Only three players have ever won three consecutive NBA MVP awards. Two of them -- Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain -- did so before the merger. The third, Larry Bird, had the advantage of consolidation amongst his competition. Three-time MVP Moses Malone joined 1981 winner Julius Erving in Philadelphia right as Bird's streak began. Three-time winner Magic Johnson spent that entire period alongside six-time winner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Those teammates split votes and Bird waltzed to three trophies in a row. Johnson only won his first award when Abdul-Jabbar dipped below 20 points per game for the first time in his career.
Trends like these tend to be far more powerful in selecting MVPs than actual on-court value. If that was the only criteria, Michael Jordan and LeBron James would have approached a dozen trophies apiece. Neither of them won three MVP awards in a row. It raises the bar on Giannis Antetokounmpo as he tries to match Bird, Russell and Chamberlain. He might be the most valuable player on the court again this regular season, but convincing voters of that is going be difficult in light of his second consecutive postseason collapse. His performance, through that lens, is going to seem somewhat empty, fair or not. Humans determine who wins this award, and humans are fallible.
The upside to that is opportunity. Few MVP races have ever been this open going into a season. So let's look at what tends to lead to MVP awards, and which candidates fit enough of them to be considered viable MVP bets.
All odds via William Hill Sportsbook
The Favorites (10-to-1 or lower)
Best choice: Luka Doncic (+450)
Luka Doncic artificially improved his 2020-21 MVP odds substantially through one major 2019-20 flaw: The Mavericks were terrible in the clutch. Dallas lost 24 games featuring NBA-defined clutch situations, fourth-most in the NBA, and as a result, the Mavericks were the No. 7 seed when most metrics suggested they should be far higher. By net rating, for example, Dallas finished third in the Western Conference.
This matters because team improvement tends to drive MVP narratives. Over the past decade alone, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Giannis all won their first MVP award after their team's record improved by at least 10 games. If we assume Doncic doesn't have some great flaw in the clutch (which seems safe after his performance in the bubble), The Mavericks are going to have a significantly higher winning percentage next season just based on regression to the mean late in games. Clutch numbers are typically quite random. All signs point to the Mavericks simply being unlucky in that arena.
That false improvement will help drive Doncic's candidacy, but the very real growth the Mavericks should make defensively will help as well. Dallas had the most efficient offense in NBA history last season in scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions, but ranked 18th on defense behind a roster built to prioritize scoring. The newer model comes with greater balance. Swapping Josh Richardson in for Seth Curry was a meaningful defensive upgrade. Willie Cauley-Stein over Dwight Powell should be one as well, especially if he's healthy and committed in playing for his first winning team. The offense might take a step back with those swaps, but Dallas should comfortably remain one of the top two or three scoring teams in basketball. If the defense hovers around the top 10, history says we have a top seed. Top seeds produce MVP candidates.
Bandwagons form around those candidates quickly, and Doncic has another advantage on this front. Kristaps Porzingis will miss the beginning of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Now, that will hurt Dallas on both ends of the floor, but if the Mavericks can weather the storm, teammate injuries are another factor that tends to work in favor of candidates. Kevin Durant won in 2014 with Russell Westbrook missing significant time, and Steve Nash won in 2006 with Amar'e Stoudemire out for most of the season. Porzingis shouldn't be out as long as those players were, but momentum can form behind Doncic's candidacy quickly without him. Then, when he returns, it comes down to winning and maintaining his statistical pace.
There are a few reasonable doubts. With less shooting around him, Doncic might post inferior individual numbers even if he improves as a player. He also had some ankle issues last season. Missed time is especially damaging in a condensed season. But Doncic is justifiably the favorite here. There are too many factors that typically lead to MVP awards pointing in his direction.
Second choice: Anthony Davis (+800)
Four players occupy this group, and none stand up to Doncic on paper: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and Giannis. We've already discussed the major impediment to Giannis' candidacy. Curry is unlikely to win enough games now that Klay Thompson is out for the season. That leaves James and Davis.
