Way-Too-Early 2019-20 MVP Rankings: Who's Coming for Giannis' Throne?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2019

Way-Too-Early 2019-20 MVP Rankings: Who's Coming for Giannis' Throne?

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    It's right there in the title, folks. We're taking a stab at the 2019-20 MVP hierarchy way too early.

    LeBron James and Anthony Davis had the best odds last October, yet neither finished in the top 10 when the votes were tallied in June. Consider that yet another reminder that the NBA defies prediction at every turn.

    At the same time, this year's field somehow feels easier to forecast. The MVP narratives already seem clearer than usual.

    Maybe that's because last season is still fresh in our minds, and we're erring in assuming the power structure that defined it will carry over. In a league that underwent seismic changes this summer, counting on a sustained status quo might be a mistake.

    Oh well. It's worth a shot anyway.

Honorable Mention

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    Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Hobbled and looking a little hefty, Joel Embiid didn't exactly flash top form in the 2019 playoffs. In fact, compared to his regular-season efforts, both of his career playoff trips featured downticks in both shooting efficiency and usage. This is why Embiid's top priority in 2019-20 must be improved fitness.

    That might cost him.

    Due to slippage from the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers will be even greater threats to reach the Finals next year. With so much at stake, they should proceed with extreme caution when it comes to Embiid. That should mean giving him several nights of rest throughout the season.

    There's no doubting the talent. Last year, Embiid finished seventh in MVP voting, sixth in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus and third in Jacob Goldstein's Player Impact Plus-Minus. It's just that the smartest course for all parties involved seems to be limiting him to around 60 games. Bill Walton is the only MVP ever to play fewer than 71 games in an 82-game season.

              

    James Harden, Houston Rockets

    Russell Westbrook tends to hoard stats. Although the Houston Rockets' new addition likely won't average a triple-double now that he's free of the Oklahoma City Thunder's teamwide complicity in that effort, he's still going to chip away at James Harden's numbers.

    Harden has finished either first or second in MVP voting in four of the last five years, and he's never come in worse than ninth since he joined the Rockets. He'll be in the MVP mix yet again this season, but if his 36.1 points per game and 61.6 true shooting percentage weren't enough to get the job done last year, his odds have to be worse with Westbrook involved in this go-round.

          

    Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

    Leonard logged only 60 games with the Toronto Raptors during the 2018-19 regular season as part of a conservative load-management structure. Come playoff time, he was still limping around—albeit dominantly.

    Dominant limping is a paradox, but we all saw it happen.

    The Clippers are bound to follow suit when it comes to his health this season. So, like Embiid, Leonard is unlikely to reach the unofficial games-played threshold upon which voters have historically fixated.

           

    Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

    With Mike Conley now in place to share the playmaking load, Bojan Bogdanovic offering more shooting in the first unit and a defense that seems incapable of finishing worse than fifth, the conditions for a Mitchell leap are all in place.

    Heading into his age-23 season, Mitchell will need only modest statistical improvement on last year's averages of 23.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds to post a 25-5-5 stat line. A slightly larger step forward (which is within the realm of possibility) could get him to 27-6-6. If he does that for a 55-win team that finishes among the top three in the Western Conference, he'll be in the MVP conversation.

5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    LeBron James hasn't collected an MVP since 2012-13. If he were to grab his fifth career MVP next year, that six-season gap would be the longest for any player in league history.

    Don't put it past him.

    James hasn't had something to prove in a long time, and he also hasn't had a playoff-free summer to rest since 2005. The combined effects of motivation and recuperation should push him right back into the thick of the MVP race.

    But like several other candidates, load management may limit the volume of his contributions.

    The Athletic's Sam Amick also outlined why James could assume a more deferential role this year. Although much of the same "LeBron's ready to take a back seat" logic applied to a hypothetical version of the Los Angeles Lakers that also included Kawhi Leonard, he still might focus more on empowering Anthony Davis than running up his own point totals.

    Last year, James quietly averaged more than 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the second straight season. No one other than James has ever done that past the age of 30. If he sustains something close to those averages and at least pretends to play defense for a Lakers team that should vie for the West's top seed, he'll get serious MVP consideration.

    If James logs 70-plus regular-season games, it might be his award to lose.

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Anthony Davis has averaged at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in each of the past five seasons. Nobody else has accumulated those marks even once in that span.

    Already a trafficker in unparalleled statistical achievement, imagine what Davis might do with James drawing more defensive focus than any teammate he's ever played with. Try to grasp what might be possible when Davis, for whom virtually every basket looks easy, starts getting a handful of spoon-fed gimmes every night.

    With James as his enabler, Davis is in for the most productive season of his already exceptional career, health permitting.

    Davis has never played with a facilitator as good as James. Jrue Holiday was adequate with the New Orleans Pelicans, but he hasn't finished above the 75th percentile in points per play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler over the past four seasons. Last year, Holiday was in the 62nd percentile.

