With the 2019-20 NBA season set to tip off on Tuesday night — minus Zion, tragically — there is no better time to prognosticate with wildly incomplete information and choose this year’s MVP. If you need a primer on my methodology, here is a link to last year’s column which, despite being comically dumb in spots (the Kyrie section — woof), did actually lead to the correct answer. The process will be similar this year, but first, let’s narrow the list down to the most likely candidates.
Here are the current MVP odds at Bovada:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo +300
- Stephen Curry +550
- LeBron James +650
- Anthony Davis +700
- James Harden +800
- Kawhi Leonard +900
- Joel Embiid +1200
- Nikola Jokic +1200
- Russell Westbrook +1400
- Paul George +1600
- Damian Lillard +2800
There are a couple other mildly intriguing long-shots further down (Kyrie at +3300, Donovan Mitchell at +4000, Jimmy Butler at +7500), but in all likelihood, the winner is going to come from the list above. I am preemptively crossing Westbrook and George off the list. If Houston dominates to the extent where there is an MVP on their roster, then the winner is almost certainly James Harden. [Nothing we’ve seen in the preseason has made me doubt this assertion.] George is set to miss the first ten games of the year at bare minimum, and teams often undersell how long a guy will be out in these scenarios. The Clippers could ride out PG’s absence and still end up with a top-3 seed in the West, but as with Westbrook, if it comes to pass, we’re talking about Kawhi Leonard as the MVP candidate, not George. I’ve discussed previously how the “best player, best team” rubric is a bit oversimplified, but for it to work at all, the player in question actually has to be, you know, the best guy on his own team. Neither Brodie nor PG passes the test.
Let’s run down the rest of the options, using the patented “Win/Stats/Narrative Triangle” to gauge the likelihood of each player taking home the hardware. There are no “easy” cuts on this list, but of the options, I struggle most to see the award going to…
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers:
WINS: As a refresher, it’s important to remember that since MJ’s second retirement (after the ’98 season), the MVP winner’s team has averaged 61 wins, and outside of Westbrook’s anomalous campaign in ’16-’17, the lowest win total for an MVP in that span has been 54 (Steve Nash’s Suns in ’05-’06). [Giannis’s Bucks last year: 60 wins. Do not forget for a second how vital team success is to MVP voters.]
This is a long-winded way of saying I don’t entirely trust the Blazers to be a legit contender this season. Yes, they won 53 games last year and rode a favorable draw in the Western playoff bracket to the conference finals. So as usual, we underestimate them at our peril. Dame Dolla finished sixth in MVP voting last year and fourth in ’17-’18, but he looks to have an even heavier lift this season, along with stiffer competition. Portland’s over/under for wins at most of the books in Vegas is around 46.5, and while the Blazers typically overachieve, getting to 55+ wins might be a bridge too far. Jusuf Nurkic enjoyed a career year on both ends in ’18-’19 before suffering a gruesome leg fracture in March. He is likely to be out at least through February, and perhaps longer. His potential replacements are Hassan Whiteside, who loafed his way out of Miami and will have to prove to Portland’s coaching staff he can play the good soldier, and Zach Collins, who remains a talented prospect but needs to add a lot of strength to consistently bang on the interior and become a plus rim protector. Depth on the wing is a legitimate question mark, especially considering how beefed-up the West is now at those spots. Put it all together, and the Blazers are a team which could once again outstrip its projections, but an awful lot would need to go right for Dame to crack the top tier of MVP contenders.
STATS: Dame’s last three seasons have essentially been carbon copies of one another (here, look), and at 29 years old, there’s little reason to expect any regression in either direction this year. [Related: imagine someone looking at Lillard’s stats 50 years from now and coming across his ’16-’17 season. Dude averaged 27/5/6 on 44/37/90 shooting splits, played 75 games, and didn’t make the All-Star team. The West is crazy.]
Anyway, it would take another significant jump in either Usage or efficiency for Lillard to ascend into the top group of candidates, and it’s difficult to see where that leap comes from. There’s no shame in being a second-tier superstar, but it’s tough to win MVP awards when several others have higher ceilings.
