My Top-10 NBA MVP Candidates (2/27/22)
(📸 The Ringer)
The conflict between performing and storytelling on the basketball court has clouded the MVP race for decades; and like other highly-divisive topics in sports, both sides are represented by two camps:
Traditionally, the MVP has a very loose criterion that hinges on the voter’s ability to tell a story with their vote. For example, take 2011 Derrick Rose’s MVP. He was clearly not the best regular-season player that year, but the Chicago Bulls sneaked up behind the newly-formed Heatles and snagged the first seed in the East. Sure, the Bulls were successful because of their defense and not their offense, but Rose’s floor-raising efforts and acrobatic, engaging playstyle drew fans to the screens and promoted the league’s popularity. Was Derrick Rose the “Most Valuable Player” in 2011? No; but nominating him as the MVP was good for the NBA.
Perhaps more recently, there are those who strictly adhere to how “good” a player is when selecting their MVP ballot. This is a basketball-only approach that looks to recognize players based on their ability to affect a team’s chances of winnings: win-loss record, seeding, home-court advantage, all of that. There’s an obvious appeal here: it’s less biased than narrative-based voting when done right; it provides a sturdier baseline to evaluate candidates (not everyone cares who the best player on the best team is when using storylines); and it forces us to look closer at what’s happening on the court and overcome the deficiencies in our thought-processes.
I flesh out these two approaches to not advocate for one or the other, but to establish my priorities as I assemble this list. Typically, my content has been based around the second approach: trying to use observations and material evidence to support arguments for one player or another. While such an approach is fully appropriate for, say, a player rankings list, I’m not sure the same applies to the MVP Award. Perhaps the “Most Valuable Player” isn’t necessarily providing the most value toward winning, but toward the welfare of the Association. With this in mind, I’ll still reference a player’s actual skill and heavily weigh it in my final ranking, but another priority is how a player has been drawing fan interest and promoting league viewership to provide a more holistic view of who has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2022.
10. Kevin Durant
The Slim Reaper has missed some time with injury troubles, but has still been playing around MVP levels when he’s on the court. Durant has assembled a masterful offensive skill set throughout his career, pairing his length in driving lanes with all-time shooting ability, which are exactly the types of characteristics you’d wish to see in a player who moves the needle for championship offenses.
9. Luka Doncic
The greatest basketball prodigy since LeBron James started off the season in a bit of a slump, but picked himself up in recent weeks, re-evolving into the dangerous offensive centerpiece we’ve seen him be for the third consecutive season. Doncic can hit defenses quickly with unexpected attacks and passes out of traps extremely well. He’s a similar build to James in that he can quarterback an elite offense surrounded by shooters who leverages his drive-and-kick game to their advantage. Dallas has also made a surprise entrance as a top-five team in the West by SRS. 
8. Chris Paul
The Phoenix Suns have been the best team in basketball so far, and it would be narratively unjust to go without recognizing one of their players. Among the league leaders in my hand-tracking of shot creation, Paul is a masterful pick-and-roll ball-handler, splitting defenses at will and punishing drop with his lethal mid-range shooting. He drives Phoenix’s offense and manages to play at All-NBA levels while fighting against Father Time’s inescapable aging curve. CP3 is a talent for the ages.
7. Ja Morant
My favorite player to watch in 2022 and the sport’s next great athletic freak. Morant has been the figurehead of an exciting Memphis Grizzlies squad while being one of the more improved players in the league, playing around All-NBA basketball this year. At his best, Morant creates easy offense like the game’s very best. His incredibly dynamic scoring and uncanny passing vision formulates one of the most unique offense skill sets in the sport. Morant will do all this and also steal defensive rebounds from your favorite big man.
6. DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan is one of very few players who have proved they can still be one of the game’s very best scorers without three-point shooting. He’s been breaking basketball with his mid-range shooting, making 51% of a mind-shattering 14.5 attempts per 75 possessions!  DeRozan’s storyline would arguably make him a finalist if I were more partial to narratives, but there’s too weak of a stance based on performance alone. Playoff concerns aside, this player has been a unit on the basketball court, revitalizing a stunted career and shedding loads of doubt from critics.
5. LeBron James
The King is still really good at basketball. He’s been having one of his best regular season in years, punishing defenses with the scoring that vaulted his name into the GOAT conversation many years ago. Also one of the best passers in the sport and an adequate floor-spacer whose timeless athletic prowess makes him a strong defensive player even in his nineteenth season. The regular season could be hinting toward the reemergence of Playoff LeBron in a few month’s time.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Ah, the wonders of voter fatigue. The Greek Freak was the third finalist on my ballot from last year, and while he’s done an outstanding job of raising the ceiling for a smaller-market team, the league might do better spicing things up a bit. Regardless, Antetokounmpo is arguably the first or second-best player in basketball right now, making the fourth spot my absolute floor for him.
3. Stephen Curry
Probably the face of the NBA. Curry is among the league-leaders in merchandise sales  and promotes the best TV ratings  in the league. His scoring has taken a massive hit from its glorious past, but his ability to bend and break defenses remains. Curry is loved by impact metrics and is having one of the best defensive and passing seasons of his career. Given he had maintained his early-season hot streak, he would be the top player on this list. But for now, he slides back to third.
2. Joel Embiid
Embiid is a masterful scorer who pairs punishing brute force in the paint with grateful skill on the block that garnered (self-anointed) comparisons to the likes of Kobe Bryant and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s still one of the strongest defenders in the league and an improving playmaker. The fans seem to want to see Embiid as a finalist for a second straight season, and such recognition is warranted.
1. Nikola Jokic
The claim for the best player in the league in 2022 seems particularly exclusive this season because of the Joker. We’re talking about a player who has legitimate arguments as both the best scorer and playmaker in the sport right now, blending three-level scoring with an unheralded array of passes that stretch defenses to their absolute limits. Jokic has also been a clear positive on defense this season. By the way, Denver outscoring teams by +9.7 points per 100 with him on the floor and have been 19.2 points worse with him off.