NBA

MVP Ladder: Path to MVP and biggest question for leading candidates

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Following another busy offseason that saw a number of player and coaching changes, the 2021-22 season opened on Oct. 19 with a pair of star-studded matchups. It marks the beginning of a special season for the NBA, in which the league will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The festivities begin opening week with the reveal of the 75 greatest players of all time. There will then be anniversary matchups throughout the season to celebrate the "teams, players, coaches and moments" that defined the last 75 years, starting on Nov. 1 with a matchup between the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks.

MORE: The numbers behind the last 75 seasons

With all of that going on, it's going to be a while before we're talking about MVP candidates, but it's never too early to look at what the race is shaping up to be.

It speaks to how much talent there is in the league right now that there are a large group of players who could be in the running for MVP. You have your usual candidates - you know, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry - plus a number of other stars and up-and-comers who could quite easily enter the conversation.

With that in mind, who should be the favourites going into the season? What's their path to MVP? What could prevent them from winning the award?

Let's take a closer look.

On the outside looking in

As we always do, a few players who have a case to crack the top-five...

  • Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: Embiid might have won MVP last season had he not missed 21 games. He will be an MVP candidate as long as he can stay healthy, but there's too much uncertainty going on in Philly right now.
  • LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron was among the front-runners for MVP before an ankle injury derailed his season. At his age with his mileage, it's probably in the best interest of him and the Lakers to play the long game.
  • Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Lillard's coming off of the best season of his career, but the Trail Blazers still have a lot of work to do to join the Western Conference's elite.
  • Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: A sneaky MVP candidate entering the season. Young wasn't named an All-Star last season but went on a magical run in the playoffs in which he led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • James Harden, Brooklyn Nets: More on him below, but Harden has been a staple in the MVP race for almost a decade.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Path to MVP: The Warriors being a Play-In team didn't prevent Curry from finishing third in MVP voting last season. With a deeper roster and Klay Thompson's return looming, it's not hard to imagine Golden State being among the better teams in the Western Conference this season. Curry might not lead the league in scoring again, but he's still the reason the Warriors are the Warriors. If he can stay healthy, he'll almost certainly be in the mix for MVP.

Biggest question: Can he stay healthy? Curry appeared in 63 of a possible 72 games last season but played only five games in 2019-20 and 51 games in 2017-18. Injuries have always been a concern with Curry and might be the biggest thing preventing him from making a real run at another MVP award.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Path to MVP: Doncic's talent is undeniable. He's earned two straight All-Star and All-NBA First Team selections with averages of 28.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game over the last couple of seasons. He's proven himself to be one of the best players in the league at the young age of 22. Now it's a matter of turning it into more team success. If Doncic continues to improve and leads the Mavericks to a top-four finish in the Western Conference, it's going to be hard to keep him off of MVP ballots.

Biggest question: Will the Mavericks be good enough? The Mavericks finished seventh in the Western Conference in 2019-20 and fifth in 2020-21. The Mavericks didn't make too many changes to their roster this offseason. They're counting primarily on Doncic's continued improvement, a healthy Kristaps Porzingis and a new voice in the locker room getting them to the next level.

3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Path to MVP: Our NBA.com Staff voted Durant as the best player in the league entering this season. He's perhaps the most effortless scorer in league history, someone who is capable of scoring 30 points in his sleep. He's going to post numbers worthy of MVP consideration and the Nets could very well finish the regular season with the best record in the league, even if Kyrie Irving doesn't suit up. The best player on the best team is usually a solid MVP case.

Biggest question: Will Durant play enough games? He missed all of the 2019-20 season with a torn Achilles and appeared in only 35 games in 2020-21. Entering his age 33 season, the Nets would be wise to lighten his load as much as possible to ensure he's in tip-top shape for the playoffs. Also, playing next to a perennial MVP candidate in Harden could hurt his MVP case when it comes time to vote. We had Harden as high as second in our MVP ladder at one point last season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Path to MVP: We saw it last season - be the most dominant offensive player in the league and lift the Nuggets to a top-three finish in the Western Conference. Nobody should count out another monster season from Jokic, who has done nothing but improve each season he's been in the NBA. In addition to being a dominant post scorer and arguably the best passer in the league today, he's developed into an efficient three-level scorer.

Biggest question: Can the Nuggets overcome Jamal Murray's injury? The Nuggets went 13-5 following Murray's second-ending injury and went on to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in thrilling fashion in the first round of the playoffs. This team has proven they can still be competitive even without Murray, but they could be without their second-leading scorer for a large chunk of the season. That could lead to more opportunity for Jokic, but the Nuggets don't want to wear him down.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Path to MVP: Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to their first title in 50 years with one of the most dominant performances we've ever seen. He already has two MVP awards in his trophy case, but he reached a new level in the second round and Finals. The game appeared to slow down for him and he looked much more comfortable getting to his spots, particularly out of the post. If what we saw in Milwaukee's title run carries into this season, a third MVP is certainly within reach. (Also, if the improved jumper we saw in preseason is for real, there really will be no stopping him).

Biggest question: Will Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have any championship hangover? After finishing with the best record in the league in back-to-back seasons, the Bucks took their foot off the gas to better prepare themselves for the playoffs by experimenting more in the regular season, which, well, paid off. As they look to repeat as champions, how will they approach this season? Will they pick up from where they left off or will they feel the effects of a shorter offseason?

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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