James Harden was spot on when he said he lost the Kia MVP race last season because of a narrative.
That wasn’t the only reason he came up short to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo en route to his historic season in 2018-19. Antetokounmpo’s intriguing basketball life story decidedly played a part in voters’ minds, many of whom are in the narrative business.
“Once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and just run with it the entire year,” Harden said in an August radio interview with 97.9 The Box. “I don’t want to get into details. All I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. There’s only a few other seasons that anybody has ever done that before.”
Blaming the media is a cop out. But there is merit in Harden’s assessment — that the media-spun narrative surrounding a player’s candidacy for MVP has an oversized impact on the race itself. Every NBA MVP has had an underlying story that has helped push their case for the award along.
Westbrook won his MVP the season after Kevin Durant left for Golden State in free agency. That season, Westbrook averaged a triple-double — the first to do so since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. Harden won his after finishing second twice in other bids (2015 and 2017). Antetokounmpo clinched his after turning in the finest season Milwaukee had seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the third of his record six MVPs in 1973-74.
Harden didn’t complain about narratives when he won in 2018, so there’s no need to throw shade at Antetokounmpo or others for doing likewise.
There will be new players who enter this season’s Kia MVP mix, which kicks off in earnest during this first full weekend of the season. We know the usual suspects: Antetokounmpo, Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Paul George and Kyrie Irving.
But what about the players who should be on your radar in 2019-20? Here are five to keep an eye on:
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
“The Joker” finished fourth in 2018-19, his first season as an All-Star and his first playoff run. His true breakout MVP opportunity is this season, now that he’s established himself as arguably the best big man in basketball. Jokic must battle his own instincts to stay in the mix. He’s a better passer than most of the league’s point guards and would rather make the right play than chase individual glory. “When you score, one person is happy. But when you [get an assist], you make two people happy,” Jokic said. “I’m smart enough to know that two is better than one.”
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard’s sixth-place finish in 2018-19 did justice to the Western Conference finals run he took the Blazers on. This may just be the beginning of the prime of “Dame Dolla’s” career. While many superstars have no hesitation about seeking the most desirable destination to play in, Lillard’s devotion to Portland’s quest will only enhance his case. Lillard is one of the best point guards in the league and if the Blazers challenge for a top seed in the West, he’ll stay in the top of the MVP chase, too.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mike Conley’s addition could unlock things for Mitchell. His opening-night performance proved that even when Conley struggles offensively, Mitchell can still dominate the action. A summer spent with the U.S. Men’s Senior National team may have only boosted his momentum. True, teammate Rudy Gobert — the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year — is a fringe MVP candidate as well. But a hot start to 2019-20 will fuel his campaign in ways that rim protection and low-post stability cannot for Gobert.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns hasn’t been shy about his desire to be the man in the middle of the Wolves’ franchise rebranding. Even as Kyrie Irving scored 50 in the season opener, it was Towns who was truly dominant in that game. He’ll regularly pile up nights like that under coach Ryan Saunders, who has embraced the increased leadership role Town has sought this season. The talent has never been in question concerning Towns — now he can showcase, too.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
While most of the summer’s high-profile free agents went one way, the always–interesting Butler did not. Given his track record of believing in the power of Jimmy, it shouldn’t have surprised us that Butler bet on himself in Miami. While it might seem like a strange choice on the surface, it might end up being a genius move if a scrappy Heat team rises in the ranks of the Eastern Conference. If nothing else, Butler will have plenty of opportunities this season to prove his elite two-way skills.
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
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