The Lakers themselves seem to be planning for the idea that James won't be an MVP candidate this season. Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell are additions seemingly geared at driving regular-season bench production. That is especially valuable if your aging, four-time MVP winner plans to enact an aggressive load-management regimen. Even if James does play enough to remain in the race, one of his main arguments last season was how poorly the Lakers played offensively without him. That shouldn't be an issue with Schroder and Harrell in place. There's also the fact that James is going to turn 36 less than two weeks into the season, and not many 36-years-old win MVPs.
Davis is a flawed candidate for different reasons. A big man hasn't won MVP since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, and that award left a bad taste in the mouths of voters when he lost in the first round of the postseason. Davis is probably going to disappoint statistically to an extent as well. His playoff shooting is not remotely sustainable. Davis shot below 37 percent on mid-range jumpers in each of his last three seasons. In the playoffs? He just missed 50 percent on meaningful volume. That's Kevin Durant territory. If he regresses to even his typical shooting numbers, voters are going to wonder why he couldn't maintain his playoff dominance.
But Davis is going to enter the season as the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner. He'll also presumably have plenty of nights without LeBron on the floor to showcase himself. James will likely campaign on his behalf. There is going to be a narrative push toward at least one Laker after they were shut out of last season's awards entirely: James finished second in MVP, Davis finished second for Defensive Player of the Year, Frank Vogel finished fourth for Coach of the Year and Rob Pelinka's peers knocked him all the way down to seventh on the Executive of the Year ballot. The Lakers proceeded to win the championship, and there will be a push for retribution. If Davis even approaches his playoff efficiency (and otherworldly defense), he'll be in the running.
If he happens to do so on the team with the best regular-season record? He probably wins. Of the past 15 MVPs, 11 have played for the team with the most wins. There is a good chance that either Davis or James can claim the "best player on the best team" argument, and the one who does instantly vaults toward the top of the heap.
The Fringe Candidates (between 10-to-1 and 25-to-1)
Best choice: Damian Lillard (+2000)
It would be easy to say that Lillard's bubble production was unsustainable and should be ignored, but ...
- Across an 11-game stretch in January and February of 2020, Lillard average 40.9 points on over 50 percent shooting from behind the arc.
- On a 10-game stretch in February and March of 2018, Lillard averaged 35.4 points on a 9-1 record.
- Over eight games in March of 2017, Lillard averaged 34.3 points on over 52 percent shooting from the field.
History says that at some point this season, Lillard is going to go on a hot streak that warrants MVP consideration. For a narratively-driven award, those streaks really matter. Normally, these streaks come with Lillard's Trail Blazers far enough down the standings that it doesn't make a difference. That probably won't be the case this season.
Portland ranked third on offense despite missing Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood for most of last season. All three should be far healthier this season. The only major rotation piece that left was Hassan Whiteside, who is being replaced by the similarly productive Enes Kanter. The Blazers will score a ton of points, but their 27th-ranked defense would have made it nearly impossible for Lillard to compete for this award if it was left untouched. It wasn't. Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. are major improvements on that end of the floor, and both should perform needed offensive functions well. Covington shoots. Jones can be a pick-and-roll partner for Lillard. If Portland's offense remains stable and its defense takes a major leap, the Blazers will contend for a top seed in the Western Conference. With Lillard's typically stellar numbers and an inevitable hot streak buoying his narrative, he'll remain in this conversation deep into the season.
Second choice: Jayson Tatum (+2000)
Expectations are going to work in Tatum's favor this season. He enters the race with the same absent teammate advantage Porzingis has. Kemba Walker is going to miss the beginning of the season, and Gordon Hayward is now gone. The overwhelming assumption is that Boston should take a step back this season without him, but whether or not they actually will is a matter of debate. The Celtics were nearly five points better per 100 possessions with Hayward on the floor last season, but they'd also be justified in assuming Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have healthier seasons than they did in 2020. Boston also has five first-round picks across the past three NBA Drafts that have yet to contribute much in the regular season. If Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith or Payton Pritchard pops? A good chunk of Hayward's production can be mimicked. Tristan Thompson will help in this regard as well, albeit in different areas.
Where Hayward should be missed most is in his shot-creation. He finished third on the Celtics in assists, but for a team in which nobody averaged even five dimes per game, that loss is particularly devastating. But Tatum is taking meaningful strides on that front, too. Unlike the entire regular-season Boston roster, Tatum averaged five assists per game in the playoffs. With the ball in his hands more now that Hayward is gone, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume he reaches that mark in the regular season, either. He isn't LeBron, but he doesn't need to be. If he posts MVP-caliber scoring numbers, voters will forgive good-but-not-great production elsewhere. That's what Tatum needs to do to give himself a chance: Keep the Celtics where they were despite a possibly worse roster, and just continue to grow as fourth-year players usually do.
The Longshots (25-to-1 or higher)
Best choice: Joel Embiid (+4000)
Elton Brand overthought his 2019-20 roster. He acquired splashy names and forgot what has universally worked alongside the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo: shooting. During the 2017-18 season, Philadelphia's starting lineup of Embiid, Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric blasted opponents by 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Swap in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris for Covington and Saric and that group "only" beat opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possession. This isn't rocket science. Put shooting around Embiid and Simmons and good things happen.
It took new GM Daryl Morey a couple of weeks to grasp that concept. Josh Richardson and Al Horford left. Seth Curry and Danny Green came in. Problem solved. The 76ers can shoot again. Their typically porous bench should improve as well. Dwight Howard just proved his capability as a low-usage backup center for a contender. He'll prop Philly up enough when Embiid rests to keep their record high. Matisse Thybulle is a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Morey is a player or two short of genuine depth, and if someone like rookie Tyrese Maxey pops? He has it.
If these basic tweaks get Philadelphia back up to the top of the East, either Embiid or Simmons is going to emerge as a candidate. Embiid is likelier. Points are critical in the MVP race. The last MVP who didn't lead his team in scoring was Nash in 2006. Simmons is the more stable defender, but Embiid has higher upside by virtue of his rim-protection role. If he's healthy, engaged and in shape for the full season, he might be the Defensive Player of the Year favorite. The odds of that have never been higher with Morey and Doc Rivers in town. If he plays his best all-around season on a roster equipped to support him, he is going to be a narrative favorite.
Second choice: Trae Young (+6000)
Once you go beyond 50-to-1, you're basically rooting for chaos. Young is a candidate equipped to capitalize on some possible short-season chaos. If the Hawks are a bottom-rung playoff team, he's out. If they sneak around the top five? He's in business. That's going to take some injuries, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
The Hawks are going to score a lot of points. When Young was on the floor last season, they averaged 111.2 points per 100 possessions, which would have kept them around the top 10 offenses in basketball. Their issue was that when he sat, they had the worst offense in basketball by an utterly comical margin. At 95.7 points per 100 possessions, The gap between the Young-less Hawks and the No. 30 Warriors at 104.4 was bigger than the gap between those Warriors and the No. 4 Celtics (112.8). Atlanta should be meaningfully better on both fronts.
Young played the bulk of his minutes with rookies and sophomores last season. A whopping seven of his teammates last season had fewer than two years of NBA experience. Aside from John Collins, he was left alone to develop Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Bruno Fernando. Those players will be older and better next season, and the Hawks get to throw Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela and Rajon Rondo into the mix. The Hawks added hefty doses of shooting, ball-handling and pick-and-roll finishing in a single offseason. Yes, Gallinari isn't particularly durable and, yes, Rondo's regular-season track record is iffy, but the sheer talent upgrade here is going to be enormous.
Young already has the individual component of this equation down. Players have averaged far less than 29.6 points and 9.3 assists and come away with MVPs for their troubles. If Young is slightly more efficient on a significantly better team, Atlanta's nuclear offense alone is going to get him into the race.