Which players should be the favorites for NBA MVP in 2019-20?
In the latest edition of the ESPN summer forecast, our panel predicted 2018-19 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as having the best chance to win the award. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry finished second, with Curry and Giannis getting more than half of the first-place votes. But multiple players were strongly considered in the running, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard.
Which players are being most underrated in the MVP race? Who will be the next first-time MVP? And what are the key things to watch in this race?
Our NBA experts break down the results.
1. What’s your biggest takeaway from the voting?
Kevin Pelton: The MVP race, like the season in general, is wide open. That’s a lot of different players getting first-place votes and nobody at even one-third of the vote, which shows a lot of disagreement over what to expect.
Bobby Marks: That the best player in the NBA ranked No. 7. Kawhi Leonard has played more than 70 games only twice in his eight-year career, but the NBA Finals MVP should be more than an afterthought in this race. We can certainly blame load management as a reason for these results, but remember that Embiid missed 18 games last season.
Royce Young: For a former winner and last season’s runner-up, James Harden just does not seem to generate the kind of MVP attention one would expect. Maybe there’s some voter fatigue, maybe it’s because of his new MVP-level teammate, maybe it’s a stylistic thing, but Harden is going to have another monster season and the Rockets are going to win a lot of games. One would think that would earn him a couple preseason votes.
Tim MacMahon: I can hear the cries coming from Houston about a bias against James Harden. Frankly, I don’t see any reasonable explanation for Harden just barely cracking this list. After all, he has been among the top two in MVP voting in four of the past five seasons and has been out of the top five only twice during his seven-year run with the Rockets. There certainly aren’t any signs of decline in Harden’s game, considering that his scoring average soared almost six points per game last season, when he was coming off an MVP campaign. It’s a safe bet that Harden will put up huge numbers in efficient fashion for a contender, maintaining his status as a perennial MVP candidate.
André Snellings: My biggest takeaway is just how many legitimate MVP candidates we have going into the season. Last season, my preseason MVP race had only Giannis Antetokounmpo (my pick), James Harden and LeBron James as serious contenders. This season, I could legitimately see any of the top nine vote-getters winning, with some others not even on the list that should be in consideration. This shapes up to be the wildest, most wide-open NBA season that I can remember.
2. Whose MVP chances are most underrated?
Snellings: The obvious choice for most underrated chances is James Harden, who has finished top two in three straight MVP votes and four of the past five but is currently ninth on this list. However, I’ll go off the board a bit and say Damian Lillard. Lillard has led the Trail Blazers to consecutive top-three finishes in the Western Conference, has quietly finished in the top six in consecutive MVP votes, and is at the absolute peak of his powers. He had some marquee Dame-Time moments in the playoffs to put him on the map, has made headlines this offseason by speaking against the super team movement and he dropped a fire rap album. If he leads the Trail Blazers to a top seed again, he’ll be in strong MVP contention.
Marks: Anthony Davis. A tumultuous season that included a left-hand injury and a trade demand in late January saw Davis play a career-low 56 games. However, don’t forget that Davis is a three-time All-NBA first-team selection (2015, 2017 and 2018) and joins a Lakers team that is one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. If Davis can display his dominance from his two prior seasons (2016-17 and 2017-18) when he averaged 28 PPG and 11.4 RPG, the 26-year-old could come away with his first MVP trophy.
Young: A player not receiving any votes, Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz are going to be a premier Western Conference team this season, and with Mike Conley alongside to ease some of the ball-handling burden, Mitchell can settle more into a comfortable scoring role. If the Jazz finish second in the West, Mitchell is going to generate buzz. He was primed for a leap year last season and it didn’t quite happen — he was very good still, just not quite as good as some expected — but in year three, there’s a chance it all comes together for him. Those who have been around him this summer at USA camp have been extremely impressed and see big things for Mitchell this season.
Pelton: James Harden. Yes, his stats are unlikely to be as impressive with the arrival of Russell Westbrook, who could split the vote. But Harden has finished either first or second in voting four times in the past five years and the Rockets could be improved from last season. (Our projections based on real plus-minus have Houston finishing with the league’s best record on average.) I’m stunned he got so little support.
MacMahon: I don’t want to harp too much on Harden being so low, but he’s the easy answer here. I mean, the dude is coming off one of the best individual offensive seasons in NBA history. (Not to go full Daryl Morey, but that’s fact, not opinion. Only a handful of players have averaged 35-plus points per game in a season, and Harden had the best true shooting percentage and most assists of the bunch by a wide margin.) And Harden is in the middle of his prime.
3. Which player in top five has the most challenging path to winning MVP?
Marks: Joel Embiid. The easy answer would be to tab Steph Curry here based on the loss of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson sitting on the sidelines for a good portion of the season. However, No. 4-ranked Embiid faces multiple challenges heading into the season. For starters, while Al Horford will start alongside Embiid, coach Brett Brown has an insurance policy with the former Celtic. Expect Horford to see plenty of minutes at center when Embiid is either in foul trouble or if the 76ers take a proactive approach monitoring his minutes.
Speaking of those minutes, the big question this season (and if Embiid is in the MVP conversation) comes down to fitness and health management. While Embiid has averaged 32 minutes in the previous two seasons, the center has missed 37 games in 2017-18 and 2018-19 — most of those coming on the second end of a back-to-back.
MacMahon: Embiid, just because all signs are that load management will be a priority for the 76ers’ big man, as it should be. After adding Al Horford, Philadelphia has the luxury of resting Embiid for 20 or so games during the regular season. That’s a smart plan for a team that expects to make a long playoff run and needs Embiid as healthy as possible to maximize title odds, but it’s difficult to justify giving MVP votes to a guy who sits so often.
