Predicting the 2022 NBA MVP

Dec 10, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 NBA season is weeks from starting. And with the start of a new year comes an abundance of races for individual awards. Most notable is the quest for the coveted Most Valuable Player trophy.

The criteria

Predicting an MVP winner begins with understanding the criteria that voters consider when choosing a winner. The criteria most prominently revolve around each candidate’s performance, but several underlying factors all play a role in selecting a winner.

The most notable factor is team success. Since the turn of the century, all MVP winners except one have been on a team that finished top three in their conference standings. The exception to that rule was 2017 Russell Westbrook, who captured the award by becoming the second player ever to average a triple-double for an entire season.

So unless a player puts together another record-breaking campaign in 2022, they’ll need to earn a high seed to contend for the award. Fairly or unfairly, team success heavily influences MVP voters.

Other factors include durability, player popularity, voter fatigue, and a candidate’s teammates (superstars who play next to other stars often overshadow their teammates).

With these factors in mind, the upcoming MVP becomes easier to predict.

Candidate 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Jul 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns during game four of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
 Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off an NBA championship, Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the top of the NBA world. A two-time MVP winner, his regular-season dominance is second to none.

Over his last three seasons, Antetokounmpo boasts an elite 28.4/12.4/5.8 stat line to go with DPOY-level defense. And remarkably, he’s gotten even better since his previous MVP in 2020. Since then, he’s made strides as a playmaker, decision-maker, and off-ball roll man. As a result, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks convincingly captured the 2021 NBA championship.

Voter fatigue could be an issue for The Greek Freak, as it was for other multi-time MVP winners like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. But on the flipside, Antetokounmpo is one of the most unstoppable forces in all of basketball, and his team is bound to earn a high seed. Those factors alone will guarantee Antetokounmpo a spot in the heated race.

Candidate 2: Stephen Curry

After injuries sidelined him for much of 2019-20, Stephen Curry exploded for a historic 2020-21 campaign. Despite playing next to some of the worse spacing in basketball, Curry averaged a league-leading 32 points per game on 65.5% true shooting. Only Curry’s 2016 MVP season matched that level of volume and efficiency by a perimeter star.

Yet, disappointingly, the Warriors narrowly missed out on the playoffs, eliminating any chance he had at MVP. Fortunately for the 33-year old, that should change in 2022.

He and the Warriors will tremendously benefit from the long-awaited return of fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson. And even before Thompson returns, the Warriors look poised to assert themselves in contention, behind the emergence of Jordan Poole and the addition of Otto Porter Jr.

We know Curry will do his part in playing at an MVP-caliber level for the regular season. He’s done that since 2015. But his team’s performance will dictate whether or not he becomes a three-time winner of the award.

Candidate 3: Anthony Davis

Of the candidates mentioned here, Anthony Davis is the most intriguing. On the one hand, he’s coming off a down year in 2021, where injuries limited him in both the regular season and playoffs. But with an extended offseason of rest, Davis looks rejuvenated and primed for a bounce-back year.

It may be easy to forget, but Davis has played at an MVP level several times in his career. As the lead option in New Orleans, he earned a third-place finish in 2018, leading them on both sides of the ball with 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. He continued this strong play in the 2018-19 race before the Pelicans limited his minutes during his trade request saga.

Next to LeBron James in Los Angeles, Davis did more of the same in 2020. After a dominant regular season, Davis averaged 27.7/9.7/3.5 on 66.5% true shooting with incredible defense in the 2020 playoffs. Before injuries set in, Davis established himself as a fringe top-five player in the NBA with multiple MVP-caliber performances. If this is the version of Davis that shows up in 2022, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t contend for MVP.

If James coasts in the regular season, the onus will fall on Davis to carry an increased load on both ends of the floor. With a more prominent role, a return to superstardom seems imminent.

However, James’ presence in Los Angeles is a challenging obstacle for Davis’ MVP odds to overcome. Until he officially asserts himself as LA’s best player, Davis is unlikely to captivate enough voters.

Candidate 4: Luka Doncic

May 28, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts to scoring a basket against the LA Clippers during the second half in game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There’s little doubt to anyone in the NBA world that Luka Doncic will play at an MVP level in 2022. He’s done so each of the past two seasons and hasn’t reached his apex. With pick-and-roll mastery and a wide array of counters to any possible defense, Doncic is a nightmare for opponents to defend at just age 22.

But it’s the factors surrounding Doncic that will hurt his chances. Far too many questions remain about his Mavericks’ playoff odds. Can Kristaps Porzingis return to his old form? Will anyone step up as a reliable secondary creator next to Doncic? It isn’t easy to pencil in the Mavericks as a high seed in a solid western conference until those questions get answered.

As one of the league’s bright young stars, Doncic will have plenty of time to accumulate MVP awards and etch his name in the history books. But until his situation in Dallas improves, that anticipated first award will have to wait.

Candidates 5 and 6: Kevin Durant and James Harden

In a vacuum, Nets teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden are overly qualified to win MVP. The two won the award in 2014 and 2018, respectively, and their talent alone makes them perennial candidates as long as they’re healthy.

