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NBA MVP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

With a week of NBA Training Camps in the books, David Weissman dives into potential candidates to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 60-22 regular season last year en route to his first NBA MVP Award. The 24-year-old will try to earn the award for the second straight season and is the betting favorite at +300 odds, followed by Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden. 

Front Runners

Giannis Antetokounmpo 

Last season, the Greek Freak had the best season of his career, averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks on 57.8 percent field goal percentage. Antetokounmpo has steadily increased his points, rebounds and assists averages each year of his career, but the scary part is he still has room to improve.

Only shooting 25.6 precent from behind the arc last season, Giannis can increase his MVP chances if he can improve his three-point shot. By comparison, Giannis was more accurate during the 2017-18 season when he shot 30 percent from three. Being able to shoot above 33 percent from three-point land should be a goal for Giannis if he wants to continue to be in the conversation for best in the league. With the addition of the three-point shot to Giannis’ arsenal, he would be the clear favorite for MVP, becoming the most complete player in the NBA.

Anthony Davis

With LeBron James likely to focus on load management in his 17th season, Davis will be the Lakers’ main scoring option. Running the pick-and-roll with one of the league’s best facilitators in James, Davis has shown he can thrive as LeBron’s running mate, tallying 22 points, 10 rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes of play during his first preseason outing with the Lakers.

LeBron has emphasized that he wants to run the offense through Davis.

“If we are not running the offense through [Davis], what’s the point of him being on the floor,” LeBron said at Media Day. The King seems to be focused on passing the torch to Davis rather than prioritizing his own stat line, which makes Davis the more likely of the duo to win MVP this season.

Anthony Davis has prioritized winning Defensive Player of the Year this season.

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable…”

If Davis can improve his 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game average from last season, with a Defensive Player of the Year effort, he could be the third player since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to win both awards in the same season.

Stephen Curry

As Antetokounmpo is trying to win consecutive MVP awards this season, Stephen Curry knows how tough the feat is, as he was the last player to do so in 2015-2016. One key factor of Curry’s MVP seasons was Kevin Durant not being on the Golden State roster, allowing Curry to be the focal point of the offense for the Warriors. Klay Thompson will also be out most of the season, as he is recovering from an ACL tear suffered during last year’s NBA Finals. With Durant leaving the Warriors for the Nets and Thompson out for most of the season, look for Curry to reclaim the offensive spotlight for the Warriors this season.

With the Warriors acquiring D’Angelo Russell this off-season, Curry will be able to play off of another dynamic playmaker in Russell, who will create more offensive opportunities for Curry. Playing with Russell instead of Thompson in the backcourt may require some adjustment on Curry’s part throughout the year, but look for Curry to help Russell get immersed in the offense. It would not be surprising if Curry gets close to making 400 three-pointers again next season, which will help give the league’s greatest shooter a great shot at his third MVP trophy.

Outside Looking In

James Harden/Russell Westbrook

Both Harden and Westbrook each own MVP hardware and have grown accustomed to being the number one option on their respective teams. Last season, Harden (39.6 percent) and Westbrook (30.1 percent) each ranked in the top eight in the league in usage rate. With Westbrook joining the Rockets this offseason, the former teammates will need time to adjust to each other. This adjustment in play will probably prevent both from being top contenders for the MVP this season.   

With the Thunder, Harden mainly came off the bench averaging 12.7 points per game. Westbrook meshed well with Harden, averaging 16 points per game while playing with him on the Thunder. Harden was traded to the Rockets a few years after being drafted by Thunder, where he has since transformed into a perennial MVP candidate in Houston. Harden has averaged 29.0 points in seven seasons for the Rockets, including a career-high 36.1 points per game last season. Westbrook has also taken his game to another level since playing with Harden, becoming the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in three consecutive seasons.

There is an expectation that both players will be focused on adapting to each other’s game and trying to do what is best for the team to make a playoff run. Since both will need to learn how to share the ball again, it may hurt their individual stats, lowering their chances for MVP this season.

Kawhi Leonard

With Leonard joining the Clippers this offseason, he will start a new era with Paul George as his running mate. Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship in franchise history last season, averaging 26.6 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game during the regular season. With an impressive stat line over the regular season, alongside his lock-down defense, Leonard will be an MVP-caliber player for the upcoming season.

The biggest obstacle for Leonard to win MVP is his workload. The Raptors had to rest Leonard for 22 games last season due to a lingering quad injury, and the Clippers are likely going to do the same this season. Leonard looks to be more productive during the regular season, though. 

“This year I’m feeling good and feeling way better than I was at the start of last season,” Leonard said.

If Leonard can miss less than 20 games this season, look for him to be a contender for the regular season MVP. 

Dark Horse

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell is only entering his third year in the NBA, but has shown incredible promise his first two years in the league. Since he’s come into the Association, Mitchell has been dominant as Utah’s main offensive option; he’s the only 6-foot-5 or under player in the past 20 years to score 20 points per game as a rookie, and only the fifth to do so as a sophomore.

After spending the summer representing Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, Mitchell focused on the jump he wants to make this season at Jazz Media Day. With many of the typical superstars that represent Team USA in international play not participating in this summer’s tournament, Mitchell, along with Kemba Walker, became the leaders of Team USA in this summer’s tournament. Despite placing seventh in the tournament, it gave Mitchell the experience that could lead to an All-Star jump.

The Jazz became an immediate NBA Finals contender this summer, trading significant future assets for 32-year-old Mike Conley and signing 30-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million contract. Mitchell and the Jazz now have spot-up shooting, a wide-open floor and secondary playmaking, all of which the Jazz lacked in Mitchell’s first two years. Both of these moves will help get Mitchell better looks, helping him not rely on ill-advised shot selection.

If Mitchell can use this opportunity to focus on improving his shot selection and offensive efficiency, he may even be able to take the jump required to be an MVP candidate.

Prediction: When the regular season closes, this writer anticipates Anthony Davis will claim his first regular-season MVP Title. Playing off LeBron will allow Davis to make an MVP jump offensively to give him the most productive regular season of his career. 

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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