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NBA

The case for five potential first-time NBA MVP winners heading into the 2020-21 regular season

Despite winning the last two MVP awards, Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't the odds on favourite to win the 2020-21 MVP.

That honour belongs to Luka Doncic, who leads a list of five potential first-time winners in the top 10, according to Bovada.

2021 NBA Most Valuable Player Award Odds
Player Odds
Luka Doncic +300
Stephen Curry +550
Giannis Antetokounmpo +650
Anthony Davis +900
LeBron James +900
Kevin Durant +900
Jayson Tatum +1200
James Harden +1400
Damian Lillard +1800
Kawhi Leonard +2000
Joel Embiid +2500
Kyrie Irving +2800
Jimmy Butler +2800
Donovan Mitchell +3000
Nikola Jokic +3000
Jamal Murray +3500
Devin Booker +3500

The latest odds tell us two things. First, Giannis will likely suffer from voter fatigue. The MVP voters have seen Giannis be special in the regular season two years in a row and then have his playoff run come to a screeching halt. Antetokounmpo will have to have an otherworldly year to impress the voters who are more interested in his playoff success going forward. And second, with Giannis out of the way that leaves the door open for another star to jump up and claim their first MVP trophy.

With that in mind, I took a look at five potential first-time MVP winners in the 2020-21 season. I broke it down into three different categories. First, the path. How can this player rise above the field and earn the respect of the voters? Second, the narrative. Every MVP in league history has had a story, what's the narrative that will play into the voters selecting this first-time winner? And finally, the numbers. What sort of stat line will be enough for the eventual winner to breakthrough?

Without further ado, here's the list in no particular order.

Damian Lillard

After what we saw from Dame in the Orlando bubble, it's hard to not have him on this list. Lillard was widely regarded as one of the 10 best players in the league by many, but he cemented that status with his video game-like performances in the bubble helping his team get to the postseason. Dame's play earned him bubble MVP which should open up the minds of many voters to the potential of him winning a league MVP.

Portland made some key moves this offseason bringing in the likes of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. on the wing to help build around Dame. And if the health gods shine on the team this year, they'll have one of the deeper teams in the West. With a chip on their shoulder and hungry to make some noise again in the playoffs, don't be surprised if Portland is a top-four team in the Western Conference.

The Path: Portland has to finish in the top four for Dame to even be considered. While Russell Westbrook won the award in 2017 with the Thunder as a sixth seed, it took a historic, record-breaking season for him to do so. Dame doesn't need that type of season to win the award, but he does need his team to have some on-court success.

The narrative: When the topic comes up of underrated players or underappreciated players, Lillard is always on the list. Playing in a smaller market and on the west coast, many casual fans don't get the chance to appreciate how good Lillard is. But after his bubble explosion, the secret is out. If Lillard leads the Blazers to a high finish in the West, the voters may be looking to give Dame the respect they feel he deserves.

The numbers: Lillard averaged 30.0 points, 8.0 assists, 1.1 steals with shooting splits of .463/.401/.888. Those numbers are on par with what Stephen Curry did in his second MVP season in 2016, but less efficient. If Lillard can replicate what he did last season and do it a tad bit more efficiently, he'll be on the top of the list for most come season's end.

Luka Doncic

It's very rare that players live up to the hype and even rarer when the hype is exceeded. We're entering that territory with Luka Doncic. Doncic dominated the ACB in Spain as a teenager before arriving in the NBA with a world of expectations - two seasons in and he's exceeded many of them.

Doncic finished fourth in MVP voting last season, carrying the Dallas Mavericks as a sophomore. As he enters season three, the sky continues to be the limit for the 21-year-old (!) guard. Doncic will enter the 2020-21 season as the Vegas favourite and it will be tough to knock him off.

The path: The Dallas Mavericks didn't have a ton of expectations ahead of last season, but they comfortably made the playoffs in the West. This year they'll be expected to do it again, but if they exceed expectations and jump into the top half of the conference, Luka will be the primary reason. If the Mavs can ride a hot Luka into home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, expect to see a lot of votes for the Slovenian.

The narrative: While the league waits on Zion to figure it out, Lukamania is ready to run wild on the NBA. Doncic is one of the league's brightest young stars and will likely get a ton of nationally televised games this season as the league continues to prepare for life after LeBron. Doncic has a flair for the dramatic as we've seen early in his career, so a couple of big outputs on national TV might sway the opinion of voters.

The numbers: Luka averaged 28.8 points, 8.8 assists and 9.4 rebounds per game last season. The ball will be in his hands a ton again this season so he'll have no problem replicating that line. He also has upside to his scoring if he can improve as a free-throw shooter. He has the talent to be an 80 percent shooter from the stripe and stay above that mark consistently.

Jayson Tatum

We've now seen two elite stretches in Jayson Tatum's young career. First, his 2018 playoff run and the second half of last season. Tatum has proven now on multiple occasions that he's the real deal, but he hasn't done it over the course of an 82-game season. That may change this year.