NARRATIVE: Again, not much has changed from previous seasons. He had an awkward rap beef with Shaq, so that’s something, I guess?
VERDICT: He’ll finish higher than we think yet again, and his historical resume continues to grow, but for the purposes of this conversation, we’re in Ricky Bobby territory: if you ain’t first, you’re last.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers:
WINS: Look, I’ve made my thoughts on the Lakers’ prospects abundantly clear. Maybe I’m totally wrong, and having two of the best six players in the league (and not much else) is enough to crank out 57 or so wins, even in the absurd West. If that happens, it means both guys stayed relatively healthy and put up massive statistical seasons, so one or both of them are in the MVP conversation. Problem is, we’ve seen this movie before, and recently. Last year, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant combined for 147 games played, put up numbers right in line with their historical norms (in both volume and efficiency), the team won 57 games… and they finished 5th and 8th in MVP voting, respectively. Regardless of how successful the team is, it’s extremely difficult for two mega-stars of roughly equivalent value not to cannibalize each other’s vote share. With the number of worthy options, if you give voters a reason not to pick someone, they’ll take it, and “I can’t tell if that guy is the most valuable player on his own team” is a pretty compelling reason.
STATS: Again, both guys are likely to put up numbers which pass the MVP smell test on their own, and the pick-and-roll chemistry between the two of them is going to be majestic. But the problem remains the same.
NARRATIVE: Davis’s clumsy exit from New Orleans isn’t going to play well with voters, and LeBron’s complicity in the whole affair doesn’t help his case, either. Time is on AD’s side. He’s still only 26, and as memories of “That’s All, Folks!” fade in the minds of voters and LeBron ages out of the alpha role, Davis will be in a prime position to capitalize on his narrative in future seasons. LeBron has no such luxury. He’s won four MVPs already, so while no one is clamoring to add more hardware to his existing pile, if things break just right, the “aging legend busts out one more signature season” narrative could still swing in his favor. FWIW, I don’t see this happening; just know it’s in play.
VERDICT: A high-end, buddy comedy popcorn flick, but the Academy doesn’t recognize those.
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers:
WINS: The fully operational Clippers’ Death Star is going to be good. Like, really, really good. The question marks are: how long will it take to get there? And how often will we see it? As mentioned earlier, George will be out for an indeterminate length of time as he continues to recover from surgeries on both shoulders, and it will take a lot of reps for an equal opportunity offensive ecosystem predicated on ball movement and the pick-and-roll artistry of Lou Williams to adjust to Kawhi’s Terminator-like ball dominance and iso brilliance. The end result will be something nigh-unguardable when April rolls around, but there will be hiccups along the way. When every game in the West is such a dogfight, a prolonged “getting to know you” phase can result in a win total suppressed juuuuust enough to be a dealbreaker. Combine it with Kawhi’s probable load management — I don’t think it will be as pronounced as last season, but it isn’t going to go away entirely — and there are enough chinks in the armor to keep the defending Finals MVP out of the top tier for the regular season award.
STATS: Kawhi is going to score. Mercy, will he score. The gap in Leonard’s statistical profile — besides games played — has always been assists. For his career, he averages 2.8 helpers per-36 minutes, and he’s never averaged more than 3.8 per-36 for a single season. To his credit, his passing has looked less paint-by-numbers in the preseason, so it could presage an increased playmaking role as a Clipper:
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz penned a phenomenal piece recently about how the Clips’ offensive attack might work, and discussed at length how devastating a Lou Williams/Kawhi Leonard pick-and-roll (in either direction) could be, so there’s a chance we’ll see that become a much more prominent part of Kawhi’s arsenal in his new digs. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Kawhi’s stats holding him back from MVP consideration.
NARRATIVE: Something of a net-neutral, most likely. His gangster-ass power play to (allegedly) facilitate PG’s move to L.A. might turn off some old-head voters. Until further notice, he’ll be viewed as a “sixteen-game player” as opposed to a regular season player, a narrative which helps his case as a historical great but works against him in this context. When fully engaged, he remains Earth’s most terrifying perimeter defender, but voters won’t want to reward him if he conserves his energy and picks his spots throughout the regular season grind, as he appeared to last season in Toronto. Perhaps most important, winning awards like this seems to be the sort of thing about which the Vulcan-like Kawhi couldn’t give the slightest shit. He cares about making his teams better and winning championships, two things he has done with ruthless efficiency to this point in his career. Winning an MVP is a consequence of greatness, of course, but it also tends to be a goal unto itself. Kawhi is not the sort of person to set an individual goal if it in any way conflicts with his primary objectives. Let the narcissistic mortals have their accolades. Terminators have work to do.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors:
WINS: I get it. Saying win-loss record is the thing which will hold back the MVP case of Steph Curry — of the Golden State Warriors — sounds completely fucking crazy. Yet here we are. Giving the ultimate green light to the ultimate green light player on the best team of the last half-decade seems like a can’t-miss MVP recipe, but man, does this team have a lot of questions. Their defense slipped last season, and without Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, it could easily crater to the bottom third of the league this year. The Dubs will still score a ton, but it is incredibly difficult to crank out 55+ wins if you can’t consistently get stops. How motivated Draymond Green is, how well D’Angelo Russell slots in alongside Steph, and how soon (if at all) Klay can return from his torn ACL are all mitigating factors in the success of this transitional Warriors’ outfit. Beyond that, everyone past Kevon Looney in the rotation is the human equivalent of a giant shrug emoji. I naturally hesitate to question Steph’s ability to turn all this chicken shit into long-range, death-from-above chicken salad. If anyone can do it, it’s him, but the burden will be immense, and any missed time on his part would be a death sentence for both the team and his corresponding MVP case. It feels like too much.
STATS: That said, Steph’s numbers are going to be BONKERS. In 2015-16, when Curry won the only unanimous MVP in league history, he averaged 30.1/ 5.4/ 6.7 (and led the league in steals) on unfathomable 50/45/91 shooting splits for a record-breaking 73-9 team. Now, as previously discussed, the record is unlikely to do any of the heavy lifting for Curry this time around, but let’s say for argument’s sake, Steph puts up similar numbers on a 53-29 team. Does he win MVP in that scenario? If not, just how historic do the numbers have to be? What if he averages 34 a night? 36? Does it matter? We basically saw a version of this with Harden last season, minus the ridiculous efficiency. With Kevin Durant passive-aggressively tweeting his way through rehab in Brooklyn, there is finally a window for a Steph Curry team to exceed expectations. In the absence of that, however, his path to a third MVP award appears murky, presumptive video game numbers notwithstanding.
NARRATIVE: The inevitable dominance of the Warriors’ death machine is no longer working against Steph, so he’s got that going for him. But it ultimately feels like he’s threading a very fine needle, and voters will opt for a fresher candidate on a more powerful team if given the opportunity.
VERDICT: The numbers will be eye-popping, and there’s a chance we’ll all be eating crow for doubting history’s greatest shooter. I just can’t quite get there with this roster.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers:
WINS: This category has the potential to be a big, ahem, win for JoJo. The post-Process Sixers won 52 and 51 games the last two years, and are in position to exceed expectations and jump up to the 60+ win plateau this season in an Eastern Conference with no one but Milwaukee to stand in their way. Yes, this year’s Sixers are going to be weird and gigantic and occasionally awkward. They are an intentional ‘zig’ when the rest of the league continues to ‘zag.’ Their smallest starter is likely to be 6-6 Josh Richardson. That’s nuts.
At the same time, we’ve learned throughout history that rosters built on long, talented, athletic players have the highest defensive ceilings. [OKC/Orlando/Milwaukee last season; 2016 Thunder, pre-Klay detonation in Game 6 of the WCF; ’96 Bulls, if you’re looking for examples.] No matter how the pieces fit together offensively, this edition of the Sixers is going to be FIERCE on defense. Losing Jimmy Butler’s ability to commandeer a crunch-time offense matters, but his actual defensive performance hasn’t lined up with his reputation over the last few seasons, and bringing in Josh Richardson in the Butler sign-and-trade represents at worst a lateral move on the defensive end. Ben Simmons’ quickness and versatility make him a matchup nightmare. GM Elton Brand maneuvered around the draft this year to snag Washington wing Matisse Thybulle, who in preseason validated the scouts who thought he could be one of the NBA’s elite defensive players. He might already be the best perimeter defender in the league, crazy as it sounds:
As good as Thybulle looks so far, he is somewhat beside the point. In free agency the Sixers also added Al Horford, one of the best, most cerebral defensive big men of the decade, to a lineup which already includes Embiid, who has made it his stated goal to become both Defensive Player of the Year and MVP, a feat which has only been accomplished in the same year by Michael Jordan (’87-’88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (’93-’94). Head coach Brett Brown will be able to stagger the minutes of Embiid and Horford to allow an elite defensive center to occupy the middle at all times. Scoring against this team will be an absolute bear.
There’s no doubt this Philly team is ultra-weird, but the Eastern Conference offers them a soft landing to figure out exactly what they are and how best to deploy their unique gifts when they come up against real competition. If they have to spend the first half of the year grinding out low-scoring wins while they establish offensive chemistry, it probably won’t cut much into their final win total, and it will only bolster Embiid’s statistical case. Speaking of…
STATS: The ‘games played’ stat is always going to be the key one for Embiid, and of course there is an argument to be made that load management will push him out of the top tier of MVP contenders, especially with Horford now in the fold to take some of the weight off Joel’s shoulders. Embiid played a career-high 64 games last season, and unless this number bumps up into the 72-74 range, it’s tough to make a convincing MVP case.
There are reasons for optimism, however. Speaking of weight, Embiid says he has lost about twenty pounds since last year, which should help decrease the pressure on his lower extremities and render him even more nimble than he already was for such a giant human. He is saying all the right things, and generally seems more committed to caring for his body as he moves into the prime of his career. It feels as though Embiid has been in our lives for a long time, but he’s only 25, has limited miles on him, and over the past two years has put up per-minute numbers which rival prime Shaq. And he can still get A LOT better. His turnover rate has declined each season, while his assist and rebound rates have increased. He remains a slightly overeager outside shooter given his ability to dominate on the interior, but if his attempts drop a bit and his percentage approaches league-average, he’ll become a net-positive from deep. If he can continue along these trend lines and excise the fat (from both his body and his game), the potential is there for some rarefied statistical air among NBA big men.
NARRATIVE: Embiid’s overall likability and the potential for the Sixers to round into form as an old school, hulking, 60-win juggernaut both work in his favor here. If he looks fit, engaged, and healthy throughout much or all of the season, the NBA hive-mind will begin to coalesce around his candidacy. It’s just difficult to put your money or your credibility behind it happening because we’ve yet to see it.
VERDICT: In any given game, Embiid can be the best player in the league. But this is an 82-game award.
James Harden, Houston Rockets:
WINS: As I discussed last week, how things will come together for this Rockets team is one of the league’s biggest variables. If the preseason is any indication, it does not appear as though Harden is going to take much of a step back (see what I did there?) in terms of Usage, even with noted possession strangler Russell Westbrook in tow. Their closing five (Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela) can go toe-to-toe with any lineup in the league, so Houston’s current over/under (around 54.5 at most books) feels just about right, with some potential upside. If the Rockets bump up near 60 wins again and The Beard slaps up a 30/6/8 — totally reasonable, given his numbers the last few seasons — then we have no choice but to include him in the very top tier of the conversation for the fifth time in the last six years. [We tend to be prisoners of the moment when it comes to Harden because of his style of play and postseason struggles, but one day, historians will look back at his stretch since 2014 and be insanely confused about how some people thought he was a gimmick, or somehow bad for the game.]
The universe and the NBA both bend toward entropy, so there is a world where Russ becomes disgruntled with being a distant second fiddle and he further upsets the apple cart for an organization already teetering on the edge of disarray after recent events. But that’s an unlikely outcome, and it’s where we’re at with James Harden: the absolute worst-case scenario is the only way to dislodge him from the MVP conversation.
STATS: As I mentioned above, there is no reason to suspect Westbrook’s presence will cause Harden’s stats to regress nearly enough to make anyone question whether he is MVP-worthy. Beatings and video game numbers will continue until morale improves.
NARRATIVE: There is always a desire among writers for new blood and a new angle — see below — so Harden’s past victory and consistent excellence work against him to a degree, fair or not. There’s no “next level” for Harden to reach in the regular season, so his case comes down to how well the two Hall of Fame guards jell, and whether or not the team exceeds expectations.
VERDICT: The numbers will continue to be superhuman, but there will be two candidates with a more compelling overall case.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets:
WINS: The projections for this Nuggets team are all over the map. Some analysts say they got lucky in a lot of close games last season, and this year they’ll end up being a better actual team but have a worse record. Others think their depth, additions, and internal improvement make them a strong contender for the top seed in the West.
Based on Jokic’s placement in these rankings, you can probably guess I count myself among the latter group. I can’t stress enough how important the addition of Jerami Grant will be to this team, both as a complement to, and eventual replacement for, Paul Millsap. Grant provides Denver an element of athleticism in its frontcourt that has been lacking since Jokic’s ascendance, and he’s a sneaky-good shooter from the corners who will feast on Big Honey’s historic court vision.
Jamal Murray was streaky in the playoffs, but he also had some monster performances in key spots. He’ll be 23 in February, so for as much as the critics have tried to write the book on him already, he is still only beginning to mature into the player he’ll ultimately be. [Being the owner of a new, $170 million contract is probably a nice confidence booster as well.] There is also oodles of upside for fellow young’ins Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt, and whatever the hell Michael Porter, Jr. and Bol Bol become.
All of this is to say, there are a lot of reasons to believe last season was merely the tip of the iceberg, and we haven’t even touched on the development of Jokic himself. Sixty wins isn’t out of the question at all, and if the Nugs make that sort of leap as a unit, then Jokic undoubtedly lands squarely in the middle of the MVP race.
STATS: Jokic’s playoff performance this past spring provides the statistical blueprint for what his MVP campaign would look like. In 14 postseason games, His Groundness threw up averages of 25.1/13.0/8.4 on 51/39/85 shooting. Do that for a full season on a 57+ win team, and this thing’s a wrap. Yes, I know he played a ton in those games, and head coach Mike Malone will obviously manage his minutes more carefully during the regular season. But here’s the catch: Jokic put up those numbers with a Usage Rate of only 26.5%. [For reference, Embiid had a Usage Rate of 33.3% (repeating, of course) last season. Harden led the league with a historic 40.5% rate.] Point is, as much of a focal point as Jokic is within Denver’s offense, he could still do A LOT more, and combining his signature passing ability with a souped-up blend of aggressiveness and efficiency would result in a player profile unlike anything basketball has ever seen.
Do I have moderate concerns about Jokic staying healthy, given the amount of basketball he played over the spring and summer? Sure I do. He’s a hefty guy, and as we’re already seeing with Zion Williamson, carrying around extra bulk tends to put undue pressure on the knees and feet. The difference between the two is Zion’s athleticism, which puts his knees in position to absorb a ton of impact. Being ground bound has a protective effect for Jokic, in that it is much more difficult for him to land awkwardly, and each landing carries a lot less force. [Someone far smarter than me could probably write a whole dissertation on the health costs and benefits of coming up through the European pro ranks vis-a-vis the AAU system in the U.S., but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say, I suspect Jokic has less miles on his legs than the average 24-year-old American-born NBA star.]
Denver’s offense will still be elite, and with the amount of shooters and scorers around Jokic, it’s not crazy to envision him leading the league in assists. Shoot better from outside (only 31% from deep last season), bump up the scoring a few points, and play passable defense (which he generally does, despite his reputation), and suddenly things get really interesting in a hurry.
NARRATIVE: Jokic was named First Team All-NBA last season and finished fourth in MVP voting, so it’s not as though he hadn’t already “arrived.” But at 24 years old, with a deep-ish playoff run and some accolades under his belt, as well as a young team ready to make a leap, the narrative tides may be turning in his favor. There could be even more wind at his back because he is such a unique superstar. Again, the voters are writers, and what writer wouldn’t want to tell the tale of the pudgy, Serbian savant who can barely jump over a phone book becoming the most valuable player in the world?
VERDICT: Everything is set up perfectly for him. There’s just one giant, multi-syllabic obstacle in his way…
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks:
WINS: This category essentially vaulted Giannis to the top of the race last season. The Bucks smashed through preseason expectations — not mine, as you may recall, but let us not be braggadocious — on their way to a league-leading 60-22 record. The wins commingle with the narrative here. It isn’t just the wins that matter, but the fact they feel unexpected, a subtle advantage Giannis won’t enjoy this season. [Milwaukee’s over/under is pegged around 58.5 by most of the books in Vegas.] Even so, this is almost certain to be one of the two dominant teams in the East, so as long as their record stays in the same neighborhood, the reigning MVP has to be right in the thick of the race.
STATS: I said this in my preview column last year, but it bears repeating: it is really difficult to envision what the ceiling is for The Freak’s statistical production. Last year, he took home the award in his age-24 season, slapping up a Kareem-like 27.7/12.5/5.9 on 58% shooting with 2.8 “stocks” (steals + blocks) per game, while finishing first in the league in PER and Win Shares per 48 minutes. We could list all the advanced metrics in which he ranked in the top-10, but ain’t nobody got time for that. It was pretty much all of them, on both ends of the floor. Giannis came within shouting distance of winning both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year (he finished second to Rudy Gobert), which as we discussed earlier, is kind of a big deal. The scary thing is, Giannis hit all of these insane statistical benchmarks last year, and he is probably only about 75% of the fully-realized version of himself.
For all the gains he has made, Antetokounmpo is still a methodical, formulaic passer. His size and ability to break down the defense off the dribble afford him a steady diet of easy reads, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He makes those passes crisply and on-target. The more creative, intuitive passes still sometimes elude him, so there remains another big level for him to go up as a playmaker when his mental game catches all the way up to his body.
And then there’s the outside shooting. Giannis is a career 27.7% 3PT shooter, and he was even worse (25.6%) last season. His shooting ticked up to a less disastrous level late in the year (31.5% post-All-Star Break), but until he can show some consistent improvement from deep, it will remain the only true hole in his game. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors made a concerted effort to wall off the paint against Giannis’s drives, and he’ll see much more of the strategy this year if he can’t begin to counter it by hitting an acceptable amount of jumpers. Even improving to just 33-34% would force defenders to close out a bit harder to him, leaving extra slivers of space for his rampages to the rim. If he ever cracks league average from three, we might as well just rename the damn award after him, because it’s over.
With some development in these areas, and another year in coach Mike Budenholzer’s five-out system, what is a reasonable statistical expectation for Giannis this season? If he averaged a 30/13/8/2/2 line, would anyone be shocked? His minutes will likely still be managed, but without Malcolm Brodgon around, Giannis may have to do a bit more of the heavy lifting than he did last season as the Bucks marauded through the East.
NARRATIVE: Having one MVP trophy in his pocket hurts his case because voters can no longer make the “it’s just his time” argument. And with only one season to go before he has to make the decision on whether or not to accept the largest extension in NBA history (and all of the politics which go with along with it), Giannis is exiting the honeymoon phase of his career and careening towards the narrative meat grinder of free agency. The Bucks are universally recognized as legit contenders now, and if they disappoint again in the playoffs, questions will start to swirl about whether Giannis can win big, in Milwaukee or otherwise. This season is his last chance to play the happy-go-lucky superstar. The Greek Freak is about to see himself turn into the villain, so he better capitalize on being the hero while he still can.
VERDICT: Giannis ascends to another level of greatness, keeps the Bucks near the top of the East, and takes home his second consecutive MVP.
Happy NBA season, everybody! We made it!
Top Photo Credit: SB Nation