NBA Players Who Could Throw a Wrench in Your Chalk MVP Race
History tells us the NBA's MVP award is not for dark-horse candidates.
Think about it: When was the last time you were genuinely surprised by the winner of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy? Stephen Curry in 2015? Derrick Rose becoming the youngest-ever victor in 2011?
Pretty much every recent recipient was on the national radar before earning the league's highest individual honor. Dating back to the 2006-07 campaign, only one MVP winner began the season laying 20-1 odds or worse, according to SportsOddsHistory.com: Derrick Rose, at 25-1. Curry's first victory registers as the second-biggest long shot, at 16-1.
Let's agree to not care.
The Association's MVP track record shouldn't do anything to dull interest in this year's off-chance candidates. Cinderella stories happen. Not often, but they do. So it's important we find them.
Anyone who entered 2018-19 with a top-10 MVP betting line is not eligible for inclusion. This includes LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook. Some of them remain underrated in MVP terms, but they've all received their due.
This one's for the unhyped possibilities—the players with the best shot at crashing a race they're not supposed to win.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks, 63.5 true shooting percentage
Advanced Metrics: 27.6 player efficiency rating (PER), 68.27 total points added (TPA), 1.0 value over replacement player (VORP)
Nikola Jokic's catch-all stats have long painted him as a viable MVP candidate. This season is no different:
Yawn, basically. More of the same is more of the same. People will, as always, find ways to discredit Jokic's case. Only this year, unlike last year, his detractors are painfully light on clap-backs.
His defense sucks. Cool. Except it doesn't. The Denver Nuggets are allowing 101.8 points per 100 possessions on the season—third-best mark in the league. That number only climbs a tick, to 102.9, with Jokic on the floor. He will never be the ideal switcher, but he pokes balls out of passing lanes, holds up at the rim when he's not finishing long-distance rotations and, this year specifically, works within aggressive pick-and-roll coverages.
He doesn't even average 20 points per game. This is true. And also stupid. Jokic is the fulcrum for everything the Nuggets do on offense. They score at an elite clip with him in the game and plunge into obscurity when he's catching a breather. Points-per-game diehards can direct their ire toward Steve Nash, who will promptly tell them to shove it.
He will never headline a contender. This argument appeared on the verge of extinction with Russell Westbrook's victory in 2017, but it lives on. We must address it.
The average winning percentage for teams that have housed an MVP during the three-point era is roughly 74.8—the equivalent of 61 victories in an 82-game season. Only three times over this span has an MVP hailed from a squad that finished lower than second in their conference: Westbrook (2016-17), Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Moses Malone (1981-82).
These unofficial baselines hurt Jokic before. They don't anymore. The Nuggets won't play at a 74-win pace forever. Nor are they locks to jockey for the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. As of now, though, they're on track to comfortably clear 50 victories and contend for home-court advantage. Put another way: They're good enough for Jokic's MVP argument to exist closer to the rule than the exception.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 63.4 true shooting percentage
Advanced Metrics: 29.4 PER, 63.83 TPA, 0.9 VORP
Damian Lillard is still the engine of the Portland Trail Blazers offense but in a slightly different way. Evan Turner is getting appreciably more reps with the ball this season, which has foisted change onto everyone. Lillard is adapting more than anyone.
Both his average possession time (5.28 seconds) and dribbles (3.64) per touch are down from last season. It hasn't fazed him. He is posting an effective field-goal percentage just south of 67 when shooting without a dribble.
Plenty of Portland's possessions still depend on Lillard to cook set defenses. And when he goes to work in the half court, he's not settling nearly as often. His pull-up volume is right in line with last year's number, but a career-high 33.3 percent of his looks are coming inside three feet, and he's never averaged more free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.
The way Lillard carries himself on offense now is like a cross between sugar-free Stephen Curry and extra-caffeinated Kyle Lowry.
Subtly reformatting his game to optimize the talent around him and make it harder for defenses to game-plan for Portland won't get MVP votes. And Lillard continues to be at an inherent disadvantage because he doesn't beef up the defense like other heavyweights or swing the counting-stats optics with triple-doubles. (His improvement in one-on-one situations and when battling screens is a real thing.)
Still, Lillard is once more playing All-NBA basketball for a Blazers team demanding mea culpas to preseason predictions. He's positioned to steal some—maybe a whole lot of—MVP votes.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 11.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 63.8 true shooting percentage
Advanced Metrics: 24.4 PER, 51.12 TPA, 0.8 VORP
Sit back and relax. This isn't another "Kyle Lowry is actually the Toronto Raptors' best player" think blurb. He was, and still is, better than DeMar DeRozan. He's not better than Kawhi Leonard.
That doesn't matter. Lowry is clearly on a mission this season. Whether he's out to show the Raptors weren't a hopeless case as previously constructed or just enjoys spitting in the face of people who don't think he's the best point guard in the East, we can't be sure. We don't need to be. His numbers do all the talking.
Lowry has upped his scoring without increasing his volume. He's attempting fewer shots per 36 minutes than last year. The difference is in his efficiency. He's notching a career-best true shooting percentage, and he hasn't reached the rim this often since playing in Houston.