    James, meanwhile, was in the 91st percentile during his final year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And despite adjusting to new (and not so great) personnel last year, he still wound up in the 84th percentile.

    Davis has long been underutilized and relatively underwhelming as a roll man, and his skills are varied enough to warrant responsibilities beyond "set pick, run toward basket, await lob." But the increased ease with which he figures to succeed in the pick-and-roll also applies to everything else he'll do on the floor.

    AD's production is about to explode.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Nikola Jokic would be an unconventional MVP.

    For starters, voters aren't fans of big men. No true center has won the award since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000. Tim Duncan won a pair after that, but he played most of his minutes at the 4 in those seasons.

    Furthermore, in a game that tends to prize conspicuous displays of athleticism, Jokic is a plodder who succeeds with subtler skill.

    That isn't to say his ability is hard to notice. There's genius in every no-look dime, unexpected skip pass and deft flip shot. But watching Jokic methodically peel apart defenses isn't quite the same as seeing recent MVPs—Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry—devour them whole.

    With that said, Jokic is the best passing big man everhe averaged 7.3 assists last year, the most ever for a player 6'11" or taller—and his supporting cast is even better in 2019-20. New addition Jerami Grant can stripe corner threes and gives Jokic an above-the-rim option at the dunker spot he's never had before.

    The 24-year-old might become the first center to average nine assists per game. 

    Jokic finished last season fifth in RPM and ninth in PIPM. If his three-point shooting bounces back after a rough 30.6 percent showing last year, he's going to cruise past the career-high 20.1 points per game he averaged during his first All-Star season.

    The Denver Nuggets won 54 games last year and should top that mark on the strength of organic growth from a young core, plus the addition of Grant and a healthy Michael Porter Jr.

    If any of this prediction feels outlandish, remember that Jokic finished fourth in MVP voting last season. We aren't exactly going out on a limb here.

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Steve Nash is the only player since 1999 to win an MVP after turning 30, which would seem to make Stephen Curry's shot at a third award unlikely.

    But since Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (for most of the season) won't be around to share the offensive load, Curry not only will have the ball more often than ever, but he'll also have no choice but to relax the rules of his shot selection.

    Curry already lives on a different plane in that regard. Almost any shot he lets loose is a good one. But with so little assistance from teammates in 2019-20, we could see Steph return to the "if he's over half court and nobody's within six inches, let it fly" mentality of his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16.

    Curry took a career-high 20.2 shots per game that year, averaging a league-leading 30.1 points on 66.9 percent true shooting. That rate led the NBA, and the combination of points and efficiency he displayed in that fever dream of a campaign remains the gold standard for effective high-volume offense.

    It remains the only season in which a player has cracked the 30-point mark with a true shooting percentage that high.

    Curry reached those heights at the age of 27, so it's reasonable to price in some age-related decline. However, his true shooting percentage was an even higher 67.5 percent in 2017-18 when he was two years older, and he wasn't far off last year, coming in at 64.1 percent. All he needs to vault back into the top rungs of the MVP ladder is more volume.

    His 19.4 shots per game last year ranked ninth in the league. When that number spikes, which it must if the Golden State Warriors are going to get anything done on offense, Curry will be right back up around 30 points per game on ridiculous efficiency.

    The greatest shooter to ever walk the earth is going to shoot more. That's the uncomplicated heart of Curry's case for MVP.

    The MVP race is sometimes as much about the story as the stats, too. If Curry reasserts his offensive dominance in ways we haven't seen for the past three years, voters will eat it up. The 50-point fireworks shows and magma-hot streaks of deep threes will captivate everyone just like they did during his back-to-back award-winning seasons a few years ago.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    If last year was an example of what Giannis Antetokounmpo could do at 60 percent of his powers, we might as well skip the vote and hand him the MVP trophy right now.

    What does, say, 80 percent even look like? At that point, does Antetokounmpo start seeing a fourth dimension? Does he choose not to be bound by gravity? Is he, and not Scarlett Johansson, the subject of Morgan Freeman's ridiculous lecture in Lucy?

    The mind reels.

    In 2018-19, the 24-year-old Milwaukee Bucks superstar ran away with the award, more than tripling the number of first-place votes earned by runner-up James Harden. Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, three-category averages unseen since Oscar Robertson ran them up in the stat-inflating pace of the 1961-62 NBA.

    Antetokounmpo did all this for a 60-win Bucks team without a reliable jumper. Unlike everyone else in consideration for next year's award, he has an obvious path to improvement: If he hits threes at a respectable rate, defenses will have no answer. 

    Even if he only plateaus at this self-diagnosed 60 percent level, Antetokounmpo still has the inside track on a repeat. Curry is aging. Jokic doesn't fit the typical MVP bill. Davis and James could split votes. Everyone else in the discussion has a hurdle to clear, a hill to climb.

    Antetokounmpo is on the mountaintop, and nobody seems ready to make the ascent it'll take to unseat him.

             

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceNBA.com and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated.