Predicting the Next Wave of NBA MVP Candidates

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2020

Predicting the Next Wave of NBA MVP Candidates

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Believe it or not, there will come a time when the NBA MVP race doesn't include the usual suspects. LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and a healthy Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, among others, can dominate the ballot for only so long.

    Luckily, though, the league will be in great hands once it transitions into a new era of MVP mainstays.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has already proved as much. He burst onto the MVP scene and never left, and now a second consecutive Maurice Podoloff Trophy is all but in the bag.

    Other newish secondary MVP candidates invite the same amount of confidence in the NBA's future. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic aren't going anywhere. Karl-Anthony Towns' case will be ironclad if the Minnesota Timberwolves are ever good.

    Our crystal ball helped us peer even further down the line. We wanted to identify the players who stand to shape the MVP discourse for the next decade-plus—and who haven't yet routinely contended for the Association's highest individual honor.

    Anyone in their age-21 season or younger was eligible for consideration. This ensured the maximum number of fresh faces, even if Luka Doncic is already getting his share of MVP talk.

    Not every could-be or established young star made the cut. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is really good and going to be great. This conversation is reserved for those who are better—players with clear paths to becoming, and remaining, one of the league's seven to 10 best players for a long, long time.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Luka Doncic's inclusion didn't take much thought. He is already on the periphery of the MVP discussion.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo remains this year's heavy, inarguable favorite. LeBron James is right behind him. Things get more interesting after them. Doncic, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard will jockey for bronze. Anthony Davis should get some love, too.

    Securing a top-five finish on the MVP ladder is not an official achievement. It is an anecdotal victory more than anything else. But when you're a 21-year-old sophomore, that moral W is a big frigging deal.

    It says just as much about Doncic's long-term viability that he's played himself into the Most Improved Player conversation. Not only is the stigma against second-year leaps real, but he's working from a position of entrenched stardom.

    Doncic's runaway Rookie of the Year campaign fast-tracked him for top-25-or-better status before his sophomore season ever tipped off. He has obliterated expectations even by that measure. His 28.5 points and 8.7 assists per game are gigantic increases over last year's averages (21.2 and 6.0, respectively), and they've come on a less-than-marginal uptick in playing time.

    Compacted volume is more responsible for Doncic's statistical jumps. His usage rate has skyrocketed from 30.5, a top-10 mark last season, to 37.0, the second-highest in the league, behind only Antetokounmpo's.

    Dramatic increases in workload tend to come at the expense of efficiency. Not in Doncic's case. His true shooting percentage sits at 58.3, nearly four points higher than last year's and comfortably above the league average of 56.3.

    People will eventually turn on Doncic's three-point clip. That's how this works. Youthful stardom is a honeymoon. The harping and hating comes later.

    Let them. Doncic is launching almost 10 triples per 36 minutes, the vast majority of which are intensely difficult looks. Only Harden, Lillard and Trae Young have scored more points on unassisted treys, according to PBP Stats.

    Sub-32 percent shooting from beyond the arc isn't something Doncic needs to overcome or anyone must forgive. Twenty-one-year-olds aren't finished products. And even if Doncic never parallels Harden's or Lillard's efficiency from deep, he's still one of the league's most transcendent offensive players.

    Few others boast his vision off the dribble, and he's become an expert at keeping defenses on tilt inside the arc. He's shooting 57.5 percent on his two-pointers and 72 percent at the rim (94th percentile). It is on his back that the Dallas Mavericks have moved into the outskirts of the title picture. Many more years of serious MVP contention are a given.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ja Morant's rookie season is nothing if not proof he has the ceiling of a player who belongs on this list.

    A loosening grip on Rookie of the Year ownership doesn't change his trajectory. For one, he's not even giving up ground in that "race." Zion Williamson's dominance has made it seem like Morant's stock has dropped. But he hasn't slumped long enough or hard enough to be anything other than the consensus favorite.

    Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other rookies to clear 20 points and eight assists per 36 minutes. That Morant's true shooting percentage (56.9) checks in a hair above the league average (56.3) is comparably impressive. He has one of the Association's 30 highest usage rates and has scored more points on unassisted twos than Devin Booker, according to PBP Stats.

    Ferrying that type of workload is one thing. Shouldering it as a 20-year-old is another. Carrying it as a rookie on above-average efficiency is ridiculous.

    Morant does need to expand his three-point volume if he's going to expedite and solidify his future-MVP position. He's canning 35.7 percent of his pull-up triples but attempting only 1.4 such looks per game—and fewer than three per 36 minutes overall.

    Creating anarchy inside the arc has its limits. Morant will push them even if he remains a conservative outside shooter. He is both slippery and explosive, like if an RDX compound was given legs. Only a handful of players can make the passing reads he does after leaving his feet, and his handle equates to an open-ended ticket to shows at the rim. He gets to the line enough to prop up his shot profile.

    If you're worried about the Memphis Grizzlies' better offensive rating with Morant off the floor, try to stop. Rebuilding teams have high variance baked into their lineups. Even the best rookies cannot always solve them.

    The Grizzlies' net rating is still better with Morant on the court. They wouldn't be in the Western Conference's final postseason spot without him. That he's making such a huge imprint as an unfinished product speaks volumes about what he will do at the height of his powers.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Emerging as the best player on a championship contender is the most efficient path to MVP contention. Jayson Tatum is already traveling it.

    Over his past 40 games, he's averaging 24.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks with a 58.3 true shooting percentage. Others on this list will beef up future MVP cases with dual roles as primary scorers and playmakers. Tatum isn't quite there. He needs to make the transition into being a more unpredictable passer.

    Still, he's no less of an offensive hub. The Boston Celtics no longer need a floor general to serve as his cushion. His pick-and-roll frequency has exploded compared to last season's, and the team ranks in the 52nd percentile in points scored per 100 possessions when he plays without Kemba Walker—not great but good enough.

    What Tatum lacks as a pure playmaker, he offsets with dependable from-scratch scoring. Only seven players have generated more points on unassisted threes, according to PBP Stats, and his 40 percent clip on pull-up triples is the second-highest among every player launching at least three per game.

    Boston continues to increase the frequency with which it counts on Tatum to navigate high-stakes situations. Among every player to make at least 10 crunch-time appearances, Joel Embiid, De'Aaron Fox, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Terry Rozier are the only ones matching his usage and true shooting percentage. Nikola Jokic is the lone player to make more baskets inside four seconds of the shot clock.

    Perimeter-oriented scorers can be subject to wild swings. Tatum is quickly rising above that critique—because he's a reliable jump shooter and because he's getting to the basket more often. More than 36 percent of his attempts are coming from inside five feet since Dec. 15, up from 30.7 percent beforehand. He's shooting 62.9 percent in the restricted area over this stretch, a mammoth increase over the 52.9 percent clip with which he began the season.

    Primary playmakers will typically get the edge in MVP debates. Tatum should eventually replicate the assist-total spikes made by Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but someone such as Luka Doncic has inherently more control over the offense than him.

    That's fine. Tatum will build the rest of his MVP case around defense. He can go toe-to-toe with primary ball-handlers even though the Celtics don't always ask him to, and he's developed into one of the most effective helpers.

    Monster two-way impacts can vault secondary passers past the Doncices and LeBron Jameses of the MVP convo. Tatum is checking that box in his third season. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players this year who rank in the top 12 of luck-adjusted real adjusted plus-minus on offense and defense, according to NBA Shot Charts.

    This won't be the season Tatum lands his first top-five MVP finish. But it should be the last time he's not looped into that discussion for a quite a while.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Zion Williamson hasn't needed 20 regular-season appearances to earn future-MVP billing. Truthfully, he didn't even need 15. Or five.

    OK, fine. Maybe he needed five. His superstar hype train was rolling right along before he entered the league, but some folks questioned whether his build and the absence of a preexisting player archetype would hold him back.

    A torn meniscus in his right knee before the regular season only emboldened the skepticism. To be clear, he wasn't being spun into a draft bust. But his durability was in question. He joined the New Orleans Pelicans rotation Jan. 22, toting the burden of proof.

    And then, by Jan. 23, he had shed it.

    The fourth quarter of Zion's first NBA game—16 points in two minutes, 34 seconds—is a nutshell of his season. He overwhelms in bursts while, for the most part, playing within the flow of the offense. You see him, you stare open-mouthed at defenders ricocheting off him, you feel his presence, and yet you don't always realize that he just racked up 25 points.

    "He's similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo in that they both entered the league so far out of the box physically," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "But it took Giannis four seasons to average 20-plus points. Williamson's offensive effectiveness at baseline is unlike any we've seen."

    Other future MVP candidates will invariably look better by virtue of having more control. More than 75 percent of Williamson's made baskets come on assists, and he figures to peak as a secondary playmaker. But the Pelicans have no qualms about letting him put the ball on the floor in the half court, and his macro impact stands to be so huge it supersedes the context of his role.

    New Orleans is consistently destroying opponents in Williamson's minutes. Extrapolate this year's performance across a larger sample and to include more disciplined off-ball defense, and his MVP case will write itself. Perennially.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Trae Young's defense is going to prevent some from placing him in this company. That's not unfair. He doesn't have the size (he's 6'1", 180 lbs) or wingspan (it's 6'3") to coast on physical tools, and he fights to navigate screens with the aggression of someone who doesn't understand as much.

    Catch-all metrics paint Young as less than a non-factor on the glamorous end. He is dead-last in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus and NBA Shot Charts' luck-adjusted defensive real adjusted plus-minus. He ranks third-to-last, ahead of only Bradley Beal and Darius Garland, in NBA Math's defensive points saved.

    Crummy defense can unravel MVP bids. Ask James Harden. He has an MVP Award to his name, but his defensive reputation—please don't cite the post-up stats—cost him perception points in the three times he's finished second.

    Like Harden's, though, Young's offense is transcendent enough to overcome his warts at the other end.

    His super-deep off-the-dribble threes bend defenses to the point of no return, and his lack of size has not hindered him from making plays closer to the basket. He is shooting better than 50 percent on floaters and has cracked the 90th percentile of efficiency at the rim in each of his first two seasons.

    Young's passing is probably still underrated. He's associated with his scoring first, but his vision is otherworldly. He flings nifty one-handed bounce passes in his sleep, can throw dimes the length of the court and threads the needle on no-lookers in traffic.

    Not many players have the potential to lead the league in both points and assists. Young does. And not surprisingly, he's on pace to join 2019-20 Luka Doncic and 2016-17 Russell Westbrook as the only players in league history to average more than 29 points and nine assists per 36 minutes.

    It may take Young longer to gain annual MVP consideration than his contemporaries, but make no mistake, he is good enough to get there.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.