MVP Race: Kawhi Leonard makes leap into Top 3

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Frank Urbina
·12 min read
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As we approach the final month of the season, the MVP race is holding more or less steady at the very top – for now, anyway – but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for a player to make a run at the award for the 2020-21 season.

A great example of that takes place this week, with a certain player on the West coast making a huge leap into the Top 3 of our ranking in this part of our ongoing series.

Below, you can check out the Top 15 players in our MVP rankings for 2020-21, as voted on by our entire team at HoopsHype.

Nikola Jokic (Denver)

The Denver Nuggets appeared headed for their ninth straight win on Sunday when, in the third quarter against the Boston Celtics, head coach Michael Malone went to an all-bench lineup for a long stretch, allowing Boston to go on an unfathomable 40-8 run to close the contest – a 105-87 defeat for Denver. The game also featured some clear frustration out of Nikola Jokic, who was seen yelling at officials in the fourth quarter and eventually pulled by Malone with 4:30 remaining. Jokic didn't seem too happy to be sat down with the game still somewhat in the balance: https://twitter.com/GwashburnGlobe/status/1381356012976791554?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1381356012976791554%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fhoopshype.com%2Fplayer%2Fnikola-jokic%2F Regardless, after the game, Malone said Jokic was benched in order to rest him in what's a busy part of Denver's schedule: https://twitter.com/TimBontemps/status/1381360722375024640 Ugly weekend defeat aside, Jokic remains our frontrunner for MVP at this point, something backed up by Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48), all advanced metrics which rank Jokic as the top player in the NBA this campaign. For the latest Nikola Jokic rumors, click here.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)

Reigning two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has now missed five games to nurse a sore left knee, so don't be surprised to see him slip in these rankings next week if he doesn't return soon. Prior to being forced to sit, Antetokounmpo was putting up monstrous numbers, averaging 28.8 points (fourth-highest mark in the league), 11.4 rebounds (No. 8 in the NBA), 6.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game – marks very similar to his two MVP seasons. Nevertheless, Antetokounmpo will have to return soon if he's to make a legit run at MVP for this season, though the Milwaukee Bucks are obviously being wise in their cautiousness with their superstar's return. For the latest Giannis Antetokounmpo rumors, click here.

Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

The reasons for Kawhi Leonard taking such a leap this week in our rankings (he'd never been higher than fifth in this series prior to this edition) are twofold: First, the Los Angeles Clippers are playing at a very high level, winning five games in a row and sitting third league-wide in net rating for the year (+6.8). Second, Leonard himself has been brilliant individually lately, averaging 25.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.7 steals on elite 53.1/43.2/90.9 shooting splits over his previous 10 games before sitting out Sunday's Clippers game for rest. Although Leonard is a free agent this offseason, the latest reports indicate that people around the league 'widely expect' the star wing to re-sign with the Clippers without much drama, though one has to suppose another ugly playoff defeat in a couple of months could change that some. We'll have to wait and see. For the latest Kawhi Leonard rumors, click here.

Damian Lillard (Portland)

Damian Lillard has slowed down a bit recently, shooting 38.4 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from three over his last six outings, and that's been reflected in the Portland Trail Blazers' recent record, with the team losing four times over that stretch. Lillard expressed some frustration recently with how Portland performs against the league's best teams (via The Athletic):

“When we play against the top-level teams, we don’t play well,” Lillard said. “We get put away. At Phoenix, we got put away. Tonight, we got put away. At Denver, we got put away. Milwaukee at home, put away. Clippers, got put away. I mean, it’s not like it’s a small sample size. It’s what happens.”

What's more, Lillard said that before the Blazers got blown out at home by the Miami Heat on Sunday night, who aren't even really a top-level team overall this season. Regardless, for Lillard to have Portland this comfortably within the playoff picture as we approach the home stretch of the campaign despite how many injuries they've had warrants MVP consideration in and of itself. For the latest Damian Lillard rumors, click here.

Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)

All things considered, Joel Embiid has been great since returning from his knee injury, averaging 25.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks over the four games since he's come back, three of which were wins for the Philadelphia 76ers. One area where he's struggling badly, however, is with his outside shooting. Prior to getting hurt, Embiid was knocking down jumpers immaculately, hitting 42.2 percent of his threes, a scary number for a big man who is so dominant as is down low. But since returning, Embiid has hit just one of his 14 three-point attempts, a 7.1 percent success rate. Embiid says his shooting struggles partly have to do with the brace he has to wear right now, which hampers his game overall: https://twitter.com/DerekBodnerNBA/status/1381103357528526848 Embiid should get back on track with his shooting over the coming weeks as he adjusts to life with the brace on, or is able to play without it, which probably matters more to Philadelphia with the playoffs approaching than their big man winning MVP this year, something that looks far less likely now than it did a month ago. For the latest Joel Embiid rumors, click here.

James Harden (Brooklyn)

James Harden's slim hopes for winning MVP this year were pretty much put to bed with the latest news on his hamstring injury, which indicated that the bearded superstar would be out for at least 10 days. At this point in the season, with an MVP race this hotly contested, a player who forced an ugly early-season trade from his former team missing that much time will essentially take Harden out of the running to win the prestigious accolade for the second time in his career. For the latest James Harden rumors, click here.

