- The summer is behind us and a wild NBA season is in front of us. With that in mind, The Crossover provides notes on the 2020 contenders for the MVP.
Summer has come and gone, and the wildest NBA offseason in years is behind us. It's the first week of September, and even as the FIBA World Cup unfolds in China, we're only a few weeks away from the beginning of training camps all over the league.
To pass the time, I will lean on tradition. Every year around Labor Day I like to get reacquainted with the NBA by surveying the MVP field for the coming season. All of this is wildly premature, but that's part of the fun. With that in mind, and with a nod to Sportsbook.ag for providing the odds, here are some notes on the 2020 contenders for NBA MVP.
If the Apocalypse Hits...
• Kyle Kuzma (1,500/1)
• Nikola Vucevic (300/1)
• Devin Booker (100/1)
• Zion Williamson (100/1)
• Draymond Green (75/1)
• Jimmy Butler (75/1)
• Luka Doncic (18/1)
Kyle Kuzma is the closest thing the NBA has to a Vine celebrity, and yes, at least half the reason I included this section was to imagine a season where LeBron gets hurt, AD goes missing for several months, and Kuzma rises from the ashes to carry the Lakers all year and raise the Maurice Podoloff trophy in this outfit.
Elsewhere: Devin Booker winning MVP would be a great way to respond to critics of his approach to open gym double teams, but for now, Team Noah is still winning that battle. Doncic should have a great year, but those odds are a little baffling. It's horrifying to imagine how much league-wide attrition would be required to deliver us a Draymond MVP season. The hypothetical season that ends with a Vucevic MVP has to be the single most boring simulation of what's possible in 2020. The season that ends with a Zion Williamson MVP is more fun than you can possibly imagine.
The Load Managers
• Paul George (20/1)
• Kawhi Leonard (8/1)
What to make of the Clippers? George's return from shoulder surgery is still up in the air. George said he's "progressing really well" but declined to offer a timetable, while last month there were rumors that he could miss the first six weeks. Even when he's back on the court, he'll be playing next to Leonard, likely sacrificing some of the scoring we saw through the first half of last year's Thunder season. An MVP for PG would mean a full recovery from surgery, a return earlier than expected, and probably an extended absence from Leonard that forces George to carry the load and keep the Clips afloat at the top of the West. It's not inconceivable, but it seems like more of a 50/1 scenario than 20/1.
Then there's Kawhi. At his introductory press conference, he said he'll approach this year's rest schedule on a "game-by-game basis" but that he intends to "play the full season." Make of that what you will. He's healthier than he was at the beginning of last year's regular season—in which he played 60 games—but he's also someone who's struggled with nagging injuries for much of his career, including at the end of last year's playoffs. The case for Kawhi as MVP isn't complicated. He can anchor the Clippers through George's absence and his routine excellence will be much harder to ignore after the whole world watched him break the NBA last spring. Maybe the league belongs to him now. I just have a feeling his story will be more nuanced than a full-blown takeover, and either way, I can't imagine he or the Clippers will care enough about the regular season to make a sustained MVP run across seven months.
The Best Long Shots
• Rudy Gobert (250/1)
• Ben Simmons (100/1)
• Kemba Walker (50/1)
• Damian Lillard (25/1)
There's a decent chance the Jazz will have the best record in the West this season, and there's a decent chance that Gobert will once again be the most valuable player on the Jazz. Someone needs to explain how he has Kyle Kuzma odds in the MVP race. He's worth a flier just for fun. The same is true for Simmons at 100/1. His game didn't improve as much as everyone expected last year, but he's still generally great during the regular season. This is his third full season, the same season that Derrick Rose won his MVP. If Embiid misses extended time and the Sixers play small and fast around Simmons for six months, it's entirely possible that he enters a wide open MVP race and steals this.
Meanwhile, in Boston, millions of Celtics fans jilted by Kyrie are prepared to build Kemba a statue before he's even played a game. It's well-established that roughly two-thirds of sports media somehow has ties to Massachusetts, so the world will hear too much about Celtics stars whether they deserve it or not. If Boston can win 55 games, there will definitely be MVP buzz for the star at the center of everything. The 50/1 feels like a decent value for Kemba.
And Lillard. I'm worried about the Blazers, honestly. Jusuf Nurkic is still recovering from a leg injury, they lost two very solid rotation players (Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless) and replaced them with Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, and several months' worth of Anfernee Simons hype. So why bet on Lillard? First, because all the Blazers red flags this summer sound awfully similar to worries that preceded the past few Portland seasons as well. Dame rendered all of that irrelevant. And second: if he can keep things rolling again this year, it may take the best season of his career. If that's what we see in Portland, it's not hard to imagine the entire league falling in love with Lillard in March and April and giving him something like a career-achievement MVP.
