NBA 2018: From LA Lakers' LeBron James to Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving, five best bets for MVP this season

When Marvel Studios called the Avengers: Infinity War film the ‘most ambitious crossover event in history’, they boasted of the variety of talents from each of the myriad of superheroes (and villains).

All the heroes were strong, of course, but they all possessed additional skills that made them uniquely qualified for battle. Iron Man has a suit with complete military capabilities, Thor is the God of Thunder with a magical hammer, Captain America has leadership skills and an indestructible shield, Black Widow is a spy and an assassin, Scarlet Witch can mess with other people’s minds, Black Panther is a technologically-advanced fighter, Doctor Strange has command over the mystic arts, and the Hulk is big and angry, which is apparently enough to be devastating to most opponents.

With such a variety of powers, it is difficult to choose who is the strongest. The answer usually depends on the context, or the need of the hour. Which Avenger can be the best fit in which situation? Which one can not only dominate, but also make his co-stars better? Which one can eventually lead the team to victory over the seemingly-indomitable Thanos.

In the past few years, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race has often been a similar exercise in subjectivity. What classifies an MVP? Is it the stats, the team success, the ability to play at the top of the game at the most important moments, or a subtle combination of them all?

In 2016, Stephen Curry did something special: he became the league’s first ever unanimous MVP, turning a subjective debate into objective agreement. But the trend has swung towards a healthy debate over the past few years, with triple-double averaging Russell Westbrook winning the award in 2017 and James Harden taking the 2018 crown for being the best player in the league’s best regular season team. All three players, it so happened, were also the league’s scoring leaders in the MVP seasons, but NBA history has shown that this is not always the case.

But many fans will argue that the list of winners hardly tells the full story. In 2016 — Curry’s “unanimous” year — it was LeBron James who was King of the NBA Finals and defeated Steph’s Warriors for the championship. Over the last year years, new Warrior Kevin Durant has had the final laugh, winning Finals MVP in back to back championship victories for Golden State. LeBron, Durant, and Curry are likely to be contenders almost every year, and other stars like Kawhi Leonard (until his injury), Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all had impressive showings in recent seasons.

This glut of talent in the league is exactly what makes predicting the next MVP a challenging prospect. Will the award be given to someone like Curry in 2016 or Harden in 2018, for being the best player in the best team? Or to someone like Westbrook in 2017, for having the most astonishing statistical season? Or will it be a combination of factors, like Durant’s 2014 MVP award with the Thunder where he carried a short-handed team to above-average success?

The big story of the upcoming season is LeBron’s move to the West Coast to play for the Lakers, a decision that immediately shook up some of the NBA’s narratives and gave James a new opportunity to prove that he can carry a new team to greatness. But around the league, young players are getting better and established players are getting more comfortable in their team.

With all that in mind, here is a countdown of the top five prospects of the 2018-19 NBA Regular Season MVP:

But first, some notable absences: No such list will be complete without another, uber-talented list of MVP snubs. I included none of the previous three MVPs — Curry, Westbrook, Harden — in the top five of next year.

For Curry, playing alongside Durant and other stars will reduce his individual contribution. Westbrook is a monster of stat-lines but many MVP voters will want to reward players with more team success than he has had in recent years. As for Harden, I exclude him controversially not because he will be a significantly less valuable player next season, but because of voter fatigue, a prediction that the voters will seek to find different “narratives” to reward next season rather than Harden’s mastery of the D’Antoni offense.

Another notable snub is Leonard, whose health is a question mark before his first upcoming season in Toronto.

5 Kyrie Irving

Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving (left) in action against Houston Rockets. AP Photo

Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving (left) in action against Houston Rockets. AP Photo

Yes, it’s true that he is coming off an injury, and is thus, definitely a tricky bet. But Irving is a special player in a unique situation. If he plays to his form, he will be the leader and point guard of one of the most talented teams in the league, the Boston Celtics.

Irving was averaging 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game before his injury and is still in his prime. The Celtics are favoured to be the best team in the East and MVP voters will offer special points to their best player if he and his team live up to their promise.

4 Kevin Durant

In a vacuum, KD is perhaps the second-best or even the best player in the NBA, an offensive force the likes that the NBA has never seen before, a fierce defender when needed, and the twice-reigning Finals MVP. But Durant’s MVP contention is stunted by the gluttony of talent that he will have playing alongside in the Warriors.

Flanked by Curry — MVP-calibre himself — Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and now even DeMarcus Cousins, Durant will have a lighter weight to shoulder than many of his elite opponents during the grind of the 82-game season. Unless he is able to miraculously elevate his influence on the team to a much higher stratosphere, a second MVP trophy is unlikely for him.

3 Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis’s MVP case is extremely straightforward. He is one of the most talented players in the NBA playing for a team that will crumble without the value he provides for them. Davis is arguably the most talented big in the game. Last season, he averaged a career-high 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game while leading the Pelicans to the second round of the playoffs. He elevated his game even further after an injury to his running mate DeMarcus Cousins. Davis’s PER was 28.98 last season, second only to eventual MVP James Harden. This season, his wide shoulders will have to carry the Pelicans without the departed Cousins all season—and Davis is certainly capable of doing so.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

For the first few months of last season, it seemed that the young buck Antetokounmpo had figured out the intricacies of the NBA and was set to bag his first MVP award. But as many young players tend to do, the ‘Greek Freak’ slowed down a little as the season progressed, his team’s record dwindled in the East, and his MVP contention lost a bit of steam. Now, still only 23 (!), Antetokounmpo will step out for his fifth season more prepared than ever.

Without LeBron, he is likely the most talented player in the conference, and has the potential to put up monster stat-lines on a nightly basis. If his teammates are able to help him elevate the Bucks to the higher tier of the conference, he could officially signal himself as the next King of the East.

LeBron James

File image of LeBron James.

File image of LeBron James.

Believe it or not, the last time LeBron won an MVP award was five long years ago. For a decade, maybe a little more, James has probably been the best player in the NBA. But for one reason or another, he has ‘only’ been recognised as the league’s most valuable for the regular season four times. This season, James finds himself in a new situation, playing without other All Star players in the Lakers for the first time since the 09-10 season.

Even going at 34, James can be the most unstoppable force in the league when he wants to be, and his playoff dominance in recent years has proven that he matters more to the league than the other regular season MVPs. With something new to prove and a larger weight to carry on his shoulders, expect James to bring the young Lakers back into the playoffs and win a fifth MVP award in the process.

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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 17:07:47 IST

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