Luka Doncic (Dallas)

The Dallas Mavericks, winners in six of their last eight games, rank ninth in net rating this year (+2.2) and sit seventh in the West with a 29-23 record. Regardless, those two losses have come to their in-state rival San Antonio Spurs, who haven't beaten anyone in April besides the Mavericks, making Dallas' recent results a bit disappointing, even despite their solid record over the past couple of weeks. Individually, though, Luka Doncic has been great, averaging 27.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists while shooting 50.0 percent from the floor over that stretch of games. For the latest Luka Doncic rumors, click here.

Stephen Curry (Golden State)

The league's No. 2 leading scorer this season at 29.9 points per game, Stephen Curry is pretty much single-handedly carrying the Golden State Warriors into playoff contention this year, though they're even on the fringes of that spectrum due to the team's lack of consistent firepower outside of the sharpshooting guard. ESPN recently released an article with commentary from Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller and Jerry West, all players who spent their entire careers with one franchise, talking about Curry, who projects to do the same with Golden State. Here's a glimpse of what was said about the future Hall-of-Famer:

Steph is 18 points behind Wilt for No. 1 on the Warriors' all-time scoring list. How do you think Curry has changed the game most? Nowitzki (21 seasons in Dallas; Mavericks' all-time leading scorer): Just to make it cool to pull up from anywhere when you cross half court. He's the first guy to start shooting those deep 3s. Now everybody pulls up from the logo easily, but Steph was kind of the first guy, especially out of the dribble, and he just comes down in the middle of the game, shot clock wasn't running down, and he would launch one. At the time it was like, "What is this guy doing?" He was super consistent with it and people are now obviously copying that and starting to shoot from deeper. I've told these stories, when I was watching him in those playoff runs and the building there was rocking, he'd come across half court and I'm yelling at the TV, "Shoot the ball! Like, what are you waiting on?" I'm fired up. He's one of my favorite players to watch. He's definitely changed the game from a shooting perspective.

For fans of Curry, the Warriors or basketball history in general, that piece is an absolute must-read. Check it out for yourself. For the latest Stephen Curry rumors, click here.

LeBron James (LA Lakers)

LeBron James hasn't played a game in almost a month, with the ankle injury taking place on March 20, which has all but taken him out of the running for MVP this year. However, a return date is now somewhat in sight, with the latest reports saying that the four-time league MVP could be back in about three weeks, which will give him some time to get back into rhythm ahead of the 2021 playoffs. That's great news for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and scary news for the rest of the league at large. For the latest LeBron James rumors, click here.

Zion Williamson (New Orleans)

As his second career campaign progresses, it's become clearer that Zion Williamson is one of the most unique and exciting talents the NBA has ever seen, a player who blends size, explosiveness, body control and touch at a level rarely previously seen, if ever. Williamson recently explained how he's so skilled at his size, and it has a lot to do with his development early on in his playing days (via USA Today):

Since Williamson wasn’t the biggest player on his youth teams, his coaches focused on developing his point guard skills. The extra work on ballhandling and passing were beneficial for Williamson, especially after he grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-6 between eighth and 10th grade. And now the Pelicans are benefitting as well. “It just feels natural to me,” Williamson said. “I’ve been playing the game since I was 4. At this point, it just feels natural. I’m still learning. But certain things just do feel natural.”

Williamson, who has been great all season long, has been even better over recent outings, averaging 31.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 58.8 percent shooting in his last four games. The future is extremely bright for the New Orleans Pelicans with Williamson at the helm. For the latest Zion Williamson rumors, click here.

Rudy Gobert (Utah)

Defensive beast Rudy Gobert has been the most impactful player on the best team in the league this campaign by net rating (+9.5), which is why he's ranked as high as he is in our MVP rankings despite averaging just 14.5 points per game. Over his last six games, Gobert is shooting nearly 84 percent from the floor. For the latest Rudy Gobert rumors, click here.

Donovan Mitchell (Utah)

Meanwhile, Utah's top perimeter player on the year, Donovan Mitchell, also warrants his spot in these rankings thanks to his top-level-albeit-not-that-efficient scoring. Mitchell, averaging a career-high 26.3 points this year, has been on absolute fire recently, putting up 40.0 points over his last three outings. Mitchell had missed the last four editions of this series before making his well-deserved way back on the rankings this week. For the latest Donovan Mitchell rumors, click here.

Chris Paul (Phoenix)

In what was a much-anticipated matchup against the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns floor general Chris Paul had a huge performance, scoring 29 points and dishing out nine assists while shooting 50.0 percent from the floor. Paul helped Phoenix to an impressive four-point win over the Western Conference leaders that night. For the latest Chris Paul rumors, click here.

Jimmy Butler (Miami)

The league leader in nightly steals this season (2.1), Jimmy Butler is helping lead the Miami Heat on a great run of form, winning six of their last seven games. In that stretch, Butler is averaging 22.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.4 steals per contest. For the latest Jimmy Butler rumors, click here.

Trae Young (Atlanta)

The Atlanta Hawks have won six of their last seven games, despite Trae Young missing two of those victories due to injury. On the year, Young ranks 16th league-wide in scoring (25.4 points per game) and third in assists (9.5 helpers nightly). For the latest Trae Young rumors, click here.

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