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Although the NBA does not name a postseason MVP outside the Finals, the playoffs just wouldn’t be the playoffs if we didn’t rank the most meaningful contributions from the league’s best stars.
Much like the regular-season honor, our postseason ladder has a subjectivity problem. No concrete set of criteria can be used to determine what constitutes an MVP.
Evaluations will vary by person. Some still want to hero-worship the best player on the best team. Others consider MVP pecking orders a discussion about indispensability, or about which stars have drastically exceeded expectations.
For others still, this is a matter of identifying the best players who have waded through the most adversity. Anecdotal context is big by this measure. Key injuries and poor showings from critical co-stars prop up those arguments.
Our official trip down Unofficial MVP Lane seeks to juggle it all, from the anecdotal to the analytical to the glaringly obvious. Only one rule is set in stone: Candidates must come from teams that are still hooping. Everything goes after that.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting a raw deal. A non-competitive first-round series with the Detroit Pistons hurt his stock by default. The Bucks only needed him to tally more than 30 minutes once over the course of their sweep.
But if anyone can pick up ground relative to the field in a hurry, it would be the regular-season MVP favorite. Milwaukee’s livelihood might demand it.
A Game 1 thrashing at the hands of the Boston Celtics opened the second round and incited questions about the Bucks’ offensive and defensive approach, including their use of Antetokounmpo. (For the love of everything, use him as a screener!)
Major alterations appear unlikely. Starting Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown for Game 2 is about as far as they’ve gone thus far. That’s fine when Antetokounmpo isn’t slogging his way to 22 points on 21 shots. Game 2 was a start, but needs to string together consecutive outings more in line with his superhuman normal before beginning his trek up the ladder.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Expect zero apologies, because we’ll be offering none.
Al Horford’s inclusion comes down to this: He does a little bit of everything, and there’s a chance, however slight, his very existence will break Antetokounmpo and the Bucks—the league’s best player and team.
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
This one stings. Kyrie Irving is an offensive treasure. No matter how many “Good job, good effort!” outings the Celtics get from Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, the offense runs the risk of falling apart without Irving.
And yet, Boston’s floor general has trudged through a few too many poor shooting nights to crack the top five. He’s close—extremely so. But he’s not there yet.
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Surrendering control of the offense to Kevin Durant often creates this misconception that Stephen Curry does less or not enough, or that he somehow isn’t performing up to snuff. Well, spades are spades, and falling into that trap isn’t advised.
Curry’s scoring and assist totals are down. So what? He’s still averaging 23.7 points and 5.0 assists on unimaginable efficiency, even for him.
He isn’t just banging in 46.6 percent of his treys on 8.3 attempts per game, which, quite frankly, holy cow. He’s shooting 75 percent at the rim and 80 friggin’ percent from floater range while getting to the line more often than he did during the regular season. Among the 107 players who have logged at least 100 minutes, Curry ranks 11th in free-throw-attempt rate.
No one tell the Houston Rockets.
Golden State has disappointed as a team. Allowing the Los Angeles Clippers, punchy as they are, to last six games stands out. And Curry has a few off nights to his name—namely Game 4 against the Clippers and Game 1 versus the Rockets.
By and large, though, he’s a human fireball. His true shooting percentage sits above 70, and he’d have even flashier counting stats if the Warriors weren’t so closely aligning his minutes with Durant’s court time.
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James Harden‘s playoff MVP case is harder to build than his regular-season argument. His true shooting percentage has dropped by nearly 10 points from 61.6 to 52.6, and facing the Utah Jazz’s drastic defensive measures in the first round messed with his field-goal-attempt profile.
Fewer of Harden’s looks are coming at the rim, and he’s gone from averaging 10.8 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes to 8.3. He’s become more reliant on generating fouls from jumpers and floaters, which doesn’t bode well for a player and team already so dependent on the former.
Houston’s frustrations with the officiating, Harden’s included, have started to grate. Neither that nor his dipping efficiency has warped his impact.
Utah employed one of the most egregious defensive schemes to try slowing him, and Golden State has dedicated itself to derailing the lob chemistry he shares with Clint Capela. Very few players invite that focus.
Through it all, Harden is shooting 45 percent on his trademark step-back triples and finishing at a respectable clip around the rim (63.6 percent). When more than 88 percent of his made baskets still go unassisted, punishing him for his overall drop in efficiency is hard.
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Kawhi Leonard’s regular-season maintenance program worked. The Toronto Raptors handled him with kid gloves in hopes of ensuring he’d be ready for the playoffs, and boy, is he ready for the playoffs.
Leonard is averaging 31.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists on brain-bending efficiency. He’s roasting defenses out of ball screens and posting a 61.4 effective field-goal percentage in isolation that’s too good to be true—tops among every player who has churned through at least 15 such possessions.
Slightly fewer of his looks are coming around the rim against the Philadelphia 76ers, but that hasn’t mattered. Defenses can wall off the iron all they want. He’s shooting 66.7 percent on pull-up jumpers inside the arc. That is, somehow, not a typo.
Philly found some success using Ben Simmons as Leonard’s primary defender. But that was less a solution and more making the best of an unwinnable situation. Simmons made life harder on Leonard, not impossible. As The Athletic’s Derek Bodner wrote:
“Through the series’ first two games, Leonard has scored 31 points on 77 possessions when defended by Simmons. That’s a lot—it comes out to more than 40 points per 100 possessions, which, by itself, would be fifth in postseason scoring. But it’s nothing compared to what Leonard has done so far in the 82 possessions anyone else on the team has been tasked to guard the former Finals MVP [58.5 points per 100 possessions].”
