2020–21 NBA SEASON PREVIEW

The Only 7 Players Who Can Win NBA MVP in 2021

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the deserving MVP front runners, but will another favorite emerge?

Brandon Anderson
Dec 21, 2020 · 12 min read

WHO WILL WIN THE NBA MVP THIS SEASON? Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning two-time MVP and an early favorite for a third straight award. LeBron James is an NBA champion again (10th time’s the charm!!) and always a threat, and Luka Doncic is the obvious darling who will surely win an MVP sooner than later. Will one of those three favorites win the 2021 NBA MVP, or will it be an underdog or a long shot?

Like any MVP award, there is no clear definition, and that’s what makes the award so interesting. Is the MVP simply the best player in the league? Is it the best player on the best team? Is the MVP the player who’s most valuable to his team? Is it the player whose team would fall furthest without them?

The answer is whatever each voter decides, and that’s what makes this fun and maddening all at once. MVP is about narrative as much as anything else. An MVP needs to tell a story. They need a narrative arc, something that drives the media hype all year. Media buzz matters. Last year it convinced many that LeBron James might win MVP in a crazy Lakers season even though Giannis was better, on a better team, a better defender, playing more, and worth more to his team. Because #narrative.

My MVP study shows that a few other characteristics matter too. A typical MVP has these things in common:

  1. They’re young but not too young. Of 21 MVPs this century, all but four were age 24 to 28. And the four exceptions were questionable MVP choices: 05 and 06 Nash (30 and 31), 08 Kobe (29), and 11 Rose (22). Rose is the only MVP under 24 since Moses in 1983 (another iffy one). Luka Doncic is 21, by the way.
  2. They win a lot. The 21 MVPs this century average a 61-win pace their MVP season. Sixteen of the 21 were the 1-seed in their conference, and four others were the 2-seed. Only 17 Westbrook came up way short, on a 47-win 6-seed.
  3. They score a lot. The last 13 MVPs have scored at least 25 PPG outside of Steph Curry in 2015, who scored 24. We expect MVPs to score in heaps.
  4. They play a lot. In the last 40 seasons, every MVP has missed 11 or fewer games. Only five have even missed more than six games. You have to play a lot to be valuable.

So we need an MVP that plays a lot, scores a lot, and wins a lot, and they probably need to be age 24 to 28. We did this exercise last season and the year before that and had the MVP in our top four both times. So who will win NBA MVP in 2021?

THE FAVORITES WHO WON’T WIN IT

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia

The last traditional big to win MVP was Tim Duncan in 2003, or Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 for true centers. Embiid always misses a bunch of games and takes nights off. Sorry, but this is not an MVP.

Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

Kawhi also misses the list because of the playing time criteria. Leonard never plays big minutes and often sits on back-to-backs, and this season is more condensed than ever. He’s far more concerned with getting healthy and ready for the playoffs.

James Harden, Houston (?)

I had Harden top two on my MVP ballot each of the last four years, but there’s no way he wins the media over this season after this disastrous offseason, no matter how good his numbers are. It’s far more likely that he pouts his way through half the season and/or gets traded to a team where his numbers drop.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis, LA Lakers

These are the toughest omissions, but I just don’t see it. LeBron hasn’t won (or deserved) MVP since 2013. He went all out last season, played great D all year, and was the best player on the 1-seed Los Angeles Lakers who led every story all year and still came up deservedly short. There’s just no way we are getting full speed ahead MVP LeBron all season again in a pandemic-shortened season when the Lakers just got done playing like three minutes ago. We’ve seen this movie. LeBron title defense teams know what they’ve proven and coast until the games matter.

Davis is the more likely MVP, especially if LeBron and Klutch start the hype machine early. Davis has all the luster of a terrific playoff run and there’s a scenario where he has a career year at age 27 for the defending champion Lakers, takes the reins from LeBron as The Guy, and runs away with this. But I can’t get there. How do you give MVP to a guy every one of us knows isn’t the best player on his own team? Scottie Pippen was no MVP.

THE LONG SHOTS

Jayson Tatum, Boston
Paul George, LA Clippers
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia

I tried to turn this into a top 10 but couldn’t talk myself into these three guys. Tatum is still on the young end for MVPs, and Boston is too egalitarian of a team for an MVP winner. Maybe if Kemba Walker is ailing all year and Tatum drags Boston to the top of the East anyway, but that‘s asking too much of Tatum right now anyway.