Young: LeBron James. First, his age and the complications of an 82-game schedule will impact it. LeBron’s overall motivation could be questioned last season, but his motivation to win the MVP has been in doubt for a number of seasons. He already has tried to give Anthony Davis his number anyway, and since he has to wait a year, he may try to make up for it by helping win Davis the MVP.
Pelton: Joel Embiid. I suspect the Sixers intend to manage Embiid’s playing time more during the regular season given the way his knee soreness lingered into the 2019 playoffs. With Al Horford around, Philadelphia has another proven All-Star capable of sliding over to center. Besides reducing Embiid’s minutes, Horford’s presence also probably means that Embiid won’t have quite the same impact in terms of the team’s performance when he’s on the court as opposed to on the bench.
Snellings: Anthony Davis has the most challenging path, because he has to contend with teammate LeBron James for votes. I wrote in spring of 2018 that Davis was peaking, and thus ready to challenge hard core for the MVP, and his production last season supported such a contention before things went off the rails in New Orleans. This season, he would have the perfect MVP narrative as a peaking player who joins a new team and likely boosts that squad way up the rankings. The only problem is, four-time MVP LeBron was there first, is the face of the franchise right now, and it may be difficult for Davis to do enough to win the narrative argument over the King.
4. Who will be the next first-time MVP?
MacMahon: Nikola Jokic has the best shot over the next few years, but I’ll go with Luka Doncic down the road. He just had the most productive season by a teenager in NBA history and appears to have followed that up by working his (previously too big) butt off this summer, based on pics he posted on Instagram. Doncic can probably be a perennial All-Star with a puffy body, but how seriously he takes strength and conditioning will determine his ceiling. A sleek version of Doncic should develop into a perennial MVP candidate, particularly if the Mavs can build a contender around Kristaps Porzingis and him.
Pelton: Anthony Davis. As tempted as I was to pick Luka Doncic, I think Davis is the choice given he could win as soon as this season while Doncic’s chances are realistically a few years away. As LeBron ages, AD has the chance to emerge as the leading contender on a Lakers team that should be in contention in the West.
Young: As long as we’re not talking Finals MVP, it’s Kawhi Leonard. Two main reasons: (1) he’s too good — and too complete of a player — to not win one, and (2) the LA Clippers are going to be extremely good.
Marks: Nikola Jokic. Not only does the best team in the NBA reside in Denver but so does one of the favorites for MVP — Jokic. While the 24-year-old (and Denver) will not be able to play the underdog role this season, the center could average a triple-double during the season — something that has never been done by a center. The best passing big man in the NBA has seen his assists increase from 2.4 his rookie season to a career-high 7.2 last season. If there is a stumbling block, it could come down to Denver monitoring his minutes in the early portion of the season. After playing into mid-May, Jokic has had little time off as he leads Serbia into the World Cup. With training camp starting in late September and international play ending Sept. 15, Jokic could have little rest before the NBA season starts.
Snellings: Joel Embiid is the next first-time MVP, and may legitimately take it home this season. Davis, Lillard, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard are all strong candidates as well, but Embiid has the game, the motivation after the way that the 76ers came oh-so-close but didn’t quite make it last season, and the team around him that is strong enough to contend but that doesn’t have any other primary scoring options to muddy the vote. This leads to a scenario in which Embiid will get the lion share of the points and the credit if the 76ers succeed, and they have a team that looks poised to push hard for the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season.
5. Who is your preseason MVP pick and why?
Snellings: For the second straight season, my preseason pick for MVP is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is such a unique talent, and even though he took over the NBA as I predicted last season, he still is only 24 years old and, in his own words, is still only at about 60 percent of his potential as a player. Add that he is one of the most obviously motivated players in the NBA, that he has improved in every season and that he also feels that he has unfinished business after his Bucks came just short last season, and only injury or distraction from his upcoming super-max extension discussions next summer loom as potential obstacles from him hoisting the MVP trophy two years in a row.
MacMahon: I went with Steph Curry. He’s the clear-cut focal point of the Warriors’ offense again, and Curry won back-to-back MVPs the last two seasons that was the case, the latter coming by a unanimous vote. The biggest concern about Curry is his durability. He played 79 games in each of his MVP seasons but has missed a total of 43 games over the past two years.
Young: Kawhi Leonard. There’s a considerable chance the Clippers finish as the West’s best team, and he’s their best player. Those things typically combine to form a leading MVP candidate. The primary thing that kept Leonard from the conversation last season was load management, but he says he’s set to play more games this season. And if that’s the case and Leonard plays 70-plus, he’ll be a leader — and quite possibly, the winner.
Marks: It would be a surprise if Jokic is not leading the MVP race when we get to the quarter mark of the season. Not only do the Nuggets carry the label of team continuity — 12 players return, including five starters — but the team has an early season advantage with their schedule. The Nuggets face 13 teams below .500 in the first 20 games and will have a total of 19 (out of 33 total) home games before we reach Jan. 1. Factor in, too, that Jokic will be front and center when it comes to exposure. The Nuggets will have 24 games on national TV this season — last season they had 18.
Pelton: Giannis. The conditions that helped him win MVP last season are still in place. He’s not competing for votes with any other teammate and — RPM projection aside — the Bucks have an excellent chance of posting the league’s best record in the weaker Eastern Conference. Antetokounmpo will have to battle the high bar he set last season, but I think the notion that voters are reluctant to vote for the previous winner is overstated at best.