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It’s never too early to start thinking about NBA MVP.
I love the Most Valuable Player award because it’s so deliciously opaque. There are no voting rules, and there is no clear definition of what makes someone “valuable.”
Is an MVP valuable because he wins the most? Does that mean the best player on the best team, or a great player on a team that would be terrible without them? Does defense matter? How much do you need to play? Does it matter if you’ve won before, or if you outperformed our expectations?
What’s both insanely frustrating and endlessly entertaining is that there are no answers to any of those questions. The 100 MVP voters would probably all define MVP slightly differently. That’s why this is such a fun and endless conversation every year. MVP is a narrative award, and we love stories.
There are no MVP rules — but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to predict who will win it. We can answer some of the questions above by looking back at past winners and seeing exactly how the voters gave us their answers by telling us with their votes.
So what have voters told us an MVP looks like?
What Sort of Player Wins MVP?
I’ve written a lot about MVP in the past and found four key big-picture characteristics true of almost every MVP. They are not the most shocking traits, but you’d be amazed how much just four broad traits narrow the picture down.
1. MVPs score a lot of points
Voters are still suckers for raw numbers, and points remain king.
All but one of the past 14 MVP winners have scored at least 25 points per game. The only exception was 2015 Stephen Curry, who came up just one PPG short. We expect MVPs to score and score a lot.
While 25 PPG may not seem like a high bar, only 17 players fit that criteria last season. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Jimmy Butler all fell below that threshold.
We saw 43 players score at least 20 PPG, but 25 is a different level. It narrows the field drastically. I’m not sure Nikola Jokic would’ve won last season either were it not for a drastic increase in scoring.
2. MVPs win a lot of games.
Yes, we really are that basic. We really just do just pick MVPs that are top scorers on the best teams.
Don’t believe me? We’ve had 22 MVPs since 2000. Sixteen of them played on a No. 1-seed, and four were No. 2 seeds. The only outliers were Nikola Jokic last season (No. 3 seed) and the one big outlier, Russell Westbrook in 2017, a 47-win No. 6 seed. The last guy before those two to win MVP without a top-two conference record was Michael Jordan in 1988.
Like it or not, winning is still king. MVPs this century average a 61-win pace their MVP season and almost always play on a top-two seed, usually the 1-seed. That narrows the field drastically, probably to five to seven potential teams.
And before you argue that Jokic showed winning doesn’t matter anymore, remember the mental gymnastics the media performed last season trying to select literally any other candidate (LeBron! Embiid! Harden! Curry!) before settling on Jokic.
He wasn’t the sign of changing trends; he was the last option left for many after they ruled everyone else out. He was the (deserving) representative of a wonky COVID-shortened season with no traditional candidate. It’s hard to give MVP to a 60-win team when we play only 72 games.
3. MVPs play a lot of basketball.
The best ability is availability.
That’s not entirely true, but there’s no denying the fact that MVPs need to play a lot of ball. You can hardly be the most valuable player from the bench.
That probably cost Joel Embiid an MVP trophy last season. He may have been the per-minute MVP but played only 51 games. Jokic played almost 1000 more minutes. Games played also crippled LeBron, Durant, Harden, and Kawhi’s chances. MVP was a war of attrition, and Jokic was the last man standing.
In the last 40 seasons, no MVP missed more than 11 games. That means at least 71 games played this season. It puts guys like Embiid, Curry, and LeBron at immediate risk. In fact, only five MVPs in the last 40 seasons have even missed more than six games. Jokic played every game last season.
You have to play to be valuable. Voters have told us this matters with their voting. And there’s one other trend that’s tied to playing time and health.
4. MVPs are young — but not too young.
Age is more than just a number with MVP. All but four of the 22 MVPs this century were age 24 to 28 their winning season, and that makes sense. Guys younger than that are still on their way up and still winning voters over. Players older than 28 are on the wrong side of their primes, which means deteriorating skills and increased injury risk.
The only four MVPs to fall outside of that age range this century were Steve Nash (ages 30-31, 2005-06), Kobe Bryant (age 29, 2008), and Derrick Rose (age 22, 2011). Rose is actually the only MVP since 1983 under the age of 24, and all four of those MVPs are considered questionable looking back.
The MVP favorite, Luka Doncic, is just 22 years old. Trae Young and Jayson Tatum are 23. Zion Williamson is only 21. History says these guys are too young.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Paul George are all 31 or older. Every one of those names would be the oldest MVP since Karl Malone in 1999.
So who actually fits our age range? Four names stand out: Nikola Jokic (26), Joel Embiid (27), Anthony Davis (28), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (26).
History tells us NBA MVPs are 24 to 28 years old, play almost all their team’s games, win enough to be a top-2 seed, and score 25 PPG.
