The NBA season is less than a month away. That sounds crazy considering the Lakers were only crowned champions around 5 hours ago, but I guess it’s only fitting that the NBA forced the start of an unconventional ‘20-21 season into what has been the most bizarre year of all our lives. Other than the shortened offseason and the fact that the season starts two months later than usual, there will be just 72 games per team in the regular season, the continuation of the play-in tournament, and the Raptors will be playing in Tampa. We’re sure to still see a bunch of announcements from the league about other changes as we approach December 22nd.
However, I’m going to assume that the Regular Season MVP award will remain untouched, and I think next year should be an intriguing race; Giannis has a shot to become just the fourth player in NBA history to win three straight MVPs, a couple of former MVPs are coming back and could make an immediate splash, and there are a bunch of young studs who look like they’re ready to breach into the upper echelon and become first-time MVP winners.
I do believe that there are two players in particular that standout from the pack. But before I get to my personal MVP favorites for the ‘20-’21 season, let me start by segregating the other potential candidates.
The Fatigue Tier is simple — these guys would be great bets in any season as they’re usually in the discussion for MVP, with most having already won the award before. But the odds of them winning in this upcoming season is low because of literal or figurative fatigue.
First, there’s LeBron James, who falls under the literal fatigue category. As I alluded to earlier, the Lakers won the championship in mid-October. The King is exhausted, and will also turn 36 years-old a week into the season. It would be pretty cool if he won the award, seeing as he would be the oldest MVP in NBA history and I’m sure there’s a little bitterness from being last year’s runner-up. Ultimately, I think LeBron flushes out his energy on a quest for a fifth ring and won’t compromise that by pushing for a fifth MVP.
Speaking of last season, back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetoukoumpo also belongs here simply because of voter’s fatigue. There is a chance Giannis increases his already mind-boggling numbers and the Bucks secure the best seed in the NBA for the third year in a row. But unless Giannis averages close to 40-20, I think voters look at his postseason shortcomings and go another direction. This is a regular season award, but that’s just how voters vote, whether that’s fair or not.
One of Giannis’ best friends is the last member of this tier. James Harden is the only player to finish in the top-three of MVP voting in each of the last four seasons, winning the award once in 2018. But considering everything that has happened in Houston this offseason, I have a hard time picturing Harden with enough votes, even if the Rockets do overperform. And… will we even see Harden in a Rockets uniform next season?
The final member of the fatigue tier is probably its lead flag-bearer, Mr. Load Management himself, Kawhi Leonard. The two-time Finals MVP has only played in 53% of the regular season games for the last three seasons (126 out of 236 possible games), which really just removes him from the equation. It’s a shame because if he played enough, he’d make a great case from a stats and team record perspective; The last time he did play over 70 games was in 2016-17, when he was third in MVP voting. The narrative would also be on his side if the Clippers managed to finish with the number one seed in the West. But unless Kawhi changes his tune on load management due to last year’s disappointing results, I don’t expect he’ll play enough to merit legitimate MVP consideration.
ONE CAVEAT TIER
This is the tier of players wherein a case could be made for them to win, but I see one caveat that has them falling short of the MVP award. This tier is also split into three smaller tiers. First up, the one caveat that is A Good Teammate.
- A Good Teammate
Love him or hate him, the NBA is better off having Kevin Durant back. He’s an NBA unicorn in the truest form, an offensive marvel, and lowkey one of the best two-way players in the league. If the Nets are able to snag a top seed in the East while KD looks 100%, he’d have a legitimate case at the award when combining team record, individual numbers, and narrative. KD is the player I’d consider closest to the top two, and wouldn’t be surprised if he hoisted his second MVP next year.
But Kyrie is on the Nets as well, and I’m sure he’s going to take away from KD’s case similar to how Steph did when KD was in Golden State.
