One of the joyous things about the NBA is the fact that, as a fan, you can love both a team and individual players in equal measure.
The league boasts some of the most jaw-droppingly naturally-gifted athletes in the world and they come in all shapes, sizes and styles of play.
At center, you can have the craft of Nikola Jokic or the sheer force of Joel Embiid. Running the point you can have the deep-bombs of Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, or the playmaking prowess of LeBron James and Luka Doncic.
Every year, there are a range of candidates who can potentially be considered as frontrunners for the award, and then some dark horses who may fight their way into the reckoning after not initially being considered.
Here we will look at some of the candidates from across the spectrum who could be in with a shout of picking up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, and some of the key questions ahead of this year’s MVP race.
Will a big still reign supreme?
The last three MVP awards have gone to bigs. Giannis Antetokounmpo (officially listed as a power forward) in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and then Nikola Jokic last season.
The Denver Nuggets center became the lowest-drafted player ever to win the award (unless you count three-time MVP Moses Malone, who wasn’t selected in the NBA draft at all) after a stellar sixth NBA season.
Jokic played all 72 games and averaged a career-high 26.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, a career-high 8.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game, while also hitting more field goals than anyone else and making a mockery of his 41st overall draft position in 2014. If the Nuggets can come close to or exceed 50 wins in the Western Conference this season (they managed 47 in the shortened season last year) then he will be in the reckoning to repeat the feat.
Also in the top three of the voting last year was Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, and given the uncertainty surrounding the future of their other star Ben Simmons, it could be that an even bigger portion of the offensive output could land squarely on the shoulders of ‘The Process’.
Back in August, Embiid signed a four-year supermax $196 million contract extension with the team, and if he can steer clear of injury – that has always been the biggest issue in his career – then he will stand a good chance of being near the top of the race for MVP honours once again, providing Philly can win enough games.
What up Brooklyn?
Under normal circumstances, you could point to any one of Brooklyn’s ‘Big Three’ as potential MVP choices. That, due to Kyrie Irving’s stance on vaccination, has become more of a ‘Big Two-and-a-half’ with the point guard set to miss a vast number of games in the season ahead, particularly at home, after Nets head coach Steve Nash publicly acknowledged the team will have to do without him for games at the Barclays Center as things stand.
But that doesn’t stop the other two players, both prodigious scorers in their own right who have won the award previously, from believing that they could manage to repeat the feat for a second time.
Kevin Durant was named MVP in 2014 when he was at the Oklahoma City Thunder and in the time since he’s won a couple of rings with the Golden State Warriors before joining the Brooklyn Nets at the start of last season.
Durant has the highest career scoring average among active NBA players, and in his first season on the court with the Nets, the nine-time All-NBA selection averaged 26.9 points per game. He did so by matching his career high field goal percentage (53.7 percent) and finishing seventh in the NBA in three-point percentage with another career-high (45 percent). He also shot 88.2 percent on free throws – narrowly missing the hallowed 50/40/90 club – to go along with 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.
He’s acknowledged by many as the most versatile scorer in the game and can do a lot more besides. Perhaps Irving’s regular absences could help pad his averages all the more in the race for MVP honours.
The same is true of James Harden who, when he won the award in the 2017-18 season, did so as the main scoring threat on a Houston Rockets team which ran the Golden State Warriors mightily close in the Western Conference Finals.
But after arriving in Brooklyn, and with much better options around him, Harden’s all-round game flourished when he was fit enough to play. He averaged 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.9 assists across just 36 regular season games for the Nets following the trade from Houston last season.
Then, in the playoffs, Harden re-injured his hamstring on the first offensive possession 43 seconds in the Conference Semifinals. Conditioning will be key if the 32-year-old wants to have a chance to picking up the award again this season.
Five-peat or three-peat?
Only eight players have ever won NBA MVP three times or more. One of those is LeBron James, who can join Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players to have won it five times if he can manage to do so once again this season. Achieving that would then put the 17-time All Star within touching distance of the outright leader in MVP wins, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who won the award six times during his career.
The mere presence of LeBron elevates pretty much any supporting cast to being a contender, and the Lakers have totally retooled this off-season with no less than eight new players coming in including another former MVP in Russell Westbrook and a likely Hall of Famer in Carmelo Anthony, as well as a host of veterans who know what it takes to win.
Even with Westbrook and Anthony Davis on the roster, it is LeBron who runs the offense whenever he is on the floor. If the Lakers can properly fit the jigsaw together and let’s face it, you couldn’t ask for a better player than the 36-year-old to ensure that happens, then he is in with a good chance of winning a fifth ring and MVP crown.
The last time LeBron took to the floor prior to the writing of this article was in a 121-114 pre-season defeat to the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center and Stephen Curry was absolutely magnificent in that game.
The 2014-15 and 2015-16 MVP scorched the Lakers for 30 points in just 26 minutes and looked like a man poised to hit the ground running in the new season, which is key when wanting to be considered for MVP consideration.
