It was just seven weeks ago that this NBA season tipped off, with Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic installed as the betting favorite to win MVP honors.
But, like just about everything else in this pandemic-shortened season, nothing has gone quite to plan.
Doncic’s Mavericks are in 14th place in the Western Conference, opening up the MVP race to a deep field of candidates, and potentially opening a path for LeBron James to win an historic fifth MVP trophy.
After finishing second a season ago to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became the 12th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVP trophies, James is back on top in ESPN’s first MVP straw poll of the season.
To gauge where the race stands at this point in the season, ESPN asked 100 media members to participate in an informal poll that mimics the postseason awards voting. To make the balloting as realistic as possible, there are at least two voters from each of the league’s 28 markets, as well as a cross-section of both national and international reporters.
Like with the NBA’s official vote at the end of season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot, and results were tabulated using the league’s scoring system: 10 points for each first place vote, followed by seven points for second, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.
While James currently has the inside track in his push for a fifth MVP trophy to go with what he hopes will be a fifth NBA championship this summer, garnering 54 of a possible 100 first-place votes, the race to this point in the season is as competitive as any in recent memory, with a pair of centers — Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid and Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic — right on his heels.
Now in his 18th season, the 36-year-old James continues to be remarkably consistent, playing in each of the Lakers’ 25 games thus far and averaging more than 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists for the fifth straight season. James is shooting a career-best 41% from 3-point range. This is the first time since 2013 — the year he won his last MVP award — that James has shot better than 40% from 3. That also was the only season of his career that he reached that mark; he has shot under 37% from 3-point range in each of the past six seasons.
James was named on 99 of 100 ballots and finished with a total of 760 points, leading Embiid (23 first-place votes) by just 95 points. Embiid was the only player named on all 100 ballots. The last MVP race to have a final margin that small came in 2004-05 when Steve Nash edged Shaquille O’Neal by 34 points. Jokic was third, garnering 18 first-place votes and a total of 596 points.
That puts the spread between James in first and Jokic in third at 164 points. By comparison, Antetokounmpo led the second-place James by 152 points in the initial version of last year’s straw poll. No final MVP vote has seen such a small margin between first and third place since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan both finished within 100 points of MVP winner Karl Malone.
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Embiid is having by far the best season of his career, averaging a career-best 29.3 points per game, while also shooting career-bests from the field (55.3%), 3-point range (39%) and the free throw line (85%) for Philadelphia, which has the best record in the Eastern Conference and is a staggering 15.2 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the court, compared to when he sits.
Philadelphia is 16-3 in games Embiid plays this season and 1-4 in games he doesn’t.
Jokic is currently is the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in points (27.6), rebounds (11.5) and assists (8.6) per game, and he briefly led the league in assists — something no center has done over the course of a full season since Wilt Chamberlain did so in 1968. Jokic and Embiid are both aiming to be the first center to win the NBA’s MVP award since O’Neal won in 2000.
The depth of the race is reflected in more than just the competition at the top of the ballot. Seven players received at least one first place vote, more than in any previous edition of the straw poll. Beyond James, Embiid and Jokic, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant got three first-place votes, while LA Clippers teammates Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each received a single first-place vote, as did Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
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Durant, after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles, finished fourth in the voting with 272 points, and appeared on 75 ballots, while Leonard (153 points, 64 ballots) finished fifth.
Antetokounmpo, the two-time defending MVP, was a distant sixth, getting a handful of votes as he appears very unlikely to win a third straight time. Doncic, the preseason favorite, received only two third place votes, as his glossy statistical resume was easily overwhelmed by the Mavericks’ underwhelming record.
A total of 15 different players received at least one vote, including three players from the same team all getting at least one vote for the first time in any iteration of this poll.
Center Rudy Gobert and guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley have led the Utah Jazz to the best record in the NBA but received only a handful of votes (four for Gobert, two for Mitchell and one for Conley), speaking to the ensemble nature of the team’s success this season. The last team to have three players receive MVP votes in the same season was the 2004-05 Suns (Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion).