Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: 21 names to monitor during 2021-22 season

Which past winners and first-timers could enter the MVP chase during the NBA's 75th Anniversary season?

Michael C. Wright shares his perspective on how the 2021-22 Kia MVP race will shake out.

Fiddling with a strap on his backpack, reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic stopped his interviewer short of asking about pressure entering a potential repeat campaign.

“Brother, I could not care less, for real,” he said.

We do. Otherwise, why else go through the trouble of exploring this diverse field of early candidates for the 2021-22 Kia MVP Award just a game into the season for most teams?

Interestingly, just like last season, the Las Vegas oddsmakers give 22-year-old Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic the early edge on the field to capture his first MVP. Doncic dazzled again in his third season, but he failed to move Dallas past the LA Clippers in the opening round of the postseason for the second consecutive season. The DraftKings Sportsbook on Oct. 15 pegged Doncic, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the favorites to win the MVP, while Jokic was nowhere to be seen among the top five.

The 2021-22 GM Survey revealed a similar trend, as the league’s GMs predicted Durant (37%), Doncic (33%), and Antetokounmpo (13%) among the top three, followed by Embiid (7%), James Harden (7%) and Stephen Curry (3%).

Again, no Jokic to be found.

Surely, that’s fine by Jokic, who opened the season with a 27-point, 13-rebound performance in Denver’s season-opening win over the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. Besides, Jokic like the rest of us, understands the recent history of the MVP chase, not to mention the depth of the field, which contains plenty of established former MVP winners, newcomers, longshots and perhaps a surprise player or two that will play their way into the conversation.

International players have been taking over the Kia MVP race.

The late, great Sekou Smith (we all miss you tremendously by the way) pointed out going into last season that the MVP had changed hands between just seven players (eight now) since the 2008-09 season. The diversity and talent level of the current field likely takes us away from those days of sheer dominance from the usual suspects.

We saw a fresh face in Jokic take the award last season, and 2021-22 might yield yet another new MVP.

Six of the eight active MVPs (Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Durant, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, and James Harden) factor heavily into this year’s chase, but don’t count out new Laker Russell Westbrook, who didn’t make our initial list of candidates.

In advance of next week’s first edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of 2021-22, here’s a closer look at 21 names who will factor into what’s sure to be a lively debate as the season progresses.

The past winners

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: Coming off his first championship, Antetokounmpo is one of 11 players in league annals to have won an MVP, a Finals MVP and an All-Star Game MVP. If you’ve watched him lately, you’ve seen absolutely no signs of complacency.

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets: Performed like a warrior last season in the Eastern Conference semifinals and continued it in Tokyo at the Olympics, carrying Team USA to a gold medal. Deservedly one of the 11 active players named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: Battling through injuries on a struggling team last season, Curry came out of nowhere to creep into the top three in MVP voting. Did you see Steph against the Clippers on Thursday? Dame Lillard certainly did.

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James Harden, Brooklyn Nets: Also named to the 75th Anniversary Team, Harden will learn to navigate the league’s new rules regarding foul hunting. Think he can’t do it? He’s bent the game to his will before and will do it again.

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers: Turns 37 in his 19th season, and folks are still waiting for him to fall off. Stop it. The first player in NBA history to win Finals MVPs with three different franchises, James just might be poised for more.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: Absence of Jamal Murray increases Jokic’s importance to the Nuggets. Detractors put conditions on Jokic’s MVP last season, which likely has quietly motivated him to repeat despite what he’s said publicly.

Fresh faces and first timers

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: Tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 8, only to drop a career-high 46 points against the Knicks in the season opener. He’s been knocking on the door for two seasons and might be finally poised to break it down.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers: Injuries derailed last year’s candidacy, limiting him to just 36 games. If Davis is in the thick of the MVP conversation, that likely means the Lakers are in serious contention for this man’s second ring.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: Superstar appears to be finally sharing good vibes with Kristaps Porzingis, and the arrival of new coach Jason Kidd may only sharpen the 22 year old’s skillset on some of the finer points of point guard play.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: Missing 21 games hurt his candidacy last season, but Embiid is already displaying the leadership qualities that will make him central to the MVP debate with the way he’s handling the Ben Simmons situation.

Who are some darkhorse MVP candidates this season?

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Set the record straight Tuesday regarding a perceived desire to leave Portland, but most importantly, he stated two goals: “I want to be MVP,” Lillard said. “I want to win the championship.”

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: We don’t talk about this enough, but Spida averaged a 30-piece in 10 playoff games last season essentially playing on one leg. The two-time All-Star is fully healthy now, and no doubt hungrier.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: All-Star forward shot an atypical 7 of 30 from the floor in the opener, but new coach Ime Udoka plans to keep riding with the 23 year old. Good call, coach. Tatum averaged a career-high 26.4 points last season.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: The catalyst for something special brewing in Atlanta, Young is the main reason the Hawks played so confidently last season in the playoffs. A blowout victory is how you set the tone to start the season.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Slowed somewhat to start the season due to a bout with COVID-19, Booker looks to build on Phoenix’s strong 2020-21 campaign. Finally, Booker is getting the respect that he’s long deserved.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards: Led the Eastern Conference in scoring for the second consecutive year on the way to making his first All-NBA team. Wizards have built a solid supporting cast around Beal to convince him to stay in Washington.

Bradley Beal says he wants to be in the MVP conversation. Is that a realistic goal?

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat: Two-way star, who led the league in steals last season, shows you don’t have to be a lights-out shooter to consistently impact games. The gritty, hard-working Butler is a tone-setter in Miami, and the addition of Kyle Lowry only helps.

Paul George, LA Clippers: Kawhi Leonard’s absence shifts the load to George, a seven-time NBA All-Star, who’s ready to carry the team and prove detractors wrong. It appears he’s finally learned to block out the outside noise, which should pay dividends on the floor.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls: Super-athletic, explosive and hardworking, LaVine finally received some help in the offseason with the additions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Dropped 34 points in the opener.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies: In Memphis’ opening win over Cleveland, fans at FedExForum hit the 22-year-old guard with MVP chants on a night in which he racked up 37 points. Morant is oozing confidence right now, and for good reason.

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns: Another member of the 75th Anniversary Team, Paul finished fifth in MVP voting last season over both Doncic and Lillard, and probably should’ve received more votes given his considerable impact on the young Suns.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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