When the Los Angeles Lakers drew the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Western Conference play-in tournament, LeBron James had one player on his mind.
James told reporters that Warriors star Steph Curry was his pick for league MVP in 2020-21, a less-than-conventional choice this year despite Curry's stardom but high praise ahead of Wednesday's high-stakes matchup.
Curry won his second NBA scoring title by finishing the season with 32.0 points per game over 63 games. He shot 42.1 per cent from 3-point range and added 5.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest.
"I mean, just look at what he's done this year," James said of Curry. "I don't know anything else if you're looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State's team, what are we looking at?
"We get caught up in the records sometimes," he continued. "We get caught up in the, ‘OK, who has the best record,' instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year."
Curry's performance in 2020-21 was an important return to elite form after he missed most of 2019-20 with a broken hand. Still, Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic is the prohibitive betting favourite for the award, and Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid believes he has a case, too, despite missing a chunk of the season with a knee injury.
Jokic started all 72 games for Denver and averaged career highs in points (26.4), rebounds (10.8) and assists (8.3) while shooting 56.6 per cent from the floor and 38.8 per cent from 3-point range. The Nuggets didn't miss a step when Jamal Murray tore his ACL as Jokic carried them to the West's No. 3 seed.
James admitted he thought Curry, the 2015 and 2016 MVP, was a longshot at best to win the award.
"Obviously I don't think Steph is going to get it ... That's another conversation," James said. "But in my eyes, he's played the best basketball all year round."
The Lakers and Warriors will play Wednesday in Los Angeles in the West's 7-versus-8 game. The winner clinches playoff berth, while the loser will have one more chance on Friday by beating the winner of the 9-versus-10 game pitting the Memphis Grizzlies against the San Antonio Spurs.
Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers and Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns are longshot candidates.
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