The 2020-21 NBA season is still in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean certain superstars around the league aren’t already starting to stand out.
Obviously, it’s way too early to make any definitive statements about who this year’s Most Valuable Player will be, but it’s not too early to say who the best players of the campaign so far have been.
Below, we ranked the Top 15 players to this early point in the 2020-21 MVP race, as voted on by our entire team. Let’s get to it.
Trae Young (Atlanta)
Ranked Top 4 in both points (28.6) and assists (9.1) per game so far this season, Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young is the inaugural leader in our first MVP rankings of 2020-21. Despite a questionable loss to the feisty New York Knicks Monday night, Atlanta's strong start to the season, one that has them sitting 4-3 through seven games and boasting the sixth-highest net rating in the league (+5.6), is a big reason why Young finished No. 1 in our first MVP ranking. Young has been in the news lately for more reasons besides his elite-level play, however, as there has been controversy surrounding the manner in which he likes to draw fouls, where he stops running on a dime in order to get defenders who are chasing him to crash into his body. Young has used this method to lead the league in nightly free-throw attempts (12.1) and rank first in free-throw rate (0.675) among guards. Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash isn't exactly a fan of Young's foul-drawing process, telling collected media last weekend that it's 'not basketball': https://twitter.com/TalkinNets/status/1344497844540076032 Nevertheless, there's no doubt Young has been one of the brightest stars in the NBA thus far in 2020-21, and that, coupled with the Hawks' equally impressive start prior to the loss against the Knicks, was enough to get him a first-place finish in our inaugural MVP rankings.
Nikola Jokic (Denver)
Even despite the already elite level of play two-time All-NBAer Nikola Jokic has displayed over the past few seasons, there's reason to believe we're about to witness his best career campaign in 2020-21 based on the outrageous start he's gotten off to. Jokic is averaging 22.3 points to go along with 11.2 rebounds and a league-leading 12.8 assists per contest, all career-best marks for the big Serbian center. The Denver Nuggets superstar is also boasting the highest true shooting percentage of his career this year at an absurd 70.1 percent. Not only that, but Jokic also leads the league in both Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM) with 0.7 and 10.3 marks respectively. The only thing keeping Jokic from finishing in the top spot of our first MVP rankings this season is the fact that Denver is off to a slow start, beginning the campaign 2-4 with a -0.4 net rating, the 14th-highest mark league-wide.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
The offseason hirings of Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers have changed the Philadelphia 76ers' outlook greatly this season, as the team has responded by having the NBA's best record to this point at 6-1 and with the third-best net rating (+8.8) to go with it. A lot of Philadelphia's super strong start has to do with Joel Embiid's elite play. The three-time All-Star is pouring 23.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 blocks per contest and, even more shockingly, the Sixers are an unthinkable 30.7 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor than when he sits. Embiid recently told ESPN that he's not focused on social media anymore and that this season, everything comes down to winning for the Sixers:
Last season, Embiid didn’t even make the All-NBA team, despite statistics that compared favorably to his previous campaigns. This season, Philadelphia wasn’t even picked to play a Christmas Day game. “It comes down to winning,” Embiid said. “If you don’t win, you don’t get respect. The league doesn’t respect us as much anymore because we didn’t live up to the hype we were on the way to three years ago.”
Well, based on Philadelphia's business-like approach to this season, the 'respect' will come pouring in for Embiid and Co. very soon.
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
The NBA world exploded after Stephen Curry's weekend-capping performance against the Portland Trail Blazers when the former league MVP went off for 62 points on just 31 shot attempts in a 137-122 for the Golden State Warriors. After the game, Curry talked about the motivation he received from talking heads and fans who had begun to question the Ohio native's greatness following his slow start to the season: https://twitter.com/highkin/status/1345966416097263616 No one is going to be questioning Curry again any time soon, as the flamethrowing lead guard ranks second in the NBA at the moment in scoring (32.0 points per contest) while also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists on 46.3/36.9/98.2 shooting splits.
