Tracking the Trend: Emerging NBA MVP candidates

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Jordan Kim and Woojune Kim

Through the first month of the 2020-21 NBA season, the MVP race has remained wide open. Established superstars such as Lebron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are cruising through the regular season, while younger stars such as Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic are battling hard to keep their teams in the playoff conversation. However, two MVP candidates have slowly begun to pull away, and both have interesting stories of getting here; so who are they, and why are they the favorites?

 

Kevin Durant is sending a message: he is back.

An Achilles tear is one of the most devastating injuries for basketball players. Legends including Kobe Bryant suffered this specific injury, and afterward, many experts claim that he was never the same. Hence, questions lingered as to whether Kevin Durant, the 7-foot sniper extraordinaire, would be able to fully return as his old self in the 2020-21 season after suffering a brutal Achilles tear in the 2019 NBA Finals Game 5. 

 

As soon as Durant stepped on the floor, all doubts were gone. How is Durant looking so far, approximately 20 games into the season? The statistics speak for themselves. Durant is currently averaging 30.4 points per game—second most in the league—along with 7.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, during this amazing streak, he is shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 44.6 percent from three—far better than the league average field goal percentage of 46 percent and three-point percentage of 36.5 percent. In addition, Durant carried his team’s load and delivered crucial wins against key Eastern Conference rivals, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, during the absence of his star teammate Kyrie Irving. 

 

Durant has clearly entered the 2020-21 season with a mission. The explosive, unguardable scoring machine is chasing another ring wearing a Brooklyn uniform and is looking to prove all doubters wrong. Two-time Finals MVP and one-time regular season MVP Kevin Durant is back, and him leading the MVP discussion is nothing new. 

 

Joel Embiid is blossoming into a true MVP. 

During the summer of 2018, Joel Embiid made a bold claim that he would win MVP in the following season. Eight months later, he shed tears while walking off the court as his team lost after a heartbreaking buzzer-beater in the playoffs. Before the 2019 season, Embiid asserted his aim to win MVP again, but his team did not win a single playoff game that year. Embiid’s words were becoming substanceless, and critics began to wonder when he would play at such a high level. 

 

This year, however, there is no doubt that Embiid is an MVP frontrunner. Two major changes have made him one of the strongest MVP candidates: team success and unparalleled efficiency. The Sixers, Embiid’s team, currently stand at first in the Eastern Conference. If Embiid manages to lead his team to the best record in the conference, it would be proof that his play translates into wins. Yet even if his team doesn’t finish atop the conference, Embiid’s efficiency may get him the MVP award anyway. He is currently leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a metric developed to rank players’ effectiveness every minute. He is setting a career-high in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, and points per game. By playing at such a high level, Embiid is also reminding viewers that basketball is not just a game of shooting threes, as many people perceive: a 213cm giant can still dominate. His achievements so far are impressive, to say the least, and if he keeps it up, Embiid will surely be a strong contender for the MVP by the end of the season.