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Could Lakers’ struggles open up NBA MVP race for Nikola Jokic?

LeBron James and the Lakers have lost four games and a row, and their recent slide could help the Denver Nuggets center take a big step forward in the MVP race.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers calls out a play against the Washington Wizards during the second quarter at Staples Center on February 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has long been considered the best basketball player in the world by most but hasn’t won the NBA’s MVP Award since 2013. He entered the 2020-21 season among the favorites to take home the hardware, and the “narrative” that players and media alike say you need to win is on his side. I mean, come on. He’s 36.

James, a four-time MVP, has climbed the ranks to become the odds-on favorite (+150) in recent weeks. That could change very fast while Anthony Davis is recovering from an Achilles injury, though. The Lakers, who boasted the NBA's best record not long ago, have lost five of six games since Davis left due to a calf injury against the Denver Nuggets earlier this month.

Los Angeles was bested by the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, and Washington Wizards before getting blown out by the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz on Wednesday. While Dennis Schroder missing the Lakers’ last four games because of Covid-19 health and safety protocols has affected their success, James’ shooting struggles have also been a major factor.

James is averaging 25.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game this year. This is nothing new for him, as he’s averaged at least 25-8-8 in three of his last five seasons. However, his shooting efficiency has fallen off a cliff in February. James appeared to have figured things out from beyond the arc in January and shot 42.9% from deep on 7.0 attempts per game. That figure dropped 24.1% on 6.6 attempts per contest in February. While it’s impressive for a player with as much mileage as James to remain among the NBA’s elite, Davis returning and saving the Lakers from their recent slide could delegitimize the King’s MVP case.

Several MVP candidates could benefit from the Lakers’ struggles, and Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic (+600) is at the top of the list. Jokic has been the model of efficiency this year and leads the NBA in PER (31.15). He nearly cracks the top 10 in points (27), assists (8.4), and rebounds (10.9) while shooting a ridiculous 56.2% from the field and 40.8% from deep on a career-high 3.9 attempts per game. Jokic leads the league in double-doubles with 27, and only Russell Westbrook has more triple-doubles this year.

Westbrook averaged a triple-double with a 55.4% true shooting percentage when he won MVP in 2017. The last MVP to match Jokic’s 65% true shooting percentage was Stephen Curry, who became the first-ever unanimous winner in 2016. Joining that kind of elite company could make it hard for many people to argue against Jokic winning, but several other players are also tearing it up on offense.

Joel Embiid (+300), Kevin Durant (+1800), Zach LaVine (+50000), and Zion Williamson (+50000) are all averaging at least 25 points per game with true shooting percentages at 65% or higher. None of them can affect games with playmaking like Jokic, though. If the Nuggets can capitalize on playing at home in 20 of the 36 games they’ll play after the All-Star break and finish as a top-4 seed in the Western Conference, Jokic will have as good of an MVP case as any of the other frontrunners.