Some of Leonard’s defensive impact is muted by the degree of difficulty on his assignments, but he’s having more—Thanos voice—”I am inevitable” moments. On the 81 possessions in which he’s defended Simmons, the Sixers are notching an offensive rating of 100. And he was even more dominant going up against the Orlando Magic’s collection of guards and wings.
Try naming five players more valuable than Leonard at the moment, and you’ll fail. Even as supporting cast members not named Pascal Siakam have struggled to open the second round, he has the Raptors looking like Eastern Conference favorites and viable title picks.
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Kevin Durant received some flak for getting off just eight shots during the Warriors’ Game 2 loss to the Clippers in the first round. It didn’t matter that he attempted 12 free throws, or that he racked up five assists, or that he still scored 21 points. The optics suggested he wasn’t shooting enough.
Head coach Steve Kerr sort of agreed. Durant did not.
“I’m not going to go out there and just shoot 20 or 30 shots,” he said, per the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau. “I don’t play like that.”
“I’m Kevin Durant,” he went on to say. “You know who I am. Y’all know who I am.”
He’s right. We know exactly who he is: Someone who says he doesn’t need to shoot more and then goes ahead and shoots more.
In the five games Durant has played since making those comments, he’s averaging 40.2 points and 5.4 assists while slashing 54.5/40.0/91.1 on 24.2 field-goal attempts. Those are a video game’s video game numbers.
No one in the league is as equipped to get buckets so far outside an offense’s flow. He can make flames off the catch and almost 65 percent of his baskets come on assists, but so much of his game is rooted in doing exactly what defenses expect and them still being unable to fight back.
That scorer’s identity takes on new meaning in the playoffs, and it explains why Durant is working off back-to-back Finals MVPs. Golden State is Stephen Curry’s team, and head-to-head debates will rage on if and when this dynasty dissolves over the summer.
In the postseason, though, Durant is neither an outsider nor intruding upon the Warriors’ offensive functionality. For those few months, he is their identity—not entirely indispensable because they have Curry, but the lifeline they ride by design.
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Nikola Jokic has a claim to the No. 1 spot after he turned on the jets against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and led the Denver Nuggets to a Game 1 victory over the well-rested Portland Trail Blazers to open the Western Conference semifinals.
For now, he cedes ground to another, albeit just barely and with sub-max confidence. The gap separating him from the MVP of MVPs stands to vanish if he leads the Nuggets into the penultimate round.
Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double for the playoffs: 24.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists. His postseason ranks across all three categories are unfair. He’s seventh in points, second in rebounds and second in assists.
Appropriate responses include but are not limited to: “Literally WUT,” “He is the best passing big man of all time,” and “Isn’t this the dude who looks like a supporting kid actor from Nickelodeon’s Snow Day?”
Denver’s engine has been even better since the Nuggets’ Game 3 loss to the Spurs. He’s averaging 29.2 points on 21.4 shot attempts over his past five games and showcasing more willingness to let ‘er rip from beyond the arc.
Defending him is a fool’s errand when he’s that aggressive. Planning around his decision-making is exhaustive, both mentally and physically.
He will pump out of threes into could-be drives that are actually might-be diversions for baseline cutters. The way he surveys the floor from standstill positions and out of pick-and-pops is second to none. His end-to-end vision is divine. Opponents are at risk as soon as he grabs their miss. He’ll whip a perfectly placed pass down the floor or captain the break himself.
Bake in Kevin Durant-esque shot volume, along with deceptively quick hands at the less glamorous end, and Jokic is quite literally doing everything. He will change his offensive leanings based on how defenses are covering him, and he has yet to meet a matchup he cannot exploit this postseason. That’s not about to change while Portland uses Enes Kanter and Meyers Leonard to go at him.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Damian Lillard already had a strong case for postseason MVP before he dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder with 50 points and a seminal series-ender. This spot became his to lose after he buried a 37-footer in Paul George‘s face.
He has yet to forfeit it.
Nikola Jokic is knocking on the door. He might even have one foot through it. Durant and Leonard aren’t going anywhere. Lillard has the edge for now, and he’s showing no signs of letting go—not before the second round is over, anyway.
His postseason is playing out like folklore. He’s averaging 34 points per game, second-most in the NBA, on an untenable stream of ridiculously tough shots.
More than 52 percent of his attempts have come after seven or more dribbles. His effective field-goal percentage on these looks is 64.1—highest among everyone launching more than two per game. He has drilled more threes on those plays than Stephen Curry and James Harden combined.
Only Harden is burning through more isolation possessions and pull-up threes, on which Lillard is shooting 47.9 percent. More of his attempts have come at the rim than in the regular season, and he has upped his free-throw-attempt rate while increasing his three-point volume.
That’s not easy to do. Nothing Lillard does is easy these days.
The Blazers miss Jusuf Nurkic—their second-best player during the regular season—but they’re still hanging around. They are tethered to Lillard’s offensive transcendence more than ever, and he has responded without breaking character. He’s melded a more aggressive score-first style with the level of smarter selflessness that has inoculated Portland against last year’s postseason fate without wholesale changes.
Whether the Blazers have enough to take down the Nuggets is a matter worth debating. Lillard’s pole position among postseason MVP candidates is much less of a question. Portland’s offensive rating plunges by 51.6 points whenever he’s off the court—the largest swing in the league by a hilarious margin.
On-off splits aren’t everything, and we’re trafficking in tiny samples. This is still objectively ridiculous.
Right here, right now, no one means more to his team than Lillard does to the Blazers.