NBA MVP is almost never a consensus decision. There has only been one unanimous winner in the history of the award — and it wasn’t Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Stephen Curry was the lone unanimous winner back in 2016 while playing for a Golden State Warriors team that won an NBA record 73 games. LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers would go on to shock Curry’s Warriors in the NBA Finals that season — Secret Base made a documentary on it! — which offered perhaps the most lasting reminder that MVP is only a regular season award.
There’s never really been a tried-and-true criteria for an NBA MVP winner. Usually the winner has to be considered one of the two or three best players in the world. Usually the winner has to come from a team that actually wins. The fact is that it’s really hard to win MVP. Kobe Bryant only won the award once. Kevin Durant also only has one MVP. Even being the best player on the best team can only get a candidate so far.
With the NBA season getting close to its true halfway point, we thought this would be a good time to take stock in the NBA race for the 2021-2022 season. This would be our MVP list right now.
10. Trae Young, G, Hawks: Young is currently top-five in scoring and top-three in assists while acting as a one-man offense for the Atlanta Hawks. Unfortunately, the Hawks haven’t been able to carry over their winning ways from last year’s charmed Eastern Conference Finals run. I will boldly predict Trae wins an MVP in the next five years, but it’s not coming this year.
9. LeBron James, F, Lakers: LeBron just turned 37 years old, and there’s an argument that his game-by-game ceiling is still the highest in the league. Wild stuff. If the Lakers were near the top of the West, LeBron might win the award. Instead, LA is fighting just to stay out of the play-in tournament. It’s too bad the Lakers are wasting another amazing LeBron year, because we don’t know how many of these we’ll have left.
8. Rudy Gobert, C, Jazz: Gobert and teammate Donovan Mitchell have both been incredible this year, and this spot easily could have went to Mitchell instead. Gobert just feels like the centerpiece of everything the Jazz do, from his elite rim protection powering a top-five defense to his screening, rebounding, and finishing helping fuel what is currently the NBA’s No. 1 offense. Gobert’s 15 rebounds per game also leads the league.
7. Chris Paul, G, Suns: The Suns are possibly even better than last year when they went to the NBA Finals. Phoenix is far more than a one-man team — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and head coach Monty Williams all feel like they play an equally valuable role — but CP3 is still the man steering the ship. On the brink of his 37th birthday, Paul is putting up his lowest scoring numbers ever, but has a chance to lead the league in assists this season.
6. Joel Embiid, C, 76ers: Embiid may have won the award last season had he not missed time with an injury as the Sixers sprinted to the No. 1 seed in the East. Philly hasn’t been as good this year with Ben Simmons out, but Embiid might be even better. He’s shooting better from three, dishing out more assists, and turning the ball over less. Missed games will again hurt his chances, but he should rise if he stays healthy. This likely isn’t the year he gets the award mostly because his team is fighting for a mid-table seed in the East playoff picture.
5. DeMar DeRozan, G, Chicago Bulls
When the Bulls signed DeMar DeRozan to a three-year, $85 million contract — and traded Thaddeus Young plus a future protected first round pick to finish the deal — the move was hailed by many as the worst of the offseason. Whoops. DeRozan has turned in the best year of his career at age-32 and fueled Chicago’s worst-to-first move up the standings. After finishing with the fewest wins in the league over the last four seasons, the Bulls are now a legit contender for the No. 1 seed in the East.
DeRozan’s deadly mid-range scoring and crunch-time heroics have been the foundation of the Bulls’ rise. He’s leading the league in fourth quarter scoring, and he’s done it by mostly hitting the type of shots the opposing defense wants to concede. While DeRozan still doesn’t shoot many threes and remains a below average defender, his consistent ability to get to the foul line and his substantially improved playmaking has helped aid his superstar turn. If DeRozan keeps this up, the Bulls are a legit contender in the East.
4. Kevin Durant, F, Brooklyn Nets
Durant is the best scorer on Earth. He’s leading the league in scoring at about 30 points per game, and he’s doing it on ridiculous efficiency once again. If KD can maintain a true shooting percentage above 61 percent, it will be the 10th straight year he’s done it. He’s also had a major impact on the Nets’ team success: Kyrie Irving still hasn’t played a game, James Harden is having a down year by his historic standards, and Joe Harris is hurt, but Brooklyn will still enter 2022 as the favorite to land the East’s No. 1 seed.
Durant has a strong case both as MVP winner and the mythical title of ‘best player in the world’ this season. It’s remarkable that he’s still this good after tearing his achilles. Brooklyn’s defense has also been playing at a top-five level most of the year, and Durant is a factor on that end as well despite not putting up huge steal or block rates so far. KD is fully incredible, but there are a couple players who are having an even better season.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis stamped his greatness by leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship last year with one of the more dominant playoff runs in recent memory, highlighted by a 50-point performance in the title clincher. The Bucks haven’t yet torched the league this year after a short offseason, but they’ve been charging up the East standings as of late and will be one of hte teams to beat when the playoffs start. That’s because Giannis is as dominant as any player in the league.
Antetokounmpo is my pick for the league’s best defender. He’s also averaging almost 28 points per game offensively, and he looks better than ever as a mid-range scorer. Compared to Durant, Giannis has a better steal percentage, block percentage, rebound percentage, and assist percentage so far this season. This isn’t Giannis’ best regular season campaign, but it feels like he’s still improving in meaningful ways.
2. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
It’s heartbreaking that the Nuggets have so many major injuries to key players — Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and even P.J. Dozier — because Jokic is playing at an all-time great level. Jokic clearly had the best regular season in the league last year on his way to winning MVP, and he’s putting up even better numbers this year, with superior assist, block, steal, and rebound rates. He’s the runaway leader in all-in-one numbers like EPM. Anecdotally, Jokic finally seems to be shedding his undeserved reputation as a middling defender to become a legit plus on that end.
That the Nuggets would make the playoffs if the season ended today without needing to go in through the play-in tournament is the ultimate testament to Jokic’s greatness. Here’s hoping Denver can finally stay healthy next season so we can see what Jokic can do in the playoffs with a legit team around him.
1. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors
On the brink of his 34th birthday, Curry is still playing like he’s in his prime. He’s again one of the league’s leading scorers, and he’s doing it by taking and making more three-pointers than ever before. Curry’s mere presence on the court warps opposing defenses in ways that we’ve never seen before. Now that he’s been surrounded by a reliable veteran supporting cast, his Golden State Warriors have jumped from a team that got knocked out in the play-in tournament last year to one with the league’s best record this year.
Curry is leading the league in an all-in-one metric like Nathan Walker’s DRIP, and he’s second behind Jokic in EPM. Curry has always been a bit of an underrated defender, but it feels like he’s still getting better on that end as he enters his mid-30s, this time playing a pivotal role on what’s clearly the best defense in the league in Golden State. He also authored arguably the most defining moment of the season by breaking the all-time three-point record for a career in Madison Square Garden. As long as he stays healthy and Golden State remains in the mix for the West’s No. 1 seed, Curry is set to become the ninth player in league history to win three MVP awards or more. It sure seems like he isn’t slowing down anytime soon.