The NBA's MVP award is always a hot debate, but it's almost never as close a call as those "conversations" would indicate. So what, exactly, does it mean to be "in the conversation?" To me, it means exactly that. Your name deserves to be mentioned. To others, like my man Sam Quinn, you're not in the conversation unless you have a legit shot to win.
By that rule, again, there are almost never conversations to be had. It's been 15 years (Steven Nash over Shaquille O'Neal in 2005) since the MVP runner-up finished within 100 voting points of the winner.
For the purposes of this piece, I'm going with my outlook. In the conversation doesn't mean I think you have a chance to win, but it does mean I think you have a real chance of winding up in the top five, and therefore should be recognized in these discussions.
So here we go. My MVP rankings entering play on Wednesday, April 14.
For most people, Jokic has been the leader for some time. I've vehemently argued Damian Lillard's case, but Lillard and the Blazers have fallen off while Jokic has continued playing out of his mind for a Denver team that, prior to Jamal Murray's torn ACL, was looking like a legit title contender.
The Murray injury introduces a new variable in Jokic's MVP case. Lillard was long standing on the leg of adversity, having buoyed the Blazers while CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missed over 60 combined games, and now Jokic gets his shot to prove he can keep the Nuggets at least on even ground, if not lift them, without his second-best player. If he does that, this race is going to be a wrap.
For a minute, Embiid fell out of the top-tier conversation when he missed 10 games -- in which the Sixers went 7-3 -- over the second half of March. But Embiid is back, and entering their huge game against Brooklyn Wednesday night, the Sixers hold a half-game lead over the Nets for the East's top seed.
Embiid has overtaken Jokic as the league PER leader and also leads NBA.com's PIE (Player Impact Estimate). He is second to Jokic in total RAPTOR with almost a five-point advantage in individual net rating. If the advanced stats are too nerdy for you, Embiid is averaging more points, rebounds and blocks per game than Jokic, and he dwarfs Jokic's free-throw volume and even shoots slightly better from the stripe.
If the Sixers distance themselves from the Nets for the No. 1 seed, and the Nuggets slip without Murray, Embiid is once again a legit threat to take home the hardware.
As mentioned, Lillard has fallen off of late. Since the start of April, he's averaging 21.3 points per game on 38-percent overall shooting, and the Blazers have lost five of their last seven. Also, Lillard's clutch shooting numbers have plummeted to just 33 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3 since the All-Star break.
The Blazers are still plus-44 in Lillard's clutch minutes post-All-Star, but those gaudy shooting numbers that were living at over 50 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3 for long stretches were likely responsible for a disproportionate amount of the Lillard hype. He hasn't kept them up, the Blazers have declined, and so, too, have Lillard's MVP chances. But he's still close enough for a crazy late-season run if Jokic and Embiid open the door.
Paul doesn't have the stats of a typical top-five MVP candidate, but let's just talk reality here: The Phoenix Suns -- yes, the Phoenix Suns -- have the second-best record in the NBA and are just one game behind the Jazz for the No. 1 overall seed.
Yes, Devin Booker has been spectacular. It's difficult to separate him and Paul in terms of who the best player on the team is, which makes singling one out as the most valuable a seemingly futile task. The Suns are plus-8.5 with a 99th-percentile defense, per Cleaning the Glass, when Paul plays without Booker, and plus-11.2 with a 97th-percentile offense when Booker plays without Paul.
That would seemingly be a slight case for Booker as Phoenix's MVP, but just for a second, strip away all these fancy numbers and just look at the obvious: Before Paul showed up, the Suns missed the playoffs 10 straight seasons. The first year he gets to the desert, they have a shot at the No. 1 overall seed and are a fringe title contender. You do the math.
This is the cutoff between legit candidates and those who belong in the conversation. Antetokounmpo, fair or not, belongs to the latter group. The bar he has to clear to win three straight MVPs, particularly when you factor in some voter's remorse after Giannis' recent playoff disappointments, is impossibly high.
But if you look at Giannis' numbers, advanced and traditional, they are strikingly similar to those of his MVP campaigns. He's No. 2 in PIE, VORP and BPM, No. 3 in PER, and No. 5 in Win Shares and RAPTOR WAR. The Bucks also set too high a bar as a team. They were on pace for 70 wins for much of last season. We got used to them being a top-three offense and defense, but this year they're No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, as the No. 3 seed in the East.
Giannis and the Bucks have been great. Just not great enough to realistically win this award, particularly when you consider that he's only played one game in April thanks to a sore knee.
Keep an eye on ...
There's an argument Curry has been the best player in the league this season. He's second in the league in scoring. Since he returned from his tailbone injury, he's averaging 38.4 points on 54/46/91 shooting splits over seven games. Since the beginning of April, Curry is averaging 39.5 points on 55/46/92 splits. Since the start of March, he's averaging 34.9 points on 52/44/92 splits. Across the board, all those marks lead the league by a laughable margin.
And this is all while the Warriors are trying to balance two competing agendas, one of which was the development of rookie James Wiseman before his season was likely ended with a torn meniscus. Having to endure Wiseman's struggles has camouflaged Curry's impact: Take Wiseman off the floor, and Curry, basically single-handedly without a single teammate that represents a threat to defenses, has the Warriors playing at a 120.9 offensive rating, per CTG, which would lead the league, with a plus-8.9 net rating, which would register second in the league.
If somehow the Warriors get on a run and secure a top-six seed to avoid a play-in series, it's going to be interesting how high up the MVP chart that can catapult Curry.
Like Paul and Booker, it can be difficult to distinguish Gobert and Donovan Mitchell as Utah's most valuable player. Where it's different is in the numbers, which heavily favor Gobert's impact on what has been the best team in the league for most of the season. Per Cleaning the Glass, when Mitchell has to play without Gobert, the Jazz are just plus-1.5 per 100 possessions with a 16th-percentile defense, but when Gobert plays without Mitchell, they remain a monster with a plus-18.7 net rating, a 96th percentile offense and 98th-percentile defense.
Leonard has been quietly fantastic all season, and he's really been rolling of late: 26 points per game on 52/48/91 splits over his last five games. He's top five in most encompassing stats, and the Clippers, who now rank as the league's best offense, have won eight of 10, including nine of their last 11 in which Leonard has played.
Harden lost steam in the discussion when he went down with a strained hamstring. He hasn't played in Brooklyn's last four games (not counting the four minutes he played before exiting against the Knicks on April 5). He's set to be reevaluated this week. It seems silly that a couple-week absence would be the difference between being in and out of the MVP discussion, but Harden was on thin ice as it was. He was riding the momentum of his brilliant play, but in the back of everyone's mind was the super-team factor and the fact that he forced his way out of Houston. No player has ever won MVP while switching teams mid-season.