Tatum turned himself into an All-Star for the first time last season and this off-season he was rewarded with a big contract. Tatum now knows he belongs alongside some of the best in the NBA and so does the rest of the world. If the Celtics have success this season, it will be because Jayson Tatum took another step up into the MVP class.

The path: Last season, the question following Kyrie Irving's departure was: is Jayson Tatum ready to be the go-to guy for the Celtics all season long? Tatum answered that with a resounding yes. The question now will be can Tatum carry the Celtics with heightened expectations?

After finishing their season in the conference finals three of the last four years, the Celtics will be looking to finally breakthrough. Getting homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs would be a huge help in a season that could once again be full of unknowns. Should Tatum help get the C's a first or second seed in the East that may be enough to pique the voters' interest.

The narrative: We've seen Tatum become the Celtics' best player, now it's time for him to assume the leadership role. A more vocal Tatum coupled with his stellar play could lead the voters to believe that Tatum has turned the corner, becoming an extension of Brad Stevens and the locker room leader Boston needs.

He'll have to be in the conversation for All-Defence if he's consistent as he was last year on that end, which should help his case.

The numbers: In the last 23 games of the season - including the eight bubble games - Tatum averaged 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists with shooting splits of .474/.463/.776. The dude was awesome. Anything in that neighbourhood will open a lot of voters' eyes.

Nikola Jokic

It's hard to find many Nikola Jokic haters nowadays, isn't it? Trust me I should know - I used to be one. Jokic has proven now in back-to-back playoff runs that he can elevate his game and help carry a team through an entire series.

The Nuggets have a killer one-two punch with him and Jamal Murray, and if Michael Porter Jr. can find his role, they'll be a team to be reckoned with for the next few years.

It's been a while since the big men in the league were valued as much as they are after the Lakers won the 2019-20 championship with a jumbo frontcourt, but the lack of big men appreciation hasn't hurt Jokic's stock at all. Whether or not big men are in style, Jokic has taught us time and time again that he can impact the game on so many levels - doubters be damned.

The path: The Nuggets had a great regular season last year finishing third in the conference, but Jokic only finished ninth in MVP voting. A part of that was his slow start to the year. It could also be his pedestrian - by his standards - numbers on the season. Now that he's put together two solid postseason efforts, many eyes will be on Jokic through the regular season to see if he can duplicate his playoff impact over the course of a full season.

The narrative: More than anyone on this list, the narrative for Jokic is so important to his case for MVP. Jokic can't have another slow start to the season, or at any point be perceived to be working his way into game shape. He can't have stretches of the season where it looks like he's not giving maximum effort. And he certainly can't be a matador on the defensive end. We need to see Playoff Jokic for him to claim this award from his numbers to his effort to his desire to win on a nightly basis. The minute the voters see anything less, they'll look elsewhere for their vote.

The numbers: It's impossible to ask a player like Jokic to blow you away with his stat line because of his unselfish nature, but he has to put up bigger numbers to be considered. His playoff numbers in the bubble, 24.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 42.9 from three, are a good example of what an MVP line could look like. But he can also go the Steve Nash route here and be credited for how good he makes others when he's on the floor with them. If the on/off splits tell a compelling story that could certainly bolster his case.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis came to LA to win championships. He accomplished that in his first season there and while he's not done with winning, there could be more achievements for him to chase.

Davis has been one of the top players in the league for a long time and while he has gotten MVP consideration before, his teams never had enough regular-season success for him to be taken as a serious contender. He shouldn't have this problem with a reloaded Lakers squad this season, who will be looking to prove that their bubble title was no mistake.

The path: With LeBron James on his team, AD already has a built-in excuse for some voters to go in another direction. But there will be a handful of voters looking to crown Davis as the heir apparent to King James' throne and what better way to do that than to award him MVP while James is still on the roster.

If not for a couple of sub-par moments in the Finals, you could've made a real case for AD to win Finals MVP. Over the course of a season, AD's body of work should hide any sub-par moments he'll have this season and if LeBron decides to coast through the regular season again, the Lakers will need Davis to keep them afloat.

The narrative: AD has finished in the top three of MVP voting, but outside of the 2016 All-Star game MVP he hasn't won any individual awards. Not Rookie of the Year, not Defensive Player of the Year, nothing. They'll be voters out there looking to recognize AD and to reward him for how good he's been in his career.

The numbers: Davis will put up the numbers to be MVP-worthy, there's no question about that. The number to watch is games played. When Davis finished in the top three of MVP voting in 2018 he played in 75 of 82 games. If Davis plays at or around 65 of this year's 72 games, he'll eliminate any argument that can be made against his durability or availability.

Honourable mentions

Donovan Mitchell - If Donovan Mitchell can carry an ounce of what he did in the first round of the playoffs over to the regular season then Utah might have its first MVP since Karl Malone last won it in 1999.

Kawhi Leonard - Load management, need I say more?

Joel Embiid - Healthy, load management, effort, consistency. There's no question around Embiid's talent but if he can give us those four things for a full season we'll have ourselves an MVP.

Devin Booker - Eight games in a bubble is nice, let's see it for a full year.

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