Widely acknowledged as the best shooter to ever play the game, Curry is always in with a shout of winning MVP when a season is starting out and with fellow ‘Splash Brother’ Klay Thompson poised to return to action in December or January, according to team sources, then the Warriors have a chance to be a contender once again.
Curry will have the run of the team offensively and when he’s rejoined by his partner in crime, we could well see the Warriors back to their best. If that happens, he will no doubt be a front runner to pick up a third MVP crown.
Also bidding to do that will be last year’s NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak plays the game unlike anyone else and is a triple-double threat on any given night as well as being a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate to boot.
He won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the 2019-20 season and last season followed in the footsteps of Abdul-Jabbar by winning a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks. That will of course be sweeter than any individual award and what was notable was Giannis’ durability as he fought through the pain barrier to propel his team to glory.
Barring injury or some other misfortune befalling him, the Bucks will be around a 50-win team this year and that means once again, he will be in the race for the MVP award.
A winner from the new generation?
Trae Young made the entire league sit up and take notice during last season’s magnificent run to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Atlanta Hawks.
The fact he hit a game-winner in his first ever playoff appearance and shushed Madison Square Garden will live long in the memory. Young proved on multiple occasions during that playoff run he has the ideal temperament for big-game situations and averaging 24.1 points and 8.9 assists per game in his career so far shows that it won’t take a huge jump for him to get to MVP level.
Another element worth considering is how talented this emerging young group of Hawks are around him, and how impressive his cohesion is with the team-mates on the roster. Young has led the league in assists on dunks in each of his three seasons in the league, registering 160 (34 more than any other player) last season. He was also the only player with at least 125 total assists to multiple teammates: 141 to John Collins and 136 to Clint Capela.
From a more individualistic perspective, he can also nail a pull-up jumper from 30-feet plus on any given night so there is nothing lacking in the 23-year-old’s offensive arsenal. If the Hawks can keep the momentum from last year’s playoff run carrying into this season, he will be in the mix.
One name who will be a certainty to be in the MVP running for probably the rest of his career, even at the tender age of just 22, is Luka Doncic. The first European player to win the MVP award was Dirk Nowitzki as a Maverick and the Slovenian is likely to become the next Dallas player to follow suit – barring a trade or other complication.
He is at the absolute epicentre of everything this franchise is trying to do. In the regular season last year, Doncic led the league in time of possession at 8.9 minutes per game and that jumped to a barely credible 12.1 minutes of possession in the playoffs.
Doncic already has 39 triple-doubles in his NBA career in less than 200 games, can score from anywhere in any given way and his decision-making with the ball is akin to that of a wily veteran rather than a precocious star in his early twenties.
The big question for him and for the Mavericks is how he will fare under the new coach after Rick Carlisle was replaced with Jason Kidd. Jamahl Mosely, an assistant he enjoyed a close relationship with, has also departed to take over as head coach of the Orlando Magic, so the fit with the new coaching staff and system will probably be a significant factor in whether Doncic will be amongst the leading candidates in the season ahead.
It’s amazing to think Jayson Tatum is still just 23 and heading into his fifth NBA season. In that last two he has been an All Star but he has been destined for MVP candidacy ever since he dunked on LeBron James in the Boston Celtics’ Game 7 Conference Finals defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That moment, midway through the fourth quarter, cemented the then-rookie’s status as the future of the franchise and led James himself to admit that he’s “built for stardom”. In that season, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only rookies in playoff history to record 10 games of 20-or-more points scored during their first playoff runs.
Since then, Tatum has continued to improve and last year became the only player in NBA history to score 50-plus points more than once in the regular season, 50-plus points in a play-in game, and 50-or-more points in the playoffs.
The scoring is undoubtedly there (he averaged 26.4 ppg last season) and he’s taken steps forward in regard to making plays for others, as his most recent pre-season display against the Toronto Raptors demonstrated, where he had 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Boston have perennially looked one piece away from being true contenders during Tatum’s five seasons, but maybe a leap from him can send them over the top. And as for the former Duke Blue Devil himself, he’s looking more chiselled than ever and is playing with a poise and refinement which bodes well for his chances of making it into the MVP race this year.
Who else could fight their way into the reckoning?
It would be wrong not to finish an article like this without mentioning Damian Lillard. Nobody could argue he is in the top 10 players in the league and he’d be in some people’s top five. If it wasn’t for his loyalty to the Portland Trail Blazers he could probably have achieved more in his career and certainly playing with a better team would improve his chances of winning MVP honours. The Blazers’ consistent failure to build a contender around him is why he only stands an outside chance.
If the Phoenix Suns can replicate the form which made them Western Conference champions last season again this year then Devin Booker, who to this day remains the youngest player ever to score 70 points in an NBA game, stands a chance of making his way into the reckoning. Also, Chris Paul, finished fifth in the voting last year, so there is nothing to say that he can’t make sure of a spot for himself high up the MVP Ladder again this time.