Only one time this century has the NBA's MVP come from a team that finished worse than a No. 2 seed: Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, when the Oklahoma City Thunder were No. 6 in the West and he was the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for a full season. We might be looking at a second occurrence this season.
For most of the year, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and LeBron James have occupied the top tier of candidates. Recently Damian Lillard has forced his way into the conversation. But Embiid is out with a bone bruise in his knee. The original return timetable was 2-3 weeks from mid-March, but you know the Sixers are going to be extra cautious. A month of shelf time is definitely in play.
Meanwhile, James suffered a high ankle sprain on Saturday and is out indefinitely. The Lakers are equally incentivized to play it extra safe with LeBron, particularly with Anthony Davis also out with a calf strain. Getting their two stars healthy for the playoffs is all that matters to the Lakers, even if they have to go in with a lower seed.
Given the strength of the other candidates, prolonged absences might all but eliminate LeBron and Embiid from the realistic MVP discussion. LeBron might get back relatively soon (high-ankle sprains can necessitate a wide range of recovery times, and LeBron did travel with the Lakers to Phoenix), but his case was dwindling anyway.
In that case, the race would, in all likelihood, be down to Jokic and Lillard, with neither the Nuggets nor the Blazers currently occupying a top-four seed. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden might slip into the back end of the conversation, but the bar for Antetokounmpo to overcome voter fatigue and win his third straight is almost certainly too high to clear, and the narrative around Harden forcing his way out of Houston to join a super-team in Brooklyn is probably equally inhibitive, even with the way he has played in Kevin Durant's absence.
I'm not saying that's right. But I think it's the reality. Barring more injuries, this thing is coming down to Jokic and Lillard, and what a photo finish that could be. Jokic owns top billing on just about every advanced stat known to man, but the way Lillard, who averages top-five across the advanced-stat board, has carried the Blazers to the West's current No. 5 seed despite C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missing a combined 60 games, to me, gives him the edge.
Obviously we're splitting hairs here, but it's a pretty striking visual that the Nuggets and Blazers own the exact same record (25-16) entering play on Sunday. I know what Lillard has overcome in the way of Portland's injuries to get to that point. His clutch performances are off the charts. Can voters, in a coin-flip situation, convince themselves that Jokic would have the Nuggets in the same position without Jamal Murray, who's only missed two games, and whoever you think their third best player is by his side?
Either way, Jokic and Lillard could very well be the MVP leaders by this time next week. They might already be. And there's a good chance neither one of them finishes with a top-two seed.