The Los Angeles Lakers have been the biggest storyline of the entire NBA season. In fact, they may be the most-talked-about ninth-seed in league history. However, if you’re tired of hearing about the Lakers and their struggles, you should pay attention to a particular competition that could heat up more and more as the season nears its end: the league MVP race.
Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been the two primary candidates for most of the season. But one man is creeping up behind them and has become a legit contender for the award: DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan has had an incredible year for the Chicago Bulls, and he has them sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference. But his efforts haven’t been quite good enough for Shaquille O’Neal to put him atop the league MVP race just yet.
DeMar DeRozan has put himself in the thick of the NBA MVP race
It appeared DeMar DeRozan was starting to take a step back in terms of production. After averaging 27.3 points for the Toronto Raptors in 2016-17, DeRozan posted 23.0 per game in 2017-18 before averaging only 21.6 points the last three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
However, he is now playing the best he ever has for the Bulls.
In his first year with Chicago, DeRozan is using his mid-range brilliance to average a career-high 28.3 points on 51.7% shooting. He’s also making a career-best 36.5% of his three-pointers and averaging 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
The most important argument for his MVP case, though, is his team’s success.
Chicago hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016-17. It also won fewer than 30 games three years in a row between 2017-18 and 2019-20 before winning just 31 last season. With DeRozan, the Bulls are 39-22 and No. 2 in the East. They made several other moves within the last year to help put them in this position, but adding DeRozan was easily their best.
Shaq, though, isn’t putting him atop the MVP race just yet.
Shaquille O’Neal won’t put the Bulls star atop the MVP race
Shaquille O’Neal, the 1999-2000 NBA MVP, recently appeared on his show, The Big Podcast with Shaq, and one of his co-stars, Spice Adams, asked whether DeMar DeRozan deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
O’Neal said no at first.
“No, man. Stop it,” he said on the Feb. 25 episode.
He then clarified his statement by saying that the conversation, in his eyes, is only between the top two players, but that might not be the case for everyone.
“The conversation to me means one or two, not five, six, seven, eight,” O’Neal said. “He ain’t one or two.”
So, who’s one and two?
“Embiid and Joker (Jokic),” Shaq said.
O’Neal then made sure to say that DeRozan deserves to be in the conversation. He just clearly doesn’t think he’s one of the top-two candidates just yet.
But is the big fella right?
DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the top-two for MVP just yet … but he still has time
Earlier during his podcast, Shaq said he believes MVP should go to “the baddest guy in the league.” He used Russell Westbrook as an example. Russ won MVP in 2016-17 because he carried the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs. They wouldn’t have made it to the postseason had it not been for him.
And all of the top MVP candidates are in that category.
The Bulls have been trash for years, but DeRozan has elevated them to the No. 2 seed in the East.
Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, though, have had to work with less.
The former didn’t have a second option until recently due to Ben Simmons not showing up to work. But his league-leading 29.8 points to go with 11.1 rebounds per game has carried the Philadelphia 76ers to a 37-23 record.
Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP, is in a similar situation. His second and third options, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., have been injured, but he has averaged 25.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 8.0 assists, and the Denver Nuggets are sitting at 36-25.
If Embiid and Jokic’s stats go down at all, and DeRozan either continues getting stronger or leads the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the East, he could certainly take their spots at No. 1 or 2. And a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. Neither Embiid nor Jokic are running away with the award just yet.
All in all, DeMar DeRozan has had a fantastic season, and whether he gets MVP or not, he deserves to receive as much praise as any star in the league this year.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference