- After a summer full of superstar movement, we should be in for one of the more interesting MVP races to date. The Crossover goes through the long list of contenders for the award.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s heartfelt MVP speech at the NBA Awards is less than one month old, but it’s never too early to peer into the future and examine next season’s crop of MVP candidates. League-altering signings and trades flipped the NBA on its head this summer, completely changing the title chase and awards conversation. Both the championship and the MVP race are wide open with less than three months until opening night.
So who could realistically snag the MVP after a seismic summer? Steph Curry is no longer burdened by Kevin Durant. James Harden’s new sidekick will likely eliminate him from the race. We at The Crossover identified a full crop of leading candidates, including the favorites, dark horses, and one intriguing long shot.
• Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. The path to the MVP may be even easier for the Greek Freak in 2019-20. The Western Conference stars could very well cannibalize themselves as the league’s arms race continues, and the East continues to bleed talent at a rapid rate. Sixty wins and the No. 1 seed is in play once again for Milwaukee, and a treasure trove of Giannis dunks await. An improved jumper could lock up the award by March.
Giannis should put up the statistical resume to win another MVP, but he'll also have to face the downside of being the absolute favorite. The current awards narrative may not reward him. Milwaukee’s assumed dominance in the East will put Antetokounmpo on the backburner of public debate as his true test arrives in the postseason. The West’s top star has an inherent leg up given the level of competition—we aren’t overly impressed when Giannis steamrolls the Pistons. Antetokounmpo’s sheer talent makes him an immediate MVP favorite. But don’t shell out a second trophy just yet.
• Stephen Curry, Warriors. Speaking of some good old narratives, Steph Curry is in prime position to capitalize on a stream of goodwill in 2019-20. Golden State is no longer the bully on the block after Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s injury, and Curry will be given the green light to shoot with impunity as he carries the Warriors’ offense. A few vintage Steph games could live on as a defining moment of the regular season.
It’s unlikely we see Curry make 400 threes like he did in 2015-16, yet even a season similar to 2018-19 could throw him back to the MVP conversation. Only three players shot a better percentage from three last year (including his brother Seth), and only four averaged more points. Kevin Durant shielded Curry from the MVP discussion in each of the last three seasons. All eyes should be back on Steph in 2019-20.
• Anthony Davis, Lakers. It’s hard for a LeBron teammate to win the MVP award, and rightfully so. How is anyone going to be the most valuable player on a team with LeBron James? The formula has yet to be cracked, but Davis could potentially thread the needle en route to the MVP in 2020. James may take a step back after battling a groin injury last year, and Davis’s pairing with DeMarcus Cousins provides an interesting redemption narrative for both players. AD was tabbed a leading MVP candidate entering 2017-18. He’s still the same player as he was two years ago, and he should feast with James as Los Angeles’s point guard. If the Lakers steal a top-two seed, it could be Davis rather than James who cashes in with an MVP.
• Nikola Jokic, Nuggets. The Jokic MVP storyline is clear as we finish the offseason. After a summer of superstar acquisition, Denver’s doughy second-round pick could lead the Nuggets to the best record in basketball while slinging dimes at an ungodly rate among big men. Jokic became just the fourth player in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a season last year, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook; not exactly bad company. Jokic is among the league’s most delightful players to watch. If Denver approaches 60 wins, his infectious play could land the MVP.
• Damian Lillard, Blazers. Lillard will need to go absolutely nuclear from beyond the arc next season to win the MVP given Portland’s tenuous standing in the West. The Blazers don’t have any reliable perimeter options outside of Dame and C.J. McCollum, and the Hassan Whiteside experience could prove truly harrowing. The seven or eight seed is just as likely as a top-two spot in the West.
The talent around Lillard is worrisome, but his production could ultimately prove overwhelming in a crowded field. The four-time All-Star canned 237 threes last season while averaging 25.8 points per game. Raising his workload could land him in the 300 threes, 30 PPG club, a feat achieved only by Curry in 2015-16 and Harden in 2018-19. Curry won the MVP and Harden finished in second. Lillard will slide into the top three if he matches their historic campaigns.
THE LONG SHOT
• Kyrie Irving, Nets. The conversation around Kyrie Irving over the last few months has made Javaris Crittenton look like a good teammate. The 2016 champion was pilloried for the Celtics’ poor season throughout the summer, shouldering a lion’s share of the blame following a disappointing playoff exit. Irving’s reported behavior last season was problematic, and it did contribute to at least a share of Boston’s struggles. But is he truly as toxic as some would imply? I don’t buy it.
Brooklyn could continue to sing kumbaya next year with Irving replacing D’Angelo Russell, riding a wave of confidence to an unexpectedly high seed in the East. Irving is undoubtedly a superior talent compared to Russell, and a full season of Caris LeVert could net an All-Star appearance. Kyrie quietly posted an impressive statistical season last year, averaging a career-high 6.9 assists per game while shooting 40.1% from three. A slight statistical jump paired with 50 wins for Brooklyn could land Irving atop the MVP discussion.