When it comes to the NBA MVP race, you can typically count on two things: The winner will come from a top-two seed, and the "race" won't be particularly close. This century, which includes 21 MVP races if you count the 1999-00 season, there are only three cases in which first and second place were separated by fewer than 125 votes, and Russell Westbrook, who pulled the Oklahoma City Thunder to the No. 6 seed in 2016-17 by averaging a triple-double, is the only winner from a non-top-two seed.
It's still early, but so far this season has the makings of another one of those anomaly races. Entering play on Wednesday, two of my top four candidates are from a No. 6 and No. 7 seed, and the fact we're talking about LeBron James earning something of a lifetime-achievement MVP unless someone totally overwhelms his case tells you that no overwhelming leader has emerged. This one is tight, and it feels like it could stay that way to the end.
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As of Wednesday, Feb. 24, here are my MVP rankings.
1. Joel Embiid
Look up any encompassing value metric -- PER, RPM, BPM, WS, VORP, RAPTOR, whatever you fancy -- and Joel Embiid's name is going to be at or near the top of the list. He's a defensive monster. The Philadelphia 76ers are 21 points per 100 possessions better when he's playing. And so far, he's a big part of the Sixers answering the question about their late-game offensive reliability.
Entering Wednesday, Embiid is fifth in fourth-quarter scoring (7.6 PPG) while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3. When the game gets really close, he's top 10 in both total "clutch" scoring (56 points) and free throws made (25) with a better true-shooting percentage than Stephen Curry. The Sixers are 13-2 in clutch games with a plus-47 point differential in Embiid's minutes.
Overall, Embiid is third in the league in scoring. And get this: He's currently taking the exact same number of midrange shots per game as Kevin Durant, and hitting them at a nearly identical 52 percent mark. He's also shooting 40 percent from 3, and 85.5 percent on over 11 free throws a game.
These shooting numbers might well regress, but until they do, or until the Sixers fall at least out of the top spot in the East (which might not be long with the way the Brooklyn Nets are playing), Embiid holds a slight edge in my book to win his first MVP.
2. LeBron James
If the Los Angeles Lakers finish with the No. 1 seed in the West, and LeBron James continues to play at the level he has without missing many games, I think it's going to be almost impossible for anyone to ultimately top him for MVP. Voter remorse is a real thing. Whether it's true or not, there's a general perception that LeBron should have more than four MVPs given that he's been to nine of the past 10 NBA Finals.
It's hard to fathom that he hasn't won an MVP since 2013. It feels, to a lot of people, like a wrong that needs to be righted, even if it's a much harder exercise to point out the specific season in which LeBron was more deserving than the player who actually won. Last season was probably his best case.
Add to that the narrative of his age (36) and the minutes he's playing and his recommitment to defense on the best defensive team in the league, and in a season in which multiple players are going to have a strong case without much separating them, it feels like LeBron is going to get every benefit of the doubt on narrative alone.
That said, if the Lakers don't finish with the top seed and the "best player on the best team" argument loses technical standing, the door for someone else to win MVP opens up because LeBron's numbers do not blow you away. Entering Wednesday, the Lakers have lost three straight and are in the West's No. 3 spot, trailing the Utah Jazz by four games in the loss column and the Los Angeles Clippers by percentage points. It doesn't look great that the Lakers are also 5-7 vs. above .500 teams -- though to to be fair, Embiid and the Sixers are making the majority of their hay against bad teams, too.
We talked about how great Embiid and Lillard have been in the clutch, and LeBron has been terrific in his own right in the biggest moments. But there's an important difference to point out: While Damian Lillard, specifically, is pulling out games for the hobbled Portland Trail Blazers that by all rights they should've lost, LeBron is pulling out games for the Lakers that never should've been close in the first place.
These next few weeks without Anthony Davis will likely be a turning point in LeBron's MVP race. If he gets the Lakers rolling and they wind up pushing the Jazz for the top spot, or at least pull a few games ahead of the Clippers, James will get a lot of mileage out of that absent Davis. But if they continue to bumble along and lose some steam, so, too, could LeBron's case.
3. Nikola Jokic
Remember that bit about only one player from a non-top-two seed winning MVP this century? Nikola Jokic's Nuggets are currently No. 7 in the West. But this guy's season has been one for the books so far: No. 1 in PER, VORP, WS, BPM and RAPTOR WAR, and the only player in the league averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
All told, Jokic has created 1,480 total points either by scoring or assisting entering Wednesday, which trails only Lillard among players in the top five of this particular list, per PBP Stats.
To me, Jokic and Stephen Curry have been the two best players in the league this season, but neither of their teams have been good enough to put them at the the top of this list. The Warriors are treading water and feel like they could start to drown at any point, but the Denver Nuggets, who've had the fourth-toughest schedule yet carry the seventh-best point differential, are gathering strength. Jokic could easily be atop this list the next time we check in on the MVP race.
4. Damian Lillard
It pains me to have Lillard this low, but Jokic and Embiid have just been so great and LeBron is LeBron. Lillard keeping the Blazers in the thick of the playoff race without CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins is borderline miraculous.
Lillard is pulling wins out of thin air, turning the overall net-negative Blazers into a plus-29 clutch team by shooting a positively bonkers 60 percent from the field, 55 percent from 3 and 100 percent from the free-throw line inside the final five minutes of five-point games. Lillard's 82 clutch points are second to Zach LaVine for tops in the league, and the Blazers are 12-5 in those tight games.
There is no one doing more with less than Lillard, who has somehow led the Blazers, without their second- and fourth-best player (yes, I'm saying Gary Trent Jr. is better than Nurkic at this point) to just four fewer wins than LeBron's Lakers.
Lillard ranks top 10 in all the advanced metrics if you're into the numbers, including second to only Curry in ORPM, but it's not even worth citing numbers when you're talking about Lillard. Just watch the games. Particularly the end of those games. The guy makes the impossible look routine, and the Blazers would be up you-know-what creek without him.
5. Stephen Curry
Curry is rivaling his 2015-16 unanimous MVP season. He leads the league in total points, 3-pointers made and offensive real plus-minus, and he's third in overall RPM. Over his last 15 games, he's averaging 32.3 points on 51 percent shooting, including 46 percent from 3 (on 13 attempts per game) and 97 percent from the free-throw line.
You could easily argue Curry has been the best player in the league given what he's working with. The Golden State Warriors are 11.3 points worse per 100 possessions when he doesn't play, per Cleaning the Glass, and the offense falls off a cliff without him, from 115 points per 100 possessions to 96 per 100, which is unspeakably bad.
Problem is, the Warriors just aren't good enough even with Curry. Unlike Jokic's Nuggets, who we have good reason to believe can rise up the standings, the Warriors are what they are -- currently 17-15 and clinging to a playoff spot. There is room this season for a lower seed to win MVP, but you can't end up in a play-in series, or certainly miss the playoffs altogether, and have a realistic shot at MVP. The Warriors have to get into the top six, at least, for Curry to have a chance to creep any higher on this list.
Keep an eye on ...
- Luka Doncic: The Dallas Mavericks have won seven of their last 10, and if they continue to rise up the Western Conference standings, at some point, Luka's video-game numbers will force his name into the thick of the conversation. Moments like his buzzer-beater 3-pointer against Boston on Tuesday will stick in voters' minds, and the fact the one soft spot in his offensive game -- his 3-point shooting -- has risen above the 40-percent mark over his last 15 games illuminates his growing candidacy.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: Over his last eight games, Giannis is averaging over 32.3 points, 13.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.7 blocks. He's still a monster, and the Milwaukee Bucks are still an upper-class team -- second in offensive rating, second in net rating. It's the defense that's fallen off, and though that has nothing to do with Giannis, the bar to win three straight MVPs is insanely high. Giannis and the Bucks were both going to have to be nearly perfect, and so far that hasn't been the case.
- Kawhi Leonard: The Clippers are quietly No. 2 in the West as everyone is sort of content to ignore them until the playoffs, but Kawhi has been typically superb on both sides of the ball. He's top 10 in scoring and pretty much all the advanced metrics, with the exception of ESPN's RPM, where he ranks 15th. It's worth pointing that out because Paul George ranks fourth in RPM, and though we all know Leonard is the better player, the difficulty in isolating those two in terms of value represents a hurdle in Leonard's MVP case, despite the fact that the Clippers are almost three points per 100 possessions better when Kawhi is on the floor without George than they are when it's the other way around.
- Rudy Gobert: Being the best player on the best team is typically a guaranteed ticket into the MVP conversation, and the more you watch the Utah Jazz, the more you realize Gobert is -- or at least so far has been -- their best player. He's a one-man elite defense, and he's not just some screen-assist bystander offensively. His activity as a rim roller is a vital part of Utah's 3-point-heavy attack, he's an elite offensive rebounder, and he has a good feel for slipping into the cracks created by all Utah's shooters for easy buckets. The Jazz are 9.7 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert is on the floor, and yet, does Gobert feel like an MVP? For most people, the answer to that question is no. You can't run your offense through him, and you still wonder if smaller teams might be able to pull him away from the basket, and eventually off the floor, in playoff games. It's almost impossible to see Gobert winning MVP, but he deserves to be in the conversation.
- James Harden: Harden has been absolutely brilliant since joining the Brooklyn Nets. There is no precedent for a player switching teams mid-season and winning the MVP, and the fact that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have been just as great makes it nearly impossible to designate one as the most valuable player on the team, let alone in the league. But the Nets have won seven straight and are on the cusp of taking over the top spot in the East. If they somehow run away with the conference and Harden continues to play at this level, he'll get some MVP votes.