NBA

2020-21 NBA MVP Ladder: Nikola Jokic cements himself as front-runner

It's been over a month since we last checked in on the MVP race.

Quite a lot has changed since then.

Most notably: Joel Embiid and LeBron James, who have occupied the top two spots in our MVP ladder all season long, have been sidelined with injury.

Embiid is expected to return to the lineup this weekend, but he's now appeared in only 31 of Philadelphia's 48 games this season. And while LeBron has missed only seven games this season, he's not expected to return for at least another couple of weeks from the ankle injury he suffered on March 21.

As always, this was a collaborative effort between four members of our NBA.com Staff: Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay), Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_), Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21) and myself (@crabdribbles). We each sent in our top-five for MVP right now and used a point system - one point for a first-place vote, two points for a second-place vote, three points for a third-place vote and so on - to come up with the following list.

Let's get to it.

MORE: James Harden is playing mind games with defenders

On the outside looking in

All four of us had Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden in some order on our ballots.

The only other player who received a vote? Chris Paul, who landed in fifth place on one ballot.

With averages of 15.9 points, 8.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, Paul has played a leading role in Phoenix's turnaround. Many expected the Suns to end their playoff drought this season, but few saw them competing for the top seed in the Western Conference. At 33-14, they currently trail the Utah Jazz by only three games.

Others worthy of consideration: Embiid, Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker and Rudy Gobert.

5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Highest rank: 5

Lowest rank: Not ranked

LeBron was building a strong MVP case prior to his ankle injury. His numbers are down slightly from last season, but he's still averaging an efficient 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game on a Lakers team that was flirting with the best record in the NBA, even with Anthony Davis missing extended time. It'll be interesting to see how much ground he can make up in the race when he returns.

The same goes for Embiid, who shouldn't be counted out just yet.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Highest rank: 4

Lowest rank: 4

Antetokounmpo is having another absurd season. His averages of 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals per game are almost identical to what he posted in his back-to-back MVP seasons. The Bucks haven't been quite as dominant, but they're still in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, sitting three games behind the Brooklyn Nets in first place and 2.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers in second as of this writing.

If Antetokounmpo were to win a third straight MVP, he'd become only the fourth player in NBA history to do so, joining Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Highest rank: 2

Lowest rank: 3

Almost half of Portland's games this season have been decided in the clutch. Their record in those games? 21-7.

Lillard has been the driving force in their success in those situations, leading the league in clutch scoring while shooting 38-for-68 (55.9 percent) from the field, 16-for-36 (44.4 percent) from 3-point range and a perfect 43-for-43 from the free-throw line.

Lillard's play has the Blazers in position to make a push for a top-four seed in the Western Conference despite them being down two starters in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season. Now healthy, the Blazers are primed to end the season on a strong note.

2. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

Highest rank: 2

Lowest rank: 3

Harden recently recorded his 12th triple-double as a member of the Nets, tying him with Jason Kidd for the most triple-doubles in a single season in franchise history.

Not bad considering Harden has appeared in only 33 games with the Nets.

Harden has stepped up in a big way in the 21 games (and counting) Kevin Durant has missed with a hamstring injury, averaging 28.4 points, 10.9 assists, 9.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals. The Nets are 18-3 in those games, helping them climb to No. 1 in the Eastern Conference standings for the first time since 2003.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Highest rank: 1

Lowest rank: 1

It's unanimous.

We've had Jokic at third in our MVP ladder all season long, but the injuries to Embiid and LeBron have opened the door for him to establish himself as the favourite to win the award. Not only is he having one of the most unique seasons we've ever seen - he's averaging a near triple-double with 26.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game while knocking on the door of the 50-40-90 club - the Nuggets are starting to look more like the team that made the Western Conference Finals again.

Jokic continues to lead the way in just about every advanced statistic and ranks No. 1 in Basketball Reference's MVP tracker by a mile.

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