Offseasons don’t get much more eventful than the NBA’s in 2018. LeBron James is a Laker, Paul George remained in Oklahoma City and Kawhi Leonard was shipped off to Toronto after refusing a new deal in San Antonio.
The NBA does drama better than anywhere else. Since the Warriors were crowned champions again, we’ve had scandal in Philadelphia, a shock fifth All-Star in Oakland and some questionable draft decisions.
Preparation for the 2018/19 season is beginning. Players will be dreaming of that perfect season, the year that engraves them in NBA history as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
James Harden finally got his hands on the trophy last season. Who will be Harden’s closest contenders for the award this time around?
Rumours of a superteam never came to fruition, but LeBron James and the Lakers are still expected to be a top four seed. The 33-year-old played all 82 games in his 15th season before some of his best ever postseason performances.
The Lakers provide LeBron with younger teammates, and have added experience in JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. It’s not the star-studded roster many in Los Angeles hoped for, but we know what LeBron is capable of regardless of his colleagues.
James won the last of his four MVPs back in 2013. Winning another one is certainly possibly. There were no signs of decline in 2017/18, in fact, it was his best season yet in some statistical categories. Backing LeBron James is always a good bet.
Kevin Durant averaged over 26 points per game on over 50% from the field en route to winning a second-straight Finals MVP. His greatness can be overlooked on perhaps the greatest team of all-time, but Durant is a contender for every major award.
The nine-time All-Star and 2013/14 regular season MVP has his work cut out to get votes, however. Shining among the other stars in Oakland is tough even for Durant.
It would take a historically good season – or injuries to his teammates – for Durant to stand a realistic chance. Golden State were a 73-win team when he joined, individual accolades are hard to obtain when you’re accompanied by such a talented supporting cast.
The odds are still on the short side, bizarrely given Durant’s quality. Just how valuable can any one player be to a team with five All-Stars?
With LeBron out West, the Eastern Conference is wide open.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has a solid claim as the best player in the East now, the Greek Freak might finally have that season that confirms his place as one of the best players in the sport.
Giannis’ jump shot troubles need to be addressed if he’s going to be a realistic MVP candidate. If he can become a reliable scorer, along with his athleticism and influence at both ends of the floor, there’s no doubt he will be in the running.
The Bucks are a popular outside bet in the East. Their fate will depend a lot on the supporting cast as much as Giannis’ year, but overperformance from Milwaukee will draw the voters’ attention to the 6’11” forward.
He thought he was unlucky to miss out to Russell Westbrook in 2016/17, but that frustration will have made James Harden’s MVP award last season feel even sweeter.
Houston fell at the final hurdle in the playoffs, however, and there’s a sense the Rockets missed their chance.
The six-time All-Star had a historically good offensive campaign. He averaged over 30 points on a shade under 45% from the field and led Houston, along with a helping hand from Chris Paul, to the number one seed.
Harden will have to repeat a season like that to win MVP again. Regression is expected from Houston, going back-to-back for Harden seems a colossal challenge.
Just like Giannis, there’s an argument that Joel Embiid is the best player in the East. The Cameroonian seven-footer stayed healthy last year as the Sixers returned to the playoffs. He even played in a few back-to-backs.
Philadelphia are expected to be Boston’s main challengers. Embiid is a top three defensive player and averaged 22.9 points per game in 2017/18 including a smattering of threes.
At his best, he’s an unstoppable force at both ends of the floor and could dominate a weak East.
You have to go back to 2007 for the last time a ‘big’ won MVP. Embiid is still no more than an outside bet, but he looks a good price if he can stay fit.
Anthony Davis put the Pelicans on his back when DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending injury last season. Davis played outstanding basketball in the early months of 2018, including five 40-point-plus games in February alone.
New Orleans’ star man made the top three in MVP voting earlier this year. He’s one of the favourites again this year, despite a weakened Pelicans roster that lost Rajon Rondo to the Lakers and Cousins to the Warriors.
The acquisition of Julius Randle, however, compensates for those two departures slightly.
Davis’ price is just on the short side. Barring form like we saw in February, Davis is likely to be outshone by the other superstars out West. New Orleans are likely to be battling to make the playoffs at all.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*