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LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard

LeBron James, Joel Embiid injuries thrust new favorite for MVP trophy

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James suffered a high ankle sprain on Saturday in their game against the Atlanta Hawks and is reportedly out indefinitely. James’ ankle injury is going to drive the wedge even further into the MVP conversation this season, especially after fellow MVP candidate Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers went down last week with a knee injury. The Sixers superstar big man reportedly suffered a deep bone bruise and will still miss at least another week.

Being available on the floor is one of the factors that determines the season MVP. With two of the early-season favorites in James and Embiid out due to their respective injuries, a short list of contenders should emerge as the second half of the 2020-21 NBA season rolls on.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

With Embiid’s injury, Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic finally nabbed the top spot on NBA.com’s Kia MVP Ladder this past week and has become the new betting favorite. He has been a monster this season, averaging 27.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.6 assists while shooting an insane 56.6 percent from the field.

The Joker often gets off to a slow start to begin the regular season, but that wasn’t the case this 2020-21 campaign. His foot has been on the gas pedal since the beginning of the season and doesn’t appear to be letting off of it. One of the cons for Jokic’s MVP candidacy could be the Nuggets’ record as a result of their slow start to the season. However, it’s hard to give negative points for the three-time All-Star on this since his Herculean efforts early in the year kept Denver afloat in the brutal Western Conference, and at this point the record is barely an issue.

The Nuggets are currently tied for fifth in the West standings and have won eight of their last nine outings. If Nikola Jokic continues to power Denver to one of the top seeds in the conference, we could just see Big Honey lift the Maurice Podoloff Trophy by season’s end.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard’s efforts have thrust him near the top of the MVP ladder. Dame Time has been on full throttle this season, as the 30-year-old superstar continues to come through for Portland in the clutch.

Needless to say, Lillard has been spectacular all season for the Blazers. He is averaging 30.6 points, the second-best scoring average in the league, to go along with 4.5 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game. He has scored the most clutch points in the NBA this season (128) and is shooting nearly 60 percent in those situations, powering Portland to an 18-6 clutch record.

Adding to Lillard’s case is the fact that two of the Blazers’ top players in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have missed significant time this season. Despite their absence, the six-time All-Star has managed to keep the Blazers in the mix of the Western Conference bloodbath.

Damian Lillard has long deserved recognition as one of the best players in the NBA. Perhaps this could be the year he gets rewarded with the most prestigious individual prize in the league.

James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

It didn’t seem possible at the beginning of the year, but James Harden has slowly emerged as a legitimate consideration for MVP this season. In 28 games so far with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden, who leads the NBA in assists, is averaging 25.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 11.4 assists.

MVP voters will likely give him negative points for his ugly exit with the Houston Rockets. Some may have completely written him off as an MVP option because of how that situation went down. However, it’s hard to ignore just how elite he has been since joining the Nets. Harden has thrived as the primary playmaker for the Nets and deserves recognition for leading them to just a game behind the top-seeded Sixers.

Since coming to Brooklyn, Harden has been the only one consistently available among the Nets’ prized Big Three. Kevin Durant has been out due to a hamstring injury,  and Brooklyn is understandably continuing to exercise caution on his recovery. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving, who is thriving in his role as the “shooting guard,” has been in and out of the lineup. It may be far-fetched, but the case is there for James Harden to nab his second MVP trophy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Having won the last two MVPs, Giannis Antetokounmpo figures to suffer from voter fatigue this 2020-21 season. Add the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been as dominant in the regular season as they have been over the previous couple of seasons, and there wasn’t a lot of MVP love for much of the season for Antetokounmpo to bag his third straight.

However, Antetokounmpo now finds himself in the MVP mix once again, especially with the way he has been playing over the last month. The Bucks are rolling right now, having won 10 of their last 11 contests with their two-time MVP looking as dominant as ever. Over this stretch, Giannis is averaging 31.9 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 6.9 assists while shooting 58.1 percent from the field.

Antetokounmpo definitely looks like he is playing more freely this season, with less pressure on him on a nightly basis. If Giannis continues to power the Bucks to the top of the East (they are just 1.5 games behind the top-seeded Sixers), it would be hard for voters to sway away from The Greek Freak.

Wild race to the finish

Looking at the rest of the field, there are definitely other deserving players that could emerge as an MVP candidate, especially with the standings looking really tight.

Kawhi Leonard has always steadily produced superstar numbers for the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite his team’s inconsistency, they’re still in the thick of the Western Conference bloodbath.

Luka Doncic is doing a magnificent job leading the surging Dallas Mavericks, as they look to ascend the West standings following a bout with injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols during the first half of the season.

Stephen Curry, who is currently out with a tailbone injury, has done his own Herculean efforts to keep the Golden State Warriors afloat and within the playoff mix. However, his team’s position in the standings will likely dampen his shot at his third MVP.

Jimmy Butler, who missed 10 straight games after contracting the coronavirus, may get some love with the way he has led the Miami Heat to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference since returning to the floor. After a promising run to the Finals last year, Miami began the season extremely slow without Butler’s leadership on the court.

Of course, we still can’t instantly remove LeBron James and Joel Embiid out of the race completely. Should the two superstars return to their elite forms when they come back from their respective injuries, they could still regain their place on the MVP ladder.

This figures to be a wild ride to the finish for the 2020-21 NBA MVP race.