After recovering from a 2019 Achilles injury, Durant left no doubt that he’s still among the NBA’s elite. In a valiant postseason effort, he put together one of the more impressive playoff performances of recent memory in a second-round clash versus the Bucks.

With his team plagued by injuries against the eventual champions, Durant nearly willed his Nets to victory in heroic fashion, showcasing his scoring excellence with a staggering 35.4 points per game in the series.

His teammate, Harden, also thrived last year in his first season in Brooklyn. Harden’s scoring rate dropped from his Houston days, but he made up for it with elite playmaking. He had no problem taking on extra passing duties in Brooklyn, dishing out 10.9 assists per game as the primary engine behind the league’s best offense.

But Durant and Harden are teammates, making a high MVP finish less likely for each. Historically, it’s difficult for players with other offensive superstar teammates to win the award as each player’s usage typically declines. The Warriors from 2017 to 2019 best exemplify this, with Durant and Stephen Curry sharing the spotlight and combining for zero MVPs in that span.

Those who stand alone as their team’s best players typically fare better in MVP races than those who play next to a similarly gifted star. It might not be fair, but it’s often the reality. So unless the voters change their criteria, Durant and Harden may be the reason why their teammate misses out on their second MVP.

Candidate 7: Joel Embiid

Barring injury, Joel Embiid would’ve given Nikola Jokic a legitimate run for his money in last year’s MVP race. Missed games derailed his chances, but the Cameroonian big man averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds on the top-seeded Sixers. The fact that he did this in only 31.1 minutes per game looks even more impressive on paper.

When he’s played, he’s been phenomenal. There’s no denying that. And assuming he’s healthy for the majority of 2022, there’s little standing in the way of an Embiid MVP campaign. But that assumption is far from a guarantee.

As always, health is a question mark for Embiid. After missing his first two seasons in the league, Embiid has gained notoriety for his lack of durability. He’s yet to play more than 78% of his team’s games in a season. In comparison, every MVP winner of this century has appeared in at least 86% of their team’s games, with most topping the 90% mark. History doesn’t bode well for Embiid if the injury bug continues to bite.

Candidate 8: LeBron James

Oct 12, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson (95) during the third quarter at Staples Center. The Warriors won 111-99. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into year 19, LeBron James remarkably remains one of the best basketball players on the planet. Remember, James was in the thick of last year’s MVP race before an ankle injury ruined his chances.

However, with 61,090 career minutes under his belt coupled with possible injury concerns, James’ career mileage is approaching an unprecedented territory. As a result, James may take his foot off the gas for parts of the regular season in hopes of preserving his energy for the playoffs.

After all, the King has his sights set on more significant accomplishments than the MVP award as he continues making his case for the Greatest of All Time.

Candidate 9: Nikola Jokic

The first center to win MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, Nikola Jokic had a season for the ages in 2021. He posted a fantastic 26.4/10.8/8.3 stat line on 64.7% true shooting, deservedly earning him the MVP. However, several obstacles stand in the way of his second award.

For starters, Jokic’s Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray for much of the regular season as the guard recovers from an ACL tear. While the Nuggets went 16-8 without Murray in 2021, there’s no guarantee they capture a high seed in his absence.

A recent NBA GM survey also doesn’t bode well for Jokic’s chances. Per the survey, a shocking 0% of NBA GMs picked Jokic as their 2022 MVP. Of course, GMs aren’t the ones voting on awards. But their opinion often reflects that of the general public.

Even if Jokic replicates his 2021 dominance, factors outside of his control will be challenging to overcome.

The Verdict: Stephen Curry

May 19, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) smiles after shooting a basket over Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the first half of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Curry has the best chance to take home the 2022 MVP. Arguably the best player in the world, Curry will inevitably play at an MVP-caliber level this season. But this is only a fraction of why Curry projects to be the award’s front runner.

What separates Curry from his counterparts is that he checks all the other boxes necessary to contend for MVP. It starts with his surrounding environment in Golden State. The Warriors, who had the record of a five-seed in games Curry played last year, have improved enough to fight for a spot near the top of the standings.

It’s also been over five years since he won his last MVP, meaning voters likely won’t be turned away by fatigue. And with former teammate Kevin Durant out of the picture, Curry doesn’t have to share the spotlight as other candidates do.

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6 responses to “Predicting the 2022 NBA MVP”

  1. […] the Bucks sit atop the Eastern conference as a favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship. Led by a top MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, they look to etch their names alongside some of the greatest teams in […]

  2. […] the Bucks sit atop the Eastern conference as a favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship. Led by a top MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, they look to etch their names alongside some of the greatest teams in […]

  3. […] the Bucks sit atop the Eastern conference as a favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship. Led by a top MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, they look to etch their names alongside some of the greatest teams in […]

  4. […] placed our own bid as to who we see taking home MVP honors this year. But as always, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player is hard to call from a year to year […]

  5. […] placed our own bid as to who we see taking home MVP honors this year. But as always, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player is hard to call from a year to year […]

  6. […] placed our own bid as to who we see taking home MVP honors this year. But as always, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player is hard to call from a year to year […]

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