Three things to know: Breaking down tiers of NBA MVP race this season

1) Breaking down the tiers of the NBA MVP race so far this season
Let’s start with the caveat: It is way too early to have this conversation. With nearly three-quarters of the season left, what you see below and what is on my MVP ballot after the season could be very, very different.

That said, the race seems to be shaking out into tiers. To me, four players would have to be on the ballot (which goes five deep). Then the field opens up. However, as noted, with three-quarters of the season left, players will move up and down this ladder.

Here is where I see the MVP race right now.

• Top Tier: LeBron James and Joel Embiid

To win MVP, a player traditionally has to check off a few boxes. LeBron James checks the boxes.

First, it takes numbers. How about 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game, while shooting 41.3% from three. Check. Second, it takes being the best player on a team with one of the conference’s top three records. Check. And finally, it takes having a good narrative. Not only a check, this is where LeBron pulls away — he is the best player on the planet; he came in second in MVP voting a year ago but then stepped up in the playoffs and led his team to a title, and along the way reminded everyone he should have more MVP awards. LeBron will be the default choice for a lot of voters. So long as he and the Lakers don’t take their foot off the gas and coast through a long stretch of the season, LeBron will be near the top of every MVP list.

Joel Embiid would get my vote if I had to cast it today. He’s got the numbers — 28.3 points and 11.1 rebounds a game — and he’s the best player on the team sitting on top of the East standings. What would win it for me is Embiid’s defense, he is the anchor and heart of the fourth-best defense in the league (LeBron’s Lakers have a better defense, but Anthony Davis is the lynchpin there). What could hurt Embiid with voters is he does not have that narrative that stretches back to last playoffs. His story is about lifting the Sixers to a new level so far this season, but that story has many authors (it could win Doc Rivers Coach of the Year). Still, if Embiid stays healthy and plays like this all season, he is in the mix.

• Next tier, but will their team win enough: Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic

Kevin Durant has not missed a beat — he is playing like the pre-Achilles Durant who, for my money, was the best player walking the face of the earth for a couple of years (while in Golden State he outplayed LeBron in the Finals). That comeback narrative goes a long way, and KD has the numbers: 30.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game (and his advanced numbers are not far back of Embiid and LeBron). Brooklyn currently sits second in the East, but they have played dreadful defense since the James Harden trade, and voters notice things like ugly losses to Washington. That said, if Brooklyn can hold their spot near the top of the East, Durant has to be in the conversation.

Nikola Jokic is no longer averaging a triple-double for the season, but his numbers — 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 8.6 assists a game, while shooting 38.4% from three — all done incredibly efficiently put him in the conversation. Two things hold his candidacy back. First, his defense is not as good as the people above him on this list (and Denver’s defense is bottom 10 in the league). The other is wins. Denver started slow (and was a bit unlucky) but has strung together some quality wins of late, including ending the Jazz’s 11-game win streak. If Denver is a top three (or top four but very close) team in the West, Jokic has a shot.

• Third tier: Other players who could vault into the race

After those top four players, the field opens up considerably.

Other players who have played their way into consideration early include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George (George started fast, but Leonard has been better of late). They all will be in the mix if they can fill in the holes in their resumes this season. Not all of their teams will finish in the top half of their conference (Lillard and Curry could be hurt here), while others will have a strong season but may not live up to expectations (Antetokounmpo and Doncic). That said, there’s a lot of season left for these players to change their narrative and vault up into the upper reaches of this race.

2) Jokic’s MVP case? Ask Utah about the 47 he dropped on it Sunday
Utah came into Denver with the best record in the NBA and riding an 11-game win streak fueled in part by Rudy Gobert playing like his Defensive Player of the Year self so far.

Jokic blew that up — 47 points (tying a career high), four threes, with 12 rebounds and five assists.

Big games on the biggest stage is how you get in the MVP conversation. Denver got the win, 128-117.

That Jokic — and Embiid — are getting MVP mentions despite playing center speaks to what an amazing season both are having. Center has become a devalued position in the NBA, with some teams playing an undersized four in the role to get more floor spacing. Jokic and Embiid not only fly in the face of that trend, but they have also been phenominal. Games like Sunday against Utah are a reminder of just what a special player Jokic is.

3) Russell Westbrook game-winning three hands Brooklyn a crushing loss
Kyrie Irving calmly drained his free throws putting Brooklyn ahead five, 146-141, with 12.3 seconds remaining. The game is in the bag…

Except then Bradley Beal races the ball up court and quickly drains a deep three. All Brooklyn has to do is get the ball inbounds and get fouled, but Joe Harris tried to inbound the ball to the space Durant was cutting out of, the Wizards grab the ball, and Russell Westbrook from three is your game-winner.

Huge win for the Wizards, who needed one desperately.

For Brooklyn, it just gave up 146 points to the Wizards.

The Nets since the Harden trade:

122.6 offensive rating
– Best in league
– Would be the best of all time

119.9 defensive rating
– Worst in league
– Would be the worst of all time pic.twitter.com/B5EbhfuEzH

— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 1, 2021

It’s title or bust in Brooklyn, and that defense will bust them if something isn’t done to shore it up.