Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP primer: Who are the ones to watch in 2020-21?

From fresh faces to past winners, these 20 players could be in the mix.

Trae Young is an up-and-coming player who could make a serious Kia MVP push in 2020-21.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers made their call for Luka Doncic weeks ago. The NBA’s general managers did the same for Giannis Antetokounmpo earlier this month in the GM Survey. It’s hard to argue against their logic when discussing the early favorites for the 2020-21 Kia MVP Award.

Doncic built his buzz with a spectacular 2019-20 season that culminated with a historic, next-level effort in the playoffs that shocked the NBA ecosystem. Antetokounmpo rides into this season on the strength of back-to-back Kia MVPs, leading the best regular-season team in the league both times.

But given the recent (and unpredictable) history of the MVP chase, this in no two-man race. In fact, the field appears to be as deep as it’s been in years. There are established candidates, newcomers, long-shots and even a dark horse or two in the mix this season.

Check out the best plays from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s two Kia MVP seasons

This award has changed hands between just seven players since the 2008-09 season — LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Antetokounmpo. That’s a 12-season run dominated by James (4), Curry (2) and Antetokounmpo (2).

We’re toe-deep into this 72-game season, but there’s a real opportunity for a fresh face to break into what is arguably the NBA’s most elite club (the Finals MVP is the only other individual honor that matches it).

Sure, six of the seven active Kia MVP winners (everyone but Rose, who is a Kia Sixth Man Award candidate in Detroit) could easily factor into this season’s chase. And, most likely, they’ll do exactly that at some point during the next three months.

The chances of someone other than those usual suspects playing their way into the conversation seems just as likely to happen.

In advance of next week’s first Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of 2020-21, here is a closer look at 20 names who will factor into the conversation.

Fresh faces and first timers

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks’ superstar is a walking triple-double and will have every chance to prove the oddsmakers right with another monster season leading an upstart Mavericks team to a top seed in the Western Conference.

Does Luka Doncic deserve to be a Kia MVP favorite?

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers: Fresh off of his first championship, AD will contend for MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year — following up the double-win by Antetokounmpo last season — as he ascends to the top of his game.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Showing out against the Lakers (21 point-second half) Monday night was a great reminder of just how quickly Lillard can take over games. The Trail Blazers have to win big to make sure he stays in the mix.

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets: He’s looked great so far and will draft off another superstar (Durant) as the Nets stake their claim to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. As long as he stays healthy and the Nets keep rolling, he’s locked in.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks’ 3-0 start is the ideal way for Young to launch his campaign. If the Hawks make the playoff leap their offseason suggests, Young will go from All-Star starter in his second season to legitimate MVP candidate in his third.

Can Trae Young lift the Hawks to a new level in 2020-21?

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: He’s been in the mix the past two seasons, but if he leads the league in assists and keeps the Nuggets in striking distance for No. 1 in the West, this could be his year.

Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers: The undefeated Pacers are feeding off of the dominant play of their All-Star big man, who is making up for the time he lost in the restart due to injury. Sabonis has been a two-way behemoth thus far.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: If the arrival of coach Doc Rivers has the impact many expect, Embiid could be the greatest beneficiary. Injuries, inconsistency and spotty conditioning have cost Embiid in the past.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Tatum already has an early-season signature moment (the banked in game-winner over Antetokounmpo) to build off of. The stage is set for Tatum and Jaylen Brown to power the Celtics to top of the East, if they can handle the weight.

The past winners

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers: A day away from his 36th birthday and he’s still at the top of his game 18 seasons into his career. As much as he’d appreciate another Kia MVP, a Finals MVP means much more for his legacy.

Check out the best dunks from LeBron James’ epic career

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: There hasn’t been a back-to-back-to-back MVP since Larry Bird (1984-86). Antetokounmpo has a fighting chance to join the extremely short list of legends (Bull Russell from 1961-63 and Wilt Chamberlain from 1966-68) to accomplish that feat.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: The Warriors don’t even look like a playoff team right now, which could snuff out the fire for Curry’s campaign before we get into the meat of the season. But if anyone can shoot their way back into the debate, it’s Curry.

Take a look back at Stephen Curry’s 2016 Kia MVP season

James Harden, Houston Rockets: Even with all of the drama surrounding Harden to start this season, he’s still a viable MVP candidate, wherever he plays. When you can light it up as quickly and outlandishly as Harden does, there’s always a spot for you in the debate.

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets: Durant won’t preoccupy himself with trying to do anything other than get back to being the best version of himself after an 18-month absence after Achilles surgery. For anyone with memory issues, don’t forget: he was a back-to-back Finals MVP.

Long-shot candidates

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns: Paul, or his teammate Devin Booker, could enter the MVP conversation if the Suns end up as one of the top Western Conference teams by March.

 How much will Chris Paul elevate the Suns in 2020-21?

Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers: His penchant for load management notwithstanding, Leonard is consistently at an MVP level. Those stitches in his mouth will obviously slow him up a bit here at the start of the season, but he should not be counted out just yet.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: The appreciation for Mitchell’s game and impact on the Jazz grows each season. When will that lead to a more substantial boost to his MVP candidacy? Tough call in a league filled with superstar guards.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans: Yeah, we’re probably a season away from him moving into a more prominent position in this conversation. But it’s wise to keep Williamson in mind, especially if the Pelicans are as good as they’ve looked — albeit in a very limited sample size.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies: Morant made an emphatic entrance into his second season, only to suffer a nasty ankle sprain Monday night. How quickly he plays his way back into the discussion depends on the severity of that injury.

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat: An All-Star and All-NBA talent, Adebayo is also a candidate for Kia Defensive Player of the Year. The Heat are at their best when things run through their young big man on both ends of the floor … just ask Jimmy Butler.

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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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