That doesn’t mean any voter sits down with that checklist to identify the right candidate, but it does give us a very specific profile to look for. Nine of our past 13 MVPs check every one of those boxes. That’s 69% of them — not infallible, but a heck of a rubric for four basic criteria.
So where does that leave us?
The Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
James is too old and probably won’t play enough. Embiid might not play or win enough. Doncic and Young are too young and likely won’t win enough games.
Durant and Harden are too old, might not play enough, and might cannibalize each other’s votes. Curry and Lillard are too old and probably won’t win enough.
Jokic and Davis are closer. Jokic is durable and in the right age range but could have a hard time winning enough games without Jamal Murray. Davis is interesting. He’s in his prime and should win plenty in a huge market, but he has nagging injury issues and isn’t considered the best player on his own team.
Only one NBA player checks all four boxes: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There are three teams at the top of the league. The books all agree. The Nets and Bucks are expected to be the toast of the East, while the Lakers are assumed to be atop the West. Even the over/under totals paint the same picture. The Jazz, Suns, and Sixers are next, but a clear tier below.
In an era of super teams, voters have shown an unwillingness to give the MVP to one superstar on a team of stars. Look at those top three teams. The Lakers have James, Davis, and now Westbrook. The Nets have Durant, Harden, and (maybe?) Kyrie Irving.
The Bucks have Antetokounmpo. He’s the lone-wolf superstar on one of the league’s elite teams. And he’s the only player like that.
Of course, that was true last season, too. So why didn’t Antetokounmpo win MVP? Or even finish in the top three?
In a word: narrative.
This is still a narrative award above all else. Even though we know MVPs tend to be high-scoring 24-to-28-year-olds on elite teams, we also know the voters like MVPs to tell a story — the story of the season.
Last season, Antetokounmpo’s narrative was all wrong. He had already won the award in back-to-back seasons, and his Bucks had playoff collapses in both years. No voter wanted their vote attached to a potential empty stats guy who couldn’t perform at the highest level.
Plus, only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird have ever won three MVPs in a row — the bar is so extremely high that Jordan and LeBron haven’t even done it.
Antetokounmpo’s 2021 MVP candidacy was over before it even began. He was still awesome. The Bucks were still great. But voters looked elsewhere.
And then everything changed.
Now, the Milwaukee Bucks are the reigning NBA champions, and Antetokounmpo is the reigning Finals MVP.
He went toe-to-toe with Durant and put up 40 points in a road Game 7 win. He heroically came back from scary knee injury to play in the Finals, scored 42 and 41 in Games 2 and 3, and clinched the title with 50 points.
He scored 50 to break a 50-year title drought, then drove to Chick-fil-A and streamed himself ordering a 50-piece, celebrating with all the rest of us.
Suddenly, the entire narrative has swung.
Now, everyone loves Antetokounmpo again. And now there are no more doubts. There’s no more need to leave Antetokounmpo off the all-time greats list. He’s a stone-cold lock to make the 75th Anniversary Team, probably in the top half of the list. He has a best-selling Mirin Fader biography telling his remarkable story.
Now it actually makes sense for voters to award him another MVP if he continues to perform at the level we’ve seen in the past few seasons. He has a legitimate chance to become the ninth player with three MVPs joining Russell, Chamberlain, Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Jordan, James.
Now, it looks like he belongs.
Look, the fact that I don’t even have to spend one word of this article actually convincing you of Antetokounmpo’s value is a pretty good argument all its own.
I haven’t mentioned a single thing about his elite scoring, his outstanding shot creation, or his incredible defense. I haven’t broken down how he can defend any player in the league, get downhill in transition, screen-and-roll on one play, then dribble and create on the next.
That’s because you know it all already. You already know Antetokounmpo is one of the best basketball players on the face of the planet and obviously one of the most valuable players in the NBA.
And the voters know it too.
For about a decade, the default MVP answer was always LeBron. He won it in 2009 and 2010, won again in 2012 and 2013, and finished top-three eight years straight between 2009 and 2016. And rightfully so; he was one of the best players in the world and singularly great. He’s the guy we always agreed was obviously among the most valuable every season.
Now, that guy is Antetokounmpo. He’s the new default answer.
And now that Antetokounmpo got past his anti-narrative season — remember 2011, when James was suddenly only “third-most valuable” because he went to the Heat and hadn’t won a title yet? — the Greek Freak is in prime position to win another MVP.
He isn’t the only player who can win MVP, but he’s the only one you should bet this preseason. At +900 at DraftKings, the books imply just a 10% chance of him winning MVP this season. Do you really believe his odds are that low for even a second?
He’s clearly going to be in MVP contention, which means that even if a better candidate comes forward later, you can almost certainly use the cash-out option and get your bet back later in the season with added value.
But you might not even have to do that because Antetokounmpo might just win another MVP.