Kyrie also used to play Robin to Lebron’s Batman, and the next person on this list is LeBron’s new Robin: Anthony Davis. AD was an absolute monster in the playoffs, securing his status as a top-five player in the NBA. But the Finals also showed that the Lakers are LeBron’s team; Only LeBron was going to win MVP for that franchise. I think the same logic applies to the regular season.
- Team Record
The next caveat is the Team Record, because we all know that a team’s performance is always taken into account for the winners. It’s almost a rule of the thumb that your team has to be a top two or three seed in the conference, unless you’re Russell Westbrook.
That’s why the three on this list are pretty straight forward: Steph Curry, Devin Booker, and Joel Embiid. Steph would’ve had a much better shot had Klay been healthy, but I think we can just collectively cry about that. The Warriors may have to battle just to escape the play-in tournament. Booker’s Suns are going to be fun and he should put up MVP-level numbers, but I think their ceiling is probably a low playoff seed. Embiid is interesting because the Sixers have had a good offseason that should set him up for a bounceback year, but I still can’t see them surpassing some of the East’s elite.
- Not Enough Sauce
The final caveat is simply not having enough sauce.
Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler fall under this category because they likely won’t have enough sauce from a stats perspective. Of the last 12 MVPs, 11 of them finished the season with a PER of 28 or more. Tatum barely had a PER of 20 last year, and even if he makes another leap, I don’t see it surpassing the two people I have up ahead.
Butler could be in the fatigue tier, but I wouldn’t want to do that to Mr. Big Face Coffee. Instead, I put him here, because the Heat’s depth will obviously deter him from posting gargantuan stats.
The final member of this one caveat tier for not having enough sauce is Nikola Jokic. He could make a good case based on numbers plus the Nuggets could be a great regular season team, but the lack of sauce here really might just be the name value and narrative. Unless Jokic goes bonkers, I don’t think he’ll have enough of a push.
THE TWO LEAD HORSES
The Portland Trailblazers had a brilliant offseason and, if the team manages to stay healthy, they are poised to give Damian Lillard his best shot at a title since entering the NBA. This is especially shocking to me, because I thought the Blazers were pretty much stuck. Who knew a Robert Covington addition could be such a game-changer?
The Blazers have a real shot at a top three, maybe even top two seed in the West, assuming health from their role players. And I’m 100% sure Dame knows that. He may not need to go out and drop 50 points every week like he did last season, but I can still see him completely locked in for the full 72 games. If the Blazers win in the high 40s or low 50s next year — which is about the equivalent of a high 50-win season in a normal year — Dame should be a lead MVP candidate.
With the numbers, record, narrative, and sheer likeability, I have Dame as my #2 heading into ‘20-21.
But ahead of Dame on my list is the man whose MVP might have already been set in stone by the basketball gods. I mean, doesn’t it just feel like Luka Doncic will win next year? I hope it’s not just me.
The stats aren’t going to be a problem — he already posted a 27.6 PER in just his second season. And he still has room to improve from an efficiency standpoint, because he shot just 31.6% from three and 75.8% from the line. It’ll help that Josh Richardson can come in and be a secondary ball handler to give Luka better looks from downtown.
The narrative or likeability factor is also easy because Luka is simply electric. His bevy of crossovers, stepbacks, and between the leg passes makes him one of my favorite players to watch in the league, and I’m sure voters feel the same way.
The team record might be the biggest problem, especially since the Mavs were only the 7th seed in a loaded West last year. Like Portland, a big if will be health. Luka missed some time last year, and Kristaps Porzingis is an important yet extremely fragile who’s already expected to miss the first week or so of next year. But at the same time, they were only a few games out of home court advantage when the season was suspended, and have a shot to be better this year with their new additions.
I envision a world where the Mavs rise to a top-four seed in the Western Conference led by another near triple-double season from Luka. If that happens and he raises his 3PT% to league average and FT% to the 80s, Luka’s MVP case should be a lock. And in that scenario, we’d see Luka overtake Derrick Rose to become the youngest MVP in NBA history.