Paul George is the more likely Clippers MVP, simply because he has the better chance of playing more as a younger player who just finished top three in the MVP voting a season ago. But he’s got a similar problem to Anthony Davis with Kawhi the clearly better teammate and also has seen the media turn on him, so he’ll probably need a big playoff run to win everyone back over.

Simmons is the better Philly candidate but has an Embiid problem. He’s also nowhere near enough a scorer to be a traditional MVP candidate, under 17 PPG each season so far. It’s easy to see Simmons having a monster year with his defense and passing acumen on a team that should suit his strengths better, but MVP is too big an ask.

If you’re wondering, some other obvious candidates I’m also ruling out: Jimmy Butler (age, injuries), Russell Westbrook (age, winning), Zion Williamson (playing time, winning, age), Kyrie Irving (lol), and Trae Young (age, winning).

Let’s get to the seven guys who can actually win this…

WOULDN’T THAT BE SOMETHING

7. Steph Curry, Golden State
6. Chris Paul, Phoenix

It’s not that I don’t believe in Steph Curry as much as that I don’t believe in the Golden State Warriors. Remember, the MVP is supposed to win a ton of games and be on a top seed. These Warriors are a fringe playoff contender. The last time they were good, they still had Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston. This team is older and totally different.

These Warriors will ask an awful lot of Curry, who’s never had to shoulder this much of the offensive load. Maybe that means one more incredible MVP scoring season, but even if it does, I worry that this will be more like 2006 Kobe Bryant, who drags a poor team to a 6- or 7-seed. That’s just not the sort of person we usually give MVP to.

For that matter, neither is Chris Paul. He doesn’t really fit any of the criteria. CP3 is too old, too injury prone, and doesn’t score enough. There won’t be a traditional or statistical argument for him to win MVP. But the narrative stacks up beautifully.

It’s easy to see a scenario where the young talented Phoenix Suns make a leap into the top three seeds, especially if both Los Angeles teams take their foot off the gas during the regular season. If that happens, who is the one player on this year’s team that wasn’t on last year’s playoff team? It’s Chris Paul, and there would be obvious momentum for the career MVP accomplishment achievement as well. It’s a huge long shot, but CP3 is +20000 odds at DraftKings if you want to take a flyer and have fun rooting all season.

TOP 3 MIGHT BE BEST CASE SCENARIO

5. Damian Lillard, Portland
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver

These two seem to be everyone’s favorite MVP sleepers this season, and they both make a lot of sense. Both are in their primes and should have monster seasons for top five offenses. Both will have the numbers. Both teams got better in the offseason, at least for the regular season, and either one could easily finish near the top of any MVP ballot.

But can either of them actually win it? It will be tough to get enough media hype and narrative. Everyone loves Lillard, but the Blazers are not a major storyline team and probably aren’t quite good enough to get into the top three seeds, even if everything does go right. Jokic has the better opportunity because his team is better and it would be easy to see Denver winning the West 1-seed, but he’s not going to have a big scoring season so that hurts the criteria, and he’s another true center and just doesn’t look or feel like most MVPs.

I think one of these teams finishes as a top seed in the West and one of these two ends up an MVP finalist and top three in the voting. I just don’t think they will have quite enough to win the award.

THE MVP WHO WON’T WIN MVP

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee

Antetokounmpo is the reigning two-time MVP and will almost certainly deserve strong contention for a third straight award. He is the best player in the NBA right now, at least in the regular season. He plays both ways and will be a contender for DPOY again. He plays on the best team in the NBA and will be among the league’s scoring leaders, along with rebounds and plenty of other box score stats.

The simplest definition of an NBA MVP is the best player on the best team. It’s a regular season award, and the Milwaukee Bucks will probably be the best team again, like they were the last two years, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will definitely be by far the best player on that best him. He is the MVP and should win it again by every definition of the award.

Of course, we all know that’s not how this goes. One day’s media darling is next year’s disappointment who can’t get over the hump and win when the games truly matter. It feels like we are about there for Giannis. Only three players in NBA history have won three consecutive MVP awards. Even Michael Jordan and LeBron James never did it. Antetokounmpo is going to be the best player on the best team all year, and all season long, everyone in the media will bend over backwards finding every possible reason to not give him the award. He’ll finish second or third in the voting, even though he’ll deserve another win.

