2021-22 NBA MVP Rankings: Why Next Season's Favorite Has to Be Luka Doncic

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJuly 22, 2021

2021-22 NBA MVP Rankings: Why Next Season's Favorite Has to Be Luka Doncic

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    Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

    The 2021-22 NBA MVP race should be wide open, with the competitors list populated by a combination of previous winners and new challengers who are on their way to superstardom.

    While centers and players 33 and older rarely enter the discussion, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won the 2020-21 MVP, with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid finishing second and 33-year-old Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry rounding out the top three.

    This is to say, previous trends can now be thrown out the window.

    Age and position no longer matter, as anyone who dominates the game while playing on a winning team has a chance to be the league's most valuable player.

    Looking ahead to the 2021-22 NBA season, here's an early prediction of the top 10(ish) players most likely to win MVP.

Honorable Mentions

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    Stephen Curry, PG Golden State Warriors

    The return of Klay Thompson will both help and hurt Curry's MVP chances. The two-time winner likely won't capture the league scoring title again, but Golden State should safely make a return to the postseason.

    After finishing third this past season in MVP voting behind 32.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and a 42.1 three-point percentage, Curry's scoring should fall (slightly) back down to earth with Thompson and a likely larger role for James Wiseman. Only two players older than Curry (Michael Jordan and Karl Malone at age 35) have ever won an MVP award, as the veteran guard will turn 34 in March.

               

    Kevin Durant, PF, Brooklyn Nets

    Kevin Durant could be the best player in the NBA in 2021-22, although the star power around him will likely steal enough votes to keep him from winning MVP.

    The 2014 recipient of the award, Durant may not even lead his own team in scoring (Kyrie Irving tied him at 26.9 points per game this past season), rebounds or assists (James Harden edged him in both, with 8.5 and 10.9 respectively), but he is still the alpha on a Nets team that will be near the top of the East.

                 

    Paul George, SF, Los Angeles Clippers

    With Kawhi Leonard likely to miss half if not all of the regular season recovering from a partial ACL tear, Paul George should get all the shots he can handle with the Clippers this year.

    George finished third in MVP voting with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018-19, and could put up numbers quite similar to that year (28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals). The Clippers won't be expected to be among the best in the West without Leonard, so George could win a lot of sympathy votes should he keep them near the top of the conference.

                   

    LeBron James, SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Set to turn 37 in December and entering his 19th season, it's almost unfathomable to imagine someone with James' longevity even having a chance at MVP.

    Still, his numbers have remained impressive (25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 51.3 percent shooting), and the Lakers are only a year removed from winning a title. A four-time winner of the award, James should once again be in the running, even if he ultimately falls short.

               

    Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics

    Tatum is already one of the NBA's best players at age 23, and with Kemba Walker now gone, should get an even bigger bite of the offensive apple.

    With Walker on the bench last season, Tatum's scoring average jumped from 23.5 points to 28.7 points per 36 minutes. Now entering Year 5 and beginning his max contract extension, Tatum has the experience and the skills necessary to win an MVP if Boston's record doesn't ultimately doom his chances.

5. Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks

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    While many of the MVP challengers will be names that are in the running every year, Trae Young could crash the party with his strong individual play and the rise of his Atlanta Hawks.

    From March 1 on, only the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns posted a better record than the Hawks, as Young would go on to lead the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    The 22-year-old point guard averaged 25.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 9.4 assists (second in the NBA) while showing off Damian Lillard-range on his three-pointers. He fears no defense and no stage, as his playoff performances against the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks will illustrate.

    This playoff experience not only made Young a casual household name, but also made voters look foolish for not selecting him to the All-Star game.

    There may be a subconscious need to get Young the recognition he deserves after being snubbed, especially after putting up 28.8 points and 9.5 assists in his first postseason run.

    Young is incredibly fun to watch and the Hawks should even be better next year with a healthy De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Don't be surprised if Atlanta's strong record and Young's All-Star level play put him squarely in next year's MVP conversation.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Fresh off a Finals MVP win, Giannis Antetokounmpo will certainly be looking to capture his third regular-season award next season. Not bad for a guy who won't turn 27 until December.

