We're well past the halfway point, nearing the trade deadline and less than three weeks out from All-Star Weekend. Every year I say this, but the season just always goes faster than you expect. The playoff race is taking shape and so are the awards. Below is where, in my opinion, the MVP race stands entering play on Friday, Feb. 4th.
Joel Embiid is the new betting favorite (+225 at Caesars Sportsbook), but I'm sticking with Jokic (second at +300) at the top for now. Jokic has been the best player all season, plain and simple. Embiid is going to be tough to beat with the aid of everyone rooting for him because Ben Simmons left him in the lurch, but Jokic, let's not forget, has been without his second-best player in Jamal Murray all season, too. And Denver's third-best player, Michael Porter Jr., only played in nine games.
Jokic's case rests on the same on-off foundation that has supported it all season: When he's on the floor, the Nuggets are elite; when he's off the floor, they're literally one of the worst teams, statistically speaking, of the past 20 years.
To put a number to it, the Nuggets are a staggering 26.7 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass (plus-10.7 when he's on, minus-16.1 when he's off). Take Jokic off the floor, and the Nuggets post an offensive and defensive rating that would register as the worst in the league.
Yet here they are -- with Jamal Murray having missed the entire season and Michael Porter Jr. all but nine games -- sitting at No. 6 in the West just two losses back of a top-four seed. Absolutely remarkable.
Since Dec. 1, Embiid is the league's leading scorer at 31.5 points per game. Since Jan. 1, he's been even better at 33.5 points per game with the Sixers outscoring opponents by 8.4 points over that span, slightly better than Jokic's plus-7.9.
It's indicative of an MVP run that has really gained momentum over the last six weeks as the Sixers have gone 16-5 over their last 21 games, vaulting them into a tie with Miami for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
As mentioned above, the Simmons narrative is going to be big for Embiid, especially if the Sixers continue to win. There's just an overwhelming narrative that Embiid has put his cape on this season. It feels different for Jokic, who lost his best teammate to bad luck. For Embiid, it feels like he was abandoned.
The last time the media took hold of something like this was when Russell Westbrook won MVP in 2016-17 after Kevin Durant left him on his own, and I believe Embiid will get the same benefit of the doubt if the debate remains this close.
Whether that benefit of the doubt will be enough for Embiid to overtake Jokic or hold off Stephen Curry or Giannis Antetokounmpo, only time will tell. But at this rate, I just don't see Jokic holding the power of the Embiid momentum off. I don't necessarily agree on merit (though, obviously, Embiid has been sensational), but that's what I think is going to happen.
Curry's odds to win (+450) have dropped behind Embiid, Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo thanks to a freezing-cold shooting streak that lasted the better part of two months. He might be coming out of it. He's 20 for his last 41 from 3 and the Warriors, who have won eight straight, remain 18.2 points better per 100 possessions, per CTG, when he's on the court.
That's almost double Embiid's and Antetokounmpo's on-off splits. It speaks to Curry's massive value even when he's not making shots. The Warriors have the second-best record in the league and Curry is still within striking distance if he heats up the rest of the way and Golden State finishes with the No. 1 seed.
But for now, Curry is being punished a bit by his own standards. Anyone else averaging over 25 points per game while shooting 38 percent from 3 on over 12 attempts per game, with those on-off splits, on the team with the second-best record in the league who has played most of the season without Klay Thompson, would be having a career year. But for Curry, it's his worst shooting year ever, and the discussion around that is chipping away at his MVP case.
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If you have Giannis ahead of Curry, Caesars agrees with you. Antetokounmpo is +350 to win his third MVP, better than Curry's +450, largely on the strength of having scored at least 25 points in 17 straight games.
Since returning from about a two-week COVID absence on Christmas, Giannis is averaging 31.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists. That last number is telling. His playmaking has become an honest weapon.
What could hold Giannis' case back is that over those 17 games since Christmas, the Bucks have gone just 10-7. They're tied in the loss column with the Cavs for the No. 5 seed. When Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have all been on the court, the Bucks have been elite. But take those two off and the Bucks are only plus-1.6 per 100 with a 30th-percentile offense, per CTG, with Giannis as the sole star.
That's kind of a filthy number with all kinds of context required, but we're splitting hairs here. What Jokic and Embiid are doing under similarly trying circumstances is just a little more impressive, and again, Curry's on-off splits are almost double Antetokounmpo's as of Friday.
Morant has been great all season, but part of this is recency bias. The momentum around him has exploded of late, and for good reason: Since Christmas, Morant is averaging 29-6-6 on just under 50-percent shooting with a wheelbarrow full of jaw-dropping highlights, which matters. There isn't a more electric player in the league right now. Voters are human.
Most important, the Grizzlies -- at plus-8.2 in Morant's minutes since Christmas, nearly identical to Embiid's mark in Philly -- are comfortably No. 3 in the West at 36-18, and they're 15-6 since Morant returned from injury/COVID. Throw out the two games he looked like he was just getting his legs and rhythm back, and that record goes to an impressive 15-4 with a 10-game win streak mixed in.
That's when Morant started opening MVP eyes. It's similar to all the momentum that was around DeMar DeRozan prior to Morant's surge. DeRozan's clutch scoring was all the rage. Now that narrative has sort of died off even if DeRozan has still been great.
At the end of the day, I just don't think DeRozan can credibly compete for MVP when you're not even sure he's the best player on his own team, as Zach LaVine has a strong case. Same for Devin Booker and Chris Paul. If Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are going to split votes, then these duos aren't going to fare any better.
Morant is the lone star on a wildly charismatic team. He's the guy to watch, literally and figuratively.