Giannis Antetokounmpo will enter the 2019-20 NBA season as the odds-on favorite to repeat as the league’s Most Valuable Player at +300, and it isn’t difficult to see why.
During his age-24 season, the Greek Freak erupted for a career-high 27.7 points on 57.8 percent shooting to go along with 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in only 32.8 minutes per game. Having now played under head coach Mike Budenholzer for a full year, Antetokounmpo should help the Milwaukee Bucks get off to a running start en route to their second straight No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
While Antetokounmpo might be the safest MVP bet on the board—particularly if he really is only at 60 percent of his potential—a few other challengers figure to emerge this year.
Stephen Curry (+500) has the next-best MVP odds heading into the season, as he’ll have to carry a far heavier load for the Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant now in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL. Curry’s counting stats dipped while playing alongside Durant over the past three seasons, but he led the league with 30.1 points per game on a 50/40/90 split during his last MVP campaign in 2015-16.
The Warriors did bring in D’Angelo Russell this summer, and he should alleviate some of the scoring burden from Curry. But he won’t single-handedly make up for the combined output of Durant and Thompson. Curry may need to set a new career-high in scoring to drag the depleted Warriors back to the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
Other than an injury, load management is the biggest thing that could derail Curry’s MVP candidacy. Fresh off five straight trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors may decide to limit his minutes and reduce the risk of him wearing down.
They might be facing an uphill battle to convince him of that, though.
“Hell, nah,” Curry replied when The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson asked him about that prospect in mid-July. “We’ve got a great opportunity to build something special with some hungry guys looking to prove themselves. There are so many narratives people can throw at us. But at the end of the day, I’ve never been the type to show up with any other mindset than to do what you do—hoop. ”
Even if Curry doesn’t subscribe to a load-management plan, that will be the prevailing theme of this year’s MVP race.
James Harden has the third-best odds (+700) of any player heading into the season and has finished either first or second in the MVP race during four of the past five years. But to keep that streak alive, he’ll have to overcome adjusting to new high-usage teammate Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets’ desire to limit his own workload in the regular season.
“Yeah, it always is [part of the strategy],” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said in reference to load management during a late July appearance on the Dan Patrick Show (via Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic). “We try not to label it. … Yeah, it’ll be a very put-together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.”
Kawhi Leonard (+800), LeBron James (+900), Anthony Davis (+1000) and Joel Embiid (+1200) all could be subjected to some form of load management this season, too.
Leonard famously played only 60 regular-season games with the Toronto Raptors last year before going on a tour de force during the playoffs that resulted in the Raptors’ first-ever championship. While Leonard has proclaimed that he intends to play “the full season” with the Los Angeles Clippers this year, he did acknowledge he’ll re-evaluate that on a “game-by-game basis.”
The Clippers may have to lean on Leonard early in the season as Paul George continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, but they won’t jeopardize their championship chances by overtaxing either star to chase regular-season wins. During the 2019 Finals, Leonard told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he “wouldn’t be here” had the Raptors not proactively managed his workload, so the Clippers figure to follow that same blueprint this season.
Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel doesn’t seem have an exact load-management plan in place for James or Davis, but he’s keeping an open mind about it.
“To me, it’s more of a case-to-case basis,” he told Mike Trudell of Lakers.com. “I understand why they had that approach with Kawhi and the benefits they received from it. It doesn’t mean Player X on a lottery team should be sitting out (when healthy), or Player X on a top team should be sitting out, a healthy guy, a random game in December. You have to follow the recommendation of your medical team. That’s what it comes down to. And what they decide, you roll with that.”
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers are openly acknowledging that Embiid won’t play all 82 games during the regular season. After shelling out a four-year, $109 million deal to fellow All-Star big man Al Horford this summer, that should come as no surprise.
While Horford isn’t strictly an insurance policy—the Sixers plan to start him at the 4 alongside Embiid—he can also start in place of Embiid at center whenever necessary. Embiid acknowledged during his exit interview that he needed to be “smarter” about strategically resting during the regular season, so now there’s organizational alignment from the player, coaching staff and front office this year. (That makes him a particularly shaky MVP bet.)
The best-value MVP candidate other than Antetokounmpo may thus be Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (+1600), who finished fourth in last year’s race.
While a number of other teams made major offseason overhauls—and will need time to acclimate to new systems and teammates—the Nuggets prioritized continuity after advancing to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. They pilfered Jerami Grant from the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fire sale and will get 2018 lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. in the fold after he missed all of last season to recover from a back injury, but they’re otherwise largely running back the same core.
That should help the Nuggets get off to a fast start as their Western Conference counterparts all recalibrate around new-look squads.
Jokic averaged 20.1 points on 51.1 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 triples and 0.7 blocks in only 31.3 minutes per game last season, but he went off for an outrageous 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 39.8 minutes per game during the playoffs. The Nuggets figure to keep his minutes in the low 30s during the regular season, but if his three-point shooting regresses positively—he shot a career-worst 30.7 percent from downtown after drilling 39.6 percent of his triples in 2017-18—that could help fuel his MVP candidacy.
Antetokounmpo is the deserved front-runner to repeat as MVP this season, as the Sixers seem to be the only obstacle standing between the Bucks and the East’s No. 1 seed. Couple that with another outrageous stat line—is the first 30-15-5 season in 50-plus years within reach?—and the Greek Freak might run away with the award.
But if Curry goes supernova while keeping the depleted Warriors in the mix for Western Conference supremacy, or Jokic fuels the Nuggets’ rise to the West’s No. 1 seed, they could both give Antetokounmpo a run for his money.