Between John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who both look healthy, Harden and Christian Wood, who could legitimately play his way into the All-Star Game if he continues his play, Houston has the players to boost Harden’s case even further.

However, the full lineup has played in just one game together, a three-point win over the Sacramento Kings. And, while Harden has appeared in just three games, he’s still averaged 37 points, 5.3 rebounds and 11 assists per game while shooting a nearly 50/40/90 line — quite impressive to say the least.

Even if Harden gets traded this season, with numbers like these, there’s no way he doesn’t shoot up this ladder as the year goes on.

6. LeBron James

James is obviously timeless and the Los Angeles Lakers don’t appear to be taking any breaks as they boast a 5-2 record with a seemingly improved roster from last season. Gone are Danny Green, Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee and in are Wesley Matthews, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.

This crew is one of the best James has ever played with and he will do everything in his power to capitalize on the strength of one of the deepest teams in the league. James will perennially be in this conversation and will probably move up the ladder as the season goes on.

Honorable Mention: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

While players like Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic and Kevin Durant are sure to rise up these rankings as the season goes on, there’s a pair that deserves mentioning right now: the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — two players that have gone above and beyond for the Celtics to start the year in the absence of Kemba Walker.

The Boston Celtics, much like all other Eastern Conference teams, have struggled to put their best foot forward and sit at a 4-3 record after a near-loss to the Pistons, a team that Boston had already lost to on New Year’s Day.

However, both Tatum and Brown have looked stellar to begin the year, with Tatum knocking in the game-winner against Detroit and Brown hitting his career-high of 42 points against the Grizzlies. Both players are currently averaging what would be career-highs across the board.

Tatum is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists per game with a career-low in fouls per game while Brown is averaging career-highs in points, assists, steals and blocks per game on a ridiculously good 59.8% from the floor and 42.5% clip from deep.

If either of those players’ lines can stand out as the norm, either or both will be in the MVP conversation.

As previously mentioned, it is still early in the season — our ladder could look completely different as soon as next week as a host of different players sit just outside the conversation. That said, be sure to check out next week’s edition to see if any of those guys can garner some serious consideration.

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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