It feels like there’s more parity in the NBA this season than ever before. All 10 teams in the Western Conference play-in picture are separated by less than six games. There’s a more definitive tier of contenders emerging in the East, but the top five seeds are all within five games of each other.
A tight season has also made for a tight MVP race. Nikola Jokic has won the award each of the last two years and is seeking to become the league’s three-peat MVP winner since Larry Bird. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry are also each gunning for their third MVP this season by putting together typically brilliant seasons for teams at opposite ends of the standings. Then there’s three young superstars who have fully secured their spot among the league’s elite this year: Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, and Ja Morant, each 24 years old or younger, have spent this season each making a convincing MVP case for themselves.
As the calendar turns to 2023, here’s how we’d rank the top 10 candidates for 2022-2023 NBA MVP right now.
10. Anthony Davis, C, Los Angeles Lakers: Davis has been unable to string together a healthy and productive season since helping carry the Lakers to the championship inside the bubble in 2020. It finally seemed like that was set to change this year: AD was playing some of the best ball of his career into Dec. by moving to center, cutting out longer jump shots, and thriving as an interior scorer and defender. Davis had fully returned to being one of the best players in the world ... and then he got hurt, again. A stress injury in his foot will sideline him into Jan., and might put a nail in the Lakers’ playoffs hopes. Davis’ ability to be the best version of himself was always the only thing that could really save the Lakers, and this season has showed how fragile that proposition is even when he’s dominating like his old self.
9. Devin Booker, G, Phoenix Suns: Booker beat the allegations of ‘empty calorie scoring’ by steadily improving on both ends of the floor year-after-year. With an aging Chris Paul and so much drama around the Suns entering the season, Booker’s consistently great play has been the biggest reason Phoenix continues to compete near the top of the West. He’s been a tremendous three-level scorer for several years now, but this version of Booker feels like one that’s fully at peace in his own skin. He has counters for every type of coverage, and an expert ability to get to his spots. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Booker dropped 70 points in a game when he’s still only 26 years old. It’s even harder to believe he just keeps getting better.
8. Ja Morant, G, Memphis Grizzlies: Morant has turned into one of the NBA’s very best players without losing any of the jaw-dropping audacity that also makes him the league’s most captivating talent. There may be no player in history with such an immense intersection of athleticism, playmaking, and individual scoring. The 23-year-old guard believes he can literally leap over any problem he encounters on the court, and most of the time he’s right. Memphis has two legitimate co-stars next to him in Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. to go along with plenty of depth, but Morant is still the singular star allowing the Grizzlies to dream of a trip to the NBA Finals. Morant and Memphis aren’t just “next” — they’re already here.
7. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors: Curry is only a few months away from his 35th birthday and at a point in his career when he should be starting to slow down. Instead, it feels like the Warriors superstar is as great as he’s ever been. Curry stamped his all-time resume with a torrid run through last season’s playoffs, winning his fourth ring and first Finals MVP award in the process. Golden State slipped out of the gates this season thanks to role player turnover and some locker room drama, but Curry has kept them afloat by putting up numbers on par with his unanimous MVP season in 2016. Curry would have gotten serious consideration for No. 1 on this list if not for a shoulder injury that will keep him out until at least the first week of Jan. The NBA has so many new stars on the come-up, but this is still Steph’s league until further notice.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks: No player in the NBA consistently brings a higher level of play on both ends of the floor than the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo is putting up the biggest scoring numbers of his career this season at 31.2 points per game while still being the league’s most intimidating defender. While his scoring efficiency has dropped off so far this year — his 58.9 percent true shooting is his lowest since his age-21 season — his battering ram approach to attacking the basket has kept him as productive as ever. I would still pick Giannis as the best player in the world, but this hasn’t been his best season as his shooting percentages have fallen off across the board. If he kicks it up another gear as the Bucks continue to get healthier, he can very much still win his third MVP and lead Milwaukee to his second title.
5. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid finished second in MVP voting behind Nikola Jokic each of the last two years, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s playing at his highest level yet this season. Embiid is putting up the top scoring average of his career and doing it on his best ever scoring efficiency. It’s starting to feel like there’s just no way to stop him: he’s a dominant post-scorer, a deadly mid-range shooter, and is incredible at getting to the foul line and making free throws. Embiid is posting one of the highest usage rates in league history so far this season, and he’s only getting more productive and more efficient with his touches.
It’s remarkable that Embiid is still able to captain the defense while carrying such a heavy load on offense. Philadelphia’s No. 3 overall defense starts with Embiid’s monster paint protection. He’s one of the league’s most intimidating forces at the rim as a shot blocker, and also has great hands to knock the ball away from offensive players. Only Jokic averages more steals per game among starting centers. Embiid appeared to be playing himself into shape at the start of the season, but has been electric for Philadelphia ever since. It feels like his MVP case is only getting more convincing each week. The competition might be stronger this year, but so is Embiid. He’s everything you can ask for out of a franchise star.
4. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
It’s easy to reduce Tatum’s MVP candidacy to being the best player on the best team in basketball, but that would be a disservice to the season he’s having. Tatum is putting up the most points per game of his career (31 PPG) on the best scoring efficiency of his career (61.3 percent true shooting) for a Boston team with the best offense in basketball. He has become the total package as a scorer: Tatum is a high-volume three-point shooter capable of pulling up from anywhere on the court, he’s deadly in the pick-and-roll when he gets going downhill, and he’s made a big leap in terms of drawing fouls. It’s incredibly difficult to matchup with someone so skilled at 6’8, and Tatum has been putting opposing defenses in that impossible bind all season.
Tatum’s entire career has felt like a steady ascension to the top of the league. Still only 24 years old, he’s already reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times and broke through to the NBA Finals last season. While the Celtics finished two wins short of a championship, they are even better this season and Tatum is the main cog driving their success. Is Tatum the best player in the NBA? No, but he’s continually rising up those make believe rankings. The ultimate test of Tatum’s superstardom will come in the playoffs, where he’ll look to shake off a disappointing performance in the 2022 NBA Finals. It may not be time to crown Tatum yet, but he keeps improving like this, it will be soon.
3. Luka Dončić, G, Dallas Mavericks
It feels like Dončić is already on his way to becoming one of the best basketball players of all-time at 23 years old. Dončić has less help around him than any other player on this list after the Mavericks let Jalen Brunson walk over the offseason, but he’s kept Dallas afloat because no player alive is more capable of single-handedly carrying an offense. Listed at 6’7, 230 pounds, Dončić has airtight ball handling ability, deep shooting range, immaculate touch, and the vision to make any pass on the court. What he lacks in top-end speed or leaping ability he easily makes up for with raw power, old-school craft, and the increasingly more believable idea that he can pull off any move on the court.
It’s almost hard to believe Dončić had another leap in him this season until you remember he’s still so young. Without Brunson around, Dončić is carrying the largest usage rate in the league and he’s producing at career-bests in terms of both scoring volume and efficiency. Somehow, Dončić has become more efficient with a historic workload on his shoulders, and proving to be indefatigable even as every opposing defense loads up to stop him. It’s easy to notice what Dončić lacks in terms of elite athleticism or three-point shooting (he’s hitting 35 percent of his threes for the third year in a row), but that only makes his production even more remarkable. Dončić has been called a bigger James Harden, but that comparison overlooks the simple fact that his game gets even better in the playoffs, not worse. This is already the most intimidating individual matchup in the sport, and in case you forgot, he’s 23 years old. Watching Luka is watching greatness in transit. He’s going to win this award one day, probably multiple times, but the question is if the Mavericks will enough games to get him the hardware this year.
2. Kevin Durant, F, Brooklyn Nets
Durant’s place among the game’s all-time greats was already secure well before the start of this season, but he’s somehow turning in one of the best years of his historic career right now at age-34. KD didn’t get his wish when he requested a trade from the Nets over the summer in part because Brooklyn didn’t get a good enough offer for him, and he’s responded by reminding the league he’s still in the conversation for the best player alive. The Nets were a mess for the first few weeks of the season with Kyrie Irving sharing antisemitic propaganda on social media and the team firing head coach Steve Nash after a 1-5 start. Since then, Brooklyn has been one of the best teams in basketball, and it’s all because of Durant’s brilliance.
Durant is averaging 30 points per game so far on unreal 56 percent shooting from the field, which is the highest mark of his career. KD isn’t taking or making as many three-pointers as he once did — 37 percent on 4.8 attempts per game from deep — but he’s turned into the game’s best mid-range scorer. Durant is somehow making 62.4 percent of his two-pointers mostly by taking the shots opposing defenses want to concede. They just can’t stop him from making them. KD is also continuing to flash his skill as a facilitator on a Nets team that ranks No. 1 in the NBA in three-point percentage. Did we mention he’s also playing great defense? It seemed like Durant’s time atop the NBA’s hierarchy might be over with a new generation of superstars pushing the game forward, but he’s still as good as anyone alive. The Nets have gone from a disaster to one of the top seeds in the East, and it’s all because of the player they refused to trade this offseason.
1. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
It was always going to be difficult for Nikola Jokic to win another MVP this season even if he played like the best player in basketball once again. No one has won three straight NBA MVPs since Larry Bird did it from 1984-86, in part because the voters typically have a desire to create new narratives by crowning a different winner. It appears that’s playing out again in the early part of this season: when ESPN’s Tim Bontemps asked 100 NBA writers to cast a mid-Dec. MVP ballot, only one person voted Jokic first for MVP. The voter fatigue really must be real, because as the season turns to 2023, a more emotionless measure like Basketball-Reference’s MVP Tracker currently gives Jokic a 44 percent chance to win MVP this season once again.
Why should Nikola Jokic win a third straight MVP? The easy answer is because it might be time to admit he’s the best basketball player alive. A 6’11, 285 pound behemoth, Jokic combines immense size and strength with perhaps the highest skill level of any player on the planet. He’s not only the best passing big man ever, but one of the passers the sport has ever seen at any position. He’s a ridiculously efficient scorer who is putting up an absurd 68.6 true shooting percentage while averaging north of 25 points per game. His quick hands and ultra sharp positioning make him a plus on defense despite his slow feet. There really isn’t any way to slow him down because Jokic is too big, too smart, and too skilled.
Jokic won MVP a year ago because he powered the Nuggets to a 48-win season despite missing his two best teammates all season in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. With both easing back into the lineup this year, and an improved defensive cast around him, Jokic is pushing the Nuggets to the top of the West. This is his big chance to prove he can carry a team deep into the playoffs, perhaps all the way to the title. Voters may not want to acknowledge it, but Jokic really feels like the Most Valuable Player in the NBA all over again.