Warriors

NBA MVP rankings: How Steph's strong finish impacts race

Warriors
Warriors' Steph Curry

When both the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and reigning Finals MVP emphatically endorse someone for the regular-season MVP, it's hard to disagree.

That's exactly what Ja Morant and LeBron James both elected to do Sunday, putting their names behind Steph Curry as the 2020-21 NBA MVP.

Now, the award is voted on by national and international media (yours truly is not among them), not NBA players themselves. However, Curry's numbers and what he was able to do with this Warriors roster provide a résumé that, at the very least, warrants consideration.

Steph won the scoring title, averaging 32 points per game along with 5.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds. He is the oldest player to win a scoring title since Michael Jordan, and his 38 30-point games were more than any player since MJ himself. Curry's 5.3 made 3-pointers per game also are the most any player has averaged over a single season.

His finish to the season, in particular, has vaulted him back into the conversation among the top candidates. Winning the Western Conference's Player of the Month award for both April and May, Steph averaged 37.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 43.7 percent from 3-point range on nearly 15 attempts per night from April 1 through May 16.

 

Curry also proved he can lead a team to the postseason without a consistent second scoring option, as Andrew Wiggins was the Warriors' second-leading scorer at 18.6 points per game. On April 1, the Warriors were 23-25 overall and 10th in the Western Conference, clinging to the periphery of the playoff picture. 

So, without further ado, let's examine where Curry's brilliant sprint down the stretch of the season lands him in our final NBA MVP rankings of the season.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The winner of the last two NBA MVP awards, Giannis is putting up a similarly impressive season statistically. Antetokounmpo has averaged 28.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020-21.

Milwaukee also finished inside the top three in the East for the third consecutive year. It has been mentioned before here, but the last player to three-peat the MVP was Larry Bird from 1983-84 through '85-86.

Only Oscar Robertson and Giannis have averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game in three consecutive seasons, and Antetokounmpo has earned his place among the finalists with the Bucks again being a top-three seed.

But we've also seen voter fatigue in recent years with LeBron James and other stars, and it seems a near certainty that Giannis will not be at the podium accepting another MVP trophy this summer.

4. Joel Embiid

"The Process" appears to have reached its final stage in Philadelphia, as the 76ers finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is a top candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and Embiid put up some gaudy numbers. He also was one of the most dominant players in the league on both ends of the floor.

Embiid averaged 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 37.7 percent from the 3-point line. The 27-year-old had the second-best player efficiency rating (PER) in the NBA (30.3) and had the second-highest usage rate in the league behind Luka Doncic (via Basketball-Reference).

However, the famous saying "the best ability is availability" hurts Embiid in this case. The oft-injured big man played just 51 games, barely clearing the 70 percent of games played threshold necessary for the league's statistical awards. Even without Embiid for 21 games, the 76ers managed to earn the No. 1 seed in the East.

Embiid engineered a remarkable season, but falls to No. 4 in our rankings behind three players who all were able to be on the court more often, and were more valuable to their teams.

RELATED: NBA Playoff Power Rankings 2021: Warriors rise with Lakers clash here

3. Damian Lillard

Even with C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic out for significant portions of the season, Lillard lifted the Portland Trail Blazers up and carried them to the sixth seed in the West, avoiding the play-in tournament. The Oakland native averaged 28.8 points, 7.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds, while shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 92.8 percent from the free-throw line.

Possibly the only player as hot as Curry down the final weeks of the season, Lillard has averaged 29.8 points per game with incredible efficiency (51.4 percent from the field, 47.2 percent from beyond the arc and 95.2 percent from the charity stripe). Lillard was named the Western Conference's Player of the Week for the final week of the season, his third time receiving the honor in 2020-21. Only Giannis, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic got three or more this season.

 

Lillard is one of the more selfless superstars in the league, and has made it clear he is solely focused on bringing a championship to the Pacific Northwest. But Lillard is one of the league's most dangerous offensive players, especially in the final minutes of a game. He should be among the MVP finalists this season, or on an All-NBA First Team at the very least.

2. Steph Curry

The man you've all been waiting for. 

We've already mentioned the absurd run Curry went on to close out the regular season, which made Steph the first player in Warriors franchise history to win back-to-back Western Conference Players of the Month. The Warriors were 2-7 without the star point guard in the lineup this season, and looked like a lottery team when Curry was off the floor. Curry also led the NBA in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus, which measures how much an individual player impacts his team's on-court performance.

Curry got endorsements from some of the NBA's best over the weekend, but the main things holding Curry back are the Warriors' record and place in the West standings. The lowest-seeded team with an MVP winner since 2000 was the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder, which featured Russell Westbrook being the second player ever to average a triple-double. The Thunder were the sixth seed in the West, while the Warriors had to claw just to get to the eighth seed.

If the Most Valuable Player award actually came down to which player was the "most valuable" to their team, it likely would be either Curry or Lillard bringing home the honors. Steph made a magnificent run to end the season that might have won the award if the Warriors had finished with a better record, but he falls just short in our rankings to the nearly unanimous favorite among league pundits.

1. Nikola Jokic

Jokic has been near the top of just about every MVP ranking for much of the regular season, as he was on pace to average a triple-double for a good chunk of the year. The center finished the regular season averaging 26.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists, while shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from the 3-point line.

In a year in which just about every one of the typical leading MVP candidates went down with some kind of significant injury, Jokic appeared in every single game for the Denver Nuggets. Even after star shooting guard Jamal Murray went down with a season-ending injury, Jokic kept Denver afloat and the Nuggets enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed.

Jokic's name litters the NBA leaderboards, as he finished with the best PER, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. The big man played the most minutes of any player not coached by Tom Thibodeau, and his unique style of play carried the Nuggets to a top-five winning percentage in the NBA.

 

Curry made a valiant effort, but the MVP trophy will head to the mountains this summer.

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