LeBron and Embiid injured... is Jokic alone in NBA MVP race?
Injury to LeBron James provided another twist in the 2020-21 MVP race, but will Nikola Jokic capitalise ahead of the other contenders?
Joel Embiid's injury last week appeared to clear a path for LeBron James to collect his fifth NBA MVP award.
Philadelphia 76ers big man Embiid - averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, as well as 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals - had already missed seven games this season before he went down with a knee injury against the Washington Wizards.
But Los Angeles Lakers superstar James did not see his clear run at the league's top individual honour last long.
James, who has 25.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, has carried the Lakers in Anthony Davis' absence but faces his own spell on the sidelines after an ankle sprain on Saturday.
That setback, in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, means this year's two leading MVP contenders face an uphill task to remain in contention as they sit out a key stretch of the regular season.
Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets center, appears the man most likely to profit and has quickly been installed as the bookmakers' favourite.
But with several twists already in the race to succeed back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic's standing is not yet safe.
The case against Jokic earlier in the season was his displays had not been able to lift the Nuggets into serious contention in the West. With 13 wins in their past 18 games to improve to 25-16, that is no longer the case.
While team-mate Jamal Murray has not been able to consistently perform at the standard he set in the 2019-20 playoffs - averaging 26.5 points in the 'bubble' but 21.1 this season - Jokic has taken his game to another level.
The Serbian's stat line for the year - 27.0 points, 8.6 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals - has never previously been achieved in league history, nor has any player in the past attempted at least 30 field goals across a season while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from three and 86.6 per cent of free throws.
This is an unprecedented campaign.
Tied with Denver at 25-16 in the West are the Portland Trail Blazers. Considering CJ McCollum has only played 16 games and Jusuf Nurkic 12, that is a quite remarkable achievement, led, of course, by Lillard.
Understandably, Lillard's usage rate is at a career-high 33 per cent, but he is making the most of those extra touches. Only Bradley Beal (32.5) has outperformed his 30.6 points per game - another career benchmark - and the Blazers star leads the league with 1,225 total points. Of those, 136 have come in 'clutch' situations, again putting Lillard at the top of the standings.
Taking a break from Portland's playoff push, Lillard even preserved enough energy to score 32 points in the All-Star Game, just ahead of Team LeBron team-mate and rival Stephen Curry (28). An MVP triumph would certainly see Portland's finest emerge from the shadow of the Golden State Warriors great.
Antetokounmpo beat James Harden to this award in 2018-19 and then LA's James last season, so a case of voter fatigue was always set to make him an unlikely winner for a third straight year, regardless of performances.
But with Embiid and James both hit by injuries, the 'Greek Freak' surely has to come into consideration. Once again, his numbers are seriously impressive.
The only man to outscore Lillard at the All-Star Game, putting up 35, Antetokounmpo is slightly down on last year's points (29.0 versus 29.5) and rebounds per game (11.7 versus 13.6) but has improved in all of the other key metrics with 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks.
The Milwaukee Bucks forward should be in the picture to retain both his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year titles.
Surely voters will not reward Harden in the year he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets? On performances alone, though, he deserves to be in the conversation.
The 2017-18 winner is not contributing the same number of points for the Brooklyn Nets as he was in Houston, but then his usage is down to 28.7 per cent for the year (28.1 in Brooklyn), by far the lowest it has been since the statistic was first tracked in 2014-15.
And Harden, still scoring an impressive 25.4 points since joining the Nets, is more than making up for this slight decline elsewhere.
So far the most prominent member of the team's 'big three', with Kevin Durant too often injured and Kyrie Irving absent for a spell, Harden leads the league in 2020-21 for assists (11.2) and is second for triple-doubles (11), making him an unpopular but worthy candidate.