Analysis: Amid a wide-open playoff race, a wide-open NBA MVP race might be brewing as well


The new rule that rendered Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid ineligible for a second consecutive NBA MVP award because he’s missing too many games has the potential to create something the league hasn’t seen in almost two decades.

That would be a wide-open MVP race.

Steve Nash won the MVP award for the 2005-06 season with only 46% of the first-place votes, marking the last time somebody won the NBA’s top individual honor without having his name atop more than half of the ballots.

The winner in every season since has gotten at least 50% of the first-place votes — and Stephen Curry even got 100% when he was MVP in 2016. This year sure seems like it could go differently, with several players in the realistic mix coming out of the All-Star break.

“There’s a lot of guys,” Boston forward Jaylen Brown said. “Who knows what the actual criteria is, to how it goes. I’ve had questions about a lot of different things that goes into stuff. But, you know, I guess we’ll see.”

Denver’s Nikola Jokic certainly could end up with the award for the third time in four years. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo may be in the mix for his third MVP as well. Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was fifth last season and should be higher this year. Dallas’ Luka Doncic will likely be on plenty of ballots. If the Los Angeles Clippers keep playing the way they have been over the last couple months, don’t be surprised if a case gets made for Kawhi Leonard.

“Kawhi should definitely be in that conversation,” Clippers forward Paul George said. “But there’s a lot of guys. You talk about Shai, you talk about Luka, you talk about Jokic. There’s a lot of guys out West and even out East, there’s a lot of guys doing a hell of a job representing their team.”

Brown believes his Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum should be atop the MVP list. It’s a reasonable argument; Tatum is the best player on the team with the best record in the league and his averages of 27 points, nearly nine rebounds and nearly five assists per game certainly merit award consideration. A player has finished a season with those averages 26 times over the years; of those, nine have won that season’s MVP award.

Except this season, there are at least two other players — Doncic and Antetokoumpo — averaging that many points, rebounds and assists. Embiid was as well before he got hurt; it’s unclear when or if he’ll be back, but even if he does return he won’t be eligible for the MVP and probably won’t meet the threshold to rank among statistical leaders, either.

Part of the challenge of selecting an MVP is this: There’s no absolute definition. To some, it might mean “best player.” To others, it might mean “most valuable to his team.” And if that’s the case, it might be time to look at Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell.

The Cavs are an NBA-best 23-5 since mid-December. They’re currently No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, when probably very few thought they’d be there. Mitchell is averaging 28.4 points, 6.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals – all career-highs.

He wants to be MVP. He knows he doesn’t get mentioned. He can’t figure out why.

“I feel like the work shows for itself. I’m not one to go out there and vocalize,” Mitchell said. “Just want to go out there and do it. Ultimately, it’s not up to me. At the end of the day, they don’t put my name in there. They don’t want to. I’m just going to continue to play the level I’m playing at.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is leading another surprise story in Oklahoma City. The Thunder haven’t won a playoff series since 2016; right now, they’re No. 2 in the West thanks in large part to the Canadian guard with averages of 31.1 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.

The only person to finish a season with all those averages: Michael Jordan, who did it 1988-89 – but didn’t win MVP that season. Go figure.

“He is more in the MVP race, I think, than people realize,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “I mean, this is something special.”

Gilgeous-Alexander said he’s just going to keep blocking out any noise about awards or playoffs or anything besides who the Thunder play next.

“For me, it’s not any more difficult,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think I’ve learned through experience — and obviously as a young kid it’s easy to get caught up in it, just going back to high school and rankings and things like that. I’ve just found so much success from, not blocking it out, but not letting it faze me or control me.”

So, there’s a playoff race. There’s also an MVP race. Often by this time, it’s pretty easy to say that this guy or that guy will win. That’s not the case right now, and it only might get more muddled the rest of the way.

Which would be a great thing.

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this story.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba



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