Regardless of its prestige, the MVP award is really nothing more than a beauty pageant in the NBA. No matter how obvious a player's credentials are, the inherent subjectivity of the concept distorts the entire process. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Value is not static. It changes from year to year and from voter to voter. That lack of clarity has created an incredibly diverse set of winners.
The most obvious criteria for an MVP winner is scoring a lot of points. Sure enough, the post-merger NBA has had 11 scoring champions win MVP. But Steve Nash once won the award as his team's fourth-leading scorer, while James Harden just lost it despite becoming only the fourth player ever to average 36 points per game. There are exceptions to every rule and rules for every exception.
On a year-to-year basis, the kinds of players that win MVP have very little in common. But over the course of the past several decades, certain voting patterns have emerged. The final choice might not be correct every year, but most of the time, it is at least predictable.
So rather than debating which players will actually have the most value next season, a more instructive exercise would be to determine what conditions are conducive to winning the award, and just as importantly, which ones aren't. Doing so creates a list of favorites based on voter-friendliness rather than merit, and while an ideal world would favor the latter, the real one is indisputably geared towards the former.
Starting on the negative side, there are two factors that make winning the MVP significantly more difficult.
Already having an MVP award
Winning multiple MVP awards is by no means impossible. All told, nine players have done so since the merger, so it is clearly achievable. However, it should be noted that in almost every case, the player in question needed to improve significantly in some way in order to win their second trophy. Just look at the most recent two-time winner. Stephen Curry averaged 23.8 points per game in his first MVP season. That total ballooned to 30.1 in his second. Winning 73 games didn't hurt either, but Curry's reality was the norm for most second-time winners.
Moses Malone's scoring improved by 6.3 points per game between his first and second award. Larry Bird's jumped by 4.5 points, and his shooting numbers rose with it. Michael Jordan's team jumped from 50 wins in his first MVP season to 61 in his second. Even if the exact area of improvement was different, the only two true exceptions to this rule are Karl Malone and Tim Duncan, two of the most steadily consistent players in NBA history.
Last season's race was a perfect example of this. Harden was better than he was in his MVP campaign by almost any measure. His scoring jumped by 5.7 points per game, yet his efficiency remained mostly level. But the bar was higher, and he lost the trophy to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now both of them will face that higher bar this season.
Interestingly, though, Curry and LeBron James probably won't. The improvement precedent tends to be restricted solely to the first and second MVP. Five-time winner Michael Jordan and four-time winner James both saw their numbers largely level off by their second award. They have nothing left to prove to voters, though James has another major obstacle in his path.
Playing with another MVP-caliber player
Only two MVP winners have ever played with another first-team All-NBA player. Moses Malone won the award in 1983 alongside Julius Erving, while Michael Jordan won it in 1996 alongside Scottie Pippen. In both instances, however, they were previous winners, and their teammates were First-Team All-NBA players the prior season without them. Their teams also won an average of 68.5 games, and it seems highly unlikely that any team reaches that bar this season.
The pool is a bit more generous to Second-Team All-NBA selections. Seven MVPs have won their awards with such teammates, but two of them include asterisks. Maurice Lucas was an All-NBA player in the 1977-78 season largely because MVP Bill Walton got hurt late in the year. It was the only All-NBA selection of his career. Dikembe Mutombo may have made it alongside Allen Iverson in the 2000-2001 campaign, but they played only 26 games together. In other words, history is not kind to MVP candidates playing alongside other MVP candidates.
Right away, this places an enormous burden on several top candidates. The pairings of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook all figure to cannibalize their own chances. All six players have been selected First-Team All-NBA in the past three seasons.
Here's a look at the MVP odds, according to DraftKings:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: +300
- Stephen Curry: +550
- LeBron James: +550
- James Harden: +650
- Kawhi Leonard: +650
- Anthony Davis: +900
- Joel Embiid: +1100
- Paul George: +1100
- Nikola Jokic: +1400
- Damian Lillard: +1400
- Russell Westbrook: +1800
- Donovan Mitchell: +4000
- Victor Oladipo: +4000
- Karl-Anthony Towns: +4000
So right off of the bat, seven of the 11 players with the best current odds are starting at a disadvantage. That doesn't mean that they can't win the award, but it means they have an uphill climb ahead of them. In all likelihood, they will be battling players that fit into one of three categories:
1. The best player on the best team
Top candidate: Nikola Jokic (+1400 odds at DraftKings)
If any single statistic could be called predictive in terms of naming an MVP, it would be regular-season wins. The NBA has named 43 MVPs since the merger, and 27 of them have played for the team with the best record in the league. Nine more played on the team with the second-best record in basketball. Winning helps your candidacy, and it helped Antetokounmpo take home the trophy last year. His Milwaukee Bucks could easily top the regular-season standings again, but with the burden of his first MVP still hanging over him, that in itself won't be enough for a repeat.
The Eastern Conference remains the logical place to look, as amassing regular-season wins is going to be easier than doing so in the Western Conference. The trouble is that the other juggernaut of the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, do not have an obvious candidate. Their best player, Joel Embiid, has never played more than 64 games in a season. Only one MVP, Walton, won with fewer games played, so until Embiid proves he can play enough to win the award, he shouldn't be viewed as an immediate candidate to do so.
That leaves us the West, despite its competitiveness, as the only potential source for this kind of winner. Fortunately, there is a perfectly viable candidate waiting there. The Denver Nuggets finished second in the Western Conference with 54 wins last season, but they have plenty of room for improvement.
They had the NBA's second-youngest roster last season according to the league's official roster survey. They figure to be healthier after Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap missed time last season. They brought back their top 10 players in terms of minutes played, and are adding defensive specialist Jerami Grant and former top high school prospect Michael Porter Jr. to the fold this season.
If the Nuggets improve at the rate a team in their situation should, there is a good chance they finish with the best record in the Western Conference. If that is the case, Jokic is probably going to be an MVP candidate. He finished fourth last season, and given his own age and likely improvement, he should make a serious push for the hardware this time around.
2. The best scorer on a top defense
Top candidate: Donovan Mitchell (+4000)
This is the category in which "best" and "valuable" tend to diverge the most. Voters love elite scorers who don't play for elite offenses. It implies that they need to carry a heavier load than most All-Stars, but given their preference for winners, a top defense needs to be in place. Fortunately, one usually is.
The NBA has seen 24 post-merger MVPs that played on top-five defenses, and nine of those players were on teams that did not have top-five offenses. Many of those players carried truly gargantuan offensive loads. Allen Iverson, for example, averaged 31.1 points per game during his MVP season. None of his teammates topped 12.4. Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Derrick Rose all won MVPs under similar circumstances. They played for great defensive teams, but voters were enthralled by their underwhelming support systems offensively.
Donovan Mitchell is poised to present a similar argument this season. In fact, his circumstances are nearly identical to Rose's in 2010. Rose played for Team USA in the World Cup following his second season. So is Mitchell. Rose's team remade itself in the offseason without adding a superstar. So did Mitchell's. Rose's Bulls had the best defense in the NBA during his MVP campaign. The Jazz finished second last year. He'll need to take a leap this season to enter the MVP conversation, but Rose did nearly a decade ago. There's no reason to believe Mitchell can't do the same.
3. The player who took advantage of new circumstances
Top candidate: Stephen Curry (+550)
The first two categories represent most MVP winners. Of the 43 trophies handed out since the merger, 32 fall within one of those two groups. When they fail, though, voters often fall back on human instinct. They pick things that are shiny and new.
That can mean a variety of different things. For players like Charles Barkley and Steve Nash, it meant joining new teams. For Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it meant thriving without a teammate voters were used to seeing them play with. And for James Harden and Kevin Garnett, it meant having new teammates in place to support them. The impact of change is easier to spot than the value of stability. Voters have an easier time justifying an MVP vote when they can explain what led to it.
No MVP vote would be easier to explain than one for Curry. The former two-time MVP averaged over 30 points per game before Durant arrived. He sacrificed his own numbers for the good of his team, but with Durant gone and Klay Thompson injured, the Warriors will need to lean on him once again for an enormous scoring output.
If he even comes close to his 2015-16 numbers and keeps the Warriors in contention in the process, the story surrounding a third trophy of his would be simple: it was always his to begin with. He just set it down for a few years in pursuit of a more important trophy alongside Durant. But once it made sense for him to chase the MVP award again, he did so with gusto.
This will not guarantee Curry the award just as fitting into the other categories won't do so for Mitchell or Jokic. Even if the process is flawed, the player with the best chance at actually being named the MVP is usually going to be... well... the MVP. If one player stands out for whatever reason, that player is usually rewarded. But when things get muddled, circumstance is as powerful as merit, and on paper, these three players will start the season in pole position for the award.