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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — March 16

In the latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ MVP ladder, several unexpected contestants have entered the ring. Tristan Tucker takes a look at some of the new faces in the race, as well as Joel Embiid’s injury status.

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With only a handful of games being played since Basketball Insiders’ last MVP ladder, one might think that there would be a lack of shake-ups in the rankings over the All-Star break. That couldn’t be further from the case, as several players are making legitimate cases while others near the top are stagnating.

Furthermore, MVP-frontrunner Joel Embiid suffered a scary injury that will keep him out for an extended period of time, meaning that this race is wide open. Let’s take a look at how the landscape has changed in recent weeks.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Coming out of the All-Star break, the MVP race was Embiid’s to lose, with the center averaging 29.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting a 52.5/42.2/85.9 split. However, his injury will sideline Embiid for at least two weeks, meaning that Embiid could miss out on the award due to a lack of games played, similar to what happened to the generational talent in the 2017 Rookie of the Year award race.

For now, Embiid remains at the top spot — his play has been that unbelievable. The Philadelphia 76ers still sit atop the Eastern Conference, now in the midst of a five-game win streak. The best of such wins came against the NBA-leading Utah Jazz, a game in which Embiid put up a whopping 40 points and 19 rebounds.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 2)

The Denver Nuggets have won five of their last six games, headed by the outstanding play of Jokic. “The Joker” is averaging 30 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game since the last MVP ladder and has upped his shooting percentages to a near-50/40/90 line, an elusive club that only eight NBA players have ever reached.

Jokic has arguably played better than anyone else in the NBA this season. The only thing holding him back from the top spot was the previous lackluster play of Denver. However, the Nuggets are now the fifth seed in the west and just 3.5 games back of the second-place Phoenix Suns.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 3)

There’s an interesting dilemma with James in the MVP race, as the Los Angeles Lakers continue to stagnate without Anthony Davis. On one hand, James’ season averages are astonishing — 25.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game — but, on the other, James’ Lakers are struggling as of late.

In James’ best game during this stretch, a 38-point outing, the Lakers lost by 10 to the Suns. In Los Angeles’ recent four-game losing streak, James put up his usual stat line but shot an abysmal 17.2 percent from deep on over seven attempts per game.

With Davis expected out for as long as Embiid, the Lakers look to be going all-in on the buyout market or lower-cost trade targets. That said, in the wake of Embiid’s injury, look for James to gear up in his pursuit to win MVP at age 36 with a bolstered roster after the trade deadline.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 6)

Don’t look now, but here comes “The Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo has the Milwaukee Bucks back on track, with the team winning eight of its last nine games after seeing a five-game losing streak. During that stretch, Antetokounmpo averaged 32 points, 12.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 57.4 percent from the floor.

Antetokounmpo might not ultimately win the award, but the fact that he’s a frontrunner for the third year in a row is telling of the generational talent that he is.

5. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Harden is skyrocketing up MVP ladders with the scorching-hot Brooklyn Nets. The star guard has not only kept the Nets competitive without Kevin Durant, but made them outright dominant. Brooklyn has shockingly only lost one game since Feb. 10, with Harden averaging 26.8 points, 10.6 assists, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 41.4 percent from three in that time.

Harden’s efforts, along with the stellar play of teammate Kyrie Irving, have Brooklyn at 26-13, second in the Eastern Conference. It’s easy to see how Harden’s impact is significant, as he leads the league in assists per game while setting up his teammates with ease. Look no further than Bruce Brown Jr., whose play has elevated in the wake of Harden’s arrival in Brooklyn.

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Previous: NR)

Like many others on the ladder this week, Doncic is making a late case for MVP, with the Dallas Mavericks primed for a huge second-half run. The Mavericks are 11-3 in their last 14 games, now firmly in the playoff picture. In that span, Doncic is averaging 30 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists. Even more impressive is the fact that Doncic is shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc on 8.8 attempts per game in those games.

Doncic was the preseason MVP favorite for many, but the Mavericks got out to a disappointing start. With Dallas at 20-17, Doncic’s numbers are among the best in the league in recent weeks and his own improvement has led to marked turnarounds by his teammates, namely Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Richardson.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: NR)

Several players are deserving of spots on the MVP ladder, with Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard all with legitimate cases to be top five. Then there’s Utah’s star tandem of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, who have the Jazz in the driver’s seat of the NBA. Meanwhile, Chris Paul has a more complete argument for inclusion than many might think.

However, there’s not an MVP conversation if Jimmy Butler isn’t in it. Butler has played less than other members on this board, which precludes him from being any higher, but it isn’t by a significant margin. 

In the 19 games since returning to play, Butler is averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 assists, 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game while the HEAT are 14-5 in those games. For proof of how Butler has elevated Miami’s play, just watch the team’s most recent win against the Orlando Magic.

Ultimately, Butler’s games played will have him on the outside looking in for the rest of the year, but there aren’t many players that impact their teams in the way that Butler does.

Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for all of the latest NBA news and rumors, especially with the trade deadline approaching!

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

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