The Day the Takesmen Died
• Kyrie Irving (50/1): Maybe every sports narrative is meaningless. All these outcomes are random. Winning, losing, leadership, not spending the entire year talking about the value of postseason experience and then shooting 30% from the field over four straight playoff losses—all these concepts are social constructs. The lesson of a Kyrie MVP season would be that life is chaos. We'd all be speaking in Instagram captions by the end of it. God, I hope it happens.
• Giannis Antetokounmpo (5/2): Look at the past 20 years and back-to-back MVPs are relatively common. LeBron's done it twice, Steph Curry did it in '14 and '15, Steve Nash won in '04 and '05, and Tim Duncan did it in '02 and '03. Is Giannis next? He will almost certainly put up the same mind-boggling numbers he did a year ago, the Bucks could once again have the best record in the NBA, and in an era dominated by teams with multiple superstars, Giannis will be doing a convincing impression of LeBron on the Cavs in '08 and '09. Incidentally, LeBron won MVP in each of those seasons.
The case against Giannis? Teams will spend all year throwing junk defenses at him and imitating the Raptors blueprint. Most of them won't have Toronto's personnel, but still. It could get tricky at times. Likewise, he and the Bucks will have a high bar to clear if they want to exceed preseason expectations. Vegas has them at 58 wins. Maybe finishing with wins somewhere in the low 50s could be held against him. Saving that, and barring injury, Giannis looks close to unstoppable. Even with only +250 odds, this might be the best bet on the board.
• James Harden (8/1): Harden has been unbelievably productive over the past five seasons and Rockets fans occasionally moonlight as the Gamergaters of NBA Twitter (it's about ethics in MVP voting). We're never far from a reminder of how great his numbers have been in the regular season. But there are two problems this year: First, I can't imagine that he could ever improve on last year's performance (36.1 ppg, 7.5 apg, 6.6 reb). Second, maintaining Houston's foothold near the top of the West will be harder than ever. Throw in uncertain dynamics with Westbrook and talk of a concerted strategy for rest, and this might be the season we see Harden take a small step back in MVP conversations. Then again, a lot of that same rationale has been there for the past few seasons and he's continued to shred the league.
• Steph Curry (5/1): Curry is a tempting pick, but I'm wary for three reasons. 1) His durability is a question mark, and picking him to win MVP feels like we might be jinxing things. 2) The Warriors are projected to win 50 games, but given the success of the past few years, they'd probably need to win at least 55 games for Curry to build real MVP momentum. And 3) That kind of season is possible, but I want to wait and see what their defense looks like before betting on D'Angelo Russell, WillIe Cauley-Stein, and whoever they trot out on the wings. This will be a weird, fun Golden State season, but it will be complicated along the way. If you're a post-KD Warriors believer, you're probably better off buying playoff stock (once they get Klay Thompson back) than buying into Curry as an MVP and the Warriors as the sleeping regular season giant.
• Joel Embiid (12/1): As I wrote in July, this is a season that could define the way the league sees Embiid. If he arrives in shape and ready to tear through the NBA, the Sixers could have the best regular season record in the league. Given his value as the linchpin of an elite defense and how great he can look on offense, the MVP case would be almost self-explanatory from there. The question is whether either Embiid or the Sixers would be invested enough in the regular season to sustain that MVP momentum through April. Half the appeal of signing Al Horford was rooted in his ability to spell Embiid as the team begins to rest Embiid more often than it has the past few years. All of which is to say: I'm pretty sure Embiid would be my MVP pick if I thought he would play more than 60 games, but I'm not sure he will, and I'm not sure he should. For both Embiid and the Sixers, there are bigger goals than the MVP this season.
• LeBron James (12/1), Anthony Davis (8/1): I have no idea how to separate these two as candidates, and it wouldn't surprise me even a little bit if either one of them won the MVP this year. The Lakers roster is alarmingly thin almost everywhere else, but the team is still projected to win 50 games, and I think I like them beat that number next season. That's a strictly a nod to how amazing both LeBron and AD have been over the past few years. Will they cannibalize each other's votes? Can they stay healthy? Who's playing point guard in crunch time? There are lots of questions that can't be answered yet, but right now, neither one of them can be dismissed. LeBron and AD may be the two best bets outside of Giannis.
• Nikola Jokic (13/1): Jokic in the playoffs last year: 25.1 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 8.4 apg, 50.6% shooting, 39.3% from three. He was voted first-team All-NBA at the end of last season, but I'm not sure the NBA community has properly reckoned with just how dominant he can be. Maybe that's what comes this season. The Nuggets have as good of a chance as anyone at filling the vacuum created by Warriors attrition. So if the Bucks stumble, if the Lakers supporting cast handicaps their stars, if Clippers and Sixers play for the postseason and rest Kawhi and Embiid... Why can't Jokic carry the Nuggets to the top of the West and bring this award back to Serbia?
At 13/1, you're getting good value for a guy who's almost guaranteed to finish somewhere in the top five of MVP voting. It may be crazy to write that he could actually win it, but Jokic is 24 and just beginning to enter his prime. After this season, it could be a long time before anyone will dismiss him as an MVP pick.