Let’s just get this out of the way: Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets is going to win the 2020-21 NBA Most Valuable Player award. It’s not going to be Joel Embiid, it’s not going to be Stephen Curry, and it’s not going to be LeBron James, or any of the other contenders from various portions of the season.
In his awards column from earlier this week, Zach Lowe of ESPN put it best: “What looked at the halfway point to be one of the most rollicking MVP races in history turned into a coronation.” Jokic is currently the -5000 betting favorite to win, according to sportsbetting.ag, and nearly every voter who has publicly revealed their ballot has had him at the top, including Lowe. 60% of the NBA fans polled in our SB Nation Reacts survey agreed that Jokic should win.
But while Jokic winning his first MVP award may be inevitable, that doesn’t mean James — who has won the award himself four times and was in contention for a fifth prior to a high ankle sprain that cost him the most games of his career — agrees with the choice the voters appear to have already made. After the Lakers finished out the regular season on Sunday night, James, completely unprompted, mentioned that he saw Curry as the clear MVP while discussing what kind of threat the Warriors pose for their play-in tournament matchup with the Lakers later this week (emphasis mine).
“I mean you cannot replicate a Game 7, especially with the first game. I’ve always treated Game 1s like a feel out game, but obviously you don’t have that luxury in a play-in game,” James said. “We’re playing vs. in my opinion the MVP of our league this year in Steph so we’ve got to be prepared for everything that they have.
“They’ve got championship DNA as well, and they’ve been there. They know what it takes, and what it feels like to be in pressure games, so we’ve got to be ready for that opportunity and that pressure.”
Pressed for why he sees Curry as the MVP of the league, James — without mentioning Jokic even once, to be clear — made his case for Curry as the league’s best player this season.
“Just look what he’s done this year. I mean, everybody counted him out this year. Everybody was saying ‘well now that Klay is hurt, can Steph lead a team on his own? What is he going to be able to do? Can he carry a team on his own? Can he carry a team into the postseason? Can he keep a team afloat?’” James asked rhetorically, doing his best impression of a sentient Twitter burner account. “He’s done that and more. I think he has the most 40-point games or something like that, or he’s got the most (games with) 10 3’s made in a season. He’s broke his own record for how many threes he’s made this year. I think he’s scored like 30 points in the second half of games like eight or nine times this year.
“I don’t know anything else, if you’re looking for MVP, if Steph is not on Golden State’s team, then what are we looking at? We get caught up in the records sometimes, we get caught up in the ‘okay, who has the best record’ instead of saying ‘who had the best season that year?’” James continued. “Steph has had in my opinion the best season all year.”
James also made the case that it’s not unprecedented to give the MVP award to a player on a team from the lower half of the playoff bracket.
“It was the same when Russ won the MVP,” James said, mentioning the 2016-17 season, when Russell Westbrook won MVP despite his Oklahoma City Thunder being the sixth seed. “Russ was the first guy to have a triple-double in a season since the Big O and everyone threw the records out the window then when he won it.
“When you look at what he’s doing, Steph is just like...” James said, trailing off before collecting his thoughts. “Russ deserved it that year, and obviously I don’t think Steph is going to get it because, well, that’s another conversation, but in my eyes he’s played the best basketball year round.”
Once the tweets of these quotes started going around on Sunday night, theories were flying for why James would say this now. Does he just really think Steph is the MVP? Is he trying to get in his head before the play-in game? Recruit him to the Lakers? Take a shot at Jokic and the Nuggets for throwing their final game to duck the Lakers in the playoffs? The possibilities are truly endless.
But while any or all of those things could be motivators for James to make these comments now, it’s also clear that he has a lot of respect for the man he’s faced four times in the NBA Finals and will see one more time now in the play-in.
“For our paths to cross again in our careers, it’s pretty unique and it’s pretty cool. Both of us being born in Northeast Ohio, born in Akron... We’ve got that DNA. Our paths will cross again (now). It’s always been a level of respect that’s even beyond the game of basketball, the way I feel for Steph,” James said.
And in the end, isn’t the real MVP the respect you earned from the GOAT along the way?