LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years

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LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years
LeBron James.Ashley Landis/AP Images
  • Over a third of the way into the NBA season, there is no true front-runner for MVP.
  • LeBron James and Joel Embiid lead the race with solid counting stats and huge impacts on their team's success.
  • Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are also having stellar seasons, while Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic are solid candidates whose teams need to improve.

Through about a third of the NBA season, there's no clear front-runner for MVP.

Indeed, this year's MVP race looks set to be one of the closest in years, perhaps since 2016-17, in which Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard see-sawed, with Westbrook eventually taking home the award.

While there are several worthy candidates, LeBron James and Joel Embiid sit atop of the leaderboards. Both have worthy cases.

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James and Embiid have arguably the same case for MVP so far

Here's a quick snapshot of James and Embiid's cases for MVP. Their teams are both dominant:

  • The Philadelphia 76ers are 18-7, first in the East
  • The Los Angeles Lakers are 20-6, second in the West

Their counting stats are impressive:

  • Embiid: 29.1 points, 11 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.7% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.5% FT
  • James: 25.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 49.5% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 72.3% FT

Their teams are dominant with them on the floor (net rating is a team's scoring margin per 100 possessions):

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  • Embiid: 11.4 net rating while on the floor
  • James: 11.7 net rating while on the floor

And their teams both crater when they sit:

  • Embiid: -3.7 net rating while off the floor
  • James: -2.8 net rating while off the floor
LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years
Joel Embiid.Adam Hunger/AP Images

Voters will have to parse between what makes the two best players on arguably the two best teams stand out from one another. Is Embiid's defensive and offensive versatility more crucial to the 76ers than James' playmaking savvy and clutch play? Is Embiid finally, seemingly reaching his potential more impressive than James' production at age 36.

At this moment, however, it's hard to argue against Embiid getting into shape, becoming a two-way force, and putting up such efficient shooting stats for a team that disappointed one season ago.

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The next tier

James and Embiid haven't separated themselves from the field - they're simply the best players on the best teams, the easy formula to win MVP.

Kawhi Leonard is right there with them, though. The hype has died around the Clippers after last year's postseason flame-out, but they remain a team to be feared, and they're driven by one of the league's five best players.

Leonard is averaging 26.5 points per game, less than a point off a career-high set last year. He is averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game, becoming one of the key playmakers on a Clippers team without a traditional point guard. He is also shooting a career-high 40.2% from three-pointer and is just a hair off the coveted 50-40-90 club, with a 50-40-88 shooting line.

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The Clippers have outscored teams by 14.9 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor - a juggernaut-level margin.

LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years
Giannis Antetokounmpo.Jacob Kupferman/AP Images
Meanwhile, the reigning MVP is starting to heat up. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are 16-9 and 7-3 in their last 10 games. In that span, Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.6 points on 59.6% shooting, 12.2 rebounds, and 6.1 assists, and the Bucks have a 15.6 net rating with him on the floor.

The MVP candidates whose teams need to improve

Nikola Jokic is one of the favorites to win MVP this season, but the Denver Nuggets need to pick it up.

Jokic is averaging a career-high 26.9 points per game, with 11.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game. He was averaging a triple-double at one point and leading the NBA in assists from the center position. He is one of the NBA's best offensive players and not the defensive weakness some paint him to be.

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But the Nuggets are 13-11, 7th in the West, and one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. The Nuggets aren't serious contenders if they don't improve their defense, and if they don't enter the top four or five in the West, it'll be hard to consider Jokic for MVP.

Damian Lillard, meanwhile, may have the most underrated case for MVP. He is an offensive superstar carrying the load for a Portland Trail Blazers team trying to weather the storm. The Blazers are without three of their projected starters, including C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Since McCollum's last game on January 16, Lillard is second in the league in scoring at 32 points per game while shooting 47% from the field and 40% from three. The Blazers have been outscored by 9 points per 100 possessions when Lillard was on the bench during that stretch.

If the Blazers ever get healthy and Lillard can lead them to a top-four seed, he'll have a great shot at MVP.

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LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years
Damian Lillard.Nick Wass/AP Images

The rest of the field

  • Luka Doncic, the preseason MVP favorite, is putting up eye-popping stats, but his efficiency needs to improve - 30.9% from three, 78.8% from the free-throw line. His leadership has also been called into question during the Mavs' 12-14 start.
  • Stephen Curry is a one-man offense for a competitive Warriors team. Perhaps no other candidate on this list matches the "value" aspect like Curry, who is averaging 29.6 points per game with a 60.7% eFG, similar to his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16.
  • LeBron James and Joel Embiid are neck-and-neck in the tightest NBA MVP race in years
    Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP Images
    Donovan Mitchell is the leading scorer on the 20-5 Jazz, who have the best record in the league. He is averaging 24 points per game, in line with his last two seasons, but doing it much more efficiently. He is also averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game.
  • Rudy Gobert's candidacy is different than any other player on this list. He's averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds, with almost 3 blocks per game. He's the defensive anchor for the Jazz and cleans up everything inside. Why not reward the player the league's best team truly could not function without?
  • Kevin Durant is averaging a cool 29.5 points per game coming off a torn Achilles. The Nets' fire-power may hold back his case, but he is also clearly their best player. The team is a -57 in the minutes he hasn't been on the floor.
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