The 7 N.B.A. All-Stars Who Would Be King (or Just M.V.P.)

One of the fiercest debates among fans and observers each N.B.A. season is over who should win the Most Valuable Player Award.

This season — already strange because of the coronavirus pandemic — has created the most wide-open race for the coveted award in several years.

Being named M.V.P. is official recognition that a player is not just a star, but a superstar. Every winner of the award who is eligible has made the Hall of Fame. But the qualifications for the award vary by voter, which is partly what makes the debate so contentious.

Is it for the best player? If so, why hasn’t LeBron James — a four-time recipient — won every year? Is it for who has the best stats? Is it for who does the most with the least talent around him? Is it for the best player on the best team? Should past playoff performances factor in? (The winner is chosen by members of the news media, but The New York Times does not vote on awards.)

Sometimes, the answers are easy. Last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks was a runaway winner. His stats were top notch (fifth in scoring, second in rebounding), and the Bucks had the best record.

The 2016-17 season had one of the most hotly disputed M.V.P. races ever, among James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook, who finished that season with his first triple-double average and led the league in scoring, ended up winning, even though his team at the time, the Oklahoma City Thunder, was only the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Almost halfway through this season, several players have made a compelling case to be a top-tier candidate.

Statistics were updated entering Friday night’s games.

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

25.6 points/8.1 rebounds/8 assists per game; 50.2 field goal percentage

The Case For:

James, 36, has played every game so far. His true shooting percentage — a measure of scoring efficiency that factors in free throws and gives more weight to 3-pointers — is at a solid 59.2 percent, despite a recent slump from the perimeter. The league average is around 55 percent. James is the best player on the team that entered the weekend with the fourth-best record in the league. And he’s LeBron James. His numbers rival those of his previous M.V.P. seasons. If you believe that he should have won the award then, there is no reason he shouldn’t win now.

The Case Against:

James has another elite player, Anthony Davis, as a teammate. If you believe in the literal definition of valuable, then you must consider that when James sits, Davis, if healthy, fills some of the void in a way the vast majority of players can’t. Put another way: No other candidate has a teammate as good as Davis. Also, James is 13th in the league in scoring. He’s ninth in assists and 22nd in rebounding. The last M.V.P. to not be top 10 in points, rebounds or assists was Dirk Nowitzki in the 2006-07 season.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

29.6 points/11.2 rebounds/3.1 assists per game; 51.6 field goal percentage

The Case For:

Embiid is anchoring the best team in the Eastern Conference on both ends of the floor and does not have another bona fide top-10 player supporting him. He’s fourth in the league in scoring, while being absurdly efficient (64.4 percent true shooting).

The Case Against:

Embiid’s counting stats are fantastic, but he’s not as good a passer as other contenders. And even with his gaudy numbers, there is an argument that Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets is having a better season.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

26.9 points/10.9 rebounds/8.4 assists per game; 56 percent field goal percentage

The Case For:

Jokic’s traditional stats are eye-popping, but when you look under the hood, you see he is putting together one of the greatest seasons ever. That is no exaggeration: His O.B.P.M. (a measure of how much a player contributes offensively compared with an average player) puts his performance at not just No. 1 in the league this season but among the five best offensive seasons in league history. It’s a higher O.B.P.M. than Larry Bird ever had. Michael Jordan had only one season better. Jokic’s win shares per 48 minutes — an estimate of how many wins an individual player is responsible for — lead the league, and also rank as one of the highest in history. He’s doing all of this while not having a teammate who will make the All-Star Game this season.

The Case Against:

The Nuggets are only 17-15. There is a chance they won’t even make the playoffs this season. It’s hard to give an M.V.P. to someone, no matter how great, if his play isn’t leading to wins.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

30 points/5.5 rebounds/6.3 assists per game; 47.9 field goal percentage

The Case For:

Curry has played every game this season except one and has kept the Warriors afloat, despite Klay Thompson’s missing the whole season, and Draymond Green’s missing time because of injuries. From a statistical perspective, Curry is putting up nearly identical numbers to his 2015-16 M.V.P. season, which is considered one of the most dominant in N.B.A. history. This run might be even more impressive, given the lack of consistent playmakers around him. Curry is second in the league in scoring.

The Case Against:

As with Jokic, the team success isn’t there. The Warriors are 18-15 and are closer to missing the playoffs than to getting home-court advantage.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

29.6 points/4.4 rebounds/8 assists per game; 44.7 percent field goal percentage

The Case For:

Lillard’s numbers are consistently exceptional from year to year. This season, however, he’s doing this without the second- and third-best players on his team, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, who have been sidelined with injuries. Despite not having another elite playmaker next to him, Lillard has carried Portland to 18-13 and fifth place in the Western Conference. From a “doing the most with the least” perspective, combined with elite statistics, Lillard and Curry have the best cases.

The Case Against:

There’s no obvious hole in Lillard’s M.V.P. case other than simple competition. It’s a deep field, and Lillard’s numbers are on par with those of multiple candidates, including Curry and Luka Doncic.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

28.5 points/8.4 rebounds/9 assists per game; 47.4 field goal percentage

The Case For:

Doncic is, once again, having one of the best all-around seasons in the league. He does it all. He’s an elite scorer and passer, while also being one of the best rebounding guards in the league. The Mavericks have been in flux for much of the season, as multiple players have missed games because of health concerns related to the coronavirus, so Doncic, as the only All-Star on the team, has to shoulder much of the offensive load.

The Case Against:

As things stand right now, Dallas, at 15-16, would not make the playoffs. The last time a player from a below-.500 team was named the M.V.P. was 1976, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award in his first year with the Lakers. Doncic is also a streaky shooter, so his percentages might not hold up as the season goes on.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

28.9 points/11.7 rebounds/5.9 assists per game; 55.5 field goal percentage

The Case For:

Antetokounmpo’s numbers are in line with his previous two seasons, both of which won him M.V.P. Awards. He’s top 10 in rebounding and scoring, something only Embiid can also say.

The Case Against:

Fairly or not, Antetokounmpo’s falling unexpectedly short in multiple playoff runs will be on the minds of voters. Additionally, if he wins the award, it would be his third straight — and there may be voter fatigue when there is such a deep field. The Bucks are only 20-13, slightly below preseason expectations. In almost any other season with that stat line, Antetokounmpo would be the runaway winner.

Honorable Mentions:

Kyrie Irving/James Harden/Kevin Durant

The players in the Nets’ trio are individually having exceptional seasons, rivaling all the other candidates. But they play on the same team, making it difficult to pick one most valuable player, and each has missed a significant chunk of time.

Paul George/Kawhi Leonard

Both players are having essentially the same great seasons on the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard is averaging 26.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, around the same as George. And the Clippers have the second-best record in the league. As with the Nets, it’s hard to pick one player to give the award to, especially with others putting up better stat lines.

Donovan Mitchell

He is the best player on the best team in the league. But his all-around stats don’t match those of other candidates.

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