Jaylen Brown (Boston)
Just when it seems like Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown has reached a new peak as a player, he somehow manages to improve even further and reach new heights. This season, Brown's offensive game has been better than ever, as the Cal product is averaging career-best marks in points (26.9) and assists (3.1) while still playing elite defense on the perimeter. Brown has to cool off at some point – he won't shoot 57.7 percent from the field all year long – but regardless, he looks very much in line to make the first All-Star appearance of his career this season, and might even get All-NBA consideration by year's end if he's able to keep up this level of form.
LeBron James (LA Lakers)
Based on his unreal standards, it's been a bit of a slow start thus far for LeBron James, who's somewhat quietly posting a 23.6/8.4/7.4 stat line through seven games while shooting 38.6 percent from three, the second-best mark of his career. The most interesting bit of news surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers superstar came courtesy of former Dallas Maverick JJ Barea, who used JJ Redick's podcast to talk about Dirk Nowitzki's 'hatred' for LeBron and the Miami Heat back in 2011 when the two sides faced off in the Finals:
Because of that, it should come as no surprise that Nowitzki couldn’t stand LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. That tidbit comes courtesy of Nowitzki’s longtime teammates J.J. Barea, who revealed Nowitzki’s hatred for the Heat on JJ Redick’s podcast. Barea made the following comments about Nowitzki around the 35 minute mark of the podcast: “[Nowitzki] was not going to let us lose. The way he prepared the whole year for it. He hated Miami. He hated LeBron, Wade, Bosh. He’s never going to say that, but he couldn’t stand it.”
How Nowitzki feels about James, Dwyane Wade and Miami now is anyone's guess, but the animosity was certainly there in the 2011 Finals, which is what made for such a captivating championship series.
Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)
Nets' struggles aside, Kevin Durant has been individually spectacular to start the 2020-21 campaign, averaging 28.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game with an otherworldly 66.1 true hooting percentage, looking like he hasn't lost a step since the devastating Achilles injury. And even despite Brooklyn's 3-4 start over seven games, the team still a respectable eighth in net rating (+4.3), so it's way too early to count them out as title contenders this year. However, it's not all roses and sunshine for Durant right now, as the former MVP is now set to miss a week due to being exposed to someone with COVID-19. The soonest he can return is Jan. 12 against the Nuggets, and that's if he doesn't test positive for infection before then.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
The reigning league MVP two seasons running, Giannis Antetokounmpo faces an uphill battle as far as winning the major accolade a third year in a row, as only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird have ever won MVP three seasons in a row, the former two of whom did it in much less competitive NBAs. Nonetheless, Antetokounmpo's numbers this year – 26.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.6 steals nightly – are nearly on par with his MVP seasons, so he'll be in the running at the very least by season's end. Regardless, 2020-21 isn't about personal accolades for Antetokounmpo anyway, as what he really needs to further solidify his legacy at this point is a championship ring, not another MVP trophy. According to Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, this is the best roster Milwaukee has put around Antetokounmpo to this point in his career... https://twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard/status/1346239914590023680 ...and they'll be a much tougher out these playoffs than they have been in the past. That should be the case, anyway.
James Harden (Houston)
The NBA world still awaits a potential James Harden trade, though the scuttle on that front has reached its recent nadir. The latest bit of noteworthy news we have about a potential Harden deal came from ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst, who mentioned the Toronto Raptors as a team he could see striking a move for the bearded superstar:
Pair that with the team’s recent blockbuster trade history, and a disgruntled Houston Rockets superstar being on the market, and it’s no surprise NBA insiders have linked Toronto to James Harden. The latest to do so was ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “The Raptors are almost in the same spot that they were two years ago [when they made the Leonard trade],” Windhorst said during an appearance on The Lowe Post podcast. “They have good players. They’re a good team. There’s probably seven teams in the Eastern Conference who could get the whiteboard out and convince themselves that they’re getting to the Conference Finals. who mentioned the Toronto Raptors as a team he could see striking a move for the bearded superstar
Toronto's brutal start to the season, which has them sitting at 1-5 through six games with the league's 10th-worst net rating (-3.9), will only make the scuttle louder, too. On his end, Harden is still performing like a league MVP, leading the league in points per game for the fourth year in a row at 33.0 to go with 4.8 rebounds and 10.8 assists per contest. Harden is without a doubt worth the relative troubles he brings from time to time.
Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn)
The Nets' 3-4 record may not be too impressive, but their eighth-ranked net rating of +4.3 gives reason to believe there's nothing to worry about for Brooklyn... yet. The team's superstar point guard Kyrie Irving agrees with that assessment, too, as Irving recently told the media that it's going to take times for things to come together for the league's newest super team: https://twitter.com/MikeAScotto/status/1345917902701137920 Irving has been fantastic this season, pouring in 26.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game with an extremely tidy 61.1 true shooting percentage. The Duke product has yet to miss a free throw this season, either, nailing all 22 of his looks from the line so far this year.
Domantas Sabonis (Indiana)
Indiana Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis already has one Player of the Week for the Eastern Conference this year, and if he keeps up this level of play, more could be in his future. Sabonis is averaging 20.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game with a 61.3 effective field-goal percentage, a clip aided by his career-best three-point shooting mark of 52.9 percent. Sabonis is one of just four players putting up a 20/11/6 stat line in 2020-21, joining Jokic, Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle on the impressive list.
Brandon Ingram (New Orleans)
Brandon Ingram has taken the career-best form he had in 2019-20 and managed to improve on it so far this season, averaging 25.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists nightly with a solid 56.7 true-shooting percentage. Ingram is smashing career marks in both BPM – where he's posting a +7.1 mark, up from +2.1 last season – and Win Shares per 48 Minutes – 0.199, up from 0.115 in 2019-20. Ingram, who's still somehow just 23, is continuing to show signs of improvement, a great sign for the New Orleans Pelicans, who just signed him to a max extension this offseason.
CJ McCollum (Portland)
Recently, it's been Damian Lillard who has been the Portland Trail Blazers MVP candidate... but this year, the better backcourt member has actually been CJ McCollum, who's averaging a career-high 28.0 points and 5.7 assists per game while knocking down 43.1 percent of his threes, the tidiest clip of his time in the NBA. McCollum recently opened up to The Atheltic about his hot start and how the peace he has in life has helped him play some of the best basketball of his career:
That outlook comes from the confluence of some significant life milestones. This autumn, he got married. His 30th birthday is on the horizon. And in the past year, he absorbed the passing of his 53-year-old aunt and his 35-year-old personal chef. He has also recovered from a broken back. “I think when you go through stuff, see stuff, it shifts your perspective on what’s important, what really matters, you know?” McCollum said. “I’ve always been at peace, I’ve always been relaxed, but I’m in a different phase of life right now. I’m almost 30, I’m married, eventually I’m going to have kids, I have a dog — I have real responsibilities. I take care of people. I’m counted on, and not just by the Blazers. But in my community, I’m counted on. So I need to be solid, I need to be consistent, and mentally, I have to be engaged and focused. So that’s how I’ve been. I’m in a really good spot mentally.”
Just goes to show how players are humans, too, and how important mental health can be for them.
Paul George (LA Clippers)
After all the slander Paul George took dating back to last year and into the offseason, the six-time All-Star has responded magnificently, looking more like the player who finished Top 3 in MVP voting in 2018-19 than the guy who disappeared in the 2020 playoffs. George is putting up 25.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest while snatching up 1.7 steals nightly and shooting an unsustainable-but-impressive 49.2 percent from three. George made waves recently due to a scuffle he had with Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, who could be seen calling George 'soft' after the two were split up: https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1345929276550365185 George would get the last laugh that night, however, as the Los Angeles Clipper finished the contest with 39 points to Booker's 25 and helped lead his team to a 112-107 road win over the Suns.
Jayson Tatum (Boston)
Like Brown, Jayson Tatum seems to continue getting better and better on a yearly basis, with 2020-21 being no different. The Duke product is averaging a career-high 26.3 points this year to go with 7.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Tatum recently hit a game-winner to give the Celtics a 122-120 win over Detroit, using his unstoppable midrange game to secure the victory: https://twitter.com/WorldWideWob/status/1345860111907090435 After the game, Tatum told the media that he's the kind of player who wants the ball in those situations:
“I did a good job of catching closer. I watch the film and learn from it. I want to be in that situation. I want the ball there.”
The good news for Boston: They have multiple players who you can trust with the ball in that situation. Tatum is simply the best of them.