The NBA is an extraordinary place.
Pick any NBA fan you know and start casually having a conversation centered around the topic of who is the best player in the league. Depending on the day of the week, it's either Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.
Unless it's Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid.
Unless it's Stephen Curry or James Harden.
Unless Kevin Durant comes back 100% and then I just give up.
Beyond the absolute biggest names, there are still others that can rise to the occasion at any given moment and go pound-for-pound with the supernovas.
As it stands, there isn't a consensus best player just as there isn't a consensus best team. And the best player on the best team - one of the main recipes for MVP winners - could end up being someone that's not widely regarded as a participant in that "who is the best player in the league" discussion. What happens then?
It's what makes forecasting this year's MVP race so fascinating and worth following for all 82 games. It's also why there's no time to waste in setting the field and considering the cases of every player who could make a push, even those from way out of left field who might not be at the forefront of the discussion now.
The 2020 MVP race figures to have historic levels of ebbs and flows. With that in mind, here's the path towards winning the Maurice Podoloff Trophy for every player with even a remote chance of winning it.
Best MVP finish: winner in 2018-19
The path towards Podoloff: The Greek Freak is the favourite to win it yet again. He doesn't turn 25 until December and he still has several areas to improve, namely as a scorer outside of the paint. Antetokounmpo's recipe for winning it is pretty straight forward: do what he did last year.
MORE: What if Giannis is only at 60 percent of his ceiling?
If the Bucks finish with the best record in the NBA, it's hard to see anyone else challenging and it's for that reason why he controls his own destiny over anyone else. There's no superstar teammate to contend with and Milwaukee has a clear path towards finishing with the best record once again. This isn't a far-fetched scenario where everything has to break right.
Also on the table? Becoming the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game on 60 percent shooting. It's never been done. If he improves as a shooter, it's not hard to imagine an improvement on 27.7 PPG and 57.8 percent shooting he finished with last season.
Best MVP finish: winner in 2017-18
The path towards Podoloff: As we just witnessed, scoring in bunches isn't enough. Harden just averaged more points than anyone since Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and still finished a relatively distant second place (he received 23 first-place votes compared to 78 for Antetokounmpo).
The biggest hold up for Harden last year? Houston finished fourth in the West. With so many great players in a loaded Western Conference, it's hard to imagine anyone from one of the presumptive favourites winning the award and finishing anything less than second. There are exceptions (more on that in a moment) but Harden isn't one of them.
MORE: Why the Harden/Westbrook pairing will and won't work
Harden doesn't need a historic offensive output. He needs to win the West. If he's able to once again lead the league in scoring while also leading the Rockets to the best record in a loaded conference, Harden is a good bet to win the MVP. For Harden to triumph over Antetokounmpo, the Rockets probably need to finish ahead of the Bucks as well.
Best MVP finish: 2-time winner (2014-15, 2015-16)
The path towards Podoloff: Those exceptions mentioned above? Curry is one of them.
Nobody would fault the Warriors if they missed the playoffs entirely. No Kevin Durant, no Andre Iguodala and no Shaun Livingston. Klay Thompson is out until at least the All-Star break and more likely into March or April (if at all).
Sure, Curry has Draymond Green and D'Angelo Russell. But have you seen the rest of the roster?
Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein are serviceable down low. Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks are the two most proven wings, one of which is likely to start. Rookies Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall will play meaningful roles, as will Jacob Evans, Marquese Chriss and Omari Spellman.
In other words ... this isn't THE WARRIORS as we've come to know them over the years.
So back to that exception. If Curry is somehow able to stay healthy and lead this group to a top-4 seed, it means he will have not only turned in a vintage offensive season rivaling 2015-16, but elevated all of those around him to levels previously unattained. There's a case to be made that nobody makes others around him better by osmosis moreso than Curry, and that would be a driving narrative for his MVP campaign if he's able to keep Golden State comfortably in the playoff mix.
Best MVP finish: 4-time winner (2008-09, 2009-10, 2011-12, 2012-13)
The path towards Podoloff: It starts with health, picks up with defense, includes a top-2 finish in the West and ends with 'Point Guard' LeBron unleashing yet another step in the evolution of one of the greatest players of all-time.
James is entering his 17th season and coming off a season in which he missed a career-high 27 games. He turns 35 in December and has played more minutes (regular season and playoffs) prior to turning 35 than any player in NBA history. He's an ironman of the highest order, but Father Time has a 5,000-1 record (take a bow, Vince Carter) and it's impossible to ignore health as a factor here.
