Roundtable: Who Is Leading the NBA MVP Race?

LeBron is in his 18th NBA season, but he has not showed any signs of slowing down. The Crossover staff makes their first-quarter MVP picks.

We are over a quarter into the 2020–21 NBA season, and the MVP race is starting to heat up. LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant have all built incredible cases so far.

The Crossover staff picks their favorite candidate as we move further into the season.

Howard Beck: LeBron James

Let’s not overthink this, folks. The Lakers, minus a few minor hiccups, have dominated the first quarter of the season. They’re playing at a 59-win pace (based on an 82-game season). The defending champs are the clear favorites to win it all again.

And James is, as ever, the primary reason. He’s not only filling the usual columns (25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists), but also making a career-best 41.3% of his three-pointers while shooting more of them than ever (6.8 per game).

The Lakers have the No. 1–ranked defense, the seventh-best offense and are tied for first in net rating (plus-7.8 per 100 possessions). All with Anthony Davis on cruise control.

Remember when we all worried about a championship hangover? The short turnaround? The potential ill effects on a now-36-year-old star playing in his 18th season? No, James doesn’t either. And if the Lakers keep up this pace, he might just become the oldest MVP in league history.

Chris Mannix: LeBron James

James has been at the top so long he’s outlasted multiple rounds of voter fatigue toward him and is once again in the driver’s seat for MVP. At 36, James has been outstanding, shooting a tick under 50% from the floor and above 40% from three for just the second time in his career, and doing it while averaging the fewest minutes (33.3) in his career. Meanwhile the Lakers are cruising along at the top of the Western Conference. Look: James absolutely, positively was not robbed last year. Giannis Antetokounmpo put together one of the best regular seasons ever, and that’s when you win the award. But LeBron’s playoff performance last season is bound to linger with voters, which could give him the edge of others (Jokic, Embiid) who might post stronger numbers.

Michael Pina: Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard was my pick before the season began, and I’m sticking with him. He’ss the best player on the team with the most wins, averaging 26 points, five rebounds and five assists per game with residence in the 50/40/90 club. The Clippers outscore opponents by a whopping 16.2 points per 100 possessions when Kawhi plays and are outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions when he sits. (They maintain juggernaut status when he’s on the floor without Paul George.)

To round out the case, Leonard ranks third in PER and second in win shares, and is (still) the best defender at his position while averaging the most minutes of his career (aka more than LeBron). To boot, he’s on track to become the fifth player in NBA history with a usage rate of at least 29 and a turnover percentage below 8. In an era defined by the word “efficient,” no player is operating with a finer ruthlessness than the two-time Finals MVP, who’s playing like a third trophy is inevitable.

Jeremy Woo: LeBron James

There are a number of compelling cases after this first leg of the season, but I think it’s clearly LeBron (who, somehow, has not won the MVP since 2013). His numbers aren’t that far from where they finished last year—he’s not averaging 10 assists this go-around, but he is shooting a career-best 41.3% from three on a career-high 6.8 attempts. Load management has been a nonfactor, as James has yet to miss a game. He’s ensured the Lakers would have no title hangover, and frankly, he still just looks like the best player in the league at age 36. Embiid and Jokic and Durant and Giannis and Leonard are all in the picture. A lot of guys are having great years. LeBron would get my vote, if I had one, and if there were actually a quarter-season award to vote on.

Mark Bechtel: Nikola Jokic

Look, James should win this award, but through no fault of his own there’s a certain amount of LeBron-MVP fatigue out there. He’s playing some of the best basketball of his life, but even the fact that he’s now hitting better than 41% of his threes (something he’s never done before) doesn’t make his play seem novel. Unless he puts up a triple double while rescuing a kitten from a tree—and not just any kitten; an especially cute one who might know how to talk—it feels like something we’ve not only seen before, but something we’ve grown accustomed to. 

So my vote is going to Jokic. He’s averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists while leading Denver to a respectable 12–8 record that really should be better (the Nugs have the fifth-best net rating in the league). Jokic almost single-handedly stopped Utah’s 11-game winning streak, going off for 47 points and 12 rebounds. He had only five assists but still had the best assist percentage of any Denver starter, meaning the only reason he didn’t have a triple double is because he was too busy scoring to allow his teammates to get in on the act. Can Jokic win in real life? A few more outbursts like that will help, but it’ll likely come down to whether Denver can legitimately challenge the L.A.s in the West.

Michael Shapiro: Joel Embiid

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to snub LeBron James once again, but I think it’s worth highlighting Joel Embiid’s dominant campaign through the first stretch of the season.

Embiid has been a dominant force on both ends to start 2020–21, averaging a career-high 28.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game as the Sixers sit atop the Eastern Conference. Embiid’s full arsenal has been on display this season. He’s shooting over 40 percent from three and averaging 1.09 points per post-up possession. Philadelphia sports the NBA’s No. 3 defensive rating, and with Embiid on the floor, the Sixers are outscoring teams by 13.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s early, but a certain someone’s preseason MVP pick is looking pretty solid thus far.

Robin Lundberg: LeBron James

My default response when it comes to NBA MVP is James, as I feel he is almost always the league’s most valuable player when he is out there and healthy. And so far this season I’ve seen nothing to change that, especially given LeBron’s lights-out shooting from three and the fact that the shift to Anthony Davis as the Lakers’ top player has not happened yet. Plus, I could see voters giving James a bit of a make-good considering he should have more than four MVP trophies already. However, for James to win, L.A. needs to be near or at the top of the standings, as there are several great candidates, including big men Jokic and Embiid and the returning Kevin Durant (though the Nets’ acquisition of Harden may hurt his award case). But at this very moment, I’ll still say James.