Here’s how the Most Valuable
Player voting process works: Late in the season, a select group of
NBA writers and broadcasters will receive e-mails from the league
office telling them they have been chosen to cast ballots for
postseason awards. Those ballots are due back at noon ET the day
after the season ends.
And then the wait begins, unless
it is obvious who is going to win the award, as it is with LaMelo
Ball and Rookie of the Year.
In a typical season, those who
vote would gather with their colleagues at media work rooms in NBA
arenas and debate the relative merits of the top candidates. Some
writers and broadcasters would seek input from the scouts and
assistant coaches they speak to at the arenas.
But this year is different,
because most everybody who will be voting is working remotely. Face
time no longer exists (and no, Zoom does not qualify as
actual face time), which means each individual voter
is on an island somewhat. If they want to kick around a few ideas
with colleagues, there are not many opportunities to do so together
over a cup of coffee.
Such is life as an NBA writer in
a pandemic. The social distancing that sometimes leads to social
isolation is going to impact the voting this season. Exactly how
remains to be seen, but the guess here is that a groundswell will
build up around one or two players who start getting touted hard by
somebody big in the national media, such as a Stephen A. Smith or a
Dwyane Wade or a Kenny Smith or a Marv Albert or a Jeff Van
It will be interesting to see
whether the league issues ballots to Smith or Shaquille O’Neal of
Turner Sports, both of whom now have potential conflicts of
interest because they have signed deals with FanDuel, which takes
wagers on who will win each award.
Joel Embiid of Philadelphia was
having an MVP-worthy season before getting injured Friday night,
is no longer the favorite. That spot is now held by LeBron James, who
plays for the third-best team in the West as of this particular
Sunday. His statistics in most categories are about the same as
they were last season, with the exception of assists, which have
dropped from 10.2 to 7.8.
Some folks are making note of
the fact that James, 36, has not won the award since 2012-13, which
somehow just doesn’t seem right, which is true.
But is that going to be the
operative thought in the minds of enough voters to win him the
award? That he’s overdue?
Only time will tell, but an
outside-the-box thinker could make the case that Julius Randle has
been more valuable to the Knicks than James has been to the Lakers
when you factor in where preseason expectations were
The same case can be made for a
half-dozen players, and there are another half-dozen whose teams
are one 10-game winning streak away from having frontrunner status
for awards including Coach of the Year, Most Improved Award and
This season’s MVP winner will be determined by what happens
between now and the end of the regular season in the third week of
May. The race is more wide-open than many would have you
So while there could be as many as 10 legitimate candidates,
let’s keep it at LeBron plus the five guys who are the most in the
mix, their biggest pros and cons and their individual
LeBron James, Lakers:
Pros: He keeps everyone
interested every time he plays and every time he speaks. He is the
Michael Jordan of his time.
Cons: He is missing 31.1% of his
The best thing he has working in
his favor is a magic touch with many members of the national media
who have covered the league for a long time. Some of them voted for
him last season when he was gaining ground on Antetokounmpo before
the season was brought to a halt. We also can assume he will get
the fan vote, because he is the most popular player in the league.
After tonight, his Lakers have only one more road trip this month,
but will have measuring stick games against Phoenix, Philadelphia
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets:
Pros: The Joker is a
one-of-a-kind point center who is the only guy showing up on a
nightly basis for a team that has a talented, yet inconsistent
Cons: His team is just six games
over. 500 and in sixth place in the West.
The Nuggets just went 5-0 on a
five-game road trip, and Jokic has had one 50-point game, three
40-point games and nine triple-doubles. He is a worthy contender,
but he is not beloved by the American media the same way LeBron is,
and it will be an uphill battle for him to win. The Nuggets will
play 7 of their next 9 against teams from the East, beginning
tonight against the Pacers -- assuming the epic snowstorm in Denver
does not force a postponement. They need a surge for Jokic to have
a snowball’s chance in hell.
Joel Embiid, Sixers:
Pros: He is second in the NBA in
scoring at 29.9 points per game, and his shooting percentages are
vastly improved across the board for the East’s first-place team.
His overall field goal percentage is up nearly five percentage
points to 52.5%, and his three-point shooting has jumped from 33.1%
Cons: He has a knee injury that
will sideline him at least two weeks, and he has missed seven other
games for a variety of reasons including contact with a
The major question is how long
his knee injury (the team is calling it a bone bruise) will keep
him sidelined. But if it is only three weeks and he can pick up
where he left off, he could quickly go back to being the No. 1
candidate – especially if the Sixers can stay ahead of the Nets
during his absence, which will not be easy during a six-game road
trip that runs from March 21 through April 1. A good night to
target for his return is April 3 at home against Minnesota, the
first of a back-to-back in which he can test himself first against
Karl Anthony-Towns and then against Jonas Valanciunas the next
night vs. Memphis. He will have to play enough games to
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks:
Pros: He has six triple-doubles,
he can still go the length of the court and dunk with two dribbles,
he went 16-for-16 in the All-Star game and his team has won 8 of
Cons: His Bucks are not playing
at the same knock-everyone-out (except Miami) level that they were
at this time a little more than a year ago. Voters have not made
anyone an MVP in three straight seasons since Larry Bird in
1985-86 and will not do it
for the Greek Freak unless his team finishes atop the East – and
maybe not even then.
Think of all the great players
who have passed through the league since Bird was in his heyday.
Not even Jordan could win three in a row, and many voters
acknowledged that they voted for Karl Malone over Jordan in 1996-97
as sort of a “career appreciation” vote. (Jordan took offense and
used it as motivation in the NBA Finals.) The Bucks will be on ESPN
four times over the remainder of this month, and they are only two
games behind the Sixers in the loss column. But it would still take
something extraordinary to get a majority of voters to put him
first on their ballots for a third straight year.
James Harden, Nets:
Pros: He has taken over
leadership of the offense for a very dangerous Brooklyn Nets team,
recording nine triple-doubles in 33 games. Only Russell Westbrook
Cons: Some voters will hold it
against him that he forced a trade out of Houston and in turn, made
life difficult for Stephen Silas, John Wall, P.J. Tucker and every
other Rocket not named Kevin Porter Jr.
At the same time, Harden has
never won the award and was a strong candidate over the past
several seasons in Houston, and it is to his credit that he has
altered his game in Brooklyn to suit the personnel around him,
replacing Kyrie Irving as the de facto point guard and helping the
Nets survive the prolonged absence of Kevin Durant. They have won
12 of 13 heading into tonight’s game against the Knicks, and Harden
leads the NBA in assists with 11 per game.
There are others who could make a case for themselves over the
remainder of the season, but their teams will have to go nuts in
the overachievement department to get them into the MVP
conversation. Those players include Luka Doncic of the Mavs, Damian
Lillard of the Trail Blazers, Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz, Chris
Paul and Devin Booker of the Suns, Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers
and Jimmy Butler of the Heat.
As noted above, a 10-game winning streak could bring some new
names into the MVP debate.
For now, we have to consider LeBron a guy that has to be knocked
off the leaderboard. We shall see who is capable.