MORE: The most terrifying pick-and-roll duo in NBA history
New running mate Anthony Davis has already mentioned holding James accountable on the defensive end and it's one of the areas that James has coasted during the regular season for several years now. It's one of the reasons he hasn't won an MVP award since 2012-13 despite holding the unofficial title as the best player in the league during that span. If the YouTube clips of James slouching on D fade into the background, it will go along way towards correcting his overall regular season perception.
The final piece of the puzzle involves James evolving into the absolute best version of himself as a playmaker. For his entire career, James has been labeled with the "more Magic than Michael" description. He's won the MVP in Jordan-esque fashion while leading the league in scoring. If he turns into Magic Johnson and his playmaking proves a bigger difference maker than Davis himself in leading the Lakers to a top-2 finish, it's not hard to imagine The King returning to the MVP throne for the fifth time.
Best MVP finish: 3rd in 2017-18
The path towards Podoloff: It begins with transforming the Lakers defence while also posting undeniably gaudy offensive numbers.
Davis has stated that he wants to win Defensive Player of the Year, an award he's more than capable of claiming. If he does that and gets James to buy in defensively during the regular season, he will have pulled off the single most impressive feat by any teammate of James. Holding one of the greatest players of all-time accountable is a testament to the type of generational talent that Davis is.
But doing that alone won't win it.
The thing about playing with LeBron James is that when things go well, LeBron James gets the credit. That's just how it works.
So in order for Davis to vault past James in the real and/or perceived pecking order, he needs to also produce so overwhelmingly on the other end that 'Point Guard' LeBron can't take all of the credit. Scoring somewhere in the neighborhood 30 a game and dishing out a career high in assists would do the trick. We saw it in the preseason.
In the Lakers very first game, Davis scored 17 points in the first quarter alone on 7-11 shooting. No other Laker took more than four shots in that period and everything revolved around Davis, who dunked everything into oblivion and looked simply unstoppable. If that's the version of Davis that shows up, he could end up becoming the third player in NBA history to win both DPOY and MVP in the same season.
Best MVP finish: 2nd in 2015-16
The path towards Podoloff: Load management can't be a thing.
Coming off a Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors, Leonard's stock has never been higher. He was unquestionably the best player in the world from April through June and he was able to do it because of the strict load management prescribed by Toronto throughout the regular season.
Leonard can hold the title of best player in the world while playing 60 games in the regular season as he did in 2018-19. But he can't win the MVP.
To officially claim the regular season hardware, he's going to have to play at least 70 games. Since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule in 1967-68, 49 of 50 MVP winners played in at least 70 games, the only exception being Bill Walton in 1977-78. That doesn't include lockout shortened seasons of 1998-99 when Karl Malone played 49 of 50 or in 2011-12 when LeBron James played 62 of 66.
Aside from availability, Leonard would need to lead the Clippers to the best record in the NBA. Although its a wide open year, the Clippers do enter as the presumed favourite. Anything less than the best record could be perceived as a regular season underachievement.
At this point, a regular season MVP is about the only thing missing from Leonard's treasure chest and with Paul George out to start the season, the stars are aligned for Leonard to make a run at claiming his first Podoloff.
Best MVP finish: 4th in 2017-18
The path towards Podoloff: The Blazers have to once again over-achieve and he probably needs help.
Lillard's got the game to light the league on fire and potentially lead everyone in scoring or come close. It's impossible to ask anyone to replicate on an individual level what Stephen Curry did in 2015-16, but somewhere between Curry's 2014-15 and 2015-16 MVP campaigns is a good starting point for Lillard.
Finishing third won't cut it. Portland did that last season and Lillard finished sixth in MVP voting. For the Blazers to finish in the top-2 in the West, they'd likely need some outside help in the form of load management (Hello, Clippers and Lakers!) and for teams like the Nuggets and Jazz to fall short of expectations.
We've seen Lillard reach All-NBA First Team levels and he's certainly capable of putting up the individual statistics needed to seriously enter the MVP fray. Moments like the postseason dagger against OKC aren't replicable in a regular season setting, but a number of 'Dame-time daggers' would do wonders for cementing his folk hero status and advancing his underdog MVP narrative.
Best MVP finish: 4th in 2018-19
The path towards Podoloff: The Joker taking it down likely involves the Nuggets finishing with the best record in the West AND finishing with a better record than the Bucks. As mentioned earlier, Antetokounmpo is likely in the position where he controls his own destiny. Given the defensive holes in Jokic's game, he can't leave room for debate if it comes down to him or the Greek Freak.
Aside from team success, Jokic likely needs to take on a scoring load on par with what he did in the playoffs when he hovered around 25 points per game. We also live in an era in which the greatest players are setting historical precedents seemingly every day. Jokic's path towards the record books involves surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's 8.6 assists per game in 1967-68, the most ever by a center. He might already subjectively be the best passing big man ever, but breaking Chamberlain's record or even joining him as the only centers to average 8 dimes would add some objective juice to what's the strongest part of his game.
Like Antetokounmpo, Jokic doesn't face the threat of cannibalized votes from a superstar teammate. And unlike Curry, Jokic isn't relying on a far-fetched notion of finishing at the top of his conference as the Nuggets are deep and loaded as currently constructed with enough flexibility to add even more should they so choose.
Best MVP finish: 7th in 2018-19
The path towards Podoloff: The biggest concern with Embiid ever truly contending for an MVP award is health. A quarter of the way through last season, Embiid led the entire NBA in total minutes played. Through Christmas, he had missed just one game. From that point on, he played in just 30 of Philadelphia's final 47 games, missed a game in the 1st Round for rest and at times looked gassed in the Conference Semifinals.
MORE: Where does Embiid/Simmons rank among top duos?
If the 76ers are going to win the NBA title, they need a fresh Embiid through May and June. Throw in the fact that they just added Al Horford to help massage the non-Embiid minutes, and it gets difficult to see a scenario in which he's on the floor enough to win the MVP.
And yet, Embiid is just that dominant.
There's certainly a world in which he plays 72 games and dominates to such a degree in his 30-34 minutes a night that it becomes impossible to have any MVP debate without Embiid. Now let's say that happens and he puts up Shaq-like numbers for a 76ers team that runs away with the Eastern Conference to the tune of 65-ish wins. That's a recipe for serious MVP contention for Embiid, especially if Philly struggles either in the games he misses or in the minutes that he sits.
Best MVP finish: No votes received
The path towards Podoloff: That made 3-pointer in Philadelphia's first preseason game changed everything. It served as such a landmark occasion that Simmons's MVP odds actually changed because of it.
The case against Embiid ever playing enough to win the MVP conversely helps the case of Simmons butting his way into the debate. Let's say that the 76ers decide the most prudent course of action with Embiid is to load manage him to the tune of 60-65 games and in turn more heavily rely on Simmons. If that happens AND the 76ers still manage to finish with the best record in the NBA, the Aussie is going to get tons of praise.
But that in and of itself won't be enough.
Not after the postseason he just had in which Simmons at times looked like a fifth option on the floor. Award voters tend to let things linger and for those memories of Simmons passively sitting in the dunker spot during Philly's biggest moments to truly dissipate, he's going to need to assume the mantle as the Sixers' true No. 1 option down the stretch of tight games. Attacking aggressively, looking to score, and yes - shooting jumpers.
Simmons has the talent to score 25 points per game to add to his steady diet of nine rebounds and eight dimes. Given he also doubles as one of the NBA's most disruptive defenders, there's a world in which a third-year Simmons looks an awfully lot like young LeBron James. Understand that this isn't a prediction by any stretch, but merely a plausible best-case scenario that's in play should everything break right.
Best MVP finish: No votes received
The path towards Podoloff: Mitchell's candidacy rests squarely on the notion of "best player on the best team." For him to win it, the Jazz need to finish with the best record in the NBA and receive some help elsewhere. Antetokounmpo can't run away in the East, significant load management needs to happen for both Los Angeles teams, Curry can't lead Golden State to a top-4 finish and Harden needs to lose some luster alongside Westbrook.
MORE: Why Mitchell's Jazz will have best record in the NBA
Additionally, this can't be about the Jazz winning mostly due to balance and stingy D. Mitchell needs to make that 2006 Wade leap and vault into the high 20s as a relatively efficient scorer and lockdown defender in his own right. There's no question that we're in the range where stars need to begin to align.
And yet, it's not THAT crazy. The Jazz enter the regular season with an over/under of 53.5 wins, second in the West and just one win shy of the Rockets. Mitchell could be that MVP candidate that comes along every so often that's not widely considered among the best 5-7 players in the league, but vaults into the conversation based on the perfect storm of ingredients.
Best MVP finish: 10th in 2017-18
The path towards Podoloff: OK, so now we're officially in "have you lost your mind?!?!" range. But hear me out.
Let's start with a trip down memory lane. Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Bulls had a preseason over/under of 46.5 wins which ranked outside the top 10. The Heat were massive favourites at 64.5 in the East with the Celtics and Magic each hovering in the mid 50s.
Thanks to a strong coach and stout D, those Bulls overachieved to the tune of an NBA-best 62 wins. Derrick Rose pumped in 25-8-4 en route to winning the MVP but it was about so much more than Rose. Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson made for an imposing and touch bunch that proved brutal to play against over the course of a long and grueling regular season.
If you look closely, there are some shades of that Bulls team in this Heat team which enters with an over/under of 44.5 wins.
Justise Winslow could play the role of Deng. Bam Adebayo can wreak havoc as a cross between Noah and Boozer. Kelly Olynyk is the floor-spacing version of Gibson. James Johnson actually started the season on that Bulls team and nine years later fits the persona perfectly as a rocksteady role player that thrives on a defense-first blue collar squad.
Butler has wanted his own team for years and now he finally has it in South Beach. We've seen him up numbers that aren't too far from what Rose did in that 2010-11 campaign. Should he take it up a notch and lead the Heat to a surprising run in the East, it would merely be following in the footsteps of the blueprint laid out by his former team (FWIW, Butler was drafted by the Bulls in the summer of 2011 shortly after that run).
Would I pick this all to happen? Of course not! But crazier things have actually happened.
Best MVP finish: No votes received
The path towards Podoloff: All of the same stuff that just pertained to Butler's team rising from the depths to surpass all expectations applies here, except that Irving gets the added bump of no Kevin Durant.
The season-long absence of Durant has created quite the unique situation in Brooklyn where the Nets have a free roll with zero pressure or expectations to do much of anything. But this is a good roster that's well coached and plays hard and they just upgraded from D'Angelo Russell to Irving. Russell is a nice young player, but he's not Irving, who arrives in Brooklyn on the heels of an All-NBA Second Team selection.
Like Curry, what if Irving unexpectedly leads the Nets to a top-4 finish in a year they aren't expected to truly contend for anything? There's a strong narrative at play with Irving's season of redemption and getting the most out of the Nets while awaiting the return from injury of Durant. Voters love a good narrative.
Best MVP finish: No votes received
The path towards Podoloff: Pelicans shot caller David Griffin actually tabbed Holiday as a darkhorse MVP contender in the offseason, so this isn't the first time his name has been mentioned as part of this conversation.
I have to be honest. After watching the preseason, if there was any Pelican that stood even a remote, tiny, miniscule, microscopic chance of winning this thing it was probably Zion Williamson. But now that he's out for the first couple of weeks to start the season, there's an opportunity to hone in on the awesomeness of Holiday.
Out of respect for Griffin, let's entertain the notion of Holiday as an MVP sleeper by partaking in yet another history lesson, this time in relation to Steve Nash, whom Griffin compared Holiday to.
Entering the 2004-05 season, the Suns were +10,000 to win the NBA title. Only five teams had worse odds, which means nobody in their right mind saw what was coming.
So what was coming? A 30-year-old point guard elevating a team of run-and-gun youngsters to a 62-20 record, blowing every preseason expectation out the window and making every expert re-think and re-shape how they viewed the league. Young Amar'e Stoudemire, young Shawn Marion, young Joe Johnson, a squadron of capable guards and an assistant coach named Alvin Gentry.
Nobody sees the Pelicans coming. Sure, maybe as a fringe playoff team but as a legitimate title threat? No. Which helps shape the narrative before even turning any of the pages.
Holiday is a year younger than Nash in 2004-05 but has a roster that's not far off from the one that ushered in "7 Seconds or Less" and took the league unexpectedly by storm. Of all the candidates listed here, Holiday is the longest shot. It would require everything falling into place and every youngster living up to their full potential and Holiday maintaining his status in the spotlight even after Williamson returns to the lineup.
Crazier things have happened.
5 second no call
OK so things got a little unhinged towards the end there, but at least there's a world in which each transpired. It might be a world in a galaxy far, far away but it's out there.
Here are five names considered for five seconds before ultimately deciding that there's just not any plausible way it could go down.
Luka Doncic: He's got the game and he's capable of the numbers. But the Mavericks just don't have the firepower to propel Doncic into MVP real talk. Not yet.
Zion Williamson: He's out a few weeks to start the season and for a player with that long of odds, it's probably a 'shine in all 82 or bust' scenario.
Paul George: Finished third in MVP voting last year but is out at least 10 games to start the season. It's tough imagining George getting any MVP buzz ahead of Kawhi Leonard.
Kemba Walker: Even if Boston grossly overachieves, there are so many cooks in the kitchen on the Celtics that it feels impossible for one player to get significantly more credit than the rest.
Rudy Gobert: Entering the season, he's probably the actual best player on the Jazz. But even if they finish with the best record, Gobert just doesn't have the offensive game to compete for an MVP.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.