Historically, the MVP has been chosen arbitrarily—a mingling of analysis and intuition. This can be great by promoting varying styles of analysis. Broader conversations can launch new names into conversations. Different ideas challenge norms. For this list, I adhere to a strict criteria I’ve developed over the years—an amalgam of analyzing film, statistics, and value-theory. The overarching question I try to answer with these rankings is how well a player sets up a random team to win the championship. (This approach is derivative of the works of analysts like Seth Partnow and Ben Taylor.)
This still limits consideration to the regular season. Expectations for Playoff risers and fallers is irrelevant. I solely care about how well a player sets the team up to succeed in the Playoffs (where “things matter most”). This means actual seeding is less important, insofar as home-court advantage doesn’t play a crucial role in later rounds. To balance these factors, I concocted a championship odds calculator that inputs estimates of player value and games played. (The impact estimates are based on analysis and interpretation.)
The tenth spot is such a toss-up that I may as well treat it like an Honorable Mentions! Names considered for this spot include, as alphabetized:
- Devin Booker
- Jimmy Butler
- Paul George
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- James Harden
- Ja Morant
- Karl-Anthony Towns
9. Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell has upped his offense to a new level. The stylistic aspect of his game is consistent, but its efficiency is unbelievable. He attacks the rim like a madman and creates tons of offense for the corners. (Now we know Gobert wasn’t the problem.) There’s his shooting… my goodness. His defense has also been serviceable too; after multiple seasons of questionable play on that end, his anticipation and ability to clog passing lanes look better than last year. I don’t see evidence that he’s a clear negative.
8. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is… almost back? Not quite there. He’s somewhat close to his 2020 form, though it’s unlikely he reaches it. Any semblance of a jump shot he had during the bubble has recessed, which diminishes his spacing value. He’s also held back on the passing punch he had a few years ago. Regardless, he’s the Defensive Player of the Year in my eyes. Davis has an unmatched combination of valuable and scalable traits on that end, and… my gosh. Name any defensive skill and he’s got it.
7. Jayson Tatum
Tatum is having the most efficient season of his career despite a slight drop in three-point shooting! His shot selection and isolationism are both upgraded from last season. He looks better as an athlete, and that physical aid may help him ascend to “obligatory wing defender in DPOY conversations” territory! (No, seriously, his ball-pressure is some of the most impressive defensive work in the league.) Tatum has a chance to win the actual award because he plays for the game’s best team. On my list, he lands seventh.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is… weird. He’s still a prolific scorer and playmaker with Defensive Player of the Year chops on the other end. Those things alone make him a mainstay on the upper end of a list like this. However… his offense has come with a lot of opportunity cost so far. Antetokounmpo’s shot outside the paint is lagging hard to start the season, and it drags his overall efficiency below the league average. That’s enough for the major impact metrics to peg him in this range rather than finalist territory.
5. Joel Embiid
Embiid is probably not in the uppermost echelon of scorers in my book. (Even though he’s an incomprehensible isolation scorer.) But as his passing ability trickles in from more opportunities to create, his overall offense looks stronger. He’s not what I’d consider a really “good” passer, but he has enough range on his deliveries to be the primary force on a contending offense. Embiid is still a monster rebounder and low-post defender whose skills check more boxes than most other players in the world.
4. Luka Doncic
Doncic is probably (?) the favorite to win the award, so this may be a surprising placement. I’m not sold on “Luka-Ball” as the next model for great offense. The term “heliocentrism” is thrown around like pennies into a wishing well, but Doncic’s role in the current Mavericks roster demonstrates a drawback. Dallas tends to wear down late in games. Doncic is the most prolific decision-maker in the league, and it seems his relative lack of conditioning weakens the entire attack down the stretch. Regardless, he’s still fourth for me due to an unheralded mix of volume scoring and creation for teammates.
3. Kevin Durant
Durant’s relative True Shooting percentage is 7.7% ahead of the league; once his three-point percentage is up to speed, that number is going to skyrocket his name into contention for the best overall scoring numbers in the league. His un-guardable jump shot is still intact. He’s having the best passing season of his career to my eye—slicing out holes in perimeter coverages with more anticipation and stronger deliveries than ever. Add that to a positive defensive package, and you’ve got a strong MVP candidate.
2. Nikola Jokic
Jokic was the clear-cut MVP of the last two years. His scoring volume isn’t quite up to par yet, and voter fatigue is due to trickle in from the public and voters alike. That’s my estimation as to why he isn’t seen as an obvious finalist. Jokic is the most efficient of the game’s volume scorers, and he’s the best passer on the planet. He’s arguably the most complete offensive player in history. His rim protection as Denver’s primary backline defender still lags behind, which is the only thing holding him back from the top.
1. Stephen Curry
My, oh my… Where to start? Curry is “re-peaking” as the league’s top scorer and shooter, with more than a little airspace above the contenders. His leading spot is probably dependent on a permanent upgrade in his scoring around the rim, where he’s converting at a 76% rate. He has the craft and guile, but likely not the durability and positive aging signals to maintain it for long. (But I’m partial to streakier two-point than three-point improvements.) He’s otherwise Curry doing Curry things, and he’s at the top of virtually every major one-number metric.
 Data from Basketball-Reference, BBall-Index, Thinking Basketball