February 10, 2021

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Tim Bontempspen.

Just seven weeks ago this season, the NBA announced its victory when Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic was installed as the betting favorite to win MVP honors.

But as with everything in this short pandemic season, nothing went according to plan.

The Doncic Mavericks are 14th in the Western Conference, leaving the race for the MVP title open to a host of candidates and LeBron James could win a historic fifth MVP trophy.

After finishing his second season behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became the 12th player in NBA history to win the MVP Trophy twice in a row, James returns to first place in the first ESPN poll of the season.

To determine the state of the game at this stage of the season, ESPN asked 100 members of the media to participate in an informal poll similar to a postseason awards vote. To make the poll as realistic as possible, there are at least two voters from each of the league’s 28 markets, as well as representatives from national and international journalists.

As with the official NBA end-of-season voting, voters were asked to vote for five players, and the results were counted according to the league’s point system: 10 points for each first-place finisher, then seven points for second, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.

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Although James currently leads the way in the quest for his fifth MVP trophy, which he hopes to win for the fifth time in the NBA this summer, he has received 54 votes out of a possible 100 first-place votes, but the race is more competitive at this stage of the season than at any time in recent memory, with two crossovers – Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid and Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic – hot on his heels.

For his 18th season, James, 36, remains remarkably consistent. He has played in all 25 of the Lakers’ games to date, averaging over 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists for the fifth straight season. James is achieving a career record of 41% with 3 points. This is the first time since 2013 – the year he won his last MVP award – that James has had more than 40% success with 3-pointers. It is also the only season in his career in which he has achieved this percentage; he has had less than 37% success at 3-point in each of the last six seasons.

James was nominated on 99 of the 100 ballots and scored a total of 760 points, only 95 points higher than Embiid (23 votes for first place). Embiid was the only player to be on all 100 ballots. The last MVP race with such a small margin was in 2004-2005, when Steve Nash beat Shaquille O’Neal by 34 points. Jokic finished third with 18 first-place votes and 596 points overall.

Thus, the difference between James in first place and Jokic in third place is 164 points. By comparison, Antetokounmpo finished second behind James in last year’s poll with 152 points. Since the 1998-99 season lockout, in which Alonzo Morring and Tim Duncan finished within 100 points of MVP Karl Malone, there has never been such a gap between first and third in a recent MVP poll.

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Embiid is playing by far the best season of his career. He is averaging 29.3 points per game and is shooting 55.3 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the free throw line for Philadelphia, which has the best record in the Eastern Conference. 15.2 points per 100 possessions are scored when Embiid is on the court.

Philadelphia has played 16-3 games with Embiid this season and 1-4 games without him.

Jokic is currently the only NBA player in the top 10 for points (27.6), rebounds (11.5) and assists (8.6) per game. He briefly led the league in passing, something no center has accomplished all season since Wilt Chamberlain did so in 1968. Jokic and Embiid are aiming to become the first center to win an NBA MVP award since O’Neal won it in 2000.

The depth of the race is not only reflected in the competition at the top of the poll. Seven players received at least one first-place vote, more than in any previous poll. In addition to James, Embiid and Jokic, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant received three first-place votes, while Los Angeles Clippers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each received one first-place vote, as did Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

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Durant, who missed all of last season due to a torn Achilles tendon, finished fourth with 272 points and was on 75 ballots, while Leonard (153 points, 64 ballots) was fifth.

Antetokounmpo, the reigning two-time MVP, finished a distant sixth by a handful of votes because it seems unlikely that he will win a third in a row. Doncic, one of the preseason favorites, earned only two third place votes as his scintillating statistical resume was easily overshadowed by the Mavericks’ overwhelming record.

A total of 15 different players received at least one vote, including three players from the same team – all of whom received at least one vote for the first time in any iteration of this survey.

Center Rudy Gobert and guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley led the Utah Jazz to an NBA high, but received only a handful of votes (four for Gobert, two for Mitchell and one for Conley), indicating the collective nature of the team’s success this season. The last team where three players received MVP votes in the same season was the 2004-05 Suns (Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Sean Marion).

ESPN NBA MVP survey results

Frequently asked questions

Who is the first NBA player to be unanimously voted MVP?

May 10, 2016 marked a significant day in the career of Warriors goalie Stephen Curry, who was not only named NBA MVP for the second year in a row, but was also the first person to receive the award unanimously.

Who is the youngest MVP in NBA history?

On the 29th day of the sixth month of his 22nd year, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history, beating the late Wes Unseld (23 years and 9 days in the 1968-69 season) by about six months.

Was there ever a senior vice president in the NBA?

How many times have there been co-owners? On four occasions (1959, 1993, 2000, 2009) they were teammates in the NBA All-Star game. In the latter case, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Suns’ Shaquille O’Neal Centre shared the honor in 2009.

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