    Antetokounmpo may have cemented himself as the best player in the NBA after leading the Bucks to the 2021 title behind a 50-point performance in Game 6 just weeks after hyperextending his left knee.

    Milwaukee has its regular starting five all under contract for next season (Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez) and should once again finish with one of the NBA's best records.

    With team success essentially a given, Antetokounmpo has the ability to be even better as he continues to develop his mid-range and three-point shot. He averaged 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks over his two MVP seasons in 2019 and 2020, yet shot just 28.4 percent from three.

    Forcing a defense to even remotely respect his outside shot will only open up more driving lanes for Antetokounmpo, perhaps the most dominant inside force in the game today.

    Voter fatigue may be the only thing that stops Antetokounmpo from taking home MVP trophy No. 3, although no player is probably more universally loved (outside of Phoenix) in the NBA right now.

3. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Suffering a bone bruise in his left knee in March may have prevented Joel Embiid from winning MVP this past year, as his pre-injury play was the best of his career.

    Embiid averaged 29.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks and shot 52.5 percent overall and 42.2 percent from three in 31 games before the knee injury. Although his play was still strong upon his return on April 3 (26.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks, 49.3 percent overall and 31.3 percent from three in 20 games), even a slight dip in his numbers and efficiency weren't enough to catch Nikola Jokic.

    Jokic also played in all 72 games last season while Embiid missed 21, perhaps the biggest factor in Jokic winning the award given Philly's better overall record.

    The potential absence of Ben Simmons could impact Embiid's play in 2021-22, as trading the three-time All-Star could shake up the Sixers roster for better or worse. Bringing in a player like Damian Lillard would likely kill Embiid's MVP chances, even if Philadelphia would be a far better team overall.

    If Embiid doesn't suffer any significant injuries and the Sixers once again finish with the best record in the East, he may very well take home his first MVP award.

2. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

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    The reigning MVP has a lot going for his repeat chances in 2021-22, with the absence of Jamal Murray (ACL recovery), in particular, leading to an even larger offensive role.

    Nikola Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals and shot 56.6 percent this past season en route to earning MVP honors. Players can no longer disrespect his three-point game (38.8 percent) and the Sombor Shuffle is perhaps the most unguardable shot in the league.

    Durability is also a major factor, as Jokic was one of 11 players in the NBA to suit up in all 72 games this season.

    No Murray (for a few months, at least) means Jokic will have to up his own shot total. When he took the floor without Murray this past season, Jokic nearly averaged a 30-point triple-double per 36 minutes with 29.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 1.1 steals and a 55.1 percent shooting mark. His shot attempts jumped from 17.5 per 36 minutes to 20.2.

    Denver may struggle to stay near the top of the West without Murray, however, especially if Will Barton and JaMychal Green end up leaving in free agency.

    Jokic should put up monster numbers yet again and will have to hope no voter fatigue sets in.

1. Luka Doncic, G, Dallas Mavericks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Already a two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA member and Rookie of the Year in his first three seasons, Luka Doncic is ready to become the league's most valuable player.

    The 22-year-old led all scorers with 35.7 points per game this postseason, adding in 10.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals and a 40.8 percent mark from three. He did this while playing through a cervical strain in his neck, limiting his head movement and vision.

    A healthy Doncic could quickly throw himself in the conversation for best player in the NBA. He's a crafty and versatile scorer who's not afraid to take (and make) the biggest shots.

    Doncic is also one of the league's best passers and was the only player to finish in the top six in both regular-season scoring (27.7 points) and assists (8.6).

    While it's fair to question if the roster around him will be good enough to compete for a top seed in the West, the Mavericks enter the offseason with up to $35.4 million in cap space—enough to add some serious talent.

    New head coach Jason Kidd should give Doncic all the power he wants to run the offense as the team's point guard, making the fourth-year phenom a true triple-double threat with his 6'7" frame.

    Doncic has been a star since the day he stepped onto an NBA court—and even before that, really—and should be considered the favorite to win the 2021-22 MVP.

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