That’s just how this stuff works. And that leaves two names at the top.

THE MVP FAVORITES

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas
1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn

Neither of these candidates is perfect.

Luka Doncic is too young (21) and Kevin Durant is too old (32). Both will score plenty, put up plenty of numbers, and lead every highlight show, but neither is a surefire top-3 seed. Doncic will be on his own to start the season with Porzingis sidelined, and Dallas was only a 7-seed a few months ago. Brooklyn was a 7-seed too, and the Nets have serious 2019–20 Clippers potential for resting guys and coasting through the season.

Expect Doncic to be the MVP favorite at some point, probably at the start of the season. He’s the betting favorite right now and the exact sort of guy everyone loves to get excited about. Doncic will be the only thing remotely resembling a top 50 player in Dallas to start the year. If he comes out hot with a bunch of 30-point triple-doubles and looks great early, he’ll get crowned as The Next Big Thing. Doncic will absolutely win an MVP at some point.

But is it too soon? Dallas struggled in crunch time last year and lost a bunch of close games — that’s why they were the 7-seed, despite having the best offensive rating in league history. The Mavs still don’t have much defense, even with some nice wing additions, and Porzingis is a question mark. Doncic struggled through some injuries last year too.

Can Dallas really get enough wins for Luka to win MVP? Maybe, maybe not. Doncic is going to have the numbers, and plenty of buzz.

But I think there’s one even better candidate, and that’s Kevin Durant.

The narrative is just too easy. Didn’t you notice how much joy it brings you to watch Kevin Durant play basketball again this preseason? We MISSED him. There’s just no one like KD. He looks healthy and happy again, and he looks good. He looks like Kevin Durant, hitting those unguardable pull-up jumpers and controlling the game.

In his last six healthy non-Warriors-freak-show Durant seasons, KD has scored 30, 28, 28, 28, 32, and 28 PPG. He finished top five in MVP voting all six seasons. He won it in 2014 and finished second three other times, all three times to LeBron James. Four times, we’ve decided Kevin Durant was the Best Basketballer on the Planet Who Is Not Also an Alien Life Form.

Did you forget just how good Kevin Durant is? Because that’s the question the media will be dying to ask us all season long as KD drops another silky, effortless 32 like no one else in NBA history. Someone once said Steph Curry kills opponents with a 15-point barrage in three minutes, burning it all down. Durant is more like Dexter, a slow, methodical killer. He just hangs 8 on you every quarter forever and slowly watches you die.

The Mavs were the 7-seed and got a little better and older. The Nets were the 7-seed and added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Brooklyn should absolutely be a top seed in the East if they get even remotely healthy seasons from KD and Kyrie, and don’t pretend Kyrie is going to steal MVP luster from Durant. Everyone on the planet knows who the better player is.

The age and injury thing is a concern. It’s been almost five years since we’ve seen MVP Durant for a whole regular season. What does he look like post-Achilles tear? Will he play limited minutes or sit out too many games? It’s very possible, and it’s the biggest argument against Durant as a candidate. Durant isn’t going to play 38 MPG for 81 games like he did in 2014. He won’t run away with this MVP.

But remember, we already have a clear runaway MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo — we just aren’t giving it to him. So this year’s MVP may have to be a flawed candidate, and more narrative driven than usual.

Kevin Durant is +2000 to win MVP at BetMGM as the season tips. The last time we saw him in a meaningful game, he was the best basketball player in the world. He needs a second MVP trophy for his award mantle, and he’s looked like himself in preseason.

Is Kevin Durant our 2021 NBA MVP?

The season tips Tuesday night, and Durant and the Warriors will be there. But this time they’ll be wearing opposing jerseys again. ■

Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.

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Brandon Anderson

Written by

Sports, TV, NBA, NFL, culture. Words at SI's Cauldron, Sports Raid, Action Network, others @wheatonbrando ✞

SportsRaid

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

Brandon Anderson

Written by

Sports, TV, NBA, NFL, culture. Words at SI's Cauldron, Sports Raid, Action Network, others @wheatonbrando ✞

SportsRaid

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

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