As soon as Kevin Durant announced his decision to leave the Golden State Warriors and join the Brooklyn Nets, Steph Curry leapfrogged to the front of the 2019-20 NBA MVP race. Suddenly it became trendy to have the award be Curry’s to lose.
Of course, Durant was likely to miss the entire season, even if he re-signed with the Warriors. But the narrative changed the moment he opted to cross the country. Suddenly the Warriors were underdogs again. The player who took them from a home-grown, drafted-and-developed squad to an unfair league-ruiner was no longer in the fold. And with him, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and the trusty veterans of year’s passed were replaced with rookies, and young, unproven players with untapped potential.
Now the Warriors are looking up at a lot of teams they’re accustomed to looking down on.
And now Steph Curry doesn’t have a fellow all-time great scorer to share the basketball with.
Which means his numbers will likely be bonkers.
Last year, Curry averaged 27.7 points per 36 minutes when sharing the court with Durant. per NBA.com. When Durant sat, that number rose to 34.4 points, while maintaining the same assist rate. The efficiency dropped a little bit, but was still superhuman.
Translation: With Curry back to being the lone conductor of the Warriors’ offensive train, you can expect him to score a lot of points. A lot of points.
And if the Warriors are a high quality team, that flirts with 50 wins, or maybe even gets over that hump? He’ll likely be in line to add a third MVP trophy to his stacked shelf.
But he’ll have some stiff competition if he wants to become just the ninth player in league history to amass three MVPs. Let’s check out who his biggest competition will be. As a baseline, here’s Curry’s info:
2018-19 stats: 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, 64.1% true-shooting (TS)
2018-19 MVP voting: 5th
MVPs won: 2
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
2018-19 stats: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals per game, 64.4% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 1st
MVPs won: 1
Why he could win: The reigning MVP has a lot of points in his favor, namely that he just won the award at just 24 years old. There’s a good chance he’s an even bigger force in the coming year, especially if he’s improved his jump shot.
The Bucks - who had the league’s top record last year - will almost surely be one of the best teams in the league again, which will help Antetokounmpo’s case. At this point, he may be the front runner. He’s a top-10 offensive force, a top-10 defensive force, and plays on a great team. His chances are great.
What’s stopping him from winning: MVP is a regular season award. In theory. But it’s still voted on by media members who have natural biases.
The Bucks flamed out in the playoffs last year, losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. It wasn’t as competitive of a series as it should have been, and Antetokounmpo sported a true-shooting percentage of just 51.8% . . . well below league average.
Subconsciously or not, voters may want to see The Greek Freak prove he can show up in the biggest moments before rewarding him with another MVP trophy.
James Harden (Rockets)
2018-19 stats: 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game, 61.6% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 2nd
MVPs won: 1
Why he could win: Did you see that stat line? 36.1 points per game? Are you kidding me?
Harden is sure to be at or near the top of the scoring leaderboard, for a very good team. That goes a long way in the eyes of voters. There’s a reason he’s won this award before.
What’s stopping him from winning: Yes, there’s a reason Harden has won the award before, but there’s also a reason he’s finished runner-up a whopping three times.
Harden fills up the stat sheets, but there’s often question as to just how valuable it is. And, like Antetokounmpo, he’s coming off a disappointing playoff performance, which was far from his first.
More than anything, however, is the addition of fellow super-usage star Russell Westbrook, who won the MVP award in 2016-17, just one year before Harden. Westbrook likely isn’t good enough (anymore) to win MVP, but he’s good enough to hurt Harden’s odds.
Joel Embiid (Sixers)
2018-19 stats: 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game, 59.3% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 7th
MVPs won: 0
Why he could win: Embiid is a certified superstar - someone who averages nearly 30 points per game, while contending for the Defensive Player of the Year award. And at 25 years old, he should only be getting better.
The Sixers will be one of the league’s top teams, and could easily win the East. And while they’re chalk full of talent, Embiid is clearly the go-to guy on their team.
What’s stopping him from winning: A few things. Injuries are the biggest one, but there’s a chance that playing on a stacked team - his fellow starters are Ben Simmons, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson - limits his touches, and therefore his numbers. There’s also a chance that having such a good team allows coach Brett Brown to give Embiid a fair amount of Load Management.
Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
2018-19 stats: 20.1 points, 10.8 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, 58.9% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 4th
MVPs won: 0
Why he could win: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Jokic is only getting better. He’s just 24 years old, and coming off arguably the best passing season an NBA big man has ever had. And unlike some of the players on this list, he went out firing, with an other-worldly playoff performance.
Denver is also the perfect team for an MVP. After finishing second in the West a year ago, they’re poised to make a run for the top seed. They have the talent, depth, and continuity to thrive in a conference that saw a lot of turnover.
At the same time, Denver didn’t really have any serious All-Star candidate last year, other than Jokic. There’s no Westbrook taking his MVP votes or counting stats. There’s not even a Simmons or Horford.
This is Jokic’s team. And they’re damn good.
What’s stopping him from winning: Aside from being great, Jokic doesn’t really look the part of a prototypical MVP. While his stat lines are gaudy if you like assists and efficiency, he’s not the scorer that everyone else on this list is. He doesn’t have scoring highlights like the others, and, while his defense is perfectly capable, he isn’t a star on that end of the court.
Jokic is clearly one of the league’s elite players. But dudes scoring 20 points per game usually aren’t recognized as MVPs.
Damian Lillard (Blazers)
2018-19 stats: 25.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.1 steals per game, 58.8% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 6th
MVPs won: 0
Why he could win: Lillard has been great for a long time, but the Oakland product finally arrived full stop last year, with a superstar performance. He was in the MVP discussion. He carried his team to the Western Conference Finals. He had the most memorable shot of the year, until Kawhi Leonard did his thing.
He’s a bonafide star, and Portland is good enough to surge in the rankings, but not so good as to take credit away from their point guard.
What’s stopping him from winning: As great as Lillard is, he still isn’t recognized quite in the same echelon as most of the players listed here. Part of that may be Curry’s fault, because Lillard doesn’t have an argument as the best player in the league at his position, which everyone else on this list does.
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
2018-19 stats: 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, 60.6% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 9th
MVPs won: 0
Why he could win: Leonard’s one-year stop in Toronto seemed to catapult him to the top of many people’s best-player-in-the-world rankings. Have people overrated his playoff performance a little bit? Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. But it is what it is, and, as a result, Leonard is viewed as highly as any player in the league, while playing for one of the NBA’s best teams.
What’s stopping him from winning: Leonard would have had a case for last year’s award, had he not sat for 22 games. He likely won’t get as much load management this year, but he’ll still likely play the season safe, and rely on star teammate Paul George a fair amount.
LeBron James (Lakers)
2018-19 stats: 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, 58.8% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: 11th
MVPs won: 4
Anthony Davis (Lakers)
2018-19 stats: 25.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.4 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game, 59.7% TS
2018-19 MVP voting: No votes
MVPs won: 0
Why they could win: James and Davis both have claim to the title of best player in the league, when healthy and motivated. Each is capable of a monster season that leaves our jaws on the floor. Davis might be the best defensive player alive, while being an unstoppable inside-out offensive force. James might be the best player ever.
At their best, both of these guys are absolute MVP-caliber players.
What’s stopping them from winning: They’re also teammates. If they both play like MVPS, then it’s likely that neither wins.
Curry and Durant had combined to win the last three MVP awards when they teamed up. Three elite seasons later, and neither got close to winning another.
If James or Davis wishes to win the award, the other will have to cede power, have a down year, or get injured.