At the All-Star break, the 2020-21 MVP race seemed to be evolving into one of the most exciting ones in recent times with three frontrunners in Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and LeBron James. All three had different narrative points in their favour but all three were putting up MVP-caliber numbers and had led their team to winning records.
The second-tier included the likes of Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, James Harden and two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo - all of whom looked set to make a hard late push in the second half of the season.
However, a month since that showstopping one-day event in Atlanta, the MVP award has become Nikola Jokic's to lose. How? Why? Here's a deep dive:
Jokic is having a career season, averaging a career-high in all but one major category through 52 games, with 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.5 steals. He's the only player in the league to rank in the top 11 in points, rebounds and assists per game.
In all but one statistical category, Jokic has recorded his single-game career-best this season. He erupted for 50 points against the Kings in Sacramento, grabbed 22 rebounds against the Suns in Phoenix and dished out 18 assists against the Rockets in Denver.
His shooting efficiency is also at career-high marks as he knocks down 57.0 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. All of this is while leading the Nuggets to a 32-18 record, good for fourth-best in the West and seventh overall.
When Jokic is on the floor, the team's net rating is plus 8.5 (team-best) whereas the team's net rating falls to minus 1.8 (second-worst) while he's on the bench.
These stats place him at a very close second on ESPN's Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and NBA.com's Player Impact Estimate (PIE) behind Joel Embiid while playing in 18 more games. Per Basketball-Reference, Jokic leads the league in Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus and Value over Replacement Player.
In fact, per Basketball-Reference, Jokic's PER this season ranks 11th in NBA history, just a shave behind Embiid's.
Evolution into the best passing centre ever
Historically, Jokic's play - especially his passing - is putting him alongside and, sometimes, past the greatest centers in NBA history. The records he was setting or breaking with his assists numbers went as far back as Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain.
Jokic's recent 16-assist game against the Orlando Magic, with which he sparked a huge second-half comeback, helped him pass Chamberlain for the most games with double-digit assists (81) by a centre in NBA history. This game was his sixth career game with at least 15 assists - six more than the rest of the centres in the NBA combined since the 3-point era began (1980).
His 18-assist game in December was the most in the NBA by a center since Chamberlain in 1968.
🃏👀 Career-high 18 ASSISTS for Nikola Jokic.. the MOST by a center since Wilt in 1968! pic.twitter.com/brVw1r37ZL- NBA (@NBA) December 29, 2020
It's also important to remember that when Jokic erupted for his career-high of 50 points, he also dished out 10 assists, making him the first-ever Nuggets player to do so and the first centre in the NBA to do so since the 3-point era began.
In a statement road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Jokic racked up his 50th career triple-double, making him only the second centre to reach that tally, behind only Wilt Chamberlain, who recorded 78. What's more impressive is that Jokic's tally of career triple-doubles is now more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing and Tim Duncan combined.
LeBron James and Joel Embiid
Injuries to both Embiid and James that resulted in multiple missed games, have made Jokic the MVP favourite in what was once a very competitive three-horse race.
Embiid has returned from a knee injury suffered in mid-March but has so far missed 18 of the team's 51 games for the season. In James' case, there is no timetable announced after he sustained a high ankle sprain against the Atlanta Hawks in the fifth game after the All-Star break. He's missed 11 games so far.
Meanwhile, Jokic has played in each of the Nuggets' 52 games.
Tier 2 threats: Harden, Doncic, Antetokounmpo, and Lillard
Since being traded by the Houston Rockets, Harden has strung together a strong MVP case with multiple record-breaking performances in a Brooklyn Nets uniform. He's averaged 25.4 points, 11.0 assists, and 8.7 rebounds in 34 games, where Brooklyn has gone an impressive 27-7.
In Dallas, Doncic, who is averaging around 28 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, has recovered from a slow start with huge improvements each month, leading the Mavericks to a resurgent 20-8 record after a 9-14 start.
Luka Doncic, month-to-month in the 2020-21 season
What about Giannis Antetokounmpo? The 'Greek Freak's numbers for the season are not far off of last year's averages but voter fatigue and his success in the playoffs, or lack thereof, could impact his case. Not to mention, the team's relatively slower 32-20 record in comparison to its blazing 45-7 start last year.
Last but not least, there's Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers superstar is on the list because of multiple heroic performances in the clutch that have helped the team tread water while they missed two injured starters in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
Jokic, on the other hand, has kept his production and value consistent throughout the season but it's the Nuggets' revival, especially over the last five weeks, that has helped him remain above the players making a late charge for the award.
After a 17-15 start that was sub-par by their standards, the Nuggets have pulled off 17 wins in a 20-game stretch - making them the hottest team in the NBA.
What's at stake?
If Jokic were to be named NBA MVP, it would be historic on multiple grounds.
It would be the third straight MVP award won by an international player and the sixth overall in NBA history. Jokic would also become the first-ever Nuggets player and first-ever Serbian to receive MVP honours.
That's not all, either. Jokic receiving the award would put the bigs back in business as he would become the first centre since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 to hold the MVP Trophy.
The final note isn't one to gloss over, either. Jokic could become the lowest drafted player in NBA history to win the MVP award. Selected 41st overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jokic was drafted well after the current record holders in Steve Nash and Antetokounmpo, who were selected 15th in their respective drafts.
The narratives are seemingly endless.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.