Last season, we entered the year with a wide-open MVP race that could have gone a lot of directions, but in the end Russell Westbrook and James Harden had put up such ridiculous numbers they stood out at the top (although Kawhi Leonard was lurking).
This season, we are back to that wide open race — the tectonic shifts in players moving to teams with other superstars this summer has changed the race. Here are the five guys that have the best shot at winning the award.
1) LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s a four-time MVP — and finished in the top three in voting for eight straight seasons until he was fourth in 2017 — who has been so consistently dominant his biggest challenge is we have become accustomed to his greatness. He averaged 26.4 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, and 8.7 assists last season and it was greeted with a shrug. However, with Kyrie Irving traded to Boston and Isaiah Thomas likely a spectator until January, James will have to carry more of a load during the regular season. If the Cavaliers continue to be the dominant force in the East (as is likely), James will get the credit, and that could propel him to MVP No. 5.
2) Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the reigning MVP and earned it with a historic season becoming only the second player to average a triple-double for the season — 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. The addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder roster will mean Westbrook’s counting stats will decline, but if he can lead this team to a No. 2 or 3 seed in the West with at least 57 wins, and he can show true leadership making sacrifices and getting everyone involved, he could pick up a back-to-back MVP win as well.
3) Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. He led a 61-win Spurs team last season averaging 25.5 points per game, but his legitimate case for MVP was that he was the best defender of anyone in the group (and the Spurs had the best defense in the NBA). He doesn’t tout himself for the award (or for anything), but if he puts up similar numbers again and the Spurs are right there with the Thunder and Rockets for the two seed in the West, Leonard again will be in the mix to win the award. The one question has become will he be healthy enough, after he sat out all of the preseason with a chronic quad issue.
4) Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors. He is a former MVP, the Finals MVP from last season, and the best player — sorry Stephen Curry — on what should be the most dominant team in the NBA this season. The MVP award has often gone to the best player on the best team, which has Durant as the favorite among the Las Vegas oddsmakers. He averaged 25.1 points and 8.3 rebounds a game last season, and likely will have numbers close to that. The one thing that could hold him back is voters fatigued with the Warriors winning everything and looking for a narrative they find more interesting.
5) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. He burst into NBA superstardom last season when they put the ball in his hands, made him the defacto point guard, and he responded with 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. There is almost nothing he can’t do on the court, and he only continues to improve. The key for him is not his jump shot (which is slowly improving), but rather will the Bucks take another step forward — this has been a “two steps up, one step back” team for a few years now. If the Bucks are stagnant or worse this season, it is bad news for Antetokounmpo’s MVP hopes (and maybe Jason Kidd’s job). However, if the Bucks move up the ladder in the East and are winning 50+ games, the Greek Freak will move into serious MVP consideration.
Just missing this list: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving.