The NBA MVP has become one of the most spirited debates in sports on an annual basis. Legends might be made in the playoffs, but winning an MVP does more to elevate a star player’s legacy than anything aside from a championship. At the moment, every retired MVP in league history has made the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The last decade has produced numerous controversial MVP votes. Derrick Rose became the youngest player to ever win the award in 2011 despite strong cases from Dwight Howard and LeBron James. Russell Westbrook scored a controversial victory over James Harden in 2017. Last year’s race between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid was also fiercely debated before Jokic pulled out the win.
This 2022 NBA MVP race is one of the closest in league history, with three players all having a legit shot at the award. There are only five spots on the official MVP ballot, but we’re going to rank 10 players who deserve at least a mention in the discussion. We kept LeBron James off this list because his team failed to even make the play-in tournament, and didn’t include Kevin Durant because he didn’t play more than 55 games. Here’s how we would order the field.
10. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
KAT endured heartbreaking personal tragedy the last two years but came out on the other side with the most productive and fulfilling season of his NBA career. The superstar center is put up his typically sterling numbers — 24.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game on ridiculously efficient 64.2 percent true shooting — and this time it directly translating to wins for the Wolves. Minnesota is No. 6 in offense, No. 14 in defense overall, and has the second best net rating in the league since the All-Star break. There’s no question Towns is the star of the show. KAT already has a legit case as the greatest big man shooter ever at 26 years old. Now he’s fully emerging into one of the best players in the world.
9. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors
When I did the first MVP poll of the season on Jan. 1, Steph Curry was the obvious front-runner to win the award. Seemingly from that moment on, Curry fell under perhaps the worst shooting slump of his career, watching his three-point percentage fall from 40 percent at the end of 2021 to 35.6 percent in games played in 2022. Just when Steph appeared to be on his way to getting out of his slump in March, he suffered a sprained ligament in his left foot that will sideline him until the playoffs. Despite a string of missed games recently, Curry has played more games than Kevin Durant, Ja Morant, or LeBron James, and his incredible start to the season should be factored into the overall evaluation of his year. We had peak Steph (or something close enough to it) for a few months this season, and that should be celebrated. Now the whole league is waiting to see if he can get back to that level again when the playoffs begin.
8. Luka Doncic, G, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic entered the season as the betting favorite to win MVP for the second year in a row, only to get off to a slow start because he wasn’t in great shape. As his conditioning rounded into form, he again started playing at the elite level we know he can hit. Still only 23 years old, the Mavs star averaged 28.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game on a sky-high 37.2 usage rate which is tied for the highest in the league with Joel Embiid. The Mavs had won 50 games for the first time in Doncic’s career, mostly because the defense (No. 7 in the league) was strangely better than their offense (No. 14). Luka’s first two playoff runs both ended in losses to Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers, but his superstar-level production in both series should scare would-be opponents heading into this year. Doncic is already so good, and it feels like his game can still reach even higher levels.
7. Jayson Tatum, G, Boston Celtics
It might be hard to remember now, but the Celtics were No. 9 in the East on Feb. 1 and looking like a major disappointment in head coach Ime Udoka’s first season. Since then, Boston has the best record in basketball, a 23-5 run that had some projecting them as the favorite to come out of the East before Robert Williams went down with a knee injury. Boston’s biggest star is again Jayson Tatum, the now 24-year-old swingman who still very much feels like he has the basketball world in the palm of his hand. Tatum is averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, and 4.4 assists while acting as a key cog in the league’s No. 1 defense. Only a dip in three-point shooting (a career-low 35.1 percent from three on a career-high 8.6 attempts per game) is keeping him from the very top echelons of stardom. Tatum should be a top-10 contender for this award for the foreseeable future.
6. Ja Morant, G, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant did not take the sophomore leap many expected last season, and his numbers quietly got worse in many key categories from Year One to Year Two. If there were any concerns about the long-term viability of Morant’s future superstar, he answered them in Year Three by accelerating the timeline to the present. The 22-year-old’s scoring average jumped from 19.1 to 27.6 points per game while putting up his most efficient scoring season to date. As it happened, Morant transformed the Grizzlies into an upstart contender and a team that will shockingly finish the season with the second-best record in the NBA. It’s fair to point out that, a) Morant has played less than 60 games this year, and b) Memphis is amazingly 20-3 in games where he doesn’t play. Even when he’s cheering on his team from the bench, there’s no question the entire organization orbits around Morant’s special talents. There might not be a more thrilling player to watch in today’s NBA, and there aren’t many better, either.
5. DeMar DeRozan, G, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls put up the worst record in the NBA over the last four years coming into this season. Chicago’s newly installed front office embarked on a bold makeover to change that, trading two first round picks for Nikola Vucevic, pulling off sign-and-trades for Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, and signing Alex Caruso away from the Lakers. The moves made the Bulls the feel-good story of the NBA for the first 70 percent of the season, with the team entering the All-Star break tied for first in the Eastern Conference. Chicago has collapsed in the “second half” due to an endless string of injuries, but DeRozan’s excellent play has been the one constant. The Bulls are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017 only because he’s dragged them there.
DeRozan pulled off the best season of his career at age-32, averaging a career-high 28 points per game with five assists and five rebounds on impressive 59 percent true shooting. Those numbers fail to capture his brilliance in crunch time: DeRozan led the league in clutch scoring on remarkably efficient shooting, highlighted by the back-to-back game-winning buzzer-beaters he hit against the Pacers and Wizards on New Years. The veteran wing’s poise with the ball (he posted the lowest turnover rate of his career) and mastery in the midrange pushed the Bulls to the top of the conference until the team fell apart around him. In the matter of months, DeRozan went from “the worst signing of the offseason” to perhaps the best. His season serves as a reminder to everyone: you’re never too old to get better at what you do.
4. Devin Booker, G, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker officially beat of the allegations of ‘empty calorie scoring’ when the Phoenix Suns went 8-0 in the bubble two seasons ago. That hot streak was enough to convince Chris Paul to come to Phoenix the next year, which led to the Suns breaking their 10-year playoff draught and going on a magical run to the NBA Finals. In the process, Booker stamped his superstardom on the biggest stage in the sport. Somehow the Suns are even better this year, and so is Booker: he’s cut back his turnovers, improved on defense, and been one of the league’s best players in the clutch. Phoenix will enter the postseason as the favorites to win it all, and Booker is perhaps the biggest reason why.
Booker averaged 26.7 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game on 57.6 percent true shooting. He was an assassin from all parts of the floor, hitting 68 percent of his shots at the rim, 46 percent from midrange, and a career-best 39 percent from three. When CP3 went out for six weeks with an injury around the All-Star break, Booker carried the team, averaging 30.1 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field in March. It feels like Booker is capable of putting up similarly gaudy numbers all the time, but the Suns don’t need him to: this team is a true ensemble in every way, with their backcourt stars serving as the twin catalysts. As the Suns enter the playoffs looking for championship redemption this year, it will be Booker leading the way.
3. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid nearly won MVP last season when he carried the 76ers to top the seed in the Eastern Conference. After a disappointing second round collapse against the Hawks, co-star Ben Simmons decided he wasn’t going to put on a Philly uniform ever again. Embiid put it upon to himself to make sure his team remained competitive by taking his game to new heights and solidifying himself as one of the most dominant players of his era.
All Embiid did this year was lead the league in scoring (30.4 points per game) while finishing top-five in rebounds and top-10 in blocks per game. He made massive improvements as a passer and playmaker, setting a new career-best mark with a 23.9 percent assist rate, while posting his lowest turnover rate ever. He also stayed on the court, playing the most games of his career. Philadelphia’s season will ultimately be judged by how they fare in the playoffs, but Embiid deserves all the credit for keeping them afloat long enough to land James Harden at the trade deadline. His combination of size and skill is deserves to be mentioned with the greatest who have ever played the game. It feels like an absolute crime that someone has to come in third out of this year’s MVP front-runners, but we think two other players are having slightly better seasons.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo already had a strong case for the mythical title of ‘best player in the world’ even before the Milwaukee Bucks entered last year’s playoffs. He had two MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award to his name by age-25, but he was still missing the championship ring that truly elevates superstars to all-time status. As critics wondered if his game could translate to the highest levels of the playoffs, Antetokounmpo delivered a postseason run for the ages, coming back from a scary knee injury to bring Milwaukee its first NBA championship since 1971. With the season on the line in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Giannis authored one of the greatest games in league history: a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece that secured his place among the game’s best ever.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks both took some time to find their groove at the start of this year coming off the short offseason, but since the calendar flipped to 2022 there’s been little doubt the Eastern Conference playoffs will again run through Milwaukee. Giannis set a new career-high for scoring (30 points per game), improved his free throw shooting, and maintained his status as the best help defender alive. His game-winning step-back three-pointer to seal an overtime victory over the Brooklyn Nets felt like a transformative moment in his growth: Giannis joked after the game that he doesn’t want to just “run and dunk” in a subtle nod to James Harden’s former criticism. Indeed, Antetokounmpo keeps coming back better and better and is now truly at the peak of his powers at age-27. It’s his league until further notice.
1. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets’ season should have been over before it started. As Jamal Murray was set to miss the entire year recovering from a torn ACL, the Nuggets also lost Michael Porter Jr. for the rest of the season to back surgery after only nine games. Take away the second and third best players on most teams and their franchises are probably dreaming of ping-pong balls in the lottery. With the Nuggets, the sheer force of Nikola Jokic was enough to power another playoff run, this time by somehow improving on his historic MVP season from a year ago.
Without Murray and Porter this season, Jokic took it upon himself to become a more reliable scorer. He averaged a career-high 27 points per game, and he did it on historic 66 percent true shooting. Jokic legitimately became one of the most efficient high volume scorers in league history this season, which is pretty remarkable for a player who is mostly known for his passing. All the while, Jokic grabbed more total rebounds than anyone in the league, continued to improve his defense, and again finished top-five in the league in assist rate.
He posted the first season in league history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists.
Jokic’s critics will point to his MVP case largely being built off all-in-one metrics that few people understand. Of course, Jokic is again dominating almost every advanced metric you can find, but his MVP case runs so much deeper than that. He averaged 27 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game on unreal scoring efficiency and dragged a team missing its next two best players to another playoff appearance. The real crime of Murray’s injury is that we have still yet to see Jokic have a playoff run at the peak of his game with a title-worthy team around him. Here’s hoping it happens next season. The MVP is a regular season award, and no one has been better this year than Jokic.