Oh, he also happens to be leading the league in assists. Yes, the league. The. Entire. Damn. League. This reads unsustainable at first glance. It might not be.
"NBA defenses are predicated on arranging layers of help between the ball and the basket, which leaves them vulnerable to sudden, dramatic changes in direction," SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote. "Lowry effectively runs a longitudinal reverse, priming the defense to move outward before setting up a teammate to cut back inside."
Lowry's offensive moves are tougher to detect than most of his peers'. He may have the most nonchalant pull-up jumper in the game. Defenses can sort of sense when Stephen Curry is going to turn loose; they just can't do anything about it. Lowry more so wanders into his pull-up threes.
Preparing for that, his drives and changes of direction are impossible to stop. The Raptors' next-level spacing has made his job easier and the defense's responsibility unmanageable, and it shows in the win-loss column.
Superstar teammates have a way of turning into dueling MVP hopefuls. Curry and Kevin Durant, in theory, should take votes away from one another. Lowry doesn't have to worry about that with Leonard. He's going to play in more games while Toronto treats the latter with kid gloves, which affords him a certain distinction.
Availability and opportunity are skills. Lowry's taking advantage of both. The Raptors look like the best team in the East and perhaps the second-best powerhouse in basketball, and they're 29.1 points better per 100 possessions when he plays. Leonard will be more valuable come playoff time, but the stage is set for Lowry to remain Toronto's regular-season lifeline.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 56.3 true shooting percentage
Advance Metrics: 21.6 PER, 25.95 TPA, 0.5 VORP
All Victor-Oladipo-is-a-flash-in-the-panners are encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves. His detonation last season was no aberration. It was, in fact, his new normal.
Oladipo's production has gone virtually unchanged from 2017-18. More of his shots are coming as pull-up jumpers (53.0 percent, up from 47.5 percent), and he's not reaching the rim as often, but these qualify as small changes. They also speak to the Indiana Pacers offense in general.
There is under-glorified value in Oladipo's steadying presence. He has given the Pacers a mainstay in the top-25-player discussion, an essential element for any team looking to grab a top-four playoff seed. That doesn't vault Oladipo to the top of the MVP totem pole, but threatening to render the Philadelphia 76ers overrated and/or capitalizing on the Boston Celtics' offensive discomposure does put him on the fringes.
Crunch-time poise might carry him further than most would be willing to admit. Only Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, Zach LaVine and Kemba Walker have attempted more shots in clutch situations, where Oladipo is slashing an absurd 61.1/58.3/87.5.
Unlike many of the NBA's other high-scoring guards, he is someone who can be entrusted with equal burdens at the defensive end. His arms are ubiquitous in passing lanes, and he is aggressive whether facing or denying the ball.
Making entry passes inside the arc is a chore with him around. Oladipo envelops without being reckless. The Pacers can get away with him pestering bigger assignments like Jimmy Butler, Jabari Parker and Jayson Tatum without fearing the usual repercussions (foul trouble, bad beats, clean looks around the basket).
Coupled with the rest of his game, Oladipo's defense entrenches him as one of the league's best all-around talents—the exact type of player who could wedge his way into the MVP periphery if his team plays well enough.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 61.3 true shooting percentage
Advanced Metrics: 26.7 PER, 47.39 TPA, 0.7 VORP
Don't mistake this to mean Walker is somehow less indispensable to Charlotte's cause. He's not. His on-off splits are skewed by an all-bench mob—Tony Parker, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willy Hernangomez—presently slaughtering opponents, per Cleaning the Glass.
That the Hornets are still better off when Walker is in the lineup says more about his value. Standing out on an understaffed team is easier than leaving a dent on a quality one. And Charlotte is playing like a top-six squad, according to its point differential and strength of schedule. Plus, this domination by the reserves isn't forever. (See Tuesday night's tilt against the Atlanta Hawks.)
Keeping the Hornets high enough in the East to make waves in the MVP discussion is Walker's greatest, if only, concern. He has everything else down.
His offense remains underrated. He comes around screens with unknowable intentions. Will he stop on a dime and fire? Lean into a short jumper? Drive straight to the rim? Spin-cycle his way through traffic? Drop a pass into the corner? Throw an overhead bullet to a cutting big before ever dribbling inside the arc?
Walker's pull-up jumper has turned into one of the league's deadliest weapons. The Hornets still use it like a crutch. Really, they've built their offense around it. Only Chris Paul is averaging more of those shots. Among almost 70 players jacking at least four pull-up jumpers per game, Walker's effective field-goal percentage ranks sixth.
Charlotte's floor general brings it all together with an unsung defensive presence. He opportunistically forces turnovers off the ball and fights through screens and contests shots with the pressure of someone four to six inches taller.
To cap it all, nothing about Walker's start is temporary. He may not flirt with the scoring crown (non-Stephen Curry division) all season, but this would be the fourth straight year he's cleared 20 points and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage better than 55—a feat shared by only Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Damian Lillard.
At this stage of his career, with free agency on the horizon, Walker is not beyond a career effort. If the Hornets overachieve, his MVP stock will, too.