NBA MVP rankings: Top contenders with Joel Embiid out of the picture

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid's recent knee surgery will cost the NBA's reigning MVP the 65 games necessary to be eligible for this year's award, leaving open a race that once felt headed for another repeat.

Of course, previous back-to-back MVPs Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo remain in the mix, as do a pair of surging 25-year-olds in Boston and Oklahoma City, who both finished in last year's top five.

So, let's reset the MVP race with roughly 30 games to go in the season, starting with those four favorites.


1. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets

  • BetMGM MVP odds: -155

  • Personal record: 35-17 (55-win pace); +21.3 on/off differential (100th percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 28.1 PTS (58/37/82), 13 REB, 9.6 AST (3.2 TO), 1.3 STL, 1 BLK

  • Advanced: 65.1 TS%, 29.9 USG%, 7 DPM (1st), 14 BPM (1st), 7.1 VORP (1st)

We left the 2023 NBA Finals under the impression Jokić is the greatest player alive. The 28-year-old enjoyed a historically dominant individual playoff performance for a historically dominant playoff team. The reigning Finals MVP, Jokić also probably should be the league's three-time defending regular-season MVP.

And we have seen nothing this season to convince us otherwise, especially since Embiid is out of the MVP picture. Jokić is consistently ranked among the league leaders in every all-encompassing advanced stat and the NBA's best in Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Box Plus/Minus, per Basketball Reference.

Forget the advanced numbers. The guy we all agreed was the best player on the planet is averaging a 26-12-9 on 58/37/82 shooting splits on a team in the mix for the Western Conference's No. 1 seed. That team, by the way, operates like the greatest offense in NBA history (121.9 points per 100 possessions) when Jokić is on the court and the worst offense in three seasons (104.6 points per 100 possessions) when he's not.

We really don't need to think too hard on this one. The greatest offensive hub in the game for at least four years running is doing it better than anyone in the most explosive offensive season the NBA has ever seen.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - OCTOBER 29: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder attempts to drive past Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter of a game at Paycom Center on October 29, 2023 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)
If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wants to win MVP, he'll have to get past Jokić. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +260

  • Personal record: 36-16 (57-win pace); +10.5 on/off differential (93rd percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 32.4 PTS (55/37/88), 6.8 AST (2.3 TO), 5.8 REB, 2.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Advanced: 64.9 TS%, 32.9 USG%, .296 WS/48 (1st), 9.4 EPM (2nd), 5.5 VORP (2nd)

In a season full of great guard performances, Gilgeous-Alexander is unquestionably the best. He knives through defenses like a Michelin-starred chef, leading the league in both field goals and free throws made for 843 total points on drives this season — 200+ more than Luka Dončić (607) or Jalen Brunson (585).

Gilgeous-Alexander is also shooting 50% from mid-range, fourth among everyone who attempts at least three jumpers per game. His 3-point shooting is back above average (37%), the last frontier for an offensive dynamo who has boosted his assist and turnover rates to the highest and lowest of his career, respectively, both top 10 among high-usage regulars. His passing generates an additional 17.6 efficient points a game.

A returning All-NBA first-team selection, Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in both steals (2.2) and deflections (3.6) per game, his 6-foot-11 wingspan wreaking havoc on the perimeter for a top-five defense.

Gilgeous-Alexander is 25 years old and the sole All-Star on the NBA's second-youngest team, and his Thunder are outperforming even the loftiest of expectations, one loss from the best record in the West.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +650

  • Personal record: 34-18 (54-win pace); +17.9 on/off differential (99th percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 31.8 PTS (61/25/66), 11.7 REB, 6.5 AST (3.6 TO), 1.4 STL, 1.1 BLK

  • Advanced: 64.8 TS%, 33.2 USG%, 6.3 DPM (2nd), 7.6 EPM (3rd), 6.98 WPA (3rd)

The Bucks swapped Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard, they are on pace to win five fewer games than last season, and it feels worse, which is enough to knock Antetokounmpo from the spot directly behind Jokić.

But it's hard to drop him any lower. Antetokounmpo is generating the same level of production that we have become accustomed to — the same that earned him MVP awards in 2019 and 2020 — on the best scoring efficiency of his career. His inability to space the floor is all that holds him back from complete domination.

Still, the Bucks perform like the best offense in the league (120.9 points per 100 possessions) when Antetokounmpo is on the floor and a bottom-five unit when he's not (109.9 points per 100 possessions).

The backcourt of Lillard and Malik Beasley, combined with the aging of Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, means the defensive onus on Antetokounmpo is greater than ever, and that side of the ball is the equivalent of a top-10 outfit when the one-time Finals MVP is in the game and a bottom-10 grouping when he's not.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +8000

  • Personal record: 39-11 (64-win pace); +1.4 on/off differential (62nd percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 27.1 PTS (47/36/82), 8.5 REB, 4.7 AST (2.5 TO), 1 STL, 0.6 BLK

  • Advanced: 60.3 TS%, 29.9 USG%, 5.8 DPM (4th), 6.8 Win Shares (T-10th)

Whatever happened to the "best player on the best team" argument for MVP? We lost that somewhere while we were delving into the ever-increasing number of advanced statistics. Those numbers are not going to support Tatum, since the Celtics are — for the first time in his career — pretty darn good (+8 points per 100 possessions) when he is not on the floor. A player's value is diminished the better his team performs.

Except, a player's ability to tie everyone together adds exceptional value. Tatum can do anything and everything on the court. He is an elite scorer, creator, defender and rebounder from every level, from every position. No one else at the top can make that claim. Tatum often shares the floor with another All-NBA wing, the most well-rounded backcourt in the league and a damn "unicorn" at center — and still gets his.

The nightly 27-9-5 that Tatum posts on better than 60% true shooting is created from 4.8 minutes of possession per game — 50% less often than Gilgeous-Alexander has the ball in his hands and 80% less than Dončić, per the NBA's tracking data. Tatum isn't dominating possessions until he needs to bail them out, and much of his production comes in those high-leverage situations. His skill unlocks a juggernaut.

The Celtics are on pace to win 64 games, seven more than any other team, and nobody considers them a contender if Tatum does not tie Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis together.


5. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +1200

  • Personal record: 28-18 (50-win pace); +5.8 on/off differential (80th percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 32.9 PTS (49/38/78), 9.2 AST (3.8 TO), 8.5 REB, 1.4 STL, 0.6 BLK

  • Advanced: 62.0 TS%, 35.9 USG%, 5.2 VORP (3rd), 7.1 EPM (4th), 4.99 WPA (8th)

6. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +3000

  • Personal record: 33-15 (56-win pace); +10.1 on/off differential (93rd percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 25.3 PTS (53/45/89), 6.5 REB, 3.9 AST (1.7 TO), 1.7 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Advanced: 63.6 TS%, 26.1 USG%, 5.8 DPM (4th), 6.1 EPM (8th), 3.5 VORP (9th)

7. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +10000

  • Personal record: 29-14 (55-win pace); +15.1 on/off differential (99th percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 28.9 PTS (48/36/86), 6.4 AST (2.9 TO), 5.5 REB, 1.9 STL, 0.5 BLK

  • Advanced: 60.3 TS%, 32.2 USG%, 5.8 DPM (T4th), 6.4 EPM (6th), 3.7 VORP (7th)

8. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

  • BetMGM MVP odds: +5000

  • Personal record: 32-19 (52-win pace); +6.4 on/off differential (81st percentile)

  • Per 36 minutes: 27.6 PTS (48/41/83), 6.5 AST (2.4 TO), 3.9 REB, 0.9 STL, 0.2 BLK

  • Advanced: 59.4 TS%, 30.2 USG%, 7.1 Win Shares (8th), 4.92 WPA (10th), 4.7 EPM (14th)

Honorable mention: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns; Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves; Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers; Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings.