Why you should care
What does voter history tell us about what will happen with this year’s NBA Awards?
Two months into the season, the NBA standings are taking shape. We’ve seen the good (Portland), the bad (Washington) and the ugly (Cleveland), with an equitable mix of surprise and the predictable. What won’t be a surprise? The race for basketball’s most prestigious individual award: Most Valuable Player.
Year after year, NBA voters prove the most fickle and easily influenced of any major sport. From Steph Curry’s 2015 win over LeBron James; Russell Westbrook in 2017; Derrick Rose’s rise in 2011; or even to His Airness, Michael Jordan, in 1996, narrative can be just as much a deciding factor in the MVP race as statistics.
And that’s not always a bad thing. The NBA is arguably the most entertaining sports league in the world; there’s certainly no shortage of storylines and content. “It’s only natural for all of us to get caught up in the biggest storylines,” says Turner Sports analyst Reggie Miller. “But that’s what makes this league so great.”
Alas, this means on occasion the game’s greatest superstars can be overlooked come the league’s shiniest award (see: LeBron James in 2008, 2011 and 2015).
But we’re not here to argue for more hardware for Hollywood’s newest Laker. LeBron surely doesn’t need my help. Instead, understanding what the NBA awards voters look for in an MVP will better predict which stars have a legitimate shot to win the 2018–19 trophy. Who has that breakout potential, à la Rose in 2011? Which comeback narrative has the best chance of success and who is ascending basketball’s mountaintop at just the right moment? In short, what’s the MVP shortlist, and which players can we write off before New Year’s?
The MVP must lead a relevant contender. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Westbrook is the best recent example of a loophole, but his was a special case. In the season after his former wingman, Kevin Durant, bolted for the rival Warriors, Westbrook played a full season of full-throttle hero ball, averaging a 30-point triple-double on the season. The voters could hardly contain themselves. This year, no comparable storyline exists. The MVP will come from a title contender. Sorry, Kemba Walker, you and the Charlotte Hornets are out.
Breakout stars earn bonus points. The voters love an underdog, and no recent winner exemplifies this more than Rose in 2011. At 22, Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history that season. He led his upstart Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals, then beat out LeBron and Dwight Howard, who both had better statistical seasons, for the award. That’s not to say Rose didn’t deserve the award, but narrative played a major role. This season, two Eastern Conference breakout candidates apply. Good news, Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee) and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia); your MVP aspirations live on. In the West, Portland’s Damian Lillard qualifies.
The realization of greatness must be recognized. Rose’s breakout season put him on the map, but he still hadn’t established himself as one of the greatest players of his era. But in the 2013–14 season, Kevin Durant did just that, averaging 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. It’s still Durant’s lone MVP award, but it established him as a top two superstar of his generation. This year’s candidates: Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and Kawhi Leonard (Toronto).
Sometimes a forceful reclamation of the throne is necessary. When all else fails, the greatest players in the game have to remind the voters who’re boss. Need an example? See Jordan’s fifth MVP run in 1998. Forget awarding based on best narrative; three of the best players in basketball are at the top of their games. Unfortunately for Durant, Curry is his in-house competition. Candidates: James, Durant and Curry.
James Harden: Even if they rebound, Harden’s Rockets are suffering an embarrassing regression. My only word for last season’s MVP is … next!
Russell Westbrook: The Thunder are good, but for them to be truly relevant, Westbrook may need to repeat his 2016–17 triple-double heroics. Not happening.
The Boston Celtics: In addition to killing team chemistry, it turns out that having too many players kills MVP chances too. Sorry, Kyrie Irving.
Kemba Walker: Best point guard in the NBA? Perhaps. One of the 10 “must-watch” attractions in the league? You bet. Walker is a stone-cold assassin. Unfortunately, his Hornets will remain mediocre no matter how bright his star shines.
So, You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
Kawhi Leonard: Leonard will keep improving after missing most of last season, and voters will love what he’s bringing to the first-place Raptors. But it’s not enough.
Kevin Durant: Maybe … but if a Golden State Warrior wins MVP, you can bet it will be Curry.
Nikola Jokic: The unique centerpiece of the West-leading Denver Nuggets is giving the NBA fits this season. Jokic has triple-double ability on any given night. Unfortunately, in today’s NBA, he doesn’t score enough to secure the bag.
Joel Embiid: Embiid’s biggest obstacle is his currently underperforming team. The 76ers’ addition of Jimmy Butler could change that, and Embiid’s stat line is a thing of beauty.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Greek Freak’s expected arrival as one of the three best players in the NBA is here. With the Bucks playing inspired ball, he’s a favorite for MVP.
Anthony Davis: A.D. has been a known commodity for a few years, but this feels like his best chance to lead the Pelicans to relevancy since being drafted in 2012. A run in the playoffs could sway voters in Davis’ direction.
Steph Curry: The return of Dominant Steph has been fun to watch this season. He may no longer be a top-five player in the league, or even the best player on his team, but he could certainly prove most valuable. If the Warriors win another title and Curry stays healthy, he’s in the hunt.
LeBron James: As if this requires explanation.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Antetokounmpo ticks all the boxes. He’s a generational talent on the verge of a major breakthrough, and his Milwaukee Bucks are a major threat in the Eastern Conference. If he ever gets a three-point shot, Antetokounmpo